The debate on Scotland’s constitutional-political future is stuck in a rut. 

Opinion is divided evenly between supporters and opponents of independence, with neither side willing to concede or compromise.

In the 2014 referendum, the simple question was interpreted as a debate on Scotland’s social and economic future and constitutional status. There was often agreement, though rarely admitted, on the kind of society and economy desired among many who campaigned on different sides. 

Debate has now contracted since this expansive interpretation of the “Scottish Question” to a much narrower set of questions. 

A new Jimmy Reid Foundation pamphlet makes the case for a fuller and broader debate replacing the binary choice between union and independence, and one enriched by discussion of the kind of society and economy desired.

This recognises a multitude of options for governing Scotland. These need to be accommodated respectfully in the debate on Scotland’s future. 

In place of constitutional preference as the starting point in deliberation or an end in itself, the primacy focus should be the kind of society and economy desired. 

Further, we should accept that Scotland’s constitutional status cannot be cast in stone but will evolve regardless of the outcome of any referendum. 

No specific constitutional arrangement is advocated. Instead, options are set out, questions identified to be addressed and seek to broaden the debate.

The challenge is to convince the public that constitutional change or the status quo will assist, or at least not inhibit, the pursuit of desired socio-economic goals. 

In the broadest sense, the question must be which constitutional arrangement most assists in improving the life chances for all, in leading to a fairer society, and in reducing inequalities. 

READ MORE: New essay on Scotland’s constitution calls for ‘respect and sophistication’ in debate

All states and all nations are human made. They are created by people, and social and economic forces. They can be made and unmade by the same forces. Any state or nation will be politically convenient for some and inconvenient for others.

For every nation and every state today, there have been innumerable alternatives that might have been. 

The past is littered with the corpses of dead nations and states. States existing today often invent some ancient lineage and myths to provide legitimacy.

This is not to dismiss the power of national sentiment but to recognise nations and states are often mistakenly imbued with great, even mystical, qualities. Equally, this is not to deny the power of myths. 

This power means many people do not question “their” nation and/or state. Nations and states command extraordinary loyalty. 

They may be artificial but there is no artificiality about the pride, ability to inspire and mobilise and, most importantly, the sacrifice people will make for their nation or state. 


All states require a basic level of loyalty to survive. Extracting taxes is easier when people feel some commitment to the state. The ultimate loyalty is the demand to fight for the state. 

It is easy to dismiss national identity as irrational because it is not necessarily or always rooted in material interests.

But psychic income – things which satisfy humans’ mental and spiritual needs – can be as important as material income.

Understanding support for Brexit, in part, requires appreciating the “psychic income” that UK/British nationalism offers.

Few states in Europe today have the same boundaries they had a century ago. The current boundaries of the UK are only a century old. The UK has never been symmetrical and that has been one of its persistent strengths. 

What makes the UK unusual, though not unique, was that the various unions involved in its creation differed markedly and each left distinct legacies.

The most neglected union was that which created England. England became the prototypical unitary model of union. The centre was unambiguously in charge. 

It inclined strongly towards uniformity in its treatment of the regions and localities and while a degree of local autonomy was permitted as long as the centre had neither the capacity nor desire to impose its will.

Local authorities existed as “creatures of statute” and their powers could be altered or abolished by Acts of Parliament. 

This has had wider implications for the state as a whole. As by far the largest component, the English understanding would be the most significant influence on understandings of the state as a whole.

From an English perspective, the notion of the state which emerged through the series of subsequent unions – with Wales, Scotland and Ireland – was a unitary state. This view was not shared, even if the term was commonly and unthinkingly used, in other parts of the UK.

The idea of the UK as a unitary state was never written down in any formal document (not least as there was also no obvious document in which it might have been codified). 

It was hardly even debated because it was deemed largely uncontentious. The UK as a “unitary state” became an unexamined orthodoxy. 

This would, however, become significant when it clashed with other understandings of union.

The tensions in the UK largely arise from competing and incompatible understandings of these different unions. This has never been resolved and lies at the heart of much debate today.

When it comes to political and constitutional debate, the language and terms we use are important.  

We cannot remove these from political debate but we should approach them more critically. 

Sovereignty is a term commonly used in constitutional debates and needs to be questioned. 

It originally referred to the one Supreme Being. Brooking no challengers, the Supreme Being was translated into earthly politics

Thus, the monarch as rule by one became the political sovereign by simply translating one form of untrammelled, indivisible authority for another. This was important in legitimising power. 

The process of democratisation involved yet another transfer of unlimited, indivisible authority – this time, to the people. The “Crown in Parliament” became the form adopted in England, a means of moving to a more modern state without rupture or revolution.

Essentially, the fiction of an absolute sovereign was maintained as democracy emerged. To this day, the notion of the Crown in Parliament remains a central tenet or myth of the UK constitution. 

Sovereignty is a “make believe” that has distorted constitutional debate in the UK. It has been a shibboleth and slogan in constitutional debate. 

An alternative to the “Crown in Parliament” understanding of sovereignty is associated with the Scottish legal tradition. It too is “make believe”. 

It views sovereignty as vested in “the people” though who or what is meant by “the people” is not defined. While some see it rooted in the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath, the notion that “the people” are sovereign involved a different and more limited understanding of “the people” then than it does now. 

This myth has been put to use in making the case for more democratic forms of politics. 

The most notable example associated with the Scottish Question was the Claim of Right, produced by the Scottish Constitutional Conventions in 1989. 

This “right”, based on the idea of Scottish popular sovereignty, was also a fiction, even if in pursuit of a progressive end. What has not been adequately addressed by any proponent of either Parliamentary or popular sovereignty are questions of illimitability, perpetuity and indivisibility.

Sovereignty is a crude notion that does not sit well in a complex, interdependent and changing world. 

This interdependence takes three forms:  interdependence of Scotland with the rest of the UK; interdependence of Scotland with Europe; and interdependence of Scotland with other parts of the world.

Arrangements for the government of Scotland have never stood still for long. As they change, the public ought to have some role in the process beyond being mere recipients of the consequences. 

Polities will be affected by neighbours, especially much larger neighbours, regardless of constitutional status.

A major shift is required in how we think about these matters. 

We need to break out of the mental prison imposed by sovereignty and think in terms of many evolving relationships. 

READ MORE: Opinion: Iain Macwhirter: Timid MSPs must toughen up and stop getting the run-around in the Salmond inquiry

Whatever constitutional status any state and nation has it will be affected by its neighbours. 

Neither Brexit nor Scottish independence offer the kind of clean break many might anticipate or hope for. 

Neither offer the complete freedom to act. 

In place of notions of illimitability, we need to acknowledge the limits of autonomy.
In place of perpetuity, we need to appreciate the conditional and contextual nature of autonomy. In place of indivisibility, we need to acknowledge that much political power is shared to create a healthier, pluralist system of government. 

Ultimately, sovereignty is often simply a claim of power. It is invoked by those seeking power or those seeking to retain it. It is an attempt to provide raw power with legitimacy through mystique. It ignores the complexities of relationships. 
James Mitchell is Professor of Public Policy at the University of Edinburgh