Michael Moore made his statement to the House of Commons today. He stated that the coalition government thinks that the holding of a consultative referendum on independence is outside the powers of the Scottish government and parliament. The UK government proposes to make it within those powers by means of an order under section 30 of the Scotland Act 1998, but on its (the coalition government's) own terms. These terms relate both to the question to be put (and it would be a single Yes or No question not encompassing "devolution max" and avoiding ambiguous wording on the Quebec model), and also timing ("sooner rather than later").
It appears that the phony war is now over, but I do not intend in this article to deal other than in passing with the wisdom or otherwise of the course the UK government has adopted. On the plus side, with radio silence from the Labour party who hold the key to all this, something is being done at last by those who don't, namely the Tories. Ed Milliband has let the country down, with an absence of any leadership, and indeed of any signs of life at all. It was disappointing also that Margaret Curran, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, used the statement in the House as an opportunity for points scoring, but that probably reflects Ed Milliband's lack of any discernible control of events. On the minus side is the extent to which this will feed those north of the border who gravitate to feelings of grievance. However, Cameron has now committed to playing out his hand for better or for worse and it may well turn out for the better. Does this mark Salmond's Stalingrad, or a bright new dawn? Voters in Scotland will in due course pronounce.
I covered the legal issue in Independence, the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government. The UK government's statement comes down to the question of whether legislation by the Scottish parliament concerning a consultative referendum can be said to "relate to reserved matters". My view is that the words "relate to" are to be looked at in terms of legal agency. Since a consultative referendum has no legal effect - it merely obtains the views of the people in Scotland - in my view it does not. The UK government's legal advisers think otherwise.
In my view the UK government's view leads to absurdities. The powers of the Scottish parliament are congruent with those of the Scottish government. Everything that a Scottish or UK government does has to be permitted by law. It so happens that a very large proportion of the things either government does is not based on statutory powers but on the powers of the Crown as a natural person or under its prerogative, which as I explained in my article are transferred to Scottish Ministers in relation to devolved matters. If we take the view that consultative referenda on independence by the Scottish government are unlawful, then so must be consultative exercises on devolution itself, which is equally a reserved matter in the sense that the Scottish parliament has no power to pass an enactment transferring new powers, as presently reserved, from the UK parliament to itself. In theory at least, using Scottish civil servants' time to respond to the proposals of the Calman Commission (rather than using the Scottish parliament's constituent parties' own resources) was also unlawful. It would, in theory at least, be improper for the Scottish parliament to debate devolution and Scotland's position within the UK at all. Legal propositions of the government's kind are best tested against the light cast by these stress cases.
It is however equally absurd for the Scottish government to claim as they do that they have a "mandate" from the electorate in Scotland which the UK government cannot oppose, unless the government of an independent Scotland intends to operate above the law (that is, in a way otherwise known as tyranny). Either the SNP believes in constitutional government or it believes in revolutionary imperatives which put it outside bourgeouis considerations such as legal process. The proper course now is for the Scottish government to explain why the UK government have got the law wrong. They could apply to court for a declaratory judgement, but it seems highly unlikely they will do so.