Collective Thinking: You Can’t Spell Constitutional Change Without A Constitution by Jean Urquhart

Collective Thinking is our exclusive series of monthly Guest Editorials by a selection of our favourite figures from the independence movement.

Jean Urquhart is co-founder of Changin Scotland, a weekend of politics, culture and ideas hosted in Ullapool, Scotland. She is also an Independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands region). She takes a keen  interest in educational and cultural issues in the Parliament and is campaigning for a Yes vote in 2014.

Amid the bluster and fireworks of the current debate on independence, many seem to have forgotten the body of work that lies ahead in the event of a Yes vote in 2014. As my fellow MSP Patrick Harvie noted in the Sunday Herald, the time between the referendum and the first prospective elections to an independent Scottish Parliament in 2016 does not leave much room for manoeuvre.

For myself and many others, one of the most vital elements of an independent Scottish state that must be addressed is how it sets in place its social, political and cultural ethos. For them, and for me, the answer is through the conception of a written constitution.

Last weekend, I hosted a small gathering in the Scottish Parliament on behalf of the Scottish Democratic Alliance (SDA). Although my own views don’t necessarily tally with the SDA on every issue, I was keen to hear their thoughts on the need for a written constitution and how this could be taken forward.

The arguments in favour of a written constitution are myriad, particularly in the case of a newly independent state seeking to define how it will be governed, by whom and through what means. I can’t recall any democratic country that has gained its independence in the 20th century and has not established and enacted a written constitution. Iceland even seized the opportunity following the 2008 crisis that struck its banks to ‘crowd-source’ a new constitution, engaging the people in an open, innovative and participative approach to re-imagine the governance of their country that in turn captured the imagination of people the world over.

The arguments for a written constitution are only enhanced by Scotland’s experiences as part of the UK, whose placing of sovereignty with Parliament lies in direct conflict to the sovereignty of the Scottish people as asserted in the Claim of Right.

Indeed, only this week, the idiosyncrasies of Westminster were on show as the unelected Lord Forsyth questioned Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Finance as part of a House of Lords Committee investigation into the economic implications of Scottish independence.

The next step, therefore, is not for Scotland to determine whether it will have a written constitution, but what will be included in that constitution and, just as importantly, how and when that constitution will be drawn up. For a document of such massive legal, political, moral and social importance, we cannot dither and we must not delay.

Already, there have been a number of meetings held by the Constitutional Commission on this topic; the constitutional scholar W. Elliot Bulmer has written his own draft constitution, as have the SDA, and the Scottish Government has stated in its 2009 paper “Your Scotland, Your Voice” that an independent Scotland could formulate and agree a fully codified and written constitution.

From my own experiences of hosting ‘Changin’ Scotland’ along with Gerry Hassan over the last 10 years, I know that there are so many other organisations and individuals who have dedicated time and effort to thinking and writing about what could and should be included in a constitution for Scotland. We don’t need to wait for permission from above to begin this process- civic Scotland absolutely has the capacity and, I am convinced, the will for this task, just as it did before with the Scottish Covenant and the Claim of Right.

It is absolutely vital that this bubbling groundswell continues to rise, and that the people of Scotland are encouraged to think about what independence could and should mean. In my opinion, a gathering to share ideas between interested groups in the New Year could then lead to an event which would concentrate on the process of developing a written constitution. This could help to encourage engagement with the referendum and, more importantly, empower Scotland’s people to take charge of their own democracy. I would be interested in speaking to others who share these ideas on how best we might take this forward.

Regardless of our position on independence itself, we cannot be complacent about how it will work, or arrogant enough to not plan for the possibility. Time is of the essence, and we must step up to the plate now.

Let’s make sure that when Independence Day comes, we’re ready.

Jean Urquhart
Independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands region

Photograph by Joe Lafferty.


About Jean Urquhart

Jean Urquhart is co-founder of Changin Scotland, a weekend of politics, culture and ideas hosted in Ullapool, Scotland. She is also an Independent MSP for the Highlands and Islands region.