The Claim of Right

The indigenous Scottish Wildcat, outnumbered by foreign immigrant grey squirrels, said some ‘expert’

In an intellectual exercise composing detail for a Scottish Constitution (ESSAYS, published 2021) I included mention of the Claim of Right (leaving out the monarchy for a separate discussion) a document which has always seemed to me prima lex, that is, superiour to all else endorsing or augmenting Scotland’s right to continue existing as a separate nation from England, no matter what raggedy treaty exists.

If Scotland did not exist, neither would England, we would be simply be North, Middle and Southern UK with Gibraltarians enjoying a lot more sunshine thn us. England acknowledges Scotland is a separate country, going as far as to register it as such with the United Nations. Had it been otherwise, David Cameron would never have agreed to a referendum to guage the strength of views on Scotland reasserting self-determination.

As I relate in an essay on the subject, there is nothing to stop our elected leaders going straight to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth to inform her that we are withdrawing from a much abused and breached Treaty in order to restore full self-governance so that we can begin negotiating afresh with England’s elected authorities on a new Accord.

But we are saddled with a nationalist party that thinks a smile, a handshake and a pleasantly written letter will alter our oppressor’s attitude to what it sees as their colonial territory. Scots have comprehensively rejected their false ownership down the ages to modern times and today.

The activist Sara Salyrs has lectured extensively on the Claim of Right, and as expected had its worth challenged. Remember, when it comes to colonial argument, our oppressors make plain they think Scots fail even at being failures.

In the last paragraph, what Sara is saying in epitome is: if you think like a Scot, you are a Scot. Here, in an abridged form, is her reply to one interlocutor, retired lawyer, Neil King. A link to his view is appended under Notes and can be read on YoursFor Scotland website.

Arguing the Obvious

I am grateful to this author for the thoughtful, intelligent and careful argument he sets out. It is important to test any theory, political or legal, particularly when it is your own position, so I welcome the opportunity to do so.

Egregious errors

The errors in the argument – and there are serious errors – stem not from a want of knowledge or sound reasoning but from unexamined assumptions and interpretations, assumptions so generally held that they are practically received doctrine. But erroneous they are and erroneous they will remain, no matter how widely accepted. Unpicking an argument is a much more lengthy process than setting one out, so this response is inevitably both longer than I would like and limited in scope – or it would be even longer!

The standing of the Claim of Right as a constitutional document is not in doubt.That there *is* such a thing as Scottish constitutional law and that it diverges from English constitutional law is also undisputed. Whatever Lord Cooper’s opinion, (and he was what Professor Sir Neil McCormick called ‘a DaFoeist’ as opposed to a Diceyist), I draw your attention to the last three words of his famous obiter: “the principle of unlimited sovereignty of Parliament is a distinctively English principle and has no counterpart in Scottish constitutional law” (MacCormick v Lord Advocate 1953 SC 396) 

There is no constitutional law without a constitution. So where is it? And when, precisely, has the largely uncodified constitution of Scotland been interrogated in the way that the English constitution has been? Where, other than in the Claim of Right, are its terms expressly articulated? And what is the source of what McCormick called, ‘the Scottish constitutional anomaly’?

The Claim of Right – 1689

The Claim of Right Act 1689 not only asserts the existence of a fundamental constitution – upon which the rule of law stands and by which it is upheld and enforced – but some of the legal provisions it cites are distinctly Scottish. Thus it supplies in part, what a codified constitution would provide and, in part, a kind of Rosetta stone for the Scottish constitutional record. 

A constitution is, of course, similar to but not identical with the rule of law. And a statute setting out the terms of a constitution as the basis for its effect is also something more specific than a statement of the rule of law. Particularly when the parameters of the ‘rule of law’ itself are so very uncertain in the English/UK context:

“A ‘health warning’ is in order for anyone venturing into this area: a cursory glance at the index of legal periodicals revealed 16,810 citations to books and articles concerned with the rule of law, and that is certainly an underestimation… There is considerable diversity of opinion as to the meaning of the rule of law and the consequences that do and should follow from breach of the concept,” (Professor Paul Craig, House of Lords Select Committee, Constitution Sixth Report, Appendix 5).

The oft heard assertion that the Claim of Right merely upholds the rule of law, (the principle of the legal limitation of even the highest authority in the nation), is a fudge in the context of an unlimited (sovereign) parliament wherein no meaningful mechanism for the enforcement of such limitation actually exists. (As many commentators have bemoaned and as we see all too clearly today.) And the fudge is simply a means by which to iron out ‘the Scottish constitutional anomaly’ with sophistry. 

A compact with the people

The Claim of Right establishes not the rule of law, but the Scottish constitutional compact, which is to say that it neither sets out to establish, nor does it establish, the rule of law. (A very large body of statutes and provisions exists to do that.) Rather, it establishes the *relationship* between the rule of law in Scotland and the precise and enforceable limits which that relationship imposes on a government, (crown in parliament). It is unique among the constitutional statutes of the UK in explicitly and unambiguously doing so.  

It is not required to say, “And finally, if the wheels come off the foregoing arrangements, then we’ll all get together in a big meeting.” Any more than the Bill of Rights is required to say “And from now on the powers formerly vested in the monarch belong to the parliament.” Because what it explicitly does say is that, by violating the rule of law, (it also states which laws),  James VII has forfeited the throne. It imposes a specific and final penalty. 

This is something the English parliament dared not do and thus it used the less than honest device of pretending that James had abdicated. Perhaps I should add that the assertion in the English Bill of Rights that James had breached the limits of sovereignty imposed by parliament, (and, indeed, that sovereignty already resided in the parliament), would have astonished Henry VII who introduced the European doctrine of the divine right of kings, Henry VIII who ruled as an absolute monarch and Elizabeth who did much the same as well as the Stuart kings who fell head over heels for the idea on arrival in England. 

The power of the monarch

The power of the monarch did not require to be limited or altered by the Claim of Right Act, as it did in England by the Bill of Rights. Rather the Claim of Right enforced the existing limits, setting the rule of law within its Scottishconstitutional context and giving it considerably more force and meaning in terms of accountability for government abuses and violations than now exists in the UK. (It continued to do so after 1689, preventing William of Orange from limiting the power to petition over the Darien scheme in 1699.)

For proper context, we should be aware that, at times, James VII used both parliament and the Court of Session to “cass annull and dissable all the lawes”.But it was his intervention in the appointments to parliament from the burghs which was his real overreach, overruling the existing democratic process in the hope of using his own appointees to obtain parliamentary approval for his Catholic emancipation plans: 

“In addition to participating in parliaments, royal and ecclesiastical burghs sent commissioners to regular meetings of the convention of royal burghs, which decided on matters of shared economic and fiscal concern, and prepared the towns’ collective response to parliamentary proposals.” (Raffe, Alasdair, ‘James and the Royal Burghs’ Scotland in Revolution, 1685-1690 Edinburgh, 2018)

James’ attempt failed, in fact, even before 1689. But here you see a very different disposition of power from that in England. (Imagine, today, parliamentary proposals requiring a response from ‘the towns’?)

The people and the councils

The interrelationships between the people, the burgh ‘councils’, burgh convention (or assembly) and parliament and between the Convention of the Estates and these bodies enabled the interchange of draft legislation, opinion and amendment in a way that simply did not and exist in England and does not exist in the UK today. And this brings me to the central problem underpinning the argument. 

The author applies an English prism to a uniquely Scottish constitutional arrangement. This is a longstanding and almost universal error stemming from an internalised, colonising mentality and one that persists so that, where autochthonous interpretation is now extended to the constitutions of former colonies, no such courtesy is extended to Scotland. 

The Convention of the Estates was ‘parliament-lite’ because it was usually called by the king? (Usually but not always.) But why, when it was often more heavily populated than the parliament and at least as difficult to control, (as the record of the parliaments of Scotland demonstrate), did the king choose to call a Convention when he could just as easily summon a parliament? Particularly when many of the same people attended the Convention as did the parliament? 

An English prism

The fact that a ‘parliament lite’, (the only available interpretation through an English prism), cannot satisfactorily explain why and how it existed, except as a kind of vestigial organ, like an appendix, continuing after its original function is lost, ought to be a red flag. It ought at least to raise the question, “Have I applied a foreign concept to a Scottish arrangement and come up with a deeply unsatisfactory and complicated characterisation as a result? Is there an Occam’s razor explanation that is far simpler and more elegant?” 

As it happens, there *is* an Occam’s razor explanation. The Convention fulfilled a uniquely Scottish function. That function has never been examined in the light of its origins nor of the persistence into the 17th century of the influence of an indigenous legal and political tradition that had roots neither in Anglo-Norman feudalism nor Roman canon law. The ‘loan of power’ by the people to the government, monarch, monarch in parliament or chief is a widely recognised, early Scottish principle. (An early form of ‘devolution’ that was the reverse of the present, top down arrangement!) It was not a European idea imported by Bruce in 1320, though he used contemporary language to ‘update’ it, nor by Buchanan in the 1500s. And those whose power is loaned might well require some sort of insurance mechanism, in lieu of a medieval ‘Scotland Act’. 

The most immediate effect of governmental power for the ordinary person on an ordinary day is the imposition of taxes. Thus no tax could be raised without the consent of the Convention of the Estates. Enough said. Nor could gifts from the treasury be made without its consent. It was the Convention that decided and negotiated the side taken by Scotland in the civil war and the treaty with the parliamentarians. It was the Convention (then General Council) that stepped in during the minorities of four Scottish monarchs. And, of course, it was the Convention that stepped in when no legitimate parliament could be called and acted on behalf of the nation in 1689. 

The Convention of Estates

So what was the real standing of the Convention of the Estates? What real power did it have compared to that of the parliament? How was it understood? In terms of its authoritative scope, perhaps the best exponent is the jurist who detested it claims and whose writing continues to provide the underpinning theory of Westminster constitutionalism, A. V. Dicey. He complained that the powers asserted by the Claim of Right Act are:

“In effect a demand for every power belonging to the Parliament of England … far exceeding any power which (the Scottish Parliament) actually possessed and exercised before the Revolution of 1689” (Dicey, A. and Rait, R., ‘Thoughts on the Union Between England Scotland’, London: Macmillan 1920

He was right in so far as no Scottish Parliament ever claimed such powers for itself. Through the Claim of Right Act, however, and on behalf of the nation of Scotland (which is to be understood through the documents and provisions of the uncodified Scottish constitution), the Convention of the Estates does.  (It is also worth observing that, for the Imperialist jurist A. V. Dicey, one of the most obnoxious powers both claimed and exercised by the Convention of the Estates must surely have been that of declaring two rulings of the Court of Session unlawful. An interesting precedent?)

“If the wheels come off, we’ll all get together in a big meeting, which let’s at least agree now we’ll call a convention of estates”? That had *long* been understood and had been put into effect many times before the 1689 Convention of the Estates. And that is the point. What was once well understood in Scotland was and is alien to the English disposition of power. (But we shall yet beunderstood in the light of our own constitutional arrangements, development and historical record. Not those of a foreign power!)

A complex disposition

There was, in Scotland, a much more complex disposition of power than that which in England was largely defined by the conflict between the sovereignty of the parliament and the monarch. And it is the very character of that widely dispersed authority and influence, monarch, privy council, Lords of the Articles,  Parliament, Convention, Burgh Assembly burgh councils and more, which encapsulates the sovereignty of the people. The sovereignty that is claimed for the nation is claimed for *all* the people, high and low as defined in another constitutional document,  the Declaration of the Clergy of 1310, once again in the Declaration of Arbroath and then by the Claim of Right Act 1689.

Finally, I have a confession. Much as I have enjoyed writing this, because it isalways a pleasure to set the record straight and a duty to break the hold of dogma, none of this is necessary.

Whatever its status prior to the assembly at which the Claim of Right was passed, what matters is the status the Act assigns to the Convention that passed it – that of “a free and fair representative of the nation”. (The nation as defined in previous constitutional *Scottish* documents.) 

What matters is not whether the Convention had the powers it claimed, powers so profound that the claim scandalised Dicey, but that its self-proclaimed authority was upheld in 1689 when its members replaced the parliament of James VII (deposed with the crown), and in 1703 when it was enacted by that parliament:

“that it shall be high treason for any person to disown, quarrel or impugn the dignity and authority of the said parliament… “ And…..

“that it shall be high treason in any of the subjects of this kingdom to quarrel, impugn or endeavour by writing, malicious and advised speaking, or other open act or deed, to alter or innovate the Claim of Right or any article thereof.”

What matters most

What matters is that, as a constitutional document, protected in Scotland under penalty of high treason, made a condition of the Treaty and ratified with the Acts of Union as a condition of Union, recognised post Union by the parliament at Westminster, the Claim of Right confers upon the authorising body, the Convention of the Estates the status *it assigns to itself* with the force of constitutional law. Exactly as the Bill of Rights constitutes the principle ofsovereignty in the English parliament. The Claim of Right states that the Convention of the Estates is a free and fair representative of the nation, (as defined in previous constitutional *Scottish* documents) and, therefore, such is its status. The Convention, not the parliament. Not the crown in parliament. 

What *will* matter is whether the majority of Scots choose to interpret their rights and their sovereignty in the terms which I, and many others before me, have asserted and to exercise their democratic right to act accordingly. If they do, it will matter very little whether any legal opinion or court ruling says otherwise. Because ultimately, whatever existing legal interpretation might say to the contrary, history tells us that when it is not vested in the weapons of war, power is always vested in the people.


Discussion on the Claim of Right and its full documented version can be found in ESSAYS 3 – published in November this year.

Petition to the monarch is here:

The proposer of the counter-argument that the Claim of Right is out-dated is and can be found here: can the full rebuttal by Sara.


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5 Responses to The Claim of Right

  1. benmadigan says:

    One of your sub-headings was “An English prism” which I mis-read as “An English prison”.
    Here’s hoping Sarah’s key unlocks the door

  2. Grouse Beater says:

    Maybe you’re not far wrong, Ben.

  3. Gayle says:

    The biggest error is in the false belief it was a political treaty when it was only an international trade agreement coming on the back of an economic war with England and its allies.
    Likewise when opponents claim that Scotland is beholden to England, or “UK” the adopted political name of England, they fail to apply sound logic. It is always English law and English conventions they argue from not Scots law or indeed the Scots constitution. Given those trained in Scots law are not taught the Scots constitution as part of their training (which is truly mind boggling) this perhaps explains why they fail to understand or at least fail to recognise Scots authority. However if you were to replace Scotland and England with say France and Japan, what would their argument be? That Japan when entering into an international Agreement with France was subsumed into France and therefore has no right or authority to terminate the Agreement? That it was extinguished and only French law and its government can decide on the constitutional future of Japan? It is utterly ludicrous yet that is the argument from Neil King and others with regard the international Agreement between Scotland and England. The laws pertaining to treaties and the rights of sovereign states that enter them goes out the window because they don’t fit with the “Scotland is an English possession” narrative they are trying to sell. It is why other states have repeatedly said they will back Scotland the moment Scotland asserts its statehood and denounces the treaty. They recognise Scotland as the sovereign nation state that it is. Being in a treaty did not change that fact. It merely put the status from being active to dormant while willingly participating in the treaty. That status of course changed back to active the moment Scotland sought to reassert its full statehood and terminate the treaty but here the Scottish government fails to act with Scots authority.
    When an error forms the foundation of one’s arguement or opinion then it is compounded further in order to see it through to its logical end. This is what Crawford and Boyle did with their argument. They made a critical error forming the foundation of their argument and compounded it further. The same basis of the argument has been used by English establishment supporters since rather than reexamining the critical error that was made.
    In regards to the Claim of Right a similar error is made by opponents who put the agent in place of the prinicipal. Sovereignty rests with the people in Scotland who individually and collectively are the principal. It is they who determine how their sovereignty is invested and who if anyone is imbued with it. Opponents view it from the opposite direction where sovereignty rests with the agent be it parliament, monarch or a head of state and their will then imposed on the people. In Scotland, the fundamental and inalienable right of sovereignty is enshrined in its ancient laws and customs in perpetuity. It is this that the CoR recognises and upholds. As does the treaty itself. How do the people make it known that they are exercising their CoR? Christine Graham put it well when she said they need only stream out onto the streets, online and anywhere and state they no longer consent to the treaty. (Paraphrasing).

  4. Gayle says:

    Apologies if this is a repeated post. Not showing up as posted on my phone.
    Christine Graham

  5. duncanstrachan says:

    Its very good to hear that again Gayle. And to read you’re comment prior to hearing it. It brought a swell of pride, i remember when it was first said as it does today. We should all be listening to that again.

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