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Scotland Bill — Committee (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 21st March 2012.

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Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour 6:30 pm, 21st March 2012

My Lords, we now come-at last, some noble Lords may be saying-to what I understand is the first of two substantial debates on the major question of this Bill. It is the one we have been waiting for with great anticipation, holding off until the report of the consultation has been published, on the referendum. I am not going to manage to do it in 140 words, let alone 140 characters. Although I can say to my noble friend Lord O'Neill that whole stories, whole sagas, can be written in 140 characters. I will give him just one: Heart of Midlothian two, Hibernian nil. That describes 90 wonderful minutes last Sunday which I am sure he would wish to forget.

However, let us get on to the substantive issue of the evening. We are talking about the future not just of Scotland, but of the whole of the United Kingdom. What happens to Scotland in an independence referendum will have a huge effect on the whole of the United Kingdom, some of the detail of which has not yet been examined. We have started discussing and debating them at last-they are principally some of the effects on Scotland. However, the Joint Committee on the National Security Strategy, for example, only recently started to discuss some of the security implications of an independent Scotland, in relation to the independent deterrent, membership of NATO, and a whole range of other things. There would be huge implications for the whole of the United Kingdom if Scotland was no longer a part of it.

Any referendum, or referenda, should be organised on an agreed basis that we all understand-that the Scottish Parliament and all of its Members understand; that both Houses of this Parliament and all the Members understand; and that the Scottish people understand. The UK consultative document is absolutely right in saying that the three essential elements should be that it must be legal, fair and decisive. First, it must be legal because some people will be predisposed to challenge the basis of a referendum that is not carried out on a legal basis. I cannot say nothing will be open to challenge, but there must be a minimal likelihood of it being challenged. That would be something that would be conducted if not by, then with, the authority of the United Kingdom Parliament.

Secondly, it needs to be fair. That will ensure that all of us will be satisfied that we have had the opportunity of putting our case to the Scottish people fairly. Questions about the timing of the referendum, and the question to be asked-I will come back to that in a moment-are absolutely essential in relation to that. People who seek to choose the timing to make sure that they get a maximum vote for separation are not giving the Scottish people the best opportunity to make a balanced judgment about the referendum. That is clearly the idea of waiting until 2014. The euphoria of the Commonwealth Games, the Ryder Cup, and the anniversary of Bannockburn, will get Scots all fired up, even those from Shetland. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, will find a way of coming to a specific amendment in relation to Orkney and Shetland as well.

Of course the timing is also being suggested for 2014 because in the run-up to the United Kingdom election, the SNP wants to try to polarise the debate between a certain kind of Scotland and a politically different United Kingdom, and that would also be to its advantage. I will come back to the question to be asked in a moment.

Thirdly, it has to be decisive. It needs to be clear that the referendum will settle the issue. We know from the experience of Quebec that it may not settle it forever, but it must be settled at least for the foreseeable future. If there is a big enough majority against separation, perhaps it will be forever or at least for our lifetimes, or for a generation.

My Amendment 87 is to hold over provision of this Act until the referendum has taken place. The Amendment 88 tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, supported by another former Secretary of State the noble Lord, Lord Lang, and by the noble Earl, Lord Caithness, would have the United Kingdom Government take action to exercise their undoubted right to call a referendum by Order in Council. That is clearly unacceptable to the Scottish Parliament. I would not be averse to it, I have made that clear on a number of occasions. However, on the basis that I suggested earlier-that this whole arrangement needs to be accepted by all the parties involved-we must think carefully before exercising that right.