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Strength of the Union

Volume 688: debated on Wednesday 27 January 2021

Scotland benefits greatly from being part of a strong United Kingdom. The most obvious recent examples are the unprecedented economic support offered to people and businesses in Scotland and the rapid supply of vaccinations to all parts of the United Kingdom currently taking place. Neither of these would have been possible if Scotland was not part of the United Kingdom.

Finland, a small independent country in the EU with a population comparable to Scotland, right throughout the pandemic has been paying workers’ benefits equivalent to their full pay if they are required to self-isolate. If tiny little Finland can pay people their full wage, what does it say about the strength of the Union that we pay Scots a measly £95 a week?

There has been unprecedented support. The sort of support that the United Kingdom has delivered through the furlough scheme, the self-employment income support scheme, the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, business grants and the £8.6 billion delivered to the Scottish Government to help with the pandemic has not been delivered anywhere else within the European Union.

Does my right hon. Friend share my concern that, at a time when my constituency has its highest ever level of coronavirus infections, rather than focusing solely on beating this pandemic and planning for a recovery, Nicola Sturgeon and the Scottish Government are prioritising another independence referendum and breaking up the United Kingdom?

I absolutely agree with my right hon. Friend. People in Scotland want to see politicians across the United Kingdom working in partnership to focus on defeating the coronavirus. That remains the top priority of the UK Government, who have supported jobs and businesses across the United Kingdom through the pandemic —as I say, there has been unprecedented support—and now more than ever, we should be pulling together to strengthen our country, instead of trying to separate it.

On this Holocaust Memorial Day, let us remember those who were persecuted and those who are persecuted now, and never forget the horrors that can happen when bigotry goes unchallenged.

I do not remember that same sense of responsibility when Brexit was being bulldozed through during the same pandemic that the Secretary of State has just mentioned. If he is so sure of the strength of the Union, why is he so afraid to test that strength in another independence referendum?

First, I align myself with the remarks that the hon. Lady made about the holocaust.

The referendum took place in 2014. We respect that; it was a democratic outcome. The hon. Lady mentioned Brexit: that referendum took place in 2016, and again, it was a democratic outcome. We are the party that respects democracy.

I know the Secretary of State is aware that a lot has changed since 2014. Scotland has been taken out of the EU against its will; we have had three Tory Prime Ministers we never voted for; and now, 20 consecutive polls have shown that a majority of people in Scotland now support independence. Given that he is the defender of democracy, I ask him how, with that in mind, can the people of Scotland secure that preferred choice of independence?

Scotland receives over £1,600 more in support per man, woman and child than the UK average—that is incredibly important. Added to that is the £8.6 billion of extra coronavirus support, and on top of that, the furlough support. An independent Scotland would have the largest deficit in the European Union, and it would break member state rules. I remind the hon. Lady of what the SNP’s own economic adviser, Andrew Wilson, said: that an independent Scotland would face austerity like it had never been seen before, with increases in taxation and cuts in public spending. I believe that as we focus on coming out of the pandemic, all being in the rowing boat together and pulling on the oars in these choppy waters is the best place for Scotland and for the United Kingdom.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker; I will share it with you when we come back to Westminster.

As we have just heard from the SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), the SNP would rather obsess over another independence referendum than focus on Scotland’s recovery from covid-19. Does the Secretary of State agree that this once again demonstrates that the nationalists’ priorities are all wrong, because right now, people want us to focus on vaccine roll-out, defeating covid-19 and rebuilding our economy?

I wish my hon. Friend many happy returns, and my birthday present to him is to say that I could not agree with him more. Rather than waste time on a divisive separatist agenda, the Scottish Government should be working with us to defeat the pandemic and to recover our economy.

I did not quite detect an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black) when she asked how the Scottish people could now secure a referendum on independence. We can dispute the merits of that, and I am sure we will, but does the Secretary of State accept that this is now what the Scottish people want? Twenty opinion polls in a row indicate that, so how do the Scottish people democratically acquire the right to have what they want in a referendum?

I say again: now is not the time. Now is the time for us to focus on rebuilding our economy and protecting jobs. I see the hon. Gentleman up there with his gold disc behind him, and I have to say that, from Scottish questions to Scottish questions, he is beginning to sound like a broken record.

The UK now officially has the highest covid mortality rate anywhere in the world, and we know from the in-field accuracy of lateral flow tests that they have a 50% chance of being wrong. As the Prime Minister and his entourage are relying on such inaccurate test results, and given the PM’s disastrous handling of the pandemic, why is the Secretary of State risking lives by backing his futile Union-Jackery trip to Scotland against public health advice when he knows that the PM has the ability to insult our intelligence from London?

That is ridiculous. The Prime Minister is the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and wherever he needs to go in his vital work against this pandemic, he will go.