Orders of the Day — Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:52 pm on 21st May 1997.

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Photo of Alex Salmond Alex Salmond Leader, Scottish National Party 6:52 pm, 21st May 1997

I was being polite. This is my latest phase, as hon. Members will recognise. I shall move out of that phase to turn to what I think about the Bill.

There is an inconsistency at the very heart of the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill. Two legitimate positions can be adopted in looking for consent from the people. The first is to say that the general election provides the mandate and thereby the authority for the Government to proceed with their programme—or, indeed, for a political party to proceed with its ideas.

If the new Labour party had taken such a course and said that it had won a considerable victory and therefore had the majority to go forward with its legislative programme, I do not think that anyone could reasonably have gainsaid that as a substantial mandate for applying its ideas on the constitution. At a later stage, depending on the judgment, degree of controversy and the number of changes made to the proposed legislation, it might be appropriate to subject that mandate to a post-legislative referendum, as in the 1970s. That is one way of addressing legitimacy, mandates and consent, and it is consistent.

The second position is to say that the general election did not produce a mandate on the proposals, there is some uncertainty, many other issues clouded the general election environment and the issue was not finally settled. That is the course to be taken by the Government, as explained by the Secretary of State. There is therefore no substantial or democratic argument for excluding the option of independence from the ballot paper. The option of independence is supported by many people in Scotland. We have been through the argument in democratic terms many times, when Governments have either refused to consult the people of Scotland or said that the people of Scotland did not have a decisive view one way or the other.

The Secretary of State was kind enough to say in his opening remarks that my cuttings file was more extensive than his. I suspect that it is not that my file is more extensive, but that we keep different quotations. I have kept a number of quotations about the Secretary of State and his previous support for a multi-option referendum.

On 13 April 1992, The Daily Telegraph reported that the Secretary of State, then the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden, said: the party's 49 Scottish MPs would campaign"— I assume that he was committing the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) to such a campaign at that stage— for a multi-option referendum on the country's political future, something which had been endorsed at the meeting of all Scottish Labour MPs. In a speech to the Scottish Trades Union Congress in Dundee, the Secretary of State repeated that call. The Scotsman reported:Calling for the democratic case for a referendum to be shouted from the rooftops, Mr. Dewar said that the Government should not take refuge in a rigged referendum on proposals which did no more than tinker with the present problem. After the 1992 election, in which, incidentally, the Scottish National party got fewer votes and won fewer seats than it has now, such a view was widely shared across the parliamentary Labour party. The late John Smith said in the Daily Record in July 1992: The Labour Party must keep the Scottish issue at the centre of the political stage. That's why we are campaigning for a multi-option referendum. The Scottish TUC supported the argument for a multi-option referendum. A new political grouping, Scotland United, was formed, which argued forcefully for and mobilised opinion on the case for a multi-option referendum. Indeed, Scotland United's campaigning document, "What Price Democracy?", noted: one of the big problems with the 1979 referendum was the absence from the ballot paper of the independence option, which meant that a significant section of the Scottish population was denied the opportunity to vote for their preferred option. Such a democratic viewpoint was well reflected in early-day motions such as one tabled by William McKelvey, the then hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun, on 8 December 1992. The option to hold a multi-option referendum on the governance of Scotland was supported by 26 hon. Members across the parliamentary Labour party—many of whom have been present in this debate. One amendment to the early-day motion was tabled by David Shaw, the then hon. Member for Dover, who managed to introduce the subject of Monklands district council into the issue of a multi-option referendum, but managed to acquire only one signature, his own.

The argument for a multi-option referendum was widely supported because it was felt to be fair that a proper test of opinion, if a test of opinion were required, should reflect the three major constitutional options that were on offer to the Scottish people.

Hon. Members may not be aware that there are a number of constitutional precedents on the question of a multi-option referendum, including those set by the House of Commons. In Newfoundland in the late 1940s, for example, a constitutional convention met. It decided that only two options for its constitutional future should be presented to the people of Newfoundland. However, the Attlee Privy Council—the Privy Council of a Labour Government with a landslide majority—decided that that would not be fair. In their response to the Newfoundland constitutional convention, the Government stated: The Government have come to a conclusion that it would not be right that the people of Newfoundland should be deprived of an opportunity of considering the issue, and they have, therefore, decided that confederation with Canada should be included as a third choice on the referendum paper". The option of confederation with Canada eventually came top of the referendum, even if the majority in favour was less than the majority in favour of devolution in the 1979 referendum in Scotland.

Both in terms of previous support for the democratic option of allowing people in Scotland the free choice between independence, devolution and the status quo, and in terms of precedents and proceedings in the House, there is substantial support for the idea that a multi-option referendum is not just feasible but desirable when there are distinct blocs of support for constitutional options.

I have heard the Conservative party in Scotland say that it was greatly encouraged during the general election campaign by an opinion poll that showed that support for the status quo in Scotland had reached 30 per cent. That point has been made many times as the Conservative party ranks have delved over the entrails of electoral carnage. They have said, "Well, there is still hope because support for the status quo reached 30 per cent. in an ICM poll." ICM is a reputable polling organisation, although I should mention that it was the same polling organisation that gave Labour a 5 per cent. lead across the United Kingdom during the election campaign. None the less, the poll indicated that there was a bloc of support for the status quo.

I would be encouraged by a poll on the referendum in The Sunday Times, which showed that the number of those preferring independence and of those preferring devolution was tied at 35 per cent. I would argue that most polling on the independence question has shown such a level of support over recent years. The essential truth is that I do not know, and no one in the House basically knows, what the preferred option of the Scottish people would be after a referendum campaign offering all the constitutional options. The hon. Member for Dunfermline, West (Ms Squire) shakes her head, which is interesting. Some results of opinion polls are consistent. For example, no opinion poll in recent years in Scotland that has laid out the three constitutional options has shown a majority in favour of devolution.