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Scotland: Further Independence Referendum

Volume 741: debated on Tuesday 21 November 2023

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

I am going to begin where I left off on 1 February this year when I moved my Scotland (Self-Determination) Bill. It is important to establish how far this Government and the party of opposition have moved from the principle of equity of all peoples of this alleged Union of equals, and ultimately against the democratic will of the people of Scotland. In this place in 1889, the equality of UK partner countries was asserted by none other than William Ewart Gladstone MP, when he said that

“if I am to suppose a case in which Scotland unanimously, or by a clearly preponderating voice, were to make the demand on the United Parliament to be treated, not only on the same principle, but in the same manner as Ireland, I could not deny the title of Scotland to urge such a claim.”—[Official Report, 9 April 1889; Vol. 335, c. 101-102.]

That principle of equity was at the heart of my private Member’s Bill, and was again articulated in amendment (j) to the recent King’s Speech, tabled in my name. Each was consistent with the motion passed by this House that endorsed the principles of the 1989 claim of right, which acknowledged

“the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs”.

However inured this House has since become to the aspirations of the people of Scotland to live in a normal independent country, support for independence is holding steady at around 50% without a single leaflet being dropped through a letterbox. That number is rising steadily, and will continue to climb. The independence genie is not for going back into the bottle.

Of course, that growing support requires a mechanism through which to express its effect and place beyond doubt the will of the people. My Scotland (Self-Determination) Bill is explicit about the conditions necessary to bring that mechanism into play, and is clear that the power to legislate for a referendum requires a democratic mandate from the Scottish public. Since 2014, that criterion has been met in successive general elections to the Scottish Parliament, most recently in 2021, when a majority of MSPs were elected on a manifesto commitment to deliver an independence referendum. This evening, I intend to set out how that must now happen, and how it can be put beyond the wiles of intransigent London-led parties for good.

One of the most invigorating aspects of the 2014 independence referendum campaign was the explosion of interest and engagement in all aspects of policy, and the healthy workplace, coffee house and pub debates across Scotland. Back then, as a movement, we were unafraid to have differences of opinion and to propose various solutions to decades-old problems. Most importantly, we spoke truth to the distortions of the Unionist Better Together “no” campaign. That appetite for truth and facts is something we must rediscover. Our movement must demand that if we are to make progress towards independence.

The first issue we must come to terms with is that another section 30 independence referendum is not going to happen for the foreseeable future. As a consequence of the Scottish Lord Advocate’s folly in arguing a poorly crafted question, the UK Supreme Court made it clear that in the absence of an equitable mechanism for self-determination across these islands—such as the one I have proposed—any referendum on Scottish independence is a matter reserved to London.

In some ways, the Supreme Court’s judgment was perhaps helpful. It said in paragraph 81—this is the reason the Court stopped the referendum—that even if the referendum did not have any legal powers, because the UK Government had not signed up to it, the ballot box would carry authority, which would force the UK Government to recognise that authority and therefore cause a change to the Union. By stopping the referendum, the Supreme Court has now opened another avenue for Scotland, which we will maybe touch on later. That, of course, is using elections.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and that is a key element of my contribution to this debate.

Put plainly, a section 30 order to temporarily transfer those powers to the Scottish Parliament is entirely in the gift of Westminster. That underscores the unavoidable truth that our Parliament is in reality part of the fabric of the British state and is increasingly being squeezed under the heel of Whitehall. Securing mandates to ask for a referendum on independence only to be rebuffed is now the equivalent of Monty Python’s parrot that has ceased to be. It is as stone dead as a mandate can be. The Tories have become increasingly bolder in this regard, and while they persist with their assertion that this is a voluntary Union, they refuse to set out the means of withdrawing consent. This Government have also made it clear that they will plunder Scotland as a cash cow until the wind stops blowing. Westminster plans to rob our resources at its leisure. There is no way, even if the First Minister were to ask, that the Prime Minster would agree to an independence referendum in his final months in office.

In a Westminster Hall debate on this subject, the Minister responding this evening claimed that

“the benefits of being part of the United Kingdom have never been more apparent.”

Where is the benefit for the one in three households in Scotland living in fuel poverty? Where are the benefits for the north-east of Scotland when the Acorn carbon capture and storage project still waits for a go-ahead from the UK Government? The Minister proclaimed that Scotland has

“one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world.”—[Official Report, 30 November 2022; Vol. 723, c. 384WH.]

But Scotland remains powerless to stop the plunder.

When the hon. Member speaks about opportunities to improve the lives of people in Scotland, we could of course do that through our NHS, through our education system, through our justice system and through local government. All of those issues are devolved fully to the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament, but they are of course ignored by the SNP and Green Government—the nationalist Government—because they are always focused on independence, rather than on the real priorities of the people of Scotland.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I would be the last person to speak for the SNP Government in Scotland. I refer back to my party leader’s excellent tenure as First Minister, and the meaningful difference he made to the lives of the people of Scotland.

This comparison with a devolved Scotland in the United Kingdom is as silly as comparing the performance of Northern Ireland and Stormont in the United Kingdom with Dublin and an independent Ireland. Ireland has a €10 billion surplus this year, rising to €20 billion next year. The UK, with a deficit of around £170 billion, is unable to build small hospitals on small Hebridean islands, whereas Ireland is funding nurses over the border.

Mr Deputy Speaker, I am equally—[Interruption.] Yes, my hon. Friend has put the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) in his place.

Anyway, the Treasury is happy to siphon off £11 billion in tax receipts from oil and gas this year alone, and we are sending south 124 billion kWh of energy, which is enough to power Scotland’s needs fifteen times over. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill) set out in a Westminster Hall debate this morning, with this Union it is all pooling and absolutely no sharing. I ask the Minister: where is the evidence of a share of Scotland’s energy bounty?

As for an incoming UK Labour Government, now bedecked in Union Jackery—the Tories will like this bit—the Leader of the Opposition has made it clear that his priority is continuity with Tory economic and social policy, and he intends to continue London’s plunder of Scottish assets. Do not be confused: it was British Labour that first hid the truth of the McCrone report from the people of Scotland—a truth kept secret by successive Labour and Tory Administrations for 30 years. Neither party has protected our economy or our communities, so why should we trust any of them now?

They each may persist with the claim they have

“no selfish strategic or economic interest”

in the north of Ireland, but we know the opposite is true of Scotland, where the strategy is wholly economic and top-to-tail selfish.

I am sitting here as a determined, strong-willed, proud Unionist who believes that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is always better together. Northern Ireland is part of that, and I very much wish to see Scotland be part of that, so the hon. Gentleman and I will disagree. Does he accept that when it comes to the British Government, the amount of money that comes from here to keep Scotland going can never be ignored? He talks about the trade downwards, but the trade is also upwards and that cannot be ignored when it comes to the financial implications. Better off together, always.

The hon. Gentleman hit the nail on the head when he said that we will absolutely not agree on anything he said.

In answer to that point, the Republic of Ireland is costing the UK nothing after leaving, therefore if Scotland goes it will save you a fortune—

You can’t knock his enthusiasm, Mr Deputy Speaker. Neither the Labour nor the Conservative parties have protected our economy, and any fantasy that pleas for more devolution will be accommodated by Labour are pie in the sky. North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll recently accused the Labour Opposition of censoring, diluting, and striking down key recommendations contained in a report by former Prime Minister and MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, Gordon Brown, on the constitution and further devolution across the UK. Those forlorn attempts to prevent the “Break-up of Britain” by refusing to devolve power away from London will serve only to boost the case for Scottish independence. Mr Brown’s attempt to reframe the debate to one of

“change within Britain versus change by leaving Britain”

has been utterly dismantled by his party leader and increased the urgency for independence. All that leads us to the position where Scotland urgently needs a robust strategy that not only deals with the facts of the day, but overcomes that central Westminster hurdle of the denial of a democratic process.

The Alba party, and our Scotland United colleague, the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Angus Brendan MacNeil), believe that every single Scottish and UK general election must now be used to secure majority support for independence negotiations to commence. That could, and should, include the triggering of an early Holyrood election.

The hon. Member has hit the nail on the head. The referendum door is slammed shut, and there are three ways that the SNP Government at Holyrood could trigger a plebiscite on Scottish independence. Of course, the resignation of the First Minister was very awkward and difficult, but a majority of two thirds of MSPs can vote, or by using section 31A of the Scotland Act 1998 the two-thirds majority can be altered to a simple majority. That was not communicated properly in light of the Supreme Court, and those who did not communicate it properly should have set the record straight or at least apologised. I think they should set the record straight so that MPs, MSPs and the wider public clearly understand that point.

I thank my hon. Friend for that important piece of information. It underscores that there is need for much more robust and firm action from the Scottish independence movement, to push forward the case for independence. As I said recently, independence will not fall into our laps. It is something that we have to pursue with vigour and absolute determination.

That approach reinstates the position of the national movement prior to devolution. As with all democratic expressions, the threshold would be a simple majority of votes cast for all independence parties—a threshold that was achieved on the last list vote for the Scottish Parliament. That approach is supported by the expert legal opinion I obtained from highly distinguished academic and legal practitioner in international law, Professor Robert McCorquodale. He said that

“the people of Scotland are distinct within the UK and have a right to self-determination.”,

and subsequently that

“the right to self-determination applies to the people of Scotland.”

He went on to state:

As the people of Scotland are a people for the purposes of the right to self-determination, they can exercise it. The choice of the means to exercise it is for the people to decide and not for the state.”

Furthermore, he explained that the UK, as a signatory to multilateral international human rights treaties, has

“expressly accepted that the right to self-determination is a human right”


“not just as an international legal principle—which is binding under international law on all states.”

These are not obscure or arcane points of law; they are precise and purposeful.

I understand why the UK Government do not want to hear the facts that Professor McCorquodale set out, but I cannot comprehend why others are steadfast in their refusal even to acknowledge that landmark legal opinion charting the correct lawful and democratic course to self-determination and independence.

The Alba party’s amendment to the recent King’s Speech repeated the democratic principles contained in my Scotland (Self-Determination) Bill for the recognition of the right of the people of Scotland to self-determination by amending the Scotland Act 1998. That would transfer the power to legislate for a Scottish independence referendum to the Scottish Parliament.

Let me deal with the supposed gold standard of a section 30 order. Such an order on its own is not a gold standard; it was the process of negotiation and agreement that led to the signing of the Edinburgh agreement that was the gold standard. Let me be clear that any democratic vote in favour of self-determination is the only standard required, providing that that is the clear and unclouded purpose of any such vote—unless of course the UK Government do not want to recognise democratic elections as legitimate expressions of the will of the people.

The hon. Member is making an excellent point. An unscheduled Holyrood election would precisely be in that category. It would make the world stop for a moment and see whether Scotland was to choose independence. That power rests with MSPs at Holyrood if they want to do that.

The hon. Gentleman is making really important and valid observations. Those are the key tactics that we need to adopt.

Whichever UK Prime Minister comes next, while they may have every technical right to stifle, subdue or ignore the Scottish Parliament, the British state has no locus to limit the inalienable human rights of the people of Scotland or the march of our nation. Yet in this Union, that is precisely where Scotland finds its democracy —denied. That flies in the face of commitments given. In Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs, she said of Scotland:

“As a nation, they have an undoubted right to national self-determination”.

John Major, when Prime Minister, said of Scotland that

“no nation could be held irrevocably in a Union against its will”.

The commitments contained in the Smith commission’s agreement, which was signed by all Scotland’s main political parties, said that

“nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose.”

Scotland will only ever become an independent country as and when the majority of the people of Scotland choose that path, yet that requires a democratic mechanism that is constitutional and satisfies international legal precedent. From Gladstone to Thatcher, no one until now has had the gall to seek to constrain the Scottish people’s democratic right to self-determination. I have made this point many times, but it bears repeating. Democracy is not a single event; it is a continually evolving process that demands opinions be tested and retested regularly.

I anticipate that the Minister will reel off the usual rebuttals and crow about how we have had a referendum, but he should know this. As an option, a referendum has been put beyond reach by Westminster and Whitehall, but Scotland will adapt. Each and every election from hereon in can and will provide a platform on which the people of Scotland can have their say on their consent to this Union. Consistent with Professor McCorquodale’s opinion, that would pave the way to where

“a clear majority of people representing Scotland… indicate their approval”

for independence,

“but it should not be done by the Scottish Parliament, as the latter is within UK domestic law. This could be done, for example, through a convention of elected and diverse representatives from across Scotland with a clear majority in favour.”

Scotland’s separate constitutional tradition is best summed up by Lord Cooper, in the case of MacCormick v. Lord Advocate:

“The principle of the unlimited sovereignty of Parliament is a distinctively English principle which has no counterpart in Scottish constitutional law.”

The UK Government face a choice: give serious consideration to bringing forward legislation for an equitable mechanism for self-determination, as exists on the island of Ireland, or face that test at every election in future. In international law according to human rights declarations, the decision on Scotland is the purview of the people of Scotland, not of any London party. In the constitutional tradition of popular sovereignty in our great country, it is the people who remain sovereign, and it will be the people of Scotland who decide.

Yet again, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) has decided to use valuable debating time in this place to focus on the constitution. Yet again, this time could have been used to raise issues of immediate importance to Scotland’s future. Yet again, his constituents, and my constituents in the Scottish borders, will be disappointed.

The Government’s position on a further independence referendum is well known.

I want to make some progress, and I will give way another time. [Interruption.] The hon. Member has only just sat down, and I will deal with his points in due course.

People across Scotland rightly expect to see both their Governments working together. Our relentless focus should be on the issues that matter to them, their families, and their communities. Scotland’s bright future as part of the United Kingdom is better served by focusing on tackling the cost of living, and on growing our economy so that everyone has access to the opportunities, skills, and jobs that they need. [Interruption.] Hon. Members on the Opposition Benches shake their heads, but I know that those are the priorities of my own constituents in the borders. It is disappointing how disconnected those Members are from the priorities of the constituents they represent.

When it first came to power, the SNP set out to emulate the Labour party of old, and it certainly has succeeded. The nationalist movement is now even more divided than the far left. The SNP and Alba compete to see who can be the most reckless in their demands. They are constantly trying to get one up on each other on independence. But it does not matter who is pushing separation—Humza Yousaf or Alex Salmond. Scotland does not want it.

Unlike the divisive nationalists, we Unionists on the Government Benches are all about bringing people together. As hard as it might be, let me try to find a point of unity with the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. Perhaps we can agree that Scotland wants to be free—free of the SNP. As a member of the Alba party, surely he can agree that we are fed up with Humza Yousaf, Michael Matheson’s ever-changing stories and their endless incompetence and deceit.

While Scottish Conservative MPs are securing millions of pounds-worth of investment in our constituencies through UK levelling-up funding, elected members of the hon. Member’s party want a giant independence thermometer to be constructed somewhere in Scotland. I wish I was joking. The independence thermometer is the brainwave of the Alba party’s most recent recruit from the SNP, Ash Regan MSP. Personally, I would rather see taxpayers’ money spent on schools and hospitals, but if the hon. Member insists, will he tell us where he wants the independence thermometer to be located? Has he lobbied the Chancellor for funding for this ridiculous proposal? Will the thermometer be made of mercury, or is that where he got the idea from—another planet?

I thank the Minister for giving way. However, I need to go back to my first request for an intervention. He was complaining about using valuable time in the Chamber for a debate on the constitution, but it is his Government who are finishing early! It is his Government who have just launched a new King’s Speech and cannot fill the parliamentary programme with enough business to keep the Chamber going. I hope he will correct the record that it is not me who is impeding Parliament doing its business; it is a lack of action from his own Government.

What a load of baloney! This Government have an action-packed programme set out in the King’s Speech. We have an ambitious programme for Scotland and all parts of the United Kingdom. We are focused on the issues that matter to the communities we represent, not on endlessly debating another independence referendum.

The UK Government remain as determined, focused and committed as ever to getting on with the job for the people of Scotland. That is best demonstrated by what we are doing on the ground. The UK Government are delivering £2.7 billion of levelling-up investment across all parts of Scotland. As hon. Members on the nationalist Benches know, that investment includes: £1.5 billion for 12 Scottish city and regional growth deals; £160 million for two investment zones in the Glasgow city region and north-east Scotland; £52 million for two freeports, focused at the Inverness and Cromarty Firth and Firth of Forth regions; and £817 million for locally-driven plans and priorities, regenerating town centres, improving vital infrastructure, supporting businesses, and spreading skills and opportunities to communities everywhere.

I thank the Minister for giving way. He mentioned the Unionists on the Conservative Benches. I am a Unionist on the Opposition Benches, as are my party. It is clear that the polls in Scotland are indicating less of an interest in independence than there was. Is that because the realisation of those in Scotland is that they see their future within this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—better together? Is it because the financial benefits of Westminster and the Government here to Scotland, and indeed to Wales and Northern Ireland, are so good they would never really want to leave?

The hon. Member makes very valid points, but the key point is that support for independence and another independence referendum in Scotland is falling. The voters in Scotland, certainly in my constituency in the Scottish Borders, are getting wise to the failures of the Scottish SNP Government in Edinburgh, and they recognise the benefits of remaining part of a strong United Kingdom. That is because the UK Government and the Scottish Government are working together on so many areas to make our communities better—driving economic growth, supporting the Scottish economy and delivering for Scotland.

I can give some further examples. We can see it through the Scottish Seafood Industry Action Group, where the UK Government regularly engage with the Scottish Government and the Scottish seafood industry to consider a range of important issues, including access to labour, energy costs and export opportunities. We see it through the fiscal framework review, where the UK and Scottish Governments reached a fair and responsible agreement. Both Governments reached a compromise for the benefit of the Scottish economy, while keeping us on track with our fiscal objectives. And we are investing more than £100 million in Scotland’s innovation economy through the strength in places fund and Glasgow innovation accelerator. Our close collaboration with the Scottish Government in this area was further underlined by the agreement signed between UK Research and Innovation and Scottish Enterprise earlier this month, which aims to streamline innovation support for Scottish businesses.

Levelling up is already making a real difference to all regions of Scotland. It is bringing advanced manufacturing jobs to the Glasgow city region, data driven innovation jobs to south-east Scotland, and life sciences jobs to the highlands and north-east Scotland. It is saving the community on Fair Isle with a new ferry, bringing Clydesdale horses back to Pollok Country Park, and revitalising town and city centres from Greenock to Aberdeen, and Cumbernauld to Elgin. It is helping communities to protect and restore their treasured buildings and facilities, whether it is the last pub in Lochranza on Arran, or a permanent home for St David’s brass band in Gorebridge. [Interruption.] The Members on the nationalist Benches shout those initiatives down. This is funding from the United Kingdom Government going into communities the length and breadth of Scotland—something that they seem to strongly oppose. I am disappointed by that and I know the communities they represent will be disappointed by it too.

Before the Minister gets down to the mugs and glasses that we provide for the cub scouts, along with any other crumbs from the table, let me make this point. He mentioned “two Governments” in Scotland. What inefficiency! Norway, Ireland, Iceland and Denmark have one Government each, and they are outperforming Scotland in the United Kingdom. If Scotland is doing so well in the United Kingdom, why do Norway, Ireland, Iceland and Denmark not want to join the UK? It is because they know that it is not a good place to be. They look at Scotland and Wales and they see places that are doing better, just as they are doing better. If the campaign for Scottish independence is doing as badly as the Minister says, why not hold your referendum now? You’d win, surely, wouldn’t you? But you know full well that when the Scottish people engage, independence will happen!

The hon. Member speaks of “crumbs from the table”, but this is significant investment going into communities across Scotland. Scotland is receiving hundreds of millions of pounds through our levelling-up agenda and a record block grant amounting to more than £40 billion, but SNP Members oppose and fight every bit of the investment that this United Kingdom Government are making there. I am saddened by that, and I know that the residents and communities that the hon. Member and his colleagues represent will also be disappointed by the hostile and negative response to investment that has been used to improve the communities that we represent.

Together, the UK Government’s interventions will drive innovation and long-term economic growth, restore pride in place, and help cities, towns and villages in every part of Scotland to flourish. The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath referred to

“the sovereign right of the Scottish people”

to determine their future, and I suppose that that reference to self-determination gets to the nub of the debate that he has initiated. In 2014, the year of the referendum on Scottish independence, there was consensus between the UK Government and the Scottish Government—both Scotland’s Governments—and there was consensus in civic society in Scotland and consensus across the population of Scotland, which is why both Governments agreed to the referendum. The ultimate act of self-determination, of course, came in September 2014, when, in record numbers, the people of Scotland turned out to vote to remain part of the United Kingdom.

My hon. Friend has given a strong defence of the Union, as he always does in his ministerial role and on behalf of his constituents. Would he agree that the nationalists have had more plans for Scottish independence than Michael Matheson has had excuses for his £11,000 iPad bill? And just like that £11,000 iPad bill and their different plans, none of them are honest, none of them are convincing and none of them have the support of the Scottish people.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We hear about plans for referendums endlessly from SNP Members. I just wish they had a clear plan for ferries in Scotland or a clear plan for Scotland’s NHS and Scotland’s schools, but no—referendums, referendums, referendums are all we hear about and all they talk about.

I would like to finish by reminding those on the nationalist Benches yet again that our different views on the constitution should not distract both of Scotland’s Governments from working together to tackle the sheer challenge of delivering growth, easing pressures on the cost of living and supporting the NHS. The Scottish Parliament is one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world, and we believe that the devolution settlement strikes the right balance. This United Kingdom Government are committed to devolution, and we are working collaboratively and constructively with the devolved Administrations, including the Scottish Government, to deliver better outcomes for the citizens of Scotland and the entirety of the United Kingdom.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.