The Legacy of the Declaration of Arbroath - a History of People Power

If there's one thing you learn about the Declaration of Arbroath on its 700th anniversary today, it should be its contribution to developing the idea of popular sovereignty - a foundational principle of constitutions and political systems around the world, and a central pillar of today’s struggle for Scottish independence.


Subverter of His Own Rights and Ours


Although not its most famous lines, the Declaration’s most significant are arguably the following:


"But if he [King Robert] should cease from these beginnings, wishing to give us or our kingdom to the English or the king of the English, we would immediately take steps to drive him out as the enemy and the subverter of his own rights and ours, and install another King who would make good our defence."


At the time, this passage served the political purpose of emphasising that God's will was that Scotland be independent, and downplaying the idea that God’s will was that Robert be king, an argument which was unlikely to go down too well with the Papacy, who had excommunicated him not once, but thrice.


But in spite of serving a narrow political purpose at the time, the bold assertion that the Scots nobility would drive Robert out if he surrendered Scotland’s independence was a revolutionary one.


The nobles were asserting that they had the right to cast out any king that doesn't serve their interests. This exact thing had, of course, been happening since long before Scotland existed, but framing it as something they were *entitled* to do was new - and went against any notion of the divine right of kings.


This passage served very specific political purposes for its very specific circumstances, but it has very much taken on a life of its own. The Scots nobles’ words have become mythologised over time and have lain the foundations for later thought, which would develop it into the concept of popular sovereignty.


Popular Sovereignty


Popular sovereignty is the assertion that a political system derives its legitimacy from the consent (or, at least, acquiescence) of those it governs - not from god or kings or raw political power.


There's little evidence the popular sovereignty principles of the Declaration played much role in Scots public life in the centuries following it, but it certainly made its impact in the aftermath of the Scottish Reformation in 1560 - particularly in the writings of George Buchanan.


Buchanan, a Protestant scholar and tutor of James VI, developed the idea of popular sovereignty, which, in his own political context, helped to frame the Reformation and subsequent overthrow of Mary as the people withdrawing their consent from their political system and instituting a new one.


Buchanan's theories on popular sovereignty found practice in James VII’s overthrow by English lords in 1688-9, which the Scots nobility retrospectively justified in the Claim of Right by arguing that James' power derived from a kind of 'contractual' agreement with his subjects, and that by breaching the terms of that 'contract', the nobility had the right to then depose him and replace him with someone better suited to their needs and desires. This perfectly echoed the principle set out in the Declaration of Arbroath.


The Scots nobles also claimed that the contractual nature of monarchy had been a foundational principle of Scottish kingship for centuries, retrospectively turning the Declaration of Arbroath into the foundational document of the Scottish constitution.


The Declaration Today


Then, in the late 19th century, as the concept of the nation state began to evolve and countries began to carry out introspection of their constitutional origins, the British state, of which Scotland was now of course part, was beginning to settle on the idea set out by A.V. Dicey that it was founded on parliamentary sovereignty, i.e. that its legitimacy derived from the royal prerogative of the Crown as constrained by the two houses of parliament. This fitted neatly into the English constitutional tradition, but found little resonance with Scots, who understood popular sovereignty, as set out in the Declaration of Arbroath, to be the foundations of their state.


As such, in the decades that followed, numerous Scots set out to have Scotland’s distinct constitutional tradition recognised, such as Glasgow University rector John MacCormick’s various court cases on the matter.


By the late 20th century, Scottish popular sovereignty was being weaponised in the argument for a Scottish Assembly. In 1989, a group of key members of Scottish civic society active in the campaign for devolution drafted a new Claim of Right, proclaiming:


“We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs, and do hereby declare and pledge that in all our actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount.”


The Claim of Right of 1989 tied contemporaneous arguments for devolution into a broader Scottish tradition of popular sovereignty, so that when devolution was finally put on the table in 1997, it was politically imperative that the Scottish people had to be consulted on the matter, by way of referendum.


The devolution referendum of 1997 cemented the fact that referendums were to be the principal means of enacting popular sovereignty, by directly consulting the people on their preferred means of governance. It was for this reason that, when the SNP won a majority in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, there was little doubt that the question of Scottish independence had to be settled by the people through a referendum.


So today, Scotland’s system of governance is firmly rooted in the principle of popular sovereignty that numerous scholars and political actors throughout Scottish history have drawn out of the Declaration of Arbroath. Over the past 700 years, its words have brought about revolution, overthrown monarchs, and given Scotland its parliament back.


And they continue to inform our future in the independence movement. When we argue that Scotland should have the right to choose its own future and that the UK Government should not deny a s30 transfer of power, we are arguing for Scotland’s distinct constitutional tradition of popular sovereignty to be respected. With everything we do as a movement, we echo those words put on parchment seven centuries ago, and breathe into them new life and meaning.


Written by Jack Capener

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