Home Rule for Scotland should be an option in any second referendum as well as Scottish independence and staying in the Union – Professor Ben Thomson

A second referendum on Scottish independence would be poorer without an alternative to leaving the UK or the status quo, writes Professor Ben Thomson

Wednesday, 16th September 2020, 7:30 am
Scottish independence and unionism are often represented by the Saltire and the Union Jack, but there is a third choice: Home Rule (Picture: Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty Images)

This month it is the UK Internal Market Bill debate, last month the response to Covid; every political topic seems to be polarised here in Scotland between the unionist perspective and the independence perspective. It seems you have to be in one camp, that the UK must be the sovereign state, or the other, that Scotland must be a separate sovereign state. Yet there is an alternative, which many may see as a better solution to either traditional unionism or independence where sovereignty is properly shared. It is called “Home Rule”.

The idea of Home Rule has been around since the 19th century. The Scottish Home Rule Association was formed in 1886 at the same time as Parnell was arguing for Irish Home Rule. There were many Home Rule bills both for Ireland and Scotland including one for Scotland in 1913 that got through the House of Commons. However, none made it through the House of Lords despite being supported by the likes of Gladstone for the Liberals and Keir Hardie for Labour.

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Home Rule is where Scotland has full control over domestic matters, including the ability to raise the money it spends, but remains part of the UK. To achieve this, two criteria have to be met. The first is that sovereignty has to be shared, in other words once Home Rule is constitutionally enshrined it takes the consent of both sides to change the powers. Under devolution, powers are lent and not given so Westminster can unilaterally change arrangements which affect the Scottish Parliament as the current debate over the new legislation proposed for the UK internal market demonstrates. The only way to enshrine shared sovereignty is through a written constitution that provides the proper basis for a relationship based on mutual respect between levels of government.

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The second is that the burden of proof should rest with the UK Government to show why powers should be reserved at a Westminster level. This is called the “principle of subsidiarity”. For instance, why should Scotland be constrained in the way it raises its taxes?

Currently it has powers over setting income tax rates on earnings and receives directly half of VAT. Why should it not have the ability to decide the structure of its own taxes to cover its spending? This is similar to the situation that exists in any of the states in the US or provinces of Canada where the state or provincial governments have far greater control over their own tax system and can create a structure that suits their industries and the choices of people locally.

Therefore, Home Rule goes well beyond devolution. It requires a written constitution in which domestic powers become the full responsibility of Scottish Government. So in addition to the current devolved areas such as health, education and policing, the Scottish Government would become responsible for all of social security and welfare as well as any taxes it wished to use to fund Scottish public services.

However, it is not independence. Under Home Rule, Scotland would still remain part of the United Kingdom and Westminster would remain responsible for a range of vital issues such as macro-economic management, including monetary policy and the currency; defence; foreign affairs; overseas trade; and citizenship. The UK Government would also be able to levy its own taxes in Scotland to cover its share of Scottish spending. This actually strengthens the UK as it then becomes clearer that on these matters the UK Government acts on behalf of all UK citizens. The UK Government would act like the US Government exercises its federal powers in areas such as defence, and there are no special rights for individual states.

Some would say it is too good to be true – for Scotland to have full control of domestic matters, but benefit from having the pound sterling as its currency, no borders and trade restrictions with the rest of the UK and the clout that comes from being part of the UK when it comes to a voice on global matters whether at the United Nations or on the environment – and that the rest of the UK would not accept it. However in taking more control over its own affairs Scotland can create a better environment for economic success which would benefit both Scotland and the UK. At its heart, Home Rule is about the decentralisation of powers where it is appropriate and not about sovereignty. The UK is currently very centralised and the model for Home Rule would not only be good for Scotland but also Northern Ireland, Wales and the different parts of England.

One of the arguments against Home Rule from unionists is that it is the slippery slope to independence. I would disagree, since, if anything, it is a natural step to federalism in the UK where such an arrangement is enshrined across the UK through a written constitution. After all, some of the most successful countries in the world such as the USA, Switzerland, Canada, Germany and Australia have a federal model.

The next Scottish election is likely to be dominated by the constitution and a call for another referendum. If there is another referendum and it is a straight choice of independence vs unionism then around 50 per cent of the population is going to be deeply unhappy after the result. Last time round, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon both favoured a second question on an alternative to both the status quo and independence which was rejected by David Cameron. However, in the end it should be the people of Scotland who choose our constitution and it would be a poorer choice if Home Rule was not on the ballot paper as a second question in any future referendum.

Professor Ben Thomson is the author of Scottish Home Rule: The Answer to Scotland’s Constitutional Question, which is on sale from tomorrow, published by Birlinn

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