“We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs, and do hereby declare and pledge that in all our actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount.”
The opening words of the 1989 Claim of Right hark back to older expressions of Scottish popular sovereignty, from its 1689 predecessor right back to the Declaration of Arbroath. It was signed by such unlikely figures as Gordon Brown, Charles Kennedy, Menzies Campbell and Alasdair Darling. The document re-asserted the overall sovereignty of the Scottish people, and the right of those people to chose their own rulers. This popular sovereignty stands in marked contrast to the sovereignty claimed by Westminster, leading to such unedifying spectacles as last week’s Section 30 debate, where the unelected House of Lords “granted” the elected Scottish Parliament the right to hold an independence referendum.
Not before time, the idea of a new constitution for Scotland has come to the forefront of the independence debate. Alex Salmond has floated the idea of a set of inalienable constitutional rights, including the right to a home and a free education, as well as barring future Scottish governments from possessing nuclear weapons or joining illegal wars. These are all laudable aims, and I would certainly support each of these policies. The problem is, they are policies rather than the meat and bones of a constitution.
Any new Scottish constitution must start from the same principles as the Claim of Right and the Declaration of Arbroath. Power in Scotland should stem from the people, not be granted from above. The abolition of the monarchy and establishment of an elected head of state would be a good place to start. Whilst the complete separation of church and state may sound like a gift to secularists, religious types should be heartened by a quick glance across the Atlantic, which shows that religion is flourishing in the USA, with far higher levels of church attendance than here in Europe.
On a related note, another glance across the Atlantic shows the dangers of enshrining policy in a rigid constitution. What may have seemed like a sensible policy allowing 18th-century citizens to bear arms and form militias looks like an utter disaster 200 years later. Instead, our new constitution should concentrate on powers and protocols, leaving the business of rights and responsibilities to the sovereign will of each generation.
So, how best to start? Well, Iceland’s new crowd-sourced constitution would be a good example to follow. A politically non-aligned Constitutional Assembly was elected in 2010, then set the task of forming a workable document out of the varied ideas of all sectors of society. The Assembly’s meetings were streamed live, whilst clauses were regularly posted online for public perusal and feedback. By July 2011, a constitution had been drafted, which was ratified by the public in a referendum in October 2012.
The possibilities offered by a new constitutional convention in the age of digital democracy are electrifying. Scotland has an active, engaged online political class drawn from all backgrounds. A genuinely inclusive debate could truly inspire us to create a fairer, better nation, with the flexibility to remain so in ten, twenty or two hundred years time.