Orders of the Day — Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill
Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury, Conservative)
It is a privilege to make my first speech in such an important debate. I congratulate the hon. Members who have made such excellent maiden speeches. I pay tribute to the courage and determination of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Gorrie), who has arrived at the House after five attempts. Although it has not taken me five attempts, I know how he feels. I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley), who made an excellent speech, to the Labour Members who spoke so well and to the hon. Ladies who have spoken with such wit, charm and wisdom.
All those hon. Ladies on the Labour Benches present something of a problem to the hon. Ladies on the Conservative Benches because they get mistaken for Labour Members. Given what was said earlier, I am not sure whether it is worse to be mistaken for a Labour Member's wife or for a Labour Member. The thought of that persuaded my wife to stand for Gloucestershire county council rather than Parliament. Happily, 2 May provided an opportunity for a double celebration, at least in Tewkesbury.
It really was a celebration, because it is a great privilege to represent such a wonderful constituency. Tewkesbury has many urban parts but the countryside has been described as
A place of gentle contrasts.
My arrival in Tewkesbury was a more severe contrast than might have been thought. In 1471, there was a famous battle at Tewkesbury in the war of the roses. It was won by the Yorkists, as many hon. Members will know. I am glad to say that the 1997 battle of Tewkesbury was
convincingly won by a Lancastrian. It gives me great pleasure to serve as the first Member of Parliament for Tewkesbury as a seat in itself for more than 100 years.
It is the custom of the House to pay tribute to one's predecessors. That may take me a while because the seat has been cobbled together from several different constituencies. Most of it was contained in the old seat of Cirencester and Tewkesbury, which was represented with such distinction by Nicholas Ridley. I pay tribute to his successor, my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown), who represented the seat with great distinction for five years. I thank him also for the help that he gave me. I am pleased to pay tribute to the work of the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones), part of whose constituency I have taken. Last, but by no means least, I pay tribute to Paul Marland who unfortunately lost his seat, partly because of the boundary changes, and partly because of the swing against the Conservatives. I took quite a chunk of his seat, for which he does not thank me.
We in Tewkesbury somewhat bucked the national trend. I like to think that that was at least partly due to the clear ideas that we put to the electorate. I stood on an unashamedly British ticket, fighting against European federalism and stressing the need for and benefits of preserving the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It has been said before, but it is my firm belief that the United Kingdom as a whole is stronger than the sum of its parts. Our strength has been built together. Thanks to the strength of the Union, and in no small part thanks to 18 years of Conservative government, the new Labour Government inherit a strong, prosperous, united nation.
It is impossible to separate the Bill from the wider issue of devolution, and impossible to separate devolution from the prospect of the United Kingdom breaking up. Devolution could usher in the beginning of the end of the United Kingdom. I have no interest to declare as such, but I have something of a love affair with Scotland. It is incorrect to assume that English Members have no knowledge of Scotland. I have spent much time there and, indeed, worked there for a while. I have a great passion for Scotland. That is why I am so determined that it should remain part of the United Kingdom.
I see great danger for Scotland in moving down the devolutionary road. Scotland could be left to fend for itself as a small country in a hostile European Union. The hard-earned freedom that it would have gained from the United Kingdom would soon be snatched away by the federalist tendencies of that body. In such circumstances, what strength would Scotland have to fight against the federalist tendencies that it once wanted to throw off?
I am not convinced that the suggested great, demonstrable demand for devolution exists. Many people are making noises for it but they cannot necessarily claim to represent the views of the majority. I believe that many people in Scotland, as was acknowledged earlier, want to retain the status quo. They see no need for another layer of bureaucracy to be imposed upon them and certainly see no need for up to 3p in the pound more income tax to be levied on them.
Many people in Scotland will be against devolution. Scots who live in Scotland can vote against it but what about Scottish people who no longer live in Scotland? They may live in another part of what they consider to be their country, the United Kingdom. We have learned from the Government this week that such people will have no say. For whatever reason, they chose to live in another part of the United Kingdom, but they should be given some say in what happens to the United Kingdom. Tearing Scotland away from the United Kingdom, which is the prospect that we face, is surely a matter for all of us. The policy of allowing only people who reside in Scotland to vote is inconsistent with existing law, which allows British people who have left our shores to continue to vote in our elections.
It has not escaped anyone's attention that the Conservative party has no representation in the House from Scotland or Wales, or, for that matter, from Northern Ireland. In general, although not this time, the Conservative party commands a majority of seats in England. It is in the interests of the Conservative party, especially with such a large hill to climb, to let the United Kingdom break up. In such circumstances, the Conservative party could enjoy almost perpetual government in England. I am not a member of a party that is interested in narrow electoral advantage. I belong to a party that believes in the wider interests of the United Kingdom. Those interests are not best served by going down the devolution route.
We are at risk from devolution and from so rapid an introduction of the Bill. People in Scotland may be persuaded to vote for devolution as a reaction against what they may have regarded as an English conspiracy to govern them. I believe in democracy; that is one reason why I joined the Conservative party. If a significant majority of Scottish people, clearly and consistently—those two words are important—showed that they wanted devolution, we would, of course, have to accept that verdict. The danger with such a rushed Bill is that if only a small majority of people in Scotland voted in favour, the Government would rush devolution through. That did not happen in 1978, when a small majority—32.9 per cent.—voted in favour, against 30.8 per cent. who voted against. The then Labour Government had insisted that at least 40 per cent. of those entitled to vote had to vote yes. The legislation fell, and so did the Labour Government shortly after. That is perhaps what worries the Government.
Given the precedents and the importance of the matter, is not it reasonable to ask the Government, before they set up a Scottish Parliament with tax-raising powers, to be absolutely sure that such an arrangement is preferred by a sizeable number of Scottish people, and not by only a small majority on a very low turnout?
Much is at stake through the Bill, including 300 years of history, the economic strength that has been achieved and the future of the United Kingdom. The issues before us should not be hurried, nor should they be treated lightly.
I conclude my remarks by thanking the House for extending its courtesy to me.