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Scotland’s Future in the UK

Volume 501: debated on Wednesday 25 November 2009

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement on Government plans about devolution in Scotland: for a stronger Scotland in a stronger United Kingdom.

Devolution has proved itself to be the right form of governance for Scotland. Scots know that as part of the United Kingdom we have the best of both worlds. First, Scots are proud of the Scottish Parliament and the way that it allows them to find what the late Donald Dewar called “Scottish solutions to Scottish problems”. Secondly, the economic events of the past year demonstrate again the added strength of being part of the UK, the fifth largest economy in the world. While Britain brings strength to Scotland, Scotland brings breadth to Britain.

The White Paper that we are publishing today takes forward the recommendations from the final report of the Commission on Scottish Devolution; again, I would like to put on record our thanks to Sir Ken Calman and his commissioners. On 15 June this year, I welcomed the commission’s report on behalf of the Government. I pledged to take the recommendations forward, with consensus and momentum. That is why we established a cross-party steering group. I thank representatives of the Labour party, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party in the House of Commons and in the Scottish Parliament for working together on that group.

The commission concluded that devolution has been a “remarkable and substantial success”. It brings government closer to the people of Scotland and secures Scotland’s position within the United Kingdom. In order to refresh the settlement, the commission made recommendations in three distinct areas. First, it recommended that closer working was needed between the UK Parliament and the Scottish Parliament and between the UK Government and the Scottish Government. Secondly, it recommended that a new, more accountable means of financing devolved spending in Scotland was needed, to strengthen the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament. Thirdly, it recommended that while the division of responsibilities between the UK Parliament and the Scottish Parliament works well, some changes could be made in both directions to further strengthen the devolution settlement. The Government agree with the commission’s conclusions, which were based on a wealth of evidence.

I turn to the first of those recommendations. Scotland has two Parliaments—this Parliament, which remains an important symbol of the UK and continues to have vital daily relevance to Scotland, and the Scottish Parliament at Holyrood, which has firmly established itself over the past decade in Scottish hearts and minds. The commission recommended that the two Parliaments should examine how they work together in the interests of Scotland and the UK. Many of the recommendations are first a matter for you, Mr. Speaker, and for the Presiding Officer in the Scottish Parliament, and I have had the opportunity to meet you both separately.

The core of the commission’s recommendations is about funding for Scotland. Under this Government, public spending across the UK increased in real terms by 42 per cent. in the decade after 1997. The Barnett formula meant that Scotland got the same per-head increase over that period. The commission recognised the benefits of that funding mechanism and how it had given the Scottish Parliament a good start, but 10 years on, it recommended a new deal on funding, retaining the stability and fairness of the block grant while improving accountability.

Since the first day of devolution, the Scottish Government have been accountable for how they spend taxpayers’ money. Under today’s proposals, they will also be held to account for how they raise it. We will give the Scottish Parliament greater freedom, but also the responsibility, to set the level of income tax in Scotland. In future, the size of Scotland’s budget will be down to decisions made in Scotland. In addition to new tax powers, we will give the Scottish Parliament new powers and responsibilities on capital borrowing. We will also devolve stamp duty land tax, aggregates levy and landfill tax, and we will keep the commission’s recommendation about air passenger duty under review.

While we rightly celebrate today the strength that the Union of the United Kingdom provides, that unity does not mean uniformity. So in addition to a new deal on funding, we agree in principle to devolve new powers to the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament. On the power to regulate air weapons, the Government have kept controls under close scrutiny and there are encouraging signs that recent changes are having an effect. However, the Government agree in principle to devolve the regulation of air weapons to the Scottish Parliament.

We will also devolve the power to set the drink-drive limit. We believe that there are benefits to having a single drink-drive limit in place across Great Britain, but there are no overwhelming reasons why the limit should not be devolved. Additionally, the Government will ensure that Scottish Ministers have the power that they need to determine the national speed limit in Scotland, along with their existing broad powers to determine speed limits.

Elsewhere we will take the opportunity, as the commission recommended, to reserve powers to the UK Parliament where experience has shown that a common approach across Britain or the UK works better. For example, we will reserve the regulation of all health care professions to ensure a consistent regulatory regime across the country.

The full package of proposals is set out in the White Paper that we are publishing today. We will continue to take our plans forward with consensus and momentum, and we will introduce a Scotland Bill as soon as possible in the next Parliament to introduce the Calman package. We will phase in the new financial arrangements carefully, and we plan to have the changes in place during the next term of the Scottish Parliament.

Support for Scottish devolution remains strong in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK, and so does support for the Union of the United Kingdom. The plans that the Government are setting out today will create a stronger, more accountable Scottish Parliament within the framework of the United Kingdom. That strength through unity is a great asset, and today is an important step in building a stronger Scotland and a new deal for devolution. I commend this statement to the House.

I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, for the advance notice of it and for the extent to which both he and his predecessor have engaged with fellow Unionist politicians in Scotland during the Calman process. I also put on record my thanks to the commissioners for their work. The Conservatives fully supported the setting up of the commission and have played a full part in its work.

I look forward to reading the White Paper, but does the Secretary of State concede that the timing of it so near an election inevitably means that the issue will have to be revisited by the next Government? Does he acknowledge that his Government’s White Paper should not bind any incoming Conservative Government? Conservatives accept that the Scottish Parliament needs to be more financially accountable, that the devolution settlement needs to be tidied up and that Westminster and Holyrood need to start working constructively together for the good of Scotland and Britain, but we will ensure those things through our own White Paper, not this Government’s proposals launched in the dying days of this Parliament. Will the Secretary of State welcome that commitment and undertake to continue in the spirit of Calman, on the basis of consensus and momentum, regardless of who is in government, and resist the temptation to play party politics with such an important issue as Scotland’s constitution?

Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that the guiding principle in deliberations on the Calman process has been, and must continue to be, securing Scotland’s position within the United Kingdom? Is he as heartened as I am by recent polling in Scotland that demonstrates that there is very little support for separatism and an independence referendum? Does he accept Sir Kenneth Calman’s view that the establishment of better working relationships between the British Government and the Scottish Government and between the Parliaments here and at Holyrood must be in place to underpin every other recommendation in his report? Given that most of the measures to improve relationships do not require any legislation, can he tell us what he will do to re-establish the good will between Westminster and Holyrood, which appears to have ebbed away?

Whatever differences we may have with the Labour Government about how to take forward the Calman recommendations, may I invite the Secretary of State to agree with me that they are as nothing compared with the divide between us and the Scottish National party? We are Unionists; they are separatists. We are in the mainstream of the constitutional debate; they are on the extreme.

However, does the Secretary of State also agree that there are no grounds for complacency? The Calman commission contrasts markedly with the so-called “national conversation”, whose main participants appear to be insomniac cyber-nats. Is it not the case that the work of the commission, not Mr. Salmond’s publicly funded, self-indulgent chit-chat, will endure and form the basis for taking—

Order. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is in the midst of his rhetorical flow, but I appeal to him to remember that when he is referring to a right hon. Member of the House, he must do so with respect to the constituency rather than by name.

Is it not the case that the First Minister of Scotland’s publicly funded, self-indulgent chit-chat will not survive? It is the work of the commission that will endure and form the basis for taking forward the devolved settlement in Scotland for the benefit of the people of Scotland and Britain.

I agree with one of—[Interruption.] I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, for the hullabaloo and noise in the Chamber, but you will be aware that when these debates take place and Scottish MPs get together and argue so passionately on Scottish issues, it is a bit like watching a family argue.

I agree with one of the main points that the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) made, which is that the recent polling evidence is pretty clear—most Scots are fiercely patriotic and love Scotland, and like ourselves believe in Scotland and have a great sense of our history and our future, but they have dual identity and also have a belief in being part of something bigger. That unites most Scots and people across the rest of the UK. I got in trouble for saying this some time ago, but I happen to believe that the Scottish Government made quite a good start after they were elected with the energy and excitement that took them over the finishing line. However, like most people in Scotland, I am starting to believe that they are a novelty that is wearing off.

On the points that the hon. Gentleman made—[Interruption.]

Order. I recognise that the exchanges at this stage are relatively good natured, and that there are many smiles on faces and so on, but I say to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) that I think he is setting a bad example. If he were in a school class, he would be in some danger of detention. I do not want to see that.

The five SNP Members—the other one is up the road—continue to shout across the Chamber, but most people in Scotland have stopped listening to them, regardless how loud they shout. The by-election result in Glasgow showed that absolutely conclusively.

However, on the substance of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman, most Scots want to see this Parliament and the Scottish Parliament working much better together and the UK Government working much more closely with the Scottish Government. I suspect that at local level, they would like to see Members of Parliament, Members of the Scottish Parliament and local councillors, of all parties, particularly at a time of recession, working together and trying to set aside, where they can, partisan divides. That is why it is pretty disappointing that, when there is a raft of proposals about better working relationships—we are interested in taking them all forward and working through them—the Scottish Government have just flatly refused to accept two thirds of them.

That is probably because they are not really interested in embedding the working relationships between the UK and Scottish Parliaments in the medium term, because they want to rip Scotland out of the UK. As the hon. Gentleman alluded to, it is important to have a greater sense of teamwork, which we have had through this process, with Labour, Liberal Democrats, Conservatives, and business and trade union leaders, involved in the Calman process and the steering group.

Finally, much of the hon. Gentleman’s speech was—[Interruption.] Much of it was humorous rather than informative. We look forward to hearing the detail of his response to the White Paper once he has had the chance to read it in greater detail.

I, too, thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for advance sight of it prior to coming to the Chamber. I also place on record my party’s gratitude to Sir Kenneth Calman and the members of his commission for their very substantive and substantial piece of work. I should also place on record some recognition of the contribution of the Secretary of State’s predecessor, the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne), who was instrumental in introducing this process.

On the substance of the White Paper and the Secretary of State’s statement, I am completely in support of the Government’s position, which is of practical as well as constitutional significance. For those in Scotland who want a new Forth bridge, for example, and who see it as vital to Scotland’s economic future, there is now no barrier to its delivery. If the Government in Edinburgh want to delay it further, they will have to blame themselves rather than looking south of the border.

However, I must ask the Secretary of State what his White Paper really adds to the process apart from further delaying implementation when there is consensus, and giving the Conservatives an opportunity for the sort of backsliding that we have just seen. I listened to the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) speaking about producing another White Paper the other side of a general election, and I could almost hear the ghost of Sir Alec Douglas-Home speaking prior to the 1979 referendum. He promised that we would get something better from the Conservatives, but they betrayed us after the 1979 election, and they would betray us again tomorrow given half a chance which, fortunately, they are unlikely to get.

May I also remind the Secretary of State that Calman was established because we wanted to make the UK work better? In order to do that, we must now move forward with the work that Calman acknowledged needed to be done, and we must find a needs-based formula to replace the Barnett formula. When will the Secretary of State and the Government understand that serious threats to the future of the Union, which exist, can come from the south as well as the north of the border?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about the process and his gracious comments about my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne). The whole House acknowledges the phenomenal amount of energy that he put into the process. I also thank the Scottish Parliament which, of course, initiated the whole process, despite the Scottish Government not participating.

I am not going to referee the disagreement between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives. I am determined simply to try to find a common purpose, maintain consensus and drive forward with momentum.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that there is now a new capital borrowing power from the national loans fund. That has been demanded in Scotland and it is right that after the Calman commission recommended it, the Government are now committed to it.

The hon. Gentleman and the House will be interested to know that Sir Ken Calman made 63 recommendations. Twenty-one were for the Parliaments, but 42 were for Her Majesty’s Government, and we are committed to taking forward 39 of them. We have been very clear about this: it is our intention to introduce a Bill, as soon as possible in the next Parliament, to put those measures in place during the next Scottish Parliament. I think that that will be welcomed across Scotland.

Finally, on the hon. Gentleman’s point about the time scale, Sir Ken Calman himself said that

“it is…a package of 63 recommendations which hang together.”

It is our intention to deal with them as a package in a Scotland Bill early in the new Parliament.

Order. Many Members are hoping to catch my eye, and they will be aware that the debate on the Queen’s Speech will continue after the statement. I therefore ask for a single, brief question and a similar response.

Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that both the constitutional convention that established the Scottish Parliament—at least, it built the momentum for its establishment—and the Calman commission brought consensus within Scottish politics? The results of the convention and the commission are due to the dedication, commitment and hard work of the people who participated. The one constant that was absent from both processes was the Scottish National party which, when it comes to the crunch, is more interested in what is important for the SNP than in standing up for Scotland.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. The constitutional convention that brought about the Scotland Act 1998 was boycotted by the SNP, and the Calman commission, which has brought about this White Paper, has been boycotted by the SNP. As she said, the fact is that the SNP is so obsessed with breaking up Britain by ripping Scotland out of the heart of the UK that it refuses to find common cause with anyone else across the whole of Scotland. That obsession is increasingly a minority sport in Scotland.

I entirely agree with what the Secretary of State just said. I warmly welcome the Unionist consensus that has brought about this excellent report from Sir Kenneth Calman and the greater accountability that will flow from it. However, does the Secretary of State agree that there is a danger that a consensus of the left—the Labour party, the SNP and the Liberals—would be likely to bring about an increase in taxes under the plans for greater accountability, whereas what Scotland really needs for economic growth and an increase in jobs and prosperity, is a Government who, when fiscal ability allows, will cut taxes? The only Governments who ever promise to do that are Conservative Governments.

The hon. Lady is right in some respects, but she is wrong to describe the SNP as a party of the left. It is a party of all things to all people, depending on which part of Scotland it is seeking votes from. The quasi-revolutionary party seen in parts of Glasgow is different from the small-c conservatives seen in Perthshire. Nevertheless, she is right about one thing: the Scottish Parliament is currently responsible only for spending money and there is an accountability gap. We want to right that and complete Donald Dewar’s unfinished business by having a greater degree of accountability in Scotland for money that is raised in Scotland.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that devolution ought not to be about simply moving powers from one institution to another, but about empowering the people of Scotland in their local communities? We should be much bolder than we are about removing powers from this place and from the Scottish Parliament to ensure that local communities, councils and health authorities are empowered to meet the needs of the people of Scotland. Now is the time to do that, given that the wheels are now well and truly off the nationalist bandwagon.

My hon. Friend is right. We are doing what will work best for Scotland and the UK, which is why we would have powers in the House of Commons on health care professionals and we also want unified arrangements on charity law and insolvency. My hon. Friend has played a pivotal role in bringing about this process, and it is right that we should extend devolution beyond the Scottish Parliament into local communities to people and their families. That is why the future jobs fund is so important: it is about local communities, the voluntary sector and local authorities working together in a team approach to get families through this global recession.

I thank the Secretary of State for the advance copy of his statement. I note how pleased Labour and Conservative MPs have been to agree with what he has said so far.

I am pleased that there is a growing consensus that normal nations should make decisions for themselves while working closely with their neighbours and friends. The best future for Scotland is guaranteed with the full powers of independence, and the people should be able to decide that in a referendum. We should bring that referendum on.

There is cross-party consensus that we should devolve decision making on air weapons, the drink-drive limit and the speed limit. Given the agreement of the Scottish Government since June to implement these measures immediately through statutory instrument, why are they being put off by Whitehall until after the election? What explanation will the Secretary of State give to the mother, father and family of a victim who could have been saved from harm, but was not because the UK Government did not act for a year?

I am not sure that that contribution was worth waiting for. The issue of air guns, for example, will require more than a press release. It is much more difficult to write and pass a law than it is to write a flimsy, superficial press release for media consumption. We have moved considerably on air guns and the UK Government have changed their view, but making that happen will require primary legislation in the House of Commons, which is much more complicated that issuing a simple nationalist press release.

The problem for the hon. Gentleman and the SNP is that he always behaves like a nationalist and never behaves like a patriot. A nationalist puts the SNP first, but a patriot puts Scotland first. That is the difference between my party and his, and why Scotland is increasingly turning its back on the SNP.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his approach to the Calman commission. It is exactly what was envisaged by those people involved in the constitutional convention. Does he share my view that this is a coherent package of measures that includes evidence supporting the assignment to the UK Parliament of those measures that should be so assigned, and that it should be delivered as such?

My hon. Friend is right. Unlike the half dozen or fewer SNP Members, she is not interested in playing these nationalist games of pick and mix. We are doing what is right for Scotland, and strengthening it inside the UK. When Sir Ken Calman proposed changes in the reservation of powers on insolvency, charities and health care professionals, we were attracted to the idea of a UK-wide position in those areas, and we have said so in the White Paper. We were less attracted to the food labelling proposals, for good reason.

Most Scots know that they get the best of both worlds through having a Scottish Parliament and a UK Parliament. They get a strong, patriotic and important Scotland inside the fifth largest economy in the world, and they will continue to celebrate that. We are stronger together, and we would be much weaker apart, as the economic circumstances of the past year have proven conclusively.

The biggest threat to the UK does not come from Scotland, but from England. If the Secretary of State does not do something to stop Scottish MPs voting on legislation that applies only to England whereas English MPs have no decision-making influence on Scotland, or something to make the funding formula fairer to England, the threat to the UK will come from England.

Knowing the hon. Gentleman as I do, when he talked about the threat to the Union, I expected him to say that it came from the European Union. People across the UK know about our shared heritage. We share these islands and we have so much in common. We are fiercely defensive and supportive of each other. We have together achieved so much over the decades and I believe that our strongest and best days lie ahead of us. We need to ensure that the Scottish Parliament has additional powers, but I hope that his constituents will be reassured by the fact that this is not about additional money for the Scottish Government. It is about additional accountability and the holding to account by the people of Scotland of the Scottish Government not only for what they spend, but for how the money is raised. That is an important constitutional innovation.

On a practical point in connection with the drink-driving limits, is it not imperative that if a variant were introduced, both Administrations—in Edinburgh and here—should work together to prevent motorists from becoming confused?

My hon. Friend is characteristically correct. There is an attraction in having similar or the same drink-drive limits across Great Britain, but based on the evidence provided to Calman, we have decided that there is a case for devolving that power to the Scottish Parliament. It would have to think very carefully about introducing a different limit for Scotland and the possible consequences, but it will be for it to decide ultimately. We joust across party divides on such matters and the SNP may be many things, but it is not foolish. It knows that if it were to introduce a different drink-drive limit, it would have to have some degree of co-operation, education and information for drivers and police forces, especially in those areas just north and south of the border.

Despite all the noise in the Chamber, there is a cross-party consensus and even the SNP Members are behind these proposals. The Bill would get a smooth passage through this House and the other place. I cannot understand why, when the practical benefits would include the funding of the Forth crossing, we cannot just get on with it. We would be right behind the Secretary of State.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his interest in this and his commitment to the package that we unveiled today. As Sir Ken Calman has said, this is a package of 63 recommendations which hang together. We intend to take forward 39 of the 42 that apply to the Government. On the question of the Forth road bridge, there is a deal on the table. The Scottish Government have unprecedented flexibility, not matched in any other Department in Whitehall or other part of the UK Government, and £1 billion that would help to make the Forth road bridge a reality. Unfortunately, for reasons of ideology, they are turning their back on that unprecedented deal. They have the constitutional right to be wrong, but it is not too late for them to change their minds.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, for the sake of Scotland, it is a pity that the SNP did not support the Calman commission, and that we should now have an end to the constitutional wrangling when the proposals are put into effect?

My hon. Friend is on the money again when it comes to such issues. The SNP has set its nationalist face against sensible, radical reforms entrenching Scotland within the United Kingdom. She is also right that, as important as the measures that we announced today are, our biggest priority is to get Scotland through the recession and to work with people who are out of work to get them back into work as soon as possible. In publishing the White Paper, seeking a consensus and driving momentum, I want to return soon to getting Scotland back to work in this recession—because that is the public’s obsession in Scotland, even if it is not the SNP’s.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the Constitutional Affairs Committee’s report on devolution 10 years on is in line with the Calman recommendations, but warned that the stability of the Union was threatened by the fact that the governance of England had not been addressed and that it was still governed in a relatively centralised way by what is supposed to be the Government of the United Kingdom?

The right hon. Gentleman speaks with authority, through his Committee work. As he knows, of course, we have devolved powers across the United Kingdom—to Northern Ireland, London, Scotland and Wales. That has not always been to our political advantage, as Scotland—and currently London—shows, but it was the right thing to do. Our unwritten constitution has never been a precise settlement, and today is an important step towards ensuring greater accountability. When we have closed the gap in the Scottish settlement and completed Donald Dewar’s unfinished business, the Scottish Government and Parliament will have to take annual tax decisions. Instead of blaming London or Britain—bizarrely, in the light of events over the past year—people in the Scottish Parliament will have to look in the mirror when it comes to Scotland’s future and the size of its budget.

I thank my right hon. Friend, his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) and my constituent Sir Kenneth Calman for their work, and I am sure that my predecessor, Donald Dewar, would have been most pleased with what they have come up with. However, will they reconsider some of the reserved issues, such as energy, on which Scotland will miss out on billions of pounds of investment in areas such as Hunterston and Torness, where no one is allowed to build nuclear power stations because of some stupid, idiotic rule brought in by the Scottish Government?

I am happy to pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s constituent, who has done a remarkable job over the past few months, and I am honoured to pay tribute to the late Donald Dewar who did so much to bring about the institution of the Scottish Parliament. He served with enormous distinction as the first First Minister of the Scottish Parliament.

The SNP is wrong on nuclear power stations, but again—I return to this point—the constitutional arrangements enable it to be wrong. My hon. Friend’s frustration about its nuclear policy is a stronger argument for changing the Government in the Scottish Parliament than for changing the devolution settlement, and I am confident that most people in Scotland agree with that.

Recently, a Government Minister, Lord Bach, praised the Isle of Man as beneficial to the UK’s economy. The Isle of Man has about the population of Paisley, but has far more independence and autonomy. Why can Scotland not have the powers and autonomy of the Isle of Man?

I mean no disservice to the places that I am about to mention. Previously, the hon. Gentleman has taken us on a virtual tour of the world, although he did not mention the Western Isles. We have heard that Scotland would be wonderful if only it could be like Iceland, which tragically—I do not celebrate this—is in search of an economic purpose. His party has compared Scotland to Ireland, which technically is in depression—as a Murphy, I take no comfort in saying that Ireland is in real difficulties. Now the SNP is saying that it is a nationalist cause to be like the Isle of Man. No disrespect to the Isle of Man, but Scotland’s future does not lie in being like the Isle of Man. This is another example of the SNP putting its obsession before our country. Most Scots will want their country to be not like Iceland, Ireland—despite our respect—or the Isle of Man, but like Scotland: a proud, equal part of the United Kingdom, which is the most successful union of nations that this world has ever known.

Improved intergovernmental and inter-parliamentary relationships are necessary for good governance of my constituents. However, does the lack of co-operation by the SNP with the Calman commission put that in jeopardy; or does it simply place the SNP in jeopardy?

My hon. Friend is right that one of the dangers here is that the Scottish Government—[Interruption.].

I hope that I can reassure you, Madam Deputy Speaker, that hon. Members were shouting not at me—I hope—but at the five across the way.

My hon. Friend is right to say that some of the measures are jeopardised by virtue of the minority Scottish Government continuing to be dogmatic and boycotting the process. They went AWOL on the constitutional convention and were AWOL on the Calman commission and the White Paper. However, the majority view in Scotland will force them to change their mind, because the belligerent obsession with breaking Scotland out of the United Kingdom and holding the immediate referendum is supported by about one person in eight—even fewer than the SNP got in the by-election in Glasgow, North-East.

I think that there is a consensus in the House that devolution is important and good for the people of Scotland and the other regions of the United Kingdom that have it. We, in Northern Ireland, would love to have the luxury of the Scottish people of being able to elect our own Government without enforced power-sharing. However, is it not important that no action be taken to break up the unity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

I will not second-guess the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland. I have enough complications being Secretary of State for Scotland, so I will not intrude on the challenges facing, and fascination of being, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. However, the hon. Gentleman’s central point is correct: by all tests of logic and economic rationale, Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England are stronger for sticking together. Look at what has happened over the past year. We can dispute whether we got each policy right, but it is certainly the conviction of the majority of people in all parts of the United Kingdom that over the past year we, on these islands, have been better for sticking together and getting through the recession. With one exception, regardless of party politics, most of us know that we will get through the recession, partly because of the strength that the United Kingdom gives us.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the announcement of the Government’s commitment to the policy on devolution means that the next general election in Scotland will effectively be a referendum between, on the one hand, separation, isolation, job losses and misery and, on the other hand, strengthened devolution, continued shipyard orders, happiness and joy?

Believe it or not, but that is the hardest question that I have had to respond to all day. We have a big choice to make over the future constitutional arrangements in Scotland. The majority of Scots are on one side—of strengthening the Parliament—and the SNP is on the other side. It is entitled to be there, but ultimately the next election will be a two-horse race in Scotland—it is the same two-horse race in the rest of Great Britain—between the Labour and Conservative parties. Increasingly, the SNP is a sideshow in the two-horse race, and most people in Scotland know that.

I know that the Secretary of State was trying to be whimsical when he said that this was mainly a matter for robust debate among Scottish Members, but does he agree that the matter is also important to English Members? Would it not be appropriate for the Government to invest time in producing a contingency plan for independence, if only so that the Secretary of State has the opportunity to show how strongly he feels that Scottish independence would be disruptive?

It is important to maintain that careful consensus across the United Kingdom about funding and powers. I welcome the fact that the hon. Gentleman is in his place today, because I know that he takes an interest in those issues. I do not want to second-guess his constituents, but I would guess that they too have a sense that there is something special about the shared heritage of these islands and something remarkable about all that we have achieved together. Regardless of the to-ing and fro-ing over specific disagreements that we might have across party divides, being part of the United Kingdom is great for Croydon—I know that there is no attempt to remove Croydon from the United Kingdom—and great too for the four nations of the United Kingdom. However, I am happy to talk to the hon. Gentleman some more about the issue, if he thinks that would be helpful.