[Relevant document: the Sixth Report of the Scottish Affairs Committee, on The Referendum on Separation for Scotland: The proposed Section 30 Order—Can a player also be the referee?, HC 863.]
I beg to move,
That the draft Scotland Act 1998 (Modification of Schedule 5) Order 2013, which was laid before this House on 22 October 2012, be approved.
I am grateful that we have longer to debate the order than would usually be the case. This reflects the interest that hon. and right hon. Members have shown in the issue and the time they have spent scrutinising it, not least in the Scottish Affairs Committee, whose report is a very important contribution to the parliamentary process.
On 15 October 2012, the Prime Minister, the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and I signed an agreement on behalf of our respective Governments that will, if the order is approved by this House and the other place, allow a legal, fair and decisive referendum to take place on Scottish independence. We will face the most important political choice that people have taken in Scotland in more than 300 years.
I applaud the hon. Gentleman’s early intervention. He will not be surprised to know that he has anticipated slightly an issue that I will turn to at reasonable length, with the House’s permission, later in my speech. Put simply, we expect the same standards to apply to the Scottish Parliament as apply here—no greater, no less.
This process began with the Scottish National party’s victory in the May 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections and its manifesto pledge to hold an independence referendum. From the very beginning, we recognised the political mandate that the SNP had secured for a referendum. However, as I set out in the House just over a year ago, the Scotland Act 1998 is very clear that the Scottish Parliament cannot legislate on matters reserved to this Parliament. That includes the constitution and, specifically, the Union of the kingdoms of Scotland and England.
That is why we published a consultation paper on 10 January 2012, which set out the different ways to deliver a legal referendum. Shortly afterwards, the Scottish Government set out their own consultation.
Our paper sought views on how to facilitate a legal, fair and decisive referendum. We set out the available legislative options and stated that our preferred option was to provide the Scottish Parliament with the legal competence to legislate itself. This received the overwhelming support of those responding to our consultation. More than 70% of respondents agreed that the Scottish Parliament should be given that power. Throughout the discussions with the Scottish Government, we stressed that there should also be a single question to deal decisively with the issue of independence. Three quarters of respondents to our consultation agreed. In our consultation paper, we set out our view that the Electoral Commission, the independent body responsible for overseeing referendums in the UK, should be responsible for this referendum. That is the same position as for any other referendum.
The UK Government’s position was supported by 86% of respondents. Indeed, that was a point that the Scottish Government accepted fairly quickly. They moved from their initial proposal to establish a separate Scottish body to oversee the poll to a position of accepting that the Electoral Commission was the right body to oversee the referendum.
We also sought views on timing and on the franchise. On timing, we sought views on when the referendum should be held. Many people supported our view that it should be held sooner rather than later. Indeed, the order before us today provides an end date for the referendum, but it does not prevent it from being held sooner. It will be for the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament to set the referendum date.
On the franchise, we asked for views on who should be entitled to vote in the referendum.
Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether there are any provisions in the Bill to take account of the views of the many Scottish people who live in other countries—especially the Scottish population in Corby, who are absolutely convinced that we are stronger and better together? Will he take account of their views?
It is important that people in all parts of the United Kingdom make it clear to all of us living in Scotland that they value the Union and the United Kingdom. I respect the fact that there is a strong and rich diaspora of Scots all over the United Kingdom and, indeed, all over the world. Having looked carefully at the options for the franchise, we took a straightforward decision—we agreed wholeheartedly with the Scottish Government’s view on this—that the same franchise should apply to the referendum as applied to the Scottish Parliament elections that gave the Scottish National party its mandate in that Parliament. That keeps it simple, straightforward and fair, and that is the basis on which we will proceed.
I think that that is a reasonably easily understood anomaly. The French person, the EU national, who has made a commitment to living in Scotland is entitled to vote in a referendum there, just as they would be in the Scottish parliamentary elections. It is important that we show consistency on that front. I accept, however, that there is a range of opinion on this matter, and my hon. Friend has made his own point clearly.
On the issue of 16 and 17-year-olds participating in the referendum, respondents to our consultation were divided. I will return to that issue later.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that, if this order goes to the Scottish Parliament and if that Parliament agrees to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote in the referendum, the matter will no longer need to come back to this House or to the other place?
The hon. Gentleman highlights an important point. He is right to suggest that, if this House and the other place agree this order and it is passed, that will transfer responsibility for the referendum totally to the Scottish Parliament.
Following the respective consultations, a period of discussions between Scotland’s two Governments led to the signing of the Edinburgh agreement on 15 October. I will return to the other important elements of that agreement shortly, but first I want to deal with the order itself.
The order is made under section 30(2) and (4) of the Scotland Act 1998. It inserts a new paragraph 5A into part 1 of schedule 5 to the Act. Part 1 provides, among other things, that the Union of the kingdoms of Scotland and England is reserved to the UK Parliament. New paragraph 5A will ensure that the reservation does not apply to a referendum on independence, provided that the referendum meets the requirements set out. Those requirements are for a single-question referendum, on the subject of independence, to be held before the end of 2014, and without any other referendum provided for by an Act of the Scottish Parliament being held on the same day.
The order also makes provision in respect of public referendum broadcasts and free mailshots, which would otherwise be outside the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. Under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—PPERA, as we know it —referendum campaign broadcasts can be made only by or on behalf of a designated campaign organisation. The order applies that provision of PPERA to an independence referendum. That means that the restriction in PPERA on who can make referendum campaign broadcasts can apply to the independence referendum.
The agreement in 2006 between the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and the BBC requires the BBC to broadcast referendum campaign broadcasts, as defined by PPERA. The provisions of the order mean that the BBC will have the same obligations and responsibilities in respect of independence referendum campaign broadcasts as it would have in respect of any PPERA referendum broadcasts. Under PPERA, each designated campaign organisation can send a mailshot to every elector or household without being required to pay the postage costs. That service is provided by Royal Mail and the costs are recovered from the Consolidated Fund. The order applies those provisions in PPERA to an independence referendum. It specifically provides that the cost to the Royal Mail of providing the service will be recovered from Scottish Ministers.
The section 30 order that we are debating today will enable the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a legal referendum. The Scottish Parliament has already considered the order and approved it unanimously. If the order is approved by both Houses of this Parliament, it will enable the Scottish Government to introduce a referendum Bill setting out the wording of the question, the date of the referendum and the rules of the campaign for the Scottish Parliament to consider. This devolution of power will ensure that the details of the referendum process itself are made in Scotland, in the Scottish Parliament. That is a principle of great importance to the devolution settlement. Furthermore, the approach here respects another key feature of devolution—namely, that once a matter is passed to the Scottish Parliament, it is for that Parliament to determine the details of the legislation that follows.
However, our agreement does not just make the referendum legal and respect the devolution settlement. It also sets out the conditions that are necessary and that have been agreed between the UK and Scottish Governments for the referendum to be fair and decisive. In this context, it is important to consider the memorandum of agreement alongside the order. The agreement is a statement of political intent by Scotland’s two Governments. It commits us jointly to an approach to, and the delivery of, the independence referendum which will ensure that the proceedings are fair and that the outcome is decisive. With permission, Mr Speaker, I will therefore briefly describe that broader agreement.
At the heart of any fair referendum must lie a set of rules and processes that have the support of both sets of protagonists. For the outcome to be legitimate, both sides of the argument must have faith in all aspects of the referendum. That is particularly true when we are considering the future of our nation. The agreement therefore sets out the commitment of both Governments to the normal rules and procedures that govern referendums in the UK, as contained in PPERA. A core part of the PPERA process is the central role of the Electoral Commission. The two Governments have agreed that the Electoral Commission must review the proposed referendum question, and that its report will be laid before the Scottish Parliament. That process is under way. Since PPERA came into force, there have been three referendums held under that legislation.
I think that there would be a price to pay for that. If the hon. Gentleman will be patient, I shall return to that issue shortly.
The three referendums held under the auspices of the Electoral Commission have been: the north-east regional assembly referendum in 2004; the referendum in Wales in 2011 on further devolution; and the referendum on the voting system for the UK Parliament, also held in 2011. In all three cases, the Electoral Commission reviewed the Government’s proposed question and provided its advice. The Government responded by revising the questions in line with that advice. Of course, in the past, some Members on the SNP Benches have referred to the wording of the proposed question for referendums on local council tax.
The Government made it clear when they brought forward the regulations to provide for those referendums that discussions were ongoing with the Electoral Commission on the wording of the question. Revised regulations were tabled on 8 January and the Electoral Commission has confirmed that it is content with the revised wording.
Under the terms of the Edinburgh agreement, it will be for the Scottish Government to respond to the advice of the Electoral Commission. The Scottish Government have committed to putting before the Scottish Parliament their response to the Electoral Commission’s recommendations. That means that the Scottish Government will be held to account by the public and Parliament alike for how they respond to that advice. All Opposition leaders in the Scottish Parliament have stated their intention to abide by the Electoral Commission’s judgment in this case. To do otherwise would be a significant step, for which there would be a political price.
As I have set out, both Governments recognise that the referendum process must be seen to be fair by both sides of the campaign. That applies across the process, but particularly to the financing of the campaign. As part of the Edinburgh agreement, the Scottish Government committed to consulting the two campaign organisations for their views before proposing spending limits for the referendum campaign to the Scottish Parliament.
The agreement ensures that the independent Electoral Commission will provide the Scottish Government with advice on the appropriate spending limits for the two campaigns and the parties. That is what has happened in previous referendums, such as the 2011 referendum in Wales on further powers for the Welsh Assembly. In that referendum, the Electoral Commission recommended that the spending limit for designated campaign organisations should be set by reference to the expenditure limits that apply to elections to the relevant legislature. In its response to both Governments’ consultation documents, the Electoral Commission provided its view that the model remains appropriate for the Scottish independence referendum. The Electoral Commission has met the parties represented in the Scottish Parliament to seek their views on the finance arrangements.
When the Scottish Government set out their final proposals for financing the referendum campaign in the referendum Bill, they must set themselves aside from their own campaigning interests and recognise that their approach is being watched by all of Scotland, and indeed by the international community. That is a point that the Deputy First Minister recognised when she rightly said that the poll must satisfy the highest international standards. All people must believe that there is a fair process and, therefore, a fair result.
Both Governments agree that the basis for the franchise will be that for the Scottish Parliament elections—that is, those UK or EU citizens who are resident in Scotland. That is set out in the Edinburgh agreement. In addition, the Scottish Government propose to give 16 and 17-year-olds the right to vote. I recognise and respect that there are differing views on that issue in the House. My party, the Liberal Democrat party, supports the principle of 16 and 17-year-olds participating in all elections. Our coalition partners do not, however. Views on both sides of the argument can be found on both sides of the Chamber.
In devolving the power to hold the referendum, however, we respect that this is a matter that should be debated and determined by the Scottish Parliament. Indeed, where the Scottish Government and Parliament have the power to hold referendums and elections already, they have chosen to allow some 16 and 17-year-olds to vote. However, the Scottish Parliament’s decision with respect to health board and crofting commission elections in Scotland has set no precedent for any elections for which the UK Government are responsible. I fully expect that the Scottish Government’s proposals will be debated robustly in the Scottish Parliament. However, let me be clear that it will be for the Scottish Government to make the case for this proposal in the Scottish Parliament and to deal with the issues that arise. Let me be equally clear that any decision taken by the Scottish Parliament for the referendum will not affect the voting age for parliamentary and local government elections in the United Kingdom. That remains the responsibility of this Parliament alone to determine.
Have there been any practical discussions between the UK Government and the Scottish Government about the ability to implement this measure ahead of the referendum, given that there has been much talk of the inability to do so because of the state of the electoral register?
That issue was discussed during the negotiations leading up to the Edinburgh agreement. However, as we made plain in the agreement and as I have repeated this afternoon, as we are devolving that power, it is for the Scottish Government to bring forward their proposals. That will require legislation and that legislation will be properly scrutinised by all of us and, in particular, by MSPs. That process is yet to get under way.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way; he is being very generous. We, as campaigners, will be contacting minors to seek their views and discuss the issues. Has he had any discussions with the Scottish Government about the rules and regulations that will apply to parties engaging with people who are not yet adults?
The hon. Lady hits on an important, sensitive and practical point that must be considered carefully in any legislation on this issue that is introduced in the Scottish Parliament. Until the legislation is published and people can consider its detail, her point cannot be properly examined. I am confident that the Scottish Government are alert to that issue and it is incumbent on them to bring forward appropriate proposals with the necessary safeguards.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that although the whole House agrees that the Scottish Parliament should make the decisions about the conduct of the referendum, matters such as the franchise ought also to be discussed fully in this House, as we are doing now and will do for some considerable time today, because the outcome of the referendum affects not only Scotland, but the whole United Kingdom?
My hon. Friend has made two important and linked points. On the first issue, nobody is suggesting for a minute that people in this House cannot offer an opinion about whether it is right or wrong for 16 and 17-year-olds to vote. She is right that this afternoon is a good opportunity for people to make the case one way or the other. On the second point, she is also right that what happens in Scotland affects the whole United Kingdom. A huge amount is at stake in this big debate. Although people south of the border will not vote in the referendum, it is important that their views are included in the public debate. I am sure that they will be.
Before I took the interventions, I made the point that when 16 and 17-year-olds have been allowed to vote in admittedly smaller elections in Scotland, it has had no ramifications for the decisions that are made in this place, and neither will this decision. However, the debate on the rights and wrongs of 16 and 17-year-olds voting will remain live in politics and I see no worry about that.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving way yet again. Before we move on from the franchise, will he advise the House whether there has been any progress in the talks on allowing members of the Scottish armed forces who are, through no fault of their own, serving elsewhere in the UK or around the world to vote in the referendum?
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady, who has made that point strongly not only on the Scottish Affairs Committee, but in other debates. I recognise that it is a sensitive issue. We must ensure that, as would be the case in any other referendum or election, those in the armed forces who have a connection to Scotland are aware of what it will take for them to vote in the referendum. There is a range of complexities in that, but the Scottish Government are aware of the issue and understand it. When they publish the legislation, there will be plenty of time for people in the Scottish Parliament, and those of us here who take an interest in the matter, to offer their views on the details.
The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point that reinforces the views of his colleagues, and I recognise that this matter is important to Members on all sides of the House. It will now be an issue for the Scottish Parliament to consider, and I am confident that in the political debate across Scotland the role of the armed forces and voting will be properly considered.
The exchanges of the last moment or two have raised a broader question. Once responsibilities are handed to the Scottish Parliament, what will be the role of this place in monitoring the issue and ensuring—so far as we can—that the objectives of fairness and decisiveness are properly maintained?
My right hon. and learned Friend highlights an important issue and principle. In the order and the political agreement that sits alongside it, we set out what we believe should happen when the referendum process is resolved in the Scottish Parliament. As I said earlier, we are observing and honouring the principles of devolution so that when a matter is devolved from this place to the Scottish Parliament, it becomes that Parliament’s responsibility, including all the details and everything that goes with it. We are not, however, disfranchised from the political debate. Plenty of MSPs offered views on this process long before it went anywhere near the Scottish Parliament, and I am confident that lots of MPs will contribute to the debate long after it has left this place, and, if it is passed, the other place as well.
Will the Secretary of State confirm whether, as well as actively encouraging members of the armed forces from Scotland to register to vote, people will be encouraged to register their sons and daughters who are 16 and 17 years old? This issue will affect their lives as well.
The hon. Lady adds to the points made by her hon. Friends. I am confident that all these issues will be debated in the Scottish Parliament, and I encourage her, and others, to make such representations directly. We are not stymied in this debate simply because we have passed the legal process—assuming that we do; I do not wish to take the House for granted in that respect.
May I probe the Secretary of State on the timing of the referendum? He may recall the separatist slogan, “Scotland free by 2003”, yet when it gets the chance in 2012, the SNP says that it is not ready until 2014. Has he picked up any rationale for why that is the case, or is it just the general public view that they are just big fearties?
I am sure we can offer Hansard the appropriate assistance should it be sought. This is a point on which I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is slightly curious that after 80 years of existence—give or take—the Scottish National party is not rushing to get this over and done with straightaway. One would have thought it would want to do it as quickly as possible, and it would certainly be in Scotland’s best interest to resolve the issue as quickly as possible. However, it will be a matter for the Scottish Government and then the Scottish Parliament to consider.
I understand there is some suggestion that the Committees in the Scottish Parliament that will deal with the Bills on both the franchise and the referendum will be subject to a truncated timetable programme. Has the Secretary of State had any discussions with the Scottish Government about that? Given the importance of the referendum for our whole country, does he agree it is important that the Scottish Parliament’s Committees have appropriate time to consider the issues in great detail and ensure they are satisfactorily answered?
The hon. Lady makes an important point. I do not believe it is appropriate for us to discuss that directly with the Scottish Government; it is for the Scottish Parliament to decide how it determines its own business. Former Members of that Parliament who are in this House today may wish to pick up on the hon. Lady’s point. I absolutely agree, however, with her central point that we should consider the issue properly and seriously. Symbolically, we are taking longer than we would normally to consider a statutory instrument because of the significance of the order. People would look askance if parliamentary processes elsewhere were cut short in the course of the debate, but the issue is for the Scottish Parliament to determine. We all have colleagues in that Parliament who, I am sure, will make the hon. Lady’s point very vigorously.
Let me turn to one issue that has attracted some comment, particularly from the Scottish Government. The concluding paragraph of the Edinburgh agreement contains a commitment by both Governments to hold a referendum that is legal, fair and decisive. There have been some creative interpretations of this paragraph in recent times, and I want to take the opportunity to restate its clear and obvious meaning.
Paragraph 30 reads:
“The United Kingdom and Scottish Governments are committed, through the Memorandum of Understanding between them and others, to working together on matters of mutual interest and to the principles of good communication and mutual respect. The two Governments have reached this agreement in that spirit. They look forward to a referendum that is legal and fair producing a decisive and respected outcome. The two Governments are committed to continue to work together constructively in the light of the outcome, whatever it is, in the best interests of the people of Scotland and of the rest of the United Kingdom.”
That means that the two Governments will conduct the referendum on the same constructive terms as they work today, and that if the referendum follows the path set out in the order and agreement, its outcome will be decisive. Regardless of the result, that constructive relationship should continue as we move forward. That is good practice and common sense. It does not mean, however, that in the event of a yes vote, the remaining UK would facilitate Scotland’s every wish—no more than an independent Scotland would unquestioningly facilitate the wishes of the remaining UK. Inevitably, when there are two separate countries, there are two sets of interests—sometimes mutual, sometimes at odds. That is the case in the UK’s relationships with its closest allies today, and we honour that principle, and so it always will be between separate, sovereign states.
The Edinburgh agreement, particularly paragraph 30, is a statement of our determination to hold a referendum that is legal, fair and decisive. It does not—and cannot—pre-empt the implications of that vote, and it is important that everyone is clear about that.
The Secretary of State talks about what might happen if the result of the referendum is yes. Whose interests will he be representing post the yes vote?
I am absolutely confident that Scotland will vote to stay in the United Kingdom. I am committed to doing what is in the best interests of Scotland, regardless of the outcome, as I said on the radio yesterday morning.
Scotland’s future within the UK will be the most important decision that we as Scots take in our lifetime. Facilitating a legal, fair and decisive referendum is critical. That is why we consulted on this issue, why both Governments have spent many hours discussing and negotiating the process, and why we seek the support of the House today to approve this order.
Debating this order in the House today marks an important step as we move from discussions on process to the substance of the great debate. It is now essential that the referendum decision is focused on determining whether Scotland chooses to remain an integral part of the most successful partnership of nations the world has ever seen; to remain part of a family of nations that works in the interests of all; or whether it wishes to leave and go it alone. That decision should not be taken lightly; it should be taken after examining all the facts.
The hon. Gentleman and his fellow Committee members have written important reports on this subject and highlighted the dangers in the process. As I made clear in my earlier remarks—and this, I think, is the tenor of the contributions we may anticipate this afternoon—the Scottish Government will act in setting the rules and pushing them through Parliament on behalf of all Scots and both sides of the argument. It is important that they do so in a way that is not fair to one side and unfair to the other.
I strongly believe that, with the support of colleagues across the House, across Scotland and across the whole of the United Kingdom, fellow Scots will join me in the autumn of 2014 in choosing to remain part of the United Kingdom. We are indeed better together. In the meantime, I commend the order to the House.
This is indeed an important day in the life of our nation and this Parliament. Rarely do we have an opportunity to debate an issue as fundamental as the future of our country.
Let me be clear at the outset that we welcome the order that is before the House today. This House has witnessed significant discussions on the future of nations, most recently the future of Scotland and Wales in the Union and the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Today’s discussion is no less significant, for two reasons. First, it contemplates the possibility of an end to the 300-year-old Union with Scotland. That is important to emphasise, not just for those of us in the Chamber who are from Scotland, but for people who live in the rest of the United Kingdom but believe in a United Kingdom with Scotland as a crucial part of it—I give due recognition to the good people of Corby for their enthusiasm for that commitment. Secondly, today’s discussion is significant because it is a novel way of settling the issue. Parliament is being invited not to legislate or to make a decision, but to delegate the power, under certain strict conditions, to the Scottish Parliament, ultimately—we should never forget this—to allow the Scottish people to make that decision.
The agreement puts it beyond doubt that, in the words of the First Minister and the Secretary of State, the referendum will be “made in Scotland”. It can be argued that this is not just an example of the success of the United Kingdom’s democracy, but evidence of the strength of the Scottish Parliament—a devolved institution argued for and established by, of course, a Labour Government. The principle that the referendum should be controlled by the Scottish Parliament is important in commanding respect from all sides. However, it is particularly significant in ensuring that after the referendum the Scottish Government cannot suggest that there is any ambiguity about the process or the result. The choice before the people of Scotland is straightforward: whether to leave the United Kingdom or to continue in a partnership of equals in a Union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
As I said at the outset, Labour Members support the order. We support it because, if followed, the principles contained in it, as well as in the memorandum of agreement, would provide for a referendum that met the test that we set at the start—namely that, as the Secretary of State said, it should be fair, legal and decisive. Together, the agreement and the order provide that all three conditions can be met if all parties in the referendum hold to their spirit and their letter. It is clear that we now have the opportunity to put before the people of Scotland the question of separation, and that decision will bind us all. As the agreement says, the referendum will deliver a decisive expression of the views of the people of Scotland, along with a result that everyone will respect and must respect.
This debate is important, because endless constitutional uncertainty is bad for all interests in Scotland, not least those of us who would rather spend our time, energy and efforts dealing with the reality of life for hundreds of thousands of Scots, if not millions, who need us to focus on defending and pursuing their interests. Labour spent a generation arguing for devolution, against the protests of the parties opposite—or one of them, I should say; I am in a generous mood towards the Secretary of State today.
Indeed. Other parties opposed devolution, as my right hon. Friend points out. We argued for devolution because it was the best way to deliver social justice and economic progress and because it commanded the support of the vast majority of the Scottish people.
I wonder if the hon. Lady can tell us whether the ends of social justice were advanced last week in the Commons when the majority of Scottish MPs voted against welfare reforms that are being foisted on Scotland by MPs from the rest of the UK. How does that further the ends of social justice and why does she support the right of a Tory Government to govern Scotland and do exactly that? Why is she not an independence supporter?
For many years I have argued with the SNP, which wants to say that the problem facing Scotland is the English. I say that the problem facing Scotland at the moment is the Tories and the SNP. The SNP is imposing college cuts, and making Scotland one of the nations of the United Kingdom with the highest increases in unemployment. The hon. Gentleman would be well fit to look to his own party to see the damage it is inflicting in Scotland, instead of always trying to hide behind the blanket of independence—[Interruption]—although I thank him for that encouragement to energise this debate.
The order we are debating today demonstrates that devolution has been a success. It has empowered Scots and given our nation a new sense of confidence. With it, we have modernised and changed Britain and the way we govern ourselves. Labour Members will take the opportunity that the referendum presents us with to make the argument for a prosperous Scotland within a United Kingdom, backed up by a strong devolution settlement. We will be arguing against the nationalists, who would stop devolution in its tracks just 15 years after we set out on this journey and after it has been so successful. At the end of this process, that means that perhaps we can finally heed the advice of Scotland’s first First Minister.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention, which affords me the opportunity to draw attention to the fact that those who opposed devolution—perhaps most strongly at some points—were those in the Scottish National party, which never participated on any multi-party basis to give Scotland the constitutional agreement that we now have. In fact, many of us who were prepared to work with others—and who demonstrated that we could do so—did, in fact, work in the best interests of Scotland.
The right hon. Gentleman also allows me to make the point—which I was just about to make—that we should heed the advice of Scotland’s first First Minister, Donald Dewar, who said in 1998:
“The…decade must not be one long embittering fight over further constitutional change. For me, the question now is what we do with our Parliament, not what we do to it.”
In these challenging economic times, perhaps we should focus our minds on the powers of the Scottish Parliament and question how they are being exercised at the moment. That, too, should occupy our energies.
My hon. Friend has just mentioned the late, great Donald Dewar, who said that the decade from 1998 should not be a decade of stifling the Scottish Parliament, but since the SNP got a majority in that Parliament, has not its whole ethos indeed been stifled?
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. As a number of hon. Members present know, I served in the Scottish Parliament for 12 years. I was part of many of the exciting developments and changes it inaugurated, but it is with deep disappointment that I now see a Parliament that does not seem to have the proper opportunity to scrutinise the Executive who are part of that arrangement and who also seem to be significantly failing the Scottish people. Although I see constitutional change as a means to an end, I have never seen it as an end in itself. It would serve the Scottish people well if the Scottish Government focused on the work of serving the Scottish people and their interests, rather than just for ever furthering the goal of constitutional change.
This is something I raised in a previous speech on Scotland, but today we have once again heard the chuntering from the SNP, whose Members are sat on the Benches beside me—the bullying tactics that have been used in the Scottish Parliament to stop proper legislation going through. Can we trust these people?
I thank my hon. Friend for that contribution. It encourages me to look forward to the substance of the debate on the referendum, when the Scottish people will give not only their verdict on whether they think their interests lie best in the United Kingdom, but ultimately their view of the SNP Government, who, rather than addressing their interests, are for ever saying that everything can be solved through the prism of independence, without ever presenting a substantial argument for why that would be the case.
The hon. Lady touches on an important point about the Scottish Parliament legislating in the interests of Scotland. Does she agree that the Scotland Act 2012 will devolve considerable additional powers over many fiscal matters to the Scottish Parliament, and that it is surely better to concentrate on using those powers rather than constantly trying to change the goal posts constitutionally?
The hon. Gentleman makes a significant point. I have always believed in a strong Scotland within the United Kingdom, and I have for many years believed that devolution was significant in helping to govern Scotland effectively. The passing of the 2012 Act was another stage in that process, which offers the Scottish people the opportunity to effectively govern themselves, but still have the advantage of the partnership that is the United Kingdom. I firmly believe that the prospects for separation offered by the Scottish National party do not work in the best interests of the Scottish people, and in fact signify that the SNP has failed to listen to them. Since its inception, they have believed that the Union damages Scotland. Its view has never changed and never evolved. We are all calling for a positive debate, and it is disappointing to see so little of that coming from those Benches this afternoon.
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; she is being very generous. Her felicitous reference to Donald Dewar, a friend and colleague of several of us still in the House today, has struck a chord certainly with me and I am sure with others. Arising from what she has just said, and referring back to something she said earlier, what does she make of the suggestion that were the question to be answered in the negative, that would not be the end of the matter so far as the Scottish National party was concerned, and that if it had the opportunity it might seek, as early as was convenient, to institute yet another referendum, thereby raising the possibility of what I think in Quebec is called the “neverendum”, of which the issue is the only one which dominates political discourse in Scotland?
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman—I am so pleased to have got parliamentary protocol right for once. This is one of the most disappointing elements of the debate so far. We have gone to great lengths to create a process that will allow for a fair and established result that should be observed by all participating parties. We have all said that we will respect the decision of the Scottish people, wherever we stand in this debate, and it is incumbent on the SNP to participate in that and to not always say, irrespective of the result, that it will just come back again and again with a “neverendum”, allegedly. Perhaps in today’s debate the SNP will put on record that they will absolutely respect the result of the referendum, now that we are past the starting blocks, and absolutely guarantee that they will respect the wishes of the Scottish people and not for ever seek to usurp that decision, as certain comments have seemed to imply.
Based on what the hon. Lady has just said, if there is a no vote and Labour form the Government down here in 2016 after the general election, is she saying that there will not be any further constitutional change and a further Scotland Act, and that anyone who wants to see progress on greater powers for Scotland will have to vote yes in 2014?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and I look forward to Labour forming a Government here in 2016. We will introduce many pro policies to the benefit of the people of Scotland and the United Kingdom. Of course, we should look at the prospect of Scots voting to stay within the United Kingdom, because I believe that there is a strong likelihood of that—although I would never be complacent and would always respect the views of the Scottish people. As I said in answer to the hon. Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), I absolutely believe that devolution is vital to the interests of Scotland and vital to the interests of the United Kingdom. We have always said that devolution is a process, and that time and circumstance will dictate future interests. As the hon. Gentleman may or may not know, Johann Lamont, our leader of the Labour party in Scotland, has set up a devolution commission. Our test in that devolution commission will not be pre-set, as some nationalists would have us do because they have already decided what should happen. Our views will be determined by the interests of the people of Scotland, and what serves their interests best.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the fundamental fault line in Scottish politics at the moment is between those who support separation from the rest of the United Kingdom and those who want to stay part of the United Kingdom, and that any talk about the process of devolution and so on in the current context of discussing a referendum on independence is actually a diversionary tactic by the SNP to try to divert us from the fact that after 80 years of preparation, it has zilch to say about the future of Scotland?
If I can take my hon. Friend back to the intervention by the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) from Plaid Cymru, is the situation not entirely the reverse of what he suggests? If people vote no in the referendum—against separation—there will be opportunities to develop devolution and the Scottish Parliament, but if people vote yes to independence, then that is it. There will be no second thoughts—that will be once and for all and final. There should be no doubt whatsoever of the consequence of such a vote.
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. May I be absolutely crystal clear? The way to stop devolution in Scotland, in its current form and in any further developments, is to vote for separation. That is the way to end devolution. If people want to continue devolution and have a strong element of devolution in the partnership that is the United Kingdom, they should vote against nationalist wishes in the referendum.
The referendum offers us the opportunity to settle the question decisively, once and for all. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire) said, this is a fault line in Scottish politics—people either support partnership with the United Kingdom or they support separation. We need to settle this once and for all, and then move away from the issue that keeps Alex Salmond awake at night to the concerns that keep our constituents awake at night.
Let me turn to the order. As the Secretary of State has outlined, article 3 removes the reservation of the power to hold a referendum on the independence of Scotland from the rest of the UK, and stipulates conditions relating to the date of the poll and the nature of the question. On this side of the House, we have argued consistently for a poll that would come earlier than 2014, as has been indicated. As business leaders, civil society and others have said, a vote conducted more than 18 months from now while the country continues to face some of the most testing economic circumstances in a generation, adds, at the very minimum, to the uncertainty faced by the Scottish people.
We would have sought an earlier poll. However, we understand the challenges faced by Government, the issues around the legislative timeline and the need to provide a full debate. As such, we hope that the period between now and the referendum itself will be used to full advantage. If I can make reference to a comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin, I hope that that timeline—the amount of time involved—will ensure that the Scottish Parliament has the maximum time to debate and process this issue. It should also be used to ensure that Scots are provided with a robust and informed debate. So far, Scots are not getting the information to which they are reasonably entitled, even at this stage, by the party proposing separation. There is still much more information to be given by those who are proposing separation. As the protagonists, it is reasonable to expect them to do that.
Article 3 provides the clarity that the referendum will consist of a single question, as I made reference to in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling. For a decision of this magnitude, we have always believed that this is the only way to provide absolute clarity for the Scottish people. A multi-question referendum, as some on the nationalist Benches have argued for, would not only have led to confusion but, as the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs has previously pointed out, would have been out of step with international precedents. It would also have been detrimental had we included a question for which there was no clear offering, in terms of powers to the Scottish Parliament, and no group able to make the case where there was no distinct proposal and no clarity about the details of what was being proposed.
Although the issue concerning the number of questions has been resolved, the order gives the Scottish Parliament the power to set the wording of the question. In this area, we still have several concerns. First, we are not confident that the question proposed by the Scottish Government provides those voting in the referendum with sufficient clarity. Secondly, in the light of that, we are concerned that the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister have not committed themselves to following the recommendations of the independent, objective Electoral Commission.
Oh dear, dear, dear! Both. Can I say that? Would that be okay? I do understand it, however, and perhaps I can offer clarification for people. On that basis, I would certainly say both.
The agreement between the UK and Scottish Governments sets out:
“Both Governments agree on the importance of the referendum being overseen in an impartial way by bodies that can command the confidence of both sides of the campaign.”
That is an essential element of the agreement. It is not simply the oversight of the campaign, however, but how the recommendations and views of the Electoral Commission are treated by the Scottish Government that will determine whether the process is seen as impartial by the people of Scotland. If the SNP and the Scottish Government wish to reassure all participants in the referendum that they will conduct it properly, fairly and equitably, with respect to all interests, they could easily offer that reassurance by accepting the wording of the Electoral Commission. That would take us further down the road, so I hope that we can get an offer on that today. Ministers in the SNP Government have to set aside partisan advantage and approach the process with Scotland’s best interests, not their party’s, in mind, and it would be reassuring if they could clarify the matter so as not to be open to that charge. They could easily prove that they are not open to it.
The Electoral Commission’s role has to extend beyond the wording, however. We accept that the Electoral Management Board will deal with the practical arrangements for the referendum, but, to ensure the probity of the process, the Scottish Government must accept the rulings of the Electoral Commission, not just on the wording but on the key issue of campaign funding. The commission has made known its views on funding, but the Scottish Government are at odds with it. Clearly, we cannot end up in the ridiculous situation where the future of our country is determined by campaigns that have a sum total of 1p to spend per voter over the entire regulated period. We are also concerned that the Scottish Government’s proposed limits would lead to restrictions on the ability of third-party organisations, such as trade unions and businesses, to participate fully in the campaign. As I have said, the length of the campaign offers the opportunity for a full and robust debate on Scotland’s future, and surely an informed and knowledgeable voter is worth more than a penny.
Although the order will formally pass the relevant powers to the Scottish Parliament, much of the detail about how the referendum will proceed is contained in the memorandum of agreement. The status of this agreement has been the subject of some debate, however, so will the Secretary of State or the Minister confirm the status of the agreement? Does it legally bind the parties concerned? If not, what legal advice have they received regarding its status? We would have preferred the order to contain the level of detail in the memorandum, but we understand the practical considerations involved, and, as I said at the outset, the agreement and order, if taken together and if followed in the spirit and the letter, provide the basis for a fair, legal and decisive referendum. People in Scotland will not look kindly on any attempt to ignore or wilfully reinterpret the agreement or on any party playing party politics with that. Understandably, that would be seen as cynical and disingenuous.
With this order, we come one step closer to the 2014 referendum and an historic decision for the people of Scotland. The tone and tenor of our debate have to match the aspirations we have for it, so we have to move away from the confusion and muddle that have characterised too much of the discussion so far, grasp the nettle and deal with the difficult and challenging issues facing Scotland. That is what the Labour party is doing and will continue to do. The debate cannot simply be an accountancy exercise; it must be a debate where we lay out our alternative visions for the future of Scotland and its people; and a debate that meets the aspirations of generations of Labour advocates of devolution.
If I may make further reference to Donald Dewar, let me say that introspection will not solve our problems, and nor will a preoccupation with constitutional points scoring. Responding to the needs of the Scottish people is what matters. In passing the order, we will pass another milestone towards a referendum in which the Scottish people will have their say on whether to break with a partnership of 300 years or continue in the family of nations that is the United Kingdom. “Section 30” is a technical term and will not grab the imagination of too many Scots, but it will usher in a debate of enormous magnitude in which the future of families, industries, services and much else will be at stake. Today is the clarion call to get on with the substance of the issues and to determine the arguments that look to the future of that great country of Scotland.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute what I anticipate to be briefly to this debate and in support of the opening Front-Bench speeches, which I think we have all appreciated, to a greater or lesser extent.
I begin with a personal, if perhaps philosophical, point: I have never had any difficulty, during my career or personal and private life, with the fundamental distinction —a decent, honourable and everyday distinction—between those of us who consider ourselves lifelong nationalistic Scots and those who fundamentally consider themselves political nationalists. One thing that surprises me, not altogether but somewhat, is the coyness at home from within the nationalist camp about the debate—which will, one hopes, be given further impetus by the passing of the order—and how it will develop and what will happen, depending on the outcome of a referendum. That seems rather to miss the point. To a nationalistic Scot, putting the issue of independence fairly and squarely in front of the electorate in a referendum and, in those time-honoured words, hoping for a legal, fair and decisive outcome, is a perfectly legitimate, democratic and honourable thing to do.
Equally, however, just as those of us who are still deeply committed to electoral reform—despite last year’s massive setback in losing the referendum so decisively—are not going to give up our belief in electoral reform, so political nationalists are not going to give up their beliefs, and why should they? I have lifelong friends—not active in politics—who have voted SNP come hell and high water. It might be high water now, but there have been days of hell, as all political parties have experienced over the decades. Who knows? Those days might come round again.
The First Minister’s statement that the referendum would settle the issue for a generation was an interesting, if perhaps unnecessary, one—something of a hostage to fortune. I hope that it will settle the issue for a generation—in the minds of most Scots I think that it will, if the referendum is seen to be legal, fair and decisive—but, in the mind and the heart of a political nationalist, it cannot be the final word on the matter. It will be a never-ending referendum, given that the nationalist cat is out of the bag, and we have to be honest about that with the people of Scotland. The Scottish national party has to be a bit more upfront with the people of Scotland to that effect as well. Either that, or the party signs up to the words of the First Minister, when as party leader several years ago he said that the referendum would, at the very least, settle the matter for a political generation. That would be in the best interests of Scotland, the body politic and the long-term economic prospects of the country. This afternoon provides a very good opportunity for SNP Members to subscribe to the words of their own leader, now First Minister of Scotland, and to create a degree of calm and assuredness on the other side of the referendum, whatever the result.
We will be sparring again on Saturday night in a Burns supper at Lochaber high school. Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why he thinks the SNP turned down the offer from Wendy Alexander to “bring it on” in the last term of the Scottish Parliament?
Over many years, the more I have heard from successive honourable and very good friends, such as those sitting on the SNP Benches right now, the less I have sought to try to explain anything on behalf of political nationalists. That, I think, is altogether a bridge too far. I have had a hard enough time over 30 years trying to explain the Social Democrat party, the alliance, the Liberal Democrats, the meaning of federalism and all the rest of it, without taking on additional baggage that is, I am glad to say, somebody else’s responsibility.
My second point relates to the issue of the nature of the Scotland that we have now, and what that should tell us, as we pass this order, about the conduct of the debate—the factual and political debate that will ensue. Like others who were in this Chamber at the time, I am reminded of the dog days of the Thatcher and then the Major Administrations, who set their faces like flint against any prospect of Scottish devolution, despite it being
“the settled will of the Scottish people”,
as the late great John Smith said, as evinced through vote after vote in ballot box after ballot box over election after election the length and breadth of the country. The best we got was the charade of a travelling circus, courtesy of Michael Forsyth, called the Scottish Grand Committee, which would jet into Stornoway and jet out after a few hours, having shed little in the way of light on matters. In fact, as time went on and parts of Scotland got more wise to what was happening, it generated a well-organised local or regional demo at the expense of the Conservative Government on the issues of the day that were pertinent to the borders, the Western Isles, the highlands or wherever.
As that went on, and as all three political parties experienced that frustration, I think we were against what we saw as the undemocratic control of Scotland and certainly the deeply unhealthy centralisation of power here in London. An awful lot of us voted yes with enthusiasm for devolution and welcomed the establishment of the Scottish Parliament, although—I will be honest—we never anticipated, particularly under the voting system used, that one day a majority SNP Government would be returned. I congratulate SNP Members on that historic breakthrough. We also never anticipated that a majority SNP Government in Holyrood would display the self-same centralist tendencies that were the hallmark of the Thatcher and Major Administrations. In particular, those who represented parts of Scotland outside the central belt in the outlying parts of Scotland—I know that this feeling is shared by some right hon. and hon. Members representing central belt constituencies, too, not least as far as local authorities are concerned—did not anticipate or vote for a devolutionary process that was transferring over-centralised power in the south-east of England to over-centralised power in Holyrood and across the central belt of Scotland.
Order. The right hon. Gentleman anticipates my comments. While his resumé of historical progress towards this point has been fascinating, I need him to come back to the contents of the order rather than to venture into wider political discussion.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. My central point, which is directly relevant to what I have been saying, is that, as has been pointed out, this order is historic, following on as it does from the 1988 Act. Why? It is historic because it transfers and devolves a fundamental, absolute and substantial power to Holyrood and to the Government of the day who have the majority in Holyrood. In so doing, we must look at the lessons of the past five years, because Holyrood—and, in particular, the SNP Government at Holyrood—having been handed this power, must handle it with a far greater sense of decentralisation and recognition of a Scotland that is much more diverse and not just centred on the interests of one political party and one political source of power. That is why, I believe, the decision we seem to be reaching unanimously this evening is so pertinent. It provides an important caveat that needs to go on the record.
Let us look to how Holyrood is going to handle this matter. Others, not least the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) with her 12 years of experience in the Scottish Parliament, are much better versed in these matters than me. As an interested Scot looking at recent developments in Holyrood, however, I would have to say that any fair-minded person cannot be that encouraged by what we have seen so far. Two senior Ministers, the First Minister and his deputy who is now taking over control of constitutional affairs, have at the very least—I put this as mildly as I can in the spirit of unanimity that seems to be abroad across the Chamber this afternoon—given every impression, until caught out, of being willing to play somewhat fast and loose with authenticity and the correct version of events. That applies not just to their political competitors and opponents, but to the Scottish people. That sense will not serve them well and it will not serve well the process being taken on or the responsibility that goes with it when the House passes this order.
We have all had our years of political girn—first as far as Westminster itself is concerned and now from the Government in Holyrood where Westminster is still concerned. We are moving from that into the politics of fundamental choice. This is obviously a necessary, welcome and historic order. Let me pay great tribute not only to the calm, constructive and measured way in which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has handled this matter on behalf of the coalition Government here, but to the modicum of maturity and reasonableness that he has brought to the debate both this afternoon and over recent months. That characteristic contribution will well serve all of Scotland and the electoral democratic process, as the next year to 18 months of debate unfolds.
We are moving towards the politics of choice. As we are trying to make life hard, at least for the Hansard reporters this afternoon, let me say that the responsibility will transfer to Holyrood in due course—and a great responsibility it is—and most of all, in being entrusted with that responsibility, Holyrood must not turn a stooshie into a stramash.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr Kennedy); I agree with just about everything he has said this afternoon. I shall not talk so much about the merits of the debate on independence, but deal with some procedural matters. Before I do so, let me say two things. First, depending on when the winding-up speeches occur, I may be absent from the Chamber. I shall try not to be, but I apologise if I am. Secondly, I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, not least to the fact that I am a director of Better Together—a company formed for the purposes of fighting in the referendum campaign. In the light of what I have to say, that may be of some relevance.
As I said, I do not want to talk about the merits of the independence debate, as there will be plenty of opportunities for others to do so. I would like to talk, however, about the central role of the Electoral Commission. As has been observed by both the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber and the right hon. and learned Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), by virtue of passing the motion we are passing all responsibility and authority from this House to the Scottish Parliament. There is absolutely nothing wrong in that; I support that. In practice, the transfer is not just to the Scottish Parliament but to the SNP, which runs the thing as a pretty tight ship—opposition is not usually tolerated—and not just to the SNP, because, as we know, the SNP is very much run by one individual. We need to be aware that that is what we are doing.
I want to concentrate on the role of the Electoral Commission. I agree with those Members who have said that it is important not only that the referendum is conducted fairly but that it is seen and accepted to have been fairly conducted. Whatever the result, we want to be in a position where we accept that Scotland had its say and reached its verdict, and then let us abide by that. I know that the First Minister said that the referendum would settle the matter for a generation, but I think he meant that that would be the case if he won; if our side won, he might take a different view. The observations of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber on that point are absolutely right.
On the franchise, I do not object in principle to 16 and 17-year-olds having the vote, although if they are going to vote on this matter, they should be allowed to vote on everything else; otherwise it is inconsistent. I cannot help but think that they would never have been allowed anywhere near a ballot paper if the SNP had not at some stage thought that they were more likely to vote for it, although the emerging evidence is that that is not necessarily so. Most of us know that whether someone who has just turned 18 is on the register rather depends on how diligent their mother and father were in getting them on it. If those who are now 15 and 16 are to get on the register by the time the vote takes place, electoral registration officers in Scotland will have to do an awful lot more than they do currently. It would be a real pity if a lot of people who have newly turned 16 and 17 went to the polling station only to be told, “Sorry, you are not on the register.”
Other Members raised the issue of troops who are fighting elsewhere, and that position should be accommodated. I understand why the franchise must be on the basis of that which we currently use to elect the Scottish Parliament, although it is unfortunate that someone who happens to live in Edinburgh and goes to work in Brussels can get an overseas vote, but if they happen to be sent to London, they cannot. That will cause some ill feeling. The hon. Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) raised the point, but I think there are limits to what we can do.
I want to touch on two issues in relation to the Electoral Commission: the question itself; and the campaign spending limits. My view is that the Electoral Commission should act as the referee, and I hope that it will go for a question that is clear and simply understood, without cant or tilt one way or another. There are those who say, “Everyone will know what they are voting on when they go to the polling station,” and perhaps they will, but in that case there is no reason to have a slanted question. Any impartial observer would say that the question proposed by the Scottish Government is slanted. People on both sides have mentioned the problem that the SNP is the player and the referee at one and the same time, which does not strike me as fair. I hope that it will accept what the Electoral Commission has to say on the wording of the question.
It is noteworthy that the agreement signed by both sides last October explicitly says that the UK Government
“regards the guidance of the Electoral Commission as a key consideration”
and goes on to say that the UK Government have so far followed that advice. It then says that in the event of a departure from the Electoral Commission’s advice, there would have to be stated reasons. That suggests that both parties were clear that the Electoral Commission’s role was impartial, and that there was an assumption that they would accept whatever it proposes. It is, therefore, disappointing that before the ink was dry on the signatures, we heard from senior members of the SNP that the Electoral Commission could say what it wanted, but it would ultimately be the SNP’s call. That would be unfortunate, in relation to both the wording of the question and the spending limits.
We have not had many referendums in this country, but the turnout in them has been pretty poor: the average is just over 50%. It would be a great pity if the biggest decision Scotland will ever make—whether to stay in the United Kingdom or to leave—was taken on a low turnout. On both sides of the argument, one challenge will be to engage and hold the attention of the Scottish public and enthuse people to come and vote in October 2014, which is one reason I hope we can concentrate on the merits of the respective arguments rather than anything else. Even in the Scottish elections, the average turnout is just over 50%. The turnout in the alternative vote referendum was only 42% —no surprise there, some might say. It is not exactly a harbinger of good things to come. By contrast, international referendums have a much higher turnout: 95% in Quebec in 2005.
If we are to engage people in Scotland, make the referendum a success, and ensure a respectable turnout so that there is a clear mandate, that involves spending some money. We cannot fight such campaigns on fresh air. Everybody in the Chamber knows that parties must spend money in elections, but the Scottish Government’s proposals will mean that the ability of both campaigns to spend money to engage people’s attention will be severely curtailed. Even the Electoral Commission’s proposals are quite a restriction, in comparison to what was allowed to be spent in the 1997 referendum. I hope that the Electoral Commission will continue reconsidering these matters and recognise that while nobody likes the idea of spending lots of money on a referendum campaign —I am not arguing for so much money that we have television adverts and American-style campaigning—the basics such as sending out leaflets to people and raising awareness of the issues are very important.
I understand well why the SNP has made proposals that would severely curtail such spending—it looked at its position, and everybody else’s, and thought, “We are in charge, why not move it to benefit us?” That really is not satisfactory, however, especially when we bear in mind that the Scottish Government enter into the purdah period, it would appear, only a month before the contest. We have only to look at what has been going on in the last couple of years. The Scottish Government and the SNP seem to be one and the same thing when it comes to the referendum—the entire effort of the Scottish Government is now being directed towards the referendum. I am afraid that I do not have confidence that the permanent secretary at the Scotland Office will have any control over the SNP. I suspect that, even if he gets round to raising the odd word of concern, he will be told in no uncertain terms where to go. Public money is being used on one side, and those of us on the other side who have to raise the money ourselves will find it very difficult to compete, especially in the last four months of the campaign.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman —who, in Better Together terms, is my right hon. Friend—for giving way. What he says about the current governance of Scotland, against the very long referendum backdrop, is undoubtedly true. As he will probably know from the inside, and as I experienced from the outside during the period of Prime Minister Blair’s leadership, in private discussion in which I tried in those days to encourage him to go down the route of a referendum on a single currency and on what proved to be the dead duck of the proposed European constitution, in both cases he said that he had taken advice from previous Labour Government figures who were still around and who remembered the experience of the European referendum of years ago, and from the top of the civil service. Both sources of advice were unanimous on one point: in Westminster or Whitehall terms, a referendum would suspend the normal business of government for about six months. Look at what the referendum under discussion has done already and how much worse it is liable to get if the timely warnings of the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) are not heeded.
I do not think that I was always party to the advice taken by my friend and former colleague Tony Blair, but I do remember something of the discussions, and the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: we are the best of friends as far as Better Together is concerned. We may have parted company on the single currency 10 years ago, but we probably would not do so now. We are all friends when it comes to the single currency, and who knows? That may even include the nationalists.
I fear that we are about to exhaust your patience, Madam Deputy Speaker, but my hon. Friend is probably right.
I think that in a contest such as this, the Scottish public will expect to see fair play. It would be unfortunate if, during those four months, the Scottish Government were allowed to spend money here, there and everywhere, with Ministers making announcements—and it is, after all, our money—while those on the other side were completely hamstrung. There are very strict restrictions on campaigns, on other political parties, and, as was pointed out by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran), on trade unions, voluntary organisations, businesses and so on. I consider that to be unfortunate not because I want vast sums to be spent—in some ways, it is best to keep expenditure as low as possible—but because I think that we need to spend some money if we want a good turnout, and if we want to assuage people’s thirst for information.
I can assure the hon. Gentleman that that thirst for information has been evident, not least in his constituency last week. If he would care to turn up to one or two meetings, he would be asked quite a few questions which I think that he and his colleagues need to answer.
Unlike the right hon. Gentleman, who was busy spreading his anti-independence message, I was here in the House last week to vote against the Conservative Government’s Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill.
The right hon. Gentleman may have heard the Secretary of State speak on “The Politics Show” last Sunday about the preparations being made by the UK Government and the amount of paper that would be generated in the form of what he confirmed would be pieces of Unionist propaganda effectively talking down any case for Scottish independence. It is not the Scottish Government who are spending money on this; it is the UK Government.
What irritated members of the SNP so much last week was that wherever I went in Scotland more and more questions were asked about them, and as that fact became more and more widely reported, it really did rile them.
As for what the UK Government are doing, they will be producing a series of papers on key matters such as European Union membership. The hon. Gentleman cannot blame them for doing that, given that last autumn his own party got into a terrible muddle when it turned out that the legal advice to the effect that nothing would change did not even exist. If the hon. Gentleman will not answer the question, who is to stop someone else from answering it?
Right at the end of the year—and it will not be until the end of the year—the SNP will produce its own White Paper. There will be a degree of balance between the two sides, and people will be able to pick and choose what they believe. Let me get my retaliation in first, and say that if the SNP’s White Paper is anything like the other material that it has produced on this subject, it could well be nominated for the Booker prize for fiction next year. Anyway, my basic point is that both campaigns must be funded adequately to ensure that there can be a proper and thorough debate.
I support the order. This is the right thing to do: no one can have any quarrel with that. I just hope that as these matters are discussed in the Scottish Parliament, people will go out of their way to ensure that the process is impartial, and that, in particular, the Electoral Commission will be allowed to act as a genuine referee. It should make the calls. It will probably disappoint both sides from time to time, but it is better for someone independent to hold the ring than for one of the participants to do so.
I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and my colleagues for allowing me to contribute to the debate. I feel that it is very difficult for someone who represents an English constituency to speak about this subject.
I want briefly to discuss three questions. First, should there be a referendum at all? Secondly, what are the criteria on which we should determine whether there should be a referendum? Thirdly—this takes up a point raised in the powerful speech of the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling)—why do we need more investment in information, and, in particular, the spending of more money on media debates?
The question of whether there should be a referendum is a very big issue. Traditionally, we have not had proper procedures for constitutional change in Britain. The reason this question is so important is that it matters not just in relation to Scotland, but in relation to every constitutional change introduced in this country. Britain is the only advanced democracy left in the world—in fact, almost the only country left in the world—that does not formally distinguish between constitutional law and normal law, and tries to introduce constitutional change by means of simple majorities in Parliament. That cannot be right. Every other country recognises that the constitution exists to protect the people from the Parliament: to protect them from us. We cannot, with shifting single majorities, set about changing the thing that protects the people, which is why every country from America to Italy to Greece to Spain demands super-majorities, constitutional assemblies or referendums.
The answer to the second question—why should we have a referendum about this issue?—is also extremely important, and it too relates to what was said by the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West. It involves the very difficult issue of how political institutions such as this Parliament—this building—can define an entire identity. A serious problem with some of the arguments advanced by supporters of the Scottish National party is the way in which they have tried to trivialise the issue. They have tried to suggest that it does not really matter, and that it is possible to get rid of a single Parliament without anything really changing. My constituents are often told that nothing will change, although 12,000 of them registered as Scots in the census and more than 50% of telephone calls made from Carlisle are made to people in Scotland.
In fact, everything we know from every country in the world suggests that the fundamental, defining feature of identity is a political institution. Much more than ethnicity, much more than culture, political institutions keep people together, which is why we must have a referendum.
How do we know that? Well, I know it from my own constituency, because Cumbria was itself a nation. It was a kingdom. For 700 years, Cumbria and Northumbria ruled the kingdom that stretched from Edinburgh in the north to Sheffield in the south. Why does Cumbria not have an identity that crosses the border today? Because it is no longer a political entity. It no longer has a Parliament, and it no longer has a king. Why are French people in France different from French people in Switzerland? For one reason only: their Parliaments split. Why has Britain grown apart from the Commonwealth countries to which it was so close 50 or 60 years ago? Because the political institutions split.
Scotland itself is another example. Why is it a nation? That is a difficult question to answer. Scotland has had Norwegians in the north, Welsh Celts around Strathclyde, Irish sea raiders, and Anglians coming into Lothian. The one thing that holds it together is the community of the realm. It is the political institution that creates the nation. We in Cumbria know why that matters in Britain. Cumbria was a centre point of horror because two Parliaments and two kingdoms split apart. That border created the monstrosity.
That leads me to the question of why more money needs to be invested in the campaign, and why we need more media investigation. The answer is that the issue of political institutions and Parliaments is difficult, and perhaps even boring. It is not stuff that gets people excited. People voting in a referendum will find it hard to follow all the issues without an enormous amount of information. The Scottish National party is, of course, right to say that some of the prophets of doom who suggest that independence will lead to the end of the world are wrong. Independence will not lead to the end of the world, and that is why information matters.
Independence will not cause the war between England and Scotland to start again. Those days of savagery, murder, pillage and rape—what we saw in Cumbria for 400 years—will not return, because the world has changed. Nor will Scotland or England become a failed state. Scotland and England are extremely advanced, educated countries, each with its world-class businesses, and although both may undergo a process of difficulty and insecurity, they will subsequently be able to adjust and thrive. That is not the problem; the problem is something much more difficult and much more elusive, which anyone voting in a Scottish referendum needs to understand but will not be able to understand unless we invest money in enabling the subject to be discussed as openly as possible. That is the importance of political institutions. It is a question of understanding, as we understand in this House, why this place matters. Why does it matter that Scottish and English MPs sit together in a single Parliament? It matters because it provides the formal process for mutual consideration.
The SNP is again absolutely correct that, theoretically, there is nothing to stop Scotland being friendly to England or England being friendly to Scotland in the absence of a joint Parliament. There is no reason, theoretically, why an English MP could not take into account Scotland’s interests when thinking about their constituency in relation to common agricultural reform or agricultural subsidies, for instance. There is no reason, theoretically, why a Scottish MP in an independent Scotland could not think about England’s nuclear interests when considering the positioning of submarine bases. In practice, however, it is the formal elements of this Chamber and our Committees and Government that force us to think about each other.
I sit on the Foreign Affairs Committee. It matters that the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr Roy) attends that Committee day in and day out, forcing the Foreign Office to answer questions that relate to Scotland. Instead of having to rely on good will, we have created institutions. Those institutions bring together much better people, too.
That is a good question, and there are many other similar questions we might ask. It is easy to come up with hypothetical examples—such as that corporation tax point—of ways in which people could grow apart, but the key point is that, without a United Kingdom, there will be no formal processes and incentives to think through such matters. At present, however, we create the forums.
I am only three months married, so I hesitate to say this as I do not know what on earth I am talking about, but it strikes me that formal institutions such as marriage force people to discuss things, to compromise and to think in ways that we might not if that formal institution were not in place. [Interruption.] Perhaps I am wrong about that, however. It was foolish of me to hold forth on the importance of that institution on the basis of just three months of married life.
The institution of the United Kingdom and its Parliament has four key benefits. The first of them is that it brings people together. Over more than 400 years it has brought together incredibly talented people, including people we barely recognise as being Scots or English, who would not have come together if we had not had a United Kingdom. It has brought together leaders of all our parties. We often forget that Scotland produced not just the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), but also William Gladstone and, indeed, the crofter’s grandson, Harold Macmillan. Scotland produced the ideas, the culture and the nation that challenges England and makes the United Kingdom better. Scotland played an important part in creating not just our modern economic theory, but the ideas behind the national health service, and also all the richness of the culture of Britain. Because we have this United Kingdom and this shared institution of Parliament, as our different strengths alter over time, we contain that within a single unity. There was a time when Scottish novels were better than English novels. There was a time when—
Order. I absolutely understand that the hon. Gentleman is setting his major argument in context, and I was following what he was saying, but he is going on a little too long about the context. Please will he return to the subject of the order itself?
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will accelerate towards my conclusion, which involves returning to a very good point made by the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West.
All the issues I have raised are extremely complicated. They are issues of history, of culture and of identity. They are issues of the ways in which borders work and parliamentary institutions function. In order for people to be able to vote properly in a referendum and make that simple yes or no choice for which the SNP is pushing, the debate needs to be widened much further. More money needs to be spent, and the media need to get involved. At present the media are far too worried about not being political on one side or the other and are therefore not setting out the arguments and creating the debate powerfully enough. We need to have a proper debate because if an Englishman, a Scotsman and a Welshman together is a joke, an Englishman or a Scotsman on their own is a tragedy.
Order. Before we proceed, it might be helpful if I explain my approach to this debate. I expect Members to refer to the order, as that is what we are discussing. I understand that they may want to touch briefly on context or history, but I do not want us to drift away from the issues before us in this very important debate. I have tried to have a very light touch so far, because I loathe interrupting Members. If Members are helpful, I will be eternally grateful; if not, I will, with regret, have to interrupt them.
Today’s proceedings are historic, and it is important to stress that, notwithstanding the din and smoke of political battle and some of the differences and questions aired today, they represent a triumph for democracy, for the democratic process and for a democratic mandate. So far as I am aware, every political party in this House is in agreement about the section 30 order, so I will focus on what we, as democrats, all share: respect for the electorate’s right to determine their governance. There can be no greater democratic choice than whether a people wish their nation to determine for itself how it is to be governed.
If we take half a step back from our party politics, we can see that it is truly remarkable that, notwithstanding our differences, we will today agree that it is for the Scottish Parliament to take forward the arrangements for an independence referendum in 2014. That is remarkable for two stand-out reasons. First, Scotland’s constitutional progress has been a model of democratic, peaceful and civic politics. Secondly, the UK Government and Opposition are endorsing a legal, ordered and democratic path that can lead to Scotland becoming a sovereign state. Today’s agreement to transfer legal powers to the Scottish Parliament to make the arrangements for the biggest decision in 300 years is a huge milestone. It says much about the potential for further respect and equality between the Governments, Parliaments and peoples of these islands.
How have we reached the point of having this section 30 order? The Secretary of State rightly said the key is undoubtedly the result of the 2011 Scottish Parliament elections. The majority of Members returned, including those of the Scottish National party and the Scottish Green Party and the independent MSP Margo MacDonald, support Scottish independence. The scale of the victory was unprecedented. The SNP won every single mainland constituency seat in the highlands, every single constituency in Grampian and Tayside, and the majority of constituency seats in Fife, Lothian, Central, Glasgow and the west of Scotland. In the list vote, the SNP received more votes than the three UK parties combined and was first in all but three constituencies in the whole of Scotland. The result was so overwhelming that the leaders of all three UK parties in the Scottish Parliament resigned.
Given the scale of the victory, the parliamentary majority and the commitment to holding a referendum, it would be unimaginable in a 21st-century democracy not to be able to proceed with a referendum. The UK Government clearly understood that the Scottish Government would go ahead with a referendum, and the Scottish Government understood the advantages of an unambiguous process beyond any potential legal challenge. This shared understanding led to the historic Edinburgh agreement between the Governments, which was signed by the First Minister and the Prime Minister on 15 October 2012, and which has led to the section 30 order we expect will pass without Division today.
The key is to understand that, as far as I am aware, everybody has signed up to the Edinburgh agreement. First, they have agreed that the referendum will be made in Scotland, with the arrangements to be finalised in the Scottish Parliament. The fact that the agreement could be reached showed that the Governments can work together, truly in everybody’s interest, notwithstanding that we have different views on the potential outcome. The Scottish Parliament is the cockpit of the nation, and it is right that the issues of the franchise, the question, the referendum rules and the campaign spending limits should be scrutinised and taken forward there. Nobody has yet criticised the fact that the Government who introduced the legislation for the devolution referendum were in exactly the same situation as the Scottish Parliament will be after the section 30 order is passed.
The Scottish Government will be in exactly the same position as the UK Government are and have been in, including when the hon. Gentleman’s party was in government: the Scottish Government will listen to the advice of the Electoral Commission and the Scottish Parliament will then decide. The arrangement is exactly how it was in the past when his party was in government.
What the hon. Gentleman has said so far is absolutely right, but there is one further thing to say: the UK Government have always followed the Electoral Commission’s advice. We would be interested to know whether the SNP is likely to take the same position.
I have no doubt that the right hon. Gentleman will make his voice heard and that when the section 30 order is passed for Scotland, he will make those views clear. If he had a problem with what is being proposed, he would be opposing this evening’s section 30 order.
Now I will make progress.
The referendum will be carried out with Scottish electoral professionals running the vote and announcing the result. That will be co-ordinated through the Electoral Management Board for Scotland and regulated by the Electoral Commission. The poll will, therefore, be beyond reproach. As the Edinburgh agreement says, it will
“meet the highest standards of fairness, transparency and propriety, informed by consultation and independent expert advice.”
The Electoral Commission is included in that. It is in everybody’s interests that this referendum is carried out to the highest standards possible.
I am particularly pleased that the agreement opens the way to the franchise for 16 and 17-year-olds. That is not a new proposal; I was pleased to make my maiden speech in the House in 2001 on this very subject. Many of us, from across the parties, have a long-standing commitment to 16 and 17-year-olds being able to vote, and I am pleased that they will be able to do so. It is absolutely correct that every endeavour should be made to ensure that everybody who should be enfranchised is able to cast their vote.
Perhaps surprisingly, I would like to pay tribute to the UK Government. I pay tribute to the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Minister of State in the Scotland Office and their colleagues across government. Again perhaps surprisingly, I also pay tribute to the Labour Front-Bench team and the Opposition, both here and in the Scottish Parliament. I do so for the part they have all played in getting us this far. No doubt, the questions that have been raised will be pursued after the section 30 order is passed, and that is a good thing. We should all be proud to have reached this stage, and the House will not be surprised that SNP Members express our thanks to the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and Bruce Crawford MSP for the leading parts they have played in securing the Edinburgh agreement.
Soon, all the procedural issues flowing from the section 30 order will be resolved in the Scottish Parliament and we can have the full debate on the proposition that Scotland should again become a sovereign nation.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his warm tribute; I did not anticipate saying that, but I appreciate the tribute. May I ask him to clarify something? As I understand it, the logic of what he is explaining is that it is now for the Scottish Parliament to answer the issues of substance that have been raised today. However, it is reasonable for me, as a Scottish person and as an elected Member representing Scots, to ask him whether he thinks it is reasonable to ask the Scottish Government now to clarify that they will respect and adhere to the recommendation of the Electoral Commission. May I have a direct answer on that?
Order. May I just remind all Members participating in this debate, including the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson), that, tempting as it is to talk to each other, they are supposed to be addressing the entire Chamber by addressing the Chair? That means not having one’s back to the Chair when speaking.
I am grateful for your advice, Madam Deputy Speaker. As I have said twice, I look forward to the Scottish Government having the process taken forward with the advice of the Electoral Commission. I am sure that it will be listened to very closely, because we want to ensure that the process continues.
I just wish to clarify the hon. Gentleman’s statement. He is saying that his party intends to listen to the advice of the Electoral Commission but will not necessarily commit, at this moment, to taking and following its advice. Is that correct—yes or no?
I will not give way again, as I have already made the point three times on the same question.
Before having to reiterate the same answer for the third time, I was making the point that the procedural issues flowing from the section 30 order will be resolved in the Scottish Parliament, and that is a good thing. That proposition that Scotland should be a sovereign nation has a long and honourable tradition. In this House, it goes back to long before the permanent parliamentary representation of the Scottish National party, which began in 1967, or indeed before the arrival of the first SNP MP in 1945. It is worth remembering the role of Robert Cunninghame Graham, who was elected as a Liberal MP for North West Lanarkshire in 1886 and was commonly described as the first socialist MP in this House. As the founder and first president of the Scottish Labour party, and the first president of the Scottish National party, he consistently supported independence.
The call for a direct Scottish voice in the world has a long tradition, too. It includes the attempts by the Scottish Trades Union Congress to secure Scottish representation at the Versailles peace talks. For more than 75 years, the SNP has sought to restore Scottish independence through the democratic process. I am extremely proud to follow a great many outstanding democrats who furthered the cause of Scottish self-determination—a vision for all in Scotland, regardless of where we come from. Sadly, some true giants of that movement have recently passed away and will not be here for the referendum, including Jimmy Halliday, the SNP chairman during the 1950s, who passed away just before Christmas. I also reflect on the recent passing of Stephen Maxwell and that a few years ago of Professor Sir Neil MacCormick. I would have wished them all to have been here to be a part of this great debate and decision that we will make in Scotland. We genuinely stand on the shoulders of giants: those who have made the case for self-government and given their time and effort to make progress through the democratic process. This section 30 order is a testament to all who believe in the democratic process, democratic debate and the sovereignty of the people. Our challenge—this is for those on both sides of the referendum debate—is to ensure we do this in a way worthy of the proposition, the opposing case and, most importantly, the electorate.
In conclusion, I believe that the best future for the people of Scotland—a fairer, more economically successful, more outward-looking and internationally engaged Scotland—will be secured by a yes vote in the referendum. I believe we can secure an improved relationship on these islands, based on mutual respect and the social union, which is not dependent on where Governments and Parliaments sit. Let us pass this section 30 order today so that we move on to debate that vision and so that the people make their decision.
I welcome the debate and the order. I appreciated the tone of much of what the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) had to say, as well as the fact that he acknowledged that the order has all-party support. I would not have guaranteed 12 or 18 months ago that we would have reached this point, and so I want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I believe that he—to some extent, he in particular—has led the process in a way that has taken us from a situation that might have been confrontational to one that has been consensual. The fact that we have achieved that and that both Governments have come together is something that history will record as absolutely right.
We are, of course, passing the power and the legal right to hold the referendum to the Scottish Parliament, which means, as the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling) has pointed out, that we are effectively passing them to the First Minister and the Scottish National party. When my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) asked earlier what influence this Parliament would have over the process once the order had been passed and the Scottish Parliament had control, I must record that from a sedentary position the hon. Member for Moray said, “Zero.” We must recognise that there is an indication that the SNP will seek to run the agenda to get the best outcome for its purposes. Of course, I completely accept that the SNP, as a political party for which independence is the driving force, wishes to do that, but I warn SNP Members about how they conduct themselves in that process.
We all noted the responses to a number of interventions on the hon. Member for Moray, which used what I shall not call weasel words but what were certainly evasive words and suggested that the SNP would listen to, but not necessarily act on, the advice of the Electoral Commission. Once we have passed the order, the SNP has the right to listen to and not act on that advice, but if it does that the people of Scotland will rightly have a deep suspicion that they are not being given a fair and clear choice. I believe that that will go against the SNP’s interests, so my advice is that the more we all work to ensure that the referendum is fair and objective, the more we will all be able to live with the result.
I echo what my right hon. Friend the Member for Skye, Lochaber and Ross—
I had all the right places, but not in the right order—a bit like Morecombe and Wise’s piano notes. My right hon. Friend’s point is valid: of course nationalists will continue to fight for Scottish independence, whatever the outcome of the referendum, but I do not think that Scotland or the United Kingdom wants years of wrangling that prevents us from getting on with the business of working together to deliver results. It is in everybody’s interests, once we have taken the decision in 2014, that we should live with the consequences for at least a political generation. Indeed, the SNP would need to reflect on changing its relationship with the United Kingdom. Now, it tries to discredit anything and everything done in the name of the United Kingdom in order to further the case for breaking the link, but I believe there will come a point at which the SNP might have to acknowledge that the people of Scotland, if they decide to remain in the United Kingdom, will want their politicians to take a constructive rather than destructive role within the United Kingdom.
As an Ulster Scot who has seen the strong relationship between Scotland and Northern Ireland—the English and Welsh have such a relationship, too—may I ask the hon. Gentleman whether he feels it is important that the campaign and referendum should focus on nuclear power, which affects the whole United Kingdom, the MOD bases, the Army and sterling and monetary matters as well as fishing rights, which affect people in Northern Ireland, and North sea oil? All those issues are important not just to Scotland but to the whole of the United Kingdom. For that reason, they should think very clearly in Scotland before the decision is made.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I shall take note of your encouragement, Madam Deputy Speaker, not to go into too much detail, but of course this is a decision that will be taken in Scotland and in which the whole United Kingdom has an interest. I think we have moved on. When the Prime Minister intervened on this issue 12 months ago, he was initially criticised for interfering in Scottish domestic affairs, but people quickly recognised that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom has a legitimate interest in the future of the United Kingdom and the right to take part in the debate. It is equally true that the decision on the future of Scotland must be taken in Scotland through a process made in Scotland, which is why we are discussing the order today.
I and my political party have been almost obsessed with the progress of home rule towards federalism for my whole lifetime. Indeed, if we look back across the history of the Liberal party we can see that has been the case for at least 100 years or even, in the case of Irish home rule, 150 years. We not only can but probably have bored people with a considerable amount of detail. That detail proved extremely useful in the process of developing the Scotland Bill through the constitutional convention, and the work that we, the Labour party, the Greens, the trade unions, the Churches and the business organisations did together was influenced by the fact that many of us had thought about it in considerable detail before we had the opportunity to implement it.
It remains a matter of some astonishment to me that the Scottish National party, which lives for nothing other than Scottish independence, appears to have so little command of the detail of what that would involve and is presenting it on the basis of unilateral, unfounded and unsupportable assertions. That is relevant in the context of the time scale on the back of the briefing notes, alluded to by the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West, which point out that the Scottish Government propose to produce a White Paper next November. That is more than two years after they were elected and only a year before we are supposed to make a decision. As the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) pointed out when he intervened to make the case for Northern Ireland, many fundamental questions must be answered. As the hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart)—speaking, I would guess, as much for the border as for Penrith—has rightly asserted, these are not questions that can only be answered in Scotland.
Those questions must be answered in Scotland and outside it, which is why the debate must be conducted with recognition that this is not some parochial, internal matter for the future of Scotland. It affects how Scotland might relate to the Bank of England, the European Commission, NATO, the UN and any other multilateral or international organisation. That is of course crucial, but the implications of the change for the rest of the UK are also important. Many people in Scotland will seek to balance those two questions when considering how to vote.
I am a bit worried that we might be saying that we will never debate the matter of Scottish independence in this Chamber again once the section 30 order has been passed. Will we be allowed to debate and to elaborate on the arguments after the order has been passed? If we pass it today, will that mean that Mr Speaker will never allow us to debate this matter, which is very important for our constitution, again?
I am sure that the House will have the opportunity to debate it and that the hon. Gentleman will ensure that we do. Of course, we will not have the opportunity to amend or determine the Bill on the referendum, which will be decided by the Scottish Parliament. The hon. Gentleman’s intervention is relevant, as it is important that we recognise that the deal struck in the Edinburgh agreement involved compromise from the UK Government and the Scottish Government. The UK Government have agreed to pass substantial power to the Scottish Parliament to legislate for the referendum, but they have an agreement that it will be on a single, stand-alone question and that the Electoral Commission will at least be involved in the process. Those are all crucial issues and I reiterate my view that the Scottish Government discount the Electoral Commission at their peril. They would be wise to take that point on board. We recognise that it is a compromise, but one made in the spirit of ensuring that we have a democratic vote that we can all accept and support.
This morning, my office took a call from a number of Canadian parliamentarians who are anxious to meet me to discuss the implications from their experience. I have to point out that they are not in favour of breaking up Canada, but are warning of the dangers of a sustained threat to the continued existence of the United Kingdom rather than one that can be resolved by 2014.
Within the order, Madam Deputy Speaker, and the reason why it is time limited, the point is that we need a referendum to take place within no more than two years—sooner would be better. We need to agree that the outcome will not lead to a succession of subsequent referendums, which is what has bedevilled Canada; I think that is the point the parliamentarians are anxious to make.
For those of us who believe in devolution, home rule and ultimately federalism, this process can be a constructive step along the road. My instincts are that the people of Scotland already recognise that independence looks like a step too far; there are too many questions incapable of being answered this side of 2014, least of all by the SNP alone. In fact, the process has focused people’s minds on the benefits of a strong sense of Scottish identity but real influence in the United Kingdom, which gives us a footprint in the world that an independent Scotland would not have.
Many people in Scotland have articulated to me recently the fact that they do not see that independence adds anything to Scotland’s well developed sense of identity, but it would hugely diminish the reach and value that the United Kingdom gives the people of Scotland. That is the reason why we are better together, and my instincts tell me that a majority in Scotland have already decided that independence is not the way forward. We cannot underestimate the campaign or what the SNP will try to do to persuade people otherwise. We have to ensure that the end of the process brings a result that we can all accept, and that if the people of Scotland vote for the United Kingdom the SNP will also accept that they have to recognise that the people of Scotland voted for constructive engagement with the United Kingdom, not continual disruption.
I speak to the report of the Scottish Affairs Committee on the subject. I welcome the fact that we have reached this stage and that we are having a referendum. The Committee makes clear our view that the Edinburgh agreement was reached by compromise and consensus between Scots at Westminster and Scots at Holyrood. We congratulate both teams.
It is noticeable that the agreement has been made by Scots, not just between the two Parliaments. Much congratulation has been given to the Secretary of State, but kind words are due to the Under-Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell), who also played a role in the exercise, and to their teams who constructively engaged throughout. In the same spirit, the Deputy First Minister, the Business Manager of the Scottish Parliament and their teams should be congratulated too.
The deal was reached by a process of collaboration, discussion and debate. It demonstrates that even though the two sides are far apart on the principle of separation, they were none the less able to come together to debate and agree the best way forward procedurally. That is important.
The Committee takes the view that it is right in principle that the practical details of the referendum be handled in the Scottish Parliament. Once our report was published, I read comments from a member of the SNP, who said that it was grudging. Our report is not grudging about the process; we believe it is right in principle that the procedural details be agreed in the Scottish Parliament, but with that power comes responsibility. The referendum will be Scotland’s shop window on the world, so it has to be handled with pride and probity. We have heard from SNP Members that it will meet the gold standard for election conduct. I hope that is true. As we said, we fear the worst but hope for the best.
We need to look at how agreement about the process will be handled in the Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Affairs Committee may diverge from some of my colleagues on the role of the Electoral Commission. In line with how the deal in Edinburgh was reached, we take the view that the best possible option is for the two campaigns themselves to come to agreement. It is better that the participants in the referendum reach agreement on all the procedures. If that fails—if it is not possible—it will be appropriate for the Electoral Commission to play a role.
The title of our report asks, “Can a player also be the referee?” We have some doubts about whether a player active on behalf of only one side can be trusted to set fair rules for something as crucial as the referendum. If consensus cannot be achieved, we want the impartial Electoral Commission to guide us as to what should be decided.
The third and worst option—below consensus and below the Electoral Commission: at the very bottom—would be the pursuit of factional advantage, which could be described as the “aggregation of marginal gains” by the majority with control in the Scottish Parliament and who dread defeat. The point has already been made that the Scottish Government control the Scottish Parliament and they are both the creatures of the SNP. There is genuine fear that at every stage of the process, they will seek to shave advantage, steal inches and make marginal gains on the principle that mony a mickle maks a muckle—that is a test for Hansard.
It is important that scrutiny of the section 30 order and its implementation does not end with its passage through the House. Those of us who are elected by Scots in Scotland, such as my parliamentary colleagues and me, must remember that we represent a larger number of Scots than Members elected to the Scottish Parliament, as turnout in our election was at least 10% higher. If anybody can claim the right to speak on behalf of Scots in Scotland it is us.
We began our investigation by seeking to clarify where power lay for the determination of the rules of the referendum. It is clear and, I think, universally accepted that as of now the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to hold a referendum. Until recently, the Scottish Parliament was unwilling to accept that and prevaricated for a long time over calls for a second question, which it has now abandoned. That prevarication and procrastination delayed both the introduction of the order and the legislation that will come under it, and thus the referendum itself.
It is now clear that the Scottish Government accept that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to run a referendum or to determine the rules, and that they can only conduct a referendum to dissolve the United Kingdom if the necessary powers are granted to them. When granting such powers, especially as we will no longer have an influence on how they are conducted, we have a particular responsibility to satisfy ourselves not only that the correct powers are being transferred but that they will be used in accordance with the agreement between the Governments, which is related to the order.
I welcome the fact that much is made in the order of the role of the Electoral Commission. Guidelines are set and there will be no second question. There is a deadline for the length of time that the process can run. The Scottish Parliament can and will be held to account, not only by MSPs but by the people of Scotland on the extent to which it abides by those rules. The Committee and I particularly welcome the fact that the statement accompanying the section 30 notice expressed the view that arrangements should meet
“the highest standards of fairness, transparency and propriety, informed by consultation and independent expert advice.”
That is an exceedingly high standard, and I hope that the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament will live up to it.
I will come on to that, because we want to place on record our unanimous view as a Committee. That is important, because the membership includes many people who disagree about many things, but there is unanimity on the fact that a referendum will take place, and we very much welcome the steps taken to bring that about. We are of the view, and we wish to make this explicit, that the question of Scottish separation or independence is something that only the Scottish people can decide. Whatever their views, people in the rest of the United Kingdom must be bound by that decision. If, on the other hand, the Scottish people confirm that they wish to remain part of the United Kingdom, we echo the words of the First Minister, who said that the question of separation should be regarded as firmly settled for a generation or more.
Translating the question of “Made in Scotland” into the detail, we think that it is right that the legislation should be introduced in the Scottish Parliament, which will determine the timing and the franchise, subject to the involvement of the Electoral Commission. The wording of the question and the administration of the referendum will be decided by the Scottish Parliament. We do not accept, as I said earlier, the self-serving argument made by the Scottish National party that the Scottish Parliament already has those powers, and that in some way it and it alone has the right to express a view. In the interests of transparency and fairness, and in the interests of devolution, for which many of us here have spent a long time fighting and arguing, we believe in principle that the Scottish Parliament is the appropriate place for those to occur.
We strongly believe that transferring those powers to the Scottish Parliament makes it essential to deal with the issue of losers’ consent. Those who lose the referendum cannot turn round and say that they were cheated if they were responsible for drawing up the rules. There is a heavy burden on the SNP to accept the fact that it cannot subsequently complain that the rules were drawn up unfairly. It cannot cry, “We wuz robbed” if it was responsible for drawing up those rules. With the transfer of that power comes the responsibility to accept the result, as we have said, for a generation or more.
The question of how those powers are exercised brings me back to the aggregation of marginal gains, and the SNP’s intention to seek to gain partisan advantage from every aspect of the referendum process. It has been given the opportunity to twist the rules, and unfortunately it is our expectation that that is what it will try to do. It is difficult for any party in those circumstances to be both a player in the game and to try to exercise the role of a neutral referee, which is why we are of the view that, ideally, consensus should be reached on the rules and regulations. Failing that, the role of a neutral referee is essential.
We are concerned about the timing of the referendum. The Secretary of State said that the process was initiated by the UK Government, who produced a timetable that demonstrated that it would be possible to hold a referendum in 2013. Even though Scottish Ministers in the Scottish Parliament have promoted a referendum on independence since 2007, they failed to introduce a referendum Bill in the Scottish Parliament between 2007 and 2011. The Scottish Government were elected with an overall majority in May 2011, but showed no interest in promoting their core policy until the UK Government issued a consultation document in January 2012. Since then, the Scottish Government have taken every possible opportunity to delay, and they intend to delay the referendum as long as possible in 2014. We very much welcome the fact that the UK Government insisted that the referendum could not be delayed beyond the end of 2014, although we believe that that is unduly long, and that the referendum could and should be held much sooner.
We see no reason for delaying the referendum until the end of 2014, except for perceived partisan advantage. The referendum will be timed to take place after the anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn, which is celebrated mainly because Scots slew large numbers of English people, and after the Commonwealth games in Glasgow. The fact that those events will take place before the referendum gives people the opportunity to celebrate the politics of identity and ethnicity. We thought that Scotland in the 21st and 22nd century would be looking forward, and would be progressive and positive. Celebrating the murder of hundreds or thousands of English people does not necessarily provide the best base on which to move forward. The timing of the referendum to celebrate that ancient battle gives entirely the wrong message to the world about the spirit motivating modern Scotland.
Not only does the delay cause general inconvenience to business and uncertainty but, in relation to the shipbuilding industry in my constituency, it puts a substantial number of jobs at risk by conflating the timing of a referendum with the timing of major orders. We are about to produce a report that will show the difficulties for the future of the shipyards caused by the timing of the referendum. We hope that the Scottish Parliament will take that into account and decide to bring the referendum forward so that it is held much earlier than the end of 2014. We think that the delay has been imposed purely for partisan advantage, and we can see no other logical reason for it, and we condemn undue delay.
My hon. Friend represents part of the Clyde—I represent the other part—so he will know how important it is to achieve stability when documents on the future prospects of our Navy are being drawn up as we speak. We need to make sure that the Clyde produces the kind of ships in future that it has in the past. The prevarication that we have seen will cause exactly the opposite result, and means that people are looking at other areas in which to build ships.
I agree. My colleague is in a similar position to me, and that is why as a local constituency Member I am enthusiastic about promoting the notion that, as referendum results will be counted constituency by constituency, if my constituency votes to remain part of the United Kingdom it should be allowed to do so, in order that it can continue to gain shipbuilding orders from the United Kingdom. We are prepared to enter into an alliance with Orkney and Shetland so that we can have oil and ships and those other matters. Whether or not other people wish to join that alliance I will leave to them. [Interruption.] Well, we have received approaches from other constituencies, saying that home rule for Govan and surrounding areas linked with the rest of the United Kingdom should be encouraged. I am confident that, certainly in my constituency, we will have a no vote in the referendum.
I will accept the result, and if the result is that my constituency votes to remain with the United Kingdom, it should be allowed to do so. What better way is there of accepting the result? If we vote to remain with the United Kingdom and are allowed to do so, we would not contest the result in any way. I hope that has the merit of clarity.
I return to my role as Chair of the Select Committee and the question of the franchise. Properly, as I indicated earlier, this is a matter for the Scottish Parliament to determine, although we are uncomfortable with the fact that using the electoral register for local government means that EU citizens who are resident in Scotland but are not British citizens will not be able to vote in a British general election, but will be able to vote to break up the United Kingdom.
That is an anomaly with which we are not happy. It means, among other things, that somebody who arrived, say, from eastern Europe a couple of weeks, virtually, before the last registration date will be able to vote, whereas somebody who has lived in Scotland all their lives and has temporarily gone down to England or abroad might not be able to do so. We think in principle that those who have strong ties, commitments and loyalties to Scotland should be able to vote in the Scottish referendum. We have expressed that view. In line with the spirit of devolution, however, we want to leave it to the Scottish Parliament to determine exactly how that is handled.
Indeed. These are anomalies and the Scottish Parliament has to show its maturity by being prepared to tackle them. There are no ideal answers in these circumstances. We must recognise that many of these issues are difficult and I will return to some of them, if I can.
The first issue that we want to tackle is that of 16 and 17-year-olds. This is properly an issue for the Scottish Parliament to handle. However, it is essential that the Scottish Parliament makes sure that if 16 and 17-year-olds are able to vote, they all are on the register. I recognise that there will be organisational difficulties. Administratively, the problems will be extreme. I am not entirely clear how we are going to avoid a situation where, potentially, 14-year-olds are registered.
I note that the Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee is reporting to the Chamber the findings of the Committee, which has gained much respect for the work that it has undertaken. Does my hon. Friend share my disappointment that we are listening to him without the presence of any SNP Members to hear him? That is disrespectful to the Committee.
Order. With respect to the hon. Lady, it is entirely up to hon. Members to decide which speeches they listen to, if they are not waiting to speak. Members in the Chamber may draw their own conclusions, but it is not a matter of order.
Indeed, it is not a matter of order. It is a matter of common decency, politeness and politics. Because the SNP does not control the Scottish Affairs Committee, SNP Members have decided to truant. They absented themselves from the Committee earlier on and have said that they will not come back until the Committee Chair is replaced by someone whom they favour more. The Northern Ireland Assembly does not decide who should chair the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the Welsh Assembly does not select the Chair of the Welsh Affairs Committee, and we should not have a situation where the Scottish Parliament selects the Chair of the Scottish Affairs Committee.
We cannot have a situation where a party, which originally did not seek a place on the Scottish Affairs Committee and got one only because the Conservative party was prepared to give up a seat for it, then demands that everything changes. That is regrettable but not surprising. It calls into question the genuineness with which the SNP is approaching the whole exercise in relation to the referendum. We have got responsibility and agreement on the section 30 notice. Now will come the issue of implementation. Will it be done on a sectarian and partisan basis or will it be done in accordance with the interests of Scotland as a whole? We wait with interest.
I thank my hon. Friend and neighbour across the water. Does he agree that perhaps the word that is missing here and in many other places is “trust”? For example, trust in what will be done in Edinburgh where, as I have mentioned on several occasions, bullying takes place. We see it in other areas. I am sorry to say that this is another example of the SNP’s bullying—in this case, of my hon. Friend. I am pleased to see him stand up against that. It is important that we trust the Scottish people and the Scottish Government. Does he agree?
We certainly have to trust the Scottish people. They are sensible enough to recognise that the SNP is unwilling to engage in debate. It is worth pointing out that at the establishment of the Scottish Affairs Committee, two SNP Members who had previously been on the Committee refused to participate because they found themselves being ridiculed and their arguments destroyed at every turn. They had had enough so they decided that they did not want to come back any more. That is understandable. Nobody likes being defeated in arguments, but it is rather petty and juvenile for them to take their ball and go home.
It is surely also fair to suggest that the total absence of SNP Members from this debate, which has been attended by Members from all other parties in the House, indicates that we are entitled to question how far the SNP will indeed listen to our view in the debate about the order when it goes to the Scottish Parliament. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be good if the SNP Members returned to the Chamber?
That is correct. How can they claim that they are willing to take all points of view into account if they are not willing to hear them? They withdraw from the Select Committee and from the Chamber when views are expressed that they do not like. I hope my colleagues will in future see it as a badge of honour if their remarks result in the SNP departing from the Chamber. They are obviously raising points that SNP Members feel cannot be refuted.
Let me make progress. We do not want to spend our time obsessing about the SNP truanting when there are important topics to be discussed. The Committee raised the issue of 16 and 17-year-olds and the difficulties of making sure that they are on the register. The Scottish Government and the SNP have had a long time to work through the procedures for that but have not done so adequately. In our view it will not be sufficient for only attainers to be given the vote in the Scottish referendum—those who will attain majority during the period of the register. It will be necessary to make sure, as promised, that everyone who is 16 or 17 years old is on the register.
I return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee West (Jim McGovern), who serves with distinction on the Scottish Affairs Committee. It is true that not only will Terry Butcher be able to vote and Alex Ferguson will not, but according to the Team GB information that we have, of the 11 Scottish Olympic medallists, only one is reported to be resident in Scotland. If people are good enough to represent Scotland at the Olympics and win medals on Scotland’s behalf, one would have thought that the rules would be sufficiently flexible to allow them to participate in the referendum, and similarly with respect to members of the Scottish rugby team and members of the Scottish football team. We can understand why those people might not want to be publicly known, given the recent results, but none the less, if they are selected to represent the country, one would have thought that they would at least be given the opportunity to vote on whether or not it should be independent.
All that has to be tackled by the Scottish Parliament. In particular, we want the Scottish Parliament to look at the position of Scottish servicemen. Someone who signs up for the services has no control over where they are sent. There are three groups of service personnel—the valuable point was made earlier that this also applies to their families—who have no control over where they are sent.
The first group consists of those who are posted in Scotland. There will be no difficulty in them having a vote, because they will be registered in Scotland. Secondly, there are those who are sent to Germany or furth of—outside—the UK. Under the normal rules, they will be expected to have a postal vote or an absentee vote to allow them to participate in the referendum. Thirdly, those who are posted to England, Wales or Northern Ireland would usually be expected to register where they are based, so they would not be on the local government register in Scotland and, therefore, would not be entitled to vote.
I understand that all those who are in the UK armed services at present will, in future, be given the opportunity to transfer and join the Scottish defence forces, whether they be the army, the air force or the navy. If they transfer, they might be asked to lay down their lives for Scotland. In such circumstances, it seems appropriate that they be given the opportunity to vote on whether or not a separate Scotland should be established. That is perhaps the most clear example of the anomalies resulting from using the local government electoral register. We believe that the Scottish Government have a responsibility to address those issues.
My hon. Friend was asked earlier about the position of Sir Alex Ferguson, who, as far as I know, has made his home on a permanent basis, at least for some years, in the Manchester area. Most Scottish troops who are posted abroad or elsewhere in the UK, however, are posted for only a few years. Most of them intend to come back to and reside in Scotland. Is not the key point that, for the most part, people are not leaving Scotland permanently but intend to return to the UK in due course? Someone who works for the European Union in Brussels can still register as a Scottish citizen and as an overseas voter for up to 15 years, but a Scottish soldier living in England cannot do so.
I think that there are excellent reasons why anybody who works for the EU in Brussels should be disqualified from voting on any subject, but that is a different issue. My understanding is that those working for the EU in Brussels would be entitled to vote in Scotland in UK elections for up to 15 years. That also applies to those who have retired to Spain and so on, but are not on the local government register.
Alex Ferguson plays a valuable role in my constituency as an old boy of Govan high school. I was going to say that he attends on a regular basis, but perhaps “visits” is a better term: I understand that his attendance was not that great when he was meant to be there, but I believe that it is a bit better now. He visits, give talks, participates and plays a constructive and positive part in the life of the school. It is clearly inappropriate that someone such as that, who has a lifetime commitment to Scotland, is not able to participate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) makes a valuable point about the extent to which service personnel are not given a say on where they will be posted. The same applies to many multinational companies, which post people abroad as part of their employment and career progression. It will be a test of the maturity of the Scottish Parliament to see whether it can find ways of squaring this circle and making sure that the electoral register is inclusive rather than exclusive.
Turning to the wording of the question, we have already produced, as Members present will be aware, a report asking, “Do you agree this is a biased question?” It was undoubtedly the case that every professional and expert with whom we discussed the issue and from whom we took evidence said that the question posed by the SNP was biased. The formulation, “Do you agree?”, is deliberately designed to elicit a positive answer. In such circumstances, I am distressed to hear the essentially weasel words of SNP spokesmen, who refuse to commit themselves to a fair question. There is some justification for what they have said, because I think that, in principle, the Scottish Parliament has to be supreme in these circumstances. However, there is absolutely no reason why the SNP as a political party should not have committed itself to accepting the advice of the Electoral Commission.
Given the hierarchy that has been mentioned, I would have thought that the best alternative is for the two campaigns to agree on the wording, and that the second best alternative is for everybody to accept the views of the impartial Electoral Commission, which has agreed to consider the matter in depth and to submit to the Scottish Affairs Committee not just its conclusions, but its working—as we used to be told in school exams, “Show working.” The commission will demonstrate how it has come to its conclusion. It will not simply spin a top, toss a coin or decide in an arbitrary fashion; it will produce a solution and demonstrate why it believes it to be the fairest one.
There is no reason whatsoever why the SNP as a political party should not commit itself to accepting that solution. I have some understanding of why the SNP would not wish to commit the Scottish Parliament irrevocably to that, because, theoretically, a distinction can be drawn between the Parliament and the Government on the one hand and the party on the other, but the parties involved in the Better Together campaign have given an assurance that they will accept what the Electoral Commission suggests, so I think we are entitled to regret the fact that the SNP has not done so, too.
The evidence that the Committee took from opinion poll experts was that the question is not just biased, but ridiculously biased, and that no self-respecting polling organisation would ever ask such a question. The Chairman of the Committee is perfectly correct and I hope that the Scottish Government will accept the advice of not just the Electoral Commission, but independent polling organisations.
The experts were absolutely clear that no self-respecting polling organisation would use such a biased formulation. To be fair—we have to be fair—they also argued, with some justification, that by the time of the referendum, people will generally know what it is that they are voting for. They will generally know what the question stands for and will be able to make a choice. However, if there is a marginal gain to be made, it should be removed. To come back to the mantra of British Cycling, which is about the aggregation of marginal gains, this is yet another example of the SNP seeking to make even the slightest advantage balance towards itself rather than the other side. This will not sway 50%, but it might sway 0.1% or a fraction of that. However, mony a mickle makes a muckle, as we are well aware, so in these circumstances each example that seeks partisan advantage is to be deplored.
The Committee says that
“the only deduction which can be made is that it”—
that is, the SNP and the Scottish Government—
“wishes to retain the capacity to amend the question so as to affect the result.”
That is the only conclusion that we can reasonably draw.
I have already covered the role of the Electoral Commission in most areas, but I want to touch on spending limits in particular. The Committee drew in a great deal of evidence on this, and we were convinced by that evidence that the ideal pattern would be for the two parties to agree and, failing that, for the Electoral Commission to decide. The Electoral Commission has come out with a view that is at variance with that of the Scottish Government. Notwithstanding that, the Committee and I still take the view that the spending that the commission would allow is too small.
Yes. The amount that the Electoral Commission is proposing is similar to the cash amount that was allowed in the 1997 referendum, but as a result of inflation, its real value has halved. Our belief is that, for a regulated period of 16 weeks, the spending limits should be bigger. As I understand it, £750,000 works out at 1p per voter per week of the campaign period, and I genuinely believe that that is insufficient. The Scottish Government are suggesting that the figure should be even lower.
This is a good example of how those of us who are active in Scottish politics are free to disagree with the Electoral Commission’s initial proposals. We can campaign for it to change its mind, but, at the end of the day, everyone involved should say that they would commit themselves to accepting the commission’s decision if it does not change its mind. The Scottish Government are unwilling to do that, however. They have reserved unto themselves the right to impose their view—which is presumably what suits them best—on top of, or instead of, the Electoral Commission’s view.
I will come to that in a second.
The Better Together campaign was unequivocal in saying that it would accept the ruling of the Electoral Commission. The yes campaign would not do so, however. It said that it would commit itself on whether to support the Electoral Commission only when it had heard what the commission’s judgment was. That also implies that it might not accept the judgment. Presumably, that position is based on self-interest.
My hon. Friend mentioned donations a moment ago. The clear issue is whether foreign donations should be accepted. Again, there is a difference between the campaigns and again I think that is based on perceived self-interest. The Better Together campaign has said that this is about the United Kingdom and that only people and organisations in the United Kingdom should be able to play a meaningful role by providing financial support. The yes campaign has said that it is prepared, in principle, to accept unlimited amounts of money in bundles of £500 or less from foreign sources. It has set up a front organisation in the United States that is designed to generate organisational support for the yes campaign and for separation. Some of those involved in that have made it perfectly clear, on websites and the like, that part of their function is to raise money for the SNP and its separation campaign.
Some people might have doubts about how much impact small amounts of up to £500 could have. When we took evidence from the True Wales campaign, which took the “no” side in the recent Welsh referendum, it said that virtually all its money had come from small donations. It was able to run an entire campaign almost entirely on small donations. Many of us will remember the publicity that was given to the Obama campaign and others in the United States—most notably, that of Howard Dean—which received a substantial amount of their money from a multiplicity of small donations. So even though the £500 limit might not appear to be a great deal, those donations could be significant when aggregated.
The major question of principle that needs to be addressed is whether the referendum in Scotland can be bought and sold with foreign gold—[Interruption.] I know that some people have heard that term before, but it is true none the less. Should the referendum be bought and sold with foreign gold? The SNP seems to have no scruples about that. However, those of us who are committed to the United Kingdom and to fair elections say that we should abide by the principle of PPERA and the guidance from the Electoral Commission. It is clear from the guidance and the spirit of PPERA, although perhaps not from the letter of it, that foreign money should not be involved in such referendums. Even at this late date, I hope that the Scottish Parliament and the SNP show confidence in their ability to raise money from Scots in Scotland and desist from taking foreign money.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the nauseating things about some of the people who donate money to the SNP from abroad is that they live abroad to avoid paying tax, and yet they want to tell us in Scotland, who pay our taxes over here, how to live? That includes Sean Connery.
I do not wish to name individuals, but a yes campaign is being established in America and I understand the suggestion that Tax Dodgers for Separation is about to be established in Monaco. Whether people will sign up to that group publicly is not clear, but we will monitor carefully where the money is coming from. We want to be clear about whether the SNP intends to name people abroad—whether tax dodgers or not—who contribute to its referendum funds. It has not given an unequivocal statement on that, to the best of my knowledge.
The proposed regulated period is 16 weeks only. It is interesting to note that the Scottish Government and the SNP have accepted the advice of the Electoral Commission on that matter. They are therefore not opposed in principle to accepting the advice of the Electoral Commission. We can only assume that it suits them in the circumstances. The Select Committee has said that the rules that govern the regulated period with regard to openness on donations and finance should also govern the unregulated period. So far, the two campaigns have indicated that they are minded to accept that, but we do not have that down in blood.
In conclusion—[Interruption.] It is true, as is being said by Members from a sedentary position, that the SNP Members have not yet returned to the Chamber.
Exactly. Equally, the party that claims to stand up for Scotland cannot even sit down and listen for Scotland.
Let me be clear: the Scottish Affairs Committee is positive about what is being proposed. We welcome the fact that there will be a referendum. We welcome the clarification that the Scottish Parliament will be given the legal powers to conduct it, whereas it did not have those powers before. We congratulate the Secretary of State and his team, including the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, and those in the Scottish Parliament who brought the deal about.
We support the deal not only as a matter of principle; we support it because we recognise the essential need to obtain losers’ consent. If they have had a hand in setting the rules, those who lose the referendum will not be able to claim that they were robbed. However, with that responsibility comes the need to ensure that the rules meet the gold standard. We are exceptionally concerned that the right of the Scottish people to have a fair referendum will not be met by the SNP. Those of us who have been elected by people in Scotland must not now wash our hands of this matter, but should continue to campaign to ensure that the referendum is fair and that the Scottish people make sure that anybody who tries to rig the referendum pays a heavy political price.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson). He and the Scottish Affairs Committee, which he chairs, have carried out the important task of putting before the House a wide-ranging report on this matter, and it was good to hear his presentation of points from that report this afternoon.
I wish to put it on the record that it is an absolute disgrace that nobody from the Scottish National party was in the Chamber when the Chairman of the Scottish Affairs Committee delivered his important and wide-ranging speech. Joking apart—I am joking, Mr Deputy Speaker, because I am disappointed that I am not about to have —[Interruption.] Oh—I am not disappointed. Right on cue the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) comes back into the Chamber. I am delighted that he is here because I was disappointed that there was nobody to argue with me. Nevertheless, it is a disgrace that no Scottish National party Member was in the Chamber to engage in debate with the Chairman of the Scottish Affairs Committee. Not every word spoken by the hon. Member for Glasgow South West goes without challenge in this House, and it was the duty of Scottish National party Members to be present to challenge anything with which they disagreed in what the hon. Gentleman said on the Floor of the House, and not merely in the media and other places. This Chamber is the forum for discussion about the affairs of our country—our whole country.
I well remember our debates in 1998 on the Scotland Bill that became the historic Scotland Act 1998. I remember Donald Dewar, to whom I pay great tribute for the work he did on behalf of Scotland and the United Kingdom, standing at the Dispatch Box when we debated what is now section 29 of the Act, and saying that it was not his intention for there ever to be a situation in which a Government of Scotland, or Scottish Parliament, would wish to conduct a referendum on the independence of Scotland. I firmly recall those of us then on the Opposition Benches saying, “But there might be and we must guard against it.” He said we did not have to guard against it, but in the end we did. However, history moves on.
I certainly respect the sovereignty of the people, and we now have a Government elected by the Scottish people—sadly—and that is up to the Scottish people and is democracy speaking. We now have a Government who do wish to conduct a referendum on the future constitutional position of the United Kingdom, and therefore it is right for this Parliament to enact this order today to give the Scottish Parliament power to conduct a referendum.
I welcome the Edinburgh agreement. It has been well considered, well balanced, well argued and well presented. The most important part about it is that it requires a referendum to be legal, fair and decisive, and on those counts, like most people who have spoken this afternoon, I have deep concerns about four particular points: the role of the Electoral Commission; the timing of the referendum; the question in the referendum; and the franchise. If those four matters are not correctly dealt with as the legislation to put a referendum in place goes through the Scottish Parliament, that referendum will not command the respect of the people whose future it will decide. We all want the referendum to be decisive. We all want this issue to be over, once and for all, so that those of us in the political world can in future speak about the matters that affect the Scottish people and those throughout the UK on a day-to-day basis, instead of having this prolonged argument about the processes of government.
Let me deal first with the Electoral Commission. I wonder what the First Minister is afraid of. If someone was truly willing to allow the proceedings of their Parliament and the decisions it takes to be properly examined by a properly constituted public body such as the Electoral Commission, they should have nothing to be afraid of. Not wanting the Electoral Commission to scrutinise what is to be done suggests that the First Minister does have something to be afraid of. It suggests that he wants to use political advantage to skew the way in which the referendum is conducted. I am surprised at that, because I have an enormous amount of respect for the Scottish First Minister. He is a brilliant politician and he usually manages to find his way through any argument with incredible rhetorical ability, often winning the point—[Interruption.] I am sure that his representative on earth, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire, is not leaving the Chamber again.
I genuinely pay tribute to the Scottish First Minister for his debating ability, his rhetorical ability and his political ability, so I do not see what he can possibly be afraid of, unless he has something to hide. He should not have anything to hide, because if we are to trust the Scottish people to make this important decision—and I do—we must trust them to make the decision in an open, honest, fair and balanced way. Indeed, it is worrying that when the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) spoke earlier, he took interventions and questions from various Members, but simply would not undertake on behalf of his party—and therefore on behalf of the Government in Scotland—to adhere to what the Electoral Commission says.
It seems clear that the reason why the Scottish nationalist party does not want to adhere to the directions of the Electoral Commission, but wants to seek electoral advantage by every means possible, is that it probably realises that the majority of Scotsmen and Scotswomen—and 16-year-old Scots too—want to remain united with the United Kingdom. That is probably why the Scottish nationalists will seek every advantage they can.
I am quite certain that my hon. Friend is right. If the First Minister was confident that a vast majority of people in Scotland would vote for Scotland to separate from the United Kingdom, as he wishes they would, he would not be worried about the Electoral Commission, or about spending, the question or anything else. It is because he knows that, actually, the reason he has his majority in the Scottish Parliament at present is because of the circumstances that pertained when people went to the polls at the last Scottish election. They were not voting for Scotland to separate from the United Kingdom; they were voting against the Labour party—but I shall not go down that route now, as you would not allow me to, Mr Deputy Speaker. We all know, however, that that is what—[Interruption.] They were voting against the Conservative party as well, I freely admit it, but that is not the point. The point is that the First Minister of Scotland knows that—he is a clever politician and he can analyse it. He knows the true intentions of the people of Scotland, and that is why he is afraid. That is why he is delaying, and that is why he is messing about with the franchise.
The hon. Lady is wise not to stray too far from the subject, but party politics is important. Does she agree that members of the Scottish National party are trying to fuse the two issues of party politics and the constitution together, and are making the mistake of underestimating the Scottish people? The Scottish people know that a decision in a general election lasts for five years, while constitutional change will last for 300 years.
Yes, the hon. Gentleman sums it up absolutely perfectly. When people vote in any kind of election, the effect is for the short to medium term; when they vote in a referendum, it is for ever—people know that. Actually, I think it is because the First Minister does not underestimate the Scottish people that he is afraid, but he knows what they really are likely to do. We in this House certainly do not underestimate the Scottish people, but I still ask the question: why is the First Minister afraid of the Electoral Commission? If he is not afraid, he should come out now—so should the hon. Member for Moray, who did not do so this afternoon, and the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire who is now, happily, in his place—and tell us that the Scottish Parliament will adhere unequivocally to whatever the Electoral Commission has to say. Well, he is not going to, and the silence speaks for itself.
My next concern is timing. Every business person in Scotland and everyone who is concerned with business and economic prosperity in Scotland will say that the uncertainty of the present situation is damaging for the Scottish economy, and therefore for the Scottish people. It simply does not make sense, having spent decades and decades building up the Scottish National party as a machine with just one goal—to take Scotland out of the United Kingdom—that when at last that party is in a position to do so, it does not but hesitates and will not take action. Again I ask: what are SNP members afraid of? Are they really waiting for the anniversary of the battle of Bannockburn? Are they really expecting some sort of upsurge in nationalist feeling because we are going to have the Commonwealth games in Glasgow? Exactly the opposite happened in the Olympics. Was it not wonderful to see Team GB? Was it not fantastic to see people from Scotland, England and Wales all working together as a brilliant team in the Olympics? The games are not going to fuel nationalism; they will do exactly the opposite.
Absolutely. The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Let us hope that they train just as well as they did last time and bring in as many medals, as it was wonderful to see and to support. He is absolutely right, so why wait?
Looking at it from the other point of view, however, I was annoyed at first that we were not just getting on with this and having the referendum, but now I discover that the more that one goes into the consequences of Scotland separating from the United Kingdom and the more time we have to examine the consequences in every area of life—every area of government, every area of the economy and every area geographically—the more obvious it becomes that we are “Better Together”. I am now glad that we have many months ahead of us to make the argument, because I am confident that the people of Scotland will see the truth as it emerges and as we examine what the real consequences of separation would be.
I turn next to the question. There is no point asking a question along the lines of: “Do you agree that Scotland should be an independent country?” That is what the First Minister and the Scottish Government have so far proposed. It is such a biased question that even I would answer yes—of course, Scotland should be, is and always has been an independent country. It is a non-question. There is no point going through the rigmarole of a referendum, spending hundreds of millions of pounds, to ask a meaningless question. If even I would answer yes, the facts speak for themselves: the question is enormously biased.
It is only worth asking a question, if it illuminates the real issue at stake, and the real issue is not about whether someone is proud to be Scottish and proud of their country; it is not about the word “independence” or Scotland being its own country; it is not even about nationhood, rising to be a nation again and all of that; the question is about separation. The difference between Scotland—indeed, the whole of the United Kingdom—before and after a referendum will turn only on the issue of separation. Nationhood will go on; the country will go on; and pride in one’s country will go on, as it always has done and always will do—those things will not change.
The change will be that, if the Scottish people vote for what the First Minister asks them to vote for, Scotland will separate. The key word, then, is “separate”. We must put aside all those other words and ensure that the word “separate” is in the question, because that is what the referendum is really about. Research from MORI and other well-thought-of opinion pollsters shows that, by the time we get to voting day in a campaign as long as this, people pretty well know whether they are on this side or that, but the House should make it clear that we believe that the issue is separation and that therefore the word “separation” must be in the question.
I come next to concerns about the franchise. It appears that the First Minister wants to make the franchise as wide as possible, as long as those who are enfranchised are those he thinks are likely to vote on his side of the argument. Basically, that is what it is all about. Let us consider the fairness, or otherwise, of the franchise. First, various Members have expressed their concerns about 16 and 17-year-olds voting. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West put to us the findings of his Select Committee report in that respect, and I hope that the House will take note of that.
One of my main concerns about 16 and 17-year-olds being able to vote is that, in order to make that happen, 14-year-olds have to appear on the register. It means including the names, addresses and ages of those aged 14 and 15, who are children, not adults. The names, ages and addresses of those children aged 14 and 15 will be available on a public document. That is simply not right, but it is one of the consequences of the crazy, scattergun effect of saying, “Let’s pull everyone into this; let’s let everybody vote; make the franchise as wide as possible”—as long, of course, as it means people who agree with the First Minister.
Although there are certain issues about giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote, there is a quite simple solution to the point raised by the hon. Lady. The names of under-16s should not be made available on a published register or on any register until a few weeks before the referendum period. There are ways of getting round the difficulty.
I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but I am not confident about that point. It greatly concerns me that the names, addresses and ages of 14-year-olds would be made public in order to allow them to vote by the time they are 16. At the moment, the name of someone who is yet to be 18 will be on the register more than a year before they are 18. I can cope with that for 17-year-olds, but not for 14-year-olds who are children. I repeat that that is simply not right.
Moving on to other aspects of the franchise, it would appear that some members of the armed forces will be allowed to vote in the referendum, but what about their families or their dependants? What if someone serving in Germany lives with his wife, teenage children and perhaps mother-in-law? The person in the armed forces might be given a vote, but those others would not. That is not fair.
I find it extraordinary that because the most Scottish of infantry battalions, the 5th Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland, the old Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, is garrisoned in Canterbury—that most English of towns—those serving in it will not be given the vote. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is extraordinary?
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that that is extraordinary, and it is also simply unfair. If the Scottish Parliament wants this referendum to command respect in the United Kingdom and indeed across the world, the franchise on which it is based must be fair and must be seen to be fair. What is being said this afternoon must be taken into account in the Scottish Parliament when it comes to debate how the legislation for the referendum should be framed. It is also unfair that those who are not in the armed forces but who are temporarily out of Scotland, serving their country in some other respect, should not be allowed to vote. It is wrong that they and whoever is with them on their mission, whatever it might be, should not be allowed to vote. Those temporarily out of Scotland who would in other circumstances still be in Scotland will not be allowed to vote.
Does the hon. Lady agree that many people in Scotland will find it crazy that Scots in the armed forces posted abroad may well get a vote as their home address in Scotland is on the electoral register, yet Scots in the armed forces who are posted in the rest of the United Kingdom will not be able to vote in the referendum?
Yes, that is the worst anomaly of all. People who are out of the United Kingdom are treated differently from people who are in the United Kingdom. I was just coming on to that point, and I am glad that the hon. Lady will agree with what I am about to say. The question is this: why is the franchise for this referendum being based on the franchise for local government elections? This is not a question of local government; it is completely different. Local government elections are about electing people, for four years or so, who look after truly local matters such as roads, pavements, lighting and village halls. I accept that people who are not living in the area and paying council tax should not take part in a local government election, because it concerns local matters. I also accept that people from EU countries, Commonwealth countries, Ireland and so on, who are living in a particular area and paying local taxes, should have a vote in a local government election at that time. Their vote will last for four years—I have no problem with that. But why has the franchise for this historic referendum been based on the franchise for local government elections? [Interruption.] I was hoping that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire might answer the question. He indicates that he will come to it in due course. That is excellent. We really need an answer to the question. This is not about local government, or local matters, but a huge, historic referendum that affects all Scots and the whole United Kingdom.
The answer is simple: the franchise is the same for local and Scottish parliamentary elections. Any choice of franchise will have anomalies, but is it not sensible to make the franchise for the referendum the same as for Scottish parliamentary elections?
No, it is not. The hon. Gentleman has answered the question in a factual way—the franchise for a Scottish Parliament election was based on the franchise for a local government election. I know that, but my argument is that basing a franchise on local government elections is not suitable for a historic referendum that will affect Scotland and the whole United Kingdom for a long time to come.
If the franchise had been based on the UK parliamentary elections, British nationals who have been living outside Britain for less than 15 years would have a vote. That would be much fairer, and would cover the point made by the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Pamela Nash), because someone serving in the armed forces in, say, Germany, who has their entire family living with them—who would presumably have been out of Scotland for less than 15 years—would have a vote in the constituency in which they were last based in Scotland. It would make far more sense to base the franchise for the referendum on UK parliamentary elections, because that would allow far more people who are Scottish and who want to have a say in the future of their country to do so.
There is a far more difficult point. Hundreds of thousands of Scots living in parts of the United Kingdom other than Scotland do not feel in travelling the few miles to Carlisle or the few hundred miles to London that they have left their country. Their attitude—I know because I am one of them—is that they are living in a different part of their country from that in which they happen to have been born. That does not mean that they have in any way given up their nationality or their pride in their part of our United Kingdom. It is utterly scandalous that the Scottish Government’s current plans will disfranchise hundreds of thousands of people who were born in Scotland but live in other parts of the United Kingdom. The First Minister of Scotland has said that people from Commonwealth countries can vote on Scotland’s future, citizens of the Irish Republic who live in Scotland can vote on Scotland’s future, and anyone who is a citizen of any part of the enormous European Union who happens to be living in Scotland for a matter of months can have a say in the future of Scotland, but hundreds of thousands of Scots living in England, Wales and Northern Ireland will not have that say.
I have been listening carefully to the hon. Lady’s remarks for half an hour or so. All the arrangements to which she has referred during the past 10 minutes were agreed between her party’s Front Bench and the Labour Front Bench, and between the UK Government and the Scottish Government. If she is not happy about the arrangements for the Scottish people to have control over their own referendum through their elected representatives, she can express her unhappiness by voting against the order. Will she do that?
No. I am very happy. The hon. Gentleman is trying to put words into my mouth, suggesting that I do not understand or care what happens in Scotland. That is not the case. I am very much in favour of the order, and very much in favour of allowing the Scottish Parliament to conduct the referendum. However, I firmly believe that because the referendum will affect the future of the whole United Kingdom, this House—this Parliament—should also serve as a forum for discussion about its conduct.
Although I do not happen to live in Scotland at present, and although some Members who are speaking this afternoon do not represent Scottish constituencies, I hope that if matters will proceed with good will, the Scottish Parliament will take into consideration what we discuss in this Parliament during the process of giving it the power to hold the referendum.
As ever, my hon. Friend has expressed his view very clearly. That is exactly the point, and that is why it is so important that we are having a full debate today. This Parliament has a voice that deserves to be heard, and people throughout the United Kingdom have voices that deserve to be heard, when it comes to a matter that will affect the future of the whole United Kingdom. I have every confidence that the Scottish Parliament will hear our voices, and will take into consideration what is said in the House this afternoon and throughout the United Kingdom as the matter is debated over the coming weeks and months.
It would not be difficult for a vote to be given to people who live in the United Kingdom, outside Scotland, but who were born in Scotland. Indeed, it would be very easy. I appreciate that my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State will not be able to answer the points that I am making, and nor do I expect him to do so. This is a matter for the Scottish Parliament, but I am using the forum of the House of Commons to make points which I hope will be taken up in the Scottish Parliament. They may be dismissed, but I hope that they will be taken seriously.
It would not be difficult for a vote to be given to people who were born in Scotland, because everyone’s passport identifies the town in which they were born. It would not be difficult to allow a person who can show they were born in Scotland but who is registered to vote in some other part of the UK to apply for a postal vote to take part in the referendum. That is a serious point. I am not points-scoring against the SNP; I am trying to help the First Minister in his quest to broaden the franchise and show that the referendum takes into consideration the opinions of as many people as possible.
There is an irony in all this. If I were a wealthy landowner who owned a property in Scotland as well as a house in my constituency in Essex, I could vote in the referendum, because I would be entitled to vote in local government elections on the basis that I own a property in Scotland. I would not even have to be a wealthy landowner, in fact: if I just owned a little house in Millport—which is, of course, my ambition—I could have a vote in the referendum. However, because I am not wealthy and cannot afford to own a property in Scotland as well as a house in my constituency, I cannot have a vote. As we all know, there are hundreds and hundreds of people who own properties in Scotland but live most of their lives in other parts of the UK who will have a vote in this referendum. It is ironic indeed that the First Minister is taking us back to before the 1832 Reform Act, when the right to vote depended on ownership of land. What a disgrace!
The hon. Lady might not welcome my intervention, because I think she may be in danger of slightly overegging her pudding. My understanding is that people have to prove to the electoral registration officers that they spend the majority of their time in the house at which they wish to be registered. While I understand the hon. Lady’s train of thought, I am not entirely sure that the image she is conjuring up of hordes of people living in other parts of the United Kingdom is accurate.
I thank the right hon. Lady for her comments, but my understanding is that people who have two properties in different places can vote in different elections, especially those based on a local government franchise. That is what is wrong here. If this franchise were constructed for the purposes of our historic referendum, rather than as a local government franchise, the problem would be overcome. I am making a serious request: when the Scottish Parliament debates this matter, I urge it to consider giving a postal vote in the referendum to people who were born in Scotland but who are now registered to vote in other parts of the UK.
I welcome the Edinburgh agreement. We all believe in democracy. We in this House believe in the sovereignty of the people. It is right that our Parliament should give the Scottish Parliament the power to hold this referendum, and I look forward to the fight.
I never thought I would say that I will miss my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson), but I am missing him as he leaves the Chamber now.
I am pleased to have an opportunity to take part in this debate. As I have said in the House before, the matter we are discussing today and the decision on Scotland’s future will be the biggest decision made in 300 years. It will certainly be the biggest decision in our lifetimes.
First, let me reiterate a point the Chairman of the Scottish Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West, made in jest, but which is, in fact, serious. Today we have heard the leader of the SNP in Westminster congratulating all parties for working together to get an agreement on this section 30 order. We have heard the SNP’s own campaign and the Yes Scotland chief executive saying, “We want a fair, honest, positive and transparent debate”, but instead what we have seen in this House is a co-ordinated stunt. It was not one Member choosing to go elsewhere because they had another priority—that is a different argument altogether; SNP Members chose to walk out from this Chamber in a co-ordinated way, and that is disrespectful not only to this Parliament, but to Scotland. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) should apologise for that behaviour. The Scottish people will judge the SNP on that very issue. Although the issue we are discussing is the reason why the SNP even exists, only one SNP Member can be bothered to come to the Chamber—and even they can walk out and walk about the Lobby instead of listening to the debate. That says everything about where the SNP’s priorities lie. The SNP’s priority is not Scotland; it is the SNP.
When I joined the Labour party almost 15 years ago—I know that I do not look that old, Mr Deputy Speaker—I did so to fight against poverty and inequality across the world. I wanted to tackle inequality and discrimination wherever they may be found, and to promote opportunities for people, no matter what their background. I had no idea at that time that the first big battle of my political life would be to try to keep my own country together. I recognise that today’s debate is important to us, but it is more important to the people of Scotland and to the people of these isles. That is why we in this place and our colleagues in the Scottish Parliament, from all political parties, must approach this debate and the debate on the future of the United Kingdom in a manner befitting the importance of the poll. This is no ordinary vote. All of us can be removed by the electorate—whether we like it or not, we are transient Members of this place—but the decision in 2014 will last for ever. That is why the terms and tone of the debate are so important.
I welcome the agreement between the UK and Scottish Governments, and I congratulate Ministers on both sides on the hard work that was put in to reach it. However, I wish to sound a note of caution. The Secretary of State talked about making sure that we follow the advice of the Electoral Commission, but I do not think that anybody in this place should be naive about the current make-up of the Scottish Government and the SNP. We have a majority SNP Government in the Scottish Parliament, but that is not a democratic place in the conventional sense; it is a dictatorship of one man sitting in Bute house, who will do not what is in Scotland’s interests, but what is in his own or his party’s interests. We need to be very clear about that as we go forward.
This Parliament has an important role to play. I fully agree that we need to transfer the powers from here to the Scottish Parliament—I fully accept that that is the right thing to do—but every Scottish Member of Parliament in this place was elected on a mandate of the Scottish electorate. My ballot paper did not say “UK Labour party” or “London Labour party”; it clearly said “Scottish Labour party”. My interest here, first and foremost, is to deliver for my constituents in Glasgow. The first and foremost thing for every Scottish Member in this place is to deliver for Scotland. That has to be the case in this debate and in every future such debate, not just in the referendum.
So the UK Government do have a role to play in future. They have a role in terms of the franchise, the question and the framework resulting from the advice taken from the Electoral Commission on the spending limits. We must ensure that there is proper scrutiny in this place of the decisions taken at the Scottish Parliament, particularly in respect of ensuring that the Electoral Commission’s advice is followed.
Let me make it clear that the SNP has won the mandate to hold a referendum—of course it has. The SNP won the right, through its election manifesto, to ask the question of the Scottish people. The SNP has campaigned for independence throughout its existence and this is its big moment. The eyes of the world are on the SNP as it seizes the chance to put its case to the people of Scotland. Equally, however, the people of Scotland have a right to respond decisively and they have the right to have the question asked and answered in a way that is open, transparent, fair and, perhaps above all else, not open to doubt or challenge.
The hon. Gentleman is making a very good point. Does he agree that the evidence is clear that a substantial proportion of the people who voted SNP do not support independence and if they saw the SNP manipulating the question, that could prove counter-productive in two ways? Of course, it would discredit the SNP but it would also lead to a result that people would find unsatisfactory. Does he agree that it is in the interests of the SNP and Scotland for the question to be agreed by, and to have the confidence of, all parties?
I agree wholeheartedly and, in fact, I would go further. Polling has shown that 45% of the people who voted SNP in 2011, when the party won that overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, oppose independence and support being members of the United Kingdom. We have seen the launch of the Labour for Independence campaign, which has one or a maximum of two Labour members fronting a campaign led mainly by the SNP. In fact, the SNP should be looking to keep its own support rather than trying to look for voters elsewhere.
The Scottish Government, Yes Scotland and the Deputy First Minister have all said that the debate must be open, transparent, fair and honest. The transfer of powers from this place to the Scottish Parliament and the decisions that the Electoral Commission will make on how to make the referendum fair and open are the first big tests of the rhetoric. This is the first opportunity those bodies will have to show that they will put the people of Scotland first, that they will put the future of Scotland before the future of the SNP and the country’s interests before their own, and that the will of the people of Scotland will come before all else. The people of Scotland deserve nothing less.
I have some concerns. To date, the SNP rhetoric on transparency and fairness has not matched up to the reality of its behaviour. On the very subject of today’s debate, let us not forget that just one year ago the SNP said that it did not need a section 30 order for the referendum to be competent. Alex Salmond said to the Scottish Parliament:
“We have set out in the past how the Scottish Parliament could hold a referendum that we are satisfied would be within its present competence.”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 25 January 2012; c. 5605.]
Bruce Crawford, as Minister for Parliamentary Business, said that the SNP Administration had set out their position on the
“right and ability of the Scottish Parliament to hold an independence referendum”.
Both comments were presumably the most factual comments ever made in the history of the Scottish Parliament.
Let us be clear. The leader of the Westminster SNP has welcomed the historic agreement that will transfer these powers—an agreement the SNP said was not needed in the first place. We have also seen the section 30 order being used as an excuse for assertions on other issues. The Deputy First Minister stood up in the Scottish Parliament and claimed that the SNP was now in a position to seek legal advice on the EU because of the content of the Edinburgh agreement, an agreement that her party did not think was needed in the first place. Nothing in the agreement stopped the SNP or the Scottish Government from seeking legal advice on that issue or many others before this point, so none of the debate from the SNP should be skewed in the context of the section 30 agreement.
We have heard from colleagues today, and have already seen from the SNP, a willingness to change the franchise for the referendum by reducing the voting age to 16. Although I agree with that, the SNP’s proposal is based not on any principled view that 16 and 17-year-olds should have the vote for all elections but rather on a belief that they might gain electoral advantage from the inclusion of that group, who were believed to be more likely to support independence. However, that plan appears to have backfired somewhat as a recent poll showed that young people are as against independence as the rest of Scotland.
Let me make some important points about the expansion of the franchise to include 16-year-olds. We need to ensure that not only some 16-year-olds but every 16-year-old gets a vote in the referendum. We must be clear about the work that must be done locally and nationally by the electoral registration officers, where the funds will come from to meet the costs and whether local government will be given the additional finance it needs to deliver on that pledge. We must also be clear about the impact of the UK Government’s insistence on single voter registration on encouraging 16 and 17-year-olds to register for the referendum. Those are all serious issues that must be addressed before we move on to the substance of the question.
There are other areas of concern, too. Perhaps the most obvious is the reluctance of the Scottish Government publicly to commit to accepting the decisions of the electoral Commission. The role of the Electoral Commission is clear and well rehearsed; it is an independent, experienced and trusted body, whose motive is only that of ensuring a fair contest and a fair outcome.
Two areas of consideration are vital. The first is the fairness of the question. Can anything be of greater importance than ensuring that voters have a clear unbiased question? The second is to ensure that the spending limits of the respective campaigns are appropriate to allow a properly robust and informed debate.
There is not universal approval of the wording of the question. Some say it is leading and some say it is likely to skew the result. I say, let the Electoral Commission decide. On our side of the argument, we know the result we want, and the nationalists know the result they want. It should not be for politicians to decide what the question should be; let us take it out of their hands. I am not saying that our question is better than an SNP question; I am saying that we should respect the right of an independent respected body to set the question. All political parties should accept its advice and move on, to give Scotland the debate it deserves.
One of the things the Electoral Commission can deliver is its experience in getting under the language used—for example, testing it with focus groups—to see whether people understand what the writer thinks they understand. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is not about the politics, but about ensuring that the language is clear?
I was coming to that very point. The Electoral Commission will test the question. Any advice it offers will be evidence-based. It will not be based on supposition by any Member of the House or of any other place, nor on opinion or myth; it will be based on evidence and rigorous testing.
The job of the Electoral Commission is to ensure that the question is clear, understandable and decisive. If given that right, it will ensure that the question is unbiased and fair. Crucially, by accepting the decision of the Electoral Commission, the question will be seen, across Scotland and across the world, as unbiased and fair. It was somewhat surprising, therefore, to hear the chief executive of the Yes Scotland campaign be very clear in his evidence to the Scottish Affairs Committee about the Electoral Commission advice:
“There is always room left to disagree.”
Yes, we can disagree, but trusting an independent body to deliver a fair question is another thing altogether.
While those words are deeply concerning they also, I fear, reveal a worrying capacity for those in the yes camp to play fast and loose with vital checks and balances in the process. It is not just on the question that they appear prepared to ignore advice; given the SNP proposals, the issue of campaign funding also appears to be in its sights. The SNP Government want spending limits. That is absolutely reasonable and to be expected, but unfortunately, they want the spending limits to be set by them, not by the independent Electoral Commission. The spending limits will be set by legislation, but the SNP will control the legislation. There is a majority Government—in effect, a dictatorship in the Scottish Parliament—who will seek to do what is to their advantage.
The SNP has already proposed spending limits at half the level, or even less, than those suggested by the Electoral Commission. It is worth considering the impact of the Scottish Government’s proposals. One of their proposals is that each campaign can spend a maximum of £750,000. That is half the £1.5 million allowed through the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. It is less than the £1.2 million that all the council candidates from each party could have spent collectively during last May’s council elections.
I recognise that winning control of the great city of Glasgow and many other places was important for us as a political party, and more importantly, it was an opportunity for political parties to deliver their principles and values in local authorities, but are we seriously suggesting that the referendum on the future of Scotland—the most important decision we have made in 300 years—deserves to have less spent on it and is of less importance than a council election? I do not think so. That point needs to be reflected in the proposals for the spending framework.
The SNP proposals will have an impact on other interested parties; for example, the trade union movement. Unite has approximately 150,000 members in Scotland, yet the SNP proposes that organisations such as Unite are limited to a maximum spend of £50,000. It does not take a mathematical genius to work out that Unite will not even be able to pay for the postage of a letter to each of its members, never mind pay for a leaflet or an envelope.
It does not take a political genius to work out the SNP’s motives. There can be no convincing reason why the SNP would choose to set those limits. The court of public opinion will come to the conclusion that yet again, the SNP is seeking to manipulate the process for its own ends. I hope that it will rise to the occasion. I shall give SNP Members the opportunity to say whether they prefer to abide by the decision of the Electoral Commission or whether they wish to reconsider it. I hope that they will address that when they speak in the debate.
By passing the motion we are setting out a clear legal position on the referendum, and by doing so we are passing responsibility from this place to the Scottish Government, and to all Members of the Scottish Parliament. That is a heavy responsibility that lies with the SNP Government and SNP Members because, perhaps uniquely in the Scottish Parliament, the party has an overall majority and a resulting built-in majority in committee, which places a greater responsibility on the party of government to live up to the highest ideals, judged not as members of the SNP but as parliamentarians and first and foremost as democrats. If done right, the legacy, whatever the outcome of the referendum, can be a Parliament of which we can all be proud, and a result in which we can all have faith. I commit myself and, I am sure, every single member of my party, to working for what is in the best interests of Scotland, whatever the outcome of the referendum. I hope that members of other political parties will do exactly the same. Scotland deserves nothing less.
I very much welcome the chance to participate in this important debate. It is a great pleasure once again to follow my fellow Hutchesonian, who made a powerful speech. If it does not damage his reputation even further, I shall point out that I agree with many of the points that he made, and I hope to build on them.
In many respects, I wish that we were not having this debate. I am a staunch Unionist, and I believe in the United Kingdom. I wish that we did not have to contemplate at all the prospect of the United Kingdom splitting up into its constituent parts. I believe that that very process will cause uncertainty at a time when we need absolute certainty for our economy. There is evidence from Canada that the ongoing constitutional debate and the uncertainty of Quebec’s constitutional status damaged the economy in Quebec, and I wish that we were not in that position. The hon. Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) made an important point from the perspective of his constituency about the uncertainty for the shipyards in Govan and elsewhere, and the fact that there will be no certainty on future orders while the constitutional question remains unresolved.
We are where we are. I am a democrat, and I fully accept that the SNP won the majority of seats in the Scottish Parliament. However much opinion polls show that the constitutional question was, or was not, part of the debate in that election, it was part of the SNP manifesto, and it is perfectly legitimate for it to hold the referendum. I accept that the Scottish Parliament is the right forum in which to set the terms of the referendum, but it must be absolutely fair, clean and decisive.
I wish to mention a few of my concerns. There must not be any question of gerrymandering with regard to the question, the electorate and the rules by which the campaign is fought. Many Members have expressed legitimate concerns about the prospects for the campaign. I commend members of the Scottish Affairs Committee for their insightful report, which highlighted a number of concerns.
I want to concentrate on one or two misgivings about the franchise. The question of 16 and 17-year-olds voting has been raised. I completely accept that there is a legitimate debate to be had about whether the voting age should be lowered. Eighteen is not set in stone in this country: the age at which someone can vote has changed over the years and has been reduced in recent times. I get young people in my constituency calling on me to consider a reduction in the voting age. I have an open mind on the subject. My view is that we should agree on a common age of majority for a series of things. It is slightly daft that we have different ages of adulthood for learning to drive, voting, getting married, buying alcohol or tobacco, and serving in the armed forced. It is not beyond our wit to agree an age at which most young people achieve a degree of maturity and at which they can exercise adult decisions. I do not have a particular view about whether that should be 16, 17, 18 or some other age, but that is not the point.
That debate should be had in general terms, not in the specific circumstances of one poll. It is utterly wrong that unilaterally for one election or one referendum we make a change, and for that not to apply elsewhere. Whether 16 and 17-year-olds are more likely to support the Union or independence is not the point. The debate should be had in general terms.
Following the Edinburgh agreement, this is the only election or referendum the Scottish Parliament will have control of. We have no say on UK elections. We do not even have a say on Scottish parliamentary elections. Of course, if we had responsibility for them, we would make sure that 16 and 17-year-olds could vote. We have crofter commissions and local government elections in which we can have 16 and 17-year-olds voting, but we do not have legislative responsibility for UK or Scottish parliamentary elections.
The hon. Gentleman is making a point about a continuing process of devolution and, in the future, it might fall within the competence of the Scottish Parliament to decide these things. That is a separate debate. But to make the decision unilaterally for one poll in what I believe is the self-interest of the party—whether that is misplaced or not is another question—is fundamentally wrong in my view.
It might interest the hon. Gentleman to know that the Scottish Parliament does have control of other elections. It has control of local government elections and, in 2012, it decided not to extend the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. I fear he may be getting incorrect information from the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart).