Virtual participation in proceedings commenced (Order, 25 February).
[NB: [V] denotes a Member participating virtually.]
I remind hon. Members that there have been some changes to normal practice in order to support the new hybrid arrangements. Timings of debates have been amended to allow technical arrangements to be made for the next debate. There will also be suspensions between debates.
I remind Members participating both physically and virtually that they must arrive for the start of debates in Westminster Hall and are expected to remain for the entire debate, and that they are visible at all times, both to one another and to us in the Boothroyd Room. If Members attending virtually have any technical problems, can they please email the Westminster Hall Clerk’s email address? Members attending physically should clean their spaces before they use them and before they leave the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 570779, relating to consent for a referendum on Scottish independence.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. The petition calls for consent not to be given to another referendum on Scottish independence and has received 109,929 signatures. It says:
“The independence referendum was called a once in a generation vote—so let it be.”
I thank the petitioner for creating the petition. In preparation for this speech, I spoke to the petitioner, who wishes to remain anonymous because they fear the abuse they will receive for creating a petition on this subject. They know that the independence debate has become extremely divisive; unfortunately, a lot of the political discussion around independence is not constructive or measured, but deeply emotive and all-consuming.
The creator of the petition believes that the focus of political debate in Scotland has been too centred on independence, at the expense of other, extremely important issues; they feel that political time and resources have been funnelled into debates on independence instead of being used to address pressing issues in Scotland. Instead of resources being spent on independence in the hope that, once independence is gained, all problems will be solved, the petitioner would like Scottish politicians to look to local problems now. They mention the need to tackle the rise in the use of food banks and the problems Scottish hospitals face—all with powers they feel the Scottish Government already hold.
One other issue the petitioner would like the Scottish Government to focus on is education, which is already a devolved matter. The long-term costs of the pandemic will fall disproportionately on today’s children, whose education has also been impacted this year through lost learning. It is vital that education is prioritised to ensure the economic recovery and growth of Scotland after the pandemic. The number of full-time or equivalent teachers in Scotland’s schools has fallen by 1,700 since 2007, while the ratio of pupils to teachers in Scottish secondary schools is at its highest since 2013. Only 14% of pupils in primary 1 through 3 are in a class with fewer than 18 pupils, despite promises to cap class sizes at 18 in 2007. That is seriously worrying. The Scottish Government have these powers; they cannot blame Westminster for these problems. The Scottish Government should focus on delivering promises made 14 years ago, rather than re-running a referendum from 2014. I fail to see how a divisive second referendum will help children in Scottish schools.
Ultimately, the problem is this: it always seems to be jam tomorrow. What is the point in more powers if the powers already held by the Scottish Government are not being used properly? Even when the Scottish Government are offered more powers, they defer and delay taking them—Scottish National party Ministers have twice asked the Department for Work and Pensions to delay the devolution of the benefits system, in 2016 and again in 2018. Last year, Scottish Ministers revealed that full devolution of benefits would be completed only in 2024. In June, they pushed that back further, to 2025. If the Scottish Government’s progress on disability benefits is anything to go by, some of Scotland’s most vulnerable people will have to wait a decade for benefits to be up and running in a separate Scotland.
Frankly, claims that it would take only 18 months from an independence vote to set up an independent state are laughable. On the one hand, SNP politicians say publicly that they simply cannot deliver the Scotland they envision without more powers. Yet, quietly, when they are due to get more powers, they say, “Not yet. We’re not ready.” It is too simple to just blame everything on Westminster. I know it is tempting—I know the frustration of Opposition—but we should try to find solutions, rather than taking powers for power’s sake.
The Scottish Government today published draft legislation on holding a second independence referendum. It is all well and good saying that the immediate priority is
“dealing with the pandemic and keeping the country safe”,
but why publish this Bill now? It is quite clear what the Scottish Government’s focus is. Even after the worst effects of the pandemic are over, recovery will take a considerable time, and the Scottish Government should be focused on that. Given the current emphasis on Scottish independence in political discussion within SNP, people could be forgiven for querying the headlines that we are in one of the largest health and economic crises since world war two.
Each hour of political debate given over to independence is an hour not spent discussing how Scottish businesses and tourism will recover from covid or how to tackle unemployment and poverty or waiting times in Scottish hospitals. Hospitals around the UK have been put under enormous pressure during the pandemic, and all those who have staffed them have done incredible work. They have taken extra shifts, put their psychological and physical health at risk, and gone above and beyond to save lives during the pandemic. As we begin to look at how and where hospitals will need support to recover and grow in the future, Scotland needs to look at its hospitals and realise that a lot of work needs to be done to support them fully.
Rather than having all political energies focused on independence, discussion should be focused urgently on the mental health crisis that the pandemic has highlighted, the waiting times in Scottish hospitals, and the health of the population. Right now, politicians should be concentrating on the health and economic crisis that the pandemic has brought about. The provision of food parcels and food aid has grown significantly in Scotland in the last 10 years. In 2009, there was one Trussell Trust food bank operating in Scotland. By April 2017 that had increased to 52, with 119 centres, as some operate satellite centres in various locations in the surrounding area, the better to serve those who cannot easily travel to them or who cannot afford to. The number of families who have had to rely on food banks has risen during the pandemic.
I understand that those problems are not unique to Scotland, but I do not think they are helped by the obsession with independence. I know that those who shout the loudest often get the attention, but I do not think most people want their Government to focus on constitutional matters in the middle of a crisis. Rather than spending political energy on independence, should not the SNP be ensuring that every family can put food on the table and that the Scottish Parliament does everything it can to ensure that the economic effects of the pandemic do not result in a further increase in the number of people relying on food banks?
Even before the pandemic, around 1 million people in Scotland were living in poverty, and that figure is set to rise. In 2019 an estimated 24.6% of all Scottish households were in fuel poverty. That is almost a quarter of all families. Let us not beat around the bush: that shows an urgent problem of fuel poverty among Scottish families. Now is not the time to discuss constitutional change. Now is the time to look at what can be done to prevent poverty and to aid those who face unemployment or homelessness.
This year has seen the UK’s exit from the European Union, alongside the changes that the pandemic has brought. The petitioner has voiced the wish for politicians to allow some time for the dust to settle on those two issues before more political unrest is contemplated. It is surely not the answer to Brexit to do exactly the same with Scottish independence. It does not make sense to cut off your nose to spite your face. If a second referendum is deemed necessary, now is certainly not the time. We need to focus on recovering from the pandemic and to allow for the results of Brexit to become clearer and more settled before any constitutional change can even be considered. The SNP has consistently said that there could be a referendum this year. Thankfully, the Scottish public are rejecting that, in large numbers. Can it really be appropriate even to consider such a divisive and destructive referendum this year?
In 2014 the Scottish First Minister said she hoped people would seize the
“once in a lifetime opportunity for Scotland”
in the independence vote. The people of Scotland voted—they voted to remain a part of the United Kingdom. I was on the losing side of the Brexit referendum two years later. Never once did I call for a second referendum. I knew that we had to accept the democratic will of the people and make the best of it. We cannot simply rerun referendums until we get the answer we are looking for. Quite frankly, if the past five years have shown us anything, it is how divisive referendums can be. The SNP should be leading the people of Scotland, not misleading them by saying that there are simple solutions to Scottish problems and telling them tales of an imaginary utopia with Scotland outside the UK. Rather than picking at old wounds, the SNP should focus on using the powers it has to help the Scottish people.
Ultimately, the obsession with an independent Scotland is driving a wedge between families, friends, neighbours and communities. The petitioner shared with me fears about the abuse aimed their way for wanting Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom. The petitioner’s family was so nervous about the abuse that they asked the petitioner to remove their name from the petition. That is not a healthy discourse, but it is one that results from offering simple solutions to complex problems. Even as I agreed to lead the debate for the Petitions Committee, I was warned to expect abuse online. It is not surprising that people are angry when they have been told that there is a simple solution to all of Scotland’s problems and that the rest of the UK is standing in the way. If I thought that that was true—that the rest of the UK was standing in the way of a great education system, an end to poverty and a fairer society for Scottish people within an independent Scotland—I would be happy to fight alongside the Scottish Government. However, nothing is ever as simple as that. It takes hard work to solve any problem.
Rather than focusing on jam today, let us work together as four nations to achieve the best for all our people. Let devolved Governments use the powers that they have effectively, rather than focusing on what powers they could take next.
Before I call the next speaker, I have to tell Members that I am instigating a three-and-a-half-minute time limit. I call Douglas Ross.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) for introducing today’s debate.
We have had many of these arguments. Last week in the Chamber, the SNP used its party business time to debate a similar topic, but on that occasion it was about holding another independence referendum. As we heard from the hon. Member for Islwyn, today we are debating opposition to another independence referendum. The petition was signed by well over the 100,000 threshold needed to have the matter debated in Parliament.
Given the decision that millions of Scots took back in 2014, they must be looking at the SNP Scottish Government’s news today and wondering why Nicola Sturgeon and her party just turned two fingers up at them and said, “We don’t care what you think. We’re forging ahead with another Independence Referendum Bill in the next Parliament”. The draft Bill was launched today, taking us back to the divisions of the past, rather than focusing on our recovery from covid-19 and rebuilding Scotland after this most damaging pandemic.
It hit home to me when the hon. Member for Islwyn said that the lead petitioner wished to remain anonymous because of the state of the debate in Scottish politics right now. Today I found out from the police that someone has been charged with making a very graphic death threat against me and another Scottish politician. That is the state of politics in Scotland right now. That is what the SNP wants to take us back to, and it is what the SNP wants us to debate in the days, weeks and months ahead. We do not need the division that separates families and workplaces and that divides communities all over again. What we need is a laser-like focus in the next Scottish Parliament on ensuring that we can recover from covid-19 and rebuild from this pandemic. That should be all politicians’ and all parties’ No. 1 priority, but again today we have heard that that is not a priority for the SNP, which believes in separation over securing a recovery for Scotland.
I hope that what we get today from the SNP spokesperson and the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson), who is speaking straight after me, is some answers to some very basic questions that people across Scotland will be asking right now. If the SNP’s desire is to take us back into that divisive debate, will its Members answer some basic questions that I put to the SNP shadow Chancellor on numerous occasions in the debate last week? Can any SNP Members in today’s debate tell us what currency an independent Scotland would have? Can any SNP Members in today’s debate tell us what independence would mean for a border between Scotland and England? Can any SNP Members in today’s debate tell us what it would mean for our armed forces here in Moray, at Kinloss barracks, at RAF Lossiemouth and across Scotland? As long as those questions go unanswered, the SNP will continue to seek separation without telling the people of Scotland what it will mean for individuals, families and communities up and down the country.
We can move beyond such division. We can say to people that we do not need another independence referendum, and we can focus on rebuilding Scotland. People can give their votes to the Scottish Conservatives at the election in a few weeks’ time to ensure that our focus is on recovery and rebuilding, not on more referendums.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross). He has clearly not heard that the Hamilton report has found no breach of the ministerial code. I know he would want to be gracious and to congratulate the First Minister.
I understand people who once opposed Scottish independence. My dad saw himself as a proud Scottish patriot, but a youth forged in war and then the values of a shared welfare state made him feel Scottish, British and, because of his wartime experiences, passionately pro-European. The brutality of Thatcherism in the 1980s and the imposition of Brexit have removed that triple status from many Scots who thought that they could have overlapping identities protected by a benign state, which recognised that, although we were smaller, we were equal. The Conservatives have disabused them of that notion.
The Union could have survived. A more nimble Westminster establishment might have read the runes in 2014 and determined that the Union had a narrow escape and that equality was the way forward. Instead, drunk on victory, they crashed on into a Brexit campaign and imposed the hardest of Brexits on a country that did not want it. Brexit represents the triumph of the English nationalists over the Unionists in the Conservative party. A Scot who voted no in 2014 because they believed the Unionist promises then will have been deeply disillusioned. They were told unambiguously that the way to preserve Scotland’s membership of the European Union was to vote no to independence. They now know that the opposite was true. The choice now is to either stay in the Prime Minister’s narrow, insular Brexit Britain or for Scotland to become like Denmark—a medium-sized, prosperous, socially progressive independent member of the European Union.
For me, independence has never been about the destination, but rather the gateway. It has been about getting the Governments we vote for and holding them to account. It is about making Scotland the most liberal, socially progressive country in Europe. It is about honouring our old people and giving the best start in life to the young. It is about being a beacon of democracy and freedom to countries yearning for both. An independent Scotland would not have gone to war in Iraq. It would not have bombed the Syrians or supplied weapons to the Saudis. An independent Scotland would not have nuclear weapons.
Tory Members sometimes tell me privately that they know independence is inevitable, and I agree with them. However, Canute-like, they think that waves of policy-free, angry election leaflets will stem the tide. They will not. So what should we make of the campaign to stop a referendum? Please, no more of the “once in a generation” baloney. The Prime Minister said that the last general election was a “once in a generation” election. I doubt he meant that there will be no more general elections. Young people who missed out on voting in 2014 are now in their 20s and are hungry to shape their future. Attempting to stifle their voices shows nothing but fear.
I understand people who feel Unionist. I do not, however, understand those who want to impose their Unionism in defiance of Scotland’s Parliament. The Scottish people are sovereign. We will decide our future, and no one else.
I am particularly pleased to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I thank the 1,352 of my constituents who signed the petition. I also thank the Member who preceded me—not so much the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson), but the Member for an alternative universe. I was a Member of the Scottish Parliament during the Iraq war, and the Scottish Parliament voted to support that war, contrary to one of the many myths that the SNP perpetrates. I may or may not have agreed with that decision, but these wild statements that an independent Scotland would not have gone into the Iraq war are nonsense, just like the statement in relation to the EU in the Scottish referendum in 2014—it was known at the time of the Scottish referendum that there was going to be an EU referendum in the United Kingdom, and any pretence otherwise is complete nonsense.
This debate is timely, even though it is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) mentioned, a rerun of many of the issues that were discussed last Wednesday. In that debate, we learned that the nationalists’ statement that the 2014 referendum was a “once in a generation” event was in fact a complete and deliberate con—a trick to persuade their supporters to go out and vote. It is clear that there was never any intention to stick to that promise, and the suspicion at the time that the SNP would keep pursuing a referendum until it got the answer it wanted was correct. So much for the Edinburgh agreement, which was described as a gold standard by Alex Salmond. Of course, the same people who are decrying Alex Salmond today were, at that time, describing him as the father of our nation and somebody whose word could be relied on.
The Edinburgh agreement contained that important provision that we would respect the result, but as from 19 September 2014, that result has not been respected. The SNP has disrespected it from that moment onwards. This is not about something happening around the Brexit referendum, nor about Governments and general elections after that. It was disrespected from 19 September 2014, and the constant call since then has been for another referendum, and even another referendum in the middle of a pandemic or in the recovery period that we will essentially need.
We were told that we could have a referendum by the end of this year. That is the last thing Scotland needs. We need a focus on jobs, on education and on our NHS as we rebuild after this pandemic. Contrary to claims that that has been the focus of the SNP Government, we see the incredible sight of an independence referendum Bill being launched today. It does not need to be like this. On 6 May, people can use both their votes for the Scottish Conservatives, and ensure that we focus on rebuilding Scotland and not on another divisive independence referendum.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Ms Nokes. Seven years ago in the run-up to that Scottish independence referendum, those who advocated independence pitched it not just as a once-in-a-generation vote and opportunity; they effectively said to the Scottish people, “This is your chance—grasp it or lose it.” That is effectively what they said, and the people of Scotland gave their response in the outcome, which was that they were better off together within the United Kingdom.
Nationalism, whether in Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales, thrives where there is perceived disadvantage. I know from friends to whom I have spoken over many years that Scottish people feel that they have been disadvantaged by successive Governments. That is why the levelling-up approach by the Prime Minister is absolutely essential in delivering a better United Kingdom. That is why the vaccination programme and the success of the national health service vaccination programme across the United Kingdom demonstrates that we are indeed better off together.
For all of the Members here today who are from Scotland and all of their constituents, their Scottishness and their Britishness are not exclusive. They are complementary. It is not very often that I quote with affirmation a former Labour Prime Minister, but to paraphrase Gordon Brown speaking just before the referendum seven years ago, the people of Scotland have been born together in the United Kingdom, they have lived together, they have fought in wars together, and they have died together in the United Kingdom.
That is a plea I would put out to all of the people of Scotland. We are much better off together. Let us build a truly United Kingdom, where all of us win, where all of us are levelled up, and where progress and prosperity can be achieved and obtained by everyone across the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to see you in the chair today, Ms Nokes. I am pleased to be taking part in the debate on this petition, which has attracted so much support across Scotland. I am particularly pleased to see that 1,894 of my constituents of Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk have signed this petition—the 11th highest number of any constituency in the UK. However, if I went around door-to-door in my Borders constituency and asked people to sign a petition calling on the SNP to drop their obsession with another independence referendum, I suspect the figure would be significantly higher. Members might say that that is no surprise, given that the Scottish Borders voted by a margin of two to one in 2014 for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom.
I certainly do not have any sense that people have changed their minds since that referendum vote in 2014—since that act of self-determination back in 2014; since that once-in-a-generation vote, when Scotland voted by a margin of more than 10% to reject the case for separation—quite the opposite.
Scots are worried about the coronavirus pandemic; people are worried about the economy and their jobs; people are worried about our young people and their education; families are worried about the health and wellbeing of loved ones; we are worried about whether our NHS will cope. They are certainly not thinking that now is the right time for another divisive referendum on Scotland’s future. People want Scotland’s two Governments to be working to navigate our way through the pandemic and implement the economic recovery plan.
That is reflected in the fact that this petition was set up in the first place, but also that so many people felt the need to sign it. They do not want to see the SNP Government in Edinburgh prioritising another referendum when there are so many other things that the SNP in Holyrood should be doing.
“But why,” we ask, “is the SNP doing this?” It does not want Scotland’s voters to look at its record in government over the last 14 years. Scotland’s education standards are in decline; Scotland’s NHS is in crisis; Scotland’s rural broadband delivery is in chaos; Scotland’s economy is lagging behind; Scotland has missed climate change targets; I could go on and on.
Of course, there is trouble in the SNP’s nest too—another reason to try to distract voters—ripped apart by an internal civil war the likes of which we have never seen before. Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, is seemingly unable to tell the truth, leads the SNP Government, who are corrupt, sleazy, tired, and certainly past their use-by date.
Order. Can we maintain parliamentary language, Mr Lamont?
I am grateful, Ms Nokes. I know that others, even in the Scottish Parliament, have questioned whether the First Minister has been able to tell the truth.
I apologise, Ms Nokes.
We need to rebuild Scotland, end the division of the past, and stop the constant talk of another independence referendum. There is one way to do that, and that is for people to use both votes in May for the Scottish Conservatives.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes, and to have the opportunity to take part in this debate.
The views of the petition, expressed by the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) earlier, reflect many of the frustrations that I hear daily in Scotland, particularly from my constituents in Edinburgh West, which has the third highest number of signatories to the petition that triggered this debate.
What I am about to say is not a party political point, nor a free potshot at the SNP, but an appeal. Everyone in the House is painfully aware of the impact of the pandemic on our economy and on the daily lives of our constituents, small businesses and families. They are struggling and are tired; they want reassurance that their politicians and their Government will put their recovery first.
Surely no reasonable person, at a time when the country is going through the biggest crisis of this—or any other—generation, can think that we should be focused on anything else. Surely no reasonable politician would say to people, “We know you’re worried about your job and your family’s future, and we know it’s going to be an expensive business to rebuild. First, however we’d like you to take the time and the money to talk about a constitutional question you have already answered.”
I believe that the people of Scotland have answered that question more than once. At the most recent general election, only 45% of the electorate voted for the Scottish National party, whose very raison d’être is separation, and which takes every available moment in the Chamber, every speaking opportunity here, every soundbite or quote in the Scottish media, to talk about how independence would be the solution to every imaginable problem.
The SNP gained precisely the same proportion as voted for separatism in the referendum in 2014. It seems happy, in doing that, to put aside education, health and the economy to argue for independence. It is clear that the majority of the people in Scotland have other priorities than that argument. They do not want to talk about independence.
I share the priorities of the majority of the people of Scotland. I am tired of the SNP’s failure to listen to the people of Scotland and their constant claims about what an independent Scotland would have done. How does the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) know what an independent Scotland would have done? Perhaps he has a crystal ball that we are not privy to. None of us knows. I am tired of these myths and wild, baseless statements, and I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) for putting the record straight. I am tired of the SNP’s blame and grievance strategy, which is at its worst at a time when we need our politicians and our Governments to pull together to steer us out of a crisis.
I mentioned at the beginning of my speech that Edinburgh had the third highest number of signatories to the petition. The two seats above it in Scotland are both held by the Scottish National party. Perhaps the SNP would do well to ponder that and think that perhaps the time has come when the people of Scotland want it to put its endless grievances aside, think about the people of Scotland and put their recovery first.
It is a pleasure, Ms Nokes, to serve with you in the Chair for this important debate on an incredibly divisive and emotive topic: the future of our Union. It is clear that, like all nationalists, the Scottish National party has an unhealthy obsession with stoking division rather than celebrating the centuries of shared history, culture and values that all nations in the UK have with one another. As I recently heard, we are, after all, a family of nations and a nation of families. Like all families, different components will sometimes have different priorities or views, yet with our family Union of Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland, I believe that we share, and will always share, more in common than less.
Let us face it: this debate and talk of yet another referendum is about far more than facts and figures. The potential separation of our Union is about how we, as four nations in the UK, view our identity and purpose in the world. For over 300 years, the people of Britain have been banded in a common union in which all have benefited. Our being in this Union has ensured that this island has been a beacon of liberty and enterprise. The Union enabled this small island of ours to lead the way in the industrial revolution, stand against tyranny twice—in 1914 and in 1939—and play a key role in the worlds of the 20th and 21st centuries. At each turn in our island’s story, Scotland has benefited from being part of this family of nations. Indeed, many Scots, from Prime Ministers to economists and sportsmen and women, have rightly led and continue to lead this family.
In 2014, the Scottish people rejected outright the SNP’s narrow nationalism, which would have had this wonderful and prosperous family of nations split apart. However, yet again, the party is pushing for another divisive referendum, stoking division and causing uncertainty among businesses and families during the worst economic downturn that the country has faced in living memory. If the SNP truly cared about the people of Scotland, it would respect their wishes to remain part of the UK and not call for a referendum for at least 20 years. It was, after all, a once-in-a-generation decision. However, it is more apparent than ever that the SNP hold nothing sacred—not the Union and not the wishes of the Scottish people. I say: enough. The SNP should focus on governing Scotland for the benefit of all its people, not solely its own supporters. I therefore agree wholeheartedly with the petition and hope that SNP Members hear the voices of the petitioners loud and clear.
I am delighted to take part in the debate under your stewardship, Ms Nokes. In reality, many people could accept being part of the UK; having our rights and privileges as EU citizens ripped from us in such a fashion, many more simply could not. But “Brexit means Brexit” came the cry from London. It is irrefutable that Brexit has decimated Scotland’s trade with the European Union. Last week, Business for Scotland reported that January saw the worst collapse of Scottish trading with the European Union since comparable records began over two decades ago. The Office for National Statistics figures show precisely how harsh it has been. There has been a staggering 83% drop in fish exports, a 59% drop in meat exports and a 50% drop in dairy exports. Overall, total EU exports from Scotland are down 63%.
Brexit has pushed many businesses in my constituency to the brink of bankruptcy and collapse. Warehouses lie empty, products are not getting to their EU market on time and transportation leaving Lanarkshire—a logistically critical distribution network—is delayed time and time again. All of that is a direct consequence of the red tape and unnecessary paperwork that the UK Government have created. It is a mess that Scotland neither wished nor voted for.
Covid has been used time and again as a convenient scapegoat for these issues. However, as James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food and Drink, stated, Brexit is “at the heart” of the EU trade collapse. After all, non-EU markets have not seen a crash, despite being affected by the same global pandemic. Indeed, many economists have forecast that delays at the EU border and growth stagnation will continue for months, if not years, to come. Brexit is a disaster of the UK Government’s own doing. Scotland can do better. With these harsh figures laid bare, the people of Scotland surely know that too. Twenty-two consecutive polls have shown support for Scottish independence, and today a new poll once again confirms that Scottish independence is now seen as a necessity, rather than a wish, by most Scots.
The Prime Minister is fond of an excuse, and in recent days he has resorted to using covid yet again. This time, it is the main reason why an independence referendum cannot take place. No one is suggesting that our referendum be held during a pandemic—no one has ever suggested such a thing. However, the Prime Minister cannot continue to deny democracy. He cannot continue to deny and ignore democratic mandates, and he cannot deny a second independence referendum.
I enjoy taking part in petition debates. They are, to my mind, the truest form of democracy in action. This one has given us a chance to remind all across the UK that their opinions are valued and respected in relation to Scotland’s place in the world. It is also a good time to remind the same people that when a referendum takes place is for the people of Scotland to determine through our democratically elected Parliament.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I am getting a sense of déjà vu. We basically had the same debate on Thursday, but having the same debate twice in a row is an apt metaphor for the nationalists’ approach to referendums.
I was going to launch into a polemic about the sanctity of the settled will of the Scottish people and the importance of consent in our democracy, but it would be entirely wasted on the SNP. The party is so out of touch and arrogant that it claims to speak for an entire nation, and is venal enough to claim that any criticism of its knavish regime—I am mindful of your call for parliamentary language, Ms Nokes—in Holyrood is talking Scotland down. It is certainly not going to respect the outcome of a once-in-a-generation referendum.
Ad nauseam, we hear from nationalist Members that the panacea for all the world’s ills is separation. If only we can ignore the myriad details they forgot to work out, Scotland will be off and up into the sunlit uplands. Then of course we get the other logical fallacy: that an independent Scotland handing over control of its laws and economy to an unelected Commission in Brussels will somehow make Scotland more prosperous and free.
SNP Members have set themselves up as pound-shop Bravehearts—I say “pound shop”, but we do not actually know what currency they would be using in an independent Scotland—peddling the fantasy that a major constitutional issue can simply be passed. Meanwhile, support for the SNP is on the slide, as the murky goings-on at Holyrood become more public, and support for independence slides with it. No doubt the goalposts will be shifted again after May’s poll to suit the realpolitik of whatever the outcome is.
The same self-important, peevish nationalism that underpins the SNP’s vision for Scotland, creating an inward-looking, less tolerant country, is still writ large. After three years of hard graft to get Brexit done, we are moving back out into the world, which has always been the United Kingdom’s true place. We are a trading nation, and nowhere is that clearer than here at home, where trade between Scotland and the home nations is three times greater than with the EU27. Public spending in Scotland is more than £1,600 per person higher than the UK average, which means that every person in Scotland benefits from levels of public spending substantially above those of the rest of the UK. The SNP wants to take that away. The SNP’s perspective on separation would make Scotland poorer, less democratic and less outward-looking.
I fully accept that some people wanted a different future for the UK in 2016, but we have a responsibility to one another to take the opportunities of our new reality and to make it work for everyone, not constantly stoke division and acrimony in pursuit of an ill-conceived separatism. The only way to ensure that Scotland can move forward as a full partner in our national recovery from covid and in our shared prosperity post Brexit is for those who have a vote in May’s Holyrood elections to cast both votes for the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party, the only party that has a clear and consistent position in our support for the Union and our desire to get on with the day job of looking after the interests of the people of Scotland.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes.
This debate being called rather sums up the dysfunction of this so-called United Kingdom—a hopelessly asymmetric construct from the outset, and one that now substantially exceeds the limits of what Scotland can continue to endure. In 2014, the Smith commission report noted that
“nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose.”
That report included signatories from all political parties represented in Scotland: the Greens, the SNP and the vow signatories, Labour, Liberal and Tory. The Better Together amalgam still clearly exists, and as usual they speak with one voice to deny Scotland the credit of her abilities, subscribing to a Tory “Union first” ideology.
The petition that we are debating today received almost one fifth of its signatures from people not resident in Scotland, so this Westminster Hall debate on whether people in Scotland should decide Scotland’s future is therefore taking place because people not resident in Scotland have decided that we should not allow Scotland self-determination. Democratic values cast aside, here in the “mother of all Parliaments”.
Indeed, of the 13 hon. Members lining up today to downplay the harm of London rule in Scotland while talking down Scotland’s right to self-determination, only five represent Scottish constituencies. That perhaps explains why a consistent majority of people who actually live in Scotland now support independence. I do not doubt that outwith Scotland there are those who oppose Scottish independence, and do so for what they may consider very good reasons, but it is Scotland’s future, so it is Scotland’s choice, and the people of Scotland know it.
That is consistent with the latest poll by BMG for The Herald, which again showed a majority in support of independence. The UK is splitting up in slow motion before our eyes, but we will change into top gear following an SNP majority in May’s Scottish Parliament elections, if the people of Scotland vote for the SNP’s ambition for another referendum. The UK cannot refuse that in those circumstances.
In Scotland, we largely dispensed with the irrelevance of the Labour party in 2015, and now Wales and the north of England are pursuing the same enterprise with enthusiasm. Since 2016, England has, it seems, embraced a populist, right-wing, Tory anti-EU agenda, which is its democratic right so to do, but Scotland has pursued social inclusion, fairness and opportunity, and it is positive about Europe. Those values and ambitions of either nation for its people are mutually exclusive.
Earlier in the debate, defence jobs were mentioned. Let me expand on that. When, in 1989, I was employed by the Navy as an apprentice aircraft engineer, I joined a workforce of more than 32,000 Ministry of Defence employees in Scotland. Last year, that number was less than 14,000. What Union dividend is that?
Six weeks on Thursday, I trust the people of Scotland to exercise their vote in such a way as to send a very clear instruction to Westminster, demanding another referendum—not a demand from the SNP or any political party, but a demand from the sovereign people of Scotland, to which the UK will accede.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes.
In reality, the petition reflects the views of a minority of people in Scotland. Only today, an opinion poll reconfirmed previous polls indicating that people are in favour of a referendum in the next five years if the SNP gets a majority. A small minority believe in the Union so strongly that their contention is that there should not be another referendum, no matter the will of the people.
The petition is fundamentally flawed for a couple of reasons. First, it puts Westminster’s sovereignty above the will and democratic votes of the Scottish people, which should be unacceptable for any democrat. In common with nine Opposition MPs last week and several today, the petition references the “once in a generation” comment, as if somehow one referendum is all we get. It is conveniently ignored that constitutionally Northern Ireland can hold a referendum every seven years, so why should democracy be blocked in Scotland?
In 2014, the UK was still a member of the European Union. It was acknowledged then that an SNP majority paved the way for a referendum and the Edinburgh agreement was put in place. Now, it seems the British state will do anything to obstruct Scottish parliamentary democracy. So 2014 actually was a unique opportunity. Sadly, too many people believed that voting no would keep us in the EU. Contrary to what the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) said earlier, Baroness Davidson tried to assure us that there was no way there would be an EU referendum, so that information was not given to the Scottish people.
We are told the myth that we are part of the most successful political union in the world—so successful that it is now frightened to give the people another verdict on it. We are told that we have the most powerful devolved Parliament in the world, yet Northern Ireland has powers over welfare, pensions and the civil service that we do not have. Wallonia was able to veto the comprehensive economic and trade agreement deal, but Westminster would not even look at Scottish Government compromise proposals on Brexit, instead taking us out of Europe against our will and imposing a bad deal. Now for good measure we have the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill, which undermines devolution altogether.
The Scottish Parliament have limited borrowing powers, not enough tax powers and control over only about 15% of welfare. Westminster cuts the budget and Scottish Tories demand more is done with less money. It is an impossible circle to square. Meanwhile Labour agrees that the Scottish Parliament does not have enough powers only when support for the SNP increases. For them, it is a means to an end. A con like the vow will not work next time.
Too many people in Scotland now realise that Westminster is broken and is headed by an anti-Scottish and anti-devolution Prime Minister, who stated that a pound spent in Croydon is of more value to the country than a pound spent in Strathclyde, and that a Scottish MP should never be Prime Minister, who wanted the Barnett formula to be scrapped and who, as editor of The Spectator, published an anti-Scottish poem. Some 62 countries have exercised their democratic right to leave the UK. Westminster needs to recognise that it is for the electorate in Scotland to choose if we are to be the 63rd. Now is the time for real change.
This debate is a fantastic opportunity to demonstrate exactly why Scottish independence would be catastrophic for the people of Scotland. Our United Kingdom continues to fight against covid-19, employing the power of the Union and its Government to deliver life-saving vaccinations across the United Kingdom, providing us all with a route out of lockdown. As this critical fight continues, the SNP has prioritised another independence referendum, launching its independence taskforce on 17 January this year.
While we are at the pivotal moment in the battle against the virus and taking our first steps towards recovery, pulling our United Kingdom apart will damage our chances of recovery. In indulging their obsession with independence, including planning an independence road map, the SNP has failed to respond properly to the pandemic. In August last year, the SNP promised to expand testing capacity to 65,000 people per day, but the largest number of tests carried out in a single day in Scotland is 34,932.
All the while, Her Majesty’s Government have been supporting the Scottish people. Around 780,000 Scottish jobs and the incomes of 157,000 self-employed Scots have been protected by the power of Her Majesty’s Treasury’s interventions. In rebuilding our United Kingdom after the pandemic, every effort has been made to ensure that no part is left behind. The £4.8 billion levelling-up fund embodies this commitment, with £800 million available across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to help investment in communities, high streets and local transport.
The SNP’s abysmal track record in Government is only a taste of what would happen if the SNP were left completely in charge of Scotland. The SNP has presided over the lowest rate of job creation in the UK, watched Scottish schools drop to the lowest international scores in science and maths, and reduced the number of frontline officers protecting Scottish communities. Being dragged out of the United Kingdom will be hugely damaging to Scotland’s recovery, and is against the will of the Scottish people. Polls indicate that an overwhelming majority of people support the Union, and the petitioners responsible for today’s debate underline that.
Importantly, another independence referendum would make worthless the SNP’s promise that the 2014 referendum would be a once-in-a-generation event. At this critical moment, our collective focus ought to be on rebuilding the entire UK and paving the way to greater prosperity, not on damaging independence referendums. Scotland deserves better. Thank God the Union stands to support Scotland from the deficiencies of the Scottish National party.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. May I offer my sincere apologies for my dress at the outset of the debate? It is also a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Imran Ahmad Khan).
Like many citizens, I have a heritage from Scotland and England, and in my case Ireland too. I am a proud Unionist and believe in our United Kingdom. Our United Kingdom is one of the most successful political unions in history. In my constituency of Darlington, some 33 people have signed e-petition 570779—a small number of those who I am sure would not want to see our United Kingdom broken up by the separatists.
The continued refrain of the SNP on independence, despite the once-in-a-generation decision, is used to distract from the failings of its Government in Holyrood, its internal party conflicts, its failure on education, its failure on health, and its worsening polling data. The debate presents a great opportunity to shine a spotlight on the phenomenal level of support that this Conservative and Unionist Government have provided during the pandemic to the people of Scotland, as indeed they have throughout the whole United Kingdom.
The United Kingdom Government have protected jobs and businesses, giving tangible proof of the argument that, working together and supporting each and every country of our United Kingdom, we are better together—facing the challenge of the pandemic and its aftermath together. Across the UK, employers have been able to take advantage of the unprecedented levels of support, such as the coronavirus job retention scheme, the self-employed income scheme and UK-backed business loans. In June last year, almost 800,000 Scottish jobs were being supported through the furlough scheme, and statistics from January show that more than 360,000 Scottish workers were still on furlough. More than 431,000 self-employed people have been supported through the self-employed income scheme, and more than 90,000 Scottish businesses have been supported by UK Government-backed loans worth almost £3.4 billion. At the same time, the Scottish Government struggled to distribute support to the businesses that needed it.
Our vaccination programme across the UK—a programme that underpins our precious Union—has shown the strength that we gain from working together. If the SNP had its way and was part of the European Union’s vaccination programme, it is likely that Scotland would not have achieved the number of vaccination first doses that we have achieved so far. Despite the unprecedented situation that we have faced this past year, and despite the constant negativity of the SNP, this one nation Conservative and Unionist Government have delivered for the people of the entire UK, and will continue to do so.
Before I move to the Front-Bench spokesmen, I remind them that they have 10 minutes each, which will allow a few minutes for the mover of the motion to wind up at the end.
It is a pleasure to speak in the debate. I know it might be hard for others to believe, but I genuinely try my best to understand where Unionists are coming from in their defence of the UK as a Union. Although I disagree with them more often than not, I always respect and accept what their position is. That is what keeps a democracy healthy: genuine thoughtful debate.
Today’s debate is not about the merits of independence or the problems with independence, but about whether Scotland should have another independence referendum. Although the two issues are intrinsically linked, it is important to keep that distinction in mind. The basic principle on which all democracies are built is that it is for people to exercise their democratic rights in free, fair and regular elections to determine what the future of their country should be. To an extent, this is a hypothetical debate. We are weeks away from the upcoming Scottish elections, when people in Scotland will again exercise their democratic right to choose the future direction of the country. If the people in Scotland elect a majority of Members on an explicit pledge to have another independence referendum, this debate will no longer be hypothetical. In that scenario, there should be another independence referendum—there is no democratic or moral argument to state otherwise. Ultimately, time will tell. We are all politicians; we know how elections work. It is for us to present the future we want to pursue and for the people to democratically endorse which plan they want put into action. No one has the right to stand in the way of that. It is as simple as that.
Scotland held a referendum on independence, and a majority in Scotland voted to give this Union another chance. A lot has happened since then—I will touch on some of that later—but it is important to remember that there was nothing in the Edinburgh agreement stating that there would never be another independence referendum. In fact, there was cross-party agreement that nothing contained in the Smith commission report
“prevents Scotland from becoming independent in the future”.
I remember watching the debates back then, when the idea of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister was laughed off and the possibility that Scotland would be dragged out of the EU against its will was dismissed as scaremongering. Any attempt to say that there has not been a material change since then is wishful thinking at best.
I was elected to my current role on a manifesto pledge to hold Westminster to account for the promises that were made. Any suggestion that we are not respecting the outcome of that referendum is a futile attempt to rewrite history. Supporting independence does not equate to disrespecting the outcome of the referendum. We would not be in the position we are in if we had not respected that outcome. It means that we know we need to work to convince others. That is why I find it quite curious that the only people who seem vehemently opposed to a second referendum are those who are passionately in favour of the Union.
I will specifically address some of the arguments made today. We heard that Alex Salmond said that the referendum was a “once-in-a-generation” vote. The last general election was described by the current Prime Minister as a
vote. Does that mean that there will not be a general election for a generation? I assume not. Although he might not like it, Alex Salmond does not hold the authority on Scotland’s future anyway.
The second main criticism—that we should be debating health, social security and the economy—for me shows a complete failure to meaningfully engage with the arguments being made. The reason most people support independence is not because of nationalism or flags, but rather because they see the actions and attitudes of Westminster. Our Scottish Parliament spends millions every year mitigating policies of the UK Government, which more often than not Scotland did not vote for. People are recognising that only by having the powers of a normal independent country can we actually have the power to deliver that radical change that we need, particularly in the context of our post-covid recovery, because we are certainly not getting that thinking from Westminster.
The Scottish Government disagreed with Brexit, but they still produced a framework for how to make it work. That was rejected by Westminster. In the situation that Scotland ever does vote for independence, the SNP does not and should not dictate what that future looks like, but Unionist parties are depriving people of what their own vision would be and then decrying the SNP for being the only ones talking about it. Like I said, we want independence because we think it will give us the means to provide a lot of the responses we think people need. As I said at the beginning, the issue of timing is undoubtedly interlinked with our constitutional preferences, and I do not think anyone would disagree with that. But it got me thinking; if Scotland was already independent, and we were debating whether to join the UK, particularly in the aftermath of covid, what would the merits of this Union be? Power would be moved to a Parliament miles away, where we would be in the minority, we would rarely get the Governments we vote for, and those Governments would have the ultimate control over our economy, our borders, and our social security. They would dictate how much money we could spend and what we could spend it on, and we would have nuclear weapons in our waters, like it or not. In that context, the fear of another referendum becomes much more understandable.
The events of the last six to seven years have shown that the case for the Union is paper-thin. I sincerely respect and welcome the fact that people disagree with independence, but it takes an epic leap to then say that the matter should never be discussed again, especially when a sizeable amount of people in Scotland consistently disagree. Ultimately, it is for the people of Scotland to decide if and when a referendum should happen, and it is our job to listen.
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) who opened the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I thought he gave an excellent and measured speech. He had spoken to the petitioners and expressed what they were trying to achieve by this debate, which just shows the breadth of what they were trying to do. I was quite shocked—really shocked—when he said that the petitioners wish to remain anonymous because they fear the consequences of speaking out. That is one of the main reasons we should not have another independence referendum. It is hugely divisive; businesses, charities and third-sector organisations feel they cannot speak out and make their voices heard. Members of the public cannot speak out. There is division in families and division in workplaces. It is really shocking that the petitioners feel as if they cannot put their name publicly to this kind of petition.
We have just had another debate in the House that is all about process with none of the answers. Last Wednesday in the House of Commons Chamber, we had seven hours of debate and no answers about the proposition being made. That is one of the major reasons why the debate has turned into a debate about process, rather than the actual issues. The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), talked about “meaningfully engaging”. There is no meaningful engagement at all in this debate, because none of the big questions are answered.
Let me give an example, which will be recorded in Hansard from last Wednesday. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), who opened the debate, was challenged about some big questions on currency, the EU, borders, debts and the deficit—the list is pretty endless. He said there was no need to answer those questions at the moment, because they would all be addressed when an independence referendum is actually held. However, just two speakers from the SNP Benches later, we had a detailed analysis of how an independent Scotland’s asylum policy would operate. On the one hand, we have answers. On the other hand, we do not. I suspect that that is because the answers to the big questions are not forthcoming.
We have heard a number of times today, including from the petitioners and from my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn, that the Scottish Government could be not only answering a whole number of questions but looking at a whole number of really important policies for the Scottish people. My hon. Friend talked about food poverty, about energy poverty and about the education system catching up—is it not strange that for the first time in its history the Scottish education system is plummeting down the international rankings and we have heard nothing about that?
That is all at a time when the Scottish Government are using precious Scottish Government time in Parliament —just 24 hours before Parliament’s last full day—to introduce another referendum Bill. Not a Bill on educational attainment or food poverty. Not a Bill to ensure that the 220 people who were queued up in the snow and sub-zero temperatures in George Square are fed and given a home. It is not a Bill on poverty, or on how we grow businesses. It is not a Bill on any of those things, but a Bill to have another referendum. That is the only priority that the Scottish National party has and it is paralysing our politics. It is paralysing our Parliament and, as we have heard from the petitioners, it is poisoning our national discourse. Where is the debate about a fairer society? Where is the debate about some of these big questions?
The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) spoke inaccurately, I think, when he tried to muddy the line between patriotism and nationalism. It is as if someone who is not a nationalist is not a patriot. That surely cannot be the case. We are all patriotic about our country, but it is possible to be a patriot and celebrate everything that is Scottish—I certainly do— without being a nationalist. Blurring that line is incredibly dangerous. The hon. Gentleman also talked eloquently, and he was right, about the damage that leaving the EU is doing to Scotland and the rest of the country. However, he did not spend any time telling us what the SNP’s plan would be for getting back into the EU. It is contradictory and impossible to deliver, and that is not being honest with the Scottish people.
The right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) rightly challenged the SNP on the rewriting of history, which is really the only tool in its box at the moment: speaking about things that did not happen, making assertions about what other people have said and what the Scottish Parliament is for, and making the huge assertion that the SNP’s voice is the voice of the Scottish people. It is not. The Scottish people is much wider than that. I certainly would not suggest that I could speak on behalf of all the Scottish people. The SNP should not do so either.
The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) said no one was talking about a referendum at any time soon. Well, no one apart from the First Minister—and the Cabinet Secretary responsible for it, Mike Russell, and the SNP leader at Westminster, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). They have all talked about a potential independence referendum this year. Can you imagine, when most Scots are thinking about their jobs, worried about their livelihoods and concerned about their health and that of their family, friends and colleagues as we come out of probably the most serious economic and health crisis the country has seen in peacetime, going straight into an independence referendum? Here is a little bit of a conundrum for the Members who have said, “We are not talking about having it this year; we will wait until covid is over, because it would be too difficult at this time to have this big debate and get people to the polls while there is a pandemic on”—apart from the fact that there is a Scottish election on 6 May, with people going to the polls. That is more contradictory stuff from the Scottish National party.
We heard from the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson). It is wonderful to see the screens in the new hybrid situation, because while he was talking about his Scottish heritage, and his pride in it, there were SNP Members shaking their heads. The hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) shook his head as if that point could not legitimately be allowed to be made, because the hon. Gentleman is not living in Scotland and represents Darlington. He has every right to celebrate his Scottish heritage. We should all celebrate it with him. He is very welcome to tell us that he wants Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom because it is part of him, and of his family’s history. It is wonderful to see people’s reactions on the screen when such points are made, because it is clear that the issue is very much about being anti the rest of the United Kingdom, rather than about a proper argument. The hon. Member for Angus also said that the debate shows the worst of Westminster. The debate was called by the public. There is a Petitions Committee, and if a petition gets the relevant number of signatures a debate can be held. That is why the debate is happening.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) talked of sovereignty. He talked very much about the Smith commission and other issues like that. He is right to assert that the Scottish Parliament is not one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. Why not? Because the powers it has are not being used. It has the potential to be the most powerful devolved Parliament in the world. It could use the social security powers that SNP Members seem to think it does not have. Sections 25 to 27 of the Scotland Act 2016, which came out of the cross-party Smith commission, mean that Scotland can essentially design its own social security system. What did the SNP Scottish Government do? They handed all the powers back to Westminster until at least 2024—eight years after the commission document was signed. Using the powers of the Scottish Parliament would make it one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. Not using them means it is possible to sit back and say, “We have no powers, and it is everyone else’s fault.”
We need to concentrate now on a national covid recovery plan. We need an NHS recovery. All those people who have missed out on treatments for cancer and other illnesses need to get their treatments and diagnoses. We need that to be at the forefront of everything we do post the next election. We need an education catch-up for all the kids that have been left behind. The education system, and the NHS, were in a poor place before the pandemic and are in an even worse place now. We need a jobs and business recovery. Scotland’s economy was in a bad place before the pandemic and is in an even worse place now. We need a climate recovery. All those wonderful climate targets that the Scottish Government set—it is great to set targets—will not be met. We were in a dreadful place with regard to climate targets before the pandemic, and we are in an even worse place now. We need a community recovery; we have a housing crisis and local services starved of cash, with billions taken from local council budgets. That was in a bad place before the pandemic, so we need a recovery now.
On what the Scottish Labour party wants to do, I can read from the speech of the leader of the Labour party, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). He talked about Scotland in a modern United Kingdom and the process of devolution going forward. There does not have to be a binary choice between the broken status quo and separation. There is another way that it can be done. This is about looking at the United Kingdom, at a post-Brexit Britain and at how it manages itself. On the consequences of independence and another referendum, he said that that is why the First Minister’s
“call for an independence referendum in the…next Scottish Parliament—perhaps even next year”—
this was in December—
“is so misguided. Given the damage and division this would cause”,
particularly during a pandemic,
“no responsible First Minister should contemplate it—and no responsible Prime Minister would grant it.”
Those are the words of the leader of the Labour party, and the new leader of the Scottish Labour party, Anas Sarwar, has been pretty clear that we will go into the 6 May election saying that we are setting aside every single bit of constitutional division to unite our country and put forward a national covid recovery plan to ensure that people do not need to worry about their health, their jobs or their livelihoods. Post the election in May their Scottish Government will have that as their sole focus.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Nokes. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on introducing the debate so effectively, with great measure and care for what the petitioners were asking us to consider today. I am grateful for the contributions from right hon. and hon. Members on a subject that arouses considerable passions.
It is worth restating why we are here today. More than 110,000 people put their names to a petition against a second separation referendum in Scotland. I think that view chimes with views right across Scotland and the whole United Kingdom. There is no evident pressing demand that we should put this at the top of our list in our debates. SNP Members are always happy to cite opinion polls that back up their case. They do not mention the recent ones with a majority view against separation. The most recent batch of polls show that for less than 10% of people, constitutional issues are the primary focus that will drive their voting behaviour.
As many Members have pointed out today, this is absolutely not the time to obsess about process and constitutional measures when we are recovering from one of the worst public health crises and economic challenges in our history. People in all parts of the country want to see us working in partnership to tackle the pandemic and drive the recovery that we want to see. The contribution from the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) was absolutely spot on. People want to know what we are going to do if their mental health or their child’s education has suffered, or they are worried about their job or a range of other pressing issues, and that is what they want us to talk about.
I was also deeply troubled by the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) raised about this already starting to arouse some deeply unpleasant behaviour; he referenced a death threat. The hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) rightly highlighted how appalling it is that the organiser of the petition felt they had to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.
We would set that in train again if we went down the path of another divisive referendum, but it is quite clear that the SNP wants to drive that as fast as they can. The hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) said that in as many words: it will go into overdrive, and once the Scottish Parliament elections are out of the way, that is what the SNP will focus on. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) said in last week’s debate that he does not really mind whether it is later this year or early next year when we go into the divisiveness of another referendum, but that is what is going to be. That is not what Scotland needs or wants. My right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) hit the nail on the head: since the 2014 referendum, the SNP has never stopped agitating and bringing up every sense of grievance to chip away, to nip away, to have another vote—it is a neverendum. It will keep going, but that is not what the people of Scotland need or want.
We heard it last week. Given a rare chance, as an Opposition party, to set the subject for debate in Parliament, SNP Members could have looked at what lessons we are learning from the current pandemic so that we can avoid future ones, or they could have debated the economic challenges. They could have focused on what measures we will take to get the 100,000 Scottish people who have sadly lost their jobs due to covid back into work. They could have debated how they were going to tackle waiting lists, the catch-up education for three quarters of a million Scottish schoolchildren who have not had their full educational development this year, or how to clear the backlog of some 40,000 criminal and civil legal cases. There are so many issues they could have talked about, including the vaccination programme—of course, the SNP wanted the UK to be part of the EU’s vaccination programme and procurement, so perhaps that is why they did not want to talk about that. But no, they wanted to talk about the division and divisiveness of another separation referendum. I think that is the wrong focus.
We have seen how much we can achieve together—all spheres of government, be it local, Scottish or UK—by working together to help us get through the pandemic and rebuild. For example, the British armed forces are helping to establish new vaccine centres right across Scotland and are helping to vaccinate people, a programme that is delivering huge strides forward to getting us back together. We are promoting our green industrial revolution, investing in the technologies and industries of the future, a programme that will support levelling up and up to 250,000 new jobs, while Glasgow will of course host COP26 later this year—a golden opportunity to showcase the best of what we can offer and to demonstrate our global leadership on this vital issue. Just at the time that the world’s eyes would be on us, the SNP would have us fighting one another, family against family, community against community. That is not what we want.
Let me pick up on some of the other points that Members made during the course of the debate. The hon. Member for Edinburgh South was on the money when he criticised SNP Members for confusing patriotism and nationalism. How insulting to suggest that if someone does not buy into the divisive programme of the nationalists they are somehow less Scottish. They do not speak for all of Scotland; they speak for those who are obsessed with smashing up the world’s most successful economic and social partnership.
Brexit was raised a number of times, and I want to challenge the point often made that so much has changed since the 2014 referendum. Perhaps SNP Members would like to revisit their prospectus for separation, “Scotland’s Future” which contained the warning that Scotland should vote for independence to stop
“Scotland being taken out of the EU”
against its will. It was there. It was a once-in-a-generation vote, although, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale said, apparently that was just a get-out-the-vote strategy and we were not meant to believe it. I am afraid they are making it up as they go along. It was a decisive vote; it was once in a generation.
I have two other points to make about Brexit. First, if, as SNP Members have referenced, Brexit has been so damaging to Scotland’s exports and trade, what on earth do they think would happen if we broke up the UK single market? Is that what businesses are really looking for as they rebuild after the pandemic—to add in another risk and uncertainty, with all the costs and division that would cause? Is that what they are asking for? I do not think so.
The UK Government continue to drive forward their ambitious programme of economic growth to support people and businesses across Scotland and the UK. That includes programmes such as city deals, the new trade deals and export support. That is the concrete work going on to help rebuild Scotland’s economy and invest in the future. The Budget earlier this month demonstrated the Government’s commitment to operating on a truly UK-wide basis, with extensions to furlough, the self-employed scheme and the levelling-up fund benefiting businesses and citizens right across the UK.
We do not need another divisive referendum. We had the vote. People want us to focus on rebuilding, catching up and investing in the future. That is what the coming election in Scotland is about. That is how people will decide which party they will support. I look forward to a lively debate between my hon. Friend the Member for Moray and the party of the hon. Member for Edinburgh South, the party of the hon. Member for Edinburgh West and others on those key issues of jobs, education, health, transport, clean energy and the many other areas that people are concerned about.
We do not need another referendum on separation. The UK Government are focused on rebuilding, and I very much agree with the petitioners, whom I congratulate again on securing this important debate. I also congratulate once again the hon. Member for Islwyn on introducing it so effectively.
This has been a very measured and good debate. There have been passions on both sides as we would expect on something that stirs up such passion. However, I hope that those in the wider public who want to indulge in personal abuse because someone has a different view from them learn from the debate. It is my genuine belief that, as we have seen with the Brexit referendum and previously with the Scottish referendum, we will get nowhere in our political discourse if all we do is shout at each other. We will not be able to hear what others are saying.
Many in the debate have liked to compare Wales to Scotland. From a Welsh perspective, the warning I have for Scottish politicians is that the truth is that we are in danger of disappearing down a constitutional rabbit hole. It is no good talking about the constitution all the time. As I said in my earlier speech, the idea of jam tomorrow will not cut it anymore. These are desperate times. We live in a pandemic that has never been seen before, and we face an economic downturn like never before. Constitutional arguments will become secondary to that. Therefore, we can set the debate either as independence versus Unionism, or about how we want our country—our United Kingdom—to look in the coming years.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 570779, relating to consent for a referendum on Scottish independence.