Building a New Scotland – The Constitution Paper: First Minister's speech – 19 June 2023

Speech given by the First Minister to launch the 'Creating a Modern Constitution for an Independent Scotland' paper, as part of the 'Building a New Scotland' series, at Atlantic Quay in Glasgow. 

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In the first paper the Scottish Government published, to renew the prospectus on independence, we set out evidence showing independent countries comparable to Scotland were both wealthier and indeed fairer than the UK.

We then asked the question – with all our resources and with all of our talents as a nation, then why not Scotland?

Why should we not be able to match the success of those independent countries that are both more productive and more equal than the UK?

Those independent countries, they demonstrate economic dynamism and social solidarity.

Every democracy of course, quite rightly has its battle of ideas – that’s healthy.

But what characterises the success of many of the countries we have looked at, is that over and above the essential cut and thrust of daily democratic engagement, there is often a general consensus on what kind of nation they are, or indeed what kind of nation they aspire to be.

I believe in Scotland we have a similar general consensus.

A belief in equality, a belief in opportunity, a belief in community.

And that we are entitled to certain basic rights – rights such as the right of workers to take industrial action, the right to an adequate standard of living, the right to access a system of healthcare free at the point of need. 

That consensus building defines my political beliefs.

The idea of solidarity and guaranteed rights for diverse groups of individuals is of the utmost importance to me.

So the paper we are publishing today, that I am delighted to be publishing today,  about creating a modern constitution for an independent Scotland, is about that kind of Scotland that we want to see, and ultimately the kind of Scotland that we want to be.

It is about the issues that matter the most, not least protecting the NHS in a written constitution.

And crucially, it’s about how people who live here, whoever they are and wherever they come from, they can help to shape that newly independent country. 

We will debate our proposals in the Scottish Parliament, and we will of course engage with the public, with trade unions, with businesses and many others who make up Scottish civic society.

Today’s paper is about how we can build a better Scotland for everyone, so we hope that it can encourage and indeed inform that wide-ranging debate.

The vision that we are outlining today, contrasts quite starkly with a Westminster Government which is taking Scotland in a very different approach, a different direction, one where I’m afraid rights are not protected, one where rights are being systematically eroded.

The UK does not have a codified constitution as we know. Instead, its constitutional arrangements are based on the principle that the Westminster Parliament is sovereign.

This makes it a global outlier among modern democracies. For example all member states of the European Union have written constitutions.

Not having one, and relying on Westminster supremacy has real consequences.

We’ve spent the last decade looking on as the UK Government undermines constitutional principle, after constitutional principle, with very little that anyone can do about it to challenging them or holding them to account.

That would not be possible in a country with a codified, written constitution that sets what the rules are, and importantly, and crucially sets out what people can do to ensure governments and politicians adhere to them.

Westminster has already been able to undermine the devolution settlement, override decisions made by an elected Scottish parliament.

In future, Westminster sovereignty of course could even allow the UK Parliament to repeal devolution through nothing other than a simple majority vote.

That’s not an abstract concept. It’s worth remembering that the UK Government is already seriously considering the repeal of the Human Rights Act, one of the most significant achievements of any UK parliament in the last 30 years.

So all of this raises the question – why should Scotland settle for the current Westminster system, rather than making different choices ourselves?

With independence, Scotland could embrace the principle outlined in the Claim of Right for Scotland – that sovereignty lies with the people.

And we could adopt a written constitution that sets out to protect key rights, key values.

Governments of course come and go.

But what a constitution, built by the people, can do is set out and embody:

  • a set of longer term, more fundamental values about what a country is for, how it should work
  • a common understanding of a nation’s priorities
  • a standard below which no government should ever fall
  • and a mechanism for ensuring that these aren’t just lofty words, but are meaningful rights that put power in the hands of the people who live here

Today’s paper also sets out how we would create a constitution.

It makes it clear that after a vote for independence the devolved Scottish parliament would legislate on an interim constitution, after a wide process of consultation and of engagement, this interim constitution would come into force at the time of independence.

Following independence, we would then develop a permanent constitution, through a legally-mandated Constitutional Convention.

This process will be driven by the people. Once a draft constitution has been drawn up, it will then be considered by the Scottish Parliament – but it will only come into force, if the people of Scotland vote for it in a referendum.

In the context of the Westminster system, these proposals do sound radical. We are after all, planning to involve the entire country in discussions about fundamental constitutional change. But when you look beyond Westminster, you can see that our proposals are in line with steps that have been taken by other nations right across the world.

In the last 20 years several countries have directly involved their citizens in designing or indeed amending their constitutions. The countries which have amended their constitutions include Ireland, include the Netherlands, as just two examples.

And Scotland would seek to learn from international examples. After all, a new constitution will protect and enhance the rights of every person in Scotland – it should be designed, it should be considered and it should be approved by as many people in Scotland as possible.

Because of that, this paper cannot say definitively what will be in the permanent written constitution of an independent Scotland. That’s a decision that can only be taken after independence, by the people of Scotland.

But today’s paper gives some ideas of the provisions that a constitution could include.

Like similar documents in nations around the world, we expect it would set out fundamental values such as democracy, the sovereignty of the people, freedom and the rule of law. 

It would include provisions to enhance equality and prevent discrimination.

It would describe the role of some of our key institutions – such as parliament, the government, the courts.

It would also contain measures on other issues which people see as being of fundamental significance and importance.

It could for example specifically protect the right to take industrial action, or recognise the rights and interests of our island communities, or contain provisions on the right to adequate housing, the right of communities to own land, or our right as citizens to access healthcare which is free at the point of need.

In the Scottish Government’s view, it should also include provisions stating very clearly and explicitly that Scotland will not host nuclear weapons.

And many constitutions include environmental provisions. We propose that Scotland could protect the right to a healthy environment, and could include sections on sustainable development, tackling the climate crisis, protecting nature.

As those examples help to demonstrate, the very process of creating a constitution would be energising. It’s a document that will be created by the people, as well as for the people.

It will help us think about, and describe, the sort of country we want Scotland to be. And by helping to enhance and protect important rights, it will make a genuine and significant difference to people’s lives.

Of course, a written constitution is something that will only come about when Scotland is independent – when people who live in Scotland, are taking the key decisions about Scotland’s future.

We have made so much progress as a country over these past 24 years with a limited measure of self-government.

As a country we are now facing a choice of two futures.

One driven by Westminster, which is taking advantage of a Brexit Scotland didn’t vote for, to erode our rights and undermine our national Parliament.

The alternative is for people in Scotland to take our country’s future into our own hands.

To embed rights we should all enjoy in a modern constitution.

And build the better Scotland we know is possible.

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