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Privilege (Withdrawal Agreement: Legal Advice)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:25 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Exiting the European Union) 1:25 pm, 4th December 2018

I have absolutely no doubt that, if the Parliament that represents the sovereign people of Scotland gave a binding direction to the elected Government of Scotland, the elected Government of Scotland would comply with that binding direction. No such binding direction has been given, so let us not try to deflect attention from the clear and blatant contempt that has been committed against this House with completely false accusations of contempt elsewhere.

We have a Government who are behaving like a football team who do not turn up for friendlies if they think they will be beaten and then discover that they have missed a cup final and have forfeited the tie with a notional 3-0 score. Not only are they asking to be allowed to replay the final, but they are complaining that the score is void because the three notional goals would all have been offside if they had been there to defend them.

We are not talking about a game of football with a trophy at stake, and we are not talking about the sanctity or non-sanctity of the confidentiality of legal advice; we are talking about the most fundamental principle that governs our nations, the principle that Parliament can tell the Government what to do, not the other way around. This is not just some temporary individual aberration; it is part of a pattern of Government attempts to keep Parliament out of this altogether. They want to restore sovereignty to Parliament by keeping Parliament out of its own sovereignty.

The Government went to the Supreme Court to stop us having any say on the triggering of article 50, and they lost. They did their damnedest to stop Parliament having any say on the withdrawal agreement, and they lost. They spent thousands of pounds of our money trying to prevent a group of Scottish parliamentarians from finding out whether article 50 can be unilaterally revoked, and they lost. The Court of Justice of the European Union will now almost certainly find that article 50 can be revoked.

I pay tribute to the parliamentarians from five political parties and three national Parliaments who took that case to the Court. What they have won will prove to be a pivotal victory, but it raises a question that is too important to be treated as rhetorical, and a question that is highly pertinent to the substance of today’s debate. What kind of Government go to court to prevent their own citizens from knowing that the Government have legal powers but have chosen not to use them? What legitimate reason can there be for a Government to want their people to believe something is legally impossible when the Government already have legal advice telling them it is perfectly possible?

This morning’s preliminary opinion from the CJEU is simply another example of this Government’s attitude that the path they have chosen unilaterally is the only one worthy of consideration and that nobody is even allowed to know that other paths might be possible. They have their priorities completely wrong. They repeatedly tell us, and the Leader of the House said it often enough in moving the amendment, that their ultimate duty is to act in the public interest, but in fact they are demanding that Parliament and the public act at all times in the Government’s interest—that is not the same thing at all. The Government, and not the Parliament that holds sovereignty on behalf of the public, have taken upon themselves the right to decide what is in the public interest. The Government declare themselves to know better than Parliament what is in the public interest. The Government place themselves above the decisions of Parliament, and they place themselves in contempt of Parliament.

Early next year we will see the 370th anniversary of the day when a crowned king of Scots was executed, just a few hundred yards up the road from here, for defying the will not of this Parliament—this Parliament did not exist then—but of one of its predecessors. I do not think anyone is suggesting a similar fate for those who are found in contempt of this Parliament, but we should be under no illusions about the gravity of what we are discussing, and we should be under no illusions as to how the mockery from the Conservative Benches is being perceived by those who believe this Parliament should be allowed to tell the Government what to do.

The elected Parliaments of our four nations, for all their faults, flaws, imperfections and ridiculously outdated, arcane procedures that the Leader of the House sometimes does not like, represent the rights of our citizens. No one, but no one, has the right to wield power over the people without the consent of the people. In a parliamentary democracy, that consent is expressed through Parliament, not through the office of the Prime Minister or any other office of state.

When Parliament speaks, it speaks on behalf of the people and the Government must listen. When Parliament instructs, it instructs on behalf of the people and the Government must comply. Parliament has spoken, and the Government must listen. Parliament has instructed. It has not asked, opined or suggested; it has instructed. The Government can disagree, moan or complain as much as they like, but they must comply with the instruction of Parliament.

Instead, the Government seek to defy the instruction of Parliament. They seek to defy the sovereignty of the people, as expressed through their elected representatives. It is now for Parliament to take the only course of action open to us to compel the Government to back down.