The Scottish Claim of Right makes clear that the people of Scotland are Sovereign, not Westminster.

However, under the rest of UK law, Westminster/Parliament is Sovereign.

Given the Supreme Court has ruled that the Scottish Parliament can't hold a referrendum on Scottish Independence without Westminster's permission, could the Scottish Government choose to overrule this (or at least attempt to) by asserting the Claim of Right?

I assume I'm misunderstanding something here, because this isn't a route I've heard anyone suggest and I don't expect something this obvious would have been missed.

So what am I missing here?

  • 2
    Wikipedia says that the 1989 Claim of Right "has never had or claimed any legal force." Although they do not give a citation, do you know of any argument to the contrary? Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 14:44
  • 1
    @NateEldredge The OP may be referring to the Claim of Right Act1689 instead
    – user35069
    Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 15:08
  • @Rick: I considered that, but the 1689 Act contains nothing like a statement that the people of Scotland are sovereign. In fact, its whole purpose was to declare that the sovereign authority over Scotland should be King William and Queen Mary of England. Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 15:14
  • 1
    I was referring to the 1989 one, I was actually unaware of the 1689 one Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 16:27

2 Answers 2


The Scottish Claim of Right makes clear that the people of Scotland are Sovereign, not Westminster.

Not so much. It establishes principles of parliamentary monarchy... (for example)

That the chargeing of the leidges with lawborrowes at the Kings instance and the imposeing of bonds without the authority of Parliament and the suspending advocats from their Imployment for not Compearing when such bonds were offered were Contrary to Law

That the putting of Garisones on privat mens houses in tyme of peace without their Consent or the authority of Parliament is Contrary to law

...while inviting William and Mary to accede to the Scottish throne:

The said Estates of the Kingdome of Scotland Doe resolve that William and Mary King and Queen of England France and Ireland Be and be Declared King and Queen of Scotland To hold the Crowne and Royall Dignity of the said Kingdome of Scotland To them the said King and Queen dureing ther lives and the longest liver of them and that the sole and full exercise of the regall power be only in and Exercised by him the said King in the names of the said King and Queen Dureing ther joynt lives And after ther decease The said Croune and Royall Dignity of the said Kingdome to be to the heirs of the body of the said Queen which failing to the Princess Ann of Denmark and the airs of her body which also failing to the aires of the Body of the said William King of England

And they do Pray the said King and Queen of England to accept the same accordingly


That for redress of all greivances and for the amending strenthneing and preserveing of the lawes Parliaments ought to be frequently called and allowed to sit and the freedom of speech and debate secured to the members

In other words, it provides that the monarchy is not absolute, and that its power is circumscribed by parliament.

One thing it certainly does not do is circumscribe the power of the Westminster parliament, which had no power in Scotland before the Acts of Union of 1707. Before then, the Westminster parliament was only the Parliament of England. The Acts of Union provided, in part,

That the United Kingdom of Great Britain be Represented by one and the same Parliament to be stiled the Parliament of Great Britain

With that act, the Parliament of Great Britain assumed the role of the Parliament of Scotland. As a consequence, the Claim of Right Act of 1689 grants power to the Westminster parliament rather than circumscribing its power. To the extent the people are sovereign, this sovereignty is vested in their representatives in Westminster.

On the other hand, if you're talking about the 1989 claim, that document

has never had or claimed any legal force.

  • 2
    I think the question clearly must be about the 1989 document. As for it not having legal force, I don't particularly doubt it, but it would be nice to have better backing for that statement than an unsourced assertion on Wikipedia. Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 16:24
  • 1
    I was referring to the 1989 claim Commented Nov 28, 2022 at 16:26
  • @NateEldredge Surely in this case it's a case of requiring backing to establish that it does have legal force. After all, the 1989 claim is not an Act of Parliament (or secondary legislation under one); therefore by definition it carries no legal force. There isn't going to be a source which definitively establishes that it has no legal force, because its lack of legal force is derived from the lack of something that gives it legal force. It's no different than me writing down "Scotland is sovereign" on a piece of paper and then questioning whether it carries legal force.
    – JBentley
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 16:42

The 1989 Claim of Right cannot be used by the Scottish Government to hold another referendum on independence for the same reasons that the Scottish Government cannot do so under the Scotland Act 1998: they (and by extension, the Scottish Parliament) lack the competence to do so.

This was decided by the UK Supreme Court in Devolution issues under the Scotland Act 1998, Reference by the Lord Advocate (Rev1) [2022] UKSC 31 where the Court held (at 77-82) that a proposed referendum on independence would concern a reserved matter: namely, the Union of Scotland and England. A reserved matter is exclusively within the competence of the United Kingdom Parliament unless it chooses to devolve or delegate some or all of the matter to one of the devolved parliaments.

In this case, Section 29 of the Scotland Act 1998 states:

(1) An Act of the Scottish Parliament is not law so far as any provision of the Act is outside the legislative competence of the Parliament.

(2) A provision is outside that competence so far as any of the following paragraphs apply—


(b) it relates to reserved matters

where a reserved matter is defined in Schedule 5, Part 1, Section 1 of the Scotland Act 1998 as including, amongst other things:

The following aspects of the constitution are reserved matters, that is—


(b) the Union of the Kingdoms of Scotland and England

In the Devolution (Rev1) case, the Supreme Court held (at 92) that the proposed independence referendum question related to a reserved matter and so was outwith the Scottish Parliament's competence.

The Supreme Court also considered the principle of self-determination as established in international law, which is relevant to the matter at the heart of the Claim of Right. Namely, that the people of Scotland are sovereign and have the right to determine their own independence and so on.

The Court held (at 88-89) that self-determination was expected to occur within the existing framework of the state, per the Supreme Court of Canada in Reference re Secession of Quebec [1998] 2 SCR 217 and UN opinion on the matter of Kosovo in Written Proceedings in relation to UN General Assembly Resolution 63/3 (A/RES/63/3) (8 October 2008).

  1. In its judgment the Supreme Court explained (at paras 136-137) that Canada was a sovereign and independent state conducting itself in compliance with the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples and thus possessed of a government representing the whole people belonging to the territory without distinction. It considered that the then current constitutional arrangements within Canada did not place Quebecers in a disadvantaged position within the scope of the international law rule. It continued:

“In summary, the international law right to self-determination only generates, at best, a right to external self-determination in situations of former colonies; where a people is oppressed, as for example under foreign military occupation; or where a definable group is denied meaningful access to government to pursue their political, economic, social and cultural development. In all three situations, the people in question are entitled to a right to external self-determination because they have been denied the ability to exert internally their right to self-determination. Such exceptional circumstances are manifestly inapplicable to Quebec under existing conditions.” (at para 138)

It went on to say that in other circumstances peoples were expected to achieve self-determination within the framework of their existing state:

“A state whose government represents the whole of the people or peoples resident within its territory, on a basis of equality and without discrimination, and respects the principles of self-determination in its internal arrangements, is entitled to maintain its territorial integrity under international law and to have that territorial integrity recognized by other states. Quebec does not meet the threshold of a colonial people or an oppressed people, nor can it be suggested that Quebecers have been denied meaningful access to government to pursue their political, economic, cultural and social development. In the circumstances, the National Assembly, the legislature or the government of Quebec do not enjoy a right at international law to effect the secession of Quebec from Canada unilaterally.” (at para 154)

  1. In our view these observations apply with equal force to the position of Scotland and the people of Scotland within the United Kingdom. ... The submission went on to state that international law does not, in general, prohibit secession; but the relevant point, in relation to the intervener’s submission based on a right of self-determination under international law, is the absence of recognition of any such right outside the contexts described by the Supreme Court of Canada, none of which applies to Scotland.

On this basis, the Claim of Right 1989 is doomed to fail because any self-determination has to operate within the existing framework of the United Kingdom's political hiercharcy and constitution, and the Supreme Court has made it clear that the Union is a reserved matter, so the United Kingdom Parliament must give explicit permission for any proposed Bill or legal mechanism that affects that.

  • Most of this answer is not really relevant, because the Scotland Act 1998 relates to reserved matters on which the Scottish Parliament cannot pass Acts of its own. That isn't applicable to the 1989 Claim to Right because it is neither a (purported) Act of the Scottish Parliament, nor did the Scotland Act 1998 even exist at the time it was written. The reason the Claim to Right isn't useful is therefore more straightforward: only Parliament had law-making powers in Scotland at that time, and the Claim wasn't an Act of Parliament.
    – JBentley
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 16:48
  • 1
    It is relevant: it explains why the Claim of Right 1989 cannot be used in the present circumstances. That is what I understood the question to be asking about.
    – Matthew
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 17:52
  • No, it doesn't. The Claim of Right 1989 would be unusable in the present circumstances regardless of whether or not the Scotland Act 1998 exists. Hence, the Act is not relevant to the determination of whether the Claim has legal force. If someone were to bring a claim to the courts today on the basis of the Claim of Right, it would not be Section 29 of the Scotland Act 1998 which would be used to defeat it, because that Section only establishes whether an Act of the Scottish Parliament is valid, and the Claim isn't purporting to be an Act of the Scottish Parliament.
    – JBentley
    Commented Dec 2, 2022 at 18:42
  • 1
    The question literally asks "could the Scottish Government choose to overrule this (or at least attempt to) by asserting the Claim of Right?" - my answer is not that the Scotland Act applies in this case, I merely outline the judicial approach used to determine the answers to such questions, including the principle of self-determination, which the recent case addresses. If you think you have a better answer, please submit it.
    – Matthew
    Commented Dec 3, 2022 at 0:08

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .