Last week, we were told that the UK government believes the Scottish parliament does not have the legal right to hold its own referendum on independence.
Since then, debate has focused on what the legal consequences would be if Alex Salmond pushed on and held one anyway: would it be regarded as “consultative”? Would the UK government challenge it in the courts? If so, would that look like London bullying Edinburgh?
Today, Jim Wallace, the former deputy first minister and Lib Dem leader in Scotland, has intervened in that debate, using some pretty strong language to try and head off the possibility of Salmond simply going ahead and holding his own referendum. In the most striking passage, Wallace says that to do so would be not just illegal, but undemocratic:
The UK Government’s legal view is that the Scottish Parliament has no power to deliver a referendum on independence. It does not matter whether such a referendum is described as “advisory”, “consultative” or providing a basis for negotiations. The Scottish Parliament has no power to legislate for a referendum on independence.
There are important consequences which follow from this. One is that to proceed with a referendum that is outside of its legal powers would be to act contrary to the Rule of Law. This is not a mere legal technicality as some commentators have suggested. Government according to law is a fundamental principle of democracy. To flout this principle would be a very worrying step for a democratically elected government to take.
Wallace’s intervention is especially significant because he now holds the post of Advocate General for Scotland – giving the government advice on issues of Scottish law.
This is important for two reasons. The first is that it highly unusual for a government legal adviser to speak out in such a politically charged way, especially about legal issues. The second is that if Salmond does go ahead and call some form of referendum without prior agreement from Westminster, it may well be Wallace who leads the legal challenge against it. The strength of these words suggest he would not easily back down from such a fight.
What this episode also shows is that the big beasts of Scottish politics are beginning to get involved to challenge Salmond head on. Let battle commence.