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Response to Dame Jackie Baillie

Last month, we were able to put a question directly to Dame Jackie Baillie, the Deputy Leader of Scottish Labour. Firstly, we would like to thank Innes from Untribal podcast for putting our question forward, and Dame Baillie for engaging with it. You can listen to the full episode here.

We selected a question which builds on the fundamental issue discussed in our paper ‘The Constitutional Straitjacket’; that the Scottish people cannot unilaterally install a pro-independence UK parliament, or UK government, which would have the power to authorise a second referendum under UK law, meaning that the Scottish people simply cannot control their own future by any democratic means.

Before moving on to our analysis, you can watch the full exchange here:


If you cannot watch the video, a full transcript is provided below:

Our question in full:

“Does Dame Baillie agree that the authorisation of a referendum on Scottish independence is a question for the Scottish people and therefore the Scottish parliament, and not Westminster where only 9% of representatives are elected in Scotland or the UK government which a pro-independence party has no conceivable chance of forming. If not, why?”

Dame Baillie's response in full:

“I have always believed in the sovereignty of the Scottish people. I mean, it’s been a long-held belief. When I first started arguing for a Scottish parliament, it was because of that very issue, so, you know, I am consistent on it. At the end of the day though it is a huge decision for any country to take, there’s no going back. I don’t think we have been well served by the lack of information or to be frank, some of the fanciful information that has been provided to people and as I’ve said before, the people I meet, who believe in independence, are saying to me: not now, we have far more serious issues to be getting on with. You know I met families the other day they were worried about the education of their child – that’s wholly devolved, we’re in charge of that already, the same with the NHS. In so many areas in Scottish life, the Scottish parliament is already in charge of what goes on, and I’m not sure we’re making the best of it that we possibly could”.

Analysis of Dame Baillie's answer.

If you remove the excess, Dame Baillie’s response seems to cohere with the approach which we, along with the wider independence movement would endorse. This is because she very clearly states that she has “always believed in the sovereignty of the Scottish people”.

This answer is certainly welcomed; If Dame Baillie believes in the sovereignty of the Scottish people, it follows that she must agree that it is indeed the Scottish people, and therefore the parliament which the Scottish people elect, who should be empowered to determine whether to hold a second referendum. The alternative option, which is to vest such power in a parliament of which the Scottish people elect only 9% of members, would be simply incompatible with her endorsement of Scottish sovereignty.

It is unfortunate that after making this statement, Dame Baillie then disengages with the actual issue raised, and instead of explaining how the sovereignty of the Scottish people should operate with regard to the referendum authorisation, puts forward various personal opinions which are simply irrelevant to the question asked. To deal with the remainder of the answer in a concise and frank manner, it does not matter whether or not;

  • Independence is a big decision for a country to make,

  • The SNP have not provided enough information, or have provided fanciful information regarding independence,

  • Dame Baillie has met independence supporters who do not want a referendum right now, or,

  • The Scottish parliament has not made the best use of the powers which it already has.

These are all personal opinions and experiences which Dame Baillie thinks should justify not holding a second referendum right now. Dame Baillie is perfectly entitled to contest whether the Scottish parliament should authorise a referendum, but we are not asking that. We are asking whether they should be able to authorise a referendum as the representatives of the Scottish people.

To illustrate this; it is perfectly democratically valid to argue that the Scottish parliament should not enact a given piece of legislation, but that is not the same as saying that they should not be able to enact it, even if a majority in parliament wanted to. These are two completely different approaches to a question of the Scottish parliament's legislative competence; the former respects the ability for the Scottish parliament to act on behalf of the Scottish people according to their democratic mandate obtained from the Scottish people (while disagreeing with the action itself), and the latter does not respect that ability or democratic mandate.

When the issues are separated, the only thing which Dame Baillie says that is actually relevant to whether she thinks the Scottish parliament should be able to authorise such a referendum is that she believes in the sovereignty of the Scottish people - that is unless she believes that the additional opinions put forward justify the Scottish people not being entrusted with such power (which would contradict her prior endorsement).

It would be interesting to hear then what Dame Baillie thinks about the fact that both Scottish Labour MPs recently voted against a bill which would have devolved the power to authorise a referendum to the Scottish parliament. Surely that was not particularly coherent with the concept of Scottish sovereignty?

It is important of course to emphasise that minority groups in the Scottish parliament are, and should always be, entitled to argue why a second referendum shouldn’t be authorised at a particular time - that is perfectly democratic. What they can’t do however, is claim that they endorse the principle of Scottish sovereignty while actively preventing the Scottish people from being sovereign. They can't have it both ways; either they believe in Scottish sovereignty... or they don't.


It was encouraging to hear Dame Baillie clearly endorse Scottish sovereignty from the outset of her answer; that is something which is both welcomed and respected. It was disappointing however to hear her use the same deflection tactics as politicians such as Jeremy Hunt & Rishi Sunak, who put forward personal opinions on whether they think that a referendum should be held, to deflect from the fact that they are actively preventing the Scottish people from democratically deciding that themselves.

Ultimately, whether or not the Scottish government should  hold a referendum shouldn’t impact an assessment whether they should be able to, because the Scottish people democratically elected that government, and it is the Scottish people, not Dame Baillie, who are supposedly sovereign.


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