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Act of Union Celebrations

Volume 461: debated on Tuesday 12 June 2007

3. What discussions he has had with Scottish Ministers on the planned Act of Union celebrations in Scotland. (140954)

A range of activities has been planned to celebrate the Act of Union, some of which have taken place already. As you are aware, Mr. Speaker, you and the Lord Speaker earlier today opened an exhibition in the Royal Gallery in the other place displaying some of the historic documents associated with the treaty of Union. That exhibition is due to travel to the Scottish Parliament later in the year.

Does the Secretary of State share my concern that what is undermining the Act of Union celebrations is not just the SNP victory in the Scottish parliamentary elections, but the fact that there is growing resentment in England about the unfairness of the constitutional settlement since devolution? Does he agree that the only way to ensure that we can celebrate the Act of Union in the long term—and, indeed, to save the Union in the long term—is to ensure that Scottish MPs in this House do not vote on matters that apply only to England?

I am not convinced by the case that the hon. Gentleman outlines. Opportunism is vying with principle on the Conservative Benches, as the Conservatives try to frame a policy on the United Kingdom. I am somewhat more optimistic than he is about the future of the Union, given that—notwithstanding the election of the First Minister a few weeks ago—at the elections the Scottish people overwhelmingly rejected the party that sought separatism. Two out of three votes cast were clearly in favour of the Union.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Union of Scotland with other parts of the UK does far more for each and every part of the UK than narrow nationalism ever will?

I find myself in agreement with my hon. Friend, and not simply for the historic reasons relating to the strength that the Union brings to Scotland and England—the shared history, the common geography and the trading links that we have enjoyed in recent centuries. Looking to the future, the ability to balance the strength that we draw from each other with a recognition of diversity is a powerful message to send to the whole world. What a dismal message it would send to the world if, on the 300th anniversary, people were to judge that, instead of working together, we should split apart.

The Secretary of State and the Scotland Office have played an absolute blinder on this one. Look what we have secured in this anniversary year: we have a brand-new shiny £2 coin and a brand-new shiny SNP Government in Edinburgh. Will he pledge to continue to do what he has done so well and reflect the public’s enthusiasm for this celebration by continuing to do not very much at all?

What powerful eloquence from the hon. Gentleman. The fact is that Scottish people recognise that there is something useful about having a £2 coin—in clear distinction to an SNP-led Administration.

Surely the best way of celebrating this magnificent anniversary would be to reject once and for all the idea that some Members of the House should be prevented from voting on some matters before it. That is an undemocratic, anti-British proposal that would create a de facto English Parliament and lead inexorably to the break-up of Britain.

I know that my hon. Friend is tireless in his advocacy not just of his part of the west midlands, but of the case for the United Kingdom. A United Kingdom needs a united Parliament. The argument that Members on the Opposition Benches sometimes articulate—that somehow there is a great oppression of England by Scottish MPs—ignores the fact that more than 80 per cent. of the House is not composed of Scottish MPs. The House reflects the geography and the population shares of the respective nations of the United Kingdom. I am convinced that there is a strong case for having a single class of MPs who are able to legislate on the matters that come before the House. That has served us well in the past, and I believe that it will serve us well in the future.

May I associate Conservative Members with the Secretary of State’s comments about Lord Ewing?

I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that one aspect of the Act of Union to be particularly celebrated is the retention of Scotland’s distinct legal system. So like me and Jack McConnell, was he appalled by the Prime Minister’s apparent willingness to ride roughshod not just over the Scottish legal system but over the whole devolution settlement in seeking to agree a prisoner exchange deal with Libya? What hope can we have for the continuation of the Act of the Union if the First Minister and the Prime Minister do not even communicate?

I have something of an advantage over the hon. Gentleman—not only by being educated and trained in Scots law, but by having practised as a Scottish solicitor. Greater familiarity with the tenets of constitutional law, including the Scotland Act 1998, might allow him to recognise the error of his statement. The memorandum of understanding states:

“The UK Government will seek to obtain the agreement of all three jurisdictions within the United Kingdom in each case.”

That is entirely consistent with the devolution settlement.

What is not consistent with the devolution settlement is the discourtesy that was shown to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive by the Prime Minister in failing to raise this issue before he began the discussions. Does the Secretary of State agree that the best way to celebrate the Union is to demonstrate our commitment to it in all our actions? Surely that means that when a memorandum of understanding is signed between the United Kingdom Government and the devolved Administrations it should be adhered to; that when a joint ministerial committee is set up, it meets; that when Scotland elects a First Minister, the Prime Minister speaks to him; and that if the intergovernmental relations as previously envisaged are not fit for purpose, they are revised. Is it not about time that the Secretary of Scotland showed his commitment to the Union in deeds, not words?

Forgive me, but I have some difficulty taking seriously the hon. Gentleman’s assertions of his commitment to the Scottish Parliament. This is a man who was, in one of his own memorandums, somewhat scathing in his views of his colleagues in the Scottish Parliament. On the integrity of the United Kingdom constitutional settlement in light of the memorandum of understanding, there is nothing in the memorandum of understanding that is prejudicial either to the interests of the jurisdiction that rightly continues to be the province of Scots law, and indeed of the Scottish Parliament, or to the right of the UK Prime Minister to negotiate on foreign affairs on behalf of the United Kingdom.