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Act of Union

Volume 460: debated on Tuesday 8 May 2007

3. What events (a) have taken place and (b) are planned in Scotland to mark the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union. (135093)

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Does he agree that there are ongoing benefits arising from the continuation of the Union between Scotland and the UK? Is it not our duty in this House and across the country to ensure that those benefits are promoted in a very positive way?

Unusually, I find myself in complete accord with the hon. Gentleman. An interesting fact worth noting is that, as the argument has been discussed north of the border in recent months, support there for separation and for ending the Union of 300 years has fallen consistently. I take great heart from the fact that the overwhelming number of voters in Scotland rejected the parties that wanted Scotland to separate from the UK. They did so for the very basic reason that, in the 21st century, the two countries are stronger together and would be weaker apart.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many people in Scotland, Wales, England and—probably—Northern Ireland believe that the best way to celebrate the Act of Union would be to abolish proportional representation elections?

I was anticipating the West Lothian question today, but not the West Bromwich question. I know that my hon. Friend and his trade union have long held trenchant views on the merits of first past the post. It is for each individual Member of the House to reach a judgment, in light of recent elections, as to where he or she stands in that particular debate.

I was just wondering whether the Secretary of State thinks that all these celebrations are going well and to plan. Does he agree that some of the debate we have had about the Union has been brutal at times, overwhelmingly unhelpful and totally negative? Does he accept that the Scottish people have made their choice and that it is now incumbent on him, his Department and every Member of the House to ensure that the positive choice that the people of Scotland made on Thursday is accepted and respected?

It is significant if the Scottish National party now accepts that the choice that the Scottish people made was overwhelmingly to reject separation, because there is nothing more negative in politics than seeking to blame Westminster or the English for Scotland’s challenges. In that sense, I sincerely hope that the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that we can all move on from a politics defined by difference; but that remains the policy of the Scottish National party—the ball is squarely in its court.

It is undeniable that over the past 300 years the Act of Union has had a positive effect not only on Scotland but on the rest of the UK. Does my right hon. Friend agree, therefore, that the First Minister of Scotland, whoever that may be, should be encouraged to make a speech on behalf of Scotland and not party, emphasising the benefits of the Act of Union?

At this particular moment I would be cautious of offering advice during the 28 days set following the election last Thursday to whoever turns out to be First Minister of Scotland. I simply say that I agree with my hon. Friend; the benefits of the Union are overwhelming and I have been encouraged by the fact that, as that argument has been engaged in Scotland in recent months, support has moved in favour of the Union and against separation. I believe that that remains the settled will of the Scottish people, as the late great John Smith once described it.

Two days after the 300th anniversary of the Act of Union two thirds of people in Scotland voted for pro-Union parties. Does the Secretary of State agree that although the SNP has won the right to try to form a Government, it certainly has not won the right to take Scotland down the road to separation?

Somewhat unusually again—I suppose this is a reflection of the new politics—I find myself in agreement with the Liberal Democrats, which is not something that every party in the House can claim today. Two thirds of Scottish voters have supported the Union and rejected separation, and for all the windy rhetoric of moral authority the fact remains that the Scottish National party secured less than a third of the votes in Scotland last Thursday. The only party with the moral authority to move a country towards independence would be a party that secured majority support and then majority support in a referendum, and I do not believe that the Scottish National party has the prospect of either.

Perhaps the Secretary of State will also agree with me that the vast majority of people who voted for the Scottish National party did so not in an attempt to break up the Union but as an expression of dissatisfaction with the Labour and Liberal Democrat-led Scottish Executive. Does he accept, too, that Labour’s clunking fist approach to promoting, or rather brow-beating, Scots into supporting the Union failed and will he encourage the Chancellor and others to support my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) in his positive promotion of the Union?

I say this with the greatest of respect: I have never regarded the views of the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), or indeed those of the hon. Gentleman, as my lodestar in terms either of defending the Union or winning popular votes in Scotland. If the hon. Gentleman has advice to offer parties in Scotland, perhaps he should write another memo to his colleagues in the Scottish Parliament.