This week’s edition covers the actions of the new Prime Minister as well an update to the Scottish Independence campaign and a review of the Autumn Statement.
Indyref2 blocked by the Supreme Court
This Wednesday, the Supreme Court judges came to the unanimous decision that they were “unable to support [the] argument” of the Scottish Nationalist Party, ruling that Nicola Sturgeon could not hold another Scottish Independence referendum without the approval of Westminster.
The centre of the SNP’s argument was national sovereignty of the Scottish people under international law, and that blocking their right to a referendum was therefore taking away this sovereignty. The SNP submitted that “the right to self-determination is a fundamental and inalienable right in international law”, bringing up the United Nations’ Resolution 1514 which stated that, “All peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development”. Whilst the Advocate General recognised the importance of sovereignty they asserted that “the intervener [failed] to make good its implicit and necessary assertion that the right to self-determination in international law obliges the United Kingdom to make provision, either through the terms of the Scotland Act or otherwise, for a further advisory referendum on Scottish independence in the terms of the proposed Bill”, effectively stating that the first referendum was sufficient in regards to satisfying any disputes about national sovereignty. The Advocate General went on to submit that the “principle of self-determination has no application here”. When the judges ruled on this matter, they used the examples of Quebec and Kosovo. For Quebec, the judges referred to the Canadian Supreme Court’s ruling that “Canada was a sovereign and independent state conducting itself in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples and thus possessed of a government representing the whole people belonging to the territory without distinction”, and that Quebecois were not under-represented within the Canadian system, thus undermining the argument for self-determination.
Arguably, the most important aspect of the case was whether another referendum would “[relate] to reserved matters”, in which case it would be outside of the competence of the devolved governments, and any decision on it would need to be made within the House of Commons. The phrase “relates to”, in section 29(2)(b) of the Scotland Act was the centre of discussion, and, ultimately, it was this that decided the outcome of the case. On this matter, the intervener asserted that whilst a “narrow reading” of the term would support the right to a non-self-executing Scottish referendum, “a broad reading of that phrase [“relates to”] would be incompatible with that right [to self-determination]”. In response the judges ruled: “no reading of that subsection, whether wide or narrow, could result in a breach of the principle of self-determination in international law”, maintaining that “The Scotland Act allocates powers between the United Kingdom and Scotland as part of a constitutional settlement. It establishes a carefully calibrated scheme of devolution powers. Nothing in the allocation of powers, however widely or narrowly interpreted, infringes any principle of self-determination”.
In response to the ruling, Nicola Sturgeon expressed her disappointment, arguing that the court’s ruling “helped expose [the] myth” of the UK as a voluntary partnership.
The results of this case will no doubt have far-reaching consequences in British politics and constitutional law, setting the precedent for Parliamentary sovereignty in the future.
As PMQs this week followed immediately after the Supreme Court’s striking down of a second Scottish Independence Referendum, no doubt Sunak expected to come under fire from the SNP during this session, in what could be quite an interesting affair.
As usual, Keir Starmer started off the session. He questioned Britain’s slow growth, asking Sunak why “Britain faces the lowest growth of any OECD nation over the next two years”. Sunak retorted that Britain has been the third fastest growing economy in the G7 since 2007, and the fastest growing this year in the G7, and that the Conservatives were “delivering free ports” and “investing in R&D”, before questioning the Labour Party’s involvement with trade unions by calling them the “union pay masters”. Starmer responded that Sunak was “in denial”, and that “Britain was set to be the first country into recession and the last out of it”, commenting again on Britain’s position in the OECD report. Sunak asserted that the same report found that “in the years following the pandemic, we’re projected to have almost the highest growth amongst our peer countries”, following which he claimed the report viewed problems the UK were facing as “entirely international in nature”. Sunak finished off this reply by calling Starmer an “opportunist”, who “isn’t interested in substance”. The Labour leader reasserted that the Conservatives were the party that “crashed the economy”, and that “12 years of Tory failure and 12 weeks of Tory chaos” were the key factors in the poor performance of the British economy. Starmer went on to note that due to the Autumn Statement, a typical household will end up with tax increases of £1,400. Responding to the claim of 12 years of mismanagement, Sunak said, “Labour had 13 years to address this issue and did nothing about it”, arguing that it was the Conservative Party who had delivered on their claims. Both leaders then went back and forth over ‘non-dom’ status, with Starmer claiming that if the status was abolished, 15,000 doctors could be trained a year. Starmer also hit out against dropping home ownership rates, calling Sunak “too weak to take on his party” and “too weak to take on vested interests”, and asserting that the Conservatives had “clobbered” working people for 12 years. Sunak finished the debate between the two by stating that “you can trust [Starmer] to deliver for the party, you can trust me to deliver for the country”.
Ian Blackford (Leader of the SNP in the Commons) now took the stand, questioning the Prime Minister over the democratic values of the Union, by claiming that last year, the Scottish people had voted in a Scottish Parliament “with a majority in the mandate to deliver an independence referendum”. Blackford remarked that “the Prime Minister has no right to deny democracy to the people of Scotland”, and that the “notion that the United Kingdom is a voluntary union of nations is now dead and buried”. In response, Sunak brought up the importance for politicians to “work together” in these troubling times, stating that this is something the government is doing. Blackford retorted by asserting that the current Prime Minister lacked even a personal mandate in the face of the SNPs clear mandate in Scotland, questioning “what right does a man with no mandate have to deny Scottish democracy?” The Prime Minister reaffirmed the governments wishes to “work together” with Scotland to deliver on growth, freeports, and public services. Subsequent questions from SNP MPs attacked the Union, claiming that Scotland was “shackled and imprisoned” in an involuntary relationship.
Jeremy Hunt has now published the Autumn Statement for the Conservative Party; he claims that the aims of this ‘mini-budget’ are stability, growth, and the maintenance of public services.
In the statement, Hunt announced that the economy is already is recession – claiming GDP will shrink 1.4% next year, although the economy overall will grow around 4.2% this year. Hunt chalks the lower-than-average growth down to higher energy prices, due in part to the Russo-Ukrainian War. These higher energy prices are targeted in the statement, with the Chancellor pledging significant support to people, especially pensioners and disabled individuals – bills will be capped at £3,000 a year.
Hunt has pledged to raise the commitment to public spending, pledging support worth £13.6bn to aid firms. NHS spending will also be increased by £3.3bn per annum for the next two years, with school funding rising £2.3bn. Defence spending will be maintained at the NATO mandated 2% of GDP.
The minimum wage is also set to rise to £10.42 an hour in April. National Insurance will be frozen until April 2028 and the top band of 45% income tax will now be applicable to earnings of £125,410, down from £150,000. This is a significant change of approach compared to the Kwarteng-Truss mini-budget that effectively abolished the top band of income tax.
The statement shows commitment to the values that Rishi Sunak has laid out: further funding to the NHS, as well as support to business and pensioners and a commitment to a balanced budget, again in contrast with Truss’ direction.