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UK: Union

Volume 731: debated on Thursday 3 November 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have any proposals to inform the public about the advantages of maintaining the union of the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Soley, said at Second Reading of the Scotland Bill that the United Kingdom,

“is one of the most effective political and economic unions that the world has ever seen”.—[Official Report, 6/9/11; col. 234.]

The Government wholeheartedly agree, and my ministerial colleagues and I will do all that we can to make the case for the United Kingdom. I also urge those who support this unique partnership to join the debate and promote its benefits.

I am very grateful for that Answer. Does the noble and learned Lord agree that this message needs to go out not just in Scotland but in England too? There is a very real danger to our nationalism and we need to get out the message that many states around the world envy our stable system, which has brought peace and prosperity to the United Kingdom and is a model for other countries. Does he also agree that this issue is not for any one party or any one part of the United Kingdom?

My Lords, I certainly agree that this is not for any one party or any one part of the United Kingdom. Judging by the response to my Answer and to the noble Lord’s Question, we all share a common interest in spelling out the merits for the union, which is of 304 years’ duration. I think the question the separatists have to answer is: why separate?

My Lords, if the Greeks can organise a referendum in four weeks, why should it take four years to organise one in Scotland? Is not the idea of the Scottish national Administration in Edinburgh organising a referendum on independence a bit like a plaintiff presiding over their own case in court when seeking a divorce? Would it not be more appropriate for the British Government and the British Parliament to take hold of this issue and to hold the referendum soon with one simple question: do you want Scotland to leave the United Kingdom?

My Lords, I certainly think that one simple question that focuses on whether Scotland should or should not be a part of the United Kingdom is key. We should avoid any attempt to muddy the waters—as I think one rather influential academic put it last week—in suggesting a second question. That is spot on. I do not think that that would bring the clarity that we need on an issue such as this. I assure my noble friend that United Kingdom government Ministers have been pressing the Scottish Government to come clean as to their timings and, more specifically, what they mean by independence. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland has posed a number of questions and we are still waiting for answers.

My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord accept that a point will come shortly where the uncertainty created by the Scottish situation will impact negatively on investment opportunities in Scotland? When will a proper pro-union argument be put firmly not only to people in Scotland but to people throughout the rest of the United Kingdom?

It is interesting that the noble Lord should mention the economic impact of the uncertainty. He may have seen a report published earlier this week by Citigroup on the very important issue of renewable energy, which made the point about the dangers of investing in Scotland while there is uncertainty about the future of the constitutional position of Scotland. The other side of that coin is that there are considerable benefits of a united kingdom in taking forward that agenda to ensure that we meet our climate change targets. It is not often that I have the opportunity to quote with approval a Daily Record editorial, but today it says:

“In the meantime, it's hard to disagree with pro-UK politicians who claim green energy is a great example of Scotland and the rest of the Britain working together”.

Does the Minister accept that one of the great strengths of the union of the United Kingdom is the way in which the Scots, the English, the Welsh and the Northern Irish have moved throughout that kingdom over the last three centuries? Do the Government take a position on Scots who do not currently live inside the boundaries of Scotland but may have an interest in a referendum that will determine their country’s future?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right to indicate that the flow of people throughout the United Kingdom is important. Many families in England have relations in Scotland and vice versa. That only underlines the important cultural and social ties as well as the economic and social benefits that flow from our United Kingdom. However, we have made it clear in the past that a referendum would be on the basis of the people living in Scotland at the time of that referendum.

Does my noble and learned friend agree that rather than being for the UK Government it should be for Alex Salmond and the SNP to spend some of their own time and money explaining what full independence really means? For example, is it not time that Alex Salmond told us how many military bases would remain in Scotland? How would he split the Scottish pension system from the UK system? Would he create an entirely new tax and benefits system for Scotland; and if, as he says, he wishes to retain sterling as Scotland’s currency, would EU membership allow this? If it would, what powers would he intend to have to instruct Mervyn King and the Bank of England on monetary issues, or would he just leave that to George Osborne?

By asking that question, my noble friend makes it very clear that the First Minister of Scotland and his party have a host of questions to answer, not least on the currency because there are even those who think that if Scotland wished to join the European Union it would be obliged to adopt the euro. Andrew Hughes Hallett, who is on the First Minister’s Council of Economic Advisers, indicated that, as was reported earlier this week. It would be rather odd. Some countries, but not many, adopt the currency of a foreign country but have no powers. It just underlines what a weak position Scotland would be in.

Could my noble and learned friend consider the idea of establishing an independent commission to look at the benefits of the union to the United Kingdom as a whole and the consequences of separation, given that the nationalists are determined to hold a referendum on independence, so that everyone can see what the consequences could be and what the facts are?

My noble friend makes a very interesting and very constructive suggestion. He will understand that I am not in a position to accede to it from this Dispatch Box, although I will consider it. In the mean time we will not wait for the setting up of any commission that might come along. We will continue to make the case for the United Kingdom.

My Lords, I can see that I am in a minority in this House. I want to press the Minister on the reply he gave a little earlier that he was fully in support of a single-question referendum in Scotland. If that was the case and there were a single-question referendum in Scotland and the people of Scotland voted yes, would his Government accept that as the outcome?

Well, my Lords, it would depend on what the question was. It is important that we have clarity on this. There is an idea that you could have two questions. For example, the First Minister has indicated that if what he describes as “devo max”—perhaps even less defined than independence—was to get 98 per cent of the vote and “independence” got 51 per cent, independence would trump devo max. I do not think that that is the sort of basis on which we should go into any referendum campaign.