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Scottish Parliament: Independence Referendum

Volume 823: debated on Wednesday 20 July 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their current policy in respect of any request from the Scottish Parliament for a further referendum on independence.

My Lords, Her Majesty’s Government are clearly of the view that now is not the time to talk about another independence referendum in Scotland. People across Scotland want to see both our Governments working together on the issues that matter to them: tackling the cost of living, protecting our long-term energy security, leading the international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and growing our economy so that everyone has access to opportunities, skills and jobs for the future.

My Lords, I am grateful to have a Scottish Minister answering this Question so well, but will he acknowledge that Boris Johnson, the candidates for the leadership of the Tory party and, even more importantly, Keir Starmer have all ruled out a second referendum, so there will not be one? Yet the Scottish Government are employing 20 civil servants and printing and producing party-political propaganda, using UK taxpayers’ money, in their campaign to break up Britain—Nicola Sturgeon is taking the UK Government for fools. So will the Minister take up his strong Scottish arm and ask the Prime Minister and, more importantly in this context, the head of the Civil Service to get the Scottish Government to stop this illegality and start spending the money that they get from British taxpayers on the services for which they are now responsible?

The noble Lord referenced the £20 million that the Scottish Government have ring-fenced and the 20 civil servants put together for this referendum. The minute the First Minister announced that she wanted to publish a prospectus for independence, the Secretary of State for Scotland said:

“right-minded Scots would agree that using civil service resources to design a prospectus for independence is the wrong thing to be doing at this time.”—[Official Report, Commons, 8/9/21; col. 289.]

In the meantime, there have been a number of glossy documents, the first of which was Independence in the Modern World. Wealthier, Happier, Fairer: Why Not Scotland? The SNP has been in power for 15 years, and we can see that Scotland is not wealthier, happier or fairer. We can go through the list: our education system—where I was educated—has gone from outstanding to average, there are record queues in the NHS, 20% of children live in poverty, and ferries are rusting on the Clyde while people cannot go on their holidays. The UK Government are firmly of the view that the Scottish Government should focus on the matters that Scottish people want them to deal with, which is how to make their lives better, and not fuss with another, pretend referendum.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the best response to the First Minister’s request for a second independence referendum is to ensure that the next leader of the Conservative Party makes sure that we are a Government for the entire United Kingdom and implements the recommendations of the Dunlop report in full?

I thank my noble friend and agree with her that the next leader has a great responsibility to protect the union. I note that they will be the 56th Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. So far, we have had 55, of whom 11 were Scots, so that is a healthy 20% representation, which is one of the reasons why this union has been so successful: Scottish voices have been heard. We must ensure that that continues, which is why the recommendations of the Dunlop report—I share my noble friend’s admiration for it and its author—have formed the basis of the new inter-ministerial group architecture, which resulted in 440 inter-ministerial group meetings in 2021 alone.

My Lords, is Minister reinforced in his view that an independence referendum is not required by fact that the Lord Advocate —Scotland’s senior law officer—has ruled that an independence referendum would not be within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament?

This is obviously now on its way to the Supreme Court. The UK Government are very clear that this is outside of competence—this is a reserved, not a devolved, matter. This now goes to the Supreme Court, which will adjudicate on it in the autumn. However, in the meantime, they press ahead: we have another glossy document called Renewing Democracy through Independence, which a professor at the University of Edinburgh, who is not party-political, described as “dismal, negative, uninspiring” and “utterly fanciful”. We still have no details on how Scotland will fund itself without a currency, how it will operate a hard border with England and how it will make the country more successful. This is thin gruel and, as the bard said,

“Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware

That jaups in luggies”.

My Lords, in endorsing the Minister’s statement, I urge the Government to be very careful in the language used in response to the SNP, to avoid giving the SNP any excuse for further anti-Englishness. I hope we can have a response from the Government which is positive while, at the same time, outlining that there is no mandate for a series of referenda in Scotland on this issue.

I thank the noble Lord and take his point that this is as much about tone as it is about content. My observation is that the Scots have been happiest in this union when we demonstrably punch above our weight: we have 8% of the population and 33% of the geography of the UK, but as Scots we have a duty to ensure that whatever we do is more than 8% and heading towards 33%. In recent times, the Scots would perhaps feel that their voices have not been heard; sometimes they look at Westminster with some consternation. The next Prime Minister has an opportunity to change this perception and show that we really do care by creating a positive narrative for Scotland inside the union.

My Lords, there are four voters on the register at home in Perthshire and I kept the election communications that came through the door in May last year: two booklets from the SNP and one booklet from the Scottish Greens. There are many reasons that those booklets list for voting for the SNP and Scottish Greens, respectively, but not once is there any mention in them of an independence referendum. Does the Minister feel that this too is a relevant factor?

Yes, I do, and I agree with the noble Earl. This might be recognised in the 2021 election for Holyrood: the First Minister was trying to persuade Scots to vote for her on her Covid record, but the minute she got into power, her campaign went back to being a mandate for a referendum.

I agree that we have a lot of weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth the whole time, but we must look at what this is actually based on. The population of Scotland is 5.3 million, of whom 4.3 million are eligible to vote. In the 2014 independence referendum, 3.6 million Scots voted—an extraordinary percentage of 84%, the highest in any country other than Australia, where it is mandatory to vote. Noble Lords should compare this with the 2.6 million Scots who voted in the EU referendum; so 1 million more Scots voted for the UK union than for the European Union. The point is that, in the 2019 general election, 1.3 million Scots voted for the nationalists, against the 1.6 million who voted in the referendum. As they are in territory of around 1.3 million or 1.4 million votes out of an electorate of 4.3 million, I do not believe that this is a mandate for independence.

My Lords, Scotland deserves better. There are over 700,000 Scots on NHS waiting lists, and over 10,000 children and young people waiting for mental health appointments. There are almost 20,000 fewer businesses in Scotland today than there were before the pandemic began. For households across Scotland, it does not feel as though the crisis is over. Does the Minister agree with Labour that the Scottish Government would be better served looking after and focusing on the people of Scotland than concentrating on an independence referendum?

I think we should always turn the argument back on them. They claim that they want to make Scotland wealthier, happier and fairer, but they have not given us any arguments as to how they can do that. We believe that we can do that much better within the union and with a positive narrative for Scotland inside the union: we have a strong currency and 300 years of family binds that bring us together; we support each other, as we have just seen during Covid through furlough. We are all better together, therefore I endorse the noble Lord’s opinion.

My Lords, surely there is another view: the parties proposing an independence referendum won a majority of seats and votes in last year’s Scottish Parliament election. That is the standard definition of a democratic mandate. If the Government have decided on another definition, could they please tell your Lordships’ House what it is? Or have the Government simply decided that the people of Scotland will not be allowed to make such a decision for themselves?

In the last Holyrood election, the SNP failed to get a majority. If we add in the 28,000 Green votes, it got to 50% of the popular vote, but it was still only 1.4 million out of 4.3 million voters. It is stuck at that 1.3 million to 1.4 million. You can decide what a mandate is, but it seems to me that common sense would say that it would need to get to 2 million, because the unionists took 2 million—so that is a gating item. If you go to 60% of that, you have 2.5 million, so I think it is a long way off.