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Act of Union

Volume 451: debated on Tuesday 7 November 2006

We have already indicated our intention to mark this important anniversary. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announcedon 15 June 2006, the Royal Mint will issue a commemorative coin. The Chancellor and I will launch the coin at a special event in January. Among other commemorative activities, I am pleased to know that plans are also being made to mount an exhibition in both the House of Lords and the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh.

The Union of England and Scotland is one of the great success stories of modern European history and it has given us three centuries of stability. The £2 coin is welcome and I am pleased that there will be an exhibition. In a recent written response, the Secretary of State alluded to the fact that other events will be held. Will he elaborate on what local authorities and other institutions might be doing?

Of course, it is up to local authorities to make judgments on such matters. We are in discussion with the Scottish Executive and I discussed the Westminster Parliament’s response with the Leader of the House only yesterday. I rarely find myself in agreement with the views expressed by Conservative Members, but the Union is Scotland’s mature choice. It has brought huge benefits not only to Scotland, but to England, so I am sure that we will both join in celebrating the success of, and future prospects for,the Union.

Would not next year’s anniversary be a wonderful opportunity to celebrate our Britishness and the shared values of democracy, equality, freedom, fairness and tolerance that bind this united country together? Given that people from all parts of the United Kingdom have worked and fought together for centuries, would not the anniversary be a great opportunity to reject once and for all divisive, anti-British and unpatriotic proposals to ban some MPs from voting in the House, which would tear up the British constitution and lead—

I think that I got my hon. Friend’s point. He speaks common sense when he recognises that a United Kingdom needs a united Parliament. Notwithstanding the sentiments expressed by some Opposition Members, now is not the time to play fast and loose with the British constitution in terms of maintaining the integrity of the House of Commons. I have some sympathy with the point made by my hon. Friend. This Sunday, I will take my place at the Cenotaph to recognise the extent to which Scottish and English soldiers, together with soldiers from right across the United Kingdom, fought together to defeat fascism and then came back home and worked together to build a national health service. Those are huge achievements from the past century of the United Kingdom and I believe that we will have equally great successes in the coming century.

There will also be representatives of some 30 independent countries at the Cenotaph on Sunday.

Amid all the street parties and mass celebrations that the Secretary of State expects for the Treaty of Union, will he ensure that there is a key role for the First Minister of Scotland, who appears to have been sidelined as a mere cipher by the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s taking charge of the campaign? Has the Secretary of State noticed that since the Chancellor of the Exchequer assumed control of the pro-Union campaign, support for Scottish independence has soared to an all-time high, while support for the Labour party has plummeted to an all-time low? Will the Secretary of State promise to keep on doing what he is doing?

Order. I remind the House that we are talking about an anniversary. Hon. Members’ contributions are rather wide of the question.

The hon. Gentleman’s talk of street parties reminds me of the image of him with the tartan army on top of a bus in Toulouse in 1998, which was the last time he claimed that Scotland was heading towards independence. The combined force of the Labour party in the Scottish Parliament and Labour at Westminster saw off that challenge. As we look ahead to the celebration of the Union, I am confident that the question that will dominate Scottish politics in the years to come will no longer be, “What is the point of Britain?”, but, “What is the point of the Scottish National party?”

I welcome the commemorative events for such a significant milestone. Does the Secretary of State agree that, given that it took almost three centuries to re-establish a Scottish Parliament, the time is ripe for mature evolution of our constitutional arrangements, but not pulling up the plant simply to see how the roots are developing? In that respect, what is his take on the suggestion that Jim Wallace floated in his Glasgow university lecture last week, reflecting on his time as Deputy First Minister in the coalition and on occasions as First Minister, that—leaving aside the argument about reform of the House of Lords—there could be an argument for the First Minister having a guaranteed place in the Lords to strengthen the links between the two Parliaments?

I am aware of that debate and of the discussions that continue in Government and across both Houses on the reform of the House of Lords. I am sure consideration will be given to that suggestion, and to others. I place on record my admiration for the work of the right hon. Gentleman, in the constitutional convention that led to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament and as we move towards the 300th anniversary of the Union, and his close interest in constitutional matters. I know not whether it is to be transmitted by digital signal or analogue signal, but I understand that there will be an influential documentary on the history of the Union with which the right hon. Gentleman may have more than a passing familiarity, owing to his authorship and editorship of the programme in due course.

Does the Secretary of State accept that my constituency shipyards have huge orders as a result of Scotland being part of the United Kingdom? Will he prevail on his colleague the Chancellor to make large numbers of the £2 coin available to me to distribute to my constituents in order to demonstrate the value of the British dividend?

I fear that I must disappoint my hon. Friend by assuring him that prudence continues to have influence in the Treasury. On the substantive point that he makes about the significance of defence contracts to Scottish employment, that was of course one of the decisive arguments in Glasgow, Govan and elsewhere back in 1998. Since then, when one sees not only the frigates that have been built at Scotstoun, but the prospect of the Royal Navy securing aircraft carriers, it would be economic madness for any party to suggest that Scotland’s interests were advanced by tearing itself out of the Union, when the manifest benefits of the Union are so clear to my hon. Friend’s constituents.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union presents an excellent opportunity to look afresh at our constitutional settlement, and that a calm, considered and well informed debate is needed to set a framework for further powers to be devolvedto Holyrood and to explore greater devolution in England?

I have already acknowledged the constructive role that the Liberal Democrats played in the constitutional convention, which made proposals that the late, great John Smith described as

“the settled will of the Scottish people”—

the determination to see devolution in the United Kingdom. Echoing the sentiments of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy), given that we are only eight years into a strong Scottish Parliament within the United Kingdom, there is a case for continuing the progress that devolution has made. It provides the perfect balance between stability through the United Kingdom and the flexibility to address the challenges we have heard about during these questions—for example, the highest ever level of employment secured in Scotland.

I welcome much of what the Secretary of State said, and what the Prime Minister said yesterday about the enormous benefits to Scotland of being in the Union—similar comments to those that the Leader of the Opposition made when he was in Glasgow recently. Will the Secretary of State make sure that the celebrations focus not just on 300 years of success together, but on the future of the Union in the 21st century, working together?

I sense that a sinner repents by endorsing devolution in the United Kingdom. I welcome at least the recognition by the Conservatives that devolution is now the settled will of the Scottish people, as well as the determination to take forward the debate about Scotland’s place within the United Kingdom. I have little doubt that, over the months to come, whether on the basis of the anniversary of the Union or of the historic choice that Scotland faces next May, there will be a continued and vital discussion about the important contribution that Scotland can make to the Union over the next 300 years.

Conservative Members are clear on our commitment to make the devolved settlement work. Does the Secretary of State agree, however, that support for the Union remains very strong in Scotland, and that the alleged rise in support for independence has nothing to do with a desire for further constitutional change but is the result of disillusionment with the Labour-Liberal Democrat Scottish Executive?

It will come as no surprise that I am not convinced by the logic of the hon. Gentleman’s argument. Polls come and go, but the truth is that at every opportunity the Scottish people have rejected the politics of grudge and grievance and of separation and have recognised that Scotland’s mature choice is to remain within the United Kingdom, which is why Scotland has sustained economic growth, high levels of employment, low interest rates and the prospect of further prosperity within the UK.