Claim of Right

Presiding officer, the motion for this afternoon’s debate is deliberately simple. It states that “This Parliament acknowledges the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs, and declares and pledges that in all its actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount.”


That one sentence is charged with historical resonance for everyone in this chamber, and for everybody in Scotland. It reaffirms the ancient principle that in Scotland, the people are sovereign. Monarchs and parliaments are the servants of the people.


It is a principle which has its origins in the Declaration of Arbroath, was refined by George Buchanan in the late 16th century, and was restated in Scotland’s first Claim of Right in 1689.


Three hundred years later a new Claim of Right was proudly proclaimed by the Scottish Constitutional Convention, as it began the work which led ultimately to the establishment of this Parliament.


The founding principle of that Claim of Right is one that all parties which have taken their place in this Parliament should be able to subscribe to. And there has never been a more important moment to recommit ourselves to the guiding principle of the claim of right – that the people are sovereign.


Yesterday, we published a consultation paper setting out how we intend to work towards that referendum. The paper made clear that we will consult widely on a number of key issues.


Once we have heard the views of people across Scotland, including all major political parties and representatives of civic Scotland, we will introduce proposals which this Parliament will legislate on.


The people’s views will have a material say in how we take forward the legislation for a referendum. And the Scottish Parliament will ultimately be accountable to the people of Scotland for the legislation it passes.


As the First Minister has said, the Scottish Government sees merit in the proposal for the UK Government to pass legislation under section 30 of the Scotland Act. Doing so would enable us to ask a shorter, simpler question on independence in the referendum.


However the UK Government’s proposal to attach conditions to this legislation is unacceptable. It potentially closes down options which should properly be explored, and decided upon, by people in Scotland. And in doing so, it limits the sovereignty of the people of Scotland and ignores the Claim of Right.


For example the Scottish Parliament, whenever it has been able to do so, has chosen to give the vote to 16 and 17 year olds. Why should it be denied the option of doing so by an order from Westminster?


There appears to be a strong strand of opinion which wants the option of enhanced devolution to be placed before the people in a referendum. Why should the UK Government take the decision to exclude that viewpoint from the ballot paper?


And yesterday’s consultation paper made absolutely clear that the autumn of 2014 is one of the earliest dates at which a referendum could be held. Why should the Secretary of State for Scotland order us to rush such a historic decision?


Today’s motion is not about those specific issues. I accept that people can honourably hold different views on the number of questions on the ballot paper, or the minimum age for voting. I welcome hearing those views during the consultation.


Today’s motion is far more fundamental than that. It is about where sovereignty lies. The authors of “A Claim of Right for Scotland”, in 1988, argued against a situation where the choice offered to the people of Scotland was “the choice the powerful choose to offer us.”


The fact that Westminster is no longer so powerful that it can limit Scotland’s choice in this way is partly due to the efforts of the authors of that document.


All we ask today is that other members of this chamber affirm or reaffirm a principle that many of them, or their fellow party members, were proud to uphold when Scotland’s Claim of Right was then signed in 1989.


The Declaration of Arbroath famously states that if a Scots ruler were to act against the nation’s interests, the people would “drive him out as.. a subverter of his own rights and ours.” Presiding Officer, that basic principle of democracy and popular sovereignty is far more true today. The best guarantee of the integrity of this referendum is the certain knowledge that the people of Scotland, using the ballot box, would be merciless in driving out anyone who tried to conduct it unfairly.


I said at the outset that this afternoon’s motion is charged with historical resonance for everyone in Scotland. So it is. But it is the contemporary meaning of the claim of right which is most important today. Do we still believe in the fundamental right of the people not just to make choices, but to determine the choices available to them? I doubt that the people of Scotland would have any reservations about that. I hope that none of the members of this parliament do either.