There’s more than one pathway to autonomy

As the Scots referendum draws nearer Andy Bevan asks what lessons we can learn from the experiences of Ireland and other Commonwealth countries

As 18 September 2014 and the Scottish referendum draws ever closer, it’s already clear that there is more to independence than a referendum result. Alex Salmond and his team of Ministers have been busy explaining this for a while now. A Yes vote in the Scottish referendum would merely mark the beginning of a new phase in Edinburgh’s negotiations with London (and with Brussels) about the constitutional arrangements for an independent Scotland which wants to remain part of the EU. Alex Salmond talks about an intensive period of negotiations, while Scotland remains part of the UK, from Autumn 2014 up to the Scottish elections due in May 2016.

In February 2013 the Scottish Government issued a paper with a degree of detail on the main areas of negotiation. For sure, there would need to be thorough consideration of transitional arrangements for Scotland’s tax and benefits system and banking supervision. We might add issues including the location of garrisons for Scottish-recruited regiments, sovereign control of the Faslane nuclear submarine base, whether there would be a Governor-General of Scotland under the British crown (if so, who?)… and much else besides.

All of this would be of vital interest to us in Wales – where pressure (as the Silk Commission continues its work) for autonomous control over tax and benefits would continue, as would campaigning for Wales to assume responsibility for policing, prisons and the judiciary. In Wales these pressures, will continue to build up, irrespective of the Scots’ decision in 2014. Many of them will need to be addressed in talks between London and Edinburgh too, even in the event of a No vote by the Scots.

In light of this it’s useful to look at actual pathways to independence trodden by other Commonwealth realms –  in particular, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and, even more so, Ireland – especially during the 1920s and 1930s. We can also usefully examine the role of referendums, in those varied ‘independence paths’.

Dominion status

The Irish Free State, for example, moved from Dominion status under the British Crown and within the British Empire to the status of Republic outside it between 1922 and 1949 – an outcome much more radical than anything Alex Salmond is currently advocating. By 1938, Ireland had also gained full sovereignty over the naval bases on Irish soil which had initially remained under British control after 1922. (Incidentally, with reference to Scotland and Sterling, the Irish Free State continued to use sterling after 1922 and didn’t issue its own “Irish Pound” notes until 1928 – though its currency remained “pegged” to sterling until 1978-9, when Ireland joined the European Monetary System and the UK did not. In 2002, of course, Ireland adopted the Euro).

Before making any comparisons between Scotland and Ireland, let’s be clear that Scotland’s pathway to independence has been peaceful, unmarked by the tragedy of Ireland’s war of independence and the Civil War of 1922-23 – and the deep problem of partition. Even so, the Scottish Government’s bid for independence under the British Crown and within the Commonwealth places them closer, in constitutional terms, to the position of the Irish Free Staters (the Dail majority of 1921, who reluctantly accepted the Anglo-Irish Treaty) than to De Valera’s line of out-and-out Republican independence. Not that London will give the current Scottish Government any credit for their reasonableness!

There again, many Unionists who shudder at Scottish ‘independence’ would think of (independent) Canada and Australia as ‘staunch allies’ of the UK over the years. Yet the governments of Canada and Australia, like the Scots now, had to press London hard to establish their own rights to self-determination, including strategic control over their own armed forces and the effective independence of the highest levels of appeal of their judicial systems from British Imperial control.

Canada showed the way. Nova Scotia and ‘the Province of Canada’ (basically Ontario and Quebec) gained their own representative governments in 1848, followed by Prince Edward Island (1851) and New Brunswick and Newfoundland four years later. When most of these colonies agreed to combine as a new federal entity, Canada, from 1867, Newfoundland and Prince Edward Island initially stood aside. The British North America Act of 1867, adopted by the Imperial Parliament in London and approved by the British Crown, set the seal on this arrangement. In 1870, Rupert’s Land (later to become Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta) and the huge Northwest Territories also joined. British Columbia joined in 1871 and Prince Edward Island finally in 1873. Newfoundland remained a separate entity until 1949. In legal terms, 1867 saw the change from internal representative government to the higher status of ‘responsible government’ or Dominion status.

Australia followed a similar path between 1856 and 1890, by which time Western Australia became the last Australian colony to achieve full self-government. This went a significant stage further in 1901 when London recognised a federated ‘Commonwealth of Australia’, with a new constitution approved by referendums in all the Australian states.

New Zealand’s Constitution Act of 1852, gave the colony of New Zealand its own General Assembly and effective home rule. In Australia’s wake, New Zealand achieved Dominion status in 1907.

In the late 19th Century, Imperial control remained over legislation in the Dominions (through Governor Generals appointed by the British Crown), over judicial appeals (through Judicial Committee of the Privy Council) and over the Dominions’ armed forces.

The Boer War (1899-1902), when the Dominions contributed significantly to the British Imperial war effort to quell the ‘Afrikaner rebellion’, highlighted a number of tensions between self-government and Imperial control. This resulted in the Colonial Conference of 1907 in London, which recognised the right to consultation of the Dominion governments in the strategic policy of the British Empire.

In the aftermath of the Boer War, the Union of South Africa was formed in 1910, uniting the self-governing colonies of Cape Colony and Natal with the two former Boer Republics of Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

The First World War saw a huge contribution to the manpower and fighting strength of the British Empire from the Dominions, including India. During the war, an Imperial War Cabinet came into being, with formal rights to consultation of the Dominion Governments – with permanent Dominion ‘Ministers’ being appointed to London. The colonial Raj Government of India sat at the table too, recognising an element of administrative self-government (but without a basis in universal franchise).  Significantly, at the end of the war, the Governments of the ‘White Dominions’ separately signed the international treaties ending the war and took their seats at the table of the League of Nations, as internationally recognised independent nations.

So by this stage, in a piecemeal and organic way, these Dominions had gained de facto independence. This formula, familiar to UK war leader Lloyd George, provided the framework for the constitution of the Irish Free State, which joined the regular meetings of the Dominion Governments from 1923.

The Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1922 established in law the Irish Free State, which remained a Dominion, until the adoption of the new Constitution of Ireland by referendum in 1937 and, ultimately, by the declaration of a Republic by the Irish government and parliament in 1949.

Further adjustments remained to be made between the various Dominions and the Imperial Government. In 1923, Canada – for the first time making a diplomatic agreement in its own right – signed a fisheries treaty with the United States. In 1929, the Chanak affair, when London threatened war with Turkey, in the name of the British Empire, without consulting the Dominions, caused a hiatus which brought further clarification of the Dominions’ right to consultation.

The 1920s and 1930s also saw Dominions establishing their own Embassies abroad – notably in the USA (and gradually expanding the role of their High Commissions on each others’ territories).

During this period, the most radical positions on self-determination were generally taken by Canada, South Africa and Ireland. (The need for Dominion Governments in Canada and South Africa to demonstrate suitable degrees of independence to the electorates of francophone Quebec and to the Afrikaner constituency were no doubt a factor in this).

When the 1931 the Statute of Westminster formalised the independence of the white Dominions, it merely recognised in law the existing de facto situation.


What part did referendums play in this overall process? In fact, in the case of the Dominions, referendums have not played much of a role at all. The independence of Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa all came about as a result of their respective Governments expanding their powers step by step (and side by side) by a process of assertion of rights, underpinned by strong popular support at home, as evidenced in successive elections.

In Canada, Quebec has twice held referendums on independence from Canada but both were lost, in 1980 and, very narrowly by 51-49%, in 1995. In 1993 the Charlottetown Accord, which sought to redefine the division of powers between the federal government and the Provinces was also defeated by referendum.

Australia won recognition in 1901 from London of its new, united existence as the ‘Commonwealth of Australia’. The referendums in each State, which had to be held in advance of this, were to approve joining the new entity, in effect, and were not directly about independence – which each individual State had already established.

Over the years, Australia has held numerous referendums on a wide variety of legislative proposals, but only 8 out of 44 have been carried since 1906. Most recently, the 1999 referendum on adopting Republican status was defeated.

In the case of Ireland, there was a Plebiscite on the new Draft Constitution of Ireland on 1 July 1937. In practice, though, the simple assertion of independence under De Valera on his return to power in 1932 was the most powerful factor. (There have been numerous other referendums since 1958, but by then Irish independence, at least in the 26 counties of the south, had been well established).

South Africa held a referendum (of the white electorate only) confirming Republican status in 1960 and another, ending apartheid, in 1992. But both of these referendums took place many decades after South Africa had achieved effective independence from Imperial control.

What are we to make of this picture overall? Where does the current debate in Scotland (and Wales) fit into it? Does it tell us anything about the referendum as an instrument in the process of strengthening self-determination, for Wales specifically, in the future?

Certainly, the two referendums in 1979 and 1997 have been a key part of the devolution landscape for us. The Welsh referendum of 2011 on lawmaking powers has emphasised that further. Interestingly, though, it was the SNP’s success in the Scottish Parliamentary election of 2011 that has given the biggest nudge to the independence issue. It is true, of course, that the SNP has made a long-standing pledge to offer the Scottish people a choice on independence through referendum – and they have delivered on that pledge.

The lesson of the Dominions, though, is that there is a path to independence without resort to referendum. It may be a political option, in given circumstances and to overcome specific problems, but the most important thing, if the overall aim is to extend autonomy into independence, is to take steps to build and maintain democratic mass support for that objective.

There is more than one model. The model of precedent and assertion of rights is an important one, full of useful lessons for us.

In Wales, we may well find it more constructive to deploy the referendum in the future for specific advances (for example, self-government in matters relating to police, justice, immigration), the settling of post-independence issues like Republican status – or re-establishing a strong consensus among the people of Wales for re-gaining full membership of the EU after England’s government has effectively left it!  Or we may, at some stage in the future, turn to the referendum as the best way to find a specific way through a particularly difficult impasse between Cardiff and London.

As our very different experiences in Wales in 1979, 1997 and 2011 have already shown, with referendums, it’s all about timing, political momentum and the question asked.

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