First published in The Times.
Does Scotland have a right to exit the United Kingdom? The founding text on the matter of secession is the American Declaration of Independence. Here it is stated “that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient Causes” and that the “Right to throw off such Government” arises as a result of “Abuses and Usurpations [and] a Design to reduce them under absolute Despotism.”
Does British rule over Scotland amount to abuses, usurpations or despotism? Not by any stretch of imagination, nor is anyone making such a claim. Scotland enjoys democratic rule on a line with the rest of the United Kingdom and also enjoys extensive devolved government. Some in Scotland may not like the British government and its policies, and may have good reasons for disliking it, but in terms of secession that amounts to no more than light and transient causes.
If we go by the principles of the American Declaration of Independence, then, Scotland does not have a unilateral right to secede from the United Kingdom.
However, there may be arguments in favour of Scottish independence. But if that were to prevail, it would have to be by agreement with the rest of the United Kingdom. That was accepted ahead of the first referendum when the right to hold the referendum was given by Parliament.
If Scottish politicians should be successful in their demand for a second referendum, the final question is who should participate in such a referendum? If there had been a unilateral right of secession, that would be the Scottish people.
But as no unilateral right exists, it cannot be up to Scotland alone. A basic democratic principle is that those who are affected by a decision have a right of say in the decision. A basic limitation of liberty is that you cannot do on your own what is to other people’s damage. If Scotland were to leave the Union, that would affect not only the Scots but also other Brits, who might well see the reduction of the Union as damaging the themselves.
If we go by basic principles of democracy and liberty, then, again in the absence of abuses and the like, no minority within a Union can claim a right on their own to change the constitution that affects everyone else. The democratic answer would be that the right to vote in such a referendum would be for not only the people of Scotland but for all the people of the United Kingdom.