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Scottish Independence

Volume 826: debated on Wednesday 7 December 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with the Scottish Government about that government’s policy paper Building a New Scotland: A stronger economy with independence, published on 17 October.

My Lords, I can answer the Question from the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, by confirming that His Majesty’s Government have had no discussions with the Scottish Government about the recent policy paper entitled Building a New Scotland: A Stronger Economy with Independence, dated 22 October. This is the third of seven glossy documents currently being produced by the Scottish Government as they continue to bypass devolution by spending £20 million of taxpayers’ money and wasting civil servants’ time on matters reserved for the United Kingdom Government.

Last month, the Supreme Court gave a decisive, unanimous ruling that the Scottish Government have no legal competence to legislate on reserved matters. The constitution is clearly and unequivocally reserved to Westminster. It follows now that His Majesty’s Government calls on the Scottish Government to cease and desist from constantly crossing the line from devolved matters into reserved matters. As the Secretary of State for Scotland said last year in the other place:

“I think most 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, 8/9/2021; col. 289.]

I am very grateful to the Minister for his reply: I could have written it myself. However, now that the Supreme Court has decided that the Scottish Government have no responsibility whatever for calling a referendum, surely the production of all these publications he described, and indeed the employment of so many civil servants, is ultra vires. Since it is the United Kingdom Government who have the ultimate responsibility for the propriety of the expenditure of all UK taxpayers’ money, when and how are they going to exercise this responsibility?

As the noble Lord was an active parliamentarian at that time, I am sure he can confirm that the devolution settlement enacted in the Scotland Act 1998 did not envisage a scenario where the Scottish Parliament in Holyrood would act in confrontation, instead of in co-operation, with Westminster. The Scotland Act assumed there would be a very clear demarcation between reserved and devolved matters, respected by both sides. Therefore, there are no penalties, fines or surcharges built into the parliamentary architecture for ultra vires activities of the sort previously described to the House by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, as applying, for example, to local councillors. However, I reassure noble Lords that this matter has now been reviewed at the highest reaches of the UK Civil Service.

Following the Supreme Court judgment, the United Kingdom Cabinet Secretary is in discussion with the Scottish Government’s Permanent Secretary on the role of the Civil Service in Scotland. My own observation from 15 months as a Minister in the Scotland Office is that if only we could get the Scottish Government focused on the day job of administering Scottish affairs in devolved areas and working in co-operation with the UK Government in reserved areas, there is no doubt in my mind that, working together, we could turbocharge Scotland.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister will recall that in 1997, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown said that devolution and giving the Scottish Parliament greater powers would kill nationalism stone dead. Does he think that the recent idea—floated, I think, on Monday—to give the Scottish Parliament more powers would kill the idea of an independent Scotland stone dead again?

The noble Lord should be well aware that Gordon Brown has been on this journey for quite a while; he proposes a federal United Kingdom. But when one of the four nations has 85% of the population and 90% of the wealth and it does not want devolution, you have a problem. So I agree with the noble Lord that devolution did not kill independence stone dead, but I am very clear that the Scottish National Party commands the support of only one-third of the Scottish electorate and therefore it should get on with the job in hand, which is to manage Scotland within the devolution settlement.

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that while this document is strong on nationalist rhetoric, it is almost entirely deficient in detail? Does he say that the SNP does not have the capacity to second-guess the outcome of negotiations with either the rest of the UK, the EU or the financial markets, and that it should recognise that Scottish opinion is still divided and what it should be doing is getting on with the job in hand, addressing what matters in the ailing health service and declining education, and end this embarrassing distraction?

The noble Lord is obviously well versed in the Scottish economy and Scottish affairs. I make two observations on the paper, the glossy document. First, as we have come to expect from a Scottish Government with 27 Ministers and 56 press officers, for every policy initiative there is a glossy document and a glitzy, headline-making press release. The problem the Scottish people have, which we have found to our cost, is that actual policy delivery on the ground ranges from non-existent to incompetent. Secondly, any reader of the glossy document will discover four glaring omissions: no explanation of how an independent Scotland would reduce our annual deficit of £24 billion, which is 25% of our annual budget; no explanation of how an independent Scotland would fund this deficit without access to international bond markets through its own currency; no explanation of how an independent Scotland would operate a hard border on the island of Great Britain; and no explanation of how an independent Scotland would access the knowledge economy when the SNP has wrecked our education system.

My Lords, the Minister referred, in responding to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, to “right-minded Scots”. Is he aware that an Ipsos MORI poll on independence came out just a couple of hours ago, after the release of this Building a New Scotland policy paper and the Supreme Court judgment, which shows a significant rise in support for Scottish independence? Should the Scottish people not be allowed to have their say?

As we have said many times in this Chamber, the Scottish people had their say in 2014. Some 3.6 million Scots voted: 84% of the electorate. It was the highest turnout anywhere other than Australia, where it is compulsory to vote. In it, 2 million voted to stay and 1.6 million voted to leave. That is a decisive result.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that one exemplar of the SNP’s capability in economic and industrial terms is shipbuilding? We have provided incredible orders on the Clyde and at Babcock for our Navy, yet the only area in which the SNP has been involved are some ferries which are something like three years overdue and had to have windows painted on them because holes had not been cut. It is now thinking of building them somewhere else. Does the Minister agree that that is an exemplar of what the SNP can achieve?

The noble Lord has great knowledge of these matters. The UK Government have just announced £4 billion of new shipbuilding orders coming to the Clyde and Rosyth. It has been noted that in the last five years the naval shipyards in Scotland have built four frigates while the SNP cannot get two rusting ferries off the dock. It is very clear that we have great competence and strength in our naval shipyards. Sadly, that is not the case within the Scottish Government’s remit.

Will the Minister accept that Scotland’s greatest market is England, the scale of which is substantial? Whether Scotland can go it alone is the wrong question. The question is: wherein lies the balance of advantage? Conclusively, in my view, it is in the United Kingdom.

I agree with the noble Lord; 60% of Scottish trade is with England, 20% is with the EU and 20% is international. This is part of the issue not addressed in the paper. I point to a couple of observations. The IFS has said of the paper that

“Scotland’s much higher levels of public spending … mean that it … would need to make bigger cuts to … spending or … increases to taxes”.

Richard Murphy, traditionally a pro-independence economist, said to the National that the

“currency plans are ‘so wrong’ he would vote No in a future referendum.”

A pro-independence campaigner, Robin McAlpine, commented that the prospect was dismal—Scotland has no lender of last resort under these plans and there is no solution to the border. In summary, he said the whole thing is “utter pish”. I defer to the Lord Speaker to explain to more genteel noble Lords that that is a Glaswegian euphemism for utter balderdash.

My Lords, is not the truth that neither the Scottish Government nor the UK Government are doing a good job for the Scottish people at the moment? Does the Minister not think the Labour leader in Scotland, Anas Sarwar, makes a very strong point when he proposes that there should be an emergency cost of living Act, including halving rail fares, capping bus journeys, emergency debt legislation, a top-up to the welfare fund and a fully costed plan for £100 water rebates? Would that not be a better use of the Scottish Government’s time?

That is quite a long shopping list. We can see the strength of the United Kingdom in the measures recently put forward to address the cost of living crisis, which are distributed equally across all four parts of the United Kingdom. Scotland is a major beneficiary of those and is funded much more securely within the United Kingdom than it would be as an independent country.