Here’s a fact completely lost on British people in the context of the renewed debate about the future of our country: The vast majority of sovereign states do not permit secession of their constituent parts. For example, the German and Spanish constitutions expressly forbid it; and Azerbaijan has been in a periodic conflict with Armenia for nearly 30 years in order to prevent the Armenian-backed secession of Nagorno-Karabakh. Sovereign states mostly take their territorial integrity very seriously.
The United Kingdom is the exception. Or should I say, it’s supposed to be the exception. Here an entire academic and media narrative has taken hold, convincing itself the UK is simply a loose association of countries brought together by the politico-historical equivalent of nods, winks or gentlemen’s handshakes. Ergo, if one of those ‘countries’ decides to do a moonlight flit, no London government should be permitted to stand in its way. Professor Ciaran Martin is simply the latest apostle to this line of thought. According to him, if the Scottish separatists gain a majority at Holyrood in May, the whole principle of parliamentary sovereignty should be turned on its head. If they want another shot at ripping apart a nation that millions in uniform have laid down their lives to defend and protect on foreign fields, that’s fine and dandy according to Martin.
As a means of advancing his argument, he promotes the specious concept of sovereignty based on consent rather than ‘the force of law’. Such a concept has no basis in international law. Even in Northern Ireland (and this will surprise many), there is no requirement in the Belfast Agreement for the UK and the Republic to agree to what some call a ‘united Ireland’. All the agreement does is to compel a Secretary of State to hold a referendum, and then recommend to Parliament to vote for any ‘unity’ legislation that may arise from such a vote. It doesn’t compel the legislature to vote for it, nor does it compel the executive to formally agree to it.
As far as Scotland goes, there isn’t even an obligation to hold any poll in the event of a nationalist majority in Edinburgh. David Cameron – rightly or wrongly – granted the power of a referendum as a means of providing clarity to an important constitutional question. It was truly given on September 18th, 2014, and there is no need for any UK government to repeat the exercise. Sovereignty, by its very nature, is based on the force of law, Professor Martin, not some abstract notion of consent grounded in the emotional turmoil of the public’s whim.
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