Deciding how to decide ...

CSPP Chair, Professor Richard Kerley discusses the suggestion by Scottish Green Party MSP Patrick Harvie for the public to be able to trigger a future independence referendum via a “citizens’ initiative” mechanism. 


Over the weekend Patrick Harvie picked up some criticism for his interesting idea on any future Independence Referendum being triggered by some form of citizens’ initiative. Some of the comments were along the lines of: ‘So we have a referendum to have a referendum? ….hhmm..’

Patrick’s speech actually raises two very important points (though one of which he didn’t develop in the way he could have done).

Let’s start with that less discussed aspect. He (rightly in my view) condemned the behind doors deal that produced The Smith Report, with only a negligible gesture toward public engagement of any kind. He could as well have mentioned the behind closed doors deal (between two heads of government) that led to the Referendum of last year in the first place.

Much of the (again justified) critique of the British state as it still stands is of a uncodified set of laws; legacies and measures that vaguely resemble something you might  call a ‘Constitution ‘, and there are various calls to take action to redress this tangle.

Leave aside for the moment that some of the countries that have notably ambitious constitutions have in practice awful governments and repressive measures, and think about what form a codified constitution might take.

Do you really think any self-respecting constitution would leave the launching of a referendum – on whatever topic , major or minor – to a deal stitched up between two heads of different sphere governments. Fat chance!

The reality – uncomfortable as this may be –is that it was precisely the derelict nature of British state institutions that allowed  the referendum to be so easily provided for – just ask the Catalans what the limitations of a written constitution can mean for political change…

And so how do we get the next referendum … when the proponents of any case think they can win, which is hardly an advertisement for disinterested constitutional change, or is it?

And so Patrick Harvie has a potentially good idea; do what they appear to do in California and Switzerland, and enable citizens to launch “initiative petitions”? Maybe, but it’s not always clear that the outcomes there are as desirable as some might wish.

But that’s (maybe) democracy. 

Centre for Scottish Public Policy
c/o Digby Brown LLP
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Causewayside House
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