The myth of Cameron's legal challenge to Salmond

Scottish Secretary Michael Moore says UK government would not challenge Salmond's referendum.

Does the Scottish government have the legal right to hold a referendum on independence? Alex Salmond and some constitutional lawyers insist it does, the UK government and some constitutional lawyers insist it does not.

The vote Salmond intends to hold in autumn 2014 would be an advisory one (the SNP concedes that it does not have the power to hold a binding referendum) designed to provide him with a clear mandate to negotiate for independence. But in his statement to the Commons yesterday, Michael Moore, the Secretary of State for Scotland, declared that even this would be legally questionable. So, assuming Salmond proceeds, would the UK government challenge him in the courts? Apparently not. Here's what Moore told Scotland Tonight yesterday evening.

Interviewer: The idea that it could be legally challenged, who's going to mount that challenge?

Michael Moore: Anybody could and I don't think that a decision of this magnitude about whether or not Scotland stays part of the most successful multi-nation state in the history of the world or goes its own separate way, I don't think that should be left ...

Interviewer: Would the UK government launch that challenge though?

Michael Moore: While there's a prospect that anybody could, it's not our intention to do that.

But as the blog Wings over Scotland asks, why would the UK government not challenge what it ostensibly believes is an illegal attempt to break up the Union? Moore's words will inevitably prompt questions about the government's true opinion of the legality of a Scottish-led referendum.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Richmond is a wake-up call for Labour's Brexit strategy

No one made Labour stand in Richmond Park. 

Oh, Labour Party. There was a way through.

No one made you stand in Richmond Park. You could have "struck a blow against the government", you could have shared the Lib Dem success. Instead, you lost both your dignity and your deposit. And to cap it all (Christian Wolmar, take a bow) you self-nominated for a Nobel Prize for Mansplaining.

It’s like the party strategist is locked in the bowels of HQ, endlessly looping in reverse Olivia Newton John’s "Making a Good Thing Better".

And no one can think that today marks the end of the party’s problems on Brexit.

But the thing is: there’s no need to Labour on. You can fix it.

Set the government some tests. Table some amendments: “The government shall negotiate having regard to…”

  • What would be good for our economy (boost investment, trade and jobs).
  • What would enhance fairness (help individuals and communities who have missed out over the last decades).
  • What would deliver sovereignty (magnify our democratic control over our destiny).
  • What would improve finances (what Brexit makes us better off, individually and collectively). 

And say that, if the government does not meet those tests, the Labour party will not support the Article 50 deal. You’ll take some pain today – but no matter, the general election is not for years. And if the tests are well crafted they will be easy to defend.

Then wait for the negotiations to conclude. If in 2019, Boris Johnson returns bearing cake for all, if the tests are achieved, Labour will, and rightly, support the government’s Brexit deal. There will be no second referendum. And MPs in Leave voting constituencies will bear no Brexit penalty at the polls.

But if he returns with thin gruel? If the economy has tanked, if inflation is rising and living standards have slumped, and the deficit has ballooned – what then? The only winners will be door manufacturers. Across the country they will be hard at work replacing those kicked down at constituency offices by voters demanding a fix. Labour will be joined in rejecting the deal from all across the floor: Labour will have shown the way.

Because the party reads the electorate today as wanting Brexit, it concludes it must deliver it. But, even for those who think a politician’s job is to channel the electorate, this thinking discloses an error in logic. The task is not to read the political dynamic of today. It is to position itself for the dynamic when it matters - at the next general election

And by setting some economic tests for a good Brexit, Labour can buy an option on that for free.

An earlier version of this argument appeared on Jolyon Maugham's blog Waiting For Tax.

Jolyon Maugham is a barrister who advised Ed Miliband on tax policy. He blogs at Waiting for Tax, and writes for the NS on tax and legal issues.