I beg to move,
That this House has considered the upcoming Scottish Parliamentary general election and Scotland’s right to choose its constitutional future.
We have been waiting a while for a third party Opposition day, so I am delighted that we get to set the agenda today. The timing of this debate could not be more apposite. On 6 May, Scotland goes to the polls for a general election to the Scottish Parliament. The consequences of the outcome of that election could be profound, both for Scotland and for the rest of the United Kingdom, so it is fitting that this Parliament gets an opportunity—perhaps its last opportunity—to debate what it thinks of that before the campaign starts and before the election takes place. I hope we can have a thoughtful and considered discussion about the political principles that will infuse that campaign, and perhaps leave behind some of the more intemperate remarks that are often a hallmark of the campaign itself.
To understand what is happening currently in Scotland, we need to start with two facts. The first is that Scotland is not a region of a unitary state seeking secession from it; it is a country that has been in existence for many centuries. Indeed, it is a nation that is, by voluntary association, part of a multinational state that we call the United Kingdom. The second fact is that in determining how consent to that voluntary association should be given, the people of Scotland are ultimately sovereign in making the decision.
The claim to be sovereign has been around for at least eight centuries, but in the modern era it was codified in 1989 by the Scottish constitutional convention in a document called “A Claim of Right for Scotland”, which asserted that the people of Scotland have the right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs. For a while that claim, which underpinned the 20 years of policy and argument that was to follow, was relatively uncontroversial. In fact, even in 2014 the Scottish Conservative party issued a statement saying that although it did not think that the people of Scotland should vote for independence, it very much endorsed and agreed with their right to do so.
On 18 September 2014, the claim was put into practice and there was a living experience of that right being exercised in the referendum on whether Scotland should become an independent country. Even after the referendum, the Smith commission noted in 2016 that nothing in its report would preclude the people of Scotland voting to become an independent country in the future. As late as 2018, which seems only a blink of an eye away, we discussed the claim of right in this Chamber, and this Parliament and this House reaffirmed their commitment to the principle.
I remember that debate, and particularly the contribution of the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray). He felt frustrated and aggrieved; although he agreed with and supported the claim of right, he thought that my party was acting in bad faith, because the claim of right had been exercised at the referendum and we did not respect the result and the judgment of the people of Scotland in exercising their self-determination to remain in the United Kingdom. In fact, that is not true. We very much respect the decision that was taken on 18 December 2014. Indeed, had it not been for the will of the people to do otherwise, that might have been the end of the matter for a very considerable period of time. But the fact is that it was not.
A claim of right is not something that can exist on the day of the referendum and then cease to exist the day after. If it is a right, it must exist for all time. It does not have a self-destruct mechanism within it. It cannot be invalidated simply by its exercising.
All good things come to those who wait, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I will be dealing with the “once in a generation” tagline later in my speech.
On referendums and whether they should take place, the question will arise as to who should make the decision. If we believe in the will of the Scottish people to choose their own destiny, then the answer can only be that the people of Scotland should decide whether to have another referendum. I accept that there needs to be a debate about how we gauge their opinion and what democratic mechanism is used for them to express their view. Well, democratic societies will quite often do that by using the electoral process and the process of voting, and in 2016 that is exactly what happened. My party did not go into the election in 2016 saying, “There must be another referendum and, 18 months forward, we disrespect the decision that was taken.” We went to the polls saying: “It looks like things are beginning to happen in the UK that will change the whole nature of the options available to people, and there may be circumstances in which it would be legitimate and proper to go forward and reconsider the question again in a second referendum.” That was the mandate that we were given by the people of Scotland in 2016.
That was six weeks before the Brexit vote in the UK, and no one could have anticipated what would unfold in the years after the May 2016 general election in Scotland. People in England voted by a small majority to leave the European Union and people in Scotland voted, by a much larger majority, to stay in the European Union. Overall, the vote was such that there was a narrow majority to leave, and the British Government began the tortuous process of extricating the United Kingdom from the European Union. That process was made all the more difficult and painful by the Government’s decision not to try to accommodate any of the wishes of the people on the losing side of the argument and to seek the maximum possible dissociation from the European Union. That is what happened, and we remember the agonising twists and turns in that process.
As 2018 moved into 2019 and we watched the process unfold, two things became clear. First, the opinion of the people of Scotland in the matter was to be completely disregarded. Unlike in other parts of the United Kingdom where there was an attempt to try to make the decision that was being implemented fit the aspirations of people who lived there, there was no such attempt in Scotland.
But the fact remains that Brexit has happened, so an independent Scotland would have to apply to rejoin the EU. Leaving aside whether it would be wise for Scotland to replace union with a country that is right next door to it with one with a body that is hundreds of miles away, why does the hon. Gentleman think that Spain, with its problems of Catalonia, would ever facilitate Scotland rejoining the EU?
That is not the subject of today’s debate, but it only takes a cursory reading of statements from European premiers to see that their mood has completely changed and they would welcome, many of them with open arms, a self-governing Scotland into the European Union. But we are getting ahead of ourselves, because we have not yet had the ability to take that decision.
As the Brexit process unfolded, two things became clear. One was that Scotland’s views were to be completely disregarded, but even more worryingly, we saw the British Government begin to put in place mechanisms to replace the jurisdiction of the European Union that would centralise political power in this country and reduce the capacity and competence of the devolved Administrations in Holyrood and, indeed, Cardiff.
By the end of 2019 it became clear that those two things were creating a fundamentally different terrain on which the future of the United Kingdom and the future of Scotland should be judged. It was the determination of the Scottish Parliament by resolution at that time that the conditions set in the mandate of 2016 had been met and that that mandate should now be discharged. Therefore, the Scottish Parliament voted and applied to the British Government for a section 30 order to begin the process of having a further referendum. The response by the Prime Minister was fast and furious, and he dismissed it out of hand.
We were about to get into an argument about that when the world literally turned upside down and a small microbe brought humanity almost to its knees. As covid-19 raced across the globe, and as our economy and society ground to a halt, the Scottish Government—rightly, in my view—decided to shelve any preparations or plans for a further referendum until that matter was dealt with. Had the pandemic not happened, we might well be having a very different discussion today. But we are where we are, and we are 51 days away from the Scottish general election, at which the existing mandate will expire. At that election, my party and others will be seeking a new, fresh mandate from the Scottish people to assert their right to choose whether they wish to remain in a post-Brexit Britain, or whether Scotland’s fortunes are better served by having a choice and becoming a self-governing independent European country. That is what will be at stake in the 2021 election.
Unlike 2016, the mandate we seek will not be conditional, have qualifications or be reliant on things that may or may not happen. It will be unconditional and without qualification, and it will be front and centre on page 1 of our manifesto. I think it is a racing certainty—Government Members can tell me if I am wrong—that the inverse proposition will be front and centre of the Conservative manifesto as well. We can be sure of one thing, which is that there will be a full and frank debate about this question, and a vote will be taken on 6 May 2021.
The hon. Gentleman said that page 1 will obviously refer to independence. I wonder whether page 2 will go back to what Nicola Sturgeon referred to as the focal point of her premiership: education. Perhaps we could have the OECD’s review of the curriculum for excellence before the May elections, rather than after, so that the people of Scotland can see the Scottish National party’s record on education since it took over in 2007.
I am more than happy for the record of the Scottish Government to be judged by the people on 6 May as well; independence and the referendum is not the only thing we shall be voting on. This SNP Government have been in power for 14 years, and what they do seems to go down rather well with the people of Scotland; I very much look forward to their judgment on that question on 6 May.
Everything we do is subject to the will of an endorsement by the people of Scotland; so, obviously, if they do not want to take a particular course of action that we are recommending, that will not happen. If the Conservatives win on 6 May, I accept that there will not be a referendum. I hope they will accept that if we win, there will be, and that it will be legitimate for that to happen.
If the hon. Member does not mind, I am going to make some progress.
We need to consider what this Chamber’s response would be to that likely outcome. I do not take anything for granted. The campaign has not started; not a single vote has been cast, and I do not take anyone’s vote for granted. We will be arguing for this right until 10 o’clock on polling day. But I think people will want to know what the reaction of this Parliament here in Westminster would be if they were to take a decision saying that they wanted to have that choice again. That is why we need to be very careful about the language that is used by different opponents in this campaign. The way in which it is described will, in itself, condition how people vote on 6 May.
The only legitimate, proper and democratic response would be to say, “We disagree with the decision you’ve taken, but we respect your right to take it, and the British Government will therefore co-operate with the Scottish Government in trying to deliver on the wishes of the people freely and democratically expressed at the ballot box.” That is the reaction that I would hope to see. There are only two other possible responses. The first would be to say, “That process of election is not a sufficient democratic event to allow the choice of the people to be gauged, and therefore we won’t accept it”, in which case, those making that argument have to say by which mechanism people can resolve to go forward in this matter. The second other possible response would be, “Well, it doesn’t matter what the result was, because we do not respect that it is a decision for you to make.” That would be rejecting the claim of right, it would be rejecting the right of people in Scotland to make a choice, and it would take us into uncharted territory, because it would move the United Kingdom from being a multinational state built on the co-operation and consent of the people who live in its component parts, to being a state based on coercion of people throughout its borders to comply with things even if they disagree with them. That would be a completely different territory.
I am quite surprised that the hon. Gentleman has not mentioned independence polls, because he used to like to do that—especially when today’s shows that 57% of people would vote against separation. Will he elaborate on what he attributes the Scottish people’s change of mind to?
I did not mention polls because I would have thought it is too obvious, is it not? We had 22 polls in a row that showed majority support for independence, so I think—[Interruption.] Well, the poll that matters is the one that takes place on 6 May. I think all of us can agree on that.
In moving on, I want to deal with some of the themes that will come up in this campaign. This is where I will rejoin some of the comments and questions that were made in earlier interventions. First, let me deal with this question—this mantra—of “once in a generation”. The Prime Minister has repeated it ad nauseam over the last 12 months. Sometimes, in some of the iterations in which he speaks, we would think that those words were on the ballot paper on 18 September 2014.
I accept that the phrase “once in a generation” was part of the debate, but let us at least be honest with each other about the context in which it was said. It was said, invariably, by those who were proposing a yes vote for independence as a caution to their supporters that they might not get another chance. It was not made as a promise or a qualification to those who opposed independence that it would go away forever.
We have dealt with who should decide whether there is another referendum, but the truth—and I fully accept it—is that, had the result on 18 September 2014 been decisive and had circumstances not changed, that might well have been the end of it, but things did change, opinion did change, and it is for the people of Scotland now to make this determination.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way; he took his time deciding, but nevertheless. It is all well and good his trying to explain away this phrase “once in a generation”, but here is the point: it was not us who said it; it was not even the Tories who said it; it was the SNP who said it.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will do me the courtesy of listening to what I say. I made plain the context in which that was said. It was said as a warning to those who supported independence, not as a promise to those who did not. But it is a moot question, because it is not for the Prime Minister or the First Minister or me or the hon. Gentleman to decide this question; it is for the people of Scotland to make the determination whether there should be another referendum, and to do that through the democratic mechanism of electing a Parliament on a manifesto. That is the process with which we are engaged.
I have already heard the word “separatist” raised in interventions, so I also want to deal with that. Much of what we hear in the coming months will be about the long arms of the Union and how we must not turn our back. This word “separatist” is used as a dysphemism to suggest that people like me are somehow insular or self-serving, want to turn our backs on the people of England, are not interested in co-operation, and are not interested in working together across Britain. It is a lie. It is simply a lie. Nothing could be further from the truth. Getting independence for Scotland is about Scotland having the political capacity to engage with others. It will be the means not of the separation of the Scottish people, but of their involvement across this island, across this continent and across the world.
Let me turn, in my final few moments, to the substance of the amendment, because the amendment is quite interesting, is it not? I talked earlier about there appearing to be a consensus around the idea of the claim of right, so a better amendment might have been to leave the existing text, which was drafted in an attempt not to divide the House, and then insert the words “However, we believe that now is not the time,” or whatever. It does not do that. Instead, it deletes all of it, including the assertion of the claim or right. I invite the Conservatives in this debate to make it clear whether or not they still believe that in the final resolve it should be for the people of Scotland to determine their own constitutional future. [Interruption.] I will not take an intervention, because other hon. Members will be speaking very shortly.
The whole premise of the amendment is to say that it is impossible to consider these matters now because of the pandemic we are all facing, because of the misery and concern that that has caused, and because it would be a distraction. Well, let us be entirely clear about this: no one—I mean no one—is suggesting that we have a referendum campaign during the pandemic. We will have to have it—[Interruption.] I tell you now, no one is suggesting that. We will have to have that put behind us and be moving into a recovery phase before that can happen.
I am very interested by what the hon. Gentleman says, because his leader, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), has said that an independence referendum could be held this year. The Scottish National party has put aside £600,000 of party funds to fight a referendum campaign this year. Is it wrong, or is the hon. Gentleman wrong?
If it is possible to have it later this year because the pandemic is over and we have moved beyond it, then I would welcome that. I do not speculate on whether it is the end of this year or the beginning of next year. The principle I am advocating is that we will not be launching or fighting a referendum campaign while the pandemic is still extant and while we have the social restrictions on people that are mandated by the public health emergency. That is a fact. I tell you this, if for no other reason than I do not want to ask people in Scotland about their future through the medium of a computer screen. I want people to be engaged in this debate as friends and as strangers in workplaces, in pubs, in parks. I want them talking about this, energised in the way that they were in 2014, and that is not possible by having some sort of mega-Zoom meeting to try to conduct this debate. So yes, we will be having a referendum campaign once we have dealt with the pandemic and are moving into the recovery phase.
Here is the final point. As we go into the recovery phase—everyone should understand this—far from the debate about a referendum or independence being a diversion from dealing with the pandemic and recovering from it, the process by which we are governed and the type of country we build and develop post covid are intimately linked. They are two sides of the same coin. If we want to see in Scotland a sustainable, green resilient economy that delivers for the communities of Scotland, then we will need the powers and capacity of independence to be able to marshal and direct the country’s capital to that end. If we want to have a better society with a system of obligation and reward that is rooted in human decency, and to see the eradication of poverty in Scotland, then the agency that comes with independence will be critical in delivering that end. If we want to see Scotland play its full role in the world and take a seat at the top table of nations where we can argue enlightened opinions, whether on how we treat refugees in the world or how we eradicate nuclear weapons from our shores, then that will require the political capacity of independence.
Sorry, I am finishing.
These things are intimately linked. It is not a matter of whether we postpone a discussion on whether to have an independence referendum until we get to a recovery phase. We know the mood music from the UK Government: the Chancellor does not have a detailed plan yet, but we already know that he thinks those who should pay for covid are the public services of the United Kingdom and the people who work in them, and we are anticipating another austerity programme coming in the autumn. The people of Scotland do not have to follow that lead; they have the opportunity on 6 May to vote for the right to choose a better future, and after this long, tragic, miserable year of dealing with covid-19, I think that provides hope on the horizon that people will respond to and vote for, and this House will need to get used to the idea.
I beg to move amendment (b), to leave out from “House” to end and add
“believes the priority of the Scottish people is to recover from the effects of the covid-19 pandemic, and that it would be irresponsible to hold a referendum at this time.”.
I am grateful to be able to speak in this Opposition day debate. My ministerial colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes South (Iain Stewart), will be closing the debate for the Government and I look forward to hearing his response to the many Back-Bench contributions today. I am pleased to be able to respond to this motion, as it is important to set out why the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) and his party’s focus on divisive debates about separation is irresponsible. We are currently recovering from the worst public health crisis in a century and the deepest recession in our history, and the people of Scotland voted decisively in 2014 to remain part of the United Kingdom. That is the context of this debate.
The people of our United Kingdom want and expect us to focus on fighting covid-19. They rightly expect us to focus on protecting jobs with furlough payments, ensuring our children catch up on their missed education, and finding jobs for our young people. They expect us to focus on building back better and building back greener. The people of Scotland rightly expect their two Governments to work together to deliver these priorities. Yet in the middle of this, the Scottish National party has tabled this motion for an Opposition day debate, not to discuss what more we can do to work constructively together and drive our recovery from covid-19, but instead to promote separation and the pursuit of another divisive and damaging referendum on independence.
The motion does not focus on anything practical or suggest solutions to the real challenges facing people at the moment. It does not propose ideas for how we can work together to deliver better outcomes for all citizens and businesses across Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom, but we have already seen that, with the UK pulling together, we can progress quickly on the road to recovery. For example, in our vaccine programme, which is our path out of lockdown and to more normal times and lives, we have vaccines pioneered in the UK, trialled in the UK and made across the UK, including in Scotland, to protect the people of the UK and the world. In this team effort, the UK Government have bought the vaccines and are making sure every part of the UK gets its fair share, and the British armed forces are helping to establish new vaccine centres right across Scotland and to vaccinate people. As a result of our collaboration around 2 million people have already been vaccinated in Scotland.
We are collaborating on testing, too. We are providing sites across Scotland, including seven drive-through testing centres, 33 walk-in centres, over 20 mobile testing units, and the Lighthouse laboratory in Glasgow. Overall, the United Kingdom Government have provided around 60% of all tests in Scotland and, alongside that, the UK Government continue to drive forward our ambitious programme for economic growth.
The Chancellor’s Budget earlier this month demonstrated the Government’s commitment to operating on a truly UK-wide basis, from extending the furlough and self-employment schemes to the levelling-up fund, benefiting citizens and businesses right across the country. We are boosting funding for all communities and all parts of the UK, with a £200 million fund to invest in local areas ahead of launching the UK shared prosperity fund in 2022. This fund will help to level up and create opportunities across the UK in places most in need, such as former industrial areas, deprived towns, and rural and coastal communities, as well as help people who face labour market barriers.
Our ability to do this is underpinned by the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, passed in this place at the end of last year. The Act guarantees that UK companies can trade unhindered in every part of the UK, protecting jobs and livelihoods across the country. The financial assistance power taken through the Act covers infrastructure, economic development, culture and sport, and will support educational and training activities and exchanges both within the UK and internationally. As well as allowing the UK Government to deliver the UK shared prosperity fund, the power will also be used to deliver the new Turing scheme for students across the UK to study and work not just in Europe, but around the world.
There are numerous examples of where our interconnectedness, shared bonds and the value of all parts of the UK working together are clearly evident. The Union connectivity review, for example, is looking at how we better connect the different parts of the UK to boost our economy. We will be bringing at least one freeport to Scotland, and that is on top of the £1.5 billion that we are currently investing in city and region growth deals all across Scotland, in every region.
Just yesterday, the integrated review was published. This sets out the Prime Minister’s vision for the UK in 2030: a stronger, more secure, prosperous and resilient United Kingdom; a problem-solving and burden-sharing nation with a global perspective. Scottish capabilities in defence, space, cyber, maritime industries and many others contribute immensely to the security of our shared nation.
Furthermore, the Prime Minister recently set out his ambitious 10-point plan for a green industrial revolution —an innovative and ambitious programme of job creation that will support levelling up and up to 250,000 jobs. The plan will mobilise £12 billion of UK Government investment across green energy, nature and innovation technologies across the country in areas such as carbon capture, utilisation and storage, hydrogen and offshore wind. I personally expect Scotland to benefit hugely from this, becoming a global centre of excellence for energy transition.
Across the whole United Kingdom, there is far more that unites than divides us, so we should be here today using the time constructively to debate how we can best lead the recovery of our economy and our communities. We should be talking about building up, not breaking up our country. People across the United Kingdom want to see us working in partnership to tackle the pandemic and drive the recovery that we all need. That remains the top priority of the United Kingdom Government. It should be the SNP’s and the Scottish Government’s top priority, too.
A very happy St Patrick’s Day to you and everyone in the House, Mr Speaker.
I am sure that you will have been as astonished as I was, Mr Speaker, to hear that the SNP was using one of its irregular Opposition day debates to talk about independence. Indeed, even the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) said that this was a very rare debate for the SNP. You could have knocked me over with a feather, Mr Speaker, and that is no mean task with my extra 10 lockdown kilos. It is not as though there is not anything for us to debate today. You would not think that we were in the worst health and economic crisis since world war two.
Why does the SNP want to turn the Scottish election in May into a referendum on whether or not we have another referendum? Because it cannot defend its atrocious record in government for the last 14 years. SNP Members have no defence at all and nothing to offer. In 25 minutes of opening speech, there was not one positive policy about how to deal with the problems in Scotland. We have had the sheer arrogance of the SNP making assumptions about the election result without a single cross being put in a single ballot box anywhere in Scotland. However, we no longer hear the cry of “22 polls in a row in favour of separation” when it is now four in a row in favour of staying part of the United Kingdom, the one today being 57% to 43%. They are being found out.
We could have been debating all sorts of major issues today. We could have debated our democratic institutions in Scotland, whether the Scottish Government legislative settlement needs to be improved, and telling MSPs to properly hold the Scottish Government to account. The Minister made those points yesterday.
The poll today shows that only 46% of the Scottish electorate support independence. A few months ago, it was 58%, so it is down 12%. I say very gently to my brothers and sisters around me, my Gaelic friends: the poll that really matters is the last one. Does the hon. Gentleman feel that the reason this has happened is in part due the covid vaccine roll-out? To everyone, it has expressed across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland that together, we are better. Does he agree?
I am sorry that I did not quite hear the hon. Gentleman—the intervention king—so I apologise, but he is right. I think the reason why the polls have moved is that the SNP has arrogantly assumed that the Scottish people want independence, so people have started to ask the big questions, to which no answers have been forthcoming. People realise, with the vaccine roll-out and the covid support, that we are much better and much stronger as a nation working with our partners and friends as part of the family of four nations of the UK.
The Member from Edinburgh said that the independence referendum will be on page 1 of the SNP’s manifesto and that “no independence referendum” will be on page 1 of the Conservative manifesto. What is Labour’s position on a referendum and on what page will it be in its manifesto?
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker. Just for the record, there are Members for Edinburgh East and for Edinburgh South. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East does not represent the whole city, despite the fact that the SNP thinks that it represents the whole of Scotland.
Let me go back to what we could be debating today. We could have debated the dreadful picture that everyone will have seen on social media from George Square in Glasgow last month, where 220 people were queuing up in sub-zero temperatures in the snow to get food from the soup kitchen. A photo says a thousand words, and those words were that both the UK and Scottish Governments are failing the people of Scotland who need their Governments the most. But, no, we are not debating that.
We could have debated universal credit and the £20 uplift becoming permanent, extending it to legacy benefits, removing the rape clause and helping those most in need.
I will come back to the hon. Gentleman in a second.
We could have debated the First Minister’s so-called top priority: education. But the SNP cannot defend the widening educational attainment gap, thousands fewer teachers, a lower spend per pupil than in 2007, Scotland plummeting down the international rankings, or Scotland’s education system being behind England for the first time ever—behind Tory England for the first time ever. They will not even publish the OECD report into Scottish education before the election—I wonder why. We could have debated education and our children’s future, but no.
We could have debated why, even before covid, the SNP Scottish Government had not met their own legal NHS waiting times targets since 2012. They have broken their own law 360,000 times in the process, but no.
How about international issues? We could have debated Myanmar and the atrocities in the coup, Yemen and the worst humanitarian disaster the world has ever seen, or Scotland’s wonderful partnership with Malawi, but no.
We could have debated how Scottish businesses recover from covid and how we can support those sectors in hospitality, tourism and culture that will take longer to recover and have been hardest hit. What about the 3 million excluded from any Government support? We could have debated that, but no.
We could have debated how Scottish taxpayers are on the hook for over half a billion pounds to fund a 25-year guarantee for a failing business that owned an aluminium smelter and a hydropower plant in Scotland, but no.
We could have debated last month’s Audit Scotland report, which says that billions of pounds of covid support funds are unspent by the Scottish Government and audited what they are spending them on, but no.
We could have been having a debate about COP26 and climate change, but no.
We could have celebrated the success of the vaccine roll-out—all the nations of the UK working together with our wonderful science and research and development sectors—but no.
We could have even debated how the Tories are a bigger threat to the Union than any nationalist. They got us into this mess by playing fast and loose with the UK constitution in the first place, bringing us Brexit, English votes for English laws, cronyism, wasting £37 billion on Test and Trace. We could have debated how they have nothing to offer Scotland but waving their own flag, but no.
We could even have debated how to eradicate child poverty, but no. The SNP uses its precious parliamentary time to debate another referendum—quelle surprise. Surely if SNP Members want to turn May’s election into a referendum on having another referendum, they could at least put their cards on the table and be straight with the Scottish people. Even the hon. Member for Edinburgh East said on several occasions during his speech, “Let us be honest with each other,” so let us make this a great opportunity for them to use their speeches to tell us what their separation proposition means. Let us be honest with each other.
On EU accession, how, when, why? How will they meet the criteria? On borders, will this be determined by the trade and co-operation agreement that has just been signed between the UK and the EU? The Health Secretary said on “Question Time” two weeks ago that it would not.
All these questions will be discussed and decided upon if and when we get to a referendum campaign and a referendum vote. What is at stake on 6 May is who should make the decision on whether that process happens—whether people in Scotland have a right to even choose to make that consideration. That is a different matter. What is the hon. Gentleman’s view on that?
When I pose the challenge to the hon. Gentleman, “Let’s be honest with each other” the answer comes back, “No”. What is at stake at the elections on 6 May is how Scotland recovers from the worst health and economic crisis since the second world war. To plunge the country into another divisive independence referendum debate, while people are more worried about their lives, their livelihoods and the health of their friends and their family, is absolutely deplorable.
My hon. Friend is making a characteristically excellent speech. What he says about the timing of the referendum is something that polling is clear about. While the polling has moved up and down on the subject of whether there should be independence, it is absolutely clear that even the majority of those who are in favour of independence do not think that we should have a referendum right now. What are those people supposed to do when they go to vote in May? If they vote for the Scottish National party, they will be seen as having endorsed a referendum that they themselves do not think should happen right now.
My hon. Friend hits the nail on the head because the priorities of the Scottish people are health, education, covid recovery, the economy, jobs and livelihoods. That is what is important to the Scottish people and poll after poll after poll shows that.
Let us be honest with each other. On the oil price, $114 a barrel was underpinning the entire Scottish economy; it has been less than half of that since the last referendum. On deficits and debt, how will they be dealt with? On pensions, SNP candidates in constituencies up and down Scotland are delivering leaflets promising pensioners that they will double the state pension. Let us be honest with each other. And how would the SNP work with the rest of the UK with regards to the EU?
For a start, if we are going to be honest, it is quite clear that, due to the covid restrictions, we do not have people out delivering leaflets right now. If we are talking about honesty, will the hon. Gentleman answer this question: if the voters vote for parties that have a referendum in their manifesto, should that referendum happen to reflect the will of the Scottish people? Will he give us an honest answer?
I will be honest with the hon. Gentleman. The leaflet was delivered in Dumbarton and was posted on social media by the person who delivered it, so that is being honest with each other. Let me just say to him that I am very much in the same place as Sir John Curtice —we cannot extrapolate a single issue from a general election. It is disingenuous to suggest that we should turn this major election, the most important I think in Scotland’s devolution history, into whether or not we should have a referendum on another referendum.
Let me make a little progress.
Let me go to the biggest issue of all—currency. We have heard the same old arguments from the SNP time and again, so perhaps they can tell us something new. Let us be honest with each other. What on earth would the people be voting for? Let us take this issue of currency. If any SNP Members want to intervene on me and tell me what the answer is, I will give them the Floor for as long as they like.
The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), the Leader of the SNP in this House, promotes sterlingisation. He says that people should not worry—we will keep using the pound until such time as six tests are met, however long that would be. The hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil) tells us that they will only keep the pound for a few months. The SNP’s Deputy Leader, Keith Brown, says that they will keep the pound for less than five years. Andrew Wilson, the head of the SNP’s Growth Commission and a former SNP Finance Minister, says that it could be decade before we give up the pound. Does any SNP Member want to tell us exactly how long we will keep the pound? Is it a few months? Is it five years? Is it 10 years? Is it indefinitely? Will we keep it at all? Let us just be honest with each other if the SNP wants to turn this debate into a referendum on whether or not we have a referendum.
The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent case on the lack of clarity from the Scottish National party. But what he needs to be clear on to the Scottish people when he goes to the polls on 6 May is whether his party backs a referendum or not. We have been honest. SNP Members have been honest about what they want. Will he now be honest and say what his position is?
The answer to the question is no.
On interest rates—[Interruption.] The Conservatives do this all the time. They deliberately misinterpret the Scottish Labour party’s policy in order to feather their own electoral nest. That is why they are putting the Union at risk and why they are a bigger threat to the UK than any nationalist.
Let me turn to the interest rate question. For as long as we do not have our own currency, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden), who is in the Chamber, thinks that we will still have a monetary and interest rate policy, but his own SNP Minister for Energy, Paul Wheelhouse MSP, said that, without a central bank or lender of last resort, we would have to take whatever interest rates were set. Can any SNP Member intervene and tell us who is right—the hon. Member for Glasgow East or the Scottish Government Minister?
That leads us to exchange rates. Let us try another one. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber said that
“when we do have our own currency it has to be pegged against the pound sterling”,
but the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) suggests that will not be the case because we would need to meet the exchange rate mechanism rules to enter the EU. Again, what is it? Is it that we would have to take our own exchange rate mechanism to qualify for the EU, or would we be pegged to sterling? Maybe the answer is none of the above. Could it be the euro, as the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) said, or maybe Bitcoin, as the former SNP Member for East Lothian, George Kerevan, said—or, worse yet, our flexible friend? Will we all use our credit cards as if we were on holiday, as the SNP MSP Emma Harper suggested in a TV debate, when she said that we did not need a currency at all because we all used plastic anyway?
The position of SNP parliamentarians on these matters would be hilarious, were it not so serious. They want to take us out of the UK, regardless of the economic and social chaos that this would cause. This is about people’s jobs, mortgages and livelihoods. It is about our communities.
If SNP Members insist on focusing on separation instead of on how we get people back to work, how we lift families and children out of poverty, how we restart and properly value our NHS and how we lead a national effort to recover from this pandemic, they should at least be straight with the Scottish people about how separation will affect their jobs, livelihoods, health, education and opportunities for the future. They refuse to put forward the details of the separation proposition because the answers to these big questions are either unpalatable to the public or they actually do not know the answers.
I will carry on, if the hon. Gentleman does not mind, because I have taken longer than I expected to.
Let us go back to the question that was debated earlier: when would that referendum be held? The hon. Member for Edinburgh East said—let us check Hansard—that no one is saying it would be this year—no one except the First Minister when she set out an 11-point plan to potentially deliver even an illegal referendum this year.
I will when I have finished this point.
Mike Russell, the SNP Constitutional Minister and President of the SNP, said before Christmas, and the SNP leader in this place, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, said just a few weeks ago, that the referendum could happen this year. Does anyone honestly believe, whether they are yes or no, that it would be in Scotland’s interests to have a referendum on separation instead of a laser-like focus on covid recovery? But that is SNP Members’ only priority. If it were not their priority, they would not put it on the ballot paper. If it were not their priority, they would not be using the valuable four days until the Scottish Parliament goes into recess for the election to bring forward another referendum Bill. The First Minister says she wants to be judged on her covid record, so which one is it? While most Scots are worried about their jobs and livelihoods, about their health and that of their family and friends, about the future for their children’s education, and about how the NHS will catch up with cancer and other treatments that have been paused during covid, the SNP goes on about the constitution.
We cannot rely on the UK Government to deliver a recovery that works for everyone. We have seen that already. They just want business as usual, looking after their neighbours and friends rather than the country. They want to defend a broken status quo, rather than trying to fix it for the future. That is why the Scottish election must be about what the new Scottish Labour leader, Anas Sarwar, is proposing: delivering a national recovery plan that at its heart is about creating jobs, catching up on education and rebuilding our NHS, so that we never again have to choose between treating a virus and treating cancer. That is what we will be putting forward: a jobs and economic recovery plan; an NHS recovery plan; an education recovery plan; a climate recovery plan; and a communities recovery plan. These are the priorities of the Scottish people, far and above all else.
I sit on the Back Benches, watch the hon. Gentleman, the lonely Scottish Labour MP at Westminster, and find myself reflecting every now and again about his once great party. I was party campaigning in a Labour seat in 2001, when it took 65% of the vote. Has he ever reflected on why his party is represented as it is at Westminster, given its intransigent policy against independence and against Scotland having the right to choose?
It is called having principles. The hon. Gentleman ought to try it sometime. We are against independence because it would be bad for the Scottish people, and that is why SNP Members have to answer these questions. They cannot just decide that they are going to move their principles and damage the Scottish economy, Scottish society and Scottish culture on the basis of what the hon. Gentleman has just said. Anas Sarwar will get Scottish Labour back on track with his optimism and his positivity.
As we come out of this pandemic, we must focus on solutions that ensure that Scotland comes back a better, stronger and fairer nation than the one that went into lockdown last year. The SNP wants to go back to the same old divisive discussions, while Labour in Scotland is looking to the future, not separation and not defending the broken status quo. In just a few short weeks, Anas Sarwar, together with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer), has shown that we can be a credible alternative. Scots do not have to choose between the divisive politics of the SNP—[Interruption.]—the divisive, arrogant politics of the SNP that I hear behind me and the Scottish Tories’ status quo.
Not one vote has been cast yet. Now more than ever, Scotland needs its powerful Parliament to deliver a strong NHS, take action on the jobs crisis, deliver a national care service and treat poverty as the health and economic emergency that it is. Scotland needs a Government who do not just say that education is a priority but really show our children and young people that we are committed to giving them the future they deserve.
The House will be aware that a great many people wish to take part in this important debate. Members will be accustomed to a time limit of three minutes, but in this very important debate, we will begin with a time limit of four minutes.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), who was as witty and articulate as ever, but I still have no idea where Anas Sarwar and the Scottish Labour party stand on having another independence referendum.
I was very proud to be part of the process that led to the Edinburgh agreement, which facilitated the 2014 referendum. At the time, Alex Salmond—who is now heavily criticised by some of the same people who portrayed him as father of the nation on whose word everybody in Scotland could rely—said that that was a gold standard agreement and the basis on which such a referendum could and should be held in order that it be fair, legal and decisive. And yet, from the moment that referendum was held—not in 2016, 2018 or 2019, but from 19 September 2014—the SNP has agitated for another referendum. It did not even wait for the dust to settle on the result, and it completely disrespected the outcome, having said that it would respect it.
In each of the elections we have had since 2014, the SNP has sought to downplay independence. In a television debate before the 2016 Scottish Parliament election, Nicola Sturgeon said that there was no prospect of a referendum. In the 2019 general election, my SNP opponent said, “This isn’t about independence at all. It’s nothing to do with independence. It’s about Brexit; that’s what it’s about,” yet each time, from the moment the polls close, every vote cast is portrayed as a vote for independence.
I welcome the fact that the SNP has registered with the Electoral Commission the slogans “Both votes SNP for indyref2” and “Vote SNP for indyref2”, because people will understand, I hope—and I hope it will be on page 1 of the manifesto in big writing, not hidden away on page 16 as some sub-clause, as the “changing circumstances” caveat was.
I have listened carefully, and I have heard a number of Members say this about every vote cast being a vote for independence. Would the right hon. Gentleman not accept that, in the literature produced and distributed by his party in any given election at any level of government in Scotland, “Vote Conservative to say no to indyref” is doing exactly the same thing—it is suggesting that every vote for the Conservative party is a vote against a referendum?
What we are suggesting as we go into this election under the leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) is that there is an alternative to this obsession with independence. It does not all have to be about independence. Despite what the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) said, Scottish Parliament time has been devoted to an independence referendum. There has been a Bill in the Parliament during the period of covid. There has not been a focus entirely on covid, because the independence issue has always been there.
We hear today that the “once in a generation” claim was only for SNP supporters, to make sure that they got down to the polling station, and it could not be relied on. We hear that Mike Russell’s pronouncements that we will have a referendum by Christmas and those of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) about having a referendum this year cannot be relied on. Well, what cannot be relied on by the people of Scotland is that the SNP will not press ahead with a referendum regardless. We have heard that they are the people who will determine what people in Scotland think. What arrogance—it is not about elections; the SNP will decide what the people of Scotland think, and if it determines that the people of Scotland are in favour of a referendum it is willing to press ahead with one regardless. Several leading members of the SNP have said that, and I look forward to the contribution of the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), who is a proponent of this.
I agree with the hon. Member for Edinburgh South that this election is very important. It is important on 6 May that we get Scotland to focus on coming out of the pandemic with a plan for recovery—none currently exists in Scotland. There is a plan for an independence referendum, but there is no plan for recovery. The only realistic way in which people can achieve that is to use both votes on 6 May for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party. We want to end division. No referendum—let us rebuild Scotland.
A happy St Patrick’s Day to you too, Madam Deputy Speaker.
May I begin with this point? It is roughly the same distance from Greater Manchester to London as it is to Edinburgh or Glasgow, yet the travel time is considerably more—almost half as much again—to those great Scottish cities than it is to London. That is indicative of a problem facing the north of England and Scotland: the failure of Governments of different descriptions, but particularly the Conservative-led Government, over the past 10 years to address the needs of every part of this island of ours, its nations and regions. I empathise with the sense of resentment in Scotland about a Government who ignore the needs of many people, because that is exactly how many people in the north of England feel as well.
We have more in common than empathy. There was a time when northern MPs worked hard with Scottish Labour MPs to challenge a Conservative Government and a Labour Government to work together to bring about solutions that both Scotland and the north needed, but we do not see that now. The motive of SNP MPs is to talk up independence at the expense of major issues such as universal credit, job creation, and investment, both in industries and services and in our children’s education and training.
We had those things in common, but we have more in common than that. I grew up in a city region where the influence of Scots was not romantic but real. As a young man, I was at school with people from Scottish families. During my early working life in industry, I met engineers and printers from Scotland. I met people in the teaching profession who had come down from Scotland and worked in our universities as academics. People worked together in different areas. I worked closely with many Scots in our trade union movement, and they made an important and valuable contribution. Their attitude was similar to ours, and in politics my party has always benefited, in Greater Manchester and across the north of Scotland, from many Scots who played a role.
I cannot think of a time when there was not a Scottish Member of Parliament in the region—we now have the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green). There have always been Scottish Members of Parliament, including the late Jim Dobbin, who was MP for Heywood and Middleton. That mattered, because they had similar values to us, unlike one home counties-based Conservative —I will not name them—who, many years ago, travelled up to the north and said, “I love coming to the north, Tony. It’s so terribly real up there.” Well, it was very real for me, because I grew up there and have lived most of my life there. The Scots understood that; they were our partners because they shared those values. That matters, because it is why, even now, 60% of Scotland’s trade is with England. That matters enormously because, in the end, taking away the importance of London, the north of England and Scotland trade with each other. If we were to see Scotland in the European Union, that would devastate the trade between Scotland and the north of England; it would be crippling for both sides. That does matter because it is jobs, it is the future, and that matters.
There is an answer. It is to work together essentially for the devolved Britain that I want to see—power, yes, for the Scottish Parliament, but power too for the north of England, the north-west, the north-east, Yorkshire and Humberside. That different constitutional settlement can allow us to work together. It is the real answer to the problems of Scotland and the north-west of England.
Debating time in the House of Commons is a precious commodity. It is an opportunity to raise important matters for our nation—important matters of international concern and, crucially, for the people that we all represent. As one of the political parties in this place, the Scottish National party is in the privileged position of having debating time—time when it decides what to debate and the issues that it wants to promote. I know that my constituents in the Scottish borders will be baffled, given the huge challenges that we are facing in Scotland, that the nationalists have decided to use this debating time to promote their obsession with independence referendums.
Scots are worried about the coronavirus. We are worried about the economy. People are worried about their jobs. Families are worried about their health and the wellbeing of loved ones. And yet here we are, debating the SNP’s obsession—independence and referendums. Scots are rightly asking why the SNP’s priorities are so out of step with those of most people in Scotland.
The SNP has announced that it will hold another independence referendum as early as this year, if it wins a majority in the upcoming elections. At this uncertain time, the only priority I would suggest that we should have is working together to manage the crisis and rebuild our country. Our focus needs to be on defeating the spread of the coronavirus and on the economic recovery plan.
The SNP is trying to distract people today, I believe, with its new independence referendum road map as a shield to hide a catalogue of targets not met, priorities not delivered and promises broken. Time and again we have heard SNP politicians request that their performance be judged on education. The SNP promised to reduce class sizes for primaries 1 to 3, but for 13 years the SNP has failed to deliver on that promise. The recent OECD report slammed the shameful attainment gap that exists between poor and wealthier children, but I am sure it comes as no surprise to Members that the SNP in Edinburgh has refused to publish the latest OECD report until after the elections in May. Under the SNP, Scotland’s science and maths scores have dropped below those of England and Wales, and are at an all-time low since rankings were introduced.
The SNP shows complete contempt for the future prospects of Scotland’s children. In health, too, it has failed. It has failed to deliver on its promises of tackling the chronic shortage of GPs. It has failed on the children’s hospital in Edinburgh which only just opened, four years behind schedule.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; independence is the SNP’s only answer to everything, yet it has failed to deliver for my constituents and most people in Scotland.
Similarly, the SNP has failed Scotland’s economy, having presided over the lowest rate of job creation in the entirety of the UK over the past decade. The SNP has continuously failed rural Scotland too, whether it be its failure to deliver rural broadband or the lack of engagement with the Union transport connectivity review, which would have been an opportunity to improve transport links. Whether it be the A1, the A75 or extending the Borders Railway, the SNP has simply refused to engage.
And of course we have the Salmond/Sturgeon affair, which is perhaps the ultimate failure—this time with a woman at its heart. Misleading the Scottish Parliament on multiple occasions, withholding legal documents and not fully co-operating with the Scottish Parliament’s inquiry, the First Minister and her deputy have shown a blatant disregard for the people of Scotland they claim to serve. The handling of this affair is symptomatic of the SNP’s failure to deliver for the Scottish people across all areas of public life. With such a corrupt, sleazy and tired Government in Edinburgh, it is little surprise that the SNP has picked its obsession of separation to debate today, rather than defend its colleagues’ record in Government in Holyrood.
I guess if this was a drinking game, we would probably be having our stomachs pumped every time the hon. Gentleman mentioned the word “SNP”, but I want to ask him about the fact that he reflects a lot on the SNP talking about independence, although the leaflets I have received from the Scottish Conservatives talk only about independence. He talks about party leaders. Will he be inviting the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) to come and campaign in the upcoming election?
The last time I checked, the SNP is your party name and it is your party ticket. If you are telling us now that you do not want to associate with that, perhaps you should think about changing your party’s name. The last time I checked it is also your party, as we heard from your party spokesman this morning—
Order. I let the hon. Gentleman get away with it at first, but every time he says “your party”, he is referring to me, and I think everybody knows that the party of the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) is not mine.
I am very grateful, Madam Deputy Speaker. I did not want to cause you deep offence, possibly, which clearly was not my intention.
I am very clear what my party believes in: Scotland’s place is at the heart of the United Kingdom. The hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) clearly does not share my view on that, and he can put that to the electorate in May. The Scottish National party’s priorities, choices and decisions reflect the reality of a party that does not care about Scotland’s children, Scotland’s businesses, our frontline workers and our rural communities, nor is it one that believes it can be held accountable for its actions. The SNP—the Scottish National party—is failing Scotland. The SNP is failing Scots when our focus should be on the pandemic, vaccinations and the economic recovery. Now is not the time for another divisive referendum.
I am not here to debate whether we can have a referendum; that will not be decided in this place. Today, I am focused on sharing a positive vision of an independent Scotland.
The ongoing pandemic continues to present us all with completely new challenges, demanding responses that have no precedent. However, the pandemic should not be used as an excuse for the response and actions of this Government towards those seeking sanctuary here in the nations of the UK. Current UK immigration policy and the decisions made by the Government are confusing, complex and callous. That policy is heavily influenced by conditions in the south-east of England and it does not reflect the demands across other countries and regions of this Union.
Successive UK Governments have attempted to fool us all into thinking that a hostile environment for immigrants was a societal necessity. The aggressive approach to immigration and, in particular, asylum cases lacks dignity and respect, and the offer of any form of protection. The crisis caused by the pandemic only magnifies the absurdities of this inhumane approach and illustrates why, for Scotland or our Government to have any real chance to affect such matters positively, there is only one real solution available to us—an independent Scotland.
We can appreciate that there are pressures on the Government to provide accommodation for those awaiting determination of status, but that does not mean that undignified mechanisms of accommodation should be utilised. What is required is the long-term sustainable action of compassion to establish, secure and dignify dispersal options and reasonable waiting times for outcomes. In an independent Scotland, we will establish a small separate asylum agency to deal with status applications. That dedicated agency would be tailored to the needs of both our nation and applicants, and it would avoid and mitigate the barriers and complexities of the callous Home Office system. Employment and housing opportunities would be provided in different regions of Scotland to help people seeking to live in and contribute to Scotland to make an informed choice and ensure integration happened from day one of arrival. That would benefit both any host community and the individual or family.
We will build a system that reflects the outlook of our nation. Migrants have played an important part in shaping Scotland, and have enriched and enhanced our culture throughout the generations. Many modern Scots simply would not be if it were not for migration to our shores. On that note, I wish everybody a very happy St Patrick’s day.
A new and independent Scotland would have an inclusive approach to citizenship and a humane approach to asylum and refuge, one that was sensitive and respectful of the needs of those with a desire to call Scotland home. An independent Scotland would work constructively with other nations, local authorities and support agencies to secure appropriate means of sustainable and integrated residence within local communities.
An independent Scotland would in no circumstance use crammed, unhygienic military barracks as accommodation for those fleeing persecution. In 2018, the Court of Appeal judge Sir Stephen Irwin said in a speech that the UK’s immigration rules were “something of a disgrace”. Three years on, nothing has changed. The UK should be protecting those who have arrived seeking safety from violence or persecution. That it does not is wrong, insensitive and not in our name. There is another way, and an independent Scotland will lead that way.
Devolution is about giving as much power to local communities across Britain as possible. From the Northern Ireland Assembly to the Welsh Assembly and to the Mayors of London, the west midlands and Manchester, devolution works best when local communities decide on local democratic representation while comforted by the protection given by the enormous strength of the peoples of the UK acting as one. But something has gone wrong. After 14 long years of government by nationalists, focused exclusively on their narrow separatist agenda and the break-up of Britain, anything that stands in its way and anyone who stands in their way, including what is in the best interests of the people of Scotland, is crushed.
The separatists had a golden opportunity today to highlight the real issues that affect the people of Scotland and the whole UK. Today, they could have talked about the welcome strength of working together in the production and roll-out of the vaccination programme—the biggest health task this country has ever undertaken. Today, they could have talked about the strength of the Scottish people, the English people, the Welsh people and the Northern Irish people pooling their taxes to benefit us all, including those who receive the supportive furlough payments, which is possible only because of the size and strength of Britain.
Today, the separatists could have talked about the new integrated review announced by the Prime Minister only yesterday on how Scotland can best work with countries across the world in trade and commerce. Today, they could have talked about the importance of the defence sector in Scotland, which has built the UK’s largest flagships, which will help to defend and protect fragile democracies around the world. But no, they did not do that. Instead, they bang the tired drum of separatism; “division”, “anger”, “gripe” and “divorce” are the words that best describe the nationalists.
However, I want to look at the performance of the Nats in Holyrood. They promised they would reduce class sizes in primaries 1, 2 and 3 to 18 pupils or fewer, but they have failed to deliver. Scotland’s maths and science scores are at record lows, and its reading score is lower than levels seen in 2000. Overall, Scotland is performing worse than Portugal, the Czech Republic and even Slovenia. Those are not my findings; they are the findings of reputable organisations, including the PISA—programme for international student assessment—results, which show that Scottish education under a Nat Government has gone backwards.
The Nats have dismantled local frontline policing, and crime is on the rise. Police officers felt “abandoned” by the Nats at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. Those are not my words; they are the words of the Scottish Police Federation chair, Calum Steele, who said:
“There is an increasing sense among members that the Government have abandoned the police service in the midst of this crisis.”
The Nats promised to expand testing capacity to 65,000 people per day, but they have only managed to test about half that number on a single occasion. Compare the record of the Nats with the UK-wide vaccination effort —the strength of the peoples of the UK is best seen in the tremendous efforts being made by our hard-working healthcare staff. They have put their shoulders to the wheel and are the ones getting us out of this awful pandemic. It is time that Nicola Sturgeon worked with the UK.
I declare my interest as someone of Scottish descent—a reminder, as is the case for many families, of our shared interest in these islands over centuries.
There is, of course, a case that can be made for an independent Scotland, but I profoundly disagree with it, and in a brilliant speech my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) exposed its contradictions and lack of answers. Let us be honest: the SNP has continued to argue for a second referendum ever since it lost the first. I have listened for many years as the SNP told a story about a nation disrespected and denied its rights by this Parliament. I have always found that rather story depressing because it seems to me that it undervalues Scotland but is told to nurture the grievance that all too often appears to be at the heart of the independence cause.
I have often wondered whether a visitor from afar who knew nothing of the condition of our country might conclude that the people of Scotland were labouring under the terrible yoke of an English-dominated Parliament, but we all know that that is not the case. Indeed, I look at the success of devolution and the extensive powers, some of them barely used, as well as additional funding, that devolution has brought to the people of Scotland—some yoke, some grievance. As a Leeds MP, I dearly wish to have some of those things for the people I represent.
I wish to see the benefits of this shared Union: the security that it gives us all, from whichever part of the United Kingdom we come, and the power of a single currency backed by the Treasury. In recent months, we have seen how, by working together through our NHS, we have been able to vaccinate people in all parts of our Union to protect them. I ask the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), why does it require separation for Scotland to engage with the rest of the United Kingdom?
This may be uncomfortable for some to hear, but I am struck by the similarities in the arguments put by those who argued for Brexit and by those who argue for Scottish independence. Both are based on the charge that one is somehow done down by the other. Both argue that sovereignty should outweigh economic self-interest. Given the problems we see on the border between the UK and the EU, how could it possibly be in the economic interest of Scotland—or, indeed, of England—to establish that same customs and single market border from the Solway firth to just north of Berwick-upon-Tweed?
Both arguments create bitter division. Opinion in Scotland is very divided on independence; be wary of the untold consequences of small margins and do not make assumptions. Opinion polls move, but there is only one true indicator of the settled will of the Scottish people, and that is the outcome of the 2014 referendum. I do not decry anyone’s right to continue to argue their cause in the face of that settled will, but I do question the wisdom of doing so, especially now. Together, we face unprecedented challenges—a pandemic, an economic crisis, the threat of dangerous climate change—but I believe that we can and will best respond to them not through separation, but as one country, one Union, one United Kingdom.
As we have heard from a number of speakers today, SNP politicians in this House are regular contributors in this Chamber and in our Committees, but only a couple of times a year do they get to set the title of the debate, to lead the narrative and to say where the focus should be in this Chamber. And today, yet again, they focus on independence—not on health in Scotland, not on education, not on our recovery or rebuilding after this pandemic, but on independence. In 25 minutes from the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), we did not hear anything positive about Scotland’s future. We did not hear how the SNP planned to rebuild after the pandemic, or how we can get our country back up and running again after 12 months of such great sacrifices from people across the country; no, we heard about separation and independence. It is unforgivable for SNP Members to yet again prioritise their own party’s priorities rather than Scotland’s.
I always like to look at what individuals have said so far in the debate, so I asked my office to check what the hon. Member for Edinburgh East said about a referendum in the next year. He said:
“I do not speculate on whether it is the end of this year or the beginning of next year.”
The hon. Gentleman is saying to the people of Scotland that his view from the SNP Benches here is that we could have a referendum in December or January, but certainly within the next 12 months the SNP’s plan is to take our country through that disruptive referendum process all over again. The plan is not to rebuild Scotland, focus on the jobs that have been lost and on getting our health service back up and running again, or on protecting people and livelihoods. His focus—the SNP’s focus—in the next year is more division and another referendum.
I feel the need to intervene, because a number of colleagues appear to be having some difficulty understanding what we mean when we say we do not want to have a referendum campaign until after the pandemic is finished. That is quite simple, is it not? The problem is that we do not know when the pandemic will end. We hope that it will end soon; and as soon as it ends, we will move on to having a referendum campaign. I hope that people can acknowledge that. I do not know exactly what the date will be, because it is contingent on what happens with covid-19. None of us knows that. But as soon as the pandemic is out of the way, then we move on. Of course, I hope the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that the whole point of independence is not to have it for its own sake, but to improve in all the areas that he is talking about.
It is incredible that the SNP position is somehow that this pandemic will be over with a flick of a switch and lives will not continue to be destroyed because of what we have been through for the past 12 months. People are still losing their lives in—[Interruption.] Don’t do that, Mr Sheppard. That is unacceptable in a debate when we are speaking about people losing their lives and losing their jobs. You are animated in such a way that you do not care about that. Well, I care about Scotland and Scotland’s recovery. The reckless approach from the SNP—to have another referendum within the next year—shows everyone in Scotland where your priorities are, and they do not lie with the people of Scotland.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh East also said that “once in a generation” was a “tagline” and went on to say—I paraphrase slightly—that it was used to dupe pro-independence supporters to vote for his party. But it is written in the White Paper, the foreword of which was signed by the former leader of the SNP. Therefore, what else in the White Paper was just used to dupe people? I think pretty much everything. We have now heard from the SNP Benches that their prospectus for an independent Scotland was based on putting information in there to dupe people into voting that way.
I also want to comment on a statement made from the Labour Front Bench. I think this may be the first time that we have heard this from the official Opposition in this House and it is very welcome; Labour’s shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), praised the vaccine roll-out and covid support. It is encouraging to hear the Labour party finally recognising that the UK Conservative Government’s vaccine programme, furlough support, self-employed income support, and support for businesses and jobs up and down Scotland has been such a roaring success north of the border and in every other part of the United Kingdom. I am extremely encouraged to hear that.
We still have to hear from the SNP’s shadow Leader of the House today, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), from its temporary Chief Whip, the hon. Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson), and from other SNP Members, but we have not yet heard anything about a currency for an independent Scotland, borders in an independent Scotland or what independence would mean for our armed forces in Scotland. I again invite SNP Members to tell us the SNP’s plan in an independent Scotland for our currency, for our armed forces and for our border—anything? Nothing. SNP Members wanted this debate in order to speak about independence, but when we ask them about independence, they are silent. That is not an approach to take to the people of Scotland.
We can stop the SNP. We can halt its plans for another divisive independence referendum and we can get the Scottish Parliament 100% laser focused on our recovery from this pandemic. People can do that by using both their votes for the Scottish Conservatives in May’s election so that we can end the division over another referendum, focus on our recovery, and rebuild Scotland.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I seek your guidance. After his intervention, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) made a very unfortunate hand gesture at my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) that I believe was disrespectful both to my hon. Friend and perhaps to other people watching this debate outside of this place. I seek your guidance as to whether that type of behaviour is acceptable in this place.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I caught that something had occurred, but I could not see what the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) did with his hand. If he did make a gesture that is unbecoming of an hon. Member of this place, I am sure he will apologise.
I certainly had no intention to make any gesture that would cause offence. I do not know why the offence has been taken. I was trying to indicate that the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) had not given due consideration to what I had said. I am not sure exactly what gesture is meant. I was pointing at my head and saying, “Think about it.” [Interruption.]
That is sufficient. It is essential that we keep good order and good humour in these debates, where of course there is massive disagreement about policy and ideas but there is always courtesy between hon. Members. I am grateful to all hon. Gentlemen, who are now behaving honourably.
As others have mentioned, today is St Patrick’s Day. It is also a century on from when the United Kingdom, in its first iteration as the United Kingdom and Ireland, ended when the Irish Free State was established. Now the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland stand on the brink as Scotland seeks its independence to make its way in the world and to end the dystopian fantasy of post-Brexit Britain and its pursuit of a new age of empire.
What Charles Stewart Parnell said of Ireland applies to Scotland:
“No man has a right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation; no man has a right to say to his country—thus far shalt thou go and no further.”
Yet that is what Scotland is being told, despite support for independence being ever greater and despite Scotland’s democratically elected representatives demanding the right to hold a referendum. Instead, we are told that it is no to indyref2, and that now and forevermore it will remain that way unless and until it is set by the British on their conditions. That is simply unacceptable. Scotland cannot be subject to a British, or even Boris, veto. It is neither his nor their right or prerogative—it is the democratic right of the Scottish people.
That is why we have to consider what options are taken. Section 30 has been rejected by the Prime Minister. A consultative referendum is to be boycotted by the Opposition parties. It is for that reason that more and more people in Scotland see the need to make the Holyrood poll a plebiscite election. It cannot be, or will not be, boycotted because of its nature. The vote on the list can be definitive for independence and parties are signing up for that. It is simply not acceptable that Northern Ireland is entitled to a referendum and the Irish Free State was established on a referendum, yet Scotland is denied another referendum despite carrying out its actions democratically and without violence.
As Brexit Britain sails off into oblivion, it is for Scotland to gain its independence. There is a better way, and the people of Scotland are beginning to recognise that the tenor and tone of the debate has changed. In 2014, and occasionally in some of the contributions here, we have heard, “Please don’t go, Scotland, we love you.” Equally, it is becoming clearer and clearer that it is not a desire to retain Scotland for Scotland’s interests, but a desire to retain Scotland for the interests of those who are the British establishment. That was made quite clear by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, who wrote recently of Scottish independence that:
“The rest of the world would instantly see that we were no longer a front-rank power, or even in the second row.”
So the whole position put forward by the British Government is not the advancement of the interests of the Scottish people; it is the preservation of the interests of Britain as it stands and of those who are currently very wealthy, as the chumocracy looks after its friends and others.
It is for that reason that the people of Scotland recognise there is a better way, but the better way is to be an independent Scotland where you can care for your own people rather than provide for the private profits of the few. That has to be brought about and if it cannot be delivered by a referendum, we have to make the coming election the plebiscite. Independence is the right of the Scottish people; it is not subject to a veto from Britain, or from a British Prime Minister.
Diolch, Madam Deputy Speaker.
It is, of course, no surprise that a Government who are willing to undermine people’s rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly by pushing through powers to restrict public protest will not authorise Scotland’s right to choose its constitutional future. Despite their best efforts, the British Government have utterly failed to prevent the turbo-boosting in support for Scottish independence.
We in Wales who are looking at developments in Scotland see that the status quo is finished and we are having to think about what that means for us. I suspect many in my country share the feelings of the former First Minister, Carwyn Jones, that an England and Wales Union has little appeal. The reality is that the choice facing the people of Wales and Scotland is increasingly moving towards between seizing independence or being left with neutered ceremonial buildings in Cardiff Bay and Edinburgh—devolution in name only.
As has become so painfully clear, Brexiteers in this House gave little thought to the impact of leaving the European Union on the British state itself. However, one thing I have learned from my years in this place is that the British establishment never leaves a good crisis to go to waste. Realising that leaving European economic frameworks would require the creation of new structures for the British state, or the Great Britain part at least, the British Government pounced on every opportunity to place a Westminster straitjacket on Wales and Scotland, even within devolved competencies. The default position has been to centralise power in Westminster, a position regrettably accepted by the Labour party, which has always endorsed ultimate Westminster primacy, despite being the governing party in Wales.
I make that point because the Labour party’s compliance has consequences: a broken funding system, an ever-increasing wealth gap and the highest rates of child poverty of any UK nation. Never have those failings been more apparent than during this crisis, where those who have the least have been affected the most. Members are used to bandying statistics around this House in a game of one-upmanship, but I ask them, if they take anything from what I say today, to reflect on the real state of affairs for communities and families in Wales and Scotland. The economic and social model of the British state is letting them down and those who fail to oppose it are complicit.
The Labour party may have accepted that position, but increasingly the people of Wales, as they have in Scotland, are refusing to do so, hence the remarkable growth of YesCymru and the increasing support for Welsh independence. The devolution middle ground, which served the interests of all the Welsh political parties in different ways, is disappearing. The current constitutional turbulence is therefore likely to become a hurricane in the years to come. When the wind blows over, I hope to see Wales, Scotland and indeed England emerge as confident, outward-looking, collaborative and independent nations. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
It is a pleasure to speak as a proud Unionist in a debate on Scottish separation. The latest poll shows that 57% of people would vote against separation from the United Kingdom—what a ringing endorsement of the SNP’s record in Scotland that is! On 15 July, I spoke in another SNP debate on the issue of separation. As I said then, this is nothing more than a narrow-minded, party-focused, face-saving measure to cover its dire failures in government—and the Scottish people are fast becoming aware of that.
It is no surprise that the SNP wants to put “indyref 2” on the ballot paper, because the Scottish people know that the SNP’s record on domestic issues is catastrophic. In fact, its persistent calls for separation are the only transparent thing about the party. Let us take a quick snapshot of the SNP’s record in government. Aside from its misleading First Minister, the SNP has failed to pay out £200 million in business support. Before the pandemic, the SNP presided over the lowest rate of job creation in the UK. International PISA study results show that the Scottish education system has gone backwards. The SNP is refusing to publish a crucial review into its failed curriculum reforms. Most areas of Scotland have fewer police officers on the frontline since the failed merger. Violent crime in Scotland has been rising for the last five years. The SNP has missed its own legal emissions targets.
No, I will not; I do not have much time.
The SNP said in 2014 that an independent Scotland would take 18 months to be set up. What a bizarre claim. No plan for how, and no detail on how—no chance when it comes to May. The SNP’s internal squabbles and factional infighting show that it has no plan for the people of Scotland, and it will make Scotland a poorer place by its obsession with separation, providing no detail on what that means for the people it supposedly serves. The people of Scotland are waking up to the way in which they are being let down by the SNP.
It is good of the hon. Member to tell us what the people of Scotland are thinking at the moment. What is important is how they vote on 6 May. Again, if the people of Scotland vote for parties that have a referendum in their manifesto, surely the claim of right should be respected and the will of the Scottish people should be respected, and there will be a referendum.
I fully respect the right of the Scottish people. I respect the right of the decision that they made in 2014, and I wish that the hon. Gentleman would show the same respect to the people he serves by accepting that decision, which he and the leader of his party—who I know is in difficulty at the moment—claimed was a once-in-a-generation decision. They should abide by that and not try to mislead the Scottish people. In the next few weeks, I have every confidence that unity and progress will shine through, and many people in Scotland will vote Conservative to keep the Union together. Then, hopefully, the Scottish National party will be given the shock that it really needs.
I look across at the SNP Benches and see Members who I consider to be friends and who I have worked well with in parliamentary cross-party groups. I am proud that the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) has described me as a grandson of Skye, in memory of my grandfather Alexander Matheson, who was born there over a century ago. Of course, I am English. I am also British, and I am a Cheshire man—a Cestrian. It is possible to identify as all three, which is why I am saddened that the narrow, divisive nationalism of the SNP has been allowed to eat away at people who, in every other sense, should know better. If nationalism is the answer, they are asking the wrong question. It is an ideology based on division, difference and setting one against the other solely on the confected grounds of limited, singular identity.
SNP Members cannot see the irony, as they sit across from the Conservatives, that they are two cheeks of the same backside. The Tories have become the party of petty little Englander nationalism. They claim to be Unionists, when in fact the current Government are the biggest threat to the Union, as we see with the predicted consequences of Brexit for Northern Ireland and the slashing of parliamentary representation in Wales. The SNP revels in this, as though working in a symbiotic relationship with the Tories, perhaps to promote its own narrow agenda and distract from its own terrible failings in government.
The hon. Member says the Conservatives are the biggest supporters of separation. May I remind him that the Labour party lost its voters in Scotland because it did not stand up for the Union as strongly as it should have done, which opened the door to the Scottish National party?
Oh, so it is all our fault. Well, it is the Conservatives’ fault what is happening in Northern Ireland and for driving the Scots away, because the truth is that the SNP is more similar to the Tories than it lets on.
Today, there are two debates led by the SNP, one on constitutional affairs—independence—and one on Brexit. In fact, they are the same debate, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) said, because exactly the same baseless arguments that the Tories made about Brexit, the SNP now makes about Scottish independence. The Tories showed the UK the failings of their own Government and said, “Look, everything will be fine if we are free of the EU.” The SNP is also showing the failings of its own Government and the UK Government and saying, “Look, everything will be fine if we leave the UK.”
In the case of Brexit, every prediction was that we would take a hit to our economy, but that did not matter because we would be free. In the case of Scottish independence, every prediction is that the Scottish economy would take a big hit, but that does not matter, according to the SNP, because it would be free. Both campaigns were and are about narrow nationalism, appealing not to sense, reason or objectivity based on facts, but to emotion stirred by distrust of others. None of the Brexit argument stood up; it was pure ideology. None of the Scottish nationalists’ arguments stands up to scrutiny either; theirs is a pure emotional ideology. I am just waiting for them to roll out “Take back control” as their campaign slogan and the circle will be complete.
I am a wee bit disappointed in the hon. Gentleman’s contribution, because he knows we are better than that. We want a forward-thinking, outward-looking country that is not tied to this backward-looking global Britain. What is wrong with wanting a country where the electorate elect the parliamentarians of their choosing so that they have control?
I am quite happy for the electorate to elect a party and a Government of their choosing. That is what democracy is.
I implore the people of Scotland not to get conned again by impossible promises; not to be hoodwinked by the mirage of the oasis of independence; not to fall for the same tricks that persuaded people to vote for Brexit, because the same bogus arguments are being deployed now for independence, just in a different context; and not to be seduced by the power of the dark side that is divisive nationalism, because ordinary people in Chester have the same problems as ordinary people in Aberdeen and Inverness and Motherwell, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) said. If the UK is weaker by leaving the EU—and we are—then Scotland will be weaker by leaving the UK.
It could well be that the people of Scotland have had enough of being ruled by the Conservatives. Guess what? So have I. The answer is to get them out, not to stick our heads in the sand and wish them away through the mirage of independence. So I say to the people of Scotland: it may not feel at the moment like a partnership, a brotherhood and sisterhood, a commonwealth—it certainly does not from where I am standing, seeing the destruction that the Tories are wreaking—but England needs Scotland too. Scotland will be weaker out of the UK, and the UK will be weaker without Scotland.
I reckon that a chunk of the SNP’s support is not necessarily for independence, but is an anti-Tory vote—and who can blame people for that? Now, with the outstanding Anas Sarwar leading Scottish Labour, I predict that much of that chunk of support will start to come back to Labour, because now, with real leadership, there will be real scrutiny in Scotland of the effects of independence and the failings of the SNP. The Tories cannot provide that and do not want to provide it; as I have said, they are now the party of petty English nationalism, and the truth is that they do not care if we lose Scotland. But I do care; I am proud to be British—and even more so because Scotland is such a big part of being British. We have a magnificent common shared history. Get the Tories out, ditch this impossible, divisive, corrosive obsession with nationalism, and our shared common future will be brighter.
We, the United Kingdom, are the sum of all our parts, and of course Scotland is a vital part of that Union. Every British child born to this country enjoys a wealth of culture, language and ways of life, and that is brought about by our precious Union. We often hear the phrase “a family of nations”, and that is exactly what we are—a family. I do not live in Scotland, but I do not recognise it as just a country far away on a map; rather, I see it as a contributing factor to my character, my culture and my heart.
Although it is disappointing that the Scottish National party has chosen to hold this divisive debate on nationalism today, I do not want to use this as an opportunity to score political points against the SNP. Of course, it could have taken this opportunity to speak about the economic recovery after covid, or perhaps its track record on health or education, but I see this debate as a direct challenge to my identity, my beliefs and my values as a proud member of the United Kingdom. Of course, without Scottish influence on the UK, my philosophy of Conservatism would be devoid of two greats: Adam Smith and David Hume.
Looking to our position in the world now, to what global Britain looks like emerging from the covid-19 pandemic, I would like to set out the stall for why we are better as one United Kingdom—as one family. Maintaining the UK continues our climate of stability and certainty. It provides security for jobs and businesses. It provides security for who we are and our values. Under our vital Union, we have seen a Union dividend for every man, woman and child in Scotland of nearly £2,000. Public spending per person in Scotland is £1,600 higher than the UK average, and an estimated 545,000 jobs in Scotland are supported by trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. During the covid-19 pandemic, the UK Government have provided an extra £8.6 billion for the Scottish Government Budget, protecting more than 900,000 jobs.
More importantly, Scotland’s contribution to our national story is profound, and has had an impact on all of us. Scotland’s unique creative pulse brings us the romanticism of Robert Burns and the eruptive arts of the fringe festival. The food and drinks sector in Scotland is one of the most important in the UK economy, and Scotch whisky is one product that is known around the world. The Scottish mining and oil industry is at the forefront of the UK’s technological growth story, providing the UK with many high-skilled jobs. The academic arm of Scotland, which produced Smith and Hume, continues to be of tremendous benefit to the UK, and we can continue to learn from it.
It is incumbent on all Government Members to shout from the rooftops the amazing contribution that Scotland makes and how important each and every Scottish man, woman and child is to us. We cannot allow the petty politics of divisive point-scoring and nationalist politics to take away from the fact that our Union is the longest lasting marriage in history. It is a story of success, history, culture, values and beauty.
Across the two debates and the two motions, the SNP has totally failed to engage with the issue that people across the UK and the world have lived with, grieved over and endured over the past year. The reality facing millions of ordinary Scots is the recovery from the pandemic. As others have said, SNP Members could have used this time to discuss the issues that matter: jobs, the economy, climate change, and education. When the SNP wants to consider elections to the Scottish Parliament, as they do in the motion, it seems that the only thing in which it is interested is the constitution. Today, a Survation poll shows that independence is one of three top priorities for only 8% of Scots. The pandemic was not deemed important enough to be mentioned in the motion. I am afraid that, after 14 years in power in Scotland, the SNP is consumed by internal problems and is out of touch.
Recovery from the pandemic is important for my constituents. When I think of the small business owners in North East Fife who have contacted me over the past year—the restaurants, cafés, holiday parks, hair salons, wedding organisers and mobile caterers; when I think of the problems facing almost 4,500 constituents who have got in touch with me over the past year; when I think about constituents in higher-priority groups who have contacted me and are still wating for their jab four weeks after the First Minister said that she was “satisfied” that everyone in those groups had been offered a vaccine; when I think about people who have got in touch, concerned that covid case rates in Scotland are the highest in the UK, or who are worried that yesterday there were 17,000 covid tests in Scotland, compared with 1.5 million in England; I think what do they want, and what is their priority? What is Scotland’s priority? Is it to pursue a referendum this year, as the Cabinet Secretary for the Constitution, Europe and External Affairs wants at a time when Scottish GDP has flatlined, after a record fall in 2020? Is it to advocate for an agenda that creates endless uncertainty for business about everything from the currency that it uses to the way in which pensions are nominated, at the very moment when many of them are on the brink?
I will be clear. Now is the time to put recovery first—that is what Scottish Liberal Democrats want. We want investment in green jobs, high-quality education, good mental health services, and measures to tackle the climate emergency. If the SNP had focused on those things during its 14 years in power, how much better life would be for people across Scotland. Over the past year, everyone in the House has dealt with many pieces of casework from constituents struggling through the pandemic and lockdown, and from people who have tragically lost loved ones. They want our focus over the next few years, as we approach the May elections, to be on how we recover. The Scottish Fiscal Commission estimates that the Scottish economy will not recover to pre-pandemic levels until the beginning of 2024—almost two years later than the UK a whole. When does the pandemic really end? If we do not focus on recovery now, there is a risk that the 2020s will become a decade of stagnation in Scotland. After 14 years of SNP rule, we have seen so much opportunity wasted. Let us put recovery first.
I can understand why independence calls to the souls of some in our devolved nations. The Welsh have a word for it— “hiraeth”—but our experience with Brexit has shown us just how complex things can be when separating from a partner. The UK has far fewer co-dependencies with the EU than Scotland does with the rest of the UK, but even so, as I am sure the later debate will attest, our recent divorce has been complicated and at times painful.
With Scotland, we share a land border, a currency and a long history. Untangling that relationship is likely to be at least as fraught. Had Scotland voted for independence in 2014 and become part of the EU in its own right, the EU trade structure would have been in place for open trade with the rest of the UK, but the goalposts have changed. With the UK outside the EU, no such structure exists. An independent Scotland would need to negotiate a new trade deal with the rest of the UK, as well as with the EU and other countries globally. Yes, Scotland could apply for EU membership but there is no guarantee that it would be welcomed. Scotland’s deficit is twice the EU target and, with its ageing and rural population, its public spending is already £15 billion a year higher than its tax and North sea oil revenues.
If Scotland did vote for independence, what impact would that have on Scotland’s economy? First, consider that the majority of Scotland’s trade is with the UK. About 60% of its exports go to the other nations of the UK. Only around 20% go to the EU and the remainder go to the rest of the world. Then, consider tourism: the Scottish Government website describes tourism as a
“cornerstone of the Scottish Economy”,
accounting for 5% of gross value added and one in every 12 Scottish jobs. Some 80% of its tourism comes from the UK and, of the other 20%, many visitors arrive in England and visit Scotland as part of a UK tour.
There would of course be significant downsides for the rest of the UK, too. The Union would lose an important element of its rich cultural heritage. The UK imports over £60 billion in goods and services into Scotland, so if we put a border between Scotland and the rest of the UK, with possible visa and customs checks, controls, duties and taxes, and maybe a different currency as well—I will leave it to the House to work out whether that would put any of us in a better place.
I can understand why independence calls to some, but it is a romantic, idealised vision of independence. It is not grounded in practicality or realism. Independence simply increases the risks and uncertainty for our devolved nations, whereas a strong United Kingdom offers certainty and security for its citizens. As part of the UK, all our nations can pool and share their resources and strengths. We are stronger and more resilient as a Union, and I believe in one Union and one United Kingdom.
I suspect that even the most ardent Unionist would find it hard to disagree with the basic proposition that a country in a voluntary political union should at all times have the right to choose its constitutional future. The real question is when Scotland should be able to revisit the decision made in September 2014. British politicians telling us that now is not the time tends to mean not ever, so let us analyse what “once in a generation” means in political terms.
The six and a half years that have passed since the 2014 referendum have been tumultuous. We have had three general elections, three Prime Ministers and a UK-wide referendum on EU membership, followed by a serious push for a second referendum on the same topic from people such as the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray), who is now so averse to a second independence referendum. Notwithstanding those efforts, Britain has left the European Union and now we are suffering from a global pandemic. That is a lot more political change than normally happens in the span of a generation. The result of all this turmoil is that more and more people living in Scotland want to revisit the decision made in 2014.
England and Scotland chose markedly different paths on Brexit. That, and the fact that people have more confidence in the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic than the British Government’s, are major factors in the change of heart taking place in Scotland. Perhaps the biggest problem that the UK Government and the official Opposition have in attempting to stop another independence referendum is the existence of the Northern Ireland Act 1998. That Act provides that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland may allow repeat referendums on Irish unity with only a seven-year interval in between. Even allowing for the very different context, if seven years between referendums on the question of whether to leave the United Kingdom is acceptable for Northern Ireland, why is it not acceptable for Scotland? I would like the Minister to address that directly when he sums up today.
The British Government have pressed ahead with their constitutional priorities regardless of the pandemic and its economic fallout, so why should not the Scottish Government? The need to rebuild our economy and our society in the wake of the pandemic provides an impetus to rethink our priorities. If we do not take radical steps now, there will be no change and we will go back to where we were before, which was not a sustainable place. In order to transform Scotland, we need full control over all the decisions that affect us, not just limited powers to tinker around the edges. Independence for Scotland is not an end in itself, but a means to ensuring that the vital decisions about how we run our economy and our society are taken close to home, so that we can do things differently and better.
It always really saddens me when time in this place is used by some constantly to go back to their obsession with separation. It is not that I think that Scotland cannot go it alone: I have faith in Scotland and a lot of respect and love for Scotland. It is that I worry about the loss of Scotland’s contribution to our United Kingdom. Strategically, economically and culturally, it is a huge player in the successful global powerhouse of the United Kingdom.
Culturally, people travel from across the world to visit the United Kingdom. They do not necessarily go to London to have a look round, or even to my own home city of Birmingham; they also go to Scotland to the Edinburgh festival and to experience the highlands, which I myself love to visit at least once a year. Economically, Scotland makes a huge contribution to our exports. Whisky, for example, is the single biggest food and drink export from this country. Strategically, too, Scotland is important, especially when it comes to defence. Yesterday, the Prime Minister gave us an update on the integrated review, in which it was said that Russia was our greatest threat. When the RAF intercepted Russian bombers, it left from Scottish air bases. That is a huge contribution that Scotland makes to the defence of this country.
I will also mention family ties. Today, I am wearing the tie of the clan Farquharson. My sister’s fiancé, Andrew, donated this to me so that, at some point, I could make a speech in it. I thought that today would be apt, because it is the family ties that we all share across the United Kingdom that are so very important. I hope that, as Andrew is the father of my little nephew, Freddie, the Union will carry on for many generations so that little Freddie can experience the benefits of our great Union, too.
The hon. Member for City of Chester (Christian Matheson) made a very good point about devolution. Many people in Birmingham feel that Westminster is a far-away place and that it does not understand many of their problems, so that problem is not necessarily unique to Scotland.
Devolution comes with responsibility. Unfortunately, the Scottish National party constantly use distraction as a technique to take away from its responsibility for some of the abysmal services that it runs in Scotland, including education, local government finance and transport to mention just a few. Responsibility is very important. It is tiresome that SNP Members keep coming to this place and using up valuable time to further their agenda for separation when really what they should be doing is having a debate on how Scotland is run. I very much hope that, on 6 May, people will not give them the mandate for a second referendum that they so wish for.
Today I am privileged to be speaking in both Opposition Day debates: on Scottish independence and on Brexit. I oppose Scotland leaving the United Kingdom for the very same reasons that I am devastated that we left the European Union. My constituents and I know the value of unity: togetherness over division, interdependence over individualism. Those in favour of Scottish independence and Brexit have come to blows in the past, but, at the same time, they put forward similar arguments. The Scottish National party insists that Westminster is the source of all Scotland’s problems, as we were led to believe that Brussels was the source of ours. That cannot be believed, and that is not true.
The SNP has ruled the Scottish Parliament for 14 years. Homelessness and drug deaths have sky-rocketed and councils have been starved of funds. The past four years of division caused by constitutional chaos should not be repeated. I cannot think of anything more upsetting than going through that a second time to break up an even longer and more meaningful Union. As a United Kingdom, we have a proud and pleasing history of achieving extraordinary things. Together, we were founding members of the United Nations, and we built this international collective based on our principles of solidarity. In the 20th century, together we fought off the rise of fascism, we are leaders in the G7 and the G20, and we have been among the highest donors in foreign aid. We are so much stronger as a United Kingdom with our collective finances, skills, social contribution and academic institutions than we would be as separate entities. We have so much more to offer our citizens and the world, but in this global world, the Scottish nationalists want to take us back 300 years to a fractured past. Surely, we should not be looking backwards; we should be looking ahead.
We should not dismiss how we have grown together through an industrial revolution, world wars, justice movements and social change. It is Thatcherism that savaged Scotland, and I am proud of Labour’s history in creating Scottish devolution. Under this Labour leadership, we are determined to repair relationships and to strengthen devolved powers. As Scotland approaches its parliamentary election, the focus must not be on making it weaker by splitting our country in two. As we come together out of this pandemic, we must make Scotland stronger as a valued and significant part of the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to rise to speak in this debate. I for one do not think the SNP gets enough Opposition day debates. I think a party of its size in this place deserves more than three in the course of one parliamentary Session. However, it is surprising, given everything that this country, Scotland, the United Kingdom and the world is facing right now, that it has chosen to use one of its three days—only three days—to debate this issue above all others, banging on about another independence referendum. It is very much like groundhog day in the House of Commons.
The SNP has chosen to debate not education, not the recovery, not economic growth, not jobs, not health, not drug deaths, not infrastructure, not broadband, not local government funding, and not the serious issues surrounding civil service impartiality and the separation of powers within the Scottish Government. No, the Scottish National party—in which I have many friends, but which I regard as a single-issue, mass membership pressure group, masquerading as a serious party of government—wants to talk about its sole obsession: ripping apart our United Kingdom.
We know why. Why would the Scottish National party not want us looking at all the issues I have listed? Because on every single one it is failing Scotland. It is failing Scotland on education, with the attainment gap wider than it was when it got into power. Kids from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to get to university in Scotland than they are in England. It is failing Scotland on jobs and the economy, with growth of only 1.8% expected in Scotland in 2022, compared with a prediction of 5% for the rest of the UK, and with jobs growth at a rate less than that of the UK prior to the coronavirus pandemic.
The SNP is failing Scotland on health. The 12-week treatment time guarantee, which was unveiled with great fanfare by the now First Minister Nicola Sturgeon when she was Health Secretary in 2011, has never once been met. The Royal College of General Practitioners expects a shortfall of 856 doctors in Scotland by 2021. It is failing Scotland on drugs deaths, with the highest drug deaths rate in Europe. That shameful statistic has occurred on the SNP’s watch.
The SNP is failing Scotland on infrastructure and failing Scotland on the roll-out of broadband. In 2018, Fergus Ewing, the Rural Economy Secretary in the Scottish Government, threatened to resign if he failed to deliver on its flagship R100 project, which aspired to make superfast broadband available to every single premises in Scotland by the end of 2021. The latest projections tell us that it is more likely to be 2026. Resignation incoming? I think not.
There are those in the SNP who will say—I can hear the keyboards clattering now, and I can almost hear the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) saying—that I am talking Scotland down. I am not. Let me be clear: I have simply outlined the record of a failing, arrogant, tired Government who have dragged Scotland down, down, down.
That is very kind of my hon. Friend. I couldn’t possibly comment; that is for other people to judge.
The SNP has dragged Scotland down, down, down. In fact, the only things to go up in Scotland recently have been the taxes. That is the record of the Scottish National party. It is not a surprise that we are now on to the fourth poll in a row showing support for the Union increasing and support for separation going down. As the hon. Member for Glasgow East (David Linden) said a few weeks ago, “Cheerio, cheerio, tick-tock.”
Let us leave this divisive and disruptive debate behind us. Let us move on and tackle the issues that really matter to Scots—rebuilding, growing, creating jobs and making our schools, once again, the best in the world—comfortable in ourselves, happy as a strong, devolved nation within a great and enduring family of nations.
Oh, he’s finished? Thanks very much, Madam Deputy Speaker.
For far too long, the Union has been a millstone around Scotland’s neck—an 18th-century political construct, unfit for the 21st century. Not a single country that has gained its independence from the UK has returned cap-in-hand to beg for readmittance; not a single nation has become independent and regretted its choice. Scotland will be no different. The “Union dividend” has been the destruction of industry, the depopulation of our towns and cities on a scale seen nowhere else in Europe, and the tearing down of the welfare safety net. Our infrastructure was left to fester, our transport network denied investment, our key industries asset-stripped and shipped overseas.
This Government’s mind-boggling and entirely counterproductive answer to their own failures is a Union connectivity review that attempts to overrule the democratically elected Government of Scotland and place power in the hands of a tiny cabal of Ministers whose party has no mandate in Scotland. Moreover, it has zero mandate in Wales or Northern Ireland, either. It has been decades since the Conservatives had any democratic legitimacy beyond the English border.
I have campaigned for independence since I was a boy, and I was at George Square for the poll tax demonstrations, the imposition of which by the Thatcher Government on their tartan testing ground was done against the wishes of the people of Scotland and their own Ministers. With the connectivity review and other power grabs, they seem entirely unable to learn the lessons from our own history. Incidentally, the poll tax was very much a catalyst not only for the current support for independence, but for the insuppressible move towards re-establishing the Scottish Parliament. It is only since the return of that Scottish Parliament that we have seen the kind of real investment required—investment not just in bricks and mortar, but in our people too. Scotland is rolling out the biggest expansion of the welfare state for decades, because we believe in it, and we believe that with the full powers of independence we can harness our nation’s wealth to improve our welfare state still further.
There is a realisation among an ever growing majority of Scots that the UK is a failing state, having to resort to waving its Trident missiles about for international relevancy, wasting billions in public money that should be used to help people, not threatening to incinerate them. Our relations with Europe, a fundamental cornerstone of our economy and society for decades, torched and ruined, with businesses across the country counting the cost and workers losing their livelihoods. Scotland—an outward-facing, internationalist Scotland—wants no part in it. If Scotland votes for the opportunity to choose its own future in May, only a tinpot dictator would attempt to stand in its way. I am confident that we will seize that opportunity and the potential of independence, internationalism and the transformational change our country still needs, but which is blocked by a UK in full retreat having given up on working with others.
Independence is not a panacea. We will have to work hard to repair the damage done by generations of neglect and disinterest, but we will be working well on the early days of a better nation, rather than looking at the dying embers of the UK state.
I have some sympathy with the SNP; it must have been difficult to decide what to debate today, given some recent developments. So it is pleasing to know that they have gone with the greatest hits. I always look forward to the SNP debates because, whatever the subject, the answer is always the same—separatism. Speakers on the Conservative Benches raise education, trade, businesses, currency and the fact that a once-in-a-generation referendum on separation happened in 2014. Then the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who is an outstanding orator and politician, stands up, ignores all the points raised, flaps his arms in outrage, quotes a few opinion polls and concludes that separatism is the only answer. It is a sort of modern-day Henry VIII strategy.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you know that I am from good Scottish mining stock, and the Union is personal to me because it runs through my blood. Like millions of others, including millions of Scots, I am looking forward to seeing my family again and to giving them a hug. However, at a time when the population wants to focus on coming together, the SNP wants to focus on tearing us apart.
The hon. Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) set out her objections and the fact that there are so many relevant things that we could be discussing today—the road map out of covid; the challenges that covid has created; the success of our world-leading Great British vaccine programme; our furlough scheme, and the fact that it has saved millions of jobs; the opportunity to create a better, greener future together—but they have all been put aside. Instead, we are discussing two issues on which we have already had referendums.
I have sat through many contributions from SNP Members in this Chamber. Unfortunately for them, they are becoming the biggest barrier to what they want to achieve. The truth is that the SNP has less faith in the great people of Scotland than I do. It is increasingly out of touch with the wishes of the Scottish people. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) just set out in an outstanding speech, the SNP is failing on so many important issues. The Scotland that I know is intelligent, tolerant and proud. It is a vital member of this Great British family, and its people want us to focus on recovering from covid and building a better future together. The politics of separatism is not the answer.
It is a privilege to speak in this important debate. It is a debate that people in England and right across the UK need to start paying greater attention to, because while I fully respect that the future of Scotland is one to be determined by the Scottish people—indeed, the Labour party’s position on Scottish independence and the Union is one that is determined and led by the Scottish Labour party—the decision that is taken by the people of Scotland will have ramifications right across the rest of the Union.
The argument I want to make on the part of the Union is both pragmatic and principled. The pragmatic argument is, “Why now?” Why now, in the midst of a global pandemic of a type we have not seen during most of our lifetimes and when the challenge is not simply to roll out the vaccine but to build the recovery? Why now would we plunge not just Scotland but the entire United Kingdom into a constitutional row consuming all the focus and all the resources when the focus must be on rebuilding our country? Why now, in the midst of extracting ourselves from one sophisticated political and economic alliance, which we have already seen has caused real challenges and broken promises, would we seek to repeat the same exercise again the very future of our own country?
Then, of course, I look at the record of the Scottish Government, and it becomes perfectly clear why independence will be on page 1 of their manifesto. The alternative is that their record will be on the front cover: 182,000 children left in poverty, even in households where one person is in work; a quarter of all households in fuel poverty, and that was before the pandemic; the NHS 12-week waiting time guarantee not met since 2012 and breached 360,000 times; the four-hour waiting time target not met since 2017 until the pandemic hit; 18-week mental health waiting times; and an employment rate that is actually lower than the United Kingdom rate. That is a record that we would see in the UK Government, too.
We have heard criticism of the SNP for picking this subject for this debate, but at least this matter is the responsibility of the UK Parliament. Many of the issues that my hon. Friend is raising are the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, and so would be sensible things for the SNP to be spending the Scottish parliamentary elections debating.
Indeed—and that brings me to education, which is my hon. Friend’s passion, and mine. The number of teachers in Scotland is down by 1,700 since 2007; the promise to cap class sizes is broken; spending per pupil is down; and on the Scottish Government’s central challenge—to close the attainment gap—they are failing. Indeed, the First Minister herself said:
“Let me be clear—I want to be judged on this. If you are not, as First Minister, prepared to put your neck on the line on the education of our young people then what are you prepared to. It really matters.”
It is time for the First Minister to account for the record of educational failure in Scotland, because on class sizes, standards and the attainment gap, the record in Scotland is as abysmal as that of the Tories in the United Kingdom.
That brings me to the real risk of giving the SNP a majority: it is a question of not just independence but ethics and propriety at the heart of the Scottish Government. As much as I have tried to follow the Salmond/Sturgeon melodrama and the serious issues that lie at the heart of that case, it has been depressing to say the least to see factions and vested interests taking charge of ethical standards and ethics at the heart of Government. I do not care for one side of the SNP or the other—it is like watching a football match and wanting to both sides to lose—but the fact is, we have seen the SNP put its own divisions ahead of the interests of its own country. To put party before country is the central dereliction of any Government. We have seen where that got us with Brexit, and with the Brexit decision we have seen that the grass is not always greener on the other side. We have already been pulled out of the largest single market in the world and are now seeing the consequences; why on earth would Scotland leave the most successful market in the world?
In London and Edinburgh we see Governments who have been in power for far too long, with the resultant complacency, arrogance and record of failure. The choice that faces the Scottish people in May is not “Alien vs. Predator”—the Union offered by the Conservatives or the SNP’s Scottish independence; there is an alternative that is led by the fantastic leader of the Scottish Labour party, Anas Sarwar, with a national recovery plan that has the potential to unite Scotland and unite our country. We need to refocus on the priorities that matter. Whether a voter has been sceptical about Labour in Scotland or about Labour across the United Kingdom, we ask them to give our leadership in London and in Edinburgh a second look and to get behind the Labour party. Having listened to this debate, I think that at this point Labour is the only party that can keep the Union together and rebuild a stronger, fairer United Kingdom for the future.
I would say it is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), but certain tweaks needed to be made to his speech for me to be able to say that.
Sitting here listening to this debate, it has struck me how depressingly similar much of what I am hearing it from the SNP truly is. A referendum was held to decide an incredibly important issue that affects the future of our whole country. Prior to the poll, all sides agreed that the result would be respected and that everyone would adhere to whatever the public decided. It would be a once-in-a-generation decision. People voted and a clear winner emerged, then suddenly the sands began to shift. Some of those on the losing side of the referendum began to move the goalposts and to insert caveats and get-outs. They started to demand that the vote was rerun or the question changed slightly. They claimed that things had moved on. Allegations were made against one side or another and the whole issue rumbled on for years. Does that sound familiar to anyone?
Like Brexit, the debate around Scottish independence polarises families and communities. It turns friends against each other and divides people from their neighbours. I therefore ask the SNP very gently: is now really the time for this? Is now truly the time to sow division and uncertainty, at a moment when we have not yet even come out of the pandemic, let alone recovered from it economically? When many people have lost, are losing or are worried about losing their jobs, it does not matter whether someone lives in Aberdeen or Accrington, their priorities are the same. I encourage the SNP to focus on the day-to-day issues rather than obsessing over constitutional changes.
I have to say I cannot understand why the proposition that Scotland has the right to choose its own future is so controversial for some. I accept that not everyone in Scotland, or even further afield, wishes Scotland to become a self-governing country. However, I cannot comprehend these voices who are so afraid of what the people of Scotland may decide about their own future that they believe the solution is to prevent the people of Scotland from having the opportunity to make such a choice at all. Surely anyone can see that that is not a sustainable and logical position to take. For anyone in this Chamber to tell the people of Scotland—the people of any nation—that no matter what they vote for they will not have it unless we approve, only adds to the swelling SNP ranks, as increasingly the people of Scotland take exception to being told by those for whom they did not vote that what they might vote for in future will not be permitted. It makes a nonsense of any idea of a partnership of equals.
I say in all honesty that many Unionists are nervous about this strategy of simply denying democracy for that very reason. They know it plays very badly in Scotland. However, as many in the Chamber today will tell you off the record, they understand that, if the SNP, the party that exists to persuade Scots to choose self-government and will stand on that platform, wins the election in May and secures a majority, a mandate for an independence referendum will exist—and it will be delivered, just as it was delivered in 2014. Anyone who doubts that only has to look at the Tory election leaflets today going out across Scotland telling people that, if they want to stop an independence referendum, vote Tory. That is how we know that an SNP majority will absolutely deliver that mandate. It is as simple as that.
Despite the bluster, the attempt to divert the debate down blind alleys and the shrieking at squirrels, these are the undisputable facts. Today is about Scotland’s constitutional choices and I have to say to those who deny that such a choice should even exist: you are sorely out of touch with the people of Scotland.
This debate is too often framed in terms of pounds and pence arguments—what Scotland does or does not get from its membership of the United Kingdom. Yes, that is important. We should look at the benefits. We should recognise, as any sensible person would, that almost £2,000 every year goes to every single man, woman and child in Scotland from the treasuries of Wales, Northern Ireland and England. We should recognise the incredible benefits of the Union in our response to the pandemic and the vaccine roll-out, which has been supported by England, by manufacturing in Wales and by the Novavax vaccine being manufactured in Scotland. We should recognise the strength of the United Kingdom Treasury to support businesses and families through this difficult time and, yes, we should recognise the strength of a single currency. But my personal economic experiences are much better than mere spreadsheets.
Before coming to this place, I was managing director of a business that is based in England. I did not think twice about setting up three businesses in Scotland because it is part of the Union of this country. They were profitable, they created employment and, more importantly, my business benefited from the expertise of Scots working together with us. I compare that directly with a contemporaneous decision not to invest in Ireland. Why was that? It was partly because of the different currency and partly because of the increased difference in regulations, but, if I am honest, the primary reason was it just felt harder; it felt more uncertain, with bigger risks. So I took the decision not to invest. It would be a tragedy for this country if that decision was played out because of separatists driving our country apart and leading us on different paths.
However, I recognise that identity is not measured in pounds and pence. That may sway some, but it would not sway me unless the Union was much more powerful than that, and it is so much more powerful than that. What about us; what about us as individuals and as families? Personally, the Union is who I am. I am proud to be a quarter Scots. I am proud to be a quarter Irish. I am proud to be half English and, although the maths does not add up, I am proud to be a bit Welsh as well. We are summed up by this as a nation. We are a family of nations, but we are also a nation of families.
My hon. Friend is a fantastic advocate for the Union. He says that it is not all about pounds and pence, but let us look at how much stronger we are together. The average per capita contribution to a constituency in England is £9,000. The average in Scotland is £11,000. Does that not show to the Scottish people that a United Kingdom, sharing prosperity and sharing Government income, is a good thing?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It begs the question: if the separatists were successful in their game, left the United Kingdom and subsequently tried to join the European Union, what would they do with their structural deficit, which is more than twice the amount that is legally allowed for membership of the European Union?
I conclude with this thought. I am a mongrel, but I am proud of it. I am a mix of bloods and races from Scotland, Ireland, Wales and England. We are a mongrel nation and, like every mongrel, we are better and stronger for it.
I am not a mongrel. I am one of the few people speaking in the debate who does not have any Scottish blood, but I very much enjoyed the time that I spent campaigning in Scotland during the independence referendum in 2014. I went up to Scotland at a time when there were other elections in the UK because it was crucial for me to say to people that we in England desperately want Scotland to stay with the United Kingdom and be a part of our Union. While we made the argument that we thought it was in Scotland’s best interests to stay a part of that Union, we also felt passionately that the UK would be much weaker without Scotland. It would be heartbreaking if Scotland were to leave, but I accept that it is a choice for the Scottish people.
What is really important is the question of when that referendum should happen. We had the debate in 2014. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) said that we could have one every seven years or so, but it is clear that she wants to keep having the debate time and again in the hope that one time, on one day, they might just get over the line by 0.1%, and then there are no more referendums—then it will be over and the decision has been made.
The referendum in 2014 was pretty decisive, with 55% to 45% in favour of remaining in the Union. We should remember that more people in Scotland voted to stay in the United Kingdom than voted to stay a part of the European Union. We keep hearing from the SNP that Scotland is being dragged out of the European Union against its will, but more Scottish people voted to remain a part of the UK than voted to remain a part of the European Union. Opinion polls go up and down—we all know that in all walks of life—but one thing has been consistent: even people who want independence for Scotland do not think now is the time for it to happen. Those polls are really consistent.
If the hon. Member properly analyses the polls, he will see that they show that the majority of people do want a referendum in the next few years, so that is wrong. He rightly acknowledged that it is for the Scottish people to decide, so when does he think the Scottish people should be allowed to make that decision, as it were?
It is a matter for the UK Government. It would be one thing for the SNP to go into a general election campaign saying, “A vote for us is about independence,” but it is not the responsibility of the Scottish Parliament, so it is very odd for the SNP to ask people to re-elect it on that basis.
The question I ask SNP Members is, how should someone vote this May if they want independence but think we should have a referendum in a few years’ time, rather than now? Should they vote for the SNP, knowing that the SNP will claim that that is a vote in favour of a referendum? We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) about many of the failings of the SNP Administration in Edinburgh. What about someone who thinks that the SNP is doing a good job and wants to carry on electing an SNP Government to run the Scottish Parliament but does not want independence? How should they vote, given that they know that, if they vote for the SNP because they want Nicola Sturgeon to continue being First Minister, that will be taken as a vote for independence? I am not getting any interventions on this. I am asking: how should these people vote?
I am grateful to the hon. Member for that point; it is a really important one. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) was saying earlier, “If they vote SNP, they know what they are voting for: they’re voting for an independence referendum”, but the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson) is saying, “No, if they want an SNP Government, they should vote for us and the referendum is a question on another day.” The mandate that the hon. Member for Edinburgh East was claiming at the start is not actually a legitimate one because it will actually lead to exactly what has just been said. I am grateful for that clarification.
In the event that Scotland leaves the United Kingdom, there will be a huge economic hit to Scotland. There will also be a huge hit to England. I have businesses in my constituency that have just discovered how difficult it now is to sell into the European Union as a result of Brexit. That is exactly what will happen to businesses attempting to trade either side of the Scottish border in the event that Scotland goes independent.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South listed a variety of questions about independence that we never have a debate on and that remain unanswered. I was totally against Brexit, the things that we warned about in that respect are in many ways coming true, and there is no question but that it makes Scottish independence far more economically reckless than it would have been back in 2014. The idea that we would impose that on either English or Scottish businesses is a terrible mistake.
I really look forward to the elections in May. I hope that the Scottish people will look at the Labour party anew under the leadership of Anas Sarwar, who has started absolutely fantastically. I really hope that they will consider very carefully what they have just heard—that is, if they do not want an independence referendum right now, they should not vote SNP, because their vote will be taken as support for that.
For a few days now, we have been playing a guessing game in the Parliamentary Private Secretaries’ WhatsApp group about the possible subject of this debate. The running joke, of course, was that, whatever it was—fisheries, education or colonising the moon—it was actually going to be about separatism. So imagine our surprise when SNP Members just dropped the pretence and brought forward this debate. It is the sort of transparency and honesty that their colleagues in Holyrood can only dream of and then promptly forget again.
As a card-carrying member of the Conservative and Unionist party, it will come as no shock to Members that I am not in favour of smashing up a successful 300-year-old Union based on petty spite and grievance, but it does give me the opportunity to point out that there is a special Union connection today—St Patrick’s day—as St Patrick was a Welshman. That is proof that we have been doing this for quite a while now.
Like a lot of people in this Chamber, I campaigned in the 2014 referendum. I did not personally have a vote, but I felt that I should get involved because it was my country that the Scottish National party was trying to smash up. I would hope that, if one of their populist cousins such as the UK Independence party or the British National party came to power here, people would come down from north of the border to support the Unionist majority in our fight against that particular brand of divisiveness; that is what families do.
My seat of Heywood and Middleton is in the north-west of England, and in a very real sense we are the Union region. We are the only region to be represented by MPs from all four of the home nations. We border Scotland and Wales, as well as four other English regions, and they make us who we are; they enrich us. Apart from the strategic placement of the Pennines to keep the Yorkist hordes at bay, we do not want any borders with them.
The SNP does not have a mandate for another divisive referendum; it is barely getting on with the day job that it was elected to do. It is spending all its time avoiding democratic accountability as MSPs and airing its dirty laundry in public. Unless people specifically went out in 2016 in the hope that their children’s hospitals would be closed and their schools would slide down the PISA rankings, it is very hard for SNP Members to justify the claim that they are delivering what people voted for. It looks increasingly like another diversion tactic to move the focus away from yet another botched policy or another sex scandal swept under the First Minister’s living room carpet.
My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. A few times, he has alluded to the fact that, irrespective of the question, when it comes to the SNP the answer is always separatism. Does he agree that the SNP increasingly resembles some sort of Nigel Farage tribute act?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. He is absolutely spot-on.
It will come as no shock to Members that I am a bit of a geek—I recently watched the BBC’s 2016 Holyrood election coverage. The First Minister was asked what her priority for the next Parliament would be. Based on the past five years, we might reasonably assume that it was a second independence referendum, or perhaps shutting down free speech, which is one of the few policies that her Government have actually managed to deliver. Instead, she said it was education—a subject on which she wanted to be judged. She then managed to avoid having a debate on the subject for over two years. It could simply be that she forgot to do so, like she forgot conversations with senior civil servants, other MSPs and, indeed, her own husband.
That forgetfulness seems to be the reason the First Minister has forgotten her “once in a generation” pledge from 2014 and her promise to respect the result. I politely suggest to our nationalist colleagues that they should focus on the day job, or they might find that the electorate have a slightly longer memory than the First Minister.
I have listened to the debate with wry interest, because on 30 March 1989, I was actually there; my name is on the claim of right. I think I can say that I am the only Member of the House of Commons to have that honour.
I know about the Scottish Parliament—I served in it for 12 years; I was actually a Committee Chair—and I know what was behind it. It was described by John Smith as
“the settled will of the Scottish people”.
It was to have a different system, whereby democracy was brought back to Scotland and the Committees of the Scottish Parliament would challenge and hold the Government to account.
What we have today saddens me greatly. For whatever reason—perhaps because, in Scotland, the Greens are a wholly owned subsidiary of the SNP—we have an extraordinarily centralised Government, and the Committees rarely dare to raise their voices or to challenge the Government. I am sad because I think that is dangerous for democracy. I do not think it is what John Smith, Donald Dewar, David Steel, Jim Wallace and others were about at all in the constitutional convention, on which I served prior to signing the claim of right.
I must be honest that, when I hear the SNP talking about taking complete control, and when I see what it is like in Holyrood today, I shudder. We have to repair democracy in Scotland first and foremost—and, as others across the Chamber have said, what we must do now is repair the damage that has been caused in Scotland by the pandemic. People have suffered massively, and my hon. Friend the Member for North East Fife (Wendy Chamberlain) put that succinctly.
I will give one example. I have a constituent called Luke Graham, who lives in Wick. He knows all about mental health issues. Recently, in the John O’Groat Journal, he made the wise point that mental health problems had been around for a long time before the pandemic and, the way things stand, they are going to be around for a long time yet, unless the Government step up to the table and, to use a hackneyed expression, get on with the day job. That is what Scottish people want.
I was involved in the 2014 independence referendum, and if it comes to another referendum, I shall be involved again. At the end of the day, I am a Unionist. I know that the defence of the realm depends on Scotland, because the Scots make a huge contribution. I know that questions about the currency and about how Scotland would defend itself have not been answered.
I leave the House with this final thought: yes, let the SNP talk about indyref2 to its heart’s content, but I say to the SNP, from what I hear in my constituency in the highlands of Scotland, be careful what you wish for.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) and a rare pleasure to be able to agree with our Scottish Liberal Democrat colleagues.
I could wax lyrical about my love of Scotland. New Zealand, the country of my birth, has a deep affinity with Scotland. It was forged from the blood, sweat and toil of Scottish immigrants, alongside those from other parts of the UK, such as my forebears—a wonderful melting pot of culture and values where all understood that anything could be mended simply by using a piece of No. 8 fencing wire.
Let me turn to today’s debate. Too often, we talk about the benefits of the Union to Scotland, including the sharing of fiscal resources, but I would like to focus on the benefits that Scotland brings to the Union. Economically, we have a wonderful trading relationship, where approximately 60% of exports come to the rest of the UK, including whisky, with more than 10,000 jobs in Scotland in that industry. I can certainly speak for my own household in that the day we run out of a decent bottle of single malt is a grim day indeed.
Scotland is essential to UK defence and meeting our obligations to our NATO allies. UK naval shipbuilding is concentrated there. Scotland’s top universities are important to the UK’s wider ambition to be a global leader in science. Culturally, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Gary Sambrook), we are enriched by events such as the Edinburgh festival, which is a Scottish, UK and global event. I look forward to my visits to Scotland, where the welcome is always warm and the scenery stunning. Tourism is another fantastic asset for Scotland.
It is important to recognise that there is little that divides us in our human experience, whether people hail from Glasgow or Newcastle, or are immigrants like me—someone who is proud of the privilege of being a British citizen. It is the responsibility I now hold in this place always to be mindful of the UK-wide interest, along with the interests of my constituents in Guildford, who would be poorer for Scottish separation.
I support the amendment standing in the name of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. This last year, tackling coronavirus has impacted every corner of our precious Union. Thankfully, innovation has moved on significantly from mending things with a piece of fencing wire to the miraculous and speedy creation, approval and roll-out of lifesaving vaccines. I am delighted that all four corners of our Union have benefited and that the UK-wide furlough scheme has sought to protect jobs and livelihoods. We have much work to do to build back better.
Like my hon. Friend, I have a dash of Commonwealth blood in me, although in my case it is maple syrup. Does she agree that our United Kingdom has informed a great deal of the character of many other nations and that to take that away would be to break those historical links, too?
Yes, indeed. Canada has benefited greatly from Scottish immigrants, as well as immigrants from other parts of the United Kingdom. We have fought world wars: soldiers from all over the Commonwealth could trace their roots back to all parts of this United Kingdom, and they fought heroically so that we could have the freedom we benefit from today. We should always recognise both the UK’s outward impact on the rest of the world and those relationships, which make us truly a global place to be. We are infinitely better placed to recover from coronavirus if we work together as four nations in our proud Union.
Scotland is a great nation with a proud and unique history, and Scottish identity should be valued and cherished. That is why, when the Labour party last came to government, we delivered the devolution settlement and established the Scottish Parliament. But national pride, whether in Scotland or elsewhere, is deeply rooted in national prosperity and security. Economic strength is a foundation stone of national pride and the fact is that this economic strength can be achieved only if the four nations of the UK club together and pool our resources. Together, we are so much more than the sum of our component parts.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Last time I checked, Labour does not have a First Minister in Scotland; I think he must have meant Wales. That is an easy mistake for him to make, I am sure, but I would urge him to be a little more careful next time. The Welsh Government’s position is absolutely clear. We are the party of devolution. We delivered devolution. It is working for the Welsh people, just as it should be working for the Scottish people. We are utterly opposed to independence in Scotland and in Wales.
Britain is still a significant economy and a world power, despite the UK Conservative Government’s botching of the EU trade deal and the weakening of the international relationships that we should be building rather than destroying. The simple truth is that our economic clout and our national security are founded on our unity as a United Kingdom. We are entering an era of great power competition, with threats increasing. The SNP, were it to secure independence, intends to ditch our nuclear defence capability, which would thus undermine the security of the very nation it wishes to lead. Betting the house on rejoining the EU would also be profoundly unwise, given that 60% of Scotland’s export trade is with the rest of the UK, compared with only 19% with the EU.
The reality is that the greatest source of pride and prosperity for the Scottish people will come from rebuilding the economy post coronavirus, delivering jobs, and securing an economy resilient against future shocks.
The position of the Labour party is that our commitment to our nuclear deterrent is indivisible and not up for negotiation. What is extraordinary is the position taken by this Conservative Government’s integrated review, which is to increase our nuclear capability by 40% while cutting our armed forces. That has to be the most counterproductive defence strategy that we have seen in recent times, but I digress.
The position of the Scottish National party Government is not what patriotism looks like. After the suffering of the past 12 months, compounded by a decade of Tory incompetence at UK level, now is not the time to roll the dice on a divisive referendum that would be profoundly detrimental to the interests of the people of Scotland and to the post-pandemic recovery. That is what isolationist nationalism would look like.
The Scottish Government are presiding over an education system in crisis, a health service lacking doctors and nurses, and an economy in which 230,000 Scottish children are living in poverty. The SNP’s sole focus should be on improving the lives of the Scottish people. Arguments about a referendum will not get a single Scot back into work, lift a single Scottish family out of poverty or rebuild the Scottish NHS. Scotland deserves better. Scotland deserves a Labour politics whereby our national pride is founded on our shared prosperity and our common purpose. Under the leadership of the inspirational Anas Sarwar, Scottish Labour can build that Scotland of the future.
It will come as no surprise to many in this House that I am a proud Unionist, just like the vast majority of Scottish people in their most recent independence referendum.
I support our Union because we are better together. One of the amazing things that brings us together is how our towns and cities reflect one another. In Redcar and Cleveland, we produce more than 50% of the UK’s commercially viable hydrogen. We are home to the UK’s first hydrogen hub, linking us firmly to Northern Ireland and Wrightbus, producing the UK’s hydrogen bus fleet. Redcar and Cleveland is steel town. Although we sadly lost our blast furnace in 2015, we manufacture steel at British Steel in Lackenby, linking us firmly to the steel industry in south Wales, a lot of whose steel is still exported from Teesside. Redcar and Cleveland is home to a large petrochemical footprint—where I used to work. We transported ethylene molecules up and down the Wilton to Grangemouth ethylene pipeline, firmly linking Scotland’s petrochemical and oil and gas sectors to ours.
Our Union is better together, and it is time for the SNP to own up. It does not want independence. If it did, it would not want to join the EU. It just wants to break up our United Kingdom and will stop at nothing to achieve that. The latest polls are clear that the people of Scotland are turning away from independence, yet the SNP is desperately clinging to its sinking ship. It claims to represent Scotland, yet at every opportunity it ignores the voice of its own people when it does not fit the SNP’s narrative. We are now nearly seven years on from the 2014 referendum and the SNP still does not accept the result; just like the Labour on Brexit, it is constantly trying to overturn the will of the people. The SNP likes to tell us that a vote for the SNP is a vote for independence, but they know that that is not the reality. They prefer to shout as loudly as possible about independence so that they do not have to face the realities of their failures in leadership day after day.
While support for independence falls, the SNP shambles unravels. Scottish people can see for themselves the kind of Scottish Administration they have had for the past 14 years: one that is unfit to lead and unfit to listen, while they are breaking their necks in their obsession with the separation from our United Kingdom. If the SNP cared about Scotland, they would focus on improving education, not on separation. If they cared about Scotland, they would focus on cutting NHS waiting times, not on separation. If they cared about Scotland, they would focus on tackling rising crime and drug abuse, not on separation. The reality is that they do not care about Scotland—they just hate Britain. The SNP wants out of Britain and in the EU. The Liberals want to be in Britain, but in the EU. The Labour party will not tell us its view on either. Only the Conservatives are focused on a brighter future for Scotland as part of our proud United Kingdom.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. On Monday, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster called Scottish independence a “distraction” from “our economic recovery” from covid-19, and we have heard that today. However, the motivation for his comments is the real distraction. He wants a distraction from the billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money handed to Tory donors for personal protective equipment with no contract scrutiny. He wants a distraction from the billions wasted through the outsourcing of Track and Trace in England. He wants a distraction from the revelation that 39 out of 45 places to receive a share of the first £1 billion in towns funding are Tory constituencies. He wants a distraction from the cronyism scandal that surrounds the appointment of the Ofcom and BBC chairs, which would, frankly, make the Kremlin blush. He wants a distraction from the announcement that the UK is to spend billions on yet more nuclear warheads that can never be used. The Government have no money for the nurses on the frontline, who have been battling covid for the past 12 months, but plenty of money for their mates and for their cold war militarism. He wants a distraction from Westminster’s failure to include about 3 million people in covid support; from inadequate sick pay; from food banks unable to cope with demand; from the worst state pension in the developed world; from the disaster of Brexit, from the undemocratic and perpetually bloating House of Lords; from the pittance paid to disabled people on legacy benefits; and from the shocking two-child policy and rape clause.
I could go on and on, but what it really boils down to is this: if Scottish independence is a distraction from all of that, it is hardly any wonder that so many people in Scotland are having their heads turned.
It is a great pleasure to sum up this debate. My only regret is that I am not in the Chamber to deliver the speech personally. As you know, Mr Deputy Speaker, I always enjoy my little exchanges with and interventions from my friends on the Conservative Benches. Listening to their contributions today, it is a frustration that I can only send all my love to them virtually.
Some fantastic contributions have been made by my hon. Friends today and then there were some speeches from Conservative Members. How these debates usually go is that we make the positive case about Scotland and all the opportunities that independence will present to our nation. We talk of Scottish democracy, the claim of right and the Scottish people’s inalienable right to determine their own future, and then the Conservatives get to their feet to tell us why none of this is possible and why we would be better off with them and the Governments they would impose on us. Today has been a sort of variation on that theme, with so many of our Conservative friends telling us what we should be debating today, somewhat forgetting that this is our Opposition day and that, with all due respect to them, it is really a matter for us.
Independence and the constitution is the defining issue in Scottish politics and, if anything, it is not debated enough. In the latest STV poll, independence was rated as the most important issue that would influence the choice of the Scottish people—it was at 44%. My hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) was spot on when he said that when it comes to how we recover from covid, undoubtedly the most important issue in Scotland, we need the full powers of independence to fully secure the recovery that Scotland requires.
I always wonder what exactly the Scottish people think when they watch these debates and some of the curious views of Conservative Members—I am sure they find it all very amusing and bewildering. One of the reasons we bring these debates to the House is to allow the Scottish people a glimpse of the Westminster Tories’ thinking on our nation. Our friends are in fact the biggest recruiting sergeants we have. I thank all of them again for all their efforts and for everything that they do for the cause of Scottish independence. Their efforts will not be forgotten and, in a few short years, the Independence Cross, first class will be awarded to everyone from the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes) to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher). If I can, I will personally present them.
The choice that will be offered to the people of Scotland in the next few weeks is, “Who do you want to run our beautiful country? You, the people of Scotland, who live and work here, or them, Boris Johnson’s Conservatives and all their Brexit horror”. I was trying to discern from the speeches what exactly they still have to offer Scotland. Listening to Conservative Members today, it is quite clear that their Union has run its course and that it has absolutely nothing more to offer the Scottish people. There is no positive vision for Scotland in their Union. They have nothing more to offer, nothing more to give. The key thing in all this is the future, and Scotland must secure what it votes for. Democracy must be everything to us. Scotland must have the right to choose and define its own future.
In the past few months, the Government have tried to suggest to the people of Scotland that their democracy can be ignored and rejected as they consistently assert that they will not agree to participate in another referendum. All the lofty ideals of 2014—“Lead the UK, not leave the UK”, near federalism, “We love you, please stay”—have descended into this: “We will keep you as part of this Union against your will.” The slogan for the next election could well be, “Scotland, we have nothing to offer you but our chains”. What a pitiful condition the Union is in when it has descended into nothing other than an attempt to keep us captive.
I say to the Conservatives that there is a way to stop our referendum and that is to beat us in an election. It really is as simple as that. If the Conservatives win the next Scottish election, they will win the right to stop a referendum, but they are not considering stopping a referendum simply through democratic means. This is where it all starts to become deeply troubling. Their main means of stopping a referendum is to ignore and bypass democracy, impose their will, ignore elections and democratic outcomes, and say no to a majority. What a dreadful place to be even for this Conservative Government, with their cavalier disregard for so many democratic principles.
The Conservatives also know that the situation is unsustainable. They cannot keep a nation in a political Union in the 21st century against its will. Even they know that. When their Union becomes a prison, it has simply failed. They also know that saying no does nothing other than drive up support for independence even higher. If the SNP wins a majority in May and replicates the conditions of 2011, they know that it is game over.
While the Conservatives are saying that they rule out a referendum, they continue to prepare for one. We have seen the resources being ploughed in and the capacity that they are building. We see it in every piece of election material that is going through every door in Scotland just now, where they tell us that only by voting for the Scottish Conservatives can people stop an independence referendum. It is a curious strategy when they have supposedly ruled out that referendum.
I concede that today has been a bit more encouraging. I have looked at their amendment and listened to them very carefully. None of them has actually ruled out a referendum and our nation’s right to choose, other than, curiously—from Labour—the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray). There is this weird tension that runs through everything that they are doing just now. We need only look at the demise of their Union unit to see that in all its glory. Essentially, they are conflicted as to whether to behave more consensually towards us or whether to continue to attack and undermine us. They really do not know whether to cuddle us or clobber us.
Their Union unit was the frontline between the cuddlers and the clobberers and it was so dysfunctional that even after its demise, I still do not know who actually won that battle. One minute it is “the full malky” Unionism, a full-frontal attack on our institutions, a constraining of our democracy and a disregard for our legislation, but they know that this aggressive “sink the heid” Unionism has been an absolute disaster for them. The Scottish people very much cherish their Parliament. They see attacks on it as attacks on themselves. And then comes the cuddling. The cuddlers now seem intent on getting us to love them by covering the country in Union Jacks as a sign of their largesse. Nothing could be more designed to irritate the Scottish people than that. When I first heard of this, I thought that it was some sort of grotesque joke, but they are actually serious about it. I do not know who advises them on all this nonsense, but all I can say to our agents and snoopers in Whitehall is that they are doing a great job. It will soon be time to come home. May will be the great independence election. I know the Conservatives have been encouraged by a couple of opinion polls showing support for the Union coming back a bit, and they have taken delight in one today that asked the Brexit question, not the independence one.
This is going to be an election about our future. I say to the Conservatives, “Let’s be constructive. Let’s work together with the principle of democracy at the heart of everything we do together. If it is clear that the Scottish people want to secure a referendum on independence, let’s respect that.” If the Conservatives win in May, they earn the right to stop a referendum. If we win, with the backing of the Scottish people, that must be respected too. Beyond democracy there is only chaos. Let us all agree to be democrats.
It is a great pleasure to wind up this important debate, which has been impassioned and, on the whole, good-natured, with one or two small skirmishes.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). I sincerely mean that—I really enjoy his performances and admire the passion and dedication that he shows for his cause. I am afraid, however, that we have heard it all before. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mark Fletcher) said, it is another spin of the greatest hits record. It comes as no surprise that SNP Members want to use this debate—they could have chosen any subject—to rehash their tired old arguments about why the United Kingdom should be split up, but it is a missed opportunity to debate more important issues.
I must take up the hon. Gentleman’s comment that we have not debated independence—separation—enough. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) said, SNP Members have not stopped talking about it since the day after the 2014 referendum. The idea that they have not had enough airtime is completely laughable. Let us face it: they could have chosen any subject for debate today. With elections for the Scottish Parliament less than two months away, I would have thought that they would want to use this debate to showcase their achievements after 14 years of running the Scottish Government. However, as many Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Paul Holmes), have pointed out, their record on education and on public services generally has not been good. It is therefore not surprising that they do not want a light to be shone on that today. SNP Members could have used the time to focus on the covid vaccination programme and the other measures that have been put in place to see us through the pandemic.
I am grateful to the Minister for spending time discussing things that are not on the Order Paper. Would it be possible for him to address the Question that is on the Order Paper, and tell us whether he believes that the people of Scotland have the right to make a choice about their own constitutional future?
I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that I shall come on to that very subject. However, I am putting into context the question of why the SNP has chosen this debate, and why it has failed the people of Scotland by not concentrating on the many, many issues that are of primary concern to people in Scotland.
SNP Members do not want to talk about the vaccination programme and covid measures because that would show the effective partnership between the UK Government and the Scottish Government—something that undermines their perpetual grievance narrative. They could have used this debate to make their points about the security and international challenges that we all face, but that would mean conceding that together the UK is much stronger than the sum of its parts. They could have used this time to consider the economic challenges and opportunities that we all face post covid, but that would mean admitting that there is a need for all Governments in Scotland—local, Scottish and UK—to work together to face those economic challenges. That includes the work that we are doing on the city deal programme, the new trade deals that we are signing, the new export support that we are putting into Scotland, the removal of whisky tariffs that were damaging to Scottish jobs, and the connectivity review to make sure that all parts of our country are properly connected. But no, SNP Members chose to use the time to rehearse the same tired old arguments.
I am sure it will be of great comfort to people worrying about what education their child has missed during the pandemic or the security of their job that the separatists are looking for ever fresher opportunities to pit family against family and community against community in yet another divisive referendum. Glasgow will be hosting COP26 later this year, and the eyes of the world will be on us. We will be showing our global leadership on climate change. What message would it send to the world if Scotland were looking inward and debating constitutional matters that have been settled many years ago?
No, I have already given way once, and I want to respond to some of the points that Members have made.
SNP Members have the wrong priorities, and I can only imagine that they chose this debate today to shore up their core support and distract attention away from their domestic troubles and their failures in government.
Let me turn to some of the points that Members have made in the debate. I apologise if I am unable to get through all 30-plus contributions in the next three or four minutes. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) made some very telling comments in his contribution. First, he made a vain attempt to wriggle out of being called a separatist, but that is the SNP’s mission. It is to smash apart one country, our country, even though so many Members on both sides of the House today have demonstrated the importance of family, business, cultural and other societal connections. It would rip apart our country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) said, we are not just a family of nations; we are a nation of families. As my hon. Friends the Members for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), for Meriden (Saqib Bhatti), for Heywood and Middleton (Chris Clarkson), for Guildford (Angela Richardson) and many others have said, it would be a disaster to rip apart one of the most successful partnerships the world has ever seen.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh East also let the cat out of the bag when he said that the referendum might not be this year and that it might be very early next year. As my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) said, the challenges from the covid pandemic will not end with the flick of a light switch. The challenges that we will have to rebuild our economy, our society, our children’s education and the mental health of the nation will run on for many years. People in Scotland want their Government to focus on that, and I think they will take very badly this obsession with having a referendum within the next 12 months.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) made the telling point that when people cast their vote, they do not cast it on just one issue. The issues that drive people’s votes will be manifold. A poll out today, I believe, shows that only 8% of people regard the constitution as a driver of their vote, and I believe the hon. Gentleman referenced Professor John Curtice in making that point. It is therefore arrogant for SNP Members to assume that every vote cast for them is a vote for another divisive referendum. I do not think people want to see that take place.
The hon. Member for Rochdale (Tony Lloyd) mentioned the importance of connectivity across the United Kingdom, and I am delighted that we are addressing that through the Union connectivity review. The SNP refuses to take part in the review, because it dares to have the word “Union” in it. That, to me, is a mark of a very childish and single issue-focused party.
Unfortunately, time prevents me from referring to all the points I would like to refer to in this debate. I will conclude with this: Scotland voted decisively in 2014 to stay part of the UK and we are respecting that democratic decision. Now is the time to be focusing on getting livelihoods and the economy back after the covid pandemic.
Question put (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.
The House proceeded to a Division.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
Main Question, as amended, put and agreed to.
That this House believes the priority of the Scottish people is to recover from the effects of the covid-19 pandemic, and that it would be irresponsible to hold a referendum at this time.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I wonder whether you can give me some assistance. You, like I, will have been grateful, I am sure, to see in the road map out of lockdown that weddings will be able to start again from 12 April when we enter step 2. However, guidance that was issued yesterday implies that bespoke dedicated wedding venues will not be able to hold weddings after 12 April and must wait until 17 May, leading to the bizarre conclusion that one might be able to marry in the frozen food aisle of a supermarket, but not in a dedicated wedding venue. I wonder, Mr Deputy Speaker, if you may be able to assist me in how I could raise that point with Ministers to get some clarity so that we can help those dedicated wedding venues and the people who want to get married in them.
I thank the right hon. Lady for notice of her point of order. The prospect of getting married in the frozen food department of Iceland, or of any supermarket, does indeed beggar belief. None the less, this is clearly an important matter, and there are several ways, as she will know, of raising the issue, including urgent questions or an Adjournment debate, but we have business questions tomorrow, which provides the opportunity to call on the Leader of the House for a debate—[Interruption.] However, we also have a Cabinet Minister sitting here who is eager to get to her feet.
Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. In the spirit of trying to be helpful, I know that my right hon. Friend raised this matter previously with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and he is talking to the covid taskforce about it. I have just spoken to my office, and we will come back to my right hon. Friend this afternoon with some clarity. I shall ensure that any further clarity that Public Health England can provide is put on the parliamentary intranet’s covid hub for all Members to see.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I hope that this one is just as effective. The House has just voted on an amendment that said that we believe
“the priority of the Scottish people is to recover from the effects of the covid-19 pandemic, and that it would be irresponsible to hold a referendum at this time.”
I wonder whether you can clarify something, because I thought I heard you say, when you confirmed the numbers, that more than 50 MPs voted against it and, therefore, against prioritising a recovery from covid-19 over another referendum. Can you confirm that it was the SNP MPs in this House who voted against a recovery and for another referendum, and that it is unacceptable to the people of Scotland that they are putting party priorities above the public?
That sounds to me like an extension of the last debate. I could not confirm one way or the other which individuals voted which way, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will await with eager anticipation the delivery of exactly who voted which way either through Hansard or other electronic means. I think it is now time to move on to the next debate.