Sovereignty and Independence in the Dominions

This paper was delivered at a conference held at the University of Edinburgh in March 2000 to mark the inauguration of a devolved parliament for Scotland the previous year. It was published in H.T. Dickinson and Michael Lynch, eds, The Challenge to Westminster: Sovereignty, Devolution and Independence (East Linton, 2003).


'There shall be a Scottish Parliament.' [Himsworth and Munro, 120] The confident language of the Scotland Act implies that Westminster has engaged in this exercise many times before, and that a tested blueprint from the overseas Empire can be applied north of the border. Does this mean that in Scotland, too, the creation of a subordinate legislature will be but a step to complete independence?

Expatriate Scots played a major role in Dominion politics. John A. Macdonald from Glasgow largely designed Canadian Confederation, while the author of the first effective draft of Australia's federal constitution, Andrew Inglis Clark, was the son of a migrant from Kinghorn in Fife. Yet there was a surprising absence of reference to the Scottish example in the formation of overseas constitutions. Until recent times, Scotland seemed entirely satisfied with its status within the United Kingdom, and so offered no model for colonial devolution. Macdonald sought to reassure the people of Quebec when he defended the Confederation scheme in 1865, likening the partnership of French- and English-Canadians to the relationship between England and Scotland. It was an 'obligatory' principle of the Act of Union 'that the Scottish law cannot be altered, except for the manifest advantage of the people of Scotland' and only then with 'the sanction of the majority of the Scottish members in Parliament'. Every variant anomaly in Scots law had to be accepted by the English, 'no matter how much it may interfere with the symmetry of the general law of the United Kingdom'. [Confederation Debates, 30-31]

Since Scotland contributed so little to the development of devolution overseas, we should hesitate before assuming that the Dominions provide the key to the future of Holyrood. In any case, the overseas Commonwealth offers three distinct levels of legislative bodies as possible comparators. Will the Scottish Parliament follow Ottawa, Canberra and Wellington, and move towards full national sovereignty? Will it behave like the second tier of provincial and state legislatures within federal constitutions, emulating Ontario or Queensland? Does devolution imply a constant struggle for additional powers, backed by threats of secession? Perhaps a third point of reference may be found in the unicameral and relatively weak provincial councils that fitfully operated within the predominantly unitary constitutions of New Zealand and South Africa. Or should each of these comparisons be dismissed as irrelevant because every legislature operates within its own unique social and political structure?

The legislature of the Dominion of Canada's was the first to be formally styled a 'Parliament' in the British North America Act of 1867. The term 'Union Parliament' was used, a trifle grudgingly, in the abortive South Africa Act of 1877, but the Australian Commonwealth in 1901 was the second overseas country to receive a specifically named Parliament. Notwithstanding the huge emotional pull of the memory of Grattan's Parliament, the Home Rule Bills of 1886 and 1893 referred only to a 'Legislative Body' or 'Irish Legislature'. Only in the Third Home Rule Bill was the term 'Irish Parliament' explicitly adopted. Indeed, the upstart legislature of Newfoundland was flatly warned by the Colonial Office in 1835 that if it persisted in its 'peculiarity' of referring to itself as 'the Colonial Parliament', its legislation would be systematically vetoed. While it might seem 'a matter of little or no importance by what title a Colonial Legislature thought fit to designate themselves', the imperial authorities refused to 'acquiesce in this deliberate and solemn use of a title' which might imply a claim to powers similar 'to those of the Houses of Peers and Commons in the United Kingdom'.['Government', 595] In fact, not even the formal title necessarily conferred full parliamentary powers. In 1873, during a major political scandal, Canada's legislators empowered a parliamentary enquiry (so they thought) to take evidence on oath. The Crown Law Officers declared this to be ultra vires because the British North America Act limited Ottawa's powers to those already exercised by Westminster. Of course the Imperial Parliament had the power to pass such a law, but as it had never done so, no such authority could be exercised in Canada. In short, simply because Ottawa was called a parliament did not mean that it could exercise unfettered parliamentary power.

Yet colonial legislatures aped even the smallest eccentricities of the Parliament they were forbidden to emulate. Almost all adopted the medieval format of parallel benches: New South Wales linked them into a horseshoe shape, without any notable addition to political consensus. All were presided over by a Speaker, complete with wig and robes (but not necessarily political neutrality) copied from Westminster. So derivative was the culture that French Canadians addressed the chair as Monsieur l'Orateur. Debates were published in 'Hansard'; the parliamentary dining room in Wellington is still called 'Bellamy's'. Charles Dickens in 1842 described the ceremonial opening of a new session of the Nova Scotia legislature as 'like looking at Westminster through the wrong end of a telescope'. [Dickens, 13] Variations were rare. Canada's legislators refer to all MPs as 'my honourable friend', foes included. Newfoundland alone broke with the tradition that government supporters sat on the Speaker's right, but that was solely because the stove was located to the left of the chair. In Newfoundland, the opposition was literally out in the cold. Queensland in 1922 briefly abolished the ritual of the division lobbies and permitted proxy voting: the government had a majority of one, and he was sick.

Of course, it was convenient for fledgling legislatures to model procedure upon Westminster. Some still do. 'In all cases not provided by the Standing Orders, sessional or other orders or practice of the House, the current practice of Commons House of the Parliament of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, shall be followed as far as it can be applied.' So states Chapter One of the Standing Rules and Orders of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly, as updated in 1996. The Cambridge Union took the same decision in 1823, but that did not turn a debating society into a parliament. Yet colonial politicians did not always conduct themselves with senatorial reserve. The Canadian Parliament was notorious for heavy drinking: a marathon session to force through temperance legislation in 1878 degenerated into a legendary binge. Yet colonial legislatures took their collective dignity and privileges very seriously, probably because they were often ludicrously small: the Assembly of Vancouver Island began in 1856 with 7 members who represented just 43 voters. The first legislature of Prince Edward Island consisted of eighteen members who sat for ten days in 1773. They hired a doorkeeper, but on overhearing him refer to his charges as 'a damn queer parliament', they committed him to prison for contempt. The island's population in 1773 was about one thousand. In 1895, the Speaker of the Western Australian lower house appealed for support to the Clerk of the House of Commons against the colony's nominated upper house, which had attempted to increase compensation payable to victims of railway accidents. He received the soothing reply that the Speaker at Westminster would have acted in precisely the same way had the Lords similarly misbehaved. At the time, Western Australia had the population of the Norfolk town of Great Yarmouth.

The Scottish Parliament starts life in an era when political institutions are held in less regard, and so prefers to stress its modernity. Moreover, it governs five million people - a population that the leading Dominion, Canada, did not achieve until half a century after Confederation. Some of its innovations are presentational: after all, the Presiding Officer is only a wigless Speaker. However, with 129 members, it is larger than the Canadian and Australian Senates or indeed the Parliament of New Zealand and so has the personnel to develop an effective committee system.

Most notably, the Scottish Parliament differs from most of its overseas forebears in starting life as a single-chamber legislature. Most colonial legislatures began with two chambers, one of them feebly imitating the House of Lords. New South Wales in 1853 actually considered a semi-hereditary body, to be chosen by an electoral college of colonial baronets. Attempts to design alternatives ran into the problem that bedevils Lords reform in contemporary Britain: Canada's nominated Red Chamber is notoriously weak, Australia's elected Senate that in 1975 proved far too strong. Ontario in 1867 led the way towards unicameralism by refusing to have an upper house at all. New Zealand scrapped its Legislative Council in 1950. Scottish debate has looked more to Scandinavia, where single-chamber parliaments are the norm. At a theoretical level, the 'Claim of Right' culture that informed the campaign for devolution assumes the organic unity of the Scottish people, while in practical terms the adoption of proportional representation provides some of the safeguards against unthinking majorities that have been traditionally expected from a revising chamber. In any case, there is no room at Holyrood site for a second chamber. Perhaps, in an independent Scotland, the old Royal High School, brooding above on Calton Hill, might be pressed into service as an upper house.

In the first year of the Scottish Parliament, there have been occasional echoes of the experience of the overseas Commonwealth. The legal challenge to the validity of a bill to abolish hunting is a reminder that mere use of the term 'Parliament' does not confer unrestricted powers. And the decision of the Presiding Officer to report leading Scottish newspapers to the Press Complaints Tribunal suggests that it is still dangerous to poke fun at solemn legislators.

The fact that Canada and Australia are full members of the world community may suggest that devolution inevitably evolves into complete independence. Much depends on the definition of inevitability: Sydney Smith described thirty years as the political equivalent of eternity. The Dominions did not rush into independence. In fact, they usually found it convenient to avoid posing fundamental issues of sovereignty. In 1908, the Afrikaner chief justice of the Cape squashed a suggestion that the South African colonies might unite by passing concurrent local legislation. It was impossible 'to see how a scheme of union could be carried through without the assistance and intervention of the Imperial Parliament' since it was 'the only Legislature which in theory has the power of legislating for South Africa as a whole'. [Hancock and van der Poel, 427] In 1865, Westminster had passed declaratory legislation, the Colonial Laws Validity Act, reasserting full legislative control over the whole Empire. However, the Act was primarily designed to deal with an obscure judge in South Australia who had invented a doctrine of judicial review which he used to strike down local laws that displeased him. In theory, colonial dependency was becoming an increasingly inappropriate status for rising new nations. In practice, most colonials saw themselves as overseas Britons, as they showed by rushing to the colours in 1914. Friction was rare and low-level: disagreements over copyright or bigamy are unlikely to provoke nationalist wars of liberation. Canadians felt let down by inadequate British support over the Alaska boundary dispute in 1903, but since full independence would simply have meant facing the Americans alone, it was hardly an attractive alternative. In 1923, a Canadian minister signed a treaty with the United States to regulate halibut stocks in the North Pacific. Imperial unity barely trembled.

On paper, the transition to legal Dominion independence occurred between 1926 and 1931. Canada's prime minister, Mackenzie King, felt that the refusal by the British-appointed governor-general to call a general election amounted to imperial interference in local politics. Lord Balfour cast an elder statesman's mantle over the problem, producing a definition that avoided reference to the loaded word 'independence' but insisted that Britain and the Dominions were co-equal members of the Commonwealth, a body that apparently existed somewhere inside the British Empire. This had no legal force, but it satisfied Mackenzie King.

In 1929, a conference on the Operation of Dominion Legislation considered such worthy topics as extra-territoriality. If a Canadian-registered merchant ship sailed three miles out to sea, was it bound by any law at all? To resolve these mysteries, in 1931 the British Parliament passed the portentously titled Statute of Westminster, promising never to legislate for the Dominions unless at their express request.

Since all this happened barely a decade after the impressive display of imperial blood unity shown in the First World War, we might conclude that the severance of Scotland might happen equally suddenly. However, there was an important counterpoint to the theme of Dominion nationalism. War had also stimulated powerful imperial sentiments overseas. An Imperial War Cabinet was established in 1917, and at the peace conference, Dominion representatives enjoyed walk-on parts with the top-table British Empire delegation, but signed the Treaty itself as quasi-independent units. For a brief moment, it seemed that the Dominions might make good the shortfall in British world power: Lloyd George proclaimed that foreign policy was vested in the Empire as a whole.

However, Whitehall soon decided that the game was not worth the candle. The Foreign Secretary, Austen Chamberlain, complained in 1925 that it was impossible to negotiate with foreign governments while constantly pleading Britain must consult its distant and tiny Dominions. Thus Dominion pressure for clarification of the relationship intersected with a British inclination towards disentanglement. The emotional grip remained strong, as was shown in 1939 when every Dominion but Ireland followed Britain into war against Hitler. Moreover, economic ties, such as the Ottawa trade agreements in 1932 and the formalisation of the Sterling Area, counterbalanced any political will towards secession.

The Statute of Westminster itself fell short of an unambiguous charter of independence. It took effect in each Dominion only when it was locally adopted: Australia waited until 1942; New Zealand until 1947. Newfoundland's experience of complete sovereignty was fleeting: in 1933, the colony faced bankruptcy and accepted direct rule from Britain. Although suspicious of Britain, Canadians were also distrustful of each other. They specifically reserved ultimate control over their own constitution to Westminster, where it remained, incongruously, until 1982. During the Abdication crisis in 1936, it was simply taken for granted that the Dominions were deemed to have requested British legislation to remove their king.

The evolution of Dominion status probably offers few clues to the future of Scotland's Parliament. The puzzling historical issue is to explain not why the Dominions broke away but rather why they tolerated their quasi-colonial limbo for so long. The Statute of Westminster was as much a declaration of independence from, rather than for, the Dominions, a British decision politely to cut loose from inconvenient encumbrances. In 1931, Britain was ruled by a prime minister from Lossiemouth. A future act of abnegation by Westminster might well be as much as product of little Englandism as a response to Scottish nationalism.

What of the federal second tier, Canada's provincial legislatures and Australia's state parliaments? Does double-decker government guarantee incessant conflict over jurisdiction and constant temptation to secession?

When the Dominion of Canada was created in 1867, it inherited a well-established civil service, and the grandiose Ottawa Parliament building. The two new provinces of Ontario and Quebec had to create their own institutions: symbolically, the opening ceremony of the first Ontario legislative session was pervaded by the smell of sawdust. The Quebec civil service numbered just 92 full-time employees in 1869, obviously a far cry from the modern Scottish Office. The provinces received substantial grants from the Dominion government, calculated on a per capita basis which especially benefited thriving Ontario, and gave little motive for disputes with Ottawa. Indeed, Ontario and Quebec spent more time arguing with each other over the partition of their joint debt, a problem that was not finally buried until 1910.

Initially, Ontario and Quebec were closely supervised by Ottawa. In 1867 Macdonald effectively selected the premier of Ontario and kept him under close control, notably by threatening to disallow objectionable legislation. His French-Canadian lieutenant, George Cartier, not only hand-picked the first Quebec cabinet, but sat in the local legislature himself, one of 15 of the 65 members of the first Quebec Assembly who enjoyed a dual mandate, along with the influence that their political experience implied.

Macdonald's control of Ontario lasted longer than Tony Blair's over Wales, but in 1871 the opposition Liberals captured the province. The new regime quickly banned dual membership, and Quebec followed in 1874. It was Ontario and not Quebec that led the way in contesting Dominion supremacy. Behind their antipathy between Macdonald and his former law pupil, Ontario premier Oliver Mowat, lay rival conceptions of the Canadian constitution. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, supported Mowat's view that the Dominion was a true federation. The most notable case, Hodge versus the Queen (1883), ostensibly centred on the issue of jurisdiction over a table in a Toronto tavern. The Judicial Committee concluded that the provinces were in effect sovereign within the spheres of jurisdiction assigned to them by the British North America Act.

Increased power did not push Ontario towards secession. Rather, Mowat chose to harness the other provinces to his alternative concept of Canada. In 1887, dissident premiers proclaimed that the government in Ottawa was the creation of the provinces and so subordinate and answerable to them. This 'compact' theory of the Canadian constitution is of dubious historical value, but arguably it has made political sense, since the original 'Macdonaldian' constitution was too rigidly centralised for such a vast country.

Thus it seems wrong to assume that mere possession of a subordinate legislature encourages attempts at formal secession. Canada's ten provinces joined the federation at different times: Ontario in 1867, Newfoundland not until 1949. Aggregation of their memberships to the year 2000 produces a total of 1159 province-years. Since 1867, four attempts at secession have got as far as the ballot box, two through provincial elections in Nova Scotia and two by referendum in Quebec. The average of one constitutional upheaval every 290 province-years exactly equals the period separating the Act of Union in 1707 from the Scottish referendum of 1997.

The first Nova Scotian movement, between 1867 and 1869, was essentially a continuation of opposition to Confederation, with some of the resentment directed primarily against the manner in which it had been imposed. Although candidates opposed to the new constitution captured 18 of the 19 Nova Scotian constituencies at the first Dominion general election, the very breadth of their movement contained seeds of disunity. Some insisted upon secession, which the British refused to consider, while others were prepared to settle for "better terms", which Ottawa was very willing to grant.

The threat was revived in 1886, W.S. Fielding's Liberals won the provincial election on a platform of secession from Canada. Discontent was fuelled by regional economic decline, a problem beyond easy political solutions. Some Liberals were uneasy in their support for Fielding, and it was generally assumed that he would hoped to secure a repetition of the concessions of 1869. The neighbouring provinces were not interested in his preferred alternative of a union of the Maritime provinces. In the middle of the Irish Home Rule crisis, British politicians simply did not wish to know. The following year, Macdonald's Conservatives won two-thirds of the Nova Scotian constituencies in the Dominion general election and the movement collapsed. Fielding joined Mowat's anti-centralist front, and later switched to Ottawa politics, serving two long terms as Canada's finance minister. Had he beaten Mackenzie King in 1919 for the national leadership of the Liberal Party, as he nearly did, Fielding would almost certainly have become prime minister of Canada. It was a remarkable career for someone who had tried to break up the country.

Australia's sole attempt at a formal break-away came in April 1933, when Western Australians voted by two-to-one in favour of becoming a separate British Dominion. (The secessionist movement called itself the Dominion League, a strategy comparable to the SNP slogan of 'Independence in Europe', but probably with greater emotional appeal.) Western Australia had reluctantly joined a federation that would obviously be dominated by the distant eastern states, and in thirty years the state had seen few benefits from membership. Although impressive, the referendum vote was primarily a cry for help in the Depression. At the same poll, voters threw out the incumbent right-wing parties and elected a Labor government opposed to secession. Two years later, the British Parliament closed the door, arguing that the Statute of Westminster only permitted it to legislate for Australia on the advice of its Canberra counterpart.

More recently, there have been two formidable attempts to break up Canada by Quebec separatists. The referendum of 1980 registered a 40.5 percent for the 'Yes' side, while it successor in 1995 produced a nail-biting 49.4 percent in favour, including a clear majority of the province's majority francophone population. Despite the massive and growing literature comparing the two, it is probably safest to agree with the verdict expressed by Alex Salmond on the morrow of the 1995 vote, that Quebec is not Scotland. The prognosis that we may reach on the destiny of Holyrood will be largely determined by the comparators that we choose. If we decide to see Scotland in the context of Quebec, then instability may loom in the crystal ball. If we look rather to the fifteen English-speaking Canadian provinces and Australian states, which probably provide closer cultural analogues, then we shall conclude that formal attempts at secession are abnormal episodes.

However, Quebec raises questions about the use of the referendum and the enigma of what would happen in the aftermath of a 'Yes' vote. Both referendum questions in Quebec were cumbersomely worded and notable for their failure to use terms such as 'independence' or 'secession'. The 1980 proposition was almost one hundred words in length. The 1995 question lacked the ringing clarity of the Declaration of Arbroath, opaquely asking voters:

Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada of a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the Bill respecting the future of Quebec and the Agreement signed on June 12, 1995? [Maclean's, 12]

In 1980, voters were promised a second referendum to endorse any deal for 'sovereignty association' (itself a disputed concept) with Canada. However, it is widely believed that in the event of a 'Yes' vote in 1995, the separatist provincial government would have moved quickly to assert full sovereignty, a risk-ridden course of action even in as perennially peaceable a country as Canada. The lesson from Quebec, or so the Canadian government now insists, is that voters must be asked a clear question, with ground-rules agreed in advance on the way forward in the event of a 'Yes' vote. Unhappily, the Quebec experience also suggests that the very fact of a powerful separatist movement means that the necessary goodwill between centre and periphery has already vanished. The close result in 1995 also underlines the point that referendums work best when they produce a clear consensus: Quebec voted 49.4 percent for independence; two years later, Scotland registered a 48.6 percent majority for devolution.

One final comic-opera case warns that tactical resort to referendum can be disastrously counterproductive. The West Indies federation came into being in 1958 largely because it offered the only means by which small communities could move towards national independence. It was bedevilled by inter-island rivalries. Like Scotland, Jamaica lay distant from the federal capital in Trinidad. Like England, it accounted for over half the population of the nascent state and felt itself to be the predominant partner. Although captured by the pan-Caribbean vision himself, Jamaica's premier, Norman Manley, felt it prudent initially to stay out of the federal arena. As a result, the first prime minister of the West Indies, Sir Grantley Adams of Barbados, was generally regarded a mere caretaker. However, Manley easily crushed his cousin and rival, Alexander Bustamente, in the Jamaican general election of 1959, and the way seemed open for more explicitly federalist involvement.

In May 1960, Bustamente's party unexpectedly refused to contest a federal by-election, and demanded that Jamaica should pull out altogether. Some suspected that the decision was prompted by the party's inability to finance a by-election campaign. However, by noon the same day Manley had responded by announcing a referendum on Jamaican membership.

Unfortunately, this apparently brilliant political counterstroke unravelled to disaster. Legislation was required to create the necessary machinery for a referendum. Adams was understandably reluctant to offer incentives aimed at Jamaican opinion especially after Manley announced that he would regard a 'Yes' vote as a mandate to enter federal politics himself. (Some of his Jamaican admirers probably voted 'No' in order to keep him at home.) Although Manley had taken less than an hour to decide upon his referendum, it did not happen until September 1961, sixteen months later, by which time the habitual discourtesies of Caribbean politics had soured the Jamaican attitudes towards federation. Worst of all, Manley assumed that the 54.8 percent vote that had given him victory at the 1959 election would translate into a referendum majority. In the event, he suffered a small swing of about 5 percent, and Jamaica voted to pull out.

There are lessons to be drawn from Manley's gamble. Never call a referendum on your opponents' policy. Never call a referendum unless you can control the timetable. Never call a referendum unless you are certain of victory. Unfortunately, these lessons are so obvious that a historical example is hardly required.

Reflecting the fact that the islands had been colonised in six separate bites, New Zealand's constitution of 1852 provided for a General Assembly and six Provincial Councils - cumbersome enough government for 26,000 settlers. The provinces received a share of central revenues which they could supplement from local resources. Thanks to land sales and gold rush prosperity, Otago and Canterbury flourished but others ran into trouble, and one province collapsed altogether. An unusual and probably unwise provision allowed new provinces to be carved from the old merely on the petition of 150 voters. Three extra provinces emerged in this way, while others were undermined by threats of subdivision. In Marlborough, rival Councils seated themselves at Picton and Blenheim. To the surprise of the Pictonians, the Blenheimites turned up one day to hi-jack their meeting, a coup that was only prevented by a heroic ten-hour filibuster.

The provincial system was killed by financial pressures. In 1867, the central government responded to the increasing cost of the Maori wars by bluntly telling the provinces to rely on their own resources. Since the wars were a North Island problem, there was some pressure to make the South Island a separate colony. This movement foundered, partly because the mountainous northern end of the South Island had closer ties with Wellington, but also because both Christchurch nor Dunedin expected to become the new capital. (The campaign for devolution in Scotland would have been fraught indeed had Glasgow contested Edinburgh's claims to the Parliament.) From 1870, New Zealand embarked on a programme of expansion financed by overseas loans. To maintain investor confidence, it was necessary to prevent the feckless provinces from borrowing. As a result, the weaker provinces acquiesced in abolition and in 1876, the General Assembly swept them away altogether.

The Provincial Council of the Free Church settlement of Otago was the only parliamentary-style body between 1707 and 1999 to be primarily run by and for Scots. By artistic coincidence, it held its first meeting in 1853, the mid-point year between the old and new Scottish Parliaments. Overall, it was the most successful of New Zealand's devolved governments, partly through the good fortune of its gold rush revenues. It survived both the short-lived secession of the Southland province and the demagogic leadership of the flamboyant Aberdonian, James Macandrew, whose vocal campaign against centralisation might have been summarised in the slogan: 'it's Otago's gold'. Otago Scots did not all rise to Macandrew's oratorical heights. The sole parliamentary speech of goldfields representative, Donald Macpherson, was phonetically rendered by a reporter as: 'Mr Speaker, the reek's comin' doon the lum.' [Morrell, 294]

When the Union of South Africa was created in 1910, provincial councils were the price paid to satisfy the particularism of Natal, the only colony with an English-speaking majority among its white population. (In the Boer heartland, the Orange Free State tried to abandon its debt-ridden Council in 1930.) From time to time, Natal's imperial loyalists dreamt of secession from the Afrikaner-dominated Union, but these threats were contained by the local white elite. Durban's prosperity depended on trade with the rich Transvaal, and it would have been foolish for the small settler community to stand alone alongside the overwhelming Zulu majority. South Africa's provincial councils whimpered to an end in 1986, although they have reappeared and multiplied in the post-apartheid constitution.

In both countries, Provincial Councils were small and headed by independent executives, popularly-elected Superintendents in New Zealand, centrally appointed Administrators in South Africa. As a result, neither evolved local systems of ministerial responsibility. Their eventual eclipse in both countries should cause no alarm in Scotland's new Parliament. In fact, it is hard to get rid of a devolved legislature. Defending his decision to accept Home Rule for Northern Ireland, Carson remarked that parliaments cannot be knocked up and down like a ball. Settlers in Jamaica surrendered their legislature in 1865 after an uprising. Newfoundland last prime minister insisted that 'what we need now is a political holiday' when the island surrendered its right of self-government in the face of bankruptcy. [Neary, 41] It is hard to envisage these contingencies threatening Holyrood. In any case, lost legislatures remain a powerful memory, and generally return in the end.

Parliaments operate within unique social and political contexts which complicate comparisons. For instance, one reason for the strength of second-tier legislatures in Canada and Australia can be found in the relative weakness of municipal institutions in both countries. In country districts of Australia, local government is generally weak, while effective city-wide institutions are lacking in Melbourne, Montreal and Sydney precisely because they would rival the local legislature. In New Zealand, the story was inverted, and Provincial Councils were weakened by pressures to establish county-level authorities. Similarly, attempts by Natal provincialists to widen their autonomy were undermined by the insistence of major local authorities on dealing direct with Pretoria. In the colonies, local government was generally the creation of the legislature and could be shaped as parliamentarians determined. Scotland is unusual in attempting to insert a devolved legislature as a mezzanine administrative level into a country which already has an entrenched and ideologically politicised system of local government. The convention of royal burghs sometimes overshadowed the old Scottish Parliament; no Dominion legislature faced the challenge of establishing itself alongside a body like COSLA.

The operation of a legislature is affected by the nature of party politics and electoral systems. In smaller communities, party structures were often ad hoc or even non-existent: in New Zealand's Nelson Province, the local elite was nicknamed the Supper Party. Absence of a party system could produce sterility, as in Southern Rhodesia where Sir Godfrey Huggins was prime minister for longer than Walpole, or extreme instability, as happened in South Australia which endured 39 ministries in the first 36 years of responsible government. In modern Australia, where parties operate on sharply defined lines of class, voters tend to back the same party at both state and federal level. In Canada, on the other hand, several provinces have evolved local party systems of their own. The Ontario Conservatives and the Quebec Liberals are only loosely connected to the national parties bearing the same names: Jean Charest moved from leadership of the federal Tories to head the Quebec Liberals.

On the face of it, we might conclude that the four-party system resulting from the 1999 Scottish elections represents a transitional stage inherited from Westminster politics that should logically evolve into something like the two-party federalist-versus-separatist system of Quebec since the 1970s. However, this prediction ignores the differing impact of class loyalties (Quebec's equivalent of the traditional Labour voter is more likely to be a separatist) and the likelihood that proportional representation will counter any pressures towards electoral tidiness. First-past-the-post is such an unreliable way of locating a majority that it seems remarkable that it has endured with so little challenge in so many systems. Canada in 1896, Britain in 1951, New Zealand in 1978 and 1981 and Quebec in 1998 provide instances where the party polling the most votes actually lost the election. New Zealand experimented with the second ballot between 1908 and 1913, and ventured upon a Mixed Member Proportional system in 1996. Australia - and especially Tasmania - has gone furthest in the adoption of preferential and proportional voting. Overall, Holyrood is a pace-setter in electoral reform and there is little to be learnt from overseas precedents.

Even the architecture of a Parliament can affect the way it operates. As a general rule, the more imposing the chamber, the less efficient the legislature. Anthony Trollope admired the fine Gothic architecture of the Canterbury Provincial Council but was told that 'it had one slight drawback. Those who spoke in it could not make themselves heard.' [Trollope, ii, 376] The Canadian House of Commons was also noted for poor acoustics: its orators were by definition those with the loudest voices. One governor-general envied the facilities available to Canada's legislators: 'the accommodation would be thought magnificent by us Members of the English House of Commons. ... the fellows in these Colonies have been spoiled by all sorts of luxuries, large armchairs, desks with stationery before each man, & heaven knows what'. [Knaplund, 143] In fact, desks further intruded upon the parliamentary atmosphere: Canadian MPs perforce used them even during debates in lieu of offices, and the arrangement generated a whole sub-politics of desk-mates, who got to sit with whom and where.

Australia managed for sixty years with much-loved and very cramped temporary premises, until a permanent Parliament House was completed in 1988 at a cost of £500 million. In the largest construction project in the southern hemisphere, the new Parliament consumed 25 times as much concrete as the Sydney Opera House. It contains 15 miles of corridors, 2500 clocks and a swimming pool. Symbolically, it was built into Canberra's Capital Hill and covered with an area of grass larger than the Melbourne Cricket Ground so that the people of Australia can literally tread their rulers under foot. While working conditions have improved, there is a general impression that the executive has become more remote from backbenchers. One politician complained of the new House of Representatives that members 'can't see the whites of their opponents' eyes' adding, 'I have been at crematoria that have been more fun'. [Disney and Nethercote, 8] The restricted site at Holyrood has been criticised, but it may prove to have advantages in fostering a live parliamentary culture.

No longer a colonial politician but a Dominion statesman, in 1871 Sir John A. Macdonald decided to offer his thoughts on how to respond to the new movement for Irish Home Rule. Macdonald took for granted that full devolution was out of the question for troublesome Ireland. Even in Canada, there was 'great difficulty in keeping the subordinate legislatures ... from exceeding their powers' Rather, Macdonald suggested, MPs 'from each of the four provinces of Ireland ... should form Grand Committees', meeting once a year in the different corners of Ireland. These committees would initially be granted limited powers of legislate and raise taxes, which might subsequently be increased. 'There would be little danger of their joining together in any concerted action.'

Since the House of Commons had enough to do presiding over the affairs of the Empire, Macdonald thought his system might be applied more generally within the United Kingdom. England could be divided at the Humber 'and the ancient Principality [Wales] have a little Parliament of its own'. Best of all was the potential for Scotland. 'The Scotch members manage Scottish affairs at present in a committee-room at Westminster.' Why not formalise and (to use a later Canadian term) patriate the arrangement? It would 'gratify Edinburgh and the Scottish Lion if a Grand Committee, such as I have mentioned, with like powers, were to assemble there.' [Pope, ii, 222-227] More than a hundred years would pass before the Scottish Grand Committee turned itself into a road show, and by then it was too late to halt the campaign for full-scale devolution. Perhaps Macdonald's scheme would have renewed the old United Kingdom on proto-Blairite lines. A century later, however, it seems that the Dominion precedents offer Scotland more warnings than solutions.



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M.Hamelin, Les premières années du parlementarisme québécois (1867-1878) (Quebec City, 1974)

P. Knaplund, ed., Letters from Lord Sydenham Governor-General of Canada 1839-1841 to Lord John Russell (London, 1931)

J.A. Pope, Memoirs of the Right Honourable Sir John Alexander Macdonald (2 vols, Ottawa, 1894)

Parliament of New South Wales: Legislative Assembly Standing Rules and Orders (Sydney, 1996)

J. Disney and J.R. Nethercote, eds, The House on the Hill: Parliament, Politics and Power in the National Capital (Canberra, 1996)

E.D. Watt, "Secession in Western Australia", University Studies in Western Australian History, 3 (1958), 48-86

New Zealand

W.P. Morrell, The Provincial System in New Zealand 1852-1876 (London, 1932)

Anthony Trollope, Australia and New Zealand (2 vols, London, 1873)

Southern Africa

W.K. Hancock and J. van der Poel, eds, Selections from the Smuts Papers, vol. ii (Cambridge, 1966)

West Indies

J. Mordecai, The West Indies: The Federal Negotiations (London, 1968)