Sunday, October 5, 2014

The proper capital city of a proper country

Back in June, I went to Cramond Island for the first time since I was a very young child.  While I was there, the idea popped into my head of filling a blogpost with a selection of photos I'd taken in some of Edinburgh's most startling nooks and crannies (how many cities can boast a medieval town, a Georgian town, a beach, a loch, an island, an enormous castle, a network of underground passages AND an extinct volcano?!), and then posing the question : "who in their right mind wouldn't want this unique city to reclaim its rightful place as one of Europe's capitals?" Well, Rory 'the Tory' Stewart wouldn't, apparently - he concluded his ode to Edinburgh's beautiful architecture by noting that none of what he had just said should detract from his absolute requirement that all of us see London as "the greater city and our capital".  But then Rory spends most of his time in an imaginary kingdom called Narnia...sorry, "the Middleland", so we should probably be patient with the poor chap.

In August, I briefly found myself in Bratislava, which of course is the capital city of an independent country that has almost exactly the same population as Scotland.  Although it's a decent-sized city, the historic old town has a village-like feel to it, more so even than the old town of Edinburgh.  The town square is particularly intimate, and yet dotted around it are classic trappings of a capital - specifically the embassies of France and various other countries.  I suddenly had an image of Edinburgh looking like that in the not-too-distant future.

All of this seems quite poignant in retrospect, albeit not half as poignant as it would have been if the No win had not been a narrow one that was tied to a grandiose "vow" (which, regardless of whether it is kept or broken, has the potential to maintain the momentum towards independence in the medium-term).  But I've now been to Edinburgh three times since referendum day, and as I wandered around I found myself pondering what it is that makes a "proper capital of a proper country".  It seems to me these are the main things...

1) Embassies.  Well, we can forget about that one for the time being - Edinburgh may have a decent smattering of consulates (as I know from a couple of treks to the American consulate way back in the mists of time), but those aren't in any sense a recognition of Scotland's status as a country.  They can be found in many provincial cities within larger countries, such as Birmingham.

2) The seat of parliament and government.  Edinburgh does have this, but it only partially counts, because it's a sub-national parliament and a sub-national government with limited powers.  At best, it puts Edinburgh on a par with the fifty state capitals of the US or the six state capitals of Australia.  At worst, Edinburgh is inferior to those capitals, because states within federal systems enjoy a degree of sovereignty, and are constitutionally entrenched in exactly the same way as the federal tier of government.  As things stand, the Scottish Parliament can be abolished at a whim by Westminster - although that must soon change if "the vow" is to have any meaning.  Front and central on that infamous Daily Record cover was the pledge that "the Scottish Parliament is permanent", and because no promise from Cameron, Clegg and Miliband can bind their successors, they must know perfectly well that the only way to honour their word is to pass a law stating that Westminster has permanently relinquished its right to legislate for Scotland on all policy areas that have been transferred to Holyrood.

Just over a year ago, I was on the For A' That podcast with Andrew Tickell (aka Lallands Peat Worrier), who corrected me when I cited the process leading to Australian independence as an example of how a devolved Scottish Parliament could be constitutionally entrenched.  He pointed out that, although a law has been passed stating that Westminster can no longer legislate for Australia, it's perfectly possible for Westminster to simply repeal that law.  However, I still think that's an interesting example, because of course if anyone in London did try to abolish Australian independence, the only practical effect would be to make a lot of people chortle.  That shows there's a level of constitutional entrenchment beyond which there may be a way back in theory, but not in practice.  That's what the forthcoming process must achieve for Scotland.

3) A central bank.  Edinburgh doesn't have this, but it wouldn't have done even under independence, and in any case it's becoming less obviously a trapping of statehood as time goes on.  Indeed, not even a single capital of a Eurozone country is the host of a central bank - because the European Central Bank is located in Frankfurt, not Berlin.  [UPDATE : Holebender has corrected me in the comments section below - Eurozone countries have in fact retained their individual central banks alongside the ECB.)

4) A supreme court.  This is where the current position gets more interesting.  The Court of Session in Edinburgh is the highest Scottish court in relation to civil law, and it isn't a supreme court, because its decisions can be appealed to the UK Supreme Court in London.  But the UK Supreme Court has no jurisdiction at all over criminal law in Scotland.  When the High Court of Justiciary sits as a court of appeal in Edinburgh, it is quite literally the supreme court of a country in respect of criminal law, and that country is Scotland.  I don't know enough about the legal systems of other countries to be sure whether this is a unique state of affairs for a non-independent nation or territory, but at the very least it must be extremely unusual.  It even makes Edinburgh (in a specific and limited sense) a 'superior' capital to some capitals of independent states which do not have their own supreme criminal courts - a good few Caribbean countries use either the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London, or the new multi-state Caribbean Court of Justice.

So the next time you saunter past St Giles' Cathedral and Parliament Square, remember you're in the one place that genuinely makes Edinburgh the proper capital city of a proper country.  That's something that can give us heart as we work over the coming years to put the rest of it straight.


  1. The Eurozone countries do, in fact, have individual central banks. I'm not at all clear how the relationship works between the national central banks and the European Central Bank, but the individual central banks are still extant.

  2. Ah, OK, thanks for the correction. I should have checked that - I just assumed the ECB had entirely replaced the central banks.

  3. Fundraiser target achieved James! Congrats!

  4. Well done reaching your fundraising target, James. Delighted that you'll be staying around for the foreseeable future.

  5. Congrats James! Well done everyone.

  6. Fantastic the funds have been raised. I checked last night and it was 98% and kent you'd get over the line.

    Terrific stuff and cannae wait to keep reading more here.