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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:34 pm on 22nd May 1997.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Conservative, North Essex 5:34 pm, 22nd May 1997

I congratulate the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Ms Morgan) on her maiden speech. It was a model of its kind, in which she not only described her constituency, paying tribute to her predecessor Gwilym Jones—whom all Conservative Members remember fondly—but put down a marker in expressing the hope that the policies that she supports will truly benefit the people whom she has been sent here to represent. That is a good start for any new Member.

There are a huge number of fundamental questions for the Government to answer, concerning the very nature of the devolution proposals, before we get near to the detail of the actual legislation. There are questions about the stability of the Barnett formula, about the tartan tax—how Scots could raise extra income tax, or even cut income tax, without creating new tensions between the Scots and the English, on whom Scottish public spending is so dependent—and about the inequality of representation and powers among Scottish, Welsh and English Members of Parliament.

Those and other issues need to be dealt with. They were largely responsible for undermining the credibility of the 1978 proposals. Dealing with them is vital to the stability of the arrangements, and, ultimately, to the stability of the United Kingdom, but they have yet to be answered by the Government. No wonder they call devolution in Scotland unfinished business.

With such Labour dominance in both Scotland and Wales, there is a great temptation for Government supporters to regard the questions raised about the Bill and its two offspring as somehow irrelevant. That will be a constant danger for the Government: they will rely on the size of their majority, rather than on the force of their arguments. No doubt we Conservatives used to do the same, but that simply reinforces the point that great majorities are a threat to the quality of legislation.

For example, it has been asked regularly throughout the debate on what basis the discredited and reduced number of Conservative Members representing entirely English constituencies can raise such questions at all. Leaving aside the half a million voters in Scotland who did vote Conservative, let us start from first principles. The ultimate sovereignty of the Scottish and Welsh peoples is a fact. Whatever the niceties of international law, Scotland and Wales can claim the right of self-determination if that is what they want; but, in speech after speech, supporters of devolution tell the House that they are fervent supporters of the Union. Indeed, yesterday the Secretary of State for Scotland specifically rejected the suggestion that there should be a third question in the Scottish referendum to give voters the option to reaffirm their support for the Union. He said that that would imply that those who are going to vote yes in a referendum are the enemies of the United Kingdom.

It is for exactly the same reason that the plea of the hon. Member for Ynys Mon (Mr. Jones) that some other options should be put in the referendum will be rejected by Ministers. It opens up the whole argument about where the process is actually leading. If I may say so to the Secretary of State for Scotland: if the cap fits, wear it.

The argument often promulgated by proponents of devolution—we have heard it today—is that a Scottish Parliament would have blocked the poll tax. The pros and cons of the poll tax are not the issue here; the question is whether a Scottish Parliament will behave as though it had a mandate superior to that of the Parliament here at Westminster. During the election campaign, the Prime Minister set the record straight. With his customary lack of tact in regard to Scottish affairs, he said, "Sovereignty will rest with me, as an English Member of Parliament."

The Prime Minister's underlying statement is, of course, right. All parts of the United Kingdom are subject to the absolute sovereignty of Parliament. That is what it is to be part of the United Kingdom. To enact a policy that questions that truth is to question the very basis of the whole constitution of the Union. The very idea of something called a Scottish Parliament is anathema to the concept of the union of the Parliaments. This, here, is Scotland's Parliament. If Scotland wants its own Parliament again, the union of the Parliaments is effectively ended.

A Scottish Parliament which, as some people expect, will challenge the mandate of Westminster in Scotland, and which will be based upon the Claim of Right of the Scottish people to self-government, will be based principally on nationalistic principles. Therein lies our claim that this schizophrenic arrangement is set to destabilise the Union between Scotland and England and that between Wales and England.

How will that happen in practice? Conflict between Westminster and Edinburgh is inevitable, not least over the mechanism for calculating how much the English taxpayer should continue to support Scottish public expenditure. Tensions and disputes are currently resolved behind the closed doors of Cabinet unity. They are set to burst into the open. If the arrangement works well, the demand will be for more powers to be transferred. If it seems not to work, the excuse will be that it needs more powers. Success or failure—either way the demand will be, "Give us more powers."

The extent and legitimacy of Scottish representation at Westminster will be increasingly questioned. The scene will be set for the breakdown of the settlement between Scotland and England that has provided such benefits to both countries for hundreds of years. That is why the process sets a sickly smile on the faces of the nationalists. They know that a Scottish Parliament will be the mother of the separatism that they seek.

It is extraordinary that the Bill should be the first one that the new Government should present, and it betrays the reality of the Government. The new Labour Government are brimming with optimism and self-confidence. They are ready for any challenge to their considerable mandate and are prepared to brush aside the time-consuming irritations presented by Her Majesty's Opposition. Their programme is long on aspiration, but they are depressingly short on policy specifics in the areas where specifics are so sorely needed.

A windfall tax, a training scheme and the abolition of the assisted places scheme hardly inspire or will transform the country. Bravado and press releases are no substitute for substantive policies. Just getting the Tories out will not solve the problems of crime, insecurity at work or deficient public services. The twin icebergs of public expenditure control and our European partners' federalist intentions are two great obstacles blocking the way of the new ship of state. The officers on the bridge carry on their task with dash and with the certainty that they are unsinkable, but the thinness of their real policies will be torn like the plates of the Titanic. Their riveting sound bites, hammered so lovingly, will snap and the cold water of reality will rush in.

Let us hope for better, but there is little sign of a real five-year Government programme. Instead, this whole Parliament is set to be dominated by changes to the constitution, but this drive does not come from the ordinary voter. As the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said, even in Scotland and Wales few voters place devolution at the top of their list of priority issues. No number of extra politicians in Edinburgh and Cardiff will shorten health service waiting lists, or create jobs, except for the politicians themselves, who will increase their expense accounts and the number of their hangers-on.

The real drive of the Government's proposals comes from the party interest and not the national interest. The programme is designed to gerrymander the constitution in the interests of the Labour party and its acolytes. It is born not out of high principle, but out of the sheer frustration of being out of office for 18 years.