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Scotland (Petitions for a Referendum on Independence) Bill [HL]

Volume 684: debated on Friday 14 July 2006

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Before I go any further, there are some headline points to make about this short Bill. First, there must be a democratic path to political independence available at all times. Secondly, the withdrawal from the United Kingdom would only be political; an end to the parliamentary union of 1707. Thirdly, the Bill specifically retains the Union of the Crowns in 1603, which is itself the symbol of the inevitable, at least in my mind, British social union. Fourthly, this Bill is both liberal and democratic, but it is not Liberal Democrat policy; at least not yet.

Nothing that I intend to say will compromise my Oath of Allegiance to Queen Elizabeth. I am only too aware of the Act of Attainder passed by this Parliament on the Earl of Mar in 1716. Ever keen to rehabilitate that most significant Scotsman, I remind the House that in the pre-democracy days the only way to change His Majesty’s Government was to change His Majesty.

The background to the Bill must be presented in summary form, for I am anxious not to take up too much time. I suspect that this will be welcome, as I have 11 points to make in this section. First, in international terms, Scotland languishes as a semi-autonomous British region with a sub-national Parliament. Secondly, Scotland, with 5 million people, is submerged as one-twelfth of a medium-sized superpower and is inevitably dominated by England with 50 million people. England is supposed to be a superpower. Thirdly, pollsters report that twice as many people living in Scotland would vote for political independence as would vote for the SNP. Fourthly, the delayed rise of the English question is now upon us in its various forms: English votes for English laws; no Scottish MP to be Prime Minister; and no Scottish MPs to be Ministers for English departments. Clearly, that is not part of this Bill, but some constitutional change needs to occur.

Fifthly, I gave up the struggle against a politically independent Scotland in the spring of 2004, with the advent of EU enlargement and so many countries poorer and smaller than Scotland becoming full members of the European Union. Sixthly, a quick look around the north Atlantic shows prosperous states, mostly smaller than Scotland, all of which have departed from union states. There were Sweden and Denmark in 1812; Norway in 1905; Finland in 1920; Ireland in 1922; Iceland in 1944; and the Faroe Islands, which have had home rule, the equivalent of Scotland, since 1948.

Seventhly, the National Covenant of 1947 to 1950 was signed by 2 million people and ignored. Noble Lords should bear in mind that the same people elected a Scottish Conservative majority in 1955. Eighthly, there are the Scottish feelings of impotence in world affairs and British foreign policy as only8 per cent of the United Kingdom population. Ninthly, there is the Norwegian model, departing from the Kalmar Union in 1812 and from the United Kingdom of Sweden and Norway in 1905, with a very satisfactory vote of 360,000 in favour and 179 or so against. Norway also shares similar oil and gas resources to Scotland. Tenthly, I have been a member of the Independence Convention since last year. Eleventhly, I very recently became a member of the constitutional commission that is being set up.

The Bill is also a memorial to the Scottish union negotiators, Robert Burns’s “parcel o’ rogues”, who were in London from April to July 1706 and whose treaty was presented to Queen Anne on 22 July 1706. The Earl of Mar was a Secretary of State and principal negotiator. Although the Scots sought an end to war, a guarantee of peace and free trade with England and its colonies, there was no way that the Earl of Godolphin was going to allow the Scots to avoid a parliamentary union. They read the runes correctly and have been castigated ever since.

That Earl of Mar would have been all too aware that a predecessor Earl of Mar had come to London in 1601 to negotiate the Union of the Crowns for his childhood friend, King James VI. Both Earls of Mar would have been aware that the first Erskine Earl of Mar, Sir Robert Erskine, had come to London in 1421 as an ambassador to seek the release of King James I, whose childhood was spent being held captive in London, following his hijacking by English pirates while making his way to the Continent for education.

Finishing off this memorial section, perhaps I may set down, first, the Declaration of Arbroath in 1320, an appeal to the Pope for help, only six years after the stunning but only tactical victory at Bannockburn; secondly, the wisdom of King James IV in seeking to marry Princess Margaret Tudor in 1503, thereby setting up the dynastic union; and finally, the almost united kingdom of Norway and Scotland of 1287, which was foiled by the death of the Maid of Norway in Kirkwall while on her way to take up the Scottish throne.

Noble Lords will be pleased to know that I will move closer to the Bill. Attitudes towards Scotland’s future can be divided into “instinctive” and “functional”. An instinctive thought goes like this: “Scotland should resume full autonomy”, which is my belief, or “Scotland should remain submerged within the United Kingdom”. Of course, a functional attitude would be, “I want the parliamentary union to continue because”, or, “I want the repatriation of all parliamentary powers because”. Reasons can be wide-ranging and may include, “I want Scotland to re-find its place in the international community”, “I want to win a United Kingdom general election”, or perhaps, “I am frightened of Scottish democracy”. Enough of that.

I wish to move on to the subject of referendum acquisition. There are two routes. Alex Salmond MP hopes that the Scottish Executive will hold a referendum about transfer of sovereignty and then open negotiations with the United Kingdom Government. That is enshrined in the draft Referendum (Scottish Sovereignty) Bill 2007. Alternatively, this Bill enables people who live in Scotland to petition the House of Commons directly for a referendum, laying down that if half a million do so in one year, the Secretary of State must introduce a referendum Bill.

My approach respects the sovereignty ofthe people—the successor to the community of the realm—and respects Westminster’s concept of the supremacy of Parliament. My approach is workable at any time, rather than the SNP’s position that requires the SNP to form part of the Scottish Executive. Scottish sovereignty is a matter reserved to Westminster.

What is the purpose of political independence under the British Crown? My vision is this: three sovereign states in the British Isles with a resulting increase in international influence for the English-speaking people of the north-west European archipelago—a politically neutral description. Scotland should become a pro-British state without controversy at the border, provided that the Schengen agreement is agreed to, and be in the EU, NATO and the United Nations.

There would be no need to haul down the Union flag, for this predates the parliamentary union of 1707, but I would prefer that the version with the Saltire superimposing be used. Already, Queen Elizabeth flies a Scottish version of the royal standard when in Scotland. This retention of the union of the crowns would give confidence to the 400,000 English who live in Scotland, not to mention the 700,000 Scots who live in England. It would be not a velvet divorce but a growing up of the British family—a fraternal development no longer needing the corralling of Queen Anne's reign in the face of the French.

Lastly, I shall describe the Bill. The Long Title is misleading. The withdrawal is from the United Kingdom's Parliament, but that is a point for constitutional anoraks. Clause 1 is the substantive clause. Subsection (1) identifies petitioners as being those on the local government electoral register—that is, residents of Scotland. Subsection (2) says that a sample petition is contained in the Schedule to the Bill, and the wording of this has been acquired from the House of Commons. Subsection (3) requires the petition to be gathered in one calendar year. Subsection (4) requires the Secretary of State to prepare and give out petition forms on request.

Subsection (5) is the most significant. It says that if 500,000 people—that is, one-eighth of the adult population of Scotland—petition the House of Commons in one calendar year, the Secretary of State must introduce a referendum Bill. Presumably, the question would be either, “I agree that all parliamentary power should be returned to the Parliament of Scotland”, or, “I agree that the devolution settlement of 1998 should continue”.

Subsection (6) defines the calendar year as being 1 February to 31 March to conform with the electoral registration process. Subsection (7) requires the referendum to take place within eight months of the subsequent referendum Bill being enacted. Subsection (8) contains a safeguard for stability in the event of a referendum result rejecting Scottish political independence, in which case there may not be another one for at least 10 years.

The second clause is the Short Title with a commencement date of 1 February 2007. The Schedule contains a sample petition approved by the House of Commons. It is a matter of record thatthe House of Commons is actively considering the improvement of its public petition process. Indeed, Members of that House have visited the Scottish Parliament to examine its worthy Public Petitions Committee procedures.

The Bill’s only real innovation is to require action by the Secretary of State. Petitions can already be delivered to the House of Commons at any time. The principle at stake is that the national community of Scotland must have the right and means to control its sovereignty and to do so as a single issue, rather than have it bundled in general election manifestos. The selection of representatives to a devolved Parliament, or even a multinational Parliament such as Westminster, is wholly different from a transfer of sovereignty.

The effect of the Bill would be galvanising. First, a national debate would ensue, separate from a general election, in the run-up to the referendum. Secondly, an agreed blueprint for a sovereign state—perhaps from the new constitutional commission—would need to have evolved to be put before the people. Thirdly, the disaggregation process would have to be agreed for human resources, material and Scottish MPs and Peers. The fourth item would be settling the combined issue of the Scottish share of the national debt set against the past oil revenues already collected. I have in mind the Norwegian concept of an endowment, known until recently as the petroleum fund. There was no Scottish national debt in 1707 but I would accept that part of the United Kingdom national debt which is owed to Scottish savers. Fifthly, as regards settling the Faslane and Coulport submarine base issue, I would suggest a treaty port agreement for, say, 20 years to enable the Royal Navy to build a new base in England. Alternatively, it could be leased for a longer period.

In conclusion, a petition is possible at any time, even without the Bill being enacted. Of course, there would be no requirement for action by the Secretary of State. The Bill respects the sovereignty of the people and the supremacy of Parliament. Parliament would have to agree to pass the referendum Bill or take the consequences. It must we recalled that that supremacy is over the Crown and the Government but not, I hope, over the people. The parliamentary union has not been bad for Scotland but the corralling of the British family of nations in 1707 and in 1801 is no longer necessary. In any case, part of Ireland departed in 1922.

Scotland and its people are, however, stifled internationally and economically by lacking the economic levers to alter business taxation, among other things. The Celtic fringe inclusion project is over. England should be the unfettered superpower that it is meant to be. Finally, there is a delicious irony in the possibility of negotiating Scottish political independence with a Scottish Prime Minister. I commend the Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Earl of Mar and Kellie.)

My Lords, having heard the very interesting speech of my noble friend, I now welcome the opportunity for this brief debate. It is appropriate that the hereditary keeper of Stirling Castle should be the one to move such Bill. Having two small grandchildren, who are both at school in Edinburgh, I always welcome his speeches, as I am able to go back with all sorts of historical titbits to show that I am not quite as dim as they think I am.

I do not want to delay the proceedings on this Bill too long, but I was interested by one thing that my noble friend said which I had not heard him say before. He referred to Scottish MPs and Peers. Perhaps he can tell the House whether he envisages the new Scottish Parliament being bicameral, as distinct from the present one.

My noble friend has, of course, a long-standing commitment to this cause, which is respected, if not shared, by his colleagues on these Benches. My first point is my personal point of view. Although I believe that there are occasions for referendums, I do not favour their proliferation. I am not in favour of the kind of procedures that exist, for example, in Switzerland or in California, where it is possible for the population to call for a referendum on a subject. I believe that that is not in keeping with our concept of a parliamentary democracy. I have some disagreement with the concept of a mechanism whereby the electorate, or a portion of them—I believe one-eighth of the electorate—could call for a referendum on a specific matter if a similar Bill were subsequently introduced.

Turning to the provisions concerning the end of the 1707 union of the Parliaments, I want to make it clear that the Bill goes in a direction different from that of the Liberal Democrats, as my noble friend has said. We are a unionist party and a federalist party. While we have campaigned, and continue to do so, for devolution to the regions of England—we are disappointed that not more progress has been made on that—we would not wish to see a break-up of the United Kingdom as suggested in the Bill.

In recent years, the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, under the leadership of my noble friend Lord Steel, have participated in the Steel commission, which has looked at ways of strengthening the Scottish Parliament and developing the Scottish Executive into a Scottish Government. The Steel commission proposals will be considered by our Scottish party later this year. I believe that, thereafter, they will want to set up a Scottish convention that could see ways of strengthening the Scottish Parliament within the present framework. I believe that that is the right course to take and more satisfactory than the one proposed in the Bill.

My Lords, I understand exactly why the noble Earl chose to petition the Chief Whip to debate the Second Reading of his Bill today. I am sorry that it falls to me to respond on behalf of my party, rather than my noble friend the Duke of Montrose who has to be elsewhere this evening. He particularly regrets that, because this is the 300th anniversary of the period of negotiation for the Act of Union. Seven generations ago, my noble friend’s ancestor was the High Admiral and president of the council that empowered those negotiations.

The Bill provides a mechanism to start the dismemberment of that Act. Not only that, but it does so in a most peculiar way, proposing to wreck the constitutional settlement between Scotland and England. I accept, of course, that the ScotlandAct 1998 is a variant of that old settlement bygiving devolution—but, importantly, not self-government—to the people of Scotland.

I am surprised that a member of the Liberal Democrat Party is proposing this Bill at all, and am glad to hear from both the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Roper, that it is not the policy of their party. In my more cynical moments, I would suppose that if it were, the Liberal Democrats must be seeking electoral advantage in Scotland by teaming up with the only party there that seeks full independence: the Scottish National Party. If there really was a call for independence, that party would be doing much better in the polls than it currently is, irrespective of what the noble Earl said a few minutes ago. The Scottish people always have the option of electing those who hold the same views they do at a general election—as we do in this country—and more frequently than every 10 years, as is envisaged in the Bill.

The Bill envisages that a mere 14 per cent of the local government electorate, who of course include people who would not be eligible to vote in a general election, could trigger the request for a referendum Bill. The Bill’s 500,000 is indeed a low figure to start the ball rolling to petition another place to introduce such a referendum Bill. If the subsequent referendum is successful—if the petitioners get their will—presumably the noble Earl wants the Westminster Parliament to act on the results of that referendum. I wonder why the Bill does not say so, because it seems such an obvious thing for the noble Earl to want.

I could nitpick about the various details of this Bill, but time is short. Suffice to say that I expect such a deluge of cold water from the Minister that this debate will, I hope, be the end of the matter.

My Lords, here comes the cold water.

This has been a short debate on an important subject. I point out to the noble Earl that the research for this speech was carried out in Dover House beneath a portrait of John Erskine, the sixth Earl of Mar, whose history included service on both sides of the argument. The portrait may have to look for a new home if the Bill were to progress.

In accordance with the conventions of the House, the Government will not seek to block the Bill being given a Second Reading should the noble Earl, Lord Mar and Kellie, wish it to have one. However, it will not surprise the noble Earl, or any other Member of this House, that the Government do not favour the Bill and would have no intention of bringing forward such a measure. Scotland’s position as an integral part of the United Kingdom, with its own Parliament for devolved matters, remains the settled will of the people of Scotland.

The noble Earl has been in correspondencewith the Lord Chancellor on the sovereignty of the Scottish Parliament. He is quite right to point out that the union of the kingdoms and Parliaments of Scotland and England would be for Westminster. However, the Government believe that Scotland’s position within the United Kingdom, with its own Parliament for devolved matters should, as I have said, remain the settled will of the people of Scotland.

Today’s union may be a different union to that of 1707, but is made up of partner nations with a common history, common language and common cultures, which finds strength not only in these similarities but also in its diversity. It is a union that means together we punch well above our weight on the world stage, and with far greater effect than if we broke up the United Kingdom.

The United Kingdom Parliament is an institution that is self-governing and self-reforming. This Government are proud of their record of reforming our political institutions so that they are better able to do their jobs. We are proud that, since devolution, our institutions are more closely aligned with the people they serve and represent. These institutions reflect the wishes of the people of those countries to have a greater say and greater accountability for many of the issues that directly affect their day-to-day lives.

Devolution in Scotland and Wales is the integral part of this package. It was supported in a general election where the party proposing devolution won a convincing victory over those who supported independence and those who saw no need for change. Referendums, based on manifesto commitments, reinforced the idea that Scotland, in particular, saw the need for a devolved Parliament responsible for a wide range of domestic matters, but Scotland’s people also recognise the benefits of remaining part of the United Kingdom—economic stability, more people in employment and a focus on public service delivery; they also recognise the sense in doing certain things—foreign affairs, trade and industry, social security, employment and the constitution itself—at a UK level. Devolution is built on the retention of a United Kingdom Parliament where Scotland continues to play its part and this structure delivers the right balance between responsibility, accountability and representation.

But devolution has a wider purpose, which is to preserve the union so that the partner nations feel that they can give effect to their wishes and aspirations within the union. How could the union survive if its democratic institutions did not chime with its people? There have been four opportunities since 1997 for the people of Scotland to indicate that they are not happy with our existing forms of governance and they have resoundingly not done so in elections to Westminster or to the Scottish Parliament. The votes of the nationalist parties have remained in the minority, and the different settlements represent the different ways in which the people of Scotland and Wales want to articulate their relationship with the United Kingdom as a whole and with each of the partner nations.

The noble Lord suggests that a 500,000 signatory petition should be the method by which a referendum is triggered that unpicks this relationship, but the history of petitions shows us that they are perhaps not the most reliable of constitutional tools. I am sure noble Lords are aware that the signatures of Queen Victoria, Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington appeared on the Chartists’ final petition. I do not for one moment suggest the noble Earl is advocating fraud such as that, but the method is fraught with difficulty and open to abuse and challenge. How could we possibly justify the use of such a procedure to trigger a process that would have untold costs, monetary and otherwise?

I reaffirm the Government’s intention, in accordance with convention, to not seek to block the Bill. However, I very much hope that the noble Earl will not push it to a Second Reading, and force a change in the portraits at Dover House. He may wish to remember Thomas Carlyle’s warning:

“Painful for a person is rebellious independence, only in loving companionship with his associates does a person feel safe”.

The noble Earl’s Bill would be the first step towards the break up of a union in which this Government and, I believe, Parliament and the nation, have absolute faith. Throwing in the towel on a renewed partnership of Parliaments and peoples that has so much to offer is not a road to take.

My Lords, first, I thank the Public Bill Office and, in particular,Mr Nick Besly, for helping me to turn my ideas into something that could be presented to Parliament. I also thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate.

A recent poll by YouGov identified that 49 per cent of those who answered the poll in Scotland were in favour of political independence, whereas 41 per cent were against, leaving 8 per cent who did not know. Much more significantly, 80 per cent of the same sample believed that sovereignty should be decided as a single issue, not to be bundled into a general election; 12 per cent were against and 8 per cent did not know.

I am also aware that the maverick—I am sure that he will not mind being called that—ex-Conservative MSP Brian Monteith is currently proposing a referendum on the parliamentary union, believing that disarray among the independence movement would lead to the parliamentary union being retained for a generation. That is a wake-up call to the independence movement. My noble friend wondered about a bicameral parliament of Scotland. I very much doubt that that will happen. Personally, I want to adopt something akin to the Norwegian model, whereby the Storting divides itself into two Houses, the Lagting and the Odelsting, on occasion.

The Minister reminded me about the portrait that my great-grandfather gifted to the then Scottish Office in the 1920s. It is rather fine. However, I have six others—the man was clearly vain as well as many other things—and I can think of one more in Geneva. I would be very happy if that one was to remain in Dover House. There is something special about the idea that someone whom this Parliament arraigned for high treason should be—or his portrait should be—hanging in the office of the Secretary of State for Scotland.

I had hoped that we would have a littlediscussion about whether 500,000, or one-eighth of the population, was sufficient to trigger a referendum of this magnitude. I think that opinion is that it would need to be a slightly larger number. I was asked why I did not press forward to connect the Bill directly to a referendum. The answer is that I am trying to respect Westminster's concept of the supremacy of Parliament. This Parliament would have to decide to do it. This Parliament does not take orders from anyone—although on this issue, I might agree that it should.

As for fraud, in my initial drafts, I included in the provision for the petition that people had to submit not only their name and address—which is, apparently, all that the House of Commons requires for a petition—but their number on the electoral roll. That would be quite a test and would show how serious they were. You could not fob someone off on the doorstep by signing it to get rid of them, because you would need your electoral roll number. However, that is not part of the House of Commons procedure.

Obliquely, the issue of economics arose. One would not approach sovereignty based on an economic case. After all, we made a complete nonsense of joining the euro on that basis. People must want to do it or not. Looking around the North Atlantic, I can see only states that have broken away from unions and have prospered. So I conclude: is there a democratic pathway to political independence under the Crown? I do not think that we yet have one. I regard myself as a unionist—a person in favour of the Union of the Crowns—seeking a better settlement allowing Scotland a foreign policy.

To the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, I must say that there are three parties in Scotland actively seeking independence: the SNP, the Scottish Socialist Party and the Greens. Finally, I hope the House will give the Bill a Second Reading, bearing in mind that there is no Motion from me for an Order of Commitment.

On Question, Bill read a second time.