Scotland Bill - Committee (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 22nd February 2016.

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Photo of Lord Selkirk of Douglas Lord Selkirk of Douglas Conservative 3:45 pm, 22nd February 2016

My noble friend’s suggestion does not seem to have the disadvantages of the amendment, which I will come to in a moment, and I hope that it will be looked at sympathetically in some form because it could be an important step forward.

There is of course frustration in the Scottish Parliament about this. The convener of the Devolution Committee, Bruce Crawford MSP, recently stated there would be “a substantial impact” on the ability of the Scottish Parliament to go through the process of proper scrutiny. Obviously he was referring to what he regarded as unreasonable delays. He expects the teams from Holyrood and Westminster to appear before his committee tomorrow to give a full explanation of their position on a fiscal framework, whatever the circumstances. There is a strong group of 15 Tory MSPs in the Scottish Parliament. To the best of my knowledge they want the Bill to proceed, and they are the third largest group.

My concern is based on two factors. This could become a major issue in the forthcoming elections to the Scottish Parliament on 5 May. If there is no agreement, the Scottish electorate will most certainly want to know who to blame. If the Bill fails because the Scottish Government shrink from accountability then the SNP will have to take responsibility, but if the Bill fails because the noble Lord’s amendment delays it unreasonably then this House and unionist parties could become a lightning conductor for criticism.

My most important reservation is that the amendment could lead to a serious weakening of the United Kingdom. Noble Lords may wonder what the Scots really want. I think that the answer is given in three ways: in opinion polls, in the referendum and in the recent general election. My interpretation of the referendum was that there is a decisive majority in Scotland for the United Kingdom. That means that the Scots will want to keep the UK intact, which should be remembered and never forgotten. My interpretation of the general election results in Scotland was that it was a clear indication that a large majority of the Scottish people wish to have a Scottish Parliament with increased powers and responsibilities, and within a reasonable timescale. I do not wish this House to do anything that would give the SNP a major propaganda coup during an election because I am a passionate supporter of the United Kingdom.

There are three difficulties with the amendment. First, it could be used to prevent the promises made by the Prime Minister and other party leaders being fulfilled. That could easily enrage the Scottish electorate on the basis that promises should be kept. The second difficulty is that the timing is not totally convenient because the Scottish election campaign will pick up on this and it could become a major issue. The third and most important consideration is that the United Kingdom probably stands a very much better chance of long-term survival if we do not unreasonably delay this Bill. In short, it is the kind of amendment that could trigger the law of unintended consequences.

Finally, I had the privilege of working under my noble friend Lord Forsyth in the Scottish Office. I have no hesitation in saying that he was a very strong, powerful and highly effective Secretary of State, frequently coming up with extremely interesting and exciting new ideas. I will mention one of them as an example. He wished the Stone of Destiny to be returned to Scotland and he got his way: that was a tremendous achievement. The Stone of Destiny was put in a “Stonemobile”, and there was a terrific reception in Edinburgh Castle. Of course, the Scots were not going to be satisfied merely with a stone: they wanted more. I recall a story that when the Stone of Destiny was originally pinched from Westminster Abbey by some youngsters of a nationalist disposition, and the police were searching for it, a Scotsman from the back of beyond telephoned the police and said that he knew who the thief was. The police officer went round to see him and took out his notebook, and the old man said, “It was King Edward I”.

As I have said before, finding a really satisfactory way forward in this area is very much like walking a tightrope. The noble Lord, Lord Smith of Kelvin, put it very well when he said:

“The new powers set out in the Scotland Bill will lead to a transformation of the powers held by Holyrood and it would be a terrible shame if they were to fall away at this late stage”.

My noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean has put forward an amendment that might be entirely logical, but the potential disadvantages, in my view, outweigh other considerations. Above all, we at all times have to keep in mind the essential need to protect, maintain and sustain the United Kingdom.