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Constitutional Status (Scotland)

Volume 534: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Angela Watkinson.)

Mr Tom Harris (Glasgow South) (Lab): Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to lead this important debate about the future of my nation. It will not have escaped your notice that the results of last May’s Scottish Parliament elections were less than satisfactory as far as my party is concerned. We now have a majority Scottish National party Government at Holyrood, a Government who are committed to ripping Scotland out of the most successful political and democratic union the world has ever seen.

Although I disagree fundamentally with the nationalists and the very notion of identity politics—my party has always believed that people are rather more important than borders—I nevertheless concede and recognise that the SNP now has a mandate to hold a referendum on whether Scotland should be a nation separate from the rest of Britain and, consequently, Europe.

I want to take the opportunity of this debate to remind the nationalists that the electorate have given them a mandate, not a blank cheque. I want to know from the Minister whether, if the SNP proves to be incapable of holding a free and fair referendum, the UK Government will have any role in ensuring that the Scottish people are properly consulted about the future of our nation. The SNP manifesto earlier this year stated:

“Independence will only happen when people in Scotland vote for it. That is why independence is your choice. We think the people of Scotland should decide our nation’s future in a democratic referendum and opinion polls suggest that most Scots agree. We will, therefore, bring forward our Referendum Bill in this next Parliament. A yes vote will mean Scotland becomes an independent nation.”

Unfortunately, since unexpectedly achieving an overall majority at Holyrood, the First Minister seems to have decided, rather counter-intuitively, that the manifesto on which he was elected matters less than it would have mattered if he had been forced to govern again as a minority. Even now, many SNP members claim that their party’s mandate is to hold the referendum towards the end of this Parliament. The manifesto says no such thing. The First Minister is entitled to hold a referendum at a time of his choosing, and it could be next year, or in 2015 if that is his preference. He obviously knows when it will be, and it beggars belief to suggest that he and his cohorts have not at least narrowed down the time to two or three possible dates. Why will they not share that information with Scotland? Are only high-ranking members of the party entitled to that information?

Whatever one’s view of independence, I am sure we can all agree that this debate will inevitably cause a degree of uncertainty in Scotland. Even if Alex Salmond today condescended to share the date of the referendum with us mere mortals, a degree of uncertainty and financial instability would ensue. The SNP could choose to minimise that, but instead chooses not to do so. More important than the effects on future investment decisions is the simple democratic right of ordinary Scots to know precisely what plans the SNP has for our nation.

Nor does the SNP manifesto feature a commitment to lowering the voting age for the referendum, yet that seems to be exactly what the SNP is planning, since it clearly believes that the chances of the people endorsing their plans for independence would be less if the existing franchise were used. The SNP will, no doubt, point to its long-standing commitment to joining Nicaragua, Cuba, and Ecuador in the group of nations where 16-year-olds vote. Polling suggests that younger people are more likely to support independence, so who can doubt that a one-off reduction in the voting age for one specific event can be anything other than the most cynical move to get the “right” result? If the SNP really cared about enfranchising younger people, why has it made no progress towards lowering the voting age for local authority elections, over which it does have legislative control?

Thirdly, the SNP seems to have a problem with the idea of the Electoral Commission having any oversight of the referendum. I suspect I know why. When the Deputy Prime Minister announced his preferred question to put before the people in the AV referendum, the Electoral Commission said no and insisted on a more objective, more easily understandable question. I think that the Deputy Prime Minister’s preferred question was “AV is great, isn’t it?” To be forced to ask the Scottish people a straightforward, understandable question is something that the SNP, bizarrely, cannot tolerate.

Then there is the biggie: so-called full fiscal autonomy. However long it will be before the referendum, it is unlikely that this option—whatever we call it, whether it is “Devo Max”, “Independent Lite” or “I Can’t Believe It’s Not Independence”—is likely to be any better defined than it is today; it will still mean whatever one wants it to mean, which undoubtedly explains why it is consistently the most popular option in the opinion polls. Not only is it ill defined, it is not even deliverable, since it would affect fundamentally the way in which the whole of the United Kingdom, not just Scotland, was governed. Scotland imposing a form of government on the rest of the UK would be no more acceptable than the other way round.

Moreover, once again, there is nothing in the SNP manifesto, nor in anyone’s manifesto, to justify the addition of a third option on the ballot paper.

I have been listening very carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. When does he think that Westminster should take over the whole referendum process? Given that he is so concerned, perplexed and exercised about the third question, what does he have to say to Lord Foulkes, Malcolm Chisholm, former First Ministers and those of his hon. Friends who believe that a third option should be put on the referendum?

When the SNP starts telling us dates, I will, in turn, give the hon. Gentleman some dates for any deadline that the UK Government might wish to impose.

Even in his typically humble and understated conference speech in Inverness on Saturday, the First Minister gave an opaque hint that “Separation Lite” might yet be included on the ballot paper, but he fell short of clarifying the issue, though his spin doctors had told the press in advance that that was exactly what he intended to do. Let us be clear that none of these things—the refusal to name a date, the lowering of the voting age, the exclusion of the Electoral Commission and the inclusion of a third, vague option—was in the SNP manifesto, and for a very good reason: fair-minded Scots would have concluded that someone, somewhere, was attempting a constitutional sleight of hand; and they would have been right. Whether or not the Scottish people wish to remain part of the UK, it is of the utmost importance that the result of any referendum cannot be second-guessed, misinterpreted, reinterpreted or undermined. It must not be ambiguous.

In 1995, the people of Quebec were asked to take part in their second referendum on independence. One might be forgiven for assuming that the question on the ballot paper was, “Do you want Quebec to become independent?” That would have been far too honest and straightforward a question. After all, the actual question was framed by nationalists. This is the question that was put to Quebec’s voters in 1995:

“Do you agree that Quebec should become sovereign, after having made a formal offer to Canada for a new economic and political partnership, within the scope of the Bill respecting the future of Quebec and of the agreement signed on 12 June 1995?”

Very straightforward, is it not? Given the high esteem in which Scottish nationalists hold the separatists of Quebec, I expect that they looked upon that wording and on the narrow margin of defeat that it suffered with envy and admiration.

It would be a great shame if the nationalists’ posturing, prevarication and cowardice on the referendum were to result in the same kind of solution to which the Canadian Parliament was forced to resort: a Clarity Act to ensure that certain basic principles of transparency and honesty were adhered to in any referendum. That is not a road that I want to go down, but it is something we may have to consider. After all, the sovereignty of the Scottish people and our right to a fair and honest say in the future of our nation trump the pomposity and pride of Scottish Government Ministers of whatever rank.

Perhaps this jiggery-pokery—I do not know whether this will be the first time that that phrase will appear in Hansard—is understandable from a nationalist perspective. After all, politics is about priorities and the SNP priority is independence, nothing else. Jobs, the economy, the health service, schools, the fight against poverty—none of those issues matter as much to the nationalists as the prospect of replacing the words “United Kingdom” with the word “Scotland” on their passports. Perhaps in their minds, the end justifies the means. In my mind, and in the minds of the great majority of Scots, it certainly does not.

It is not too late. The Scottish Government could, even now, rescue their reputation and re-establish their commitment to Scottish democracy by making it clear that the question we were promised—yes or no to independence—will be asked, with no fudging, no cheating, no rigging, and with complete transparency. The Scottish people deserve that at least.

If the SNP Government cannot rise to the challenge of delivering their own manifesto commitment, we may have to accept that the UK Government have a role to play. Alex Salmond is highly thought of in Scotland. [Interruption.] He is. He is a substantial politician and I have no doubt—I am not being sarcastic—that he loves Scotland dearly. If he is guilty occasionally of putting his party’s ambitions above those of the Scottish people, it is only because he too often conflates the two. So what would it say about Alex Salmond if the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr Cameron), the Prime Minister, turned out to be more capable than he of delivering the SNP’s key manifesto commitment?

I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Mr Harris) on securing this debate on what is an important issue, and I thank all hon. Members for their presence at it. I note the hon. Gentleman’s participation in the contest for the leadership of the Scottish Labour party. I would wish him well, but I know that that would damage his chances. There is also a contest for the deputy leadership of the Scottish Labour party. As I have already made clear, when a newspaper headline read, “Mundell Backs Davidson”, it did not refer to the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson), so that should help his chances.

The Government have been clear that they are totally opposed to the break-up of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister has committed to working constructively with the devolved Administrations on the basis of mutual respect. There are many issues on which the Government have worked successfully with the Scottish Government. However, we do not agree with the Scottish Government in their pursuit of separatism. On that issue, we will give them no succour. Whatever factors played a part in May’s election result, a rise in support for Scottish separatism was not one of them.

However, let me be clear that we are not complacent about the Scottish Government’s call for a referendum on the breaking up of the United Kingdom. We are challenging them. They must answer the substantive questions, to which the hon. Member for Glasgow South referred, about what they mean by “independence”. They have been uncharacteristically shy in setting out exactly what independence would involve and what it would cost.

After repeated questioning, the Scottish Government have now told me that the 2009 White Paper “Your Scotland, Your Voice” and the 2010 draft Referendum (Scotland) Bill hold all the answers. As hon. Members would expect, we are scrutinising those papers thoroughly. However, so far they appear simply to raise more questions than answers. We now also have another glossy SNP pamphlet entitled “Your Scotland, Your Future”, in which, as usual, dozens of promises are set out but there are no facts and no evidence.

The hon. Gentleman raised valuable points about the Scottish Government’s proposed referendum. First, the date of the referendum is crucial. Not only is the current situation unsettling, but many people’s patience is being tested by the lack of detail coming from the Scottish Government on what independence would actually mean. Business leaders are now beginning to say that they are worried about the uncertainty that that is creating about Scotland’s future, which is damaging to Scotland and to the United Kingdom. We are trying to get more detail out of the Scottish Government. At present, all that we have to go on is the vague time line of

“the second half of the parliamentary term”

and no other detail. We do not have to accept that that is satisfactory. As the hon. Gentleman said, that time scale was never a manifesto commitment. In fact, the First Minister revealed the notion only a week before the elections took place. If the case for separatism is so strong, why wait to hold the referendum?

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the referendum question. The First Minister has raised the prospect of “devolution-max”, also known as “independence-lite”, or possibly “full fiscal autonomy”, and is dangling it as a supposed third way. That is a fallacy. There is no third way. The only choice is between separatism and remaining in the United Kingdom.

We can review and update the devolution settlement, as Calman did and as the Scotland Bill is currently doing. The Calman commission, formed through cross-party consensus, recognised the strength and benefits of the economic and social union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Its recommendations are now being implemented through the Scotland Bill, which represents a radical, historic and significant change to the financing of public services in Scotland. We can allow the settlement to evolve, but selling the Scottish people the undefined SNP construct of “devo-max” is selling the Scottish public a pig in a poke. Any referendum question needs to be clear—yes or no to separatism. As the hon. Gentleman said, anything else would simply be jiggery-pokery.

Thirdly, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the franchise. The Scottish Government have indicated that 16 and 17-year-olds should be given the right to vote in any referendum. Many people are already suspicious that the SNP is trying to rig the electorate to get the result it wants. Is it appropriate to experiment with changes to the franchise on a matter of such importance as the future of Scotland?

Finally, the hon. Gentleman discussed the role of the Electoral Commission. It is an independent body, respected for ensuring transparency in polls across the United Kingdom. In their 2010 draft referendum Bill and consultation paper, the Scottish Government stated that they intended to create their own electoral commission for any referendum. Questions have to be asked about that course of action. What is wrong with the current Electoral Commission, which has delivered so much in Scotland to date? What is the motive behind the Scottish Government creating their own commission? How many extra costs would that create for the taxpayer?

The hon. Gentleman also made a valid point about the Canadian Clarity Act, and it is worthy of further consideration. Hon. Members will be aware that the Scottish Affairs Committee is holding two inquiries into questions relating to a referendum and what the break-up of the United Kingdom would mean for Scotland and the rest of the UK. I have no doubt that academics and experts called before the Committee will be keen to explore the Canadian Clarity Act and its parallels with Scotland.

The Minister correctly identifies that the Scottish Affairs Committee is looking at aspects of a separation referendum. Will he make the resources of government, particularly civil servants, available to provide information to the Committee? That would help us to clarify some of the questions that we identify in our current trawl. Those issues will require settlement before any referendum is held, so that the Scottish public can be well informed.

I can give the Committee Chairman that assurance. The Government will do everything we can to support the Committee’s work, because we believe that the people should be well informed before any referendum takes place. We sincerely hope that the Scottish Government will follow our example and be forthcoming with the same level of information, which is required not just by the Committee, but by the people of Scotland if they are to make a decision on this important matter.

The Minister does not quite understand that the days of this House determining and dictating what the Scottish do in future are over and gone, and do not matter any more. Does he foresee any situation or condition in which this Westminster Conservative Government will take over the referendum process?

If the hon. Gentleman believed a word of that diatribe, he would call the referendum now and demonstrate what the people of Scotland think.

We share so much in common across the United Kingdom and we have a successful partnership that delivers stability and prosperity for all parts of the nation. I think we will see people across Scotland coming out in favour of the most successful economic and social union ever when they eventually get the chance to vote. It is right to keep the United Kingdom together when so much unites us. The best of the UK is still to come.

Let hon. Members be in no doubt that the Government will not be neutral on the break-up of the United Kingdom. We will continue to argue for a better future for Scotland within the UK. We look forward to continuing this debate and to contributing to the Scottish Affairs Committee inquiries in due course, and to the Scottish Government’s co-operation with those two inquiries, when they can answer the questions raised in the debate. What the people of Scotland need now is not vulgar triumphalism from Mr Salmond and glossy brochures from the SNP, but facts, evidence and answers.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.