I beg to move,
That this House
believes it should be for the Scottish people to determine the future constitutional status of Scotland;
and accordingly makes provision as set out in this Order:
(1) On Tuesday
(b) any proceedings governed by this Order may be proceeded with until any hour, though opposed, and shall not be interrupted;
(c) the Speaker may not propose the question on the previous question, and may not put any question under
(d) at 3.00 pm, the Speaker shall interrupt any business prior to the business governed by this Order and call the Leader of the Scottish National Party Westminster Group or another Member on his behalf to present a Bill concerning a modification of Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998 of which notice of presentation has been given and immediately thereafter (notwithstanding the practice of the House) call a Member to move the motion that the Bill be now read a second time as if it were an order of the House;
(e) in respect of that Bill, notices of Amendments, new Clauses and new Schedules to be moved in Committee may be accepted by the Clerks at the Table before the Bill has been read a second time;
(f) any proceedings interrupted or superseded by this Order may be resumed or (as the case may be) entered upon and proceeded with after the moment of interruption.
(2) The provisions of paragraphs (3) to (18) of this Order shall apply to and in connection with the proceedings on the Bill in the present Session of Parliament.
Timetable for the Bill on Tuesday
(3) (a) Proceedings on Second Reading and in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on consideration and proceedings up to and including Third Reading shall be taken at the sitting on Tuesday
(b) Proceedings on Second Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far as not previously concluded) at 5.00 pm.
(c) Proceedings in Committee of the whole House, any proceedings on Consideration and proceedings up to and including Third Reading shall be brought to a conclusion (so far asnot previously concluded) at 7.00 pm.
Timing of proceedings and Questions to be put on Tuesday
(4) When the Bill has been read a second time:
(a) it shall, notwithstanding
(b) the Speaker shall leave the Chair whether or not notice of an Instruction has been given.
(5) (a) On the conclusion of proceedings in Committee of the whole House, the Chairman shallreport the Bill to the House without putting any Question.
(b) If the Bill is reported with amendments, the House shall proceed to consider the Bill asamended without any Question being put.
(6) For the purpose of bringing any proceedings to a conclusion in accordance with paragraph (3), the Chairman or Speaker shall forthwith put the following Questions in the same order as they would fall to be put if this Order did not apply—
(a) any Question already proposed from the Chair;
(b) any Question necessary to bring to a decision a Question so proposed;
(d) the Question on any amendment moved or Motion made by a designated Member;
(e) any other Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded; and shall not put any other Questions, other than the Question on any motion described in paragraph
(15) of this Order.
(7) On a Motion made for a new Clause or a new Schedule, the Chairman or Speaker shall put only the Question that the Clause or Schedule be added to the Bill.
Consideration of Lords Amendments and Messages on a subsequent day
(8) If on any future sitting day any message on the Bill (other than a message that the House of Lords agrees with the Bill without amendment or agrees with any message from this House) is expected from the House of Lords, this House shall not adjourn until that message has been received and any proceedings under paragraph (9) have been concluded.
(9) On any day on which such a message is received, if a designated Member indicates to the Speaker an intention to proceed to consider that message— notwithstanding
(c) the Speaker may not propose the question on the previous question, and may not put any question under
(10) Paragraphs (2) to (7) of
(a) any reference to a Minister of the Crown were a reference to a designated Member;
(b) after paragraph (4)(a) there is inserted—
“(aa) the question on any amendment or motion selected by the Speaker for separate decision;”.
(11) Paragraphs (2) to (5) of
(12) (a) Paragraphs (2) to (6) of
The composition of the committee shall (notwithstanding the practice of the House) be three members from the government party, three members from the largest opposition party and one member from the second largest opposition party.
(14) (a) No Motion shall be made, except by a designated Member, to alter the order in which any proceedings on the Bill are taken, to recommit the Bill or to vary or supplement the provisions of this Order.
(b) No notice shall be required of such a Motion.
(c) Such a Motion may be considered forthwith without any Question being put; and any proceedings interrupted for that purpose shall be suspended accordingly.
The Question on such a Motion shall be put forthwith; and any proceedings suspended under sub-paragraph (c) shall thereupon be resumed.
(15) (a) No dilatory Motion shall be made in relation to proceedings on the Bill to which this Order applies except by a designated Member.
(b) The Question on any such Motion shall be put forthwith.
(16) Proceedings to which this Order applies shall not be interrupted under any Standing Order relating to the sittings of the House.
(17) No private business may be considered at any sitting to which the provisions of this Order apply.
(18) (a) The start of any debate under
(b) Standing Order 15(1) (Exempted business) shall apply in respect of any such debate.
(19) In this Order, “a designated Member” means—
(a) the Leader of the Scottish National Party in this House; and
(b) any other Member acting on behalf of the Leader of the Scottish National Party in this House.
(20) This Order shall be a Standing Order of the House.
I start by referring to the Labour party report—it is a shame there are not more Labour Members here—published nine days ago on reforming the constitution. It is a document more remarkable in what it does not say than in what it does say, but it does do us one great service: it makes a compelling argument that constitutional matters should not be debated in the abstract and that there is a great connection between how we are governed and what happens as a result of that governance and the public policy that ensues. I am grateful to Labour for that, because I hope it means we can avoid jibes along the lines of, “Why is this the SNP’s priority, rather than talking about the cost of living crisis?”
This debate and this motion are absolutely about the real issues that face families in this country right here, right now. Tomorrow, throughout England and Wales, the nurses who saw us through the pandemic will be on strike for a living wage. But not in Scotland. Scottish Ministers have negotiated a settlement with the trade unions that allows the wages of those on the lowest pay to rise by 11%. There will be no strikes by nurses in Scotland tomorrow, and I am pleased about that. But let me be clear: we are not satisfied with the situation for our nurses and our health service. We want to do more. We want to do better by our nurses. We want more of them and we want more investment in our health service. We want to build a 21st-century health service based on the wellbeing of our people, rather than on fixing ill health. We want to have the choice over whether to raise revenue and borrow money to make that happen. To do that, we require the powers of a normal independent country.
Or take the absurd situation with energy supply in our country. We have people looking through the windows of homes they cannot afford to heat at wind turbines on the horizon providing abundant, cheap renewable energy that they cannot afford to buy because of the ridiculous system of energy ownership and regulation in this country. We want the power to turn that system upside down and change it forever. But to do that, we need the powers of a normal independent country.
Thirdly, take the debate we had yesterday in this Chamber about migration. We had, to my mind, the sordid and unsettling spectacle of the Conservative Benches rammed to the gunwales, as Members brayed and cheered on their leader’s anti-migrant rhetoric. They make the case that migrants are not welcome in this country. Well, not in my name and not in my country. Migrants are welcome in Scotland, because we need people to come and live in our country. We say that not just because we wish to discharge our international responsibility to provide security for those who flee persecution, but because we know that, if those people come to our country, they will invest in our economy and pay their taxes to sustain our public services. Every study that has ever been done shows that the net effect of migration is positive, and that is why we require the powers of a normal independent country.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about immigration as a whole, but yesterday the Prime Minister was speaking specifically about illegal immigration. There is a massive difference between the two. We do need the doctors and the dentists of tomorrow, and there are pathways for people to come and bring those skills into the country The key point yesterday was the illegal aspect of immigration, and we on this side of the House do not want to see illegal immigration.
I know that that is the fig leaf that Conservative Members apply to the argument, but it would have more logic and rationale were it not for the fact that this Government have closed down every legal means of coming to the country. It is the Government who are creating illegal immigration to these shores. But that is something of a digression from the topic that I wish to talk about.
The point I am trying to make—I know the Labour party agrees with it, and I think that, in their hearts, so does nearly everyone else—is that the way we are governed and what we do with that government are two sides of the same coin. This debate about how Scotland is governed is critical to what Scotland’s future is. We desire self-government because it would improve our country and allow it to play a much bigger and more positive role in the world.
It is worth recapping how we reached this point. I know there are people who think, or who believe and assert—we may hear this during the debate—that the SNP never accepted the result of the 2014 referendum and that, from the hour when the vote was announced, we began campaigning for a second independence referendum. I see the nodding heads. It is a popular myth, but it is a lie. Members may want to look at what my colleagues and I said at the time of the 2015 general election, when we were first returned to this Chamber following a landslide victory in Scotland. It is clear from the content of our leaflets, and indeed from the content of our maiden speeches, that we did not come here to press the case for another referendum. We came here accepting a result that bitterly disappointed us, determined to try to protect those who had voted for us as best we could within the constraints that we were given. That was the mission we gave ourselves.
On that point, I—uncharacteristically—completely agree with nearly everything the hon. Gentleman has just said. Those election leaflets in 2015 did indeed say, “This is not about independence; we are not going to fight for independence; we accept the result.” However, in that election, the SNP won 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland. What happened after that? Did the party continue its non-calls for independence, or did things change straightaway?
If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I am about to come to my next point. I have a number of things to say; it might be better for him to listen to them and then reflect on the totality.
When we came here in 2015, it was not in our minds to campaign for a second independence referendum, but something changed. What changed? What changed was not that the people who had lost a referendum cried foul and did not accept the result. The people who won the referendum broke the promises that they had made to win it, and the biggest promise of all that they broke was in relation to Brexit. When this Conservative Government took the United Kingdom out of the European Union, dragging Scotland along with it despite a popular vote to maintain our European citizenship, that began to turbocharge the arguments for having a re-look at the vote that was taken in 2014.
I am sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker. In simple terms, the options that were presented in that 2014 referendum no longer existed. They had changed, and it was felt to be legitimate that we should have another look at Scotland’s future.
Now, I know opinion has been divided on this question ever since and there is a raging debate about whether it is legitimate to have a second referendum—I am surprised I have not already had a once-in-a-generation intervention, to be honest—but the truth is that there is only one group of people who can decide whether there should be a second independence referendum and that is the people who live in Scotland. It is not down to Nicola Sturgeon, the Prime Minister, me or anyone else—it is a matter for the people. If the people had given up on the idea, we would not even be having this discussion. But they have not. A majority of people want to look at this question again. You might say, “How can you be sure that that is their opinion? Is this an opinion poll, or what?” No, we had an election in May 2021.
You may remember, Madam Deputy Speaker, that six weeks before that election we had another SNP Opposition day debate speculating on what this Chamber’s response might be to the results of that election. That was a hypothetical discussion because the election had just started. This is our first chance to consider properly in this Chamber the results of that election just 18 months ago. Remember that, while it was taking place in the throes of covid and the pandemic, the central political question at that election was whether there should be a further referendum on Scotland becoming an independent country. I know that that is the case.
I will give way in a second and the hon. Gentleman can correct me if I am wrong. I know that that is the case because not only was it front and centre of my manifesto and my leaflets, but the hon. Gentleman’s party put it front and centre on its leaflets. Conservative party leaflets, every single one of them, said, “If you vote SNP, you will get a second referendum.” Is that true?
It is quite clear that the First Minister and all of us gave a commitment during that campaign, and indeed after it, that the priority of that election would be dealing with the pandemic. But it was also absolutely the case that we said that, once that was dealt with and circumstances allowed, we would advance the case for a second referendum. That was clear. We can go back and look at exactly what was said, but I am very confident in what I say.
No, I will not give way. I have already given way once. Let me try to make the point.
Let us consider, because we have not done so yet, the results of the 2021 general election in Scotland, where this was a central campaign point. I am sorry for those who perhaps have not been following it, but we won. Not only did my party win the election, but it won it with more votes than it has ever received in a Holyrood election.
The hon. Gentleman rightly points out that Scotland may well have managed the covid pandemic and used that as a No. 1 priority. A voter in Scotland could have quite happily voted for the SNP knowing full well there was no way of having a referendum because there was no mechanism to be able to do so. So they could support the SNP wholeheartedly, knowing full well that it was about your positive record on covid, the NHS or education, for example, with independence falling down that list. Is that not the case?
I appreciate the political skill of improvisation, but sometimes it is just not enough to make it up as you go along. What has just been said is completely at variance with what your party said during the election—
Order. I am very keen that we do not get into a conversation down that end of the Chamber with everybody calling each other “you”. It has happened a few times, but I am now going to put my foot down and say it is important to speak through the Chair, as the hon. Gentleman knows very well because he is very experienced.
As I almost always do, Madam Deputy Speaker.
Let us move on. The results were quite clear: the SNP won that election in any normal terms. In fact, it was the best election result we have had in terms of the number of votes we received, and our colleagues in the Scottish Green party, who stood on an almost identical platform in terms of the referendum, did exceedingly well too. Together, the Scottish Green party and the SNP had 72 seats out of 129 in that legislature, and they have formed a governing coalition in order to discharge their mandate.
That is a bigger pro-independence majority than we had in 2011, when Alex Salmond had the first independence referendum. So the question arises, why was a response to that result from David Cameron that was good enough in 2011 not replicated in 2021 by the then Tory Prime Minister? I wonder why that could be. Could it be because back in 2011, they thought there was not a snowball’s chance in hell of us ever winning a referendum and that having one would be a good opportunity to humiliate the SNP and those who supported independence, whereas 10 years later, they fear that if there was another referendum, they would most certainly lose it? That is undoubtedly the case.
In any normal circumstances—in any normal democracy—that would have been the end of it. A party would have got elected, it would have formed a secure majority in the Parliament and it would have been allowed to discharge and implement its manifesto. That is how these things normally work, but not so in Scotland. In Scotland, the UK Government went out of their way to try to prevent the implementation of the desire to have a second referendum—so much so that, apart from not even granting the section 30 order that is required under the Scotland Act 1998, they also made it clear that, should the Scottish Parliament pass a Bill in order to have a referendum, the UK Government would take the Scottish Government to the Supreme Court, and we would be caught up in legal wrangles for a very long time. Rather than waste the time and money and then have to have the case examined in the Supreme Court, the Scottish Government rightly took the decision to refer the matter to the Supreme Court and have it adjudicated on first, before tabling the Bill.
I should say, in case there are people who have not been engaged in the debate, that it is not clearcut what the outcome of that judgment would have been. Opinion was divided on whether the Scottish Parliament had the competence not to legislate on matters to do with the Union but to consult people on what they thought the future government of the country should be. That did not always cut across party boundaries; it was not the case that everybody on this side of the debate was confident that they had the powers, and everybody on the other side was confident that they did not. In fact, one of the people who made a very eloquent case that the Scottish Government did have the power to organise a non-binding consultative referendum was no less than Adam Tomkins, a professor of law who until relatively recently was a Conservative Member of the Scottish Parliament. He judged that it would be within competence.
But we know what happened. The Supreme Court, in the end, decided that the Scottish Bill as written was not within the competence of the 1998 Act and it related to a matter that was excluded and reserved as defined in schedule 5 to that Act. I disagree. I would have come to a different outcome and a different judgment, but then I am not a High Court judge. I am disappointed by and do not like the judgment, but I accept it, and I accept that it is the Supreme Court’s role to make that adjudication.
It seems to me that the problem is not the judges but the law that they were considering. I say this in all candour to colleagues on the other side of the argument: the Supreme Court judgment presents a problem not just for those who advocate the cause of Scottish independence; it also presents a problem for those who believe in the integrity of a voluntary Union of nations within the United Kingdom.
I know that there are plenty on the Back Benches of both the big parties who know little and perhaps care even less about the historical nature of the constitution of this country we live in, but it is worth recapping that this is not a single central state. The polity that we live in of the United Kingdom is a multinational state based upon serial Acts of Union that have given it quite a unique character. It is something that, until very recently, we had assumed required the consent of the people in the component nations of the United Kingdom to be part of. It seems that following the Supreme Court judgment, we now have a situation where that is not the case—that it is not possible for one group of people in one nation of the United Kingdom to consider reviewing the relationship with the others without their consent. That means that the idea of it being a voluntary Union of nations is dead in the water, until such time as the law is clarified or fixed. It is in an attempt to clarify and fix the British constitution that we present this Bill to the House today, because if we pass this motion, it will then allow for the leader of my party to do what the leader of the Government ought to have done: bring forward amendments to the 1998 Act to allow the Scottish Parliament the power and competence to do the things that the Supreme Court ruled it could not do, which everyone previously thought it was able to do.
I know that there are people—perhaps in the Conservative party, perhaps in the Labour party—who pretty much regard Scotland as just another British county, much the same as Essex, Cornwall or wherever, and probably quite quaint. Those people do not have any understanding of the fact that Scotland is historically a distinct country—a distinct nation with its own history, tradition, culture, character and aspirations. That is not really part of their mindset, and I suppose that if I was not living there and did not grow up there, I might think the same way. But what those people need to understand is that this notion of Scotland being a partner nation within the United Kingdom is what most of the Unionists in Scotland believe. That is what they think they are part of; that is why they voted no in 2014. If that is removed, and we are now told that Scots live in a political system that they cannot change and cannot leave, we will very shortly see many people saying, “In that case, I do want to consider the prospects of Scottish independence, because this is not the partnership we were promised in 2014 and it is not what I voted for in 2014.”
Much of this is bound up with the notion of the claim of right for Scotland. As colleagues may remember, we had a big debate in 2018—again, on an Opposition day motion put forward by my party—where there was a surprising degree of support from all sides of the House for the claim of right for Scotland. The claim of right, by the way, simply asserts the right of the Scottish people to determine the form of government best suited to their needs. That declaration was formulated in its current form in 1989, and has been referred to ever since. The last time around, the then Secretary of State for Scotland, David Mundell, and the current leader of the Scottish Tories, Douglas Ross—I am glad to see that one of them is present—stood up in that debate and said that they endorsed and supported the claim of right for Scotland. Well, we cannot have the claim of right for Scotland and a situation in which we do not live in a voluntary Union and that claim of right can never be exercised.
I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Obviously, a sizeable minority of the people of Scotland wanted to be independent. That number may or may not have increased—opinion polls go up and down, as we on this side of the House know very well—but in light of what the SNP is proposing through the modification of schedule 5, does the hon. Gentleman think that there should be a limit to the number of times that we can have such referendums? I am not trying to make the “once in a generation” point; I am trying to make the point that it is reasonable for the people of any country to have a period away from constitutional matters, focusing on the things that really matter to people—their lives, their education, and their health system.
That is a good point, and I will address it in just a moment.
On the claim of right, it is remarkable how uncontroversial its assertion has been over the years, from 1989 onwards. It underpinned the 1997 legislation that led to the referendum on devolution; it was asserted by the Calman commission that followed that; obviously, it underpinned the 2014 referendum; and it was asserted by the Smith commission that came about as a consequence of that referendum. We have never had it seriously challenged. In fact, I added it up the other day, and I have been debating these matters about the government of Scotland for 45 years since I was a student at Aberdeen University, campaigning in the first devolution referendum in 1979. In all that time up until now, it has been understood that the claim of right exists, so it is important that we reassert it.
Perhaps I can help Aaron Bell. Does my hon. Friend agree that democracy is not a one-time event? We cannot put limits on what happens in politics and in democracy. If the Conservatives or the Labour party decided that the mood in the UK was such that they wanted to have another referendum on, say, our EU membership, and they put that in their manifesto and won an election, they would be entitled to do that.
Indeed so. It has been said that during those 15 hours between 7 am and 10 pm on
As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman wants Scotland to pull out of the UK but join the European Union. How easy does he think that would be, given the EU’s stubborn attitude towards the Catalan claims and its support of Spain resisting even a referendum?
The difference, of course, between the EU and the United Kingdom is that Scotland can leave one but not the other. I can imagine how the right hon. Gentleman might have felt if he and his Brexit colleagues, who wished for Britain to leave the EU, had been told, “Well, you simply can’t do that. You have no right to do that,” because that is the situation that is being presented to Scotland with regard to the UK.
In my view, which I think is accepted, Scottish independence requires two things. First, it requires the majority consent of the people who live in Scotland, and they need to express a wish for that to happen. Secondly, it concerns a negotiated settlement with this place and it will eventually require an Act of this Parliament. Those two things were fused together in the 2012 Edinburgh agreement, but because of the UK Government’s reticence, we will have to decouple them and take them separately.
Our ambition now is to find some means to allow people in Scotland to express their view. It does not sit well for the UK Government to take a stance of actively trying to frustrate and deny that happening. This motion, if they were to vote for it today, fixes the problem, because it gives the Scottish Parliament the power to organise the first of those things—to determine the view of the people. We are asking for the Scottish Parliament to have the power not to legislate on the Union or on becoming an independent country, but merely to consult the people and to articulate on behalf of those who elected the Holyrood chamber. That is the opportunity that is offered by the motion’s proposed Bill, and I hope that hon. Members will take it.
The more that we tell people that they cannot have something, the more they want it. We have seen that in recent opinion polls with the surge in support for independence. Most significantly, in last week’s opinion poll, we saw a clear majority of people saying that there should be another referendum on this question before the end of the Scottish Parliament’s term in 2026—that is the first time that there has been a clear majority on the timing of the referendum.
All that is happening as a result of the UK’s obstinance, insistence and denial of the democratic mandate in Scotland is that the case for independence is being fuelled. If it comes to a situation where there is a conflict between the British constitution and the claim of right of the Scottish people, it is our responsibility, which we will not shirk, to make sure that the latter triumphs over the former.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate and I thank Tommy Sheppard for his opening remarks.
I take this opportunity to congratulate Stephen Flynn on his election as Scottish National party group leader—for an MP relatively new to Westminster, it has been quite a coup. Let me start on a point of consensus. We seem to have one thing in common: neither of us seems to be very close to Nicola Sturgeon and we both seem to want the First Minister to do things slightly differently. At that point, however, we start to disagree. While I want the First Minister to focus on the problems in Scotland’s NHS, the hon. Gentleman wants her to focus on the problems in her de facto referendum plan.
I welcome one thing in particular about the hon. Gentleman’s election: the brand new approach that he promised when he was elected. We were promised a new tone, more vibrancy and a fresh way of doing things. Look how fantastically it has turned out already! Instead of pushing the usual SNP agenda of provoking grievance, picking fights with the UK Government and obsessing endlessly about another referendum, the new look SNP group are here today provoking grievance, picking fights with the UK Government and obsessing endlessly about another referendum. There is a new, younger front man, but it is the same old SNP pushing division and grievance at every turn.
The SNP group is still focused only on division. It is obsessing over the constitution and distracted from the real priorities of the people across Scotland. The hon. Member for Aberdeen South and the SNP group could have chosen to debate Scotland’s NHS and its record waiting times or to speak about the £250 million ferries that still do not float—[Interruption.]
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. This provoked a reaction, so I will repeat it: the SNP group could have chosen to speak today about the £250 million ferries that still do not float or about the lack of support from Nicola Sturgeon for Scotland’s oil and gas industry—an issue that really matters to the constituents of Aberdeen South. But no: it is the same old SNP with the same tired message that Scotland has heard every year since 2014. We could have been talking about how to improve schools, hospitals and our economy.
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman heard the points I made about the health service, energy and migration, and whether he has any reflections about them.
I encourage the hon. Gentleman to exercise some patience. His debate today is about Scotland’s future. Those of us who represent Scottish constituents are concerned about schools, the NHS and the economy when it comes to Scotland’s future—not about the debate today, which is about further division in Scotland.
We debated the SNP’s plan, such as it is, to separate from the UK, just six weeks ago. We debated the Supreme Court’s confirmation that the constitution is a reserved matter, just three weeks ago. Yet here we are again, and this time the SNP are going round in the same circles in the hope that they can do it all again next month, in the early part of 2023—that is if they do not somehow manage to fit in another debate some time before Christmas about leaving the United Kingdom. No wonder they thought that a generation was just a couple of years: the weeks must fly by when you say the same thing over and over again.
The SNP was very critical of the electricity and energy regulation in the UK, and said that it wanted change in it. It did not seem to realise that all our current regulations are those of the European single electricity market, and that it is only because of Brexit that this Government are now consulting on changing those unsatisfactory regulations.
That is a useful reminder that, while the SNP advocate breaking away from the rest of the UK and breaking away from Westminster and London, it wants even closer ties with Brussels and all the challenges and bureaucracy around that. I always welcome the opportunity that the SNP gives us to talk about the benefits that we all get from being part of the United Kingdom, and all the positives and strengths that come from working together across the whole country. The United Kingdom is the most successful political and economic union that the world has ever seen. In challenging times, we are stronger together. We are better prepared to deal with any crisis, particularly an issue on the scale of the energy crisis, or of the very thing that created the energy crisis—Vladimir Putin’s awful war in Ukraine.
In these volatile times, I continue to believe that the last thing people need is greater uncertainty. This is a time for unity behind a common purpose, not division that would split us apart. The challenges facing all of us across Scotland and the whole of the United Kingdom demand all of our attention.
On the substance of the motion, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh East well knows, the Scottish people do not see another referendum as a priority. There is no consensus across Scotland on another referendum and all the division and distraction that that would bring. We already know the process by which a constitutional question can be asked, because it happened back in 2014. We had a referendum and the people of Scotland decided our future by an overwhelming majority. That happened after there was consensus across political parties in the Scottish Parliament, in civic society and among people across Scotland. That is not where we are today.
If SNP Members want to focus their arguments solely on opinion polls, then what do they have to say about the polls, including recent ones, that show that people do not want another referendum on Nicola Sturgeon’s timetable? No matter how many polls there are that show a majority of Scots against another referendum, the SNP still wants us to go through the distraction of an all-consuming constitutional debate. It is all it cares about—another referendum at all costs.
The SNP is simply not very good at respecting referendum results—whether it is the 2014 independence referendum result or the 2016 Brexit vote. The SNP seems to like election results only if they suit its own narrative.
People in Scotland are fed up with these diversions away from the issues that matter to them. People in Scotland want to hear what their Government are doing to improve education and health. People in Scotland and across the UK want both Governments to be fully focused on issues such as the cost of living, working together to reduce NHS waiting times, and the challenges posed by Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. That is why we continue to work constructively with the Scottish Government in tackling all the shared challenges that we face. This Government’s relentless focus will remain on the issues that matter most to people across this country.
Does my hon. Friend share my concern that the constant constitutional debate that is taking place in Scotland undermines the prospect of attracting investment not only from the UK, which wants certainty, but from foreign direct investors, who want stability in where they place their money?
My hon. Friend is right. When we speak to employers, businesses and investors, they tell us that the last thing they want is further constitutional upheaval, which is exactly what the SNP is focused on.
The Scottish Budget, which will be announced tomorrow at Holyrood, gives the SNP a chance to show what it will focus on.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh East spoke for approximately 30 minutes, and a number of SNP Back Benchers are scheduled to speak, so I will make a little progress. I will take further interventions later.
The Scottish Budget, which will be announced at Holyrood tomorrow, gives the SNP a chance to show Nicola Sturgeon’s real focus and priority: another referendum above all else. So far, the SNP Scottish Government have budgeted £20 million for another divisive referendum next year. Even after the Supreme Court ruling, they have refused to put that money where it belongs by supporting Scotland’s frontline services. They have refused to halt planning for another referendum, and they believe civil servants should keep spending their time on the flawed case for independence. I know that many Scots will view this as a glaring waste of taxpayers’ money. Scotland’s public services need every penny of funding to be directed towards the frontline, not towards the SNP’s front-of-centre obsession.
That £20 million for a referendum is £9 million less than the profits Michelle Mone took for not supplying personal protective equipment. Energy, pensions, the civil service and even the Union are devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly. As a Minister for Scotland, why does he think it is good enough for the Northern Ireland Assembly to have these powers but not good enough for Scotland?
The SNP Scottish Government are continually demanding more powers, yet they do not use the powers already available to the Scottish Parliament, which is one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. Rather than using the powers effectively for the betterment of our constituents and for the betterment of Scots, you continually beg for more powers even though you do not use the powers available to you.
Order. Just a little reminder: I am not using any powers, apart from the powers I have as Chair. The Minister should direct his speech through the Chair, rather than referring to the SNP using “your powers.”
I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, although I think you would use the powers much more effectively than some SNP colleagues.
I challenge the whole SNP group, especially its new leader, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South, to stand up to Nicola Sturgeon by telling her that Scotland’s NHS needs that extra £20 million, that Scotland’s schools need that extra £20 million and that struggling Scottish families need that extra £20 million. [Interruption.] I see SNP Members shaking their heads because they do not agree with more money going to the NHS, schools and hard-pressed families. If they do not stand up to the First Minister, their words about working to improve Scotland are empty and meaningless. Their flawed priorities are clear for the people of Scotland to see.
Let me turn to the positive case for Scotland’s remaining part of the United Kingdom. The SNP’s argument for another referendum has become incredibly negative and divisive, and its language is increasingly irresponsible. SNP Members are grandstanding about democracy, just eight years after one of the biggest turnouts at a free and fair democratic vote anywhere in the world. They complain that we do not vote enough, yet this country has had at least 10 major votes in the last decade—from two referendums to general elections, Scottish Parliament elections and local elections—but facts do not matter to the SNP, because all it does now is ramp up its bitter, negative rhetoric to try to divide people further.
Instead of focusing on the SNP’s negative message, let us consider the positive case for our United Kingdom: our response to the covid pandemic; our Union dividend paying more than £2,000 a year to every man, woman and child in Scotland; our energy price guarantee saving the typical household more than £900 on its heating bill this winter; and our winter fuel payment providing pensioners with an extra £300. I could go on, as there is a positive case for our United Kingdom, as seen in our record of investing in Scotland’s future, delivering support for Scotland’s economy and helping Scottish people through whatever challenges we face together.
People in Scotland want their Governments to be focused on the issues that matter to them. People in Scotland want to talk about Scotland’s future, but they want that debate to be about the future of our schools, our hospitals and our economy. Instead, today, the SNP’s debate is about the one issue that SNP Members truly care about: breaking up the United Kingdom. Tomorrow is the Scottish Budget in Holyrood, and the SNP will once again show that it is focused on dividing people with another referendum that the people of Scotland just do not want.
I hope that SNP Members will reflect that our time here in this Parliament could be spent debating any number of issues that are vital to people across Scotland. If only they would set aside their obsession, we could focus solely on working together to improve the lives of our constituents. I urge the House today to reject the SNP’s motion.
I congratulate Tommy Sheppard, as the Minister did, on bringing this motion to the Chamber and on his introductory speech, although I am not sure he spoke about the motion at all in the near half hour he spoke, so we are not any the wiser about what it is trying to achieve or what would happen on
This is the first opportunity I have had to congratulate Stephen Flynn on becoming the SNP group’s new leader. I suspect he will be the family favourite to carve the turkey on Christmas day this year up in Aberdeen, seeing as he is proven to be quite adept at wielding a knife. His experience of knifing large turkeys should stand him in good stead.
The House may recall that the last time Parliament took control of an Order Paper, it was the first time since the 19th century, and it was on an amendment tabled by the former Conservative MP Oliver Letwin, also in the names of my right hon. Friends the Members for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper) and for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). That amendment was to conduct indicative votes on the way forward for the Brexit deal, all the way back in 2019. I am surprised that the SNP would want to remind the House of that historic occasion—a process that would have resulted in this House backing a customs union with the EU—when the SNP abstained and that particular proposition fell. The SNP then pushed for an election, and we all know how that ended. Then, almost three years ago to the day, the SNP backed no deal on the Brexit deal on the table.
Today, SNP Members have brought forward a motion that they know they cannot win, instead of a motion that would put pressure on this disastrous Conservative Government, which is where the guns have to aim. That is what Opposition day debates should be used for, like the vote that the Labour party brought about on fracking, which contributed to the demise of a Conservative Government.
While the hon. Gentleman is trying to rewrite history, will he confirm that the SNP voted to stay in that customs union, rather than some arbitrary notion of a customs union? We not only want to go back into the EU, but appreciate the benefits of the customs union, the single market and the freedom of movement of people, which the Labour party has thrown to the wind.
The hon. Gentleman needs to realise that when a Division Bell goes in this Chamber, Members have a choice, and the choice the SNP made was not to back the customs union in a vote that was subsequently lost by a handful of votes. When the Division Bell rang on, I think,
I was saying that Opposition day debates should be like the one we brought about on fracking that brought down the former Prime Minister’s Government. The truth is that SNP Members could seek to take control of the Order Paper to take extra powers, if they wished—the extra powers they have talked about today, perhaps on national insurance, corporation tax or immigration, which the hon. Member for Edinburgh East mentioned in particular. It is not like they even use the powers they have at their disposal already. Instead they are doing it to get another referendum. Clearly, they have changed the piper, but not the tune. I hope Santa brings them a new song sheet, but that might be a tall order, given that many SNP MPs have been very naughty this year in plotting against Ian Blackford.
On the topic of Christmas, what SNP Members are failing to grasp when they are busy banging the drum for another independence referendum is that one in five working-age Scots are in poverty, one in four Scottish children are in poverty and 14% of Scottish pensioners will be spending Christmas in poverty. That is a shameful record for the UK and Scottish Governments when previous Labour Governments lifted millions out of poverty.
I would say what a pleasure it is to be involved in this debate, but that would not be entirely true. Yet again, when the SNP has precious time to use on any issue they wish to debate, they choose this one. It is like the famous film “Groundhog Day”, in which Bill Murray relives the same day over and over again, but in this place we relive the same debate over and over again. Every single time, the SNP chooses the same debate topic. We are in the midst of the worst cost of living crisis in generations, we have the worst Conservative Government in history, and we have the most appalling economic conditions, created in Downing Street by a party that has failed on economic stability, growth and living standards. We have poverty rising, fuel poverty rocketing, an inflation crisis, a war in Europe and the most incompetent, out-of-touch and out-of-time UK Government, but the SNP wants to let them off the hook by reverting to type. Nobody likes that more than the Conservative Government.
We could have debated the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report published this afternoon that shows that 7.2 million people are going without the basics. This is Britain in 2022. Some 4.2 million are in arrears with their bills, 2.4 million people are borrowing to pay bills, and there are 5.7 million who are hungry, cutting or skipping meals. The cost of living crisis that is engulfing the country is the biggest worry by far for Scottish families, but the hon. Member for Aberdeen South and his party trundle on in blind pursuit of something that the Supreme Court confirmed was, as we all expected, just a matter of law. Dealing with the crisis requires both of Scotland’s Governments to move quickly and decisively and, as 70% of the Scottish people consistently say, to work together.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s excoriating denunciation of the failings of the Conservative party; will he explain why it is that in my Fife, his Edinburgh and all over Scotland his party is doing dirty deals to keep the Tories in power after the people have tried to vote them out?
It is extraordinary that that is the hon. Gentleman’s intervention. There is no Scottish council where Labour is in coalition with the Conservatives, and SNP Members know that. What upsets them more than anything else is the fact that they threw their toys out of the pram in Edinburgh because they could not get their own leader elected as leader of the council. I am grateful to the Labour group for stepping up to run Edinburgh Council when nobody else was able to command the authority of the council in order to do so.
Opposition parties of all—[Interruption.] SNP Members are chuntering and bantering from a sedentary position; wait till they find out who propped up the minority SNP Administration at Holyrood from 2007 to 2011. They might want to look that up. Opposition parties of all colours are rightly demanding more from this Tory Government, but the party sat to my left seems quite content to ignore the significant powers it has in Scotland that could be used to help people now. The grim reality is that I have had, as I am sure we all have, constituents attend my surgeries in tears, asking what more help they can get to ensure that their children do not go to school hungry and how they can pay their bills, heat their homes and put food on the table.
It is easy for the SNP to pass the buck, given the circumstances, but have SNP Members forgotten that, thanks to the devolution that the hon. Member for Edinburgh East mentioned, the Scottish Government have the power to introduce new support? They could top up the Scottish welfare fund, write off school meal arrears, cut the cost of commuting, offer a water rebate paid through the cash reserves of the water companies, and spend the £2 billion underspend they had last year on helping Scots now. Those are just some of the things they could do. We would have been delighted to have debated those particular choices in the Chamber today, because politics is always about choices.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for presenting an array of policy options that could have been pursued in Scotland, but those options also exist in Wales, largely, so why have the Labour Administration in Wales not taken them up?
I was delighted to take an intervention from the right hon. Gentleman, because I expected him to stand up and apologise for what his Government have done in giving the SNP all the grievance it requires to rip this country apart. The bigger threat to the Union is not the nationalists; it is the wretched Conservative Government.
As I was saying, the Scottish Government have the power to mitigate some of the cost of living crisis, but, importantly, they also have the choice. What we are seeing is not just a dereliction of duty; they are simply blaming everyone else. We should just remember that when he was the party’s business spokesperson, the new SNP leader here, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South, whipped his SNP MPs so that they did not support the vote to introduce a windfall tax on the oil and gas sector to help to freeze energy prices—a position that he was forced to reverse when he realised how ridiculous it was that he was standing up for the excess profits of the oil and gas sector over the interests of Scottish bill payers.
What is clear is that the SNP does not want to have a debate on any of the hot topics of the day—priorities being discussed around every single dinner table in homes across Scotland—because its own record in government for the last 15 years is utterly deplorable.
Too many Scots are having to make the choice between heating and eating. In fact, heartbreakingly, too many Scots do not have that choice at all because they can do neither. That is the sad indictment of both the UK and the Scottish Governments, but, rather than debate those issues, we have another SNP stunt. It is a stunt, because SNP Members know that it will fail, but it will create the grievance that they thrive off.
While SNP Members play these games, the big issues do not get discussed. This morning, I was on the Daily Record news website and the first thing that popped up was a headline saying, “Scots patient spent 15 hours in ambulance outside hospital in freezing temperatures.” The news article immediately below that was “SNP announces plans for new bill on Scottish independence vote.” That in a nutshell shows why SNP Members choose to talk about nothing but independence.
This week, the Homeless Project Scotland group has been tweeting pictures of homeless and vulnerable people queuing up in freezing conditions in Glasgow, waiting for hot food. Last night, there were even children in the queue, grasping a bread roll in anticipation of being fed. I wonder what those shivering, vulnerable people would say to SNP MPs if they went down that queue and told them what they had chosen to debate today in the Chamber. They have the power to help those people and the platform to be their voice, but they walk by on the other side.
Perhaps SNP Members are worried that the debate will become about how the SNP’s Westminster group organised a coup against the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber and then did not back the First Minister’s pick to replace him. Perhaps they are so riven with division that all they can talk about is the one issue that binds them together. Whichever it may be, we can conclude that, true to form, they are putting their party before the needs of ordinary Scots.
Today, we could have debated education and the First Minister’s “defining mission” to close the educational attainment gap in Scotland, but we cannot do that because her defining mission has been abandoned. Just this week, damning figures were published showing that the attainment gap remained wider than it was pre-pandemic for both primary literacy and numeracy and that the gap in primary numeracy attainment was wider than at any point since the First Minister made her commitment. In March 2021, the SNP promised to
“provide every child in Scotland with a device to get online, including a free internet connection and the support to use it”,
but in December last year it emerged that fewer than one in 10 had been supplied.
The first full teaching strike in Scotland since Margaret Thatcher’s reign is due to the SNP’s incompetence and dereliction of duty on the education sector. To have an eleventh hour pay offer rejected so comprehensively, provoking real anger among teachers in the process, is an indictment of the Scottish Government’s woeful planning and negotiations on pay. I congratulate them on getting a deal with the nurses—they should be congratulated because they have got people around the table when the UK Government refuse even to talk—but only a few weeks ago we were told that they could not do that and that they had no money to do so, blaming everyone else. It appears that they did have the money and, if only they had had the will, they could have had that concluded. I hope that they have that will with other public sector workers.
We could have been debating health. Well, SNP Members cannot do that, either, because they preside over one in seven Scots now being on a waiting list, the worst A&E waiting times in history, thousands of patients languishing for more than 12 hours on trolleys or ambulances—[Interruption.]. I can hear sighs; there will be more sighs from the people on trolleys for 12 hours. Only 45% of people are seen within the four-hour target at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary in my constituency. One in 11 beds are taken by people who should not be in hospital, despite the First Minister promising to abolish delayed discharge, and the SNP has not met its own 62-day target for cancer referrals since it introduced the policy more than a decade ago. There is also a GP and dentistry crisis of the SNP’s own making, so it is little wonder that SNP Members do not want to debate the national health service.
We could have debated the biggest issue for our planet: climate change. SNP Members will not do that, either, as the Climate Change Committee said this week:
“The Scottish Government lacks a clear delivery plan and has not offered a coherent explanation for how its policies will achieve Scotland’s…emissions reduction targets”.
So we will not debate climate change.
Perhaps SNP Members would like to debate energy and the First Minister’s pledge to set up a Scottish national energy company, but they will not, because that plan has been dropped. The statistics that they have been bandying around on renewables have been trashed by the UK Statistics Authority, and Scottish civil servants have been telling them for a long time to stop using them. The only way to get a national energy company is through a UK Labour Government delivering on GB Energy, which would reduce bills, provide energy security, create jobs, contribute to our climate goals and be owned by the people, for the people. So, nothing on energy.
What about a debate on Scottish Government spending, after the Auditor General called on the SNP Government to drop the spin and improve their transparency, with better controls to ensure that financial decisions deliver value for money for Scottish taxpayers, or perhaps a debate on the £2 billion underspend from last year? I wonder why SNP Members will not debate the building of ferries and transport services to Scotland’s island communities.
Maybe we could have debated the substance of SNP propositions for independence. We have had hours and hours of debate in this House, but still no answers on its ludicrous and contradictory currency position, and still nothing on pensions. We have heard a bit about a confirmed hard border between Scotland and the rest of the UK, but zero on how a country can be an EU member without abiding by EU rules, and absolutely nothing on how to deal with the deficit or the debt required to set up a new currency. SNP Members have not even mentioned in this House their economic paper for independence, which the First Minister launched a few weeks ago, but everyone else rubbished. They do not want to talk about it, because arguing about process is all they have left.
SNP Members could even have debated how the Tories have crashed the economy, the country’s historically low growth over the last 12 years, the fact that this Prime Minister has created the highest tax burden on working people in 80 years, or how there is now a Tory premium on everyone’s mortgages, rents, energy bills and food shop, as well as their dreadful response to the immigrant boat tragedies and how the Tories have presided over the largest fall in living standards on record since the 1950s, but nothing.
The fact is that the SNP is treating the Scottish public like fools, with a failing Scottish Government hiding behind the veil of an empty and failing independence policy—[Interruption.] I hear from a sedentary position, “But they keep voting for us”. That is the excuse I got from the Scottish Health Secretary when I said that we needed £6 million for new GP practices in Edinburgh South. He said, “There isn’t a problem, and by the way, if there was a problem, people would stop voting for us.” That is SNP Ministers’ attitude to people raising legitimate concerns about the way they run their Government.
SNP Members want to take control of the Order Paper not to take more of the powers they always call for or even to condemn this Government, but to get another referendum, which few Scots want. The truth is that this is just a game to them. They could, if they were successful today, just take control of the Order Paper and dissolve the Union, but, no, they want to create grievances when people just want to be able to turn their heating on, feed their families, get a GP appointment or an operation, or go to A&E and not wait 24 hours on a trolley. They have also forgotten that they would still have to get their legislation passed by this House, even if they could get control of the Order Paper.
Nobody wants another referendum any time soon, let alone the First Minister herself. Less than 30% agree with a referendum on the First Minister’s timetable, and only a third think there should be one in the next five years. It barely polls as a priority for Scots. SNP Members are always very good at talking about polls when they go in their favour, but the one they were championing yesterday shows that less than 20% of Scots see independence as a priority.
This charade today says to the Scottish people that their concerns and issues are of no relevance to the SNP Members who are supposed to be here to represent them. They are not standing up for Scotland, but are disregarding Scotland’s interests. It says to Scottish voters that, at the next election, they have a choice—to continue with these games from MPs sitting on the Opposition Benches, or have Scottish Labour MPs on the Government side of the House, having kicked the Tories out of power. It is a real chance to transform the UK and a real chance to transform Scotland. Scotland deserves much better. Scotland deserves change, and that change is coming with a Labour Government.
Order. I would prefer not to put on a time limit—let us see how we go—but that requires everybody to speak for eight minutes, and I am sure Douglas Ross will lead the way in showing us how to do that.
Absolutely, Madam Deputy Speaker. I always follow what the match official tells us to do.
It is a pleasure to be in this Chamber to be a representative of Scottish constituents and to debate issues of importance to the people of Scotland. It is just sad that that is not what we are doing today.
I am intervening just to ask why the hon. Member has turned up. He does not come here that often, so why is he down here complaining about the debate he is taking part in? [Hon. Members: “Touché!”]
Well, it is not really. We have seen despicable behaviour from SNP Members throughout this debate. The fact that they have already been warned by you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for their behaviour today just shows that this is a game. The shadow Scottish Secretary, Ian Murray, was right: this is all a game for them. They think this is fun. [Laughter.] Tommy Sheppard, who led this debate, is laughing. I do not find anything funny in the fact that hours of parliamentary debating time here in the UK Parliament are being dedicated to the separatist cause, not to Scotland’s cause. The hon. Gentleman said that he spoke about immigration, energy and the NHS. Yes, he did, for 30 seconds. For the remainder of his 30-minute speech, it was all about division, all about separation, all about dividing Scotland all over again. I wonder why he did not want to speak more about health. Was it because this week we heard that cancer waiting times in Scotland are at their worst ever level? [Interruption.] SNP Members are sighing. They barrack us for raising the issues. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the NHS, but he did not want to mention cancer waiting times in Scotland.
Last week, I raised the issue in the Scottish Parliament and the case of someone who waited almost two years from diagnosis to starting treatment for cancer in Scotland. Why would that not be an important issue for us to debate in this Parliament? Today in Moray we have finally had a report from NHS Grampian on—[Interruption.] If SNP Members are going to speak over me when I am speaking about an issue—[Interruption.] Brendan O’Hara says “Diddums.” Say that to the Moray mums who have to travel across the A96 from Elgin to Aberdeen or Inverness in labour in the back of an ambulance. The proposal made today by NHS Grampian says that that could continue for up to nine years. We were first told that it would be a temporary downgrade for a year until the reintroduction of full, consultant-led maternity services in Moray. The hon. Gentleman says “Diddums.” I say “Shame on you.”
Perhaps it is because the hon. Gentleman has so many jobs that he has forgotten which Parliament he is in. If he wants to make that argument, he should go to the Scottish Parliament where he is also a Member. This is an Opposition day debate on the transfer of powers under a section 30 order and holding a referendum on Scottish independence. Perhaps he should address that issue, instead of the grievance that he is sharing with us. Why does he not address the issue at stake—
So it is a grievance for a Member of Parliament to raise an issue on behalf of pregnant mums and families in Moray who are struggling. SNP Members say that we cannot mention the NHS here. Well, the SNP spokesperson who introduced the debate mentioned the NHS and, if I remember correctly, the leader of the SNP raised it with the Prime Minister at PMQs today. They are happy to speak about the NHS when it suits their argument, but they are not happy to speak about record cancer waiting times or Moray mums struggling for almost a decade with substandard maternity services—[Interruption.] Hannah Bardell waves that away. I wish I could wave away the concerns of my constituents, but I cannot, and they will be disappointed and frankly insulted by the responses from the SNP today.
Nobody on the SNP Benches seeks to insult the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. All of the issues he raises are serious, but the reality is that we have limited powers in Scotland, and we spend our limited budget cleaning up the mess that his Government make and filling the black holes that they have created. If we had independence and the full powers that it would bring, we would be able to do more.
Health is fully devolved to the SNP Scottish Government, and they have a record block grant from the UK Government. But the SNP Government are wasting money hand over fist, and that is why we have record cancer waiting times in Scotland. Delayed discharges are at record levels, although the SNP told us it would get rid of delayed discharges eight years ago.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that immigration is not devolved to Scotland, and that in leaving the EU because of his Government’s hard Brexit, we are no longer able to recruit people from Europe to the NHS as we did before? That is one of the levers. If he is not happy with how the health service is being run, he could devolve powers over immigration to allow us to do that.
I have seen how the SNP fails when it gets extra powers devolved to the Scottish Parliament, so I do not want to see it have any more, because the people of Scotland suffer. I am mentioning these points about health and all the other issues we could debate in here because they are of importance to people right across Scotland. We heard not a single word from those on the SNP Front Bench about ferries, although I heard about them from the Minister and the shadow Secretary of State. Why would the SNP not want to speak about ferries and its dismal failure to deliver those lifeline services to our island communities? Why would the SNP not want to speak about education in Scotland, which, as others have said, was once Nicola Sturgeon’s No. 1 priority but where there is now a dismal performance under the SNP? Why have we not heard from SNP Members about Scotland’s drug deaths shame? I lead the Opposition party in the Scottish Parliament and I would love to take control of debating time there to introduce a Bill for a right to recovery to help people who are struggling and losing their lives in record numbers—numbers that have gone up year after year. There is a Bill ready there and if I get the opportunity to have debating time in the Scottish Parliament and push something through, I would use it to do something good: to save lives. What we get here in the UK Parliament from SNP Members is timewasting; they are literally wasting the time where they could be focusing on issues of importance to the people of Scotland. So I am sorry that we have had to debate this today and that the SNP want to use all its time to stir up the division all over again, but it shows that it is absolutely out of ideas on any positive message for the people of Scotland.
This debate is entitled “Scotland’s Future”, and we are having this debate in this Chamber today about process because the people of Scotland sent a majority of Members to the Scottish Parliament—to our Parliament—who were elected on a mandate of delivering an independence referendum, and we need to ensure that that happens. It has to happen because there is a burning desire and there is anger about the economic circumstances we are facing within this Union. If I were to take the House through every decade right back to the 1850s, we would see that in every decade since then Scotland’s relative population in this Union has declined. We must ask ourselves why that is. It is largely because of economic opportunity. It is about the scandal today, in the middle of this cost of living crisis, that so many of our citizens are in poverty and have to ask themselves whether they can turn on the heating and whether they can send their children to school with full stomachs. Many of us have come down to this place this week with the harsh reality of a cold winter beginning to take root, and we know the despair that our citizens face.
When we consider energy, we think of the lost opportunities of the bounty of North sea oil that have been frittered away and a lack of legacy for future generations, but now we face the bounty of green renewable energy. Just a few weeks ago, my party published a report on green energy and we talked about the potential in Scotland to increase our energy output fivefold between now and 2050; to create as much as four times the green energy that Scotland needs; to take our responsibilities as citizens of the world to deliver net zero in Scotland by 2045; and to deliver the cheap energy that my hon. Friend Tommy Sheppard talked about. Is it not a disgrace that in energy-rich Scotland, when we have this opportunity of the economy of scale not just to power Scotland, but to generate energy for our friends in the rest of the UK and indeed throughout Europe, people are paying the price of the Westminster control of the energy market. Let us not forget that the pricing regime is based on the wholesale gas price, yet in Scotland, only 14% of our electricity comes from gas. We are being penalised by a market that is not fit for purpose, at a time when Scotland has that abundance of energy. That is the cost of being in the Union today and because of that we need to inspire and lead people in Scotland by saying what an independent Scotland would look like. Just from energy alone, by 2050 we could deliver 385,000 jobs in the energy sector, which vastly outnumbers the jobs we have today in oil and gas, but in doing so we would be creating the opportunities for a green industrial future and using that surplus energy to attract energy-intensive industries.
That is the hope—the vision—that my party and my Government have for an independent Scotland. I want us to have that debate and, yes, to hear those on the other side putting the case for the Union, but let us do it in a respectful manner. We can have that debate and deliver that future in Scotland only when we have the right to have that referendum and when the people in Scotland have the right to have their say.
Let me put this debate in context. In 2015, David Cameron had a manifesto that delivered a Brexit referendum. We did not want Brexit and we still do not want Brexit. The people of Scotland want to be part of the European Union. However, it is right in the context of the United Kingdom that David Cameron was able to enact his referendum. He did not have to go to the European Union to ask permission to put the referendum to the people of the United Kingdom. Of course, after that referendum, which we rejected wholeheartedly in Scotland, all that the UK Government had to do was enact article 50. They had the right to say to the European Union that they had decided that their future lay elsewhere.
My right hon. Friend is getting straight to the heart of the material cost and opportunity cost of remaining—languishing—in this Union. He talks about how the United Kingdom went straight ahead with its referendum to leave the EU. Has he ever considered, as I have, what would happen if the boot was on the other foot and England wanted to leave this Union? Who would block England leaving the Union the way we are being blocked?
Indeed, that is correct.
Let us put this debate in the context of the claim of right, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh East. The claim of right was, by the way, accepted by every party in this House in a debate that I secured in 2018. Let us remind ourselves of what was said in court in Edinburgh in the 1950s: that parliamentary sovereignty is a purely English concept that has no counterpart in Scottish constitutional history. It is the people of Scotland who are sovereign. Of course, the claim of right in 1989 stated that it is
“the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs”.
The all-party Smith commission concluded, after the 2014 referendum, that nothing in its report
“prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose.”
But what is the mechanism? We are told that this is supposed to be a voluntary Union, but we now know, because the Scottish Government have tested the legal case in the Supreme Court, that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to enact a referendum.
I would prefer it, and my colleagues in the Scottish Parliament would prefer it, if the Government in London accepted the will of the people of Scotland in electing a Parliament with an independence majority. We could then do what we did in 2011 and allow a referendum to take place. However, what we have is a Tory Government, propped up by their Labour friends, denying democracy to the people of Scotland. That is the reality.
It is on that basis that we had to come to the Chamber today to seek to give the power to the Scottish Parliament to enact the manifesto on which the Scottish Government won the election and call a referendum. If it is a voluntary Union, I remind the parties on the Government and Opposition Benches that there was a joint statement on
“Power lies with the Scottish people and we believe it is for the Scottish people to decide how we are governed.”
Well, I absolutely agree, and it is right if that statement is true, and it is right if the other parties accepted that, for the Scottish Parliament to have a mechanism to enable itself to call a referendum on Scotland’s future.
I am going to wind up now, because I was asked to take no more than eight minutes.
I am standing here today in front of the very seat that Charles Stewart Parnell used to occupy in this House. Let me remind the Government of the words of Charles Stewart Parnell when he spoke in Cork on
“No man has a right to fix the boundary of the march of a nation;
no man has a right to say to his country—thus far shalt thou go and no further.”
It is an honour and a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Ian Blackford. He has led us with diligence and dedication, and he will continue to be a champion for Scottish independence and an icon in our movement.
We have heard it all today, have we not? “Scotland, get back in your box. You have had your democracy, you have had your referendum—it only happened once.” The lies that were told to the people of Scotland, and the promises that were made during both the referendum in 2014 and the EU referendum, are now coming home to roost. It is precisely because we care so passionately about our education system, about our health system, and about the citizens in Scotland on whom the decisions and the mess that is being made in Westminster are having a such profound impact, that we want independence. It is because Westminster has failed Scotland so abjectly that we so desperately want independence, and more and more people in Scotland want independence as well. Every six days a country in the world celebrates Independence Day. Those countries are celebrating independence from Great Britain, and not one of them has gone back. Independence is normal, and I cannot wait for Scotland to join that list of independent nations.
Here is another list: free prescriptions, no tuition fees, free bus travel for the under-21s and over-60s, free personal care for the elderly, a game-changing Scottish child payment of £100 a month, baby boxes, no hospital parking fees, no bridge tolls, mitigation of the UK bedroom tax, and world-leading climate policies which include an energy transition fund, a green jobs fund and a just transition fund. Then there is redeploying Syrian and other refugees in our NHS and other public services, standing up to this Tory Government against Brexit, which Scotland did not vote for, and introducing some of the most progressive policies for LGBTQ people, including the trans community, while many members of this Government demonise them. I could go on. Those are just a few of the life-changing and life-enhancing policies that the SNP has pursued since coming to power in Scotland—and we do that with limited devolved powers and with one hand tied behind our back.
I think that one of the biggest challenges we face is the fact that we are still governed, by and large, by Westminster, with so much of the power lying here. I am not saying that we are perfect—no Government and no leader is perfect—but we are doing our very best to fill the massive holes in our budgets that are being created by this Westminster Tory Government. Imagine what we could do if we had the full powers of independence. After all, Scotland is the country that invented the modern world.
Today is an opportunity for this Tory Government to reflect on the realities of democracy and, indeed, on that Supreme Court judgment. It is an opportunity for them to listen to people in Scotland, and to respect democracy and facilitate Scotland’s right to decide her own future. It is interesting, is it not? If Labour, or the Tories, or indeed other parties, came forward at the next election with a proposal to rejoin the EU and put it in their manifesto, they would be allowed to have a referendum if they wanted, but although the SNP keeps winning elections and keeps being given mandates, the Tory party keeps denying the realities of democracy. It is a sad reality that Labour has joined the Conservative party in that dash to deny democracy.
There is such a poverty of ambition, but Labour has at least had the good grace to roll out some of its greatest hits and ancient acts—enter one Gordon Brown. That is up to and including, “Let’s reform the House of Lords—again—except we won’t, because we promised it before and it’s never happened so we’ll just keep sending more people there.” It has also promised tighter, stricter rules for this broken system—give me a break. My favourite top 10 hit from the Labour party is more devolution—great; more scraps from broken Britain’s table—to which I say, “No, thank you.” In Scotland, we like our democracy to be done in the same way that we like our decisions to be made: with maximum transparency and close to the lives of the people whom it affects.
I grew up under a Thatcher Government who destroyed Scotland’s economy and left a nation riven with inequality and hopelessness. I am from a working-class family with a single mother who was demonised by the famous first female Prime Minister. Representation, we find with the Tories, does not equal greater equality. In my teens, I grew up with new hope under new Labour, only to see disappointing and dismal leadership on issues such as the illegal invasion of Iraq and the cash for honours scandal. The reality is that it does not really matter who is in power in this place or who is at that Dispatch Box—the system is broken.
We have heard the Lords reform song from Labour for a long time. If anyone reads the memoirs of one of my predecessors, the late great Robin Cook, they will understand how appallingly he was treated by his own party for his attempts to reform the Lords, so I am sorry, but I do not buy it, and neither do folk in Scotland. Increasingly, poll after poll puts support for independence at over 50%. We in Scotland are frankly sick of funding the UK Government’s mismanagement and failed endeavours in government, for which a majority of people in Scotland have not voted for most of my lifetime. In the words of Robert Burns,
“We’re bought and sold for English gold—
Such a parcel of rogues in a nation!”
Speaking of rogues, let us talk about what the UK Tory Government have done in office. They have lied to people about Brexit and continued to rip up the workers’ and human rights that we had under our membership of the EU. They have ridden roughshod over the Good Friday agreement, threatened peace in Northern Ireland and abandoned its people for their narrow anti-EU ideology.
The Tory Government have destroyed the UK’s global reputation, cut benefits to the poorest and brought forward policies such as the abhorrent rape clause and two-child cap, which makes the lives of many vulnerable women even more precarious. They have crashed the economy with their ill-judged mini-Budget and failed austerity; they have cut international aid and turned their back on those most in need, just as the world faces a global climate catastrophe and many horrors of war and famine; and they have lined the pockets of their cronies and pals with the PPE VIP lane.
The Tory Government have done absolutely nothing to reform the Lords and get rid of the other unelected Chamber, which still has some of Putin’s allies in it, whom they put there. When they stand there and talk about the war in Ukraine—and yes, the money that they have given for defence spending and support—they forget the river of dirty Russian money that has flowed through the UK financial system for decades while they have sat on their hands and done nothing. There has been a revolving door of Prime Ministers who were too incompetent to deal with the basics of leadership and government, and who were soaked in scandal and impropriety, to put it mildly. This place does not serve anyone other than itself.
A significant number of the UK’s biggest exports are indigenous to Scotland, such as oil and gas, whisky and salmon to name but a few. We produce six times the amount of gas that we consume and 80% of our electricity comes from low carbon sources, but we are trapped in an energy market and a UK system that has profit squeezed from it at every turn and creamed off for the wealthiest at the top. While our constituents starve and freeze in one of the richest parts of the world, the few are raking it in; the rich get richer and the poor die under this system and this Tory Government. Scotland has had enough.
According to the National Grid, as Scotland’s energy market booms, our energy flows from north to south to keep the lights on in England, so it is clear why the British state does not want Scotland to become independent. I am sure that, when we get independence, we will be happy to negotiate in good faith and supply its energy at a reasonable cost, because I want better not just for people in Scotland, but for people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. I genuinely believe that the broken system of Westminster Government is serving every nation in this family of nations very poorly. The powers that be are scared that Scottish independence will lead to a recalibration of relations between the nations of the UK and how the UK is governed, and that is no bad thing.
The culture of this place is broken. The standards and the rules are frequently broken. Britain is broken and it needs a fresh start. We look forward to a brighter, greener, healthier future as an independent nation in the European Union, standing proudly on the world stage shoulder to shoulder with other nations to do our bit. To our friends and family in the European community I say, as my colleague and friend, my hon. Friend Alyn Smith once did, “Europe, please keep a light on for us.” In the meantime, to our friends here in the UK, we will keep the lights on for you.
I take this opportunity to welcome my hon. Friend Stephen Flynn—he is not in his place, but I am sure he will be speaking later —and to thank my right hon. Friend Ian Blackford sincerely for his friendship and co-operation since I became leader of the Plaid Cymru group in Westminster. It has been an honour to work with him. I welcome the opportunity to discuss this important matter today and fully support the motion in the name of the SNP, as well as the principle that Scotland should be given the right to decide when an independence referendum should be called.
Westminster’s refusal to guarantee the right to self-determination for all the devolved nations demonstrates the fundamentally undemocratic and therefore broken nature of this Union. It exposes the well-worn narrative that this is a voluntary association of four nations that somehow choose to pool sovereignty as the flagrant falsehood it truly is. There is no doubt that this is a UK Government who are politically and openly hostile to devolution. They have consistently disregarded the Sewel convention, rendering that supposed constitutional protection almost meaningless. They have shut out the devolved Governments from key economic decision making on post-Brexit funding and are more than happy to ignore the Welsh Government’s warnings that their trade deals will devastate key Welsh industries in their pursuit of glossy headlines.
I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way, but I cannot let her get away with such inconsistencies. She says the UK Government are hostile to devolution, but the most powerful devolved Administration in the world is the Scottish Parliament. As the Secretary of State for Wales who took forward the last Wales Act—the Wales Act 2017—I know that Wales is much more powerful now than under the Labour Government, when it even had to ask Westminster for powers to change the law on an individual basis. Now a Parliament has been created. There is significant inconsistency in what the right hon. Lady is saying.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for turning towards the Labour party, but what is striking in the responses from both major Westminster parties is the sheer lack of a convincing, gripping, emotionally valid and economically rational argument in favour of the Union. Time and again, we hear these remarks. In all honesty, this is politicised in the sense that we are talking about health in relation to England and health in relation to Scotland. If there were proper respect for devolution, that would not be a political football, because the devolved nations would have the proper means to answer those problems with powers given to us 20-odd years ago. But we do not. It is fair to throw at us the argument that we should be looking after the day-to-day bread and butter matters, but the real point is that we do not have the powers to sort out the problems left to us under the influence of this Government from this place.
The facts are clear. In 2010, Wales had a legislative competence model for devolution left by the Labour party, with which the right hon. Lady’s party is now working closely in Government in Cardiff Bay. We now have a Parliament in Wales, which the Conservative Administration delivered in spite of the opposition that came from her party.
It is very interesting that there are Conservatives in England questioning the devolution model proposed by Gordon Brown. None the less, those of us who are politicians must try to do the best we can for our people. That is what I believe we are doing in Wales. Unfortunately, looking at the powers for Wales put forward by the Labour party in Gordon Brown’s proposals, we do not really see the biggest transfer of power away from Westminster that he proposes referring to the people of Wales. In recommitting to the principle of parliamentary supremacy, his report reminds us that for Labour, the Senedd will always be subservient to Westminster.
Not only would the proposals put forward by Brown do nothing to change the fundamental inequalities of the UK, but he has back-tracked on previous Labour promises to devolve policing to Wales. In addition, and despite the Labour-run Welsh Government’s Thomas commission recommending that justice should be wholly devolved, Brown’s timid proposals offer only piecemeal powers over youth justice and probation. The level of disdain that the central Labour party holds towards the only Government that it currently runs beggars belief.
Indeed, last week, the deputy leader of Labour in Wales, Carolyn Harris, directly undermined her leader in Wales, the First Minister Mark Drakeford, on the devolution of policing. Although full devolution of policing was included in Welsh Labour’s winning 2021 manifesto, its deputy leader rejected the idea outright, despite evidence of poor outcomes in a structurally broken system. And her reason: “I just wouldn’t”. The anti-devolutionists are still in control of the Labour party but their arguments are being crushed under the weight of evidence.
The Brown report also fails to support the Welsh Government’s request to be empowered with stronger economic levers. The Institute of Welsh Affairs recently warned that a combination of Wales’s limited taxation powers, its inability to influence its block grant from Westminster and its exceptionally limited borrowing powers is having a chilling effect on Welsh policy, and that the England-led nature of the fiscal framework is restricting Wales’s ability to deliver transformational projects that would really make a difference to people’s lives in Wales.
To paraphrase a former Conservative Mayor and the current chair of the eastern powerhouse writing in City AM this week, devolution is a “sham” while the UK Government continue to hold the purse strings—from the mouths of babes. The Labour party in Westminster seems quite content to leave the situation as it is.
Plaid Cymru’s co-operation agreement commits Labour’s Welsh Government to the devolution of five powers—policing and justice, the Crown Estate, welfare administration, gender recognition, and broadcasting—yet Gordon Brown’s report makes no mention of the latter two policy areas. The consistent way in which Labour in Westminster undermines their colleagues in Wales raises questions about whether a UK Labour Government would ever properly implement the recommendations of their Welsh Government’s independent constitutional commission.
That commission, chaired by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and Professor Laura McAllister of Cardiff University’s Wales Governance Centre, was established as part of the co-operation between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government. Last week, it published its interim report, which set out clearly that the status quo simply is not working for Wales. The commission argued that Wales is
“trapped within a UK economy that is overwhelmingly shaped in the interests of the South-East of England and the City of London”.
It came to the conclusion that
“this broken UK economic model does not deliver prosperity to Wales and”— importantly—
“offers no prospect of doing so.”
The commission made it clear that the answer to those issues does not lie in unwinding devolution. Indeed, it concludes that in this context, independence is one of three viable future constitutional options available to Wales.
As part of Plaid Cymru’s work to build the road to independence, we have published our submission to the commission entitled “The Road to Independence”, and we are working with the Wales Green party to establish a future Cymru forum, which will explore key questions surrounding independence more deeply, including the central question of a how a new Welsh economy would work. Working together, we can show that there are positive and hopeful alternatives to the destructive agenda pursued by the Conservatives here in Westminster.
The present devolution arrangements are dysfunctional and they cannot hold. It is time to acknowledge that federalism is dead—it is a dead end—and that only independence can deliver the greener, fairer and stronger economic futures that the communities of Wales and Scotland so urgently need and deserve.
I will happily support the motion. All efforts to ensure Scottish sovereignty and Scotland’s independence deserve to be backed, but I fear that the likelihood of seeking salvation through Westminster’s procedures is as likely to be as forlorn as the debacle in the United Kingdom Supreme Court. The reference there, especially without even the authority of a Bill having been supported by the Scottish Parliament, was supreme folly, compounded by the advocacy of a Lord Advocate who had all the passion and appetite for it of someone eating a bowl of cold sick.
Has the hon. Gentleman noticed that since the supreme folly—as he describes it—of going to the Supreme Court, the polls have rocketed in the direction of pro-independence support across Scotland? If that is failure, I do not know what success looks like.
I very much welcome the increase in the polls, as I will come to, but we have to find a route and a method to get there. So far, the courts have ruled that out, and indeed, it looks like the political options—certainly in this place—are limited.
The overreach in the dictum in the Supreme Court judgment that Scotland was neither a colony nor had resorted to violence was both absurd and perverse, which is why a route for Scottish independence needs set out, but that route must neither be subject to a UK court nor be beholden to a UK Parliament. Legally, historically and politically, the people of Scotland are sovereign, not a UK court or a UK Parliament. That has been part of our constitutional history, as other Members have mentioned: it was set out to me as a law student by Lord Justice Cooper’s judgment, which was passed on. It was the accepted wisdom—politically, it was the accepted position of even Unionist opponents of independence—that the Scottish people could achieve independence if they voted for it, but that is being denied.
So what is to be done when—not if—this procedural wheeze fails to deliver independence, as the procedural wheeze of referring the matter to the UK Supreme Court failed to deliver the referendum? It is about taking back sovereignty to the Scottish people. On Saturday, as well as attending a political meeting in the afternoon, I went to a concert of the Proclaimers in Edinburgh on the Saturday night. The crowd fair enjoyed the song “Cap in Hand”:
“We fight, when they ask us
We boast, then we cower
We beg for a piece of what’s already ours”.
As support for independence rises, as the thermometers and temperatures plummet, and as energy costs soar in energy-rich Scotland and people go hungry and go cold, that absurdity must end. Now is the time Mr Nicolson might wish to be aware of: no more cap in hand, so what is to be done?
First of all, we can endorse our historical claim of right. As Canon Kenyon Wright said—I paraphrase —“Some may say no, but we are the people, and we say yes.” I hope SNP Members will sign my colleague Neale Hanvey’s St Andrew’s day declaration, early-day motion 633.
Order. I gently remind the hon. Gentleman that there should be no mention of Members’ Christian names or surnames. Please refer to them by their constituencies.
My apologies, Mr Deputy Speaker.
The independence convention requires to be supported. It is necessary to bring together the democratically elected representatives of Scotland, our MPs and MSPs, for two reasons: first, as a rebuttal—it is not the UK Supreme Court that is sovereign, but the democratically elected representatives of the people of Scotland—and secondly, to drive home the point when this motion fails and is defeated tonight that it is not this Parliament, but the elected representatives of the people of Scotland who are the democratically elected voice of the people of Scotland. I hope Members on the SNP Benches will support the call for an independence convention; after all, it was a call made and supported by the First Minister in February 2020. We are now approaching three years on, and it is time that convention was delivered.
Thirdly, we should support the call for a plebiscite election, one that could be triggered next October and deliver us our referendum—the no ifs, no buts referendum that we were promised by Members on the SNP Benches. That can be achieved by collapsing the Scottish Parliament; a member of the SNP has already set out a way there. That could be done, and could deliver the referendum that the people of Scotland were promised would happen in October of next year by the First Minister and others. That must be done.
Finally, support must be given to all demonstrations, all international legal actions, and all peaceful and democratic actions to drive forward the position that the people of Scotland are not prepared to accept diktats supinely, either from a UK Supreme Court or from a Tory Government unelected by the people of Scotland since 1955. The need is great; the time is now. I will support the motion, but this question needs to be answered by SNP Members when they are defeated: when will they actually stand up and take powers back for the people of Scotland, and ensure that it is Scottish sovereignty and Scottish democracy that rules, not the diktat of a Tory Government further impoverishing the people of Scotland?
It was, interestingly enough, on
It is a simple matter of fact that when a majority of people in Scotland are prepared to vote for independence, Scotland will become an independent country. The best way to demonstrate that majority would be through a referendum on a simple question, along the lines of the referendum held in 2014. Incidentally, the way to prove the opposite would also be through a referendum; if the Unionists are so convinced of their cause, why are they not allowing a referendum to happen and so settle the question? The reality is that they are running scared.
Today’s motion would allow the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a referendum at a time of its choosing—any time of its choosing. That arrangement is far more in keeping with the claim of right than Scotland’s Parliament having to go cap in hand to this place whenever a majority of MSPs are returned with a mandate for a referendum. If the UK Government, backed up by their Better Together allies, continue to veto or ignore the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government, it stands to reason that a different kind of electoral test will be needed.
The 2019 general election, three years ago this week, was an effective—we might even say a de facto—referendum on Brexit. The Conservatives sought a mandate to implement the hardest possible Brexit short of a no deal. If memory serves, the Liberal Democrats, none of whom appear to be here today, sought a mandate in that general election to completely overturn the Brexit referendum result. The SNP manifesto supported a UK-wide second EU referendum with remain on the ballot paper, while making it clear that the best option for Scotland is and always has been independence in Europe.
Political parties are absolutely entitled to put their proposition to the voters, and the voters make up their minds. Labour, apparently, intends to stand at the next election on a platform for sweeping constitutional reform: abolition of the House of Lords and a new devolution settlement, even though Labour established the current devolution settlement through a series of referendums. The position now seems to be that a Labour Government, elected on maybe 40% or 45% of a UK-wide vote, would have a mandate to completely reform both the United Kingdom constitution and the current devolution settlement. However, an overall majority of votes for pro-independence candidates in Scotland would not constitute a mandate for anything. I am not sure how they make that add up.
During this debate, we have heard from the Better Together parties that it is a waste of parliamentary time and that constituents want us to talk about the cost of living crisis, supporting public services and the challenges facing the economy. But as Tommy Sheppard laid out right at the start, the responses needed to really tackle all those issues in Scotland require the full powers of independence. It is Westminster that still holds the purse strings, embarking on yet another round of austerity, continuing with the absolute folly of Brexit, and increasingly oblivious to the climate emergency and its own commitments to emissions reductions.
It is independence that will truly liberate Scotland’s Parliament to invest in Scotland’s people and places and to have the chance to build the fairer, greener, healthier society that we all know is possible—a society that welcomes people, wherever they have come from around the world, and seeks to build peace and justice across the globe. Those are the opportunities that inspired me to join the campaign for independence 25 years ago, and those are the opportunities that an increasing—and eventually unstoppable—majority of people in Scotland are now starting to reach for.
Today’s motion, if agreed, would allow the people of Scotland, and they alone, to determine the future constitutional status of Scotland. If the people of Scotland decide that our future should be as an independent country, and as an equal member of the European Union, that is what it should be. It is not for this place or anyone else to say otherwise.
As much as the Unionist parties have tried to make this a debate about the merits of independence, or even the record of the Scottish Government, this debate is not about that. Do not get me wrong, I am more than happy to argue the merits or otherwise of independence, but this is not the forum for that debate. Although the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, John Lamont, is not in his place, I congratulate him, because his speech was far more powerfully in favour of Scottish independence than anything I could say.
After Brexit, the worst cost of living crisis in decades, spiralling energy prices and the threat of power cuts for the first time since the 1970s, and with millions of working people relying on food banks and the Government engulfed by yet another scandal after allowing their wealthy mates to become even wealthier by plundering the public purse to the tune of billions during the pandemic, believe me that making the case for Scottish independence has never been easier, but this debate is not about Scottish independence; it is about democracy. It is about self-determination and who has the right to decide what our constitutional future will be. Is it the people who live and work in Scotland, and who call Scotland home, or does that right belong to this Parliament and a governing party that has not won an election in Scotland since 1955 but has the power to hold a referendum because that power is constitutionally reserved to this place, thereby denying the democratic will of the Scottish people?
We have heard this afternoon that the Supreme Court confirmed the position that only this place has the power to hold a referendum, which remains by far the SNP’s preferred option for settling this constitutional logjam. Given how both the Government and the official Opposition behaved in the aftermath of that Supreme Court ruling, however, it is fair to say that it would require a road to Damascus-like change of heart. I recognise that is unlikely to happen.
Bizarrely, it appears that the Government and the official Opposition thought that the Supreme Court ruling would somehow settle the matter—that the demand for a referendum on independence would miraculously disappear—and that they could double down on their dogged refusal to accept the mandate given to the SNP at the Holyrood election to hold that referendum. That was never going to happen, and opinion poll after opinion poll since the ruling has shown that the demand for a referendum has intensified and that support for Scottish independence has hit an all-time high.
The Government’s position, which is enthusiastically shared by the Labour party, is completely untenable and simply cannot hold. The more they deny Scotland’s right to choose its own constitutional future and the more they say, “No, you can’t,” the more Scotland will say, “Yes, we will and, yes, we can.” Both the Government and Opposition Front Benchers would do well to heed the words of Professor Sir John Curtice of Strathclyde University, who warned the Unionists just the other day that simply saying no to a referendum does not necessarily constitute an effective strategy for maintaining support for the Union.
Of course, it does not have to be this way. All we are asking is for this place to recognise that Scotland has a democratic right to decide its own future. If this Parliament will not allow it, the least it should do is allow our Parliament to do so. This motion simply seeks to amend the Scotland Act 1998 to give the Scottish Parliament the power to hold the referendum that the people elected their Government to deliver.
The people of Scotland have continually backed the SNP at the ballot box, the democratically elected Scottish Government have voted for a referendum and the opinion polls show that it is the will of the people. There is a clear mandate for an independence referendum and that case is getting stronger by the day.
If this is a voluntary Union, as we have always been told that it is, then there must be a mechanism for one or more of its member nations to decide that it no longer wants to be part of it. We have always been led to believe that the Union of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland was a voluntary Union, and that should at any point a majority of one of those constituent parts seek to become independent, the least we could expect was that the UK Government would not seek to frustrate that desire. People having the ability to amend the constitutional position of their country is a fundamental of democracy. It really does ill behove the so-called, self-styled mother of Parliaments to now stand in the way of the democratic demands of one or more of its constituent parts should they decide to take a different path.
I believe that the leader of the Labour party was genuine last week when he said that he opposed independence because he believed in our “Union of nations”. I have to ask him: what happens when one of those nations no longer believes in that Union? Whose wish trumps whose? Does he believe that his desire to lead a United Kingdom is more important than the wishes of the Scottish people should they decide no longer to remain in that United Kingdom? When I was listening to him last week, I was reminded of an interview that he gave to the BBC last month in which he spoke about Labour’s electoral failures in recent years and how he believed that the Labour party had lost elections because the party had listened to itself and had put its political priorities above the priorities of the voters. He said that, in his opinion, Labour lost because it did not listen to the people and what they wanted. Is that not exactly what he is doing to the voters of Scotland right now? He is putting his priority, and his party’s priority, ahead of those of the Scottish people as expressed in the ballot box just last year.
At a time when the demand for a referendum is rising, when support for independence is reaching an all-time high, and when the latest polls show that support for the Union at an all-time low of just 42%, the truth is that, whether Unionists like it or not and whether they want it or not, the people of Scotland have decided that this is their priority and that now is the time for the people of Scotland to choose their own future.
Finally, I believe that Scotland’s future will be as an independent nation and as a full and enthusiastic member of the European Union. That process has been accelerated by Brexit—an act so reckless and so ill-conceived that history will record it as being the day that the United Kingdom effectively signed its own death warrant. With that decision, as never before, those opposed to Scottish independence are now having to explain why we should stay in the Union—a Union in which our democratically expressed wishes are routinely ignored and our economic best interests thrown to the wind. I repeat: the position of both the Government and the official Opposition is simply untenable. Hiding behind the Scotland Act 1998, and relying on the provisions contained in it to deny the democratic wishes of the people, can be seen only as an act of sheer desperation, and one that betrays a fundamental lack of confidence in the ability to hold this Union together in any other way.
I rise from the unfamiliar terrain of the Back Benches for the first time in 21 years. I hope you will be gentle with me, Mr Deputy Speaker, as you always are, as I get used to this new environment.
It is only three weeks since the Supreme Court made that important ruling on whether the Scottish Parliament had the necessary powers to bring in a Bill to have a referendum on an independent Scotland. We have seen what has happened since then. There have been several responses, but, most notably, what Unionists thought was going to happen did not happen. They thought that, when this judgment was made, somehow the call for Scottish independence would be diminished and support for the Union would go up. That did not happen. If they did have that view, I am pretty sure that they are quickly disabused of that notion now. It was four opinion polls, but I have just checked, and a fifth opinion poll has come through as we have started to debate this issue today. Narrowly though it may be, that is five opinion polls showing majority support for independence.
I have an opinion about why that is the case, and I will share it with the House: it is because the Scottish people just will not be telt. There is something about the Scottish character that just takes badly to being told they cannot do something or to feeling they do not have the necessary ability to do something they feel they have a legitimate right to do. That comes down to the Scottish character and the Scottish personality. [Interruption.] It is thrawn, as an hon. Friend says from the Front Bench. We just do not take well to being telt.
We have been telt by the Supreme Court, which says that with the powers that have come to reside in Scotland, there is no particular legal way to have an independence referendum, and we all accept that. I think everybody has said that their lordships had the opportunity to have a look at that, and they did so fairly and came to their own conclusion, decision and judgment, but the Scottish people are not prepared to accept this UK Government telling them that there is now no legitimate means to secure an independence referendum and that our road to it has now closed. That is something that the Scottish people refuse to accept or go along with.
The Scottish people returned a Government with the biggest vote ever secured for a party in the Scottish Parliament. They secured more independence supporting MSPs than we have ever secured in any Parliament since 1999. That is why we now have increased support for independence. It reminds me of the day during the independence referendum—I am sure my colleagues will remember this—when the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, together with all the other Unionist shadow Chancellors, got together to tell the Scottish people that they could not use the pound, which they believed they had the right to and shared with the rest of the people of the United Kingdom. Those politicians thought that that would kill the calls for independence stone dead in the independence referendum campaign.
In fact, the exact opposite happened, because support for independence rose from something in the mid-20s to something approaching 40% as a result. It was probably the most important point in the last independence referendum, and from that point onwards, it was always going to be close as to who would win the subsequent independence referendum. This is why we are going to see such a rise in the opinion polls as we go forward. It is five in a row, as we have just said, but we are where we are.
We are trying to find a way forward with all these issues and trying to design a way to deal with the situation in which we find ourselves. My colleagues have repeatedly asked Government Ministers from the Prime Minister downwards, “How do we now get that independence referendum, when we supposedly and notionally are in a voluntary Union?” We have not had any real answer or response to that, save for one thing: a duck. That was the response I got when I asked the Secretary of State for Scotland in the Scottish Affairs Committee, “How do we do this now?” His response was the duck test. I think what he was trying to present was that we would just know when we had got to the position where a referendum on independence would be reasonable and legitimate. Of course, he now has that fabled duck test, where if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck—Members know how the rest of that goes.
What the Secretary of State for Scotland was saying was that if it looks like it is time for an independence referendum, and it sounds like it is time for an independence referendum, it will be time for that independence referendum. The only thing is he did not tell us how that democratic test would be met. I presented a few options to him, which were all rejected. It is now incumbent on the Government to tell us how we get there. They have conceded that there is a way to an independence referendum, albeit under the guise of our aquatic feathered friends. What they now have to do is to sit down reasonably and constructively and tell us exactly what the test will be, but it has to be a democratic test that satisfies the democratic aspirations and ambitions of the Scottish people. It has to be based on actual results in ballot boxes as we go forward.
There is this idea that somehow, in 2011, civic Scotland and all the political parties in Scotland got together and agreed a way forward for an independence referendum, and that is right. I was here, and I remember exactly how that deal was concocted, and my hon. Friend Tommy Sheppard put his finger on it. The Government agreed to all this because they profoundly believed that they would win it and kill any notion or idea of Scottish independence for a generation, as we keep on hearing about in the context of these debates. They are not prepared to do that now, because they know they will lose. They are looking at the opinion polls and seeing the trends in Scottish public opinion. The reason why they are failing to engage in a process towards a second independence reference just now is that they know they start from a position that assumes we would win, they would lose and Scotland would become an independent country. There is no doubt whatsoever that if an independence referendum was held tomorrow, Scotland would vote to become an independent nation. Every shred of evidence is telling us that. It is the trend we are moving towards just now. The Scottish people will not be telt about how they will engage in democratic affairs, particularly when they voted for a Scottish Government committed and obliged to deliver an independence referendum.
I really do hope that the Government get round the table and discuss this issue positively and constructively with the Scottish Government. We have presented today a proposal and an option to devolve the powers to the Scottish Parliament to allow it to democratically decide how this issue is taken forward. If the UK Government are not happy with the idea, which I sense they are not—they are failing to engage with this as a constructive way forward—it is now up to them to tell us and design a way forward.
We cannot go on like this. Year after year we come back to the issue of how we decide and settle Scotland’s constitutional future. We have been doing this for nearly 30 years. We have had one referendum already that has proven to be non-conclusive. Everybody knows that and I think we all agree that somehow this has to be settled. Let us settle it, for goodness’ sake. Let us put this issue to bed. Let the people of Scotland come together to hear the arguments for and against the Union. We are looking forward to making the passionate arguments for why Scotland should be an independent nation; the Government should be looking forward to putting the case for their Union. Let us put those two competing visions together and let the Scottish people decide. Let the Scottish people on their own determine their future.
Now is the time to constructively debate and design a way forward. It is now up to this Government. I hope they get the message that this issue is having to come to a head. We have to deal with it constructively, so let us all agree today that we will go forward and let the Scottish people decide.
Mr Deputy Speaker:
“That this House
believes it should be for the Scottish people to determine the future constitutional status of Scotland;
and accordingly makes provision as set out in this Order”.
It is hard to believe that we even have to make that request. It is galling to think that my nation is expected to ask permission from another country to have control over its own constitutional status. It is frustrating, too, to witness the damage being done to individuals, families and communities in Scotland by the austerity policies of the current Conservative and Unionist UK Government. The SNP Scottish Government have mitigated the damage to the tune of billions of pounds; all that could have been spent elsewhere if this place had truly, as it claims, been compassionate when legislating. But it has not, and time and again the Scottish Government take the strain.
As has already been pointed out, there is of course a range of topics that we could have debated today: the damage forced on Scotland by Brexit; the austerity policies forced on Scotland by this Government; the dreadful immigration policies that they continue to ramp up; the fact that in the 21st century our constituents have to decide whether to heat or eat; and so on. We know that the outcomes of each and every one of those things is determined by the actions taken by the Conservative and Unionist UK Government here at Westminster. There is no point in us continually addressing the symptoms when the cause is staring us in the face.
We would love to debate all those issues in a Holyrood with the powers to address them. Westminster will deny us this request—we know that—and that is indicative of their fear: “Why do the SNP keep asking? It knows we won’t allow it.” They just do not get it. That is partially because some MPs who represent Scottish seats will back up the UK Government when they pronounce their intention to rule over Scotland. That servile attitude only empowers Westminster.
I noticed yesterday that the front page of the Scottish edition of The Times newspaper had a quarter-page story with the headline “Scots back independence for fourth poll in row”, but the edition that I saw in the Tea Room had a different story in that space: ironically, it was “Last-minute talks to halt nurse strike break down”—not a story The Times could have run in Scotland as the SNP Government have successfully come to an agreement on that issue in Scotland. The lack of the independence poll result on that front page reminded me how little engagement Members here have with Scotland and Scottish issues—as can be seen today by the empty spaces on their Benches. Unless we bring it to the table, it is not on the menu. So rather than retreating to a bunker and repeating the line, “You had your referendum, and it was once in a generation,” the UK Government would do well to engage with the devolved powers in an equal and respectful manner. Share the platform with us and respect our right to ask the people of Scotland.
The pressure is building up behind the UK Government’s dam of denial, and when the dam bursts, they do not want to be standing under it. It will wash them away and they will be replaced with an independent Scottish Government working for all of the people in our free, sovereign nation. The UK Government’s choice is not, “What is the direction of travel?” but whether they want to be part of that democratic process, or whether they still live in fear of democracy?
It is a pleasure to take part in the debate. Let me start on some of the comments made by Government Members and by Ian Murray about the SNP’s choice of subject. They should know full well that we cannot bring forward a debate on education in Scotland, and they should know full well that we cannot bring forward a debate on the NHS in Scotland, because those matters are devolved to the Scottish Parliament and not under the competency of this House. If they do not know that, shame on them.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh South denied the facts about Better Together and Labour still working with the Tories up and down councils in Scotland. He should remember that one of his colleagues was on national TV bragging about doing deals with the Tories to keep the SNP out of the councils. It really is Better Together.
The motion is about democracy for Scotland. Everyone here claims to believe in democracy, but the Unionists seem to have no problem with denying the voters of Scotland their right to choose their future. It is untenable and, going by current opinion polls, completely backfiring.
The hon. Gentleman says that the SNP would not be allowed to debate education, health and so on. Could he try that? At the next SNP Opposition day debate, will he propose debates on those issues that are important for our constituents and leave it up to Mr Speaker to decide whether that is within competency or not?
It is not for me to decide. We respect devolution and we will decide what we want to debate in our Opposition day debates.
We all know that Government Members like to use the throwaway remark about a “once in a generation opportunity”, but that is not a credible way to override the outcomes of elections. Indeed, the former Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, told the Daily Express that the 2019 election was
“a critical once-in-a-generation election.”
No one has since used that to justify delaying another general election—although the way the polling is for the Tories at the moment, they might want to revisit that argument and try to use it. The former Prime Minister also did not die in a ditch rather than sign an extension to stay in the EU, so I think we need to recognise political rhetoric for what it is.
Let us look at timings for repeating referendums. For Northern Ireland, it is explicitly stated that repeat referendums can be held after a seven-year period has passed. So the whole “You had a vote in 2014” thing does not stack up, given that Unionists have no problems with a seven-year timeframe for Northern Ireland. I also pointed out earlier that the power to choose a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland is devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly, so if decisions on Northern Ireland’s future are devolved, surely what the UK Government tell us is the most powerful devolved Parliament in the world should also have the right to choose when to have a referendum. Why pretend that it is a voluntary Union while refusing to set out processes to allow voters to demonstrate that they consent to being in that Union?
In other latest developments, as my hon. Friend Pete Wishart said, the Scotland Secretary now thinks that we should apply “the duck test”—whatever that means. At the Scottish Affairs Committee, he also argued that there needs to be a “sustained majority” for a referendum and, in relation to knowing when the right levels of support had been reached, he said that “they knew back then”—in 2014—
“that they had reached it, but we do not believe we have reached it now.”
Who is the “we” in that aspect of not believing that a referendum should be held in accordance with the wishes of the voters of the 2021 election?
If we look back to 2011, we see that the SNP won 69 out of 129 seats. When we add in two Greens and Margo MacDonald, there were 72 pro-indy MSPs, which was a clear parliamentary majority, although the pro-referendum votes did not exceed 50%. In 2021, we got 72 pro-indy and pro-referendum MSPs, and the SNP achieved a record number of votes and the highest constituency vote of any party in the history of the Scottish Parliament. The pro-indy parties achieved plus-50% on the last vote. The 2021 results were actually better than the 2011 election results that delivered the 2014 referendum. I think that the duck test that the Secretary of State for Scotland spoke about has been met.
Let us not forget that the EU referendum was justified when the Tories won a parliamentary majority in 2015 with just 37% of the UK-wide vote. If parliamentary democracy is an argument for implementing manifesto commitments at Westminster, it is high time that principle was recognised in Holyrood.
Given the denial of a democratic vote despite the number of elections that have been won by the SNP and the huge pro-independence majority secured in 2021, it is no surprise that people are fed up and show support for the alternative of using an election as a de facto referendum. Democracy cannot be denied forever. People are getting more frustrated with the attitude that Westminster somehow knows best and that we should just get on with it.
Clearly, the biggest imposition on Scotland against our will has been Brexit. That was compounded by the deal agreed by the Tories—a deal that saw the end of free movement, which has had a significant impact on the health and care sector and the hospitality trade. We could and should have more nurses, more doctors, more porters, more cleaners and more care staff. That would ease the pressures in the various NHSs. With the free movement of people, we could have a bigger tax base, more businesses would be profitable and there would be greater food production, rather than crops rotting in the fields. But no—we are left suffering due to Tory ideology and because Labour is too afraid to do anything different. The Labour leader stated recently:
“We don’t want open borders. Freedom of movement has gone and it’s not coming back.”
In Scotland, we want free movement of people, and we can have it back with independence in Europe.
Even with Scotland’s renewable energy success story, Westminster decisions have held back our energy policy. When onshore wind subsidies were removed in 2015, it killed investment in the sector. That was done just to appeal to the Tory shires. The carbon capture scheme at Peterhead was pulled twice and is now only classed as a reserve. By no coincidence at all, the carbon capture clusters in red wall seats have been given track 1 status. Scottish bill payers are being forced to pay for nuclear power stations and they have the highest grid charges in Europe. The windfall tax is levied on Scotland’s energy sector, yet a renewables tax allowance to incentivise further investment is not allowed. All the precious oil and gas revenues have been squandered, rather than being used to create a wealth fund. Those are bad decisions made in Westminster and imposed on Scotland.
It is clear from the Scottish attitudes survey that the people of Scotland trust Holyrood more than Westminster to make decisions for the benefit of Scotland. It is also clear that a majority of people believe that Scotland will become independent, regardless of which way they would vote themselves. Recent polling shows that a majority of voters would vote for independence and that, significantly, younger generations are consistently in favour of independence. It is only a matter of time before Scotland becomes independent. I suggest that the least Westminster could do is to respect the concept of allowing the people of Scotland to make up their own minds. If it has confidence in the strength of the Union—“the greatest political union the world has ever seen”—let us have that vote and that debate, and let the people of Scotland decide.
Earlier today, I had the great privilege of standing a few yards away on the Floor of the House and announcing that the House had followed the lead of the SNP in voting against a proposed Bill that would have been an affront to human rights and the rule of law. I am very grateful for the cross-party support we were given to do that. I greatly commend my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss for the outstanding and passionate speech she made in that short debate.
I hope that this evening, the House will again follow the SNP’s lead by voting to start to put right a situation that is an affront to democracy and the sovereignty of the people of Scotland. Today’s debate is not strictly speaking about whether Scotland should be independent, although that is something I am happy to debate any time. I understand and respect the fact that people hold different opinions from mine. Today’s debate is about whether the people of Scotland have the right to decide their own future. There is no debate about that and there is no compromise or dispute about it. Sovereignty over Scotland is inalienably vested in the people of Scotland. That means we do not just have the right to decide our own future: we, and we alone, have the right to decide for ourselves when we want to be asked the question about our future. Yes, we also have the inalienable right to change our minds and to decide that we want to be asked the question again to give us the opportunity to give a different answer, in the same way as the electorate get to change their mind in between elections.
It has been said:
“Power lies with the Scottish people and we believe it is for the Scottish people to decide how we are governed.”
Those are not my words, but the words of the leaders of the Conservative party, the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats in 2014. They might have changed their minds since, because 2014 was a long time ago; indeed, nobody would dispute the possibility that they might have changed their minds. But the right that they espoused then belonged to the people of Scotland in 2014 and it belongs to them just as much today. The will of the people of Scotland as expressed at the ballot box must prevail, and it will prevail.
The whole purpose of our constitutional political institutions, like them or not, is to give effect to the will of the people. If our political institutions do anything else, we are no longer a democracy. History tells us what happens to institutions or politicians who seek to block the legitimate will of the people—they become history themselves.
We heard again from the Minister earlier, and we have heard it previously from the shadow Secretary of Scotland, the claim that Scotland is one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments, or perhaps the most powerful. It is a wee while since we have had any interventions, so I invite an intervention from any of the Unionists left in their places to name just one devolved Parliament anywhere in the world that is less powerful than the Parliament of Scotland—apart from Wales, obviously—[Interruption.] We have an offer: let us hear it.
We know that health, education, transport, local government, the economy are all powers that the Scottish Government have that makes them the most powerful devolved Administration anywhere in the world.
I have no doubt that Hansard got that. The hon. Gentleman was given the chance to name one less powerful devolved Parliament in the world and he could not think of one. I doubt if anyone else in here can either.
If Members do not want to take note of the words of the party leaders in 2014, perhaps they will note the words of a previous party leader, who said that the Scots
“have an undoubted right to national self-determination;
thus far they have exercised that right by joining and remaining in the Union. Should they”— that is, us—
“determine on independence no English party or politician would stand in their way, however much we might regret their departure.”
The motion is not a plea to our superiors from a subservient people. It is a clear statement from a sovereign people about the direction that our country intends to take. It is an opportunity for those who claim to support the British constitution to allow that constitution to do its job. The result of any vote tonight will not decide whether or when we become independent. It will not even decide whether Scotland’s people get the chance within the lifetime of the current Scottish Parliament to decide their own future, because that will happen, with or without the consent of this place. What it would do is offer a chance to find a way to deliver the will of the people that leaves the British state and its institutions with some shred of political and democratic credibility, because the option before the Conservative party and the Labour party tonight is not, “Do we allow or do we stop Scotland having its say?” It is, “Do we allow Scotland to have its say in a way that would maintain some kind of international credibility for this place, or do we try to stop it and take the consequences that happen to Parliaments and politicians the world over when they try to stand against the declared will of the people?” I have no doubt as to my preference.
I saw it suggested on Twitter earlier that by tabling this motion we were somehow looking for a different route from the preferred choice of the First Minister and others. I want to see our independence delivered with the consent of our friends and neighbours in the rest of the United Kingdom. I want us to start on our first day as an independent nation knowing that our bigger neighbour to the south has recognised and respected the rights of our people. Let me be clear, however, that withholding that consent and respect will not stop Scotland settling its own future. In fact, as has been made clear in earlier contributions, the further the British state tries to stand in Scotland’s way, the more certain it is that the decision day will be soon and that the decision on that day will be yes. At that point, when there is a clear expression of the will of the Scottish people that we will be an independent country, the ball will be back in the British Unionist institutions’ court, and it will be up to them to find a way to make it work.
Can I commend my hon. Friend Kenny MacAskill—I hope I can still call him my hon. Friend—for the passion with which he spoke today? He set out some other tactics that may need to be used. This is not the time to talk about the tactics that we use. It is a time to give the British state its chance to do the honourable thing, the decent thing, the democratic thing, and to give it a chance to put its politics where its mouth is. Nobody in this debate has argued that the sovereignty of Scotland lies anywhere other than with the people of Scotland. Nobody in this debate has claimed that the people of Scotland do not have a right to set our own future. The challenge to the Unionist parties—all of them, or at least the ones that have bothered to turn up, but in particular the present Government and the would-be, wannabe Government—is to accept this offer tonight and to find a way that allows Scotland to chart her chosen course in a way that leaves some shred of credibility to this place. The British state has never—never—successfully and permanently stood against the independence of any nation when independence was the settled will of the people of that nation. We are not going to do that to Scotland.
I start by saying that I envy my hon. Friend Kirsty Blackman—in fact, I am right jealous—because she gets to sum up today’s debate following the speeches from the Government and Labour Front Benches. Holy moly, talk about fantasy stuff. It is quite incredible. They would have been hilarious, were the matter not so serious, getting to the heart of democracy in this precious Union of ours.
I have recently been rereading Ian Hamilton’s books on his mission to liberate the Stone of Destiny, and on his incredible life before and after the event that was to make him a household name across Scotland and, for a time, the Met police’s most wanted person. Ian was many things—an incredible intellect, a top-tier advocate and a political one-off—but what comes through again and again in his writing and character is his unshakeable belief in the people of Scotland. It was not about whether they should choose self-government, although he continually argued that they should, but about his absolute conviction, rooted in his very soul, that no one had the right to stand in the way of their choice if it was arrived at fairly and democratically.
That should be a completely apolitical and unremarked upon state of affairs, and it reflects appallingly on the two major UK parties that they have turned a matter of basic democracy and decency into a constitutional bunfight. Indeed, prior to the 2014 independence referendum, the SNP and the main Unionist parties all agreed the following joint statement:
“Power lies with the Scottish people and we believe it is for the Scottish people to decide how we are governed.”
That is not a new concept. Many, or at least some, Conservative Members may have grown up with a poster of Maggie Thatcher on their bedroom walls. She said, as my hon. Friend Peter Grant recalled, of the Scots:
“As a nation, they have an undoubted right to national self-determination… Should they determine on independence no English party or politician would stand in their way.”
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech, and I thank him for bringing up my late constituent Ian Hamilton, a wonderful man. He is talking about the change of heart from 2011 to now. Would he care to speculate as to why that change of heart has taken place? What possibly could have occurred in those intervening 10 years to make that change of heart so dramatic?
I appreciate my hon. Friend’s intervention, but I have to say he has got me stumped. I have no clue—no clue whatsoever. I could hazard a guess. It might be because they are feart: the Conservatives are now feart that they would lose the referendum. It is now five polls in a row that show support for Scottish independence.
“no nation could be held irrevocably in a Union against its will”.
David Cameron said:
“I felt, as the prime minister of the UK, I had a choice. I could either say to them”—
“them” being Scotland—
“‘well you can’t have your referendum, it is for us to decide whether you should have one.’”
He went on to say:
“So I did what I thought was the right thing, which was to say ‘you voted for a party that wants independence, you should have a referendum that is legal, that is decisive and that is fair.’”
The former Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale said:
“If the people of Scotland ultimately determine they want to have another independence referendum, then there will be one…Could there be another referendum? The answer to that question is yes.”
The UK has had literally hundreds of referendums over decades. Many like to pretend that they still live in the age of Bagehot and Dicey, when this place could legislate to turn the sky pink and theoretically change the laws of physics, but the simple fact is that popular democracy is not a novelty; nor has it unleashed anarchy in the land. We have had referendums in the UK to solve internal disputes in the Labour party—in the days when Harold Wilson knew some things about heading a broad church that should be studied by the current Leader of the Opposition.
We are still picking up the pieces of the last referendum, which many say was designed as a manifesto commitment by a Prime Minister to silence his Back-Bench awkward squad of arch-Brexiteers and hopefully to trade off in a coalition negotiation with the Lib Dems. That entirely self-created time bomb went off, as did that Prime Minister, in the entirely accurate words of Danny Dyer, “with his trotters up” while the rest of us count the cost. We even had a referendum to keep the Lib Dems happy, which—surprisingly for the Lib Dems—did not.
Back in 2017, the current Prime Minister said:
“It seems hard to block a”— second—
“referendum but we should push the timing until after Brexit so the choice is clearer for people.”
He also described the Union as being “there by consent” and said that it exists democratically and voluntarily. When asked many times in recent weeks, however, he has been signally unable to tell us how that is the case. How can it be democratic or voluntary when Scots continually give the SNP and our partners an electoral mandate to seek an independence referendum, only to have that denied time after time?
We have heard a lot about mandates recently. Clearly, as my hon. Friend mentioned, in 2021, the pro-independence parties got more than 50% of the vote on the list vote, which is when people vote for a party rather than candidates. Does he recall that the party that told us that voting for it in the list vote was the only way to stop an independence referendum managed to get 23.5% of the vote on that occasion? Does he think that there is a lesson there about respecting mandates that the Conservative party perhaps should be listening to?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. He will probably recall, as I do, that not just in that election, but in every election, whether it was for the Scottish Parliament, councils or Westminster, every single leaflet that the Scottish Conservatives put out was about saying “no” to indyref2. That was essentially their only policy in every election, whether it was relevant to that election or not, and they have been soundly defeated every time. Given that the Prime Minister could not tell us, perhaps the Minister or indeed the shadow Secretary of State can explain to us how Scotland or Wales can leave this voluntary Union. What is the route map to democracy? How can we get it?
I do not know where the hon. Member has been, but if he had cared to listen to my opening speech, he would have heard that I made clear the mechanism by which there could be a second referendum. We experienced it in 2011 when there was consensus between both Parliaments, civic Scotland and all the political parties. That consensus is not currently here.
To be clear then—the Minister can intervene again if I am wrong—everything else is in place, essentially. If we look at the situation in Scotland, the votes in the last 2021 Parliament are in place, as is the role of civic Scotland. The only bit that is missing is the consensus of this Government and this Parliament. Is that correct? Perhaps he will confirm that that is the case when he sums up. You are vetoing Scotland’s right to democracy.
My hon. Friend has exposed what we already knew, which is that the Government will not tell us what the route is because there is no route. In effect, they are vetoing it because we have had our democracy. Before he became the Prime Minister, the current Prime Minister said of the First Minister of Scotland that,
“I want to take her on and win the argument on the union because I passionately believe in it”.
Does my hon. Friend share my view that the Prime Minister has changed his mind on that, because he knows that it is an argument that he cannot win?
Well, if he started the argument, he is doing a pretty good job, given that the independence polls have been so good for Yes. However, it would appear that he has now walked away from that, because he is feart: he is feart of the voice of the people of Scotland. The Minister shakes his head. Perhaps he will now allow an independence referendum, and allow that debate. If he is so sure and the Prime Minister is so sure, let us have that debate—but I see that he is unmoved.
We expect nothing else from Conservative Members, but those in the Labour party—a party that owes its lineage to R.B. Cunninghame Graham and the home-rulers who founded it alongside Keir Hardie—who are still, at least publicly, keen to get the Better Together band back together are setting themselves up for a very graceless fall.
The UK has seen referendums on congestion charging, licensed premises, water authorities, council tax rises, creating directly elected mayors, abolishing directly elected mayors, English regional devolution and neighbourhood plans, as well as a referendum on whether to hold another referendum. Yet we are told that the future of Scotland—the potential self-government of a country that dates back 1,000 years, and the restoration of our relationships with our international friends and allies—is a no-go area. The smallest parish council in England can hold a vote any time it pleases, but a national Government and Parliament elected yet again on a mandate to ask the people what they think are told that now is not the time.
This has not been true of previous referendums and the parties who have called them, but there is no internal dispute in the SNP about independence. It is what we have stood for throughout our 88 years of existence. It is what we have stood for through good times and bad, from the days when saving our deposit in a single constituency was considered a triumph to more recent times. I was there, Mr Deputy Speaker. I may have been young, but I was there. It is the parties who have used referendums to solve their own self-created intramural conflicts who now stand in the way of the democratically expressed will of the Scottish electorate and the will of our democratically elected Parliament.
Is it not strange that Mr Rees-Mogg, who is vehemently opposed to Scotland having a referendum, was advocating referendums to allow fracking?
I could not agree more. The double standards on the Conservative Benches are unbelievable.
As has been already mentioned a few times by my hon. Friends and me, we have seen the polls shift quite strongly over recent weeks following the Supreme Court ruling, and, more pertinently in my view, the UK Government’s stubborn and shameful refusal to accept the democratic mandate of the Scottish Government. There have been five polls—I wrote “four” in my speech, but now it is five—with a significant lead for Yes, with utterly disastrous polling for the Conservatives in Scotland thrown in for good measure. I say this to the UK Government: change course now, so that when the inevitable happens and Scotland has its say, they have a sporting chance of making it a contest rather than being faced with the prospect of being the side that has nothing other than no to say to a country that wants to say yes.
We are here talking about Scotland’s future, because we are stuck in a constitutional conundrum. We are in a situation that we cannot get out of, because there is no way out of it. That was proven by the Supreme Court judgment, which effectively said, “There is no current democratic way for the people of Scotland to get out of this Union, even if they want to.” Even if the people of Scotland vote for parties that support an independence referendum, as they continually do, there is no way out of the situation without the UK Government’s granting a section 30 order. There is no way out of this voluntary union of nations. We are stuck in this voluntary union whether we like it or not.
The opposition—that is, both Labour and the Conservatives—seem to think that it is some sort of oddity—an unusual situation—when people in this place are keen to talk about constitutional reform. In some odd way, apparently, SNP Members are the only ones in this House who have any interest in constitutional reform. We have a party in this place that passed the recent Elections Act 2022, which changed the way in which people vote, and is changing the parliamentary constituencies, reducing their number. We have a party that is desperate to abolish the House of Lords—we have heard that before—and a party that previously said that it would abolish the House of Lords. These parties have spent decades tinkering with the constitution, making changes to it, and they are still doing so; they are still talking about the Bill to repeal EU law, and about Brexit and what a wonderful bonus it has been. Those are all constitutional changes.
The only difference between our party talking about constitutional change and their parties talking about constitutional change is that we are doing so consistently, pointing in the same direction, with all of us standing up and fighting for independence for the people of Scotland. That is the constitutional change we are speaking for with one voice. The fact that we can consistently do so is very different from the warfare that is happening within Better Together about the best way forward for the constitutional future. That is why it riles them so much that we are able to come here and speak with one voice, because we on the SNP Benches act together in supporting Scotland’s right to choose.
The reality is that, under the UK constitution, Parliament is sovereign—that is the way that it works. That has never worked for us, as colleagues have said; that has never been Scotland’s constitutional set-up. Our set-up is that the people of Scotland are sovereign. The people of Scotland are the ones who have the right to choose our form of government; the people of Scotland are the ones who should be making this decision, and we should not continue to be stymied by Westminster.
I want to talk about ducks. I thank my hon. Friend Pete Wishart for mentioning the duck test. He has said that there is a duck test in relation to the referendum, which is apparently the position of the Conservative Front-Bench team: if it looks like it is time for a referendum and it sounds like it is time for a referendum, it is time for a referendum. I hope Mr Deputy Speaker will not mind my saying that the Conservative party does not have a very good track record on determining whether or not something is a duck, because if it looks like a party and it sounds like a party, it is in fact a work event. If it looks like a drive to Barnard castle and it sounds like a drive breaking covid rules, it is in fact completely legitimate and perfectly normal for people to do that—[Interruption.] An eyesight test, indeed, and definitely not against covid rules.
I have some questions for the Minister about his plan for how Scotland could choose to determine its constitutional future, and exactly what he has said about this issue. To move away slightly from the duck test, he has said that we need all of the parties and civic society in Scotland to come forward in order to have a referendum. Thinking back to the Brexit referendum, is it possible that not all of the parties supported having such a referendum? Is it possible that that dramatic constitutional change was not supported by every single party in this House? I think it is possible that that was the case—that every party in this House did not come together and support constitutional change. I assume that prior to the Scottish Parliament election in 2011, the Scottish Conservative and Unionist party did not put in its manifesto that it would support an independence referendum. It is incredibly odd for the Minister to suggest that there should be support from every party. Does he mean the Labour party, the Conservatives and the SNP? Does he mean the Labour party, the Conservatives, the SNP and the Lib Dems? Does he include Plaid, the SDLP and the DUP? Would every party across the UK need to have a referendum on Scottish independence in their manifesto in order for that referendum to happen? What does he mean by “every party”? Does he really mean it? It would be great if he could provide some answers. Does he mean every party that gets over a certain percentage of the vote? If so, what is the threshold? Would they have to have it in their manifestos or simply have to make the agreement afterwards?
I am not going to give way.
On the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Government and the decisions made by them, I was confused to hear Front-Bench Government Members talking about devolved matters, given that they have chosen to be elected to Westminster. They put themselves forward as Westminster parliamentarians when they knew that such issues were devolved. It got even more bizarre when Douglas Ross stood up. Does he realise that he is in the wrong Parliament? Does he realise that he could ask those questions in his other job?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way; I have been trying to intervene for some time. I want to take her back to her point about what things look like and what they are in reality. Can she tell us what it looks like when the chief executive of her party gives a personal donation of £107,000? What is that in reality?
The Conservative party talking about donations! We have seen £29 million go to somebody who took the VIP covid lane—people in that lane have private jets. The Conservative party agrees that the taxpayer can pay the bills for the former Prime Minister’s defence against allegations of having a party during covid, so I do not think it has any ground to stand on.
There has been talk about the powers of the Scottish Parliament and how it is managing. The reality is that we do not have all the flexibility over our finances that we should have. Even the Labour party is not suggesting devolving workers’ rights, which seems most bizarre given the continued attack on workers’ rights and trade unions by the Conservatives. If we devolve those rights to Scotland, we will not be doing that to trade unions.
The Scottish Parliament has to subsist on the fixed budget given to us, over which we have no flexibility. As my hon. Friend Dave Doogan said earlier, it is like trying to set a table when all we have is spoons. We cannot make all the decisions we would like to make if we continually have to mitigate Tory policies and exist on whatever budget the UK Parliament decides is relevant for Scotland when it is unwilling to give fair pay deals to public sector workers.
We are stepping up and making the change—mitigating the bedroom tax and the rape clause and doing all we can in Scotland with our second anti child poverty strategy, which is making a massive difference. We have increased the Scottish child payment and widened the eligibility massively. All those things are making a difference to the lives of people in Scotland, but we do not have full control over them. The issue is about the democratic right of the people of Scotland to choose their own future. Westminster is doing everything it can to sink this ship and go harder and harder in support of policies that make Scottish independence all the more likely. We need that route out of this Union. This is a democratic trap that we are shackled in and we cannot get out of it. The UK Government have failed to give us that route. That is why we are here today arguing for the future for our constituents.
With the leave of the House, I will respond to the debate. I start by thanking all right hon. and hon. Members who have made contributions to the debate. I will address as many of their points as I can.
As we heard from my hon. Friends the Members for Moray (Douglas Ross) and for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid), the SNP chose to focus today’s debate on the constitution instead of the pressing priorities of the people of Scotland. It should have used this time today to raise matters of immediate importance to Scotland’s future. It should have focused on what families and working people across Scotland are focused on right now, such as the standard of our education system and many other policy areas.
Before the SNP came to power, Scotland’s schools were among the best in the world. We are proud of our education system in Scotland. It is not just a vital public service; it is a part of our national identity. Being Scottish has always meant going to a great local school and getting a first class education. Under the SNP, however, our schools have slipped down international league tables. Nicola Sturgeon does not even try to claim that education is her No. 1 priority anymore, because it obviously just is not true.
If the SNP did not want to focus on the future of Scotland’s schools, it could have focused on the rising cost of living globally. The UK Government announced in the autumn statement a further £26 billion to protect the most vulnerable from the cost of living, but the SNP did not want to talk about that today either. It could have made the debate about Scotland’s healthcare system. Many of my constituents in the Scottish borders are struggling to get access to the NHS. Waiting times for treatment are regularly hitting record highs. It is difficult to get a face-to-face GP appointment. Local surgeries are shutting every year. That would have been a worthy issue to bring here today for debate.
Schools, the cost of living, hospitals—those are the issues that matter to my constituents in the Scottish borders, those are the key priorities of people across the country, and those are the pressing issues the SNP should focus on in their Budget in the Scottish Parliament tomorrow, not spending another £20 million of taxpayers’ money on another referendum.
I want to make a little more progress, if I may.
We have heard a lot from SNP Members, including Tommy Sheppard, Ian Blackford, the hon. Members for East Lothian (Kenny MacAskill), for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) and for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and various others, who made it very clear that instead of focusing on what matters, the SNP has come here today to try to create new grievance with the United Kingdom Government. Despite the clear ruling of the Supreme Court, division remains the SNP’s only goal.
As we have heard, the Scottish Parliament is one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. Instead of using those powers to improve the lives of people across Scotland, the SNP focuses on irresponsible, overblown and flawed rhetoric about democracy. We have heard so much from SNP Members today. They might be trying to rewrite the record by pretending to care about education, the NHS and the cost of living, but they have chosen today to talk about the constitution, referendums and independence.
SNP Members have had their chance this afternoon and they have missed it. I am going to respond to the points they have made.
The SNP ignores the fact that Scotland has been at the polls for a major election just about every year in recent years. The SNP ignores the fact that we had a referendum on the country’s future and people turned out in record numbers to vote decisively for what they wanted. At this moment, we should be focusing on pulling together as one United Kingdom, not splitting apart. Now is a time for unity, not division. The Prime Minister set out clearly that he wants to bring people back together and unite the country. He said that we are committed to working constructively with the Scottish Government to tackle all the challenges we share and face.
Instead of the SNP’s negative and divisive arguments, we have heard a more positive case for the United Kingdom in both speeches and interventions, including from my hon. Friends the Members for Banff and Buchan, for Moray and for Bosworth (Dr Evans) and my right hon. Friend Alun Cairns. For instance, the UK Government have delivered a record block grant settlement for Scotland of £41 billion a year over the next three years. We have made a multimillion-pound investment in Scotland’s defence and shipbuilding industries, safeguarding UK security and thousands of jobs on the Clyde and beyond. We have committed to the landmark £1.5 billion city and growth deals programme, which is investing in Scotland’s infrastructure and future industry. We have delivered real devolution by levelling up communities and bringing local projects to life, such as the redevelopment of Inverness castle and the construction of a new marketplace in Aberdeen.
I thank hon. and right hon. Members again for their contributions. Scotland’s bright future as part of the United Kingdom is better served by focusing on the issues that matter. This is the wrong time to obsess about another divisive referendum, when we ought to be drawing on our collective strength to tackle the issues that really matter to the people of Scotland: school standards, the cost of living and NHS backlogs.
People want to see the SNP Government in Edinburgh focus on the issues that matter to them, not on constitutional division. They want to see both of our Governments working together. This Government remain as determined, focused and committed as ever to getting on with the job of delivering for the people of Scotland. I urge the House to reject the SNP’s attempt to take control of the Order Paper and to let this Parliament and this Government get on with the issues that really matter to the people of Scotland.