LAST week saw the publication of the second of the Scottish Government’s papers on Building a new Scotland, entitled “Renewing Democracy through Independence". It received a mixed reception with the usual brickbats from Unionist commentators. Whilst their criticisms are to be expected and can be safely ignored, some trenchant criticism from other sources is worthy of our respect and consideration even though we might not agree with some or even all of it.

James Mitchell is professor of public policy at the University of Edinburgh. He has written extensively on Scottish and UK politics and public policy. He is in no sense an enemy of the independence movement but more of a critical friend. He described the paper as a “rehash of nationalist arguments that attempts to equate independence with democracy".

The broad thrust of his critique was that we don’t need independence to improve democracy in Scotland, that there is much that could be done with our existing powers – particularly in areas crying out for reform such as local government. He also argues that improvements regarding democratic accountability under our existing systems are badly needed.

READ MORE: Wee Ginger Dug: Why Unionists don't want to win OR lose indyref2 Supreme Court case

The main point of the Scottish Government’s paper was to describe the democratic deficit that Scotland suffers within the Union and the threat to devolution posed by the agenda of the current Tory government. I don’t think Professor Mitchell would disagree that either of these are major problems. His point was that we should also identify and address improvements that could be made to our existing form of self-government.

I agree with him in so far as I think we should look to improve what we already have, while always acknowledging that gains under devolution are fragile and only independence can guarantee the democracy we want where decisions taken by, or on behalf of, the sovereign people of Scotland are not at the mercy of Westminster’s antiquated doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. However, I repeat that fear of Westminster rolling back our gains or reforms should not prevent us from looking at the inadequacies of our current democratic set-up. In fact, I believe it is incumbent upon us to do so, if we really believe in the sovereignty of the people as opposed to parliament, or an all-powerful executive branch – i.e. the government, as parliamentary sovereignty so often ends up meaning.

Back in 2007, when the SNP first came to power at Holyrood, the late great Alasdair Gray told us to “work as if you live in the early days of a better nation”.

In that spirit I think what we should look at is a transitional programme of democratic renewal that would start under devolution and be continued through the interim period after an independence vote and on to the birth of a new state.

Around the same time as the publication of the Scottish Government’s report, the European Union published its third annual Rule of Law Report. The report comes in the context of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which has particularly underlined the importance of upholding democratic values, human rights and the rule of law.

The report examines developments and makes recommendations in four key areas for the rule of law, including institutional issues linked to the importance of proper checks and balances on executive power, and, also, the independence of the judiciary and prosecution systems – both are subjects close to my heart as a lawyer with a particular interest in constitutional matters.

I can think of at least two significant improvements that could be made to our current system in relation to these matters.

As regards checks and balances on executive power, in the absence of a second chamber at Holyrood, the independence and power of the parliamentary standing committees could be strengthened by having the chairs elected by backbenchers as has been the practice at Westminster for the last decade.

Beyond government, the independence of our justice institutions could be improved by addressing the anomaly whereby the Lord Advocate is both government legal adviser and head of the prosecution service.

Because of the way the Scotland Act is phrased this might require a Section 30 order, but it is hard to believe one would not be forthcoming as in this respect we would be emulating the English system which, unusually, is more in tune with the requirements of the EU regarding the strengthening of the autonomy of prosecution services.

Beyond that, what about a Bill of Rights for Scotland making clear that in so far as devolved matters are concerned Scotland adheres to the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)?

The National: Deputy PM and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab has criticised the European Court of Human Rights

In this way Scotland could try to ameliorate Dominic Raab’s (above) plans to repeal the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights and to distance the UK from the ECHR and weaken access to its protections.

During the Tory leadership race Suella Braverman, the Attorney General, argued the UK should leave the ECHR altogether and Liz Truss conceded that this might have to be considered – she could be our PM by the end of the summer, so we need to be vigilant.

Finally, to give just one further example, on the vexed question of local government reform and financing we could get the promised Citizens Assembly on this up and running.

While the UK Government shows contempt for the international rules-based order, it’s the perfect opportunity for Scotland to signal how different we really are and to prepare ourselves to press our case for admission to international bodies like the EU and Council of Europe.

Yes, a renewal of Scottish democracy is needed.

While it is much easier to see this happening with independence, there are areas we could get started on now.