I beg to move,
That this House has considered strengthening the Union.
The Prime Minister and the Government have said, time after time, that it is our responsibility and duty to govern for the whole of the United Kingdom. The UK Government are responsible for governing for the benefit of everyone in Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, but this reality is perhaps easy to forget. Devolution has changed the constitutional landscape of the United Kingdom, and with multiple Governments working across our four nations, it is perhaps easy to forget the value that this concept—this thing we call “the Union”—brings to us all, but the Prime Minister’s words show that this Union cannot and should not be taken for granted. It has always been of profound importance to all of us. It is central to our wellbeing, our security and our prosperity, as well as to who we are, whether we are from Scotland, Wales, England or Northern Ireland. It is a part of our identity as citizens of the United Kingdom, so I welcome this timely opportunity to discuss our Union of four nations.
I have the privilege of travelling regularly across the nations of the UK in my role as constitution Minister—I was also formerly a Minister in the Northern Ireland Office—and I see the strengths of our country. It is clear to me that delivering for all parts of the United Kingdom is—as it should be—at the heart of the Government’s approach. All parts of the UK need to work together to seize the opportunities of, for example, leaving the European Union. Being part of a bigger and stronger UK benefits all citizens in its four nations.
Perhaps the Minister can explain, then, why the former Foreign Secretary described Northern Ireland’s role in the Brexit process as
“the tail wagging the dog”
and sought to dismiss the serious concerns about the prospects of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, or indeed, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Perhaps she can explain why that was and dissociate the Government from those comments, now that the former Foreign Secretary has dissociated himself from the Government.
The hon. Gentleman did the job himself in the final few words of his intervention. I will look forward to some better ones as we go on.
Let me start with a few points on identity. The individual identities of each of the four nations remain strong. We could ask any of the millions of football fans who watched England’s endeavours in Russia about that. Each of us is proud of our distinct history and culture and our different traditions, but we also see this through amazing events such as the Royal Highland Show and the Royal Welsh Show—taking place later this week—which, of course, Cabinet Ministers attend and support.
Although our distinct identities are proudly held, perhaps particularly when we are watching sport, there is another set of values and ideas that unite us all, from Coleraine to Colchester and from Campbeltown to Caernarfon. The values of tolerance, democracy, equality and fairness are central to who we are as citizens of the United Kingdom. We may disagree over whether we prefer Scotch whishky—I mean whisky. It sounds as if I have already been on the whisky, Madam Deputy Speaker! Let me start that sentence again. I am going to attempt to get through a sentence that compares Scotch whisky to English ale, to Northern Irish scones, to Welsh cakes—I may well get to the end of that sentence with a cheer from the House. Whichever one of us has the better cakes or drink, or the more noble history, we are united in our deeper beliefs, democratic traditions and our long history of working as one to benefit us all. When we come together as one people, we benefit from the security and stability that comes from being one of the largest economies in the world, pooling risks and sharing benefits.
The Minister talks about benefiting all, but as she is aware, the UK is the most unequal state in the European Union, with inner London by the far the richest part of the EU while the communities that I represent are among the poorest, yet in Government figures published in the last few weeks, public expenditure per head in London is higher than in Wales. Why is that fair?
The hon. Gentleman highlights an important point that we will have the opportunity to consider when we look at issues such as leaving the European Union and how we will address, for example, agriculture support across our nation. The point I was making is that we are a larger economy when we are together as a Union, and that means we can do things together in a more effective way for all our constituents.
I speak as a proud Unionist, and I am very much in favour of the Union. The Minister must understand, however, that there are considerable concerns about Brexit and the Government’s long-term plan for regional continued development, which benefits my constituency enormously—structural funding, for example, and agricultural funding. Those uncertainties are not helping to keep the Union together. On direct funding to Wales, she has to accept that cutting electrification to Swansea from Cardiff and not supporting the tidal lagoon does not give us enormous confidence about this Government investing in Wales and its communities.
I am sure that we will come on to all those points during the debate. However, the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards) were right to raise them, because it is in recognition of such issues that the Government plan to create a shared prosperity fund for the whole of the United Kingdom. We share those goals; we share those opportunities.
I am sure that many Members from all over the United Kingdom will point to the inequalities and the lack of growth in some parts of our economy, but does not being part of the United Kingdom mean that fiscal transfers from parts of the UK that generate more revenue than others help Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland, and many English regions?
That is precisely my point. When we see what we can do as a larger economy—when we see how we can attract the finest and the best across the UK economy —we also see that we are in a position to put that back into public services, including the NHS and many other services that are admired around the world, and which work together to make everyone’s lives better. That is true throughout the Union.
I must make a few more moments of progress. We have a full debate ahead of us on the strengths of the Union.
Let me say something about the shared economy and the strong internal market, which is one of our biggest strengths, and which is important for all our prosperity. The UK internal market is, of course, the vital first market of the UK. As one of the largest economies in the world, we buy and sell among our nations, and that creates wealth and jobs for every part of the UK.
As we leave the EU, we must protect the benefits of the UK domestic market. We are a world leader in financial services, defence technology, car production, food and drink, digital technology, energy, music, films and television, and all parts of the UK have their role to play in those world-leading industries. Scotland’s exports to the rest of the UK are worth four times more than those to the EU, and 56% of Northern Ireland’s external sales are to the rest of the UK. We as a Government are committed to strengthening these links between the economies of our nations. For example, between England and Wales we are abolishing the Severn bridge tolls and investing in cross-border railway links such as the Halton curve. Let us not forget how many people cross our internal borders every day as part of normal life. As the Prime Minister pointed out during her speech in Northern Ireland on Friday, our Union is rooted in both our history and our collective achievements, but it is our future together that is our greatest strength.
I am very grateful to the Minister—and may I compliment her on her rather fine Sean Connery impression earlier in her speech?
The Minister has just reeled off a list of service industries in this country, which, of course, are not covered by the Chequers agreement. What analysis has her Department conducted of how much the UK’s GDP will be reduced as a result of that agreement?
I do not think the hon. Gentleman can have been listening when I included, for example, car production and food and drink in my list, but the point is that the Chequers agreement seeks to secure the best deal for the whole UK economy, together. That covers both goods and services in different ways—in ways that will complement our strengths—but it also returns us to the key point about the whole UK economy, together.
Let me now say something about the industrial strategy. It is a vital part of the plan set out by the Prime Minister to drive growth across the whole UK, and to create more highly skilled, highly paid jobs and opportunities. It is intended to address the long-term structural challenges that can hold British businesses back, while building on the country’s strengths. New sector deals and investment and research and development will support the industries of the future where the UK has the potential to lead the world, from electric vehicles to biotech and quantum technologies.
It is important that we continue to look to the future. As was announced earlier this month, a £2.5 million grant has been awarded for a spaceport site in Sutherland, on the north coast of Scotland. That the first ever satellite launch from the UK could be from Scottish soil highlights our commitment to investing in all parts of the UK, and there are other launch sites too, such as those planned in Cornwall, Glasgow and Snowdonia, which will also be boosted by a new £2 million development fund. The UK is set to build on its world-leading expertise in aerospace with the development of these spaceports.
On the city and growth deals, we are supporting clusters of cultural and economic strength concentrated in places throughout the UK, and we want to see city and growth deals across the four nations to ensure that prosperity is shared across the UK. We have already seen important investments in a number of deals such as Cardiff, Glasgow and Swansea, as well as investment in other important cultural work such as the V&A in Dundee. Further deals are being developed. We have recently announced the Stirling and Clackmannanshire city region deal, and negotiations have been opened on the north Wales growth deal and with the Belfast city region partners. These deals make a vital contribution to local economies and, as I have said, provide jobs and growth across the UK. There is more, of course. In Cardiff, we have invested in the development of a compound semiconductor industry cluster, and in Aberdeen we opened the oil and gas technology centre with an investment of £180 million, which will unlock the full potential of the North sea and anchor the supply chain in north-east Scotland.
Transport and connectivity are also crucial themes. As we support clusters of growth across the Union we must be connected geographically through our transport and infrastructure links. The expansion of Heathrow will help with this, creating hundreds of additional flights per week from London to the nations and regions across the UK, with new routes emerging to support our economic co-operation. As well as the importance of being connected geographically, the Government recognise that world-class digital connectivity is essential for the modern world; it is essential to people at work and at home and we are committed to improving that across the UK. We are investing over £1 billion to stimulate the market to build the next generation of infrastructure that the UK needs for the future through both the national productivity investment fund and the digital infrastructure investment fund.
Turning to international benefits, the strength in our unity of nations is demonstrated by our common voice on the international stage. We use our seat at the top international organisations to protect the interests of all parts of the UK, to influence issues that matter to people in the UK, and to make the world a better place. When we faced an attack on our citizens, we worked with countries around the world to respond. We use our influence to pursue issues that matter to people across the UK: leading the way on international aid, leading global action to tackle landmines, stopping the trade in ivory, and combating modern slavery. People across the UK can be proud of the role we can play because we are together in our international approach.
That international standing is also vital to the security of our country. Our UK defence expertise and excellence is joined up across the UK and has been built up across decades, from new radar stations in Shetland and Cornwall, to Scottish-built aircraft carriers based in Portsmouth, fast jet response aircraft in Lossiemouth and Lincolnshire, the SAS in Hereford, GCHQ in Cheltenham and the Royal Marines commandos in Arbroath. This is one very large UK defence network protecting us all at home and abroad. And we are spending across the country to be able to keep the whole UK safe. In the last financial year the Ministry of Defence spent £1.6 billion with Scottish industry and commerce, while a recent review found that defence invests £945 million in Welsh industry. The spectacular fly-past we saw only last month as part of the Royal Air Force’s 100th anniversary celebrations reminds us of the work of all our armed forces, who are drawn from, and based across, the whole of the United Kingdom. We saw the same at last month’s Armed Forces Day in Llandudno; it was a proud display of Wales’s military association, while the Edinburgh Tattoo demonstrates Scotland’s strong relationship with the military.
I am also proud that the UK Government recently announced that we will reimburse thousands of military personnel who would otherwise be negatively affected by the devolved Government’s income tax increases in Scotland. This protects nearly three quarters of all armed forces personnel liable for Scottish income tax and will help with recruitment and retention for our important armed forces.
May I take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on the ninth anniversary of her election to this place? Perhaps that is why the whisky and the cake were getting muddled up in her mouth—maybe she has been celebrating early. On the point about the UK Government mitigating the “nat tax” in Scotland, does she agree that it was important for my constituents at RAF Lossiemouth and at Kinloss barracks that the UK Government did something to address the fact that the Scottish National party has made Scotland the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom, which was having a negative impact on recruitment and retention for our armed forces in Scotland?
I confess that I am not in possession of that information, and I am not in a position to give the hon. Gentleman the answer to that question right now. I wonder whether the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), might be able to assist with that a little later in the debate.
I want to move on to the importance of devolution, which is a matter of interest to us all. Our powerful devolved Governments and Parliaments are important elements of our Union’s strength. The Union is best maintained by giving the different nations of the UK the ability to pursue their own domestic policies while protecting and preserving the benefits of being part of that bigger UK family of nations. The UK Government respect devolution as an exercise in better governance and as a way to bring the delivery of services closer to the people who need them, while making use of the benefits of scale across our four nations. Since 1998, the Government have transferred powers to ensure that they sit where they can most effectively be delivered, and the Scotland Act 2016 transferred a wide range of powers to the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament. The Wales Act 2017 has delivered clarity for Welsh devolution and accountability for the Welsh Government, meeting the commitments that we made in the St David’s day agreement. Devolution in real terms makes a difference to people’s lives across the UK.
Northern Ireland makes a major contribution to the Union, and also derives great benefits from it. The principle of sharing the economic and political strengths of the Union continues to serve the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, and we are working each day to ensure that that remains so. The principles that define Northern Ireland’s place as an integral part of the United Kingdom are of course enshrined in the Belfast agreement and its successor agreements.
Northern Ireland suffered from 40 years of terrorism at the hands of those who wished to overturn the democratic wishes of the people of Northern Ireland. Will the Minister accept that one of the benefits of the Union was that the people of Northern Ireland did not have to stand alone against that terrorist threat but were able to bring to bear all the powers of the security arrangements that were available in the United Kingdom in order to defeat terrorism? Was not that an important benefit of the Union?
Yes, I think that is right. The right hon. Gentleman also reminds us of the importance of the principle of consent that is there in the Belfast agreement—namely, that the UK Government govern for the benefit of all communities in Northern Ireland on the principle of consent.
I am sure the Minister recognises the contribution of the people in uniform in Northern Ireland. Conscription was never needed, because people volunteered, and Northern Ireland has the biggest levels of recruitment across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We have the largest number of recruits to the Territorial Army reserves of anywhere in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This is a sure example of our contribution to the greater nation in uniform, whether in the Army, the Royal Navy or the Royal Air Force.
I join the hon. Gentleman and everyone in the House in paying tribute to those who serve this country in uniform. We should never forget them.
Let me return to my point about the Belfast agreement, which was reached 20 years ago and was a landmark moment in the history of our islands. The UK Government’s priority is to ensure that it remains as relevant today as it should be, and to restore the devolved institutions at Stormont. All efforts are being made in the hope that an accommodation can be reached and an Executive formed, so that Northern Ireland Ministers can take key decisions. Successive UK and Irish Governments, together with all the parties in Northern Ireland, worked tirelessly to bring about the historic achievement of peace. Let us continue that work.
As hon. Members will know, EU exit will result in a further significant increase in the decision-making powers of the devolved Administrations.
On the new powers that will come to the Scottish Government in particular, it has never been more important that the UK Government, the Scottish Government and all the devolved Administrations work very closely together. What we have seen over the past year, at least in my estimation, is that there are, at times, chasms that divide the UK Government and the devolved Administrations. The machinery to bring those different Governments together seems to be inadequate. Does the Minister agree? Is that something to which the Government will attend?
Mr Speaker—[Interruption.] I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker. I have clearly had yet more of that whisky—I keep referring to you as “Mr Speaker.”
Madam Deputy Speaker, my hon. Friend makes two important points. First, he says that we need to be able to come together as a single United Kingdom to make sure that our UK internal market continues to function and continues to bring the benefits that are needed across the internal borders of our country. He also looks ahead to my points about how we can relate to each other in the governmental work we need to do to get people those benefits, as new responsibilities transfer to Edinburgh, Cardiff and, once an Executive are formed, Belfast.
Our commitment to bringing powers closer to people can be seen in the major steps already taken to decentralise governance in the UK, creating new combined authorities in seven city regions, headed by elected Mayors, and devolving to them new powers and budgets. There are Mayors, of course, across England—in Greater Manchester, the west midlands, the Liverpool city region, Tees valley, the west of England, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough, and Sheffield city—and they demonstrate how local, visible and innovative leadership can be key to building stronger economies and fairer societies.
English votes for English laws, meanwhile, embeds fairness and balance in Parliament’s law-making process, strengthening England’s voice just as devolution has strengthened the voices of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland within our Union. These measures are about accountability, effectiveness and empowering institutions to take action to make things better for the people to whom they are accountable.
The Minister has very conveniently skipped over Brexit. Over the weekend we learned that a no deal Brexit is now likely. For Scotland that could mean conditions akin to a state of emergency, with “Protect and Survive”-type leaflets being given to families and businesses. How does that help to strengthen her Union?
It is not my Union but the entire country’s Union. It is something we should be proud of; it is something we should cherish and protect; and it is something we should work together to protect. People in all our constituencies do best from the internal market of the United Kingdom, and it is that which we are seeking to protect and cherish as we leave the European Union and as we go out into the world to seek additional trade.
We are committed to ensuring that our system of devolution, which has progressed over the past few decades, serves to strengthen our Union and that a voice is afforded to each part of the United Kingdom. We have worked with colleagues in the devolved Administrations to strengthen the mechanisms for intergovernmental co-ordination and collaboration.
I chair a new ministerial forum, along with my colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr Walker), with the purpose of providing opportunities for meaningful discussion of the UK’s negotiating position with the EU. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster regularly meets the leaders of the devolved Administrations through the Joint Ministerial Committee on European negotiations.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way again. There can be no more important document on the current negotiating strategy than the White Paper that was published the week before last. Is it not the case that the Welsh Government had sight of that document only a matter of hours before the British Government gave it to the press?
I am not going to comment on individual documents here. The forum I chair, and the JMC structure more broadly, operate on a close working principle. We seek to improve it; we seek for it to be better in the future. We have held a number of very effective meetings in the last while—more than perhaps in the recent period just before that—because we recognise the challenge of these times and we want to have that close working and co-operation together.
The governance of the Union is also about learning from each other. Whether it is the UK Government or a devolved Administration that get policy right, we can all share our experiences, note our mistakes and learn our lessons together; as a Union, we can help each other to serve our people. This Government are fiercely proud of our Union. We will continue to defend it and to strengthen it. We believe that the UK has a bright future as an independent nation outside the EU. This Government will work to invest in all parts of the UK, for the benefit of everyone. By working together, we can help to tackle some of the world’s great injustices and ensure a safer world. As the Prime Minister said on Friday, we are:
“A union not just of nations, but of peoples bound by a common purpose, whoever we are and wherever we are from”.
This Government are working towards
“a brighter future for us all, where we put aside past divisions and work as one to meet the challenges and seize the opportunities that lie ahead”.
I look forward to this afternoon’s debate, which I believe will be an insightful discussion on a very important matter.
Today’s debate is on “Strengthening the Union”, so I am going to start by talking about that concept and the ties that bind our Union together. Working together, our family of nations has achieved great things for the many and not just the few, and when we are once again united in common purpose, under a Labour Government, I know we will do great things again. Our shared history includes wartime courage, facing down fascism, building homes fit for heroes and the creation of the national health service—
I am indeed a proud Unionist. I am also a very proud Scot. Having supported and competed for my country, I can honestly say I can wear both jerseys with pride.
Our shared history also includes the national health service, whose 70th anniversary we proudly celebrated earlier this year, and the commitment to looking after our people from the cradle to the grave. Sadly, those are not the sort of sunlit uplands some of the parties represented here today are interested in ever leading us to again. Given the recent actions and behaviour of many here today, it is opportune that we are today talking about strengthening the Union. I have to say, however, the irony will not be lost on many that the Tories have initiated this debate. I say that because the nationalist Government in Edinburgh and the nationalist Government here in London are both clear threats to the unity that has historically given this country the strength to work together and which will, under Labour, provide the strength to do so again.
The Scottish National party is explicit in its aim of destroying that Union, but the case for co-operation is greater than any case put forward on separation. The Tories profess to be defending it, while all the time pursuing a narrow, nasty agenda that is tearing us apart. As the late John Smith warned a generation ago, there are two parties
“sawing away at the legs that support the Union”.
The people have not changed, but the politics they are being offered has. With so much at stake, why continue to indulge in Punch and Judy politics? We see the posturing in phoney indignation, walkouts and manufactured grievance. We see the undermining of democracy through a pay-per-view deal with the Democratic Unionist party, the not keeping promises on pairing—
We hear a lot about SNP Members coming up with grievances. When the hon. Lady looks at the state of how the Government govern, is she not as aggrieved as I am at things such as the poverty—the institutional and historical poverty—that cripples her constituency and mine because of this Government?
Of course I am absolutely appalled by the levels of poverty, but I also recognise that the Scottish Government have many powers in their armoury to address that, and with cuts to local government of 9.6% there is clearly opportunity for both Governments to improve their track record in that regard.
Brexit is burning and the Tories are doing what they have done for decades: ripping each other apart on Europe, fighting for personal power and getting ready to get rid of yet another Prime Minister who does not suit the Brexiteers. So when the Labour party talks about strengthening the Union, that starts with this nation’s biggest asset—its people. It is that higher purpose, that focus on our citizens, that drives our ethos. Across these islands we are united in our abhorrence of the Windrush scandal and the Prime Minister’s “hostile environment”. Across these islands we are united in our condemnation of the failed austerity agenda, with 1.3 million people forced to rely on food banks. Across these islands we are united in our condemnation of the callous and cruel juggernaut of universal credit, which is flattening communities and breaking hearts and spirits wherever it touches.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. We are aware that many studies now show that many people using food banks are in employment. Clearly, with low wages and low flexi hours, we see that this is not an economy that is working for the many.
Across these islands we are united in our disgust at the behaviour of politicians who put fear of losing a Commons vote above respect for an opponent who is ill or on maternity leave. Ultimately, politics is about values and choice, and our choices show and tell what we value. Madam Deputy Speaker, you have to say the Tories have some front in bringing forward this debate. The Tories should be in the dock for aiding and abetting the nationalists’ attempts to destroy the common bond that unites working people across the UK. The charge sheet includes the catastrophe that is universal credit, the degrading of the terminally ill with ongoing work assessments, the rising reliance on food banks, the increase in child and pensioner poverty, and the repulsive rape clause. While these policies continue to have a cruel impact on the lives of ordinary people the length and breadth of the UK, it is clear that the Tories are guilty of laying the foundations for the politics of the nationalists, which they will always aim to exploit.
Does the hon. Lady not think this is slightly hypocritical, given that her colleagues in the Scottish Parliament voted with the SNP on its continuity Bill, and that the Labour party in Scotland and across the UK would be standing up to strengthen the Union if it did not follow the SNP and vote with it?
The hon. Gentleman has just illustrated his own point, which is that the basis of evolution allows different parties in different countries to reach different solutions. [Interruption.] Where has the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) been all these years?
The charge sheet includes the catastrophe that is universal credit, the degrading of the terminally ill with ongoing work assessments, the rising reliance on food banks, the increase in child and pensioner poverty, and the repulsive rape clause.
I did. It was worth repeating. While these policies continue to have a cruel impact on the lives of ordinary people the length and breadth of the UK, it is clear that the Tories are guilty of laying the foundations of a policy of division that the nationalists will exploit. They will promote their holy grail, no matter the turbo-charged austerity that it would unleash on the Scottish people.
I wish to make some progress.
In recent weeks, we have been presented with the evidence of what the SNP’s plans for separation would really cost. The nationalists promised Scotland a growth commission, but in reality they have delivered a cuts commission. The people of Scotland simply cannot afford another wasted decade under the mantra of deficit reduction.
The SNP’s document speaks for itself; not only that, but there are many commentators who have something to say about it, too. I also note that the SNP failed to consult trade unions on its document—I am sure the hon. Gentleman is extremely disappointed about that.
My hon. Friend has made a pertinent point about the economic benefits of the Union to the Scottish economy. Perhaps that was why the SNP ran fleeting from the full fiscal autonomy proposal for the independence referendum—because it entailed significant turbo-charged austerity. Does my hon. Friend also agree that the growth commission’s fiscal and monetary proposals would result in an extra £40 billion of foreign exchange reserves having to be raised, which would entail turbo-charged austerity for the Scottish economy?
My hon. Friend raises a very good point. Economic analysis makes clear that the sums that the SNP proposes to inflict on the Scottish people simply do not add up.
The nationalists promised a Scotland growth commission, but it was a cuts commission. As confirmed by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the cuts commission would lead to further public spending cuts, with the plans looking remarkably like an extension of the current policy in the UK. The cuts commission claims to offer a
“clear sighted analysis of the prospectus for independence”,
but it is a prospectus based on a hard decade of public spending contraction, comparable only to the cuts implemented by George Osborne. Then we have the proposal of a £5 billion annual solidarity payment to the UK Treasury, which is not far off the Scottish Government’s combined budget for education and justice.
That is a prospectus for independence built not on sovereignty regained, but more accurately on sovereignty lost over policy relating to interest rates, mortgage rates, exchange rates, inflation, money supply and corporation tax. It is based on an economic model that relies heavily on foreign direct investment, large multinational corporations and labour market flexicurity, with no plan to develop the proper industrial strategy needed to provide the high-quality, well-paid jobs that our people desperately require. No wonder the First Minister’s commission consulted 20 business organisations but not a single trade union. That is not the kind of future the people of Scotland want. The people of Scotland want the growth problems in our NHS, education, housing and the economy fixed.
Let me be clear: only Labour, just like always, has a plan to provide the investment that will fix the countless problems created by the Tories and that have seamlessly been implemented by the SNP in Edinburgh. It is Labour that will ensure that the fabric of the UK is strong once again, by investing in a society that works for the many, not the few. It is Labour that will protect people in the workplace and create the opportunities needed for young people. People will not get that from the Tories, whose policies have led to an increase in precarious work and zero-hours contracts.
That is certainly not the case. Having worked in the financial services sector at that time, I know—and everyone who works there knows—that it was down to mismanagement of the subprime mortgage market. It is a global crisis and the hon. Gentleman should get out a bit more and read about it. It is Labour that will ensure that the fabric of the UK is strong once again, by investing in a society for the many, not the few.
I wish to make some progress.
It is Labour that will protect people in the workplace and create the opportunities needed for young people. People will not get that from the Tories nor from the SNP, which continues, incredibly, to count zero-hours contracts as a positive destination for school leavers. It is a Labour Government who will ban zero-hours contracts and deliver an industrial strategy to create high-quality, high-skilled jobs. It is Labour that will always respect devolution, unlike the Tories, who at every turn during the Brexit negotiations have simply ignored Scotland’s devolution settlement, while the SNP’s opportunism has sought to sow division and discord.
Britain needs Labour and our approach, which recognises and respects all the nations of the UK. We will continue to stand up for and protect the devolution settlement, which we, the Labour party, founded.
This debate is about the Union and the constitution. I thought that Labour’s great innovation was a UK-wide constitutional convention, where Scotland will be a federal part of a new arrangement. Is that still Labour’s policy, and if so, could the hon. Lady talk a little bit about it?
The hon. Gentleman is right: that was in our manifesto and we will continue to work on it, because we believe it is the next evolution of devolution.
Britain needs investment, and only Labour will deliver. It cannot afford any more of the Tory version of austerity that we have experienced for almost a decade, with millions needing food banks, or SNP timidity, which acts as a conveyor belt for Tory austerity, with millions more cut from Scottish public services without so much as a whimper. It is Labour that has a vision of renewal, transformation and shared prosperity, with an additional investment of £70 billion in Scotland over the course of two successive Labour Governments.
Even on the simple things, this Tory Government cannot get it right. Only last week, Scotland’s invisible man in the Cabinet, the Secretary of State for Scotland—I note that he is not here today—missed another opportunity to show leadership and solidarity with the residents and businesses displaced by the fire at the Glasgow School of Art, by failing to push for UK Government assistance. That was an open goal, yet the Secretary of State put the ball over the bar once again, with a mealy mouthed response and, like so many of his colleagues before him, telling local government to take the strain.
Nature abhors a vacuum, and what fills it too often these days is narrow nationalism, petty jealousies and grievance. It is hardly surprising that we are missing opportunities to strengthen our Union when the Tories clearly do not understand devolution, never mind believe in it. And they are sleepwalking into a nationalist trap, because their instinct is to pass the buck, while the Scottish Government’s instinct is to draw powers from Whitehall and hoard them in Edinburgh, undermining local government at every turn.
Devolution is a process, not an event, and I am clear that those powers must be devolved all the way to the point where they can most effectively be delivered. To make a difference, politics must be about vision. It must be about ideas and how they can be fulfilled. It must be about the vision of how life can be made better for every household and community in the land.
In our 118-year history, the Labour party has been in government for only a little over 30 years, but every one of those years saw a Government for the many, not the few, and strengthened the Union by giving people hope—hope that, by the strength of our common endeavour, whether it be in Cumnock, Coleraine, Cardiff or Croydon, we achieve more together than we achieve alone. That is the way to strengthen our Union. Labour today, like Labour in the past, has a vision that will benefit all our people—men and women from the north, the south, Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
I say respectfully to Government Members: your ineptitude, selfishness and brand of politics have played into the hands of those opportunists on the SNP Benches. Do the Union a favour. Do the country a favour. Do the millions of people whose lives are worse off under this rotten Government a favour and move over and allow Labour to govern and to invest in our people, our communities, our public services and our industries, and in the process, to strengthen our Union via the ties that bind our people together through a vision of sharing, equality and opportunity for all.
It is a real treat to be able to speak in the Chamber. As a Member who is not particularly frightened of his own voice, I have kept remarkably quiet during this term, largely owing to the hard work of the HS2 Select Committee. The hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield), who is in his place, has also been putting his shoulder to the wheel to ensure that that railway line does one thing that strengthens the Union, which is to draw the north and the south closer together. I have plenty of reservations about it, but that, I think, is an outstanding quality.
I am particularly thrilled to be able to speak today, because one thing that I find so powerful about the Union is that it is in our DNA. My grandmother was a Power and was born in an Irish whiskey distillery of that name. My mother is Scottish, and I am very proud to wear the Davidson tartan, particularly the hunting tartan as it makes a very smart tie indeed. My constituency is, of course, how Walt Disney would have portrayed England if he had had the chance: truly beautiful and wonderful in every way. It grows every single crop that UK farmers around the country can produce; Herefordshire is the only county that grows them all. Then, of course, there are my own choices.
We have just noticed that the Government Front-Bench spokesperson has scuttled out of the Chamber without listening to all of the Front-Bench speakers in this debate. It was the Government who called this debate. They could have called it on anything else, but they chose to focus on strengthening the Union. We now no longer have a Front-Bench spokesperson to listen to the Front-Bench speeches. Surely that is not in order; there should be somebody there.
I quite agree, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was at the critical moment when I was about to discuss my affection for Wales.
I chose to join that finest regiment in the British Army, the Royal Welsh Fusiliers, now more helpfully called the Royal Welsh, when I went to university in Bangor in north Wales. There you have it: a British person through and through—Irish, Scottish, Welsh and indeed English. We make a huge mistake in this place when we divide among ourselves. After all, what did God put France there for? But no, we must stick together. It is our unity and our respect for one another that is most important.
I urge the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Lesley Laird) to pay careful attention to this. There are only two types of MP in this House: those who care about their constituents and those who do not. Those who care about their constituents, in whatever part of the Chamber they may sit, are well worthy of the respect that we would expect to have shown to ourselves. They stand up for their constituents, and all we question is how right or wrong they may be. I will defend to the death any colleague who believes in their constituents and in their right to be heard. If ever there is any doubt in Members’ minds about how important this place is to the strength of our Union, they should look at the one party that refuses to turn up. Members of that party will not take the Oath and they do not want the United Kingdom united. We should be judged by our enemies, by people who do not turn up, and by why they do not turn up—because this is our place where we can come together, where we can unify.
Now that is more like a bit of parliamentary humour, but the hon. Gentleman knows exactly who I mean.
In ancient Greek, there is the word “agape”, which means love. It is a different sort of love from that which we may feel for our husband or wife, or indeed for our brother and sister, or for our country, our constituency or some of our more obscure constituents. I argue that having different words for that affection may well increase our vocabulary, but the strength of our language is that one word encompasses everything that we care about. Therefore, it is vital that we defend our country, our Parliament and our relationship with our constituents. For that reason, I urge the BBC to look again at the cuts to the Parliament channel. It is trying to save only £1.5 million, and it would be so much better if it took that from the money that it is giving to local democracy reporting services. Up to £8 million a year is being given to three very large private companies, which have, so far, managed to fill only 115 of the 145 placements. I am asking not for more money from the BBC, but for an opportunity to strengthen the Union by ensuring that our constituents not only see what we do here, but have it explained to them through the various commentaries that the BBC provides.
Locally, the Act of Union that concerns us is not that of 1707, important though it is, but an even older Act of Union—the 1536 Union of England and Wales. On the Welsh borders, a person does not even have to see anything to know when they have crossed over from England into Wales, because the noise from the wheels of their car goes quiet as they move on to the beautiful, manicured Welsh roads—faultless and pothole-free. This drives my constituents to distraction, because on our side of the border the holes are huge. We need to do a great deal more on that. I have not yet stood up in this House without making an attempt to ensure that Herefordshire gets its fair share, because we have the most roads per capita of any county in the United Kingdom. More must be done. However, when people say that to me, I point out that they would not want to be on a Welsh health waiting list—so much so that people from Wales are popping over the border to secure an English address simply to get life-saving cancer treatment that is not available under the NHS in Wales.
There are great challenges to our country. There are great people in it, including all the Members here who care about their constituents. There is a great love and passion within all of us to ensure that we have the best future not just for our children and grandchildren, but for each part of the Union. I hate it when I hear colleagues bickering among themselves about their bit of the United Kingdom. We are so much greater than that. We do not have to go very far back in history to be reminded of that. I therefore ask Members to respect one another. I am not always innocent in that department. I have been teasing the editor of my local paper, and he has very little sense of humour and responds savagely at every opportunity. However, this is another chance for him to try to heal those wounds.
Let us go forward with a stronger Union as we face the negotiations and as we fight for the best possible outcome for the British people, and let us do that with respect for one another.
First, let me congratulate the Government on being so efficient at managing their legislative programme that they have been able to find a full day for a debate on this issue on the penultimate day of the parliamentary term. I had hoped that, today, we might come and find some new Government statement, some new policy, or something that would demonstrate the Government’s desire to strengthen the Union between our countries, or that, perhaps, we might take a moment to reflect on what has happened over recent months and years with the debate on Brexit and the effect that that may have had on the strength or otherwise of the Union, but alas I am disappointed.
I have to say that if there is anyone on the Government Benches who believes that the Brexit process has done anything to strengthen the Union, they are wildly deluding themselves. The manner in which it is being executed has demonstrated a lack of will to engage with other countries on these islands as equal partners. Moreover, the fact of its execution means that it challenges the central tenet on which the Union is based, which is that the people of Scotland will be better able to make their way in this world by hitching their fortunes to those of their large neighbour to the south. That is now in question like never before.
I want to focus on the debate between those who propose a self-governing, independent Scotland and those who suggest that Scotland should remain part of the Union with Britain. I will look at the role that devolution plays in that argument, because it is not straightforward. There are many Unionists who say that devolution is a means of strengthening the Union and there are others who see it as the thin end of the wedge. There are many people who believe in independence who embrace devolution as a step and a process; there are others who see it as a distraction from arguing for independence. In fact, it has not always been just one party or one part of the political spectrum that has advocated these changes.
In 1853 an organisation called the National Association for the Vindication of Scottish Rights was established, explicitly to argue for administrative devolution within the Union. Despite its name this association was launched by and comprised Conservative Members of the House of Lords and those in academia. It had a small existence of only three years, but the ideas that it raised led directly to the Liberal Government of 1885 introducing the role of the Secretary of State for Scotland and establishing the Scottish Office. That was a process of administrative devolution that was not proposed by anyone in my party or anyone who would have supported those views at the time.
Allow me to cut to the 1920s and to a man called John MacCormick, who is a very interesting character in this story. MacCormick starts life in the Labour party. He then goes on to be what we would probably regard as the architect of bringing together various groups to form what becomes the Scottish National party in 1934, and he serves for eight years as its national secretary. After 1942, he goes on—not once, not twice, but three times—to stand for election to this place as a Liberal candidate at general elections. But MacCormick’s greatest contribution to this whole debate was to raise the Scottish Covenant, which proclaimed for the first time ever that there should be an elected assembly in Scotland within the Union. Now, that covenant—signed in 1949 in the General Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland on the Mound in Edinburgh—had attracted in excess of 2 million signatures among a population of 5 million people, but MacCormick found that nobody would present this position to Parliament. In fact, it was left to Unionist party Members of the House of Lords to raise the debate about the covenant and to call for a royal commission to look at the question of devolution within the Union. I am not making this up; this is what really happened.
The amazing thing about the 1950s is the disconnect between those sentiments among the population—2 million people signing the covenant—and the opinions of the Scottish representatives in this place. In fact, in the 1955 election only one Scottish MP out of 71—Jo Grimond, who represented Orkney and Shetland—in any way supported devolution or home rule. Every other Member of Parliament was implacably opposed to it. There was a massive disconnect between what the people wanted and what their representatives were actually saying.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way during his comments about a massive disconnect between what the people want and what their representatives are speaking about. As he knows, Scotland had a democratic referendum in 2014, when the vast majority of people rejected the SNP’s separatist agenda, yet SNP Members—in Holyrood and here—continue to speak about what we were told would be a “once in a generation” event.
If the hon. Gentleman bears with me, I am coming to that. I was in 1955 just there, but let me jump to the 1960s.
In the 1960s, things change and two things come together. [Interruption.] Conservative Members might want to listen and learn. The first thing is that this country —Great Britain—begins a process of rapid decolonisation. It is a new world. Suddenly, rather than the notion of an independent Scotland being something that looks backward romantically to history, it actually becomes something that can embrace what is happening in the contemporary here and now, with the emergence of new nation states throughout the world. The second thing that happens is that those who argue for Scottish independence understand and focus on the need to achieve electoral change at the ballot box, and the thing that kicks off a period of half a century of change is Winnie Ewing’s election in November 1967.
Then we have a process of half a century of dissent being manifest electorally, at the ballot box, and the state responding to that at every step of the way. The Kilbrandon report is established in response to the events of 1967. It takes forever to come up with its proposals, but it does so in 1973, suggesting elected assemblies for Wales and Scotland. In 1974, we have the election of 11 SNP MPs, which terrifies the then incoming Labour Government.
The hon. Gentleman is a fine speaker in this Chamber, but I am not quite so sure that he can read my mind. Maybe he can.
Those 11 SNP MPs elected in 1974 voted with the Conservatives in 1979 to bring in 18 years of Conservative government that decimated Scotland. Will the hon. Gentleman get on to that point?
I was coming to exactly that point, as it happens.
The Labour Wilson-Callaghan Government then introduce the Scotland Act 1978, although it takes them four years to get that Act through, for some unknown reason. We then have the referendum of 1979, in which the people of Scotland vote to set up a Scottish Parliament. But that is frustrated because of an amendment to the legislation by a Labour Member of Parliament that requires 40% of the total electorate to vote in favour, otherwise the decision will not pass.
The Labour Administration, in the midst of economic chaos in the spring of 1979, had the opportunity to go ahead and legislate with the will of the Scottish people expressed at the ballot box, but they declined to do so. Given that the Administration were on their last legs, the SNP MPs decided to withhold confidence from them. In retrospect, I would have done exactly the same thing. SNP MPs did not vote to usher in 18 years of—
I thank the hon. Gentleman. As he said, in 1979 we get the introduction of the Thatcher Government, and we begin a process of polarisation and of nothing happening in this constitutional debate. Meanwhile, people are preparing, organising and advocating the cause of Scottish self-government. In 1989, we have the establishment and the declaration of the claim of right, which I note from our debate in this Chamber two or three weeks ago that every party in this place now supports. That is encouraging because they did not, of course, at the time.
We then have the situation whereby the Labour party essentially adopts the process of devolution. Whereas it had previously been a controversial matter, now it is what John Smith calls the “settled will” of the Scottish people, and Labour pledges to bring in devolution if elected. Then we have the process of devolution, with the Scotland referendum in 1997, the Scotland Act 1998 and the reconvening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.
Now, there will be some people in this debate who will wonder why that was not enough. They will say, “Well, that was game over,” and think that we have done what we came here to do. They will ask, “Why now—20 years later—are people still complaining that this is not enough?” Well, two things happened after the creation of the Scottish Parliament. First, it actually worked quite well, and people in Scotland began to appreciate that their local representatives having control over matters made a difference. New things were put into play. Despite the opposition of the Conservative party to the creation of the institution, it was embraced by the Scottish electorate to a much greater extent than this place ever has been.
The second thing that happened, of course, was the Blair Government and their increasing unpopularity. As in England and most of the rest of Britain, the traditional Labour electorate of Scotland had nowhere to go in response to Tony Blair’s decision to remove the Labour party from supporting them. In Scotland, the electorate had a ready-made alternative, and they began in numbers to join the alternative party on the left—the Scottish National party. We then have a situation where, by 2007, the first SNP Scottish Government are elected. What is the response to that? It is the Calman commission and the promise of further powers.
We go on to 2011, when we see a majority SNP Government having the opportunity to put before the electorate their central promise of giving people the opportunity to decide on their own future. [Interruption.] I will talk about the referendum a little bit, but I do not want to go into detail. The result of the referendum, of course, was the Smith commission and the promise of further powers. So all the way along the past 50 years, we have seen additional powers given to Scotland—more control given to the Scottish people over their own lives—because of the state’s reaction to the rise of the sentiment for self-government and for national self-determination. That is the fact of the matter; that is anybody’s analysis of history.
Much as Scottish Conservative Members may dislike this fact, the Scottish referendum in 2014 did not, I am afraid, settle anything at all. Many people, when they look at this from afar, misunderstand some of the things that were happening during that referendum. In particular, many commentators on the liberal left in England completely get it wrong when they say that what was going on was some sort of assertion of identity. That was not the case at all. If ever a country had a surfeit of symbols of identity, it would be Scotland. Scotland has all the identity in the world; what it does not have is empowerment of the people who live there to control their own lives. That was the spirit of the 2012 to 2014 referendum campaign.
The result was 45:55. When the referendum campaign started, the split on the question had been about 75:25, so during the period of a two-year campaign, three quarters of a million people decided to vote for Scotland to become an independent country who did not feel that way when the campaign started. That was really quite a remarkable achievement.
Since the referendum campaign people have suggested that SNP Members do not accept the result of the 2014 referendum. I said in my maiden speech, and I say again today, that I do respect the result of the 2014 referendum. The people of Scotland decided to remain in the United Kingdom at that time. But, as I said in my speech in the claim of right debate, sovereignty is not just for 18 September 2014. Sovereignty, if we believe in it—the claim of right, if we believe in it—has to be for all time, so in a democracy people have the right to change their minds.
Like my hon. Friend, I accept the referendum result, but is not the point that the minority have rights too? The Union can survive only if those who believe in it are really going to make the argument for it, for as long as they want it to live. Does it not ill become those same people then to scream in the face of yes voters, “You lost—get back in your box”?
No. I wish I had not given way now, because the hon. Gentleman was not wanting to comment on the point that I was making at all.
When Alex Salmond or Nicola Sturgeon talked about “once in a generation”—it was actually said very rarely—they were doing so not as a promise or a qualification, but to remind those who were campaigning for this opportunity that they might only get one chance to do so. The truth of the matter—[Interruption.] I will allow Scottish Conservative Members to intervene if they wish, if they will please let me at least—
No, the hon. Gentleman has had his say.
The truth of the matter is that if one changes the proposition, people have the right to revisit the decision, do they not? I would have thought that that was reasonable. If somebody buys something in a shop that promises one thing, and they get it home and open the box and it is not what was promised, they can take their goods back. Well, we should also be able to take our goods back.
I would like to go on for a lot longer, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I know you do not wish me to do so. I will come back to where I started and talk about the relationship of Brexit to this debate on the strength or otherwise of the Union and to Scottish self-government. What has been happening over the last period has substantially weakened the Union because it weakens the devolution settlement that arguably could have given it some strength 20 years ago. This is happening in three ways. First, for the first time in our history, the UK Government are determined to ignore the Sewel convention and to legislate for matters that relate to the devolved Scottish Parliament without obtaining its consent. [Interruption.] That is a regrettable fact, but there is no point in Scottish Conservative Members trying to deny it.
Secondly, if powers are brought back from Brussels, one would expect that they would go to Holyrood, but Holyrood is being given a list of responsibilities, not powers. At the same time, it is being told that it will be able to exercise Executive authority in those areas only if it does so as part of a United Kingdom framework through a series of joint arrangements. UK Ministers have made it quite clear that these joint arrangements will bring together representatives of the four countries within the United Kingdom—but the question arises, who will speak for England in that discussion? Because of the asymmetrical devolution that we have had, and because of the refusal of successive Governments in this place to properly address democratic regional government in England, the only body that speaks for England is this place.
Therefore, Westminster Departments will advocate the cause of English farmers or English fishermen, or whatever, in these joint arrangements. The problem that arises is that in the event of a dispute, they will also sit as judge and jury on what happens. That makes the farmers and the fishermen of Scotland, of Wales and of Northern Ireland subservient to those who operate in the majority area of the country. That drives a coach and horses through the spirit and the actuality of the Union settlement.
There are dark days ahead. We do not know where the Chequers agreement now stands. We do not know what relationship we will have with the European Union, or what the status of a common European Union rulebook will be and what bearing that will have. We do know, though, that time is running out to sort these things. We also know that in the midst of the chaos that this Government have created, the people of Scotland have an alternative and have a choice. They can decide to become a self-governing country—to take back control of their own affairs and get rid of the mess that is being created while they remain part of the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard). I do not agree with all his conclusions, but I enjoyed his speech, which was a passionate tour de force. I will speak from a text, so I will be sharper and a bit more focused, I think.
I am very pleased that we are having this debate. It can be quite tempting for the media who report on Parliament to assume that nothing important happens in the final days before the House rises, but the question of how best to strengthen the Union is absolutely the kind of debate that it is useful to have at this point in the parliamentary year.
Worrying about the state of the Union is a perennial occupation of British politics. It was not a new idea in 1601, when we had the Union of the Crowns. It has to be remembered that that was achieved by the King of Scotland becoming the King of England. I will come on to unhelpful narratives about the Union later, but suffice it to say that the myth of English domination does not really bear scrutiny.
In the corridor outside my office, there is an extract from The Illustrated London News of 10 August 1895. By that point, the Union had begun almost three centuries before, and one would be forgiven for thinking that it was relatively secure. But, even then, people were worrying about the Union.
“What does Unionism really mean?”,
two ladies ask their kindly Victorian vicar. “It means”, he replies:
“union of a mighty nation, union of national interests and, ladies and gentlemen, union of hearts”.
One hundred and twenty-three years on, that seems as good an explanation of why we have the Union and how it works and binds us together as any we may find. I encourage colleagues to have a look at the extract. It is conveniently located just off the Committee Corridor, and—I am pleased to say—a very short walk from the SNP offices.
Today also happens to mark the end of my time on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, three days short of eight years of continuous service. I would like to put on record my thanks to my hon. Friends the Members for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson) and for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison) for their chairmanship and friendship, and to all colleagues past and present I have had the pleasure and honour of working with over the last eight years.
I am not presenting my absence on the Committee as an especially great threat to the strength of the Union, but it does give me pause to consider the situation in Northern Ireland today. There remain too many of what we euphemistically term “legacy issues”, violence is too quick to flare up and there remain a number of people well-trained, well-equipped and motivated to cause serious disorder and loss of life. The legal status of the soldiers and security personnel who kept Northern Ireland and all the UK safe by fighting terrorism remains in question, while the Executive and the whole question of power sharing have been suspended for 18 months.
Unionism means we cannot just look at these problems as if they were distant from and unconnected to us. If Unionism is to mean a union of national interests and of hearts, as I believe it does, we should apply ourselves to these questions as if they were within our very own constituencies. I welcome the fact that the Government have taken direct action to ensure that good governance and public services continue. Again, if Unionism is to have any real meaning, the British Government, in the absence of a devolved Administration, must be willing and able to do the right thing.
The answer to the question, “How can we strengthen the Union in Northern Ireland?” is self-evident, and has been repeated time and again in this House: there needs to be a power-sharing Executive restored, an Assembly back in action and a lasting commitment to devolved government. While people from across the UK should support both sides in the process of restoring the Executive, we should all be equally clear that narrow, partisan, party political games are unacceptable.
Nevertheless, we must not allow the challenges facing Northern Ireland to blind us to the real strength of the Union, both there and elsewhere. Devolution is continuing apace in Wales, with the Assembly transformed into a fully-fledged legislature with responsibility not just for spending taxes but for raising them. The strength of devolution, though, and the reason it is good for the Union, is that devolution does not mean separation. I am proud to have both the Great Western line and the second Severn crossing in my constituency, which overlooks the Severn estuary into Wales. Wales and the south-west have extremely close links on every level, and I am proud that the world-renowned defence and aerospace industries in my constituency are daily enhanced and empowered by the contribution of commuters from Wales. That is soon to be helped dramatically by the abolition of the Severn bridge tolls.
The thing we can do, not as parliamentarians but as members of the Union, to most strengthen the Union is to fight the false narratives that suggest it was imposed on the nations of the UK. Throughout the centuries of the Union, men and women from Scotland, Wales, Ireland, and England have come together to do wonderful things and have improved the world massively. The contribution that each nation of the United Kingdom has made to the world is immense and it is an honour to be in a Union with all. We must not let win out the voices that claim that the English or the Union itself hold them back or oppress them. We must all remind one another what this great Union has achieved through free association and, as the Victorian vicar put it, what we can achieve through this union of nations, union of national interests and union of hearts.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti). I congratulate him on his eight years on the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. As we would say on this side of the House, he has done his time down the salt mine. I am not sure what he is going to do next.
I am rather perplexed that the Government have called this debate in their own time on the second to last day before the summer recess, but it is welcome indeed, for a number of reasons. It is an opportunity to put the positive case for the Union and to expose for what they are the political games played in the Chamber in the last few months. I have the utmost respect for my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), the SNP spokesperson, and for his oratory—he is well-known for it locally as well—but I am completely astonished that he could stand up in the Chamber in 2018 and say that, if there were a vote in the House to bring down a Labour Government that ushered in 18 years of Conservative Government, he would do exactly the same again. It is an astonishing thing for an SNP politician to admit.
The hon. Gentleman also said that the SNP in 1979 withheld consent. It did not withhold consent; it voted with the Conservative Opposition to give the Opposition a one-vote majority, which brought down the Labour Government and ushered in 18 years of Conservative rule.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Lesley Laird) rightly said from the Front Bench, we are here because we are currently stuck with two nationalist Governments, one here in London and one at Holyrood in Edinburgh. She was also right to quote John Smith, who lived in my constituency and was the best Prime Minister this country never had. He did say—I am happy to quote it again for the record—that we had two parties sawing away at the legs that supported the Union. He said that then, but it is actually more relevant today.
Let me tell the House why we have two parties sawing away at the legs of the Union, and let me start with the Conservative party. I have made the contention today, and will make it tonight, that the Conservative party is as big a threat to the Union, whether it be Wales, Ireland or Scotland, as any nationalist party in Wales, Ireland or Scotland, and let me say why. The Conservatives bet the farm on an EU referendum and had the arrogance to think they could win it, but they lost it, having put no plans in place for what would happen beyond that.
In 2014, on the steps of Downing Street, the very same person who gambled the farm, the former Prime Minister, David Cameron, as the sun was rising over London, and before all the votes in the independence referendum had even been counted, declared his intention to introduce English votes for English laws, a completely unnecessary procedure in this House that has failed miserably. In that regard, I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart), who has railed against EVEL for many years, despite having supported it previously. That kind of thing goes straight to the heart of how the Conservative party is undermining the Union.
What about the continued and unnecessary austerity? It is a political choice to have austerity as a policy central to government, but it has not worked. It has trebled the national debt to nearly £2 trillion and we still have a deficit—the Government promised to wipe it by 2015, but I am not even sure they will wipe it by the projected 2022-23; it may be decades beyond that. Then there was the creation of a hostile environment, not just for migrants coming to contribute to this country, but for anybody in this country who happened to be in the unfortunate circumstances of claiming social security.
Then we have Ministers being dragged to the House by urgent questions to explain why they had to cheat on votes in the House to get policies through last week. I am sorry I was unable to ask a question in the urgent question. I would have asked what the Government would have done had the Opposition broken a pairing deal last week with someone on maternity leave on the Government Benches and won that vote. The Government would be dragging us all back here as quickly as possible to have that vote again.
I was not here for the urgent question, so I cannot clarify those figures, but I can say that in my eight years in the House the Opposition have won three votes, so breaking those pairing arrangements has obviously not affected the operation of Parliament, and I do think it important to maintain the pairing arrangements.
Then we get on to the way the Government have dealt with the Brexit process in terms of devolution. It has not been the Secretary of State for Scotland’s finest hour. I am sure that if we could wind the clock back to April, May or June and have those debates again, the Government would have dealt with it differently. We had promise after promise at the Dispatch Box from the Secretary of State, and all those promises were wiped aside. I intervened on the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr) at least nine times, if not more—maybe he can tell us during his contribution—to ask when it was all going to happen, what his objections were and how they were going to resolve those devolution problems, and I am still waiting to hear the answers. I look forward to him telling us when I intervene on him during his speech later.
Then we have a Government in chaos, with resignation after resignation after resignation: the Secretary of State in charge of the negotiations to take us out of the EU, gone; the worst Foreign Secretary in history, gone; and all just a few parliamentary weeks away from having to agree the final EU deal.
Then we have the question of a hard Brexit. Everyone is going, “What’s a hard Brexit? What’s a soft Brexit?” However, when we look at what the Government are doing, we are hurtling towards a no deal Brexit. The Government put together—cobbled together after two years—what they now affectionately call the Chequers agreement. The following week, they undermined that very same agreement by accepting amendments to the Trade Bill and the customs Bill that have driven a horse and coaches—a “corse and hoaches” if you have been drinking the same whisky as the Minister who opened the debate—right through that agreement. Not only did those changes undermine the agreement, but the EU had already ruled out the agreement in its original form. We are heading for a hard or no deal Brexit, and all that is happening in the Government at the moment is that people are trying to fight for the keys to No. 10, rather than for what is in this country’s interests.
Everyone in this House, to a person, will absolutely agree that there should be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. However, the Government have set red lines in the Brexit process that make that completely and utterly unachievable, which undermines the fabric of the United Kingdom. I keep asking Ministers this question, but I cannot get an answer, so it would be interesting to hear an answer from the Scottish Conservative MPs this evening. If the Government can argue, with the red lines that they have set, that they will no longer require any kind of border equipment on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, if the UK and the Republic of Ireland are in two different trade and customs arrangements, how could they possibly argue, in the event of another independence referendum, that we would require a border between Scotland and England?
The hon. Gentleman is restating the oft-repeated myth about the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. I do not know whether he noticed that EU negotiators—Juncker and Barnier—promised the Irish Government this week that there would not have to be any kind of checks at the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, even in the event of no deal. If there can be no checks with no deal, we can have no checks with any sort of deal.
That is an extraordinary comment. We will see what happens come 29 March 2019 or after the transition period. I just do not think that the right hon. Gentleman can achieve what he wants to achieve with the Government’s current negotiating position.
The Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson promised during the 2017 snap general election that, if Scottish Conservative MPs were sent to Westminster, they would stand against the Prime Minister’s hard Brexit and deliver what would be in Scotland’s best possible interests—[Hon. Members: “She never said that.”] Well, if she did not say that, perhaps the Scottish Conservative MPs can tell me what she did say. Ruth Davidson stands up day after day, week after week, to rail against her own Government here at Westminster, while the 13 Scottish Conservative MPs loyally traipse into the Lobby to put through the hard Brexit and everything else that is upsetting for Scotland.
I have already given way to the hon. Gentleman, and “one opportunity” means “one opportunity”.
Last week, every single vote in this House on Monday and Tuesday on the customs Bill and the Trade Bill was passed with a majority fewer than the number of Scottish Conservative MPs. If they did what they promised to do, we would be in a much better position. That is why they are undermining the Union.
Let me quickly go on to why the SNP is undermining the Union. It does not want the Union; it wants independence for Scotland. The SNP’s proposals for Scottish independence are now in this growth commission report, which has been fundamentally torn apart by anyone who has ever read it who does not want independence. This morning, the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) talked about a no deal Brexit potentially meaning 50 years of austerity in the UK, but the growth commission report promises 25 years of austerity.
I cannot, because I need to wrap up. If the model in the growth commission report had been applied over the past decade, Scotland would have had £60 billion less to spend on public services than has been the case. The SNP is therefore proposing austerity-max.
I am happy to upset the hon. Gentleman, but I am not going to upset Madam Deputy Speaker.
I will wrap things up with a few remarks that point out why the SNP is just as big a threat to the Union as the Conservatives. All the analysis of the Scottish NHS has shown that, even under a Conservative Government who have been putting less and less into the NHS than previous Labour Governments, Barnett consequentials have not been passed to the Scottish NHS through the Scottish Government to the tune of anything between £340 million and £750 million, depending on the measure used.
There are a few things that will strengthen the Union and keep it together. A soft Brexit is one. We need a more transparent Joint Ministerial Committee that works. As the hon. Member for Stirling said in a Westminster Hall debate, Departments should be retagged to state whether they are English or UK Departments. We should have a federal constitution that deals not only with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but with England, which is too large, with the north-west and the north-east not feeling as well represented as they could be. We need to stop both Governments fighting over the constitution and to start celebrating and developing devolution. I will finish by plagiarising Nye Bevan, who said of the NHS that it will survive while there are people left in politics who will fight for it. Well, the UK will only survive if there are people willing to fight for it, and Scottish Labour always will.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray). I was, however, a little surprised by his extreme and unfounded criticism of Scottish Conservative Members, particularly when he so often love-bombs Conservative voters in Edinburgh South, on whom he relies to ensure the majority that gets him elected to this place.
It will come as no surprise to the House that I am a passionate advocate of this United Kingdom, which is partly because nowhere is the strength of our Union more obvious than in my constituency in the Scottish borders, where going to work or to the nearest supermarket or visiting friends and family can mean travelling across the border perhaps once or twice in a single journey.
The preservation of the United Kingdom is not only one of this House’s biggest challenges, but one of its biggest opportunities. However, we have unfortunately failed to address that properly over many years. The Union has never been in doubt over most of its history, so there has never been the need overtly to defend it. The Union has evolved organically, with no written constitution at its heart, so it lacks the texts and the formalities that define other nations, but I stress that that is a good thing. Witness the way in which our Union accepted and allowed a referendum on independence in 2014, when there was a democratic case for it, and compare that with the reaction in other nations that we consider to be free and fair.
However, this more flexible, uncodified, relaxed Unionism always runs the risk of lapsing into complacency and indifference, especially when faced by an organised and highly political opponent such as the SNP, whose sole raison d’être is to find grievance at every opportunity. The people have seen through that, sending a message to the First Minister in last year’s general election, when the dramatic loss of support lead to more than 20 fewer nationalist MPs.
The current situation should be seen as a starting point, not the end, so I welcome the UK Government’s recent announcements, including over £1 billion investment in five regional growth deals in Scotland and the basing of a spaceport in the north of Scotland, highlighting their commitment to our United Kingdom. But more must be done. There is no reason the next big investment in infrastructure should be in London when it could be just as effective in Lisburn, Livingston or Llandudno. During the 2012 Olympics, the football venues were spread throughout our islands, and there is no reason that could not be done again in a UK-wide World cup. A nation that spreads its power networks across the country will ensure that all of us, no matter where we live, feel that we have a real stake in it. While I may have opposed Brexit, there is no doubt that leaving the European Union and returning substantial powers to the UK can be used as a catalyst for that reform.
Will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to remind the House that all Conservative Members of Parliament, whether in Scotland, England or Wales, were elected on a manifesto commitment to leave the European Union, the customs union, the single market and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice?
My hon. Friend makes a fair and reasonable point. While I voted remain, I am also a democrat. Just as the SNP should accept the referendum result of 2014, I accept the referendum result of 2016, and we were all elected to ensure that we deliver Brexit and get the best deal for Scotland and the entire United Kingdom.
Whitehall needs to consider the maintenance and promotion of the Union as one of its central tasks, not as a bolt-on extra. When the Union was in peril during the independence referendum, that worked well. Civil servants wrote a series of analysis papers pointing out the strengths of the UK internal market and the UK’s integrated system, but it should not require the threat of separation to ensure that that becomes a matter of course. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister got there first in a speech last year where she acknowledged that Whitehall often devolves and forgets. Her proposal was to ensure that in reserved areas, the UK Government explicitly look after the interests of the Union in their policy making, while in devolved areas they must look for ways to collaborate and work together to improve outcomes for everyone. Scotland has two Governments, and it is time they were seen to be working in partnership—not against each other—to improve the lives of all the Scots whom we represent as Scottish constituency MPs.
The hon. Gentleman is the vice-Chair of the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs. We have the Chair in the Chamber, too, and I am a member. Does he agree that the Committee is a fantastic example of all parties coming together, working together, discussing the UK Government and the Scottish Government and scrutinising what is going wrong? We need to see more of that working together, and less of the appalling and embarrassing shouting we have seen in the Chamber today.
I agree with the hon. Lady. We work very well across that Committee. It is a good example of parties and parliamentarians coming together to highlight the issues that many of our constituents have to deal with day to day.
The dualling of the A1—the issue affects my constituency —all the way from Northumberland to Edinburgh would be a great example of partnership between the UK Government and the Scottish Government. This should be built in as a strategic aim for Whitehall and one for St Andrew’s House to pursue.
As with most things, there is no silver bullet for strengthening our Union for everyone. I know from being out on the doorsteps in my constituency that people in Scotland want their two Governments working in synergy. We should strengthen our Union because it is the will of the people of our land. Recent polling by Policy Exchange clearly demonstrates that the majority of people across the United Kingdom are in favour of the Union in its current form. Some 68% of people in England, 52% of people in Scotland, 66% of people in Wales and 59% of people in Northern Ireland want a continuation of the Union.
However, that polling also confirms that there are concerns across all parts of the United Kingdom about the impact of Brexit on our Union. Majorities in all nations of the UK said that they believed Brexit would make the break-up of the UK more likely. That is the challenge, and it is why this debate is so important. With the nationalists constantly looking for grievance and new opportunities to stoke the separatist fire, we must do more to invest in our Union to ensure that it lasts for many more hundreds of years to come.
The recently published Policy Exchange paper, which was released on the back of the polling, sets out a number of suggestions as to how we might address the challenges. Bearing in mind the consequences of the new powers landing in different parts of the UK as we leave the European Union, we need better to understand the idea of shared rule across the UK as a whole. At the same time, we need to respect the value of devolution with the rights of the devolved institutions.
Intergovernmental relations within the UK have not been as good as they should have been, and that could be exaggerated as Brexit happens because many of the powers repatriated from Brussels will fall within the competency of the devolved Administrations. We therefore need to revisit how the Joint Ministerial Committee works to build better trust between the Westminster Government and the devolved Administrations.
The Scottish Conservatives will bow to no one in promoting and defending Scotland’s interests and making its voice heard across the United Kingdom. Where we differ from the SNP is that we will not do so with the express purpose of trying to split the country in two. Far too often, the SNP picks fights purely for their own sake. This is the SNP’s reason for existence. The difference, though, between us and the SNP is that we will pick fights not because we want to rip up the Union, but because we insist it works better. We have already seen that is a more effective way of standing up for Scotland as the approach of the Scottish Conservative MPs has secured wins such as the VAT refund for Police Scotland and fair pay for our brave men and women in our armed forces.
It is very clear that those in the armed forces who were going to be paying extra because of the nat tax imposed by the Scottish Government will not have to pay it. It is fair that everyone across the United Kingdom who works for the armed forces gets paid the same, regardless of where they are based.
I will ensure that I spend my time here, however long or short that may be, as effectively as I can. That means standing up for Scotland in a constructive and beneficial way, not storming out and throwing tantrums, as we have seen from SNP Members. Voters are tired of the politics of division. Let us give them what they want: a strengthened Scotland and a strengthened United Kingdom.
It seems a curious pleasure to be speaking in this debate this evening. Just when we thought the House was going to adjourn early for the summer recess to assist a beleaguered Prime Minister, we find ourselves here, debating the Union. With the UK facing an unprecedented crisis, with a rudderless Government, a leadership in crisis and a divided party about to face the Brexit precipice, the most important thing that the Government can think of to debate on the day before Parliament adjourns is the Union. I wonder what businesses in Scotland think about that. What will EU nationals who are worried about the future think about it? What will academic institutions think about it, and what will hard-pressed families seeing such a massive reduction in their household income because of their Brexit make of the obsession of these Conservatives to discuss the Union on the day before we adjourn for the long summer holiday?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way on this point, because it is important. He is criticising the UK Government for having a debate about strengthening the Union. The Scottish National party has had two debates in this term. Its last one was on the claim of right. Why did his party not choose European topics to discuss when it had the opportunity?
I will tell the hon. Gentleman what we will do: we will try to help him out with the issue about strengthening the Union. You know me, Madam Deputy Speaker; I try as much as possible to be helpful in these debates.
Let us see how helpful it might be to the hon. Gentleman to look at a whole range of issues just now and see whether he would put them into the “Strengthening the Union” column or the “Diminishing and weakening the Union” column. Let us start with Brexit. How will we get on with that one? [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is chuntering away. It is what they do. I say to him that the Scottish people are watching this debate, and they see him chuntering, heckling and shouting away. They are not impressed with him behaving in such a way.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman is criticising me for apparently chuntering, but the point is I asked him a question two minutes ago that he has not answered. It would be respectful to this Parliament to answer the point, rather than chuntering away through his speech.
I want to emphasise again that using points of order just to get interventions in the debate on the record—the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) was guilty earlier—needs to stop. It is not fair on others. Lots of Members want to speak, and this is not the way we should be having these debates.
The people of Scotland are watching, and what they are observing is something that they do not particularly like. Sometimes I wish the cameras would swing around when Scottish Conservative Members are at the height of their heckling and shouting, just so the Scottish public could see how they behave in this Parliament, but let us get back to the debate.
Let us look at a number of issues and help the Scottish Conservative Members assess whether those things are helping strengthen the Union. Is the way that the Government are so consensually and deftly negotiating this Brexit process helping to strengthen the Union? That is a hard, challenging question, because we have a Scotland that voted 62% to 38% against this mad, chaotic Brexit. In increasing numbers, Scottish people are deciding they want absolutely nothing to do with it. Some may say that this clueless, chaotic and delusional approach to the most significant constitutional change that Scotland has faced since the war may not necessarily go into the credit column in the debate on strengthening the Union.
Yes, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Let us look at where we are when it comes to Brexit. On the Brexit “madcon” scale, we are now at madcon 10. A no deal Brexit has now moved up from being possible to being likely. What does that mean for Scotland? According to a range of civil servants from right across Whitehall, the port of Dover will collapse on day one as Kent and the whole of the south-east of England becomes one big lorry park, while supermarkets in Scotland will run out of food within a couple of days and hospitals will run out of medicines within two weeks.
The UK Government—for goodness’ sake—are even preparing to issue 70 technical notices to families and businesses in the event of a no deal Brexit. We have had a little joke about can openers, but the Government are advising families to stock up on canned food, and they are telling businesses to prepare for a sudden exodus of EU nationals. That is what the UK Government are now saying to hard-pressed families in Scotland—and that before we even get on to air travel, holidays by the sea and mobile phone roaming.
However, Scotland will be hit the hardest economically by what the Conservatives are planning with their no deal, hard Brexit. Not only would we have conditions akin to a state of emergency, but Scotland’s economy could lose up to £10 billion a year—a fall of 5% in our GDP—with real household incomes falling by 9.6% for each family in Scotland, or by £2,263 per head. There may be some people who say that all these things will help to strengthen the Union, but may I offer the counter-contention? When people in Scotland get the opportunity to weigh up their constitutional options, they could choose the chaotic cluelessness of these Tories or they could decide that they want to manage their own affairs themselves, and I have a good idea of what the Scottish people will decide and conclude.
Let us look at another example of what the Conservatives are doing and assess the strengthening the Union column: what the hon. Gentlemen and the Conservative party are doing to our national Parliament with the power grab. Perhaps that is another cunning ruse to strengthen the Union and make the people of Scotland fall in love with the UK all over again. Devolution has been on an seamless trajectory since 1999—I have been in this Parliament since 2001 and I have seen three Scotland Acts, all of which gave significant new powers to our national Parliament—but with their Brexit, that has all ended, because for the first time devolution has been stopped and they have started to reverse it. The model with the reserved powers arrangement in the Scottish Parliament has served it so well—that has been the founding principle and the thing that has guided devolution through the past two decades—but the Conservative Government have decided that that is enough, and they are not prepared to allow devolution to go any further.
The Scottish Conservative MPs sometimes misunderstand the power grab, and I am quite surprised that they have not all been saying, “What powers are being grabbed from the Scottish Parliament?” I have never said that any powers will be taken from the Scottish Parliament—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Now I have their attention, let me tell them how the power grab works.
There are powers returning from Europe. According to schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998, the reserved powers should go to the Westminster Parliament, but powers in devolved areas should go to the devolved legislatures. What has happened is that all the reserved powers are going back to the UK Parliament, but the devolved powers have been grabbed and given to this House. It is called a power grab because powers that should be given to the Scottish Parliament have been grabbed by this Government. I hope that helps Scottish Conservative Members to understand properly what is happening.
I have never said anything about no powers coming back to the UK. The point is that the powers that should rightly reside in the right hon. Gentleman’s Parliament and in my Parliament have been grabbed by the UK Government, and they will now be resting in Westminster, not in our devolved Assemblies. This is really important because our Parliaments—the right hon. Gentleman’s and the one in my nation—depend on the reserved powers model, and if that is broken, devolution is broken.
The Conservatives have started to muck about with the founding principles of our Parliament, and the Scottish people are watching: they are looking at what the Conservatives are doing, and they are not impressed. It is in line with what they are doing with the Sewel convention in relation to taking legitimate decisions of the Scottish Parliament to the Supreme Court to be challenged and possibly overturned. People may say that this all helps to strengthen the Union and that it is a very clever and cunning ruse by the Conservatives to get us back on board with the Union. However, I suggest that, once again, it is undermining their Union, and the power grab was very much to the weakening of the Union cause.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I do not have time to take any more interventions.
I ask the Scottish Conservative MPs—I may give way to one or two of them later—whether they are helping to strengthen or to weaken the Union in this Parliament. They came down here with 29% of the vote—the “Ruth Davidson opposes a second referendum” party did relatively well in Scotland—but they have lost five percentage points in the past year. Their constituents are watching them whine on about a Parliament and a Government 400 miles away, and they are sick and tired of being represented by people who could not care less about their duties and functions in the House, but everything about a Parliament that they can no longer question, and that is having an impact on what they are doing.
We could get on to English votes for English laws. Does that strengthen or weaken the Union? Well, there is a hard one. We could also get on to the £1 billion that Democratic Unionist party Members were able to secure, of which Scottish Conservatives have not been able to get a single penny. However, let us just sum up where we are in the wider debate. If we look across the range of defining constitutional issues, we find, when the people of Scotland are tested in opinion polls, that independence now stands at 47%, or two percentage points up from our very impressive gains in 2014. We are very much on a journey with all this. Independence remains more or less at the level we had in 2014, and we are not even campaigning for independence at the moment.
The defining feature in all this will be the Conservatives’ Brexit—their hard Brexit—and how the Scottish people start to assess the situation. Scotland is currently tethered to HMS Brexitannia, which is heading full speed for the biggest iceberg ever encountered in political history. Unlike the real Titanic, this HMS Brexitannia is hurtling towards an iceberg at full speed in the full knowledge that that will sink the ship and all the souls on board.
For Scotland, however, there are lifeboats attached to this doomed and stricken liner, and they are marked “Independence”. All we in Scotland need to do is clamber aboard, get them off the vessel as quickly as possible and row towards the shores of independence, security and sanity.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart). I am trying to cheer myself up, as his crystal ball looks rather gloomy at the moment—I hope it brightens up as the weeks go past.
I am a staunch supporter of this sovereign country. It is a Union of nations—the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—which makes me a very happy Scot and very happy to be a Unionist. I do not want someone, a group of people or even a cult taking away from me my Britishness and giving me nothing back, except selling my soul back to Europe, which is the direction of travel SNP Members wish to take.
I will do so, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Within my own home, there is not simply a matrimonial union, but also a micro-union of nations, given that I was born in Scotland and my wife was born in Nottingham in England. She and I work together as a team and have done so for quite a long time—some 47 years, which I might add is longer than we have been in the European Union. We work as a team, and teamwork is just as important for the constituent parts comprising the United Kingdom.
One may well ask, “Why support this historical and cultural Union when you’re about to leave the European Union?” Perhaps Sir Winston Churchill summoned it up best in days gone by when he said:
“We see nothing but good and hope in a richer, freer, more contented European commonalty. But we have our own dream and our own task. We are with Europe, but not of it. We are linked, but not comprised. We are interested and associated, but not absorbed.”
In more recent times, the Prime Minister has been endeavouring to ensure that the UK will form a new partnership with the European Union and has been aiming to build a fairer, stronger and more global Britain. Unlike others in the Chamber, I am confident that a deal will be achieved, despite the scaremongering we hear from various quarters.
It is clear that we must strengthen the precious Union between the four nations of the United Kingdom. As powers are repatriated to Britain, the right powers will be returned to Westminster and the right powers—many, many of them—will be passed back to the devolved nations. Indeed, in Scotland the SNP has suites of new offices in Glasgow and is recruiting a raft of new employees, which is strange if we in Westminster are taking all these powers away in what has been described as a power grab—I thank the SNP for that.
Developments since the 1707 Treaty of Union have in recent times included the emergence of devolved Administrations in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. However, these devolved Administrations do not operate in isolation. Far from it: for example, much of the devolved Administrations’ spending is funded by grants from the UK Government—a common source and common pool to which all the nations contribute and from which they all benefit. One only has to think of the Barnett formula, which determines the annual change to the block grant and seeks to ensure that changes to funding in England are replicated for comparable services elsewhere in this United Kingdom.
The purpose of devolution was to devolve, not to divide, its aims and aspirations to make government more local for the four nations and apply localised solutions to localised issues.
I do agree with that; indeed, the hon. Gentleman has obviously seen the next line of my speech.
The journey has not made government more local, but has seen the weakening of councils and the centralisation of services such as the fire service—my own service—and the police service in Scotland, to the detriment of the aspirational vision and intention behind devolution.
The Scottish independence referendum of 2014 asked the question, “Should Scotland become an independent country?” My constituency of Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock covers two council areas, East Ayrshire and South Ayrshire. Both returned a resounding no. They wanted to remain part of the Union, and that is the way it should remain, despite the continuing threats on a daily if not weekly basis about indyref2. No respect is shown for that decision—I think 28 of the 32 authority areas in Scotland voted to remain in the Union.
There are greater strength in numbers and greater economies of scale to be achieved when our nations are united, with their historical and cultural links. We need consensus not convergence, co-operation not conflict. The Joint Ministerial Committee facilitates partnership working on devolved issues at ministerial level and was referred to in a previous debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr). However, what really caught my attention was his suggestion of the creation of
“a new and powerful Department of the Union at Cabinet level”.—[Official Report, 20 June 2018; Vol. 643, c. 142WH.]
That would help to bind together Secretaries of State for Departments of Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. I believe the idea merits further consideration.
That is a very interesting point. [Interruption.] Yes, it is, but while things are very good, they could be better. Therefore, we need to improve on that good performance. We should be continually improving our performance to strive for a better set of circumstances.
My hon. Friend is making an important point, just as the hon. Member for Glasgow South (Stewart Malcolm McDonald) did in his intervention. In Canada, for example, the current Prime Minister is the equivalent of a Secretary of State for the Union—such is the importance of driving the Union forward together.
I believe the UK Government must do more in every policy area and, as my hon. Friend says, at every level to ensure that we do not simply devolve and forget. The UK Government still have a role to play in the devolved nations, and we must remember that the Scottish Parliament was never designed to replace Westminster, but rather to complement it.
I am confident that the leader of the main Opposition party in the Scottish Parliament, who relentlessly supports the Union, will nevertheless always stand up for Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom. Together as a United Kingdom we achieve much, but despite the scaremongering, I believe that our best days as a Union are yet to come. As another Scot, Robert Burns, said:
“O let us not, like snarling tykes,
In wrangling be divided;
’Till slap come in an unco loon,
And wi’ a rung decide it.
Be Britain still to Britain true,
Amang oursels united;
For never but by British hands
Maun British wrangs be righted.”
It is a pleasure to be here on this of all Mondays, speaking up for my constituents in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. In short, it is a pleasure to continue working on their behalf, as I will be throughout the summer recess.
Now to the Union, of which I am proud and which I campaigned tirelessly to defend. Today we are gathered here as the democratically elected representatives of the people of Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and Wales. We are here to hold this shambles of a Government to account. We are here to fight for a sensible way forward on our relationship with the European Union. We are here to fight for and defend the jobs of working people in all four nations of the United Kingdom. We are here to ensure that the internal dynamics and fallouts of the Tory party do not decide the future of our country. We are here to defend the principles upon which the national health service was formed. And, as the debates over recent weeks have shown us, we are here to defend all that is good about our country and fight against all that is bad.
I am here to ensure that Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill has a loud, passionate, effective and local voice down here in Westminster. I am also a champion of our community in North Lanarkshire, which I am proud to serve. As I have said in the House before, my pitch to the people in my constituency at the snap general election was pretty simple. I had spent my career working for Royal Mail Parcelforce and delivering parcels to people across my constituency. I asked them to send me down here to continue delivering for them. I was grateful for the opportunity to serve then and I am grateful for it today.
As we approach the summer recess, I reflect on the last year that I have spent here. I am proud to be a Member of the Parliament of the United Kingdom and I am proud to have the chance to stand up for my neighbours and friends and for all communities. I am determined to spend every day I have in this place focusing on getting a better deal for working people.
It is always tempting to call out the Government for their heartless policies, their misplaced priorities and their lack of respect for the people of England, the people of Wales, the good people of Northern Ireland and the fine people of Scotland. In last year’s general election, Tory MPs from Scotland were called “Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives”. They were meant to be compassionate. They were meant to care. They were meant to be different. That was all an image—a campaigning narrative, a fiction. The last year has shown that Scottish Tories on the Government Benches may have been elected as Ruth Davidson’s Conservatives, but they are now Theresa’s terrible Tories.
The point is that had the Tories done what they said they were going to do when they came down here, we would have a different result.
Tory MSPs and their leader in Holyrood are just numbers for Nicola’s nationalists and their austerity agenda. And then there is the SNP, which has been in government for more than a decade. The problems faced by working people in Scotland lie squarely at the door of the SNP and the Tories. Look at the budget cuts to local government across Scotland—the impact of decisions made by the SNP Government in Holyrood. Look at the housing crisis facing Scottish families, with some 50,000 children living in poverty—the impact of decisions made by the SNP Government in Holyrood. Look at the fact that food bank use in Scotland is the highest it has ever been—bad decisions taken by the Tories and made worse by the impact of decisions taken by the SNP Government in Holyrood.
No, it is the fault of the two Governments we have got just now.
As Tony Graham, the Scottish director of the Trussell Trust, said,
“it is completely unacceptable that anyone is forced to turn to a food bank in Scotland”.
We are, we must be, and we always will be better than that. The decisions taken by politicians make a difference. They have an impact and they do change lives.
I was thinking over the weekend about what I wanted to say today, as I attended a number of community events across the constituency. There was one theme in my thinking: what does this Union mean for my constituents and for our country? What can we do in this Parliament? What can our colleagues in Cardiff Bay, Holyrood and Stormont do to make our four nations better, more inclusive, more equal and more just? As some may say, how can we deliver for the many, not the few?
I am very firmly of the view that the people of all four nations are sovereign. They have the ultimate say. They are our boss, and they have the right to determine the form of government best suited to their needs. That is a principle that I believe in and, importantly, it is a fundamental principle that the Labour party is very proud of. It was a Labour Government who restored power to the people, and it was a Labour Government who allowed the people of Scotland and Wales to vote in Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections to elect a Scottish Government and a Welsh Government as part of our United Kingdom. Devolution strengthened the Union in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and that strength is obvious today. While it is my responsibility to call out the Westminster and Scottish Governments, I respect the fact that each received a mandate from people across the United Kingdom.
I am so sick of seeing in my surgeries and in my inbox stories of the impact of this Tory Government on my constituents in Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill. On a national level we have seen jobcentres closed; local Department for Work and Pensions offices closed, including one in Coatbridge; housing benefit for under-25s scrapped; support and funding for local authorities across the United Kingdom slashed; and children across the United Kingdom plunged into poverty—and those are the children of parents who work. That is just to name a few of the divisive and unnecessary decisions taken by the Tories, first under Cameron and now under the present Prime Minister.
Since 2010, the Tories have unleashed a programme of unprecedented spending cuts covering all areas of the support network for people in this country. The House of Commons Library has provided information revealing that since 2010 a staggering 86% of the burden of austerity has hit women up and down this country. The Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 Act did some disgraceful things. I am just sorry that I was not a Member of this House at that time, because I would have spoken out against the Tories’ Act. There was also the abolition of the Child Poverty Act 2010. The Tories and the SNP always talk about the last Labour Government. I welcome that, because the last Labour Government lifted over 1 million children out of poverty.
I want to say a word here about how Labour, when in leadership, can deliver real results for people. In my own area, north Lanarkshire, the Labour-led council, under education officer Councillor Frank McNally, has announced plans to provide free school meals to children who need them, 365 days a year. This is the first time that has happened anywhere in our United Kingdom. I am delighted that the birthplace of Keir Hardie is leading the way, and I hope many others will follow.
It was not a council in Glasgow but a council in north Lanarkshire, and I voted for it.
We will overcome, despite the shambles of the Government here in London. We should not forget that half the Tory party are following the Prime Minister and the other half are following the hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg). As for the former Foreign Secretary, he is holed up in a grace and favour residence a few minutes away from here with no friends at all.
As I conclude, I would like to wish all the staff of the House—the people who keep this place going—a happy and enjoyable summer recess. I am sure life will be easier without us around. I would like to wish my team and the teams of all Members a happy recess, too. Madam Deputy Speaker, I am proud of our country, proud of our history and proud of our Union, but above all I am proud of our nation’s biggest strength: the people who send us here.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate.
We should speak about some of the positives of our great country, these great nations with so much in common. As I have said before, it came from a man with vision. James VI of Scotland and I of England saw the opportunity in Great Britain. He commissioned the Union flag and regularly pushed for full Union in the United Kingdom. The pushes for the Union were not just with him: they were in 1606, 1667 and 1689—I am sorry the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) is not in his place; we could go history notes on history notes—before finally in 1707 we had the Parliament of Great Britain. Historian Simon Schama was right when he said it was a “full partnership” that became
“the most powerful going concern in the world...it was one of the most astonishing transformations in European history.”
That partnership shows that Scotland is not a victim; it is a leader in the United Kingdom.
What have we achieved? We hear a lot in this House about all the negatives of Westminster: how bad it is, what a disgrace it is, how much it has let people down. That is right, Madam Deputy Speaker, it did let people down: through the industrial revolution, the political enlightenment, the abolition of slavery, the establishment of the NHS, the creation of the welfare state and being a key player in the creation of the United Nations and a whole structure of local governance that has kept peace and security in our world for the past 60 years.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech about the positive benefits from this Union. Does he agree that one of the key aspects of that great litany of achievements is that Scots have been at the front, leading those achievements throughout history? That is something to which, as an English MP, I pay proper tribute.
I thank my hon. Friend, and I could not agree more. My office has been involved in helping out a constituent who is championing the cause of a former constituent of the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) who was involved in the foundation of Singapore. Often overlooked in favour of Raffles, my constituent is making sure that this noble man from Perth receives the recognition he so rightly deserves.
Our Union enabled us to have victories not only on the battlefield but in sports stadiums, with Scottish athletes bringing 19 gold, 27 silver and five bronze medals in summer Olympics since 1997—trained, funded and championed by Team GB. In science and technology, it is not about competition between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom but working together. One fine example is that of the Boulton and Watt steam engine. The first one in Scotland was in my constituency in Clackmannanshire, used by the Kennetpans distillery. Clackmannanshire led the way in technology then. I hope that, through the geothermal project that I hope the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will support in this House, Clackmannanshire will once again lead the way in technology and renewable energy.
It does not stop there. We also had Dolly the sheep, funded by PPL Therapeutics and the then Ministry of Agriculture. The Forth Road bridge, which was an engineering achievement of its time, was 78% funded by Westminster. More recently and most excitingly for the “Star Trek” fans in this House—I know there are many on the SNP Benches—a collaboration between a Scottish university, the University of Dundee, and an English university, the University of Southampton, funded by UK Research and Innovation, created a tractor beam. How forward-looking could we be?
What is the Union about? It has to be about more than money. With almost the equivalent of one fifth of Scotland’s population living in England, it is about the shared values that we hold of democracy, justice and international humanitarian aid, as demonstrated by the nurse, Pauline Cafferkey, who was saving lives abroad in Sierra Leone under the British flag, before falling victim to Ebola. When she returned home to the United Kingdom, she received life-saving treatment in London before returning home to Glasgow. That is what true Union is about.
In the United Kingdom, we are proud not just of the nations, but of our proud regions and counties. That is why in supermarkets people champion Devonshire custard as much as they do Perthshire strawberries. Rather than there being just a homogenous bloc of Scotland versus England, people want to know the county, town and village—all around the country—from which the products are sourced.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, my neighbour, for giving way—[Interruption.] He is from south Perthshire; he is my neighbour when it comes to these things. There is very little of what he says that we would ever disagree with or dispute, and in fact, we would probably very much endorse nearly everything he says. However, why does he feel that we need a political Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom to enjoy all these wonderful relations, our heritage and our shared history? Surely that is not necessary.
I thank my neighbour for his intervention. I am glad that we have so much common ground between us. The simple answer is that it gives our constituents the opportunity to leverage not only the combined power of around 5 million, but the full power of over 65 million together to resource their sports, help to fund their armed forces and push forward science and technology in a way that other countries can only dream of. That is why we have this House: individual Members are equal in it. The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire is equal to the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire—certainly in their place here—or the Members for Oxford West and Abingdon and for Dundee East, and for any other seat in the United Kingdom.
There have been three centuries of family and social ties in the United Kingdom. We have competitive spirit in sport, but for every Scotland versus England rugby match that brings up old rivalries, there is always an episode of “Doctor Who” to bring us back together again. No one should be bullied into choosing between being Scottish or British. People can be Scottish, English, Welsh, Northern Irish and British, and be proud of both.
A lot is said in this House about the differences between parts of the United Kingdom, but when it comes to social attitudes surveys, there are very many times that Scotland and England come out exactly the same in what respondents say. In fact, the only difference is about immigration, on which there is usually a one to two percentage point difference between England and Scotland. When we consider how few immigrants Scotland has had compared with England, we can probably see why there is that result.
Our past battles have been shared, but so are our future challenges, such as climate change, the rate of technological advancement and globalisation. On not one of those challenges will we be better facing it alone. It is by working together that we can combine our resources and look forward, so that we can do things such as improve education, invest in infrastructure, champion initiatives and, for example, launch things that bring together citizenship and science and technology and be the country that brings about the first tractor beam.
At Prime Minister’s questions last week, I mentioned the spaceport in Sutherland as an example of what we can do to provide for the future and our constituents together. We used to be a country that ruled the waves. I hope that in the 21st century, we can be a country that reaches for the stars.
I am grateful to the Government for giving us this debate, because it has given me the opportunity to wear this skirt, which I had given up wearing after my colleagues reckoned that it was a Unionist skirt and that I should not take it out of the wardrobe anymore. I am very disappointed that the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) is not here in his suit, so that we could be matching. I have not seen that suit since the referendum campaign—
He knows the suit I mean! If we are talking about clothing, the Union is more like a fur coat, nae knickers type of deal. It is funny how far we have come since the independence referendum and the scare stories that we were given. Lord Robertson said that it would have a “cataclysmic” effect on world security —well, look at where the world is now anyway. There was George Osborne and his currency bluff. There was Alistair Darling and his scares about pensions—tell that to the WASPI women who have not received their pension because of the UK Government’s actions, and that includes parties on both sides of this House. We had talk about border posts between Scotland and England and all the scare stories that went along with it—tell that to those in the island of Ireland who now face that real prospect. I have spoken to people who tell me that the border runs through their kitchen. They cannot even get to their cake to eat it because it will be on the other side of the kitchen if the Government have their way.
I draw the House’s attention to the excellent report by Chartered Institute of Environmental Health on Brexit and food security. It says that there are significant risks to food flow in the United Kingdom, including that the failure to keep food central to the Brexit negotiations could have a catastrophic impact on our food security and for those whose jobs rely on it. It says that UK food resilience is fragile and dependent on “just in time” delivery systems that could quickly grind to a halt if border controls were reimposed. It says that the Government are ambiguous at best on the question of migrant workers and how essential they are to the current working of the UK’s food system and that the current approach is imbalanced, with the specific needs of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, whose economies are highly food-dependent, being repeatedly sidelined. It also criticises the UK Government for their fundamental mistake in aiming only for alignment in farming and manufacturing but not for retail or food service, which are both absolutely huge.
All these concerns fall on deaf ears. These are not scare stories, but legitimate concerns that we never got anywhere close to in the independence debate. The biggest scare story, however, was the prospect of being forced out of the EU. Famously, Better Together tweeted:
“What is process for removing our EU citizenship? Voting yes. #scotdecides”
Scotland decided then, but it is in a very different position now.
I think that the account has perhaps deleted the tweet because it was getting so many retweets from people pointing out the utter hypocrisy of that position. It is entirely in our gift now as a nation to revisit that decision, given what has changed. Just yesterday, I had an email from a constituent who said:
“though I am not a Nat, I am coming to the conclusion that an independent Scotland within the EU would be the best outcome, at least for Scotland, from all this mess.”
Lots of people feel that same way and have reserved the right to change their mind when the circumstances have fundamentally changed.
Absolutely. He joins Murray Foote, one of the authors of “The Vow”, who has come round to the other point of view, having seen where this ridiculous Tory Government have taken us.
I want to turn to a few issues where I feel that Scotland—Scotland’s views and Scotland’s voice—has not been respected. One of the issues that I have campaigned on is the two-child policy and the rape clause. Scotland’s women’s organisations—all of them—and Scotland’s Government spoke out against this policy, but the UK Government have implemented it anyway, in the full and certain knowledge that it would push people into poverty. That policy is not finished now, because from February 2019, regardless of the date of a child’s birth, new claimants will not be able to receive the child amount for three or more children unless an exemption for the third or subsequent child applies. We do not even know what the impact of that policy is yet. The research has not yet been done, but we know that 73,530 households have been affected so far by the two-child policy, and we are only one year in.
What do the demented Unionist Daleks say about this? “Mitigate! Mitigate!” They say “mitigate” for a policy that we did not want, did not vote for and we will not have, but we are having it imposed because child tax credits are a UK Government policy. That ignores the evidence of organisations such as Turn2us, who say that women feel pressured into having abortions because of the two-child limit. It has evidence to suggest that this has actually happened. Government Members sigh and roll their eyes, but this is actually happening in the UK today. It is no Union dividend. This also ignores the fact that no claims under the rape clause have been made in Northern Ireland, probably due not least to the fact that the Attorney General started issuing guidance only a year after the policy came into effect. That was a whole year in which women and organisations were liable to prosecution under the Criminal Law Act (Northern Ireland) 1967 as a result of this policy.
The hon. Lady is making a point about a very sensitive policy area, on which we have had a lot of debates in this House. Does she not realise that when it comes to policies such as this, they are for the entire United Kingdom? I take issue with her divisive tone and her saying that it is Scotland’s problem, not England’s. These policies affect all the United Kingdom, so if there is an issue, it is an issue with the policy, not the nation.
I have campaigned solidly in favour of getting rid of the policy throughout the UK. All that the Scottish Tories have said—all that those Daleks have said—is “mitigate, and mitigate”, but I want to get rid of it for everyone.
There is another area in which the UK is not doing its part. We want the drug laws to be changed in Scotland. Last year there were 934 drug-related deaths in Scotland, and the vast majority were in the city that I represent. Glasgow City Council and the local health and social care partnership have a plan—a policy. They want to introduce drug consumption rooms, so that we can mitigate the worst of this terrible scourge of society.
There are drug consumption rooms now, but they are in back courts, bin sheds and dirty lanes all over the city. That does not serve anyone well. We have a public health emergency in the city of Glasgow, but all that the Prime Minister could say last week was, “Oh, that is too bad. It is really sad that that people die from drugs.” We have a policy and we want to get on with it, but the UK Government will not devolve that policy. They see fit to allow people in Scotland to go on dying as a result of drug overdoses, when we have a public health solution that could have an impact on their lives.
Then there is the issue of immigration. Scotland needs immigration. We need people to come to our country and participate in our economy, but what do the UK do? They say, “No, you cannot have those powers. Those powers will stay with us.” Constituents of mine who made a minor, legitimate change to their tax returns find themselves, under paragraph 322.5 of the Immigration Rules, branded a threat to national security and told to leave. They are highly skilled migrants who could bring many skills to this country. We should be valuing and thanking them, but what do the UK Government give them? They give them a hostile environment. They give them a policy that Scotland does not want.
When Glasgow City Council was a Labour administration, it put a sign over the door saying, “We welcome refugees”, and I am proud of it for doing so. That is the nation that we ought to have. We want nothing to do with the hostile environment, but while immigration law stays at Westminster, we have no say over this issue. The UK Government should hang their heads in shame.
As for Labour Members, they talk about employment law and low wages, but what did they do? They refused to devolve employment law to Scotland. We want to make those changes. We want to give our people better conditions. In the areas where we do have control, we have encouraged people to take up the real living wage—not the Chancellor’s “pretendy” living wage, which is not available to young people. There has been a high uptake, but we do not have the full control over employment law—over zero-hours contracts, for instance—that we would like to have.
The Labour party did not even deign to give us part of its World cup bid. Immediately after the World cup, Labour Front Benchers were saying, “We should have a World cup bid for England.” It is some Union if Scotland is not even involved in the football. That is literally taking the ball and going away.
I must finish my speech now, and let other Members speak. Let me end with the great words of the White Stripes, in a song that they took from “Citizen Kane”. You will have to forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, because it is a direct quotation, and there will be a “you” in it.
“You said, the union forever
You said, the union forever
You cried, the union forever
But that was untrue, girl.”
I think it is important, before I get into the main context of my speech, to pick up some of the highlights we have had so far. I use the word “highlights” with some caution, but we have heard one major admission in the Chamber today. Following a point I made—I wrote it down: “So Welsh Labour believes in the Union, Scottish Labour does not”—at the Dispatch Box, Scottish Labour’s most senior politician in this Parliament, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Lesley Laird), said, “Yes. Where have you been all these years?” The shadow Scottish Secretary confirmed, from the Dispatch Box, that Welsh Labour believes in the Union and Scottish Labour does not. I think that that will be a very important message for people in Scotland to hear because Labour was once a proud Unionist party in Scotland. At the last election and since the referendum, we have seen that it is no longer a strong supporter of the Union, and I am very concerned to hear those words from the hon. Lady.
Can I clarify the record, so that there is no misunderstanding? I think that I clarified the issue when I was asked earlier whether I was a Unionist and whether I also supported Scotland. I can confirm both again, not just for me but for my party. We are absolutely a party of the Union. We are a party of democracy. We are the party of devolution and we will not waver from that. If I inadvertently said what the hon. Gentleman says that I said, it was inadvertent, and I absolutely take that statement back.
That is a very important clarification because I have checked the official record and I said, in this Chamber, “Does Welsh Labour support the Union and does Scottish Labour not support it?”, and the hon. Lady is on record as saying, “Yes. Where have you been all these years?”
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I want to move on, because I think that is an important point that we have discussed.
There were some other, what I would class as highlights. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard) is no longer in his place. I have come very late to “Games of Thrones”. I have just finished watching season 1. Not even “Game of Thrones” season 1 goes as far back as the hon. Gentleman did in his speech. He spoke for 20 minutes, and about 18 of them were prehistoric, but he chose to totally omit some of the major developments that we have had in Scotland. He gave cursory notice to the 2014 independence referendum. I wonder why. Because the SNP lost. Then he mentioned the 2011 Scottish parliamentary elections, where the SNP was elected with a majority. Why then did he not mention the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, when the SNP lost its majority? It now relies on votes from the Green party to keep itself going.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) has also left. He always gives us very entertaining speeches. I had to wonder why we had all this talk about HMS Brexitannia, and then it came to me. Clearly, the editor of The National had been on the phone and said, “We have a great idea. We have a great picture to put on the front page of The National, but we need someone to give us a story”—and, as always, the hon. Gentleman obliged.
Yes, and we have discussed that many times but, as a minority, we are governing in the United Kingdom. We can keep going on about elections. We can speak about the 162 extra Conservative councillors who were elected in 2017—more than any other party in Scotland. We can speak about the 13 Scottish Conservatives elected to this Parliament, or the 21 SNP MPs who lost their seats. I am quite happy to compare election results with the hon. Gentleman.
I want to return to the subject of the referendum that we held in Scotland in 2014. My Moray constituency was very clear: 58% of people in Moray said no to separation. We had another referendum in 2016 and Moray came closer than any other part of Scotland to voting leave: 49.9% of people voted leave, compared with 50.1%—a difference of just 122. So when we hear that Scotland voted by such a big margin against leaving the European Union, we must always remember and respect the fact that there are people in all our constituencies who voted to leave the European Union and we have to try to get a deal that works for everyone.
This, however, is a debate about strengthening the Union. I am delighted to take part in this debate because in Moray we know about the strength of the Union far better than many others—because we have a great defence footprint in the constituency. We have Kinloss barracks and the 39 Engineer Regiment, and, of course, RAF Lossiemouth, which has had huge investment. I am grateful that the new defence procurement Minister—the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew)—is on the Front Bench today. I am sure that he will be a regular visitor to Moray to see the huge investment—the £400 million of investment by this UK Government in defence at Lossiemouth—and hundreds of new jobs.
We heard from the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Chloe Smith), about the incredible decision by the UK Government to mitigate the nat tax. The SNP made Scotland the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom. Our poor armed forces—our service personnel who proudly serve the United Kingdom at home and abroad—were suffering because of that. It is only because this UK Government mitigated the SNP Nat tax—
I am always grateful to debate this issue with the hon. Gentleman. I have asked him to do this before, and I hope he will do it this evening. Will he support the UK Government now reimbursing the squaddies in other parts of the UK who are paying more tax than frontline squaddies based in Scotland?
The Ministry of Defence pays our hard-working and extremely brave servicemen and women the UK rate—the same level of tax. It is only because the SNP decided to make Scotland the highest taxed part of the United Kingdom that we were forced to mitigate that. [Interruption.] SNP Members can chunter away from sedentary positions and shout down this policy, but how dare they say the £4 million—
No, I will not give way. How dare SNP Members say the £4 million annually that this UK Government are paying to mitigate their policy is wrong? That is absolutely scandalous, and armed forces personnel in Scotland will be viewing—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman keeps shouting. I think that is extremely—[Interruption.] He continues to shout, and it is extremely disrespectful to our armed forces personnel who have been supported in mitigating his party’s policies.
I do not have an awful lot of time left, but I want to mention the cuts commission, because it leads on from what I have just said about defence. The cuts commission —or the growth commission, as the SNP would try to call it—was many months in the making and the report was shoved out one Friday on a bank holiday. We all wondered why it was not published to great fanfare. It is because there is so much bad news for the SNP in its own cuts commission.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies mentions
“the Commission’s proposals for immediate cuts to defence”—
very interesting for my seat in Moray and others around Scotland—
“and other spending currently undertaken by the UK government.”
That is not me saying that; that is the IFS saying that the SNP’s cuts commission will lead to immediate cuts to defence. John McLaren of Scottish Trends made an apposite point when he said:
“Scotland will be moving from a deficit equivalent to nearly 6% of GDP towards a 3% target. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to work out the implications.”
The implications for our constituents in Moray and across Scotland are that, under the SNP and its cuts commission, we will see more cuts to local authorities and more cuts to the NHS, and I will not accept that.
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes a very serious point. The outcome of independence does not matter to the SNP; it simply matters to the SNP that it gets independence and separates from the rest of the UK. And it does not matter that it affects my constituents in Moray, with cuts to NHS Grampian, one of the poorest funded health boards anywhere in Scotland. That is why I have been joining protestors across Moray against the downgrading of our maternity services; that is the outcome we have from an SNP Administration in Holyrood after 11 years of them in government.
I wanted to make many other points. I wanted to briefly highlight power grabs, something that, again, the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire mentioned. I think there is a power grab going on, and it is by the SNP, because it wants to grab these powers from Europe, and it does not want them in Holyrood or in Westminster; it wants them back in Europe. That is a power grab—the SNP grabbing these powers to give them back to Europe. The fishermen in my Moray constituency do not want that. Many of the one third, we are told, of SNP supporters who voted to leave the EU must now be wondering what their party is promising them because the policy is for the hated common fisheries policy to go straight back to the EU. So many other policies that are currently ruled by Europe would go straight back to the EU if the SNP ever got its way. [Interruption.] I have seen the wink in your eye, Mr Deputy Speaker, so I know my remarks must now come to a conclusion. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] Again, SNP Members cheer because someone had an opposite view from them and they are about to finish their speech. They can give it out but they cannot take it.
This Conservative Government are strengthening—[Interruption.] SNP Members keep shouting. This Conservative Government are strengthening the Union. More powers have been devolved to Holyrood by this UK Conservative Government since 2010 than any others, making it one of the strongest devolved Assemblies anywhere in the world. As a result of Brexit, with so many more powers going to the Scottish Parliament and to Holyrood, it will just get stronger. That is how we are strengthening the Union.
I am upset to be called after the hon. Member for Moray (Douglas Ross) because as a result I was not included in his greatest hits, but there we are.
Over the past weeks, months and years, we have seen the Union becoming weakened or threatened. Some say events such as the Scottish independence referendum, the EU referendum and the subsequent mishandling of the Brexit negotiations have all taken their toll, but underpinning those events is the ongoing wrecking of our communities and people’s trust in politics by this Tory Government. We need to learn from these recent examples when the Union has been at risk, but we also need to evaluate why people decided to vote in their masses for such drastic measures and such changes to the Union.
Constituents who voted for Scotland to leave the UK and for Britain to leave the EU tell me they did so because they wanted change. They are fed up with this broken system that sees the privileged few at the top and then the many, the masses, being told that we all need to bear the brunt—we need to tighten our purse-strings. We are struggling to get by. We are saving up for nice things, but then having to spend savings on essentials instead. People are seeing their local services decimated and their streets full of rubbish, with their councils unable to afford regular bin collections. No wonder people want change.
But we cannot accept the Tory approach of sweeping all of that under the carpet and bleating on about the power of the Union while working people reluctantly turn to food banks to feed their families. But we also cannot accept the SNP approach that we have seen of peddling the lie that everything would be better after independence, while simultaneously hiding austerity in its so-called growth commission.
The Union across our nations is of course a result of hundreds of years of co-operation and decisions taken at a political level. But it is also essentially something that exists in the hearts and minds of people across the UK. For many people, being a part of the Union fills them with pride and in some cases provides them with an identity. However, sadly, in Scotland today, how we talk about our identity has changed. It is a sad fact that, as has been highlighted, some people feel forced to choose between their Scottish and British identities. None the less, there are various events that cut across the nationalistic identities, and I want to share my view of my identity.
I am from Dalkeith in Midlothian, a mining town, and just last weekend I made my way to the “big meeting” which, to explain to other Members, is the Durham Miners’ Gala. For almost 150 years, people from across the UK have made the cultural pilgrimage to Durham to celebrate our shared history and the work we are carrying out in the trade unions and the Labour party to make people’s lives better across the UK. The people who gather there have a shared identity and culture that remains unbroken within mining communities such as mine. I would feel at home in any mining community across the country; whether in Wales, the north-east or Midlothian, I could go into a miners’ club and feel at home and they would literally have the same wallpaper. But of course this identity is not unique to mining communities. My identity is class rather than nationality based, but I absolutely respect every identity that people choose. People have shared identities that come from varied communities, the NHS, common interests and sectors, family heritage and political will.
Recently, people came together in their thousands to promote British values of tolerance and equality. Members from across this House may have joined the thousands of people across the UK who protested against the values and ideas espoused by President of the United States, Donald Trump. We as a country showed that we reject his politics of misogyny and we stand up to hatred. Such demonstrations were held across the UK.
It is for those reasons, and more, that I believe that there is a commonality and a shared identity that exists across the United Kingdom, but regardless of where in the UK people are and where they live, this is being eroded by the damaging and often heartless policies of the current Government. I want to give a few brief examples.
We have a Government who are content with cutting taxes for millionaires, while at the same time cutting benefits paid to the most vulnerable in our society. Across local authorities affected by the roll-out of universal credit, we see soaring shortfalls in councils’ rental income. In my own constituency of Midlothian, rent arrears are up by more than a fifth, with temporary accommodation arrears a staggering 278% higher since UC full service began. Every penny that is lost to local authorities in rent arears represents a person pushed further into debt by this Government and their policies.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech about the fact that solidarity transcends borders and is grounded in class politics. Does she also agree that the hostile environment policy in this country is another thing that we need to tackle collectively as one people? My constituent, Giorgi Kakava, who is in the Gallery today, is an example of someone affected by that policy, which we must challenge if all the people of the United Kingdom are to have a secure future.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I wonder what the Windrush generation feel about their British identity.
I know that this debate is on the Union, but I feel that it was important to mention those points because many people who come into my office are in need of food bank referrals or of assistance with correcting mistakes in their universal credit payments. They will be seeking a political alternative to the harsh policies affecting their lives, and that is what makes them seek change. I hope that Members across the House, especially those in the Government, will recognise the real and serious threats that these policies are posing to the Union.
For many people, the answer is to rip up the Union and go it alone, but I do not believe that that should happen. We saw that during the Scottish independence referendum, and I fear that the Government have not yet learned from that or from the European Union referendum. If they are serious about strengthening the Union, they should stop their damaging policies and instead look at new ways of strengthening and improving the Union, such as adopting a model of federalism and devolving decision making to local level.
A Labour Government would establish a constitutional convention, as described by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) , to challenge where power and sovereignty lie in politics, the economy, the justice system and our communities. We want to extend democracy locally, regionally and nationally, exploring the option of a more federalised country. We need a relationship of equals with devolved Administrations throughout the UK. In this regard we differ from the SNP, which has sought the path of centralisation to strengthen the powers and influence of the Scottish Parliament, often at the expense of local government.
So how do we strengthen the Union? We can do it by treating people right across the UK as humans and with dignity; by ensuring that we have equality of opportunity in every community in the UK; by giving workers in Scotland, England, Northern Ireland and Wales a proper wage of £10 an hour and secure work; by valuing all our workers and giving them real protections and good wages; by providing reliable and dignified support for those who cannot work; and by showing respect for our devolved nations, with well funded local councils.
I would like to give the House a quick anecdote. In 2014, I made a film during the referendum campaign, and I was privileged to come here to Parliament to interview the man I am now honoured to call my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner). He gave me a lesson in collectivism. He told me that, in his life and looking through history, he had found that the challenges of capitalism had never been defeated by running away or by separating off and turning our back on things; instead, they had been defeated by coming together and collectively challenging the issues. So, yes, let us be ambitious and let us scream for change and an end to this top-down, unequal and unfair system, but let us choose the best way to reform our society and keep our Union strong at the same time. That is achievable, but it is clear to me—and it is becoming clearer to people up and down the UK—that the only way to do that is to deliver a Labour Government.
I am delighted to rise to speak in this debate this evening. In fact, there is nowhere else I would rather be on a beautiful July evening than here, and no issue that I would rather discuss than the Union yet again. It is an issue that is close to my heart, and close to the hearts of my constituents, 60.4% of whom voted to remain in the UK in 2014, and 67.6% of whom voted for Unionist parties in last year’s general election. Despite what SNP Members say, what I hear regularly from my constituents, and expect to hear many times again this summer as I traverse my beautiful constituency of West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine—details are on my website—is that they have little appetite left for referendums, whether on Scotland’s place in the Union or on Britain’s place in Europe. A recent poll by the Daily Record has found that fewer than half of Scots agree with Nicola Sturgeon when she says that
“independence is back on the table”
after Brexit. What the overwhelming majority of my constituents—and, I believe, the public at large—want from us is to get on with the job of governing in the national interest for all of Britain’s people, and that is what we in the Conservative and Unionist party are doing.
As I was looking for inspiration for this speech today, I stumbled on these words:
“This morning we have renewed our joint commitment under the Edinburgh agreement to work constructively and positively to implement the will of the people. That work starts immediately.”
Those are the words that Alex Salmond did not say on the morning of 19 September. They are taken from the speech that he had prepared to use if Scotland had voted yes in 2014. It is a pity that he was not so keen to renew that commitment to implement the will of the people following the actual result. Unlike the SNP, the Conservative party kept to the spirit of the agreement, respected the result and delivered everything it had promised through the Smith commission to build a strong Scotland with a powerful voice inside a United Kingdom of which every Member in this House should be proud.
I think the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, but of course she did no such thing. The people of Scotland went into the referendum in September 2014 in the full knowledge that a referendum on our membership of the European Union was coming down the tracks. It had been promised in January 2013, a full year and nine months before the September 2014 referendum.
It seems hard to believe it now, but when the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly were created in the 1990s, the goal was to strengthen the Union. Lord Robertson of Port Ellen might not have got it exactly right when he declared in 1997 that devolution would “kill nationalism stone dead”. I will admit that the temptation on our side, and probably elsewhere, to say “we told you so” is sometimes rather strong, as the only thing that it seems to have killed is the Scottish Labour party and the Scottish Liberal Democrats.
We are the party that respects the 2014 referendum result and the 2016 referendum result, so we are the only party that respects the original aim of the devolution process: to bring politics and decision making closer to Scottish communities and to make our politics more representative and responsive. Unfortunately, between the incompetence of the two Labour-Lib Dem Administrations and the deliberate actions of the now three SNP Administrations, Scotland has suffered only centralisation, power hoarding in Edinburgh and central belt bias in decision making, with Aberdeenshire and the north-east—forever Scotland’s cash cow—taxed more than any other part of the country and forever being short-changed.
Reading The Press and Journal this morning, I noticed that Aberdeenshire Council was being forced to double the cost of renting town hall premises in Stonehaven and Banchory due to a cut in grant funding from the Scottish Government. We should never forget that it was the SNP Government’s obsession with centralisation that led, disastrously, and despite many warnings, to the deeply flawed reorganisation of police services in Scotland, for which they found themselves liable for £35 million a year in VAT—a situation that was resolved only by the election to this House of 12 additional Scottish Conservatives.
I would have to look into that in more detail to find the exact reason why we abstained on that vote. I personally, of course, would have voted against it.
We know that the SNP Government created that situation with VAT in the full knowledge of what they were doing. They attempted to turn it into a grievance with Westminster, and then tried to use it to force a wedge between the nations of our United Kingdom. The Scottish National party is committed to the break-up of the UK. Every action it takes, every speech its members make and every policy from Bute House is weaponised and sent into battle for the express purpose of weakening the bonds between our nations and breaking apart the most successful economic and political union in the world. It puts ideological and constitutional obsessions over the good of the Scottish people, and it always will.
I personally am proud to be British. I am proud of what this country has done in the past, and sure of what this united, global Britain will do in the future. I hope beyond hope that in 2021 the Scottish people will get the Government they deserve: a transformative Conservative Administration in Holyrood, delivering real, fair devolution to the people of Scotland and working alongside a Conservative Government in Westminster governing and legislating for the whole UK—working together in the national interest and strengthening our Union. Only then, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) likes to say, will we truly be in the early days of a better nation.
I thank the hon. Members for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Lesley Laird) for their sartorial support for this debate, with the former’s Union Jack dress and the latter’s dress with a flower of the Union in Northern Ireland—the orange lily—displayed so prominently. In fact, I was thinking of pairing them—
An orange tie. They would blend in well at that great celebration of Unionism in Northern Ireland on 12 July.
The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) has challenged and mocked this as an irrelevant debate that has just been thrown in at the end of the parliamentary term, but this is an extremely important debate for the people of the United Kingdom.
Speaking from a Northern Ireland perspective, I know that the Union is not just academic or some kind of constitutional thing. People in Northern Ireland died fighting against a terrorist campaign to ensure that we stayed within the Union. This debate is important, because it is important that people right across the United Kingdom understand the value that they personally, their countries and their regions obtain from being part of the United Kingdom.
There are, of course, the economic benefits of being part of a country that is the fifth largest economic power in the world, which means that people in Northern Ireland have access to the internal market. Some 66% of the goods we produce in Northern Ireland find their way into the market of the rest of the United Kingdom, sustaining hundreds of thousands of jobs.
I mentioned in an intervention the fiscal transfers within the United Kingdom that ensure that the parts that require them, because of either geographic disadvantage, historical disadvantage or the changing structure of their economy, receive the money to sustain their economies. Some might argue that the transfers are not enough, but the fact is that we benefit from being part of a large economic unit. Of course, we also benefit from the protection of the security umbrella that the United Kingdom affords to us. Again, we benefit from the United Kingdom being a major international military power. As independent nations, none of us could ever sustain those things. In Northern Ireland, of course, we benefited within our own territory when we had the support of the military in defeating the terrorist campaign we experienced for 40 years.
There is also British soft power, with the connections that a country the size of ours has across the world. I could go into a lot of examples, but just recently the jobs of 6,000 workers at Bombardier in Northern Ireland were sustained because of the connections that this country’s Ministers have with Boeing and with the United States Government. They could make the case for protecting those jobs and for ensuring that Bombardier was not closed out of US markets.
I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) will mention all the historical connections, such as in the names of towns. Londonderry, of course, owes its importance and its prosperity to the merchants from London who went there, invested in and improved that part of Northern Ireland. Newtownards in his constituency is a new town formed by those who came to settle there and develop the economy.
The Union is important to all of us, and I have given examples from Northern Ireland. Of course, the Union is always under attack from nationalist elements, and we have heard that here today. All countries, all relationships, go through difficult times, and it is easy to say, “Ah, but if we were in a different kind of relationship, it would be better.” The grass is always greener somewhere in the distance, and we have heard a lot of examples today—“If we were not part of the United Kingdom, we wouldn’t have to suffer this and we wouldn’t have to experience that,” but, as I have said, as independent countries we would face all those problems without the support of the bigger Union.
The most recent example has been Brexit. Nationalists in Northern Ireland have used Brexit to try to drive a wedge between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Despite all the nationalists’ arguments about Brexit, the surprising thing is that the latest poll by UK in a Changing Europe, which is not sympathetic to the Brexit cause—indeed, I do not think it is sympathetic to the Union—found that, even with all the propaganda that has been spread, only 21% of people in Northern Ireland would vote to leave the United Kingdom.
I do not accept the argument made earlier that Brexit means dividing Northern Ireland from the Irish Republic, which is not our main market anyway. Indeed, only last week, the EU and the Irish Government confirmed—indeed, they boasted about it—that, even if we left without a deal, no infrastructure would be placed along the Irish border. That is not me saying it, it is not a Brexiteer saying it, and it is not a partisan person saying it; this is the EU negotiators, who had been telling us that the border was an insurmountable problem. Suddenly it is not when they want to give reassurance.
I will quickly make a few points on what can be done to strengthen the Union, because I want to keep to the 10-minute limit. First, we have to make sure that there is a fair deal for all parts of the United Kingdom. I criticise this Government too, but Labour Governments and Conservative Governments have both fallen into the same trap, with policies often tending to be London-centric or south-east of England-centric, without considering the impact of tax and trade policies, for example, on regions. In Northern Ireland, we are sitting with a land boundary with a country that has done away with air passenger duty and reduced VAT on hospitality and the tourism industry, skewing the market. Again, when devising policies on a national basis, it is important that we consider their local impact.
Secondly, we have to celebrate important events around the Union, and there will be an opportunity in the near future, when Northern Ireland comes to its centenary in 2021, to celebrate the fact that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. I hope they will be not just Northern Ireland celebrations but national celebrations. We recently had the celebrations of the 100th anniversary of the RAF, which gave a reminder of its importance to the nation in a colourful and dramatic display. Those kinds of things can be unifying to a nation.
Thirdly, recognition has to be given to the fact that there are devolved Administrations. Although they cannot override national policies, proper consultation should be undertaken and proper cognisance given to the views of devolved Administrations.
Lastly, it is important that the Government are not seen to be centralised here in London, which means that we need to spread out the administrative arrangements and administrative facilities across the UK, so that we know we are part of one nation and we can be proud of that and of our long history. Everybody across the UK needs to be aware of the sacrifices we share, as well as the benefits, so that they become supportive of the Union.
I am going to do something that breaks with convention in this debate—I am going to say something positive about what is going on. I am not going to get into arguments about different areas of the UK, what is going wrong and who could be doing things better than the others. Let us just pause and look at exactly where we are at this moment in time.
I have to make a declaration: apparently, I am the only Parliamentary Private Secretary in history to have been PPS to the Secretaries of State for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Even I did not know that when it happened.
And Lancashire, and quite right, too, Mr Deputy Speaker; one great Lancastrian speaks to another.
So what have we done to make things even? Well, we have English votes for English laws, which went a long way to try to even out the big question—the West Lothian question. [Interruption.] It did. When we did that, we looked into the Barnett formula and idiosyncrasies that went with it. The Government have put £1.2 billion into Wales, boosting the Barnett formula by 5%, so for about every £100 spent in Wales about £120 is actually coming back into Wales. This has gone a long way to evening out the equilibrium of the economies.
If we think about that, we see that putting an extra 5% into the Barnett formula works out at £67 million over the next five years, which has to be welcomed. This has put Wales in a very positive position in terms of the Brexit problem of leaving the EU. The Government are extending to mid-Wales a growth deal similar to the city deal in Cardiff. That city deal is £615 million, which has been more money put into Wales than any other Government have ever done before. That has to be welcomed. If we are doing that in mid-Wales, imagine what is going to happen there. There is always a problem with transport in mid-Wales, but if we get the transport sorted out in that area, that will provide a boost—it is inevitable. If we get a spaceport there, which is something I will discuss when I get to the Scotland part of my speech, that will pay dividends for mid-Wales, because we have aerospace factories there—Airbus is there and just nearby. That is a huge contributor to that part of the economy in that area, so we must think of this in a positive way.
Turning to Scotland, I know I am probably going to upset the SNP, although I do not really want to do that because the whole tone of what I am trying to do is to be constructive. [Interruption.] I do not want to upset my own colleagues either, so please behave!
I have to make another declaration, as I am the chairman of the parliamentary space committee—there is such a thing. A lot of SNP Members are on it, along with a lot of Conservatives and a lot of Labour Members. The space industry is growing by 11% a year—it has done so year in, year out, all the way through the recession we have just been through. The industry is getting bigger and bigger. Within the next 10 years, space tourism will be a reality. Not so long ago, it was announced that we were going to be having horizontal take-offs from the south-west, but we are going to be having ballistic applications happening in Sutherland. What does that really mean? I do not want to stir up my SNP friends and make a political point, but if we have a spaceport in that area, that will change the economy; it will be a big game changer and a huge infrastructure programme. Although I really want you to stay with us, another problem we would have if Scotland did go independent is that it would contravene the ITAR—International Traffic in Arms Regulations—agreement. The Americans would not accept anything ballistic we put up there, so we would not be able to send satellites up from there or they would not put satellites up from that area. [Interruption.] That is true. If Members would like to look into it, they will find that is a valid point.