I have argued previously that legislation providing for a referendum on independence falls outwith the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament (see here, here, and here). This view is shared by former Tony Blair aide John McTernan (that link is behind the Scotsman paywall but his views are stressed again in a blog post on the Telegraph website today). Others, not least the estimable Lallands Peat Worrier, take a different view. At the very least we are agreed that the matter is open for argument. It is not clear that the Scottish Parliament can legitimately pass legislation on the topic.
The one body that – without question – can pass legislation for a referendum on independence is the Westminster Parliament. Alternatively, the Westminster Parliament can pass legislation to amend the scope of the reserved powers in the Scotland Act and explicitly give the power to the Scottish Parliament to call a referendum.
The intervention of David Cameron yesterday is therefore somewhat bizarre. He said, “I will be on that campaign [if there is a referendum] if they ever have the courage to call that referendum on the future of the United Kingdom, but it doesn’t look like they do right now, does it?”
I leave to one side the political dimension covered by Jeff at Better Nation and rotund commentator Brian Taylor. Does the Prime Minister not realise that Holyrood cannot pass a referendum bill? Does the Prime Minister not realise that if he wants someone to have the “courage” to pass a referendum then that is something within his and his government’s power? Does he not think that the posturing in his language will encourage a move for such a referendum – if he is spoiling for the fight? In posturing for notional political advantage Mr Cameron is leaving the UK government position in relation to the forthcoming Scotland Bill – implementing the Calman proposals – with little room for wriggle. If the SNP put forward an amendment seeking clarification of the law can Cameron present a reasonable argument that the matter should not be passed to Holyrood (if he appears erroneously to believe the power is there already)?
(and why was he not challenged on this? Scotland’s most prominent journalists appear to know even less about the constitutional settlement than our politicians).