Reform within the UK?
In the Scottish Government's view, independence is the best means of establishing a secure future for Scotland and the only approach that enables a partnership of equals between Scotland and the other nations of these islands.
However, a range of other options has been proposed to redress the shortcomings of the current constitutional arrangements. One could be to give added protection in legislation to the devolved institutions and their powers and responsibilities through fuller legislative protection of the Sewel Convention or a statutory underpinning for intergovernmental relations machinery. Another option could be to enhance the powers of the devolved nations so that a bare minimum rest exclusively with the UK Parliament (a maximum devolution model sometimes called "devo-max"). A third is what is sometimes called "federalism" to secure the powers and responsibilities of the nations of the United Kingdom so that they are an embedded or permanent part of the UK's constitution. These ideas are not new, although they have gained greater prominence as part of the debate about Scottish independence.
Although greater and more flexible powers for the Scottish Parliament – such as on employment law and a fuller and effective set of taxation and borrowing powers – would confer advantages, greater devolution or additional protections would do nothing to address the fundamental lack of symmetry in the UK's constitutional arrangements, which is embedded through the tradition of unlimited Westminster parliamentary sovereignty at the heart of the UK's constitution. No UK government of either of the two main UK political parties has shown any appetite for fundamental reform that would address that systemic problem. Indeed, the doctrine of Westminster sovereignty was embedded in the devolution statutes in 1998 and has been used by the UK Government since 2016 to limit devolution and claw-back decision-making in key areas to Whitehall and Westminster at the expense of self-government in Scotland.
The powers devolved to Scotland within the UK have always been the result of a compromise between achieving a coherent and comprehensive set of powers for the Scottish Parliament to address the challenges facing the nation, and an inherent bias towards retaining control by the UK Government. This tension has become very apparent in recent years – and has tilted firmly towards Westminster control.
Transforming the United Kingdom into a federal state with a written constitution enshrining the relationships between constituent parts, or even increasing devolution, would therefore require a radical departure from historical and cultural tradition, as well as current policy, and there seems no realistic possibility of the collective political will to undertake it.
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