My Lords, a little over two years ago people in Scotland voted decisively to remain part of our United Kingdom in a referendum. The UK Government remain of the view that there should not be a further referendum on independence. Even at this late hour we call on the Scottish Government to take it off the table. Another referendum would be divisive and cause huge economic uncertainty at the worst possible time.
My Lords, I should declare that I lived in Scotland for many years and was educated there. Does the Minister not agree that, to give clarity to the people of Scotland, if a referendum is allowed it is essential that it is held after the Brexit negotiations are completed, not in the midst of complex negotiations with no ability whatever to understand the implications of the detailed agreements being worked on?
I am sure that the noble Lord received a very good Scottish education. Regarding the negotiations, Nicola Sturgeon said yesterday that she wanted the UK to get a good deal. I can think of nothing more calculated to undermine the achievement of a good deal than holding a divisive and disruptive independence referendum during the last six months of one of the most important peacetime negotiations this country has ever faced. At this time we should be working together to get the best possible deal for the whole of the UK and each part of it, particularly Scotland.
My Lords, I was in a rush because I understand I have only a minute or so. The most important point is that there is no desire in Scotland for another referendum. It is simply not in Scotland’s best interest, especially not at a time when we need stability and a period of relative calm, not yet more uncertainty. Before the 2014 vote the SNP said that the referendum was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and promised that it would abide by the result. The fact is that ever since it lost in 2014 the SNP has been agitating for another referendum and will seize upon any excuse. Scottish Labour MSPs will oppose a second referendum in the Scottish Parliament, but if it is successful and comes here the Labour Party will not oppose it. But we certainly call on tough negotiations—tougher than the last time—over the timing and the question, because it is quite clear that Mr Alex Salmond ran rings around the then Prime Minister. If the Government want any advice on negotiations, I am available.
I know that the noble Lord’s reputation goes before him, so I thank him for that offer. I strongly agree with what he said. We must respect the result of the independence referendum that took place in 2014. As Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon said, it was a once-in-a-generation vote. Both sides signed the Edinburgh agreement, which committed to respect that result. Only two-and-a-half years after that vote, which was won by more than 10 points—a result that was fair, legal and decisive—the First Minister is now calling for another vote. All the evidence is quite clear that people in Scotland overwhelmingly do not want another divisive, disruptive referendum. They know the damage that it would do to the Scottish economy and Scottish jobs, taking the eye off the ball of the domestic agenda: schools, hospitals and getting the economy going again. That is what we should focus on.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that there is no justification for a second independence referendum and that the best way for that to be made clear is for the UK Government to make a simple, clear statement to the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish people on that issue? It is not what people in Scotland want, not now nor after Brexit. The SNP should stand by the Edinburgh agreement and stick to their word—that this was once in a generation, not a “neverendum” to be repeated and repeated. What we on these Benches and the people of Scotland want is a Scottish Government focusing on better outcomes for the people of Scotland on health and education, not what is best for the SNP and its obsession with independence.
The UK Government and the Prime Minister could not be clearer: we do not think there that should be a further referendum on independence, for all the reasons that the noble Lord and others have given. Even at this late stage, the Scottish Government can and should take that referendum off the table.
My Lords, should we not remind the First Minister of Scotland that the Prime Minister is Prime Minister of Scotland as well as of the rest of the United Kingdom and that the worst possible way to help her get the best deal for the United Kingdom and for Scotland within it is to attack her at the outset of these important negotiations?
My Lords, in the past half-hour, I have received an email from a leading player in the Scottish commercial property market to say that, overnight, £50 million worth of deals have been withdrawn as a consequence of the possibility of a Scottish referendum. Does the Minister agree with me that, when the Scottish economy is already weakened, when we are seriously troubled about our education and our health sectors, the First Minister’s action is one of unpardonable folly?
Yes, I agree with the noble Baroness. I meet many Scottish businesses and have yet to find one which thinks that it is a good idea to engender such uncertainty by calling for another independence referendum. It should be a matter of concern for all of us that the economic data for Scotland show that the Scottish economy is lagging behind the rest of the UK. Those data started coming out before the vote last June. It is a matter that we should attend to. The UK Government are committed to working with the Scottish Government to focus on those issues, which are so important for the Scottish economy.
The problem for us is an SNP Government, with their one-track mind, using the pretext of Brexit to pursue their obsession with taking Scotland out of the United Kingdom. We know that the UK market is worth four times more to Scottish businesses than the EU market.
Some very positive investment announcements have been made regarding the Clyde. It is the centre of excellence for surface warship building and that would not happen if Scotland were ripped out of the United Kingdom.
My Lords, is it not the case that nationalists in Northern Ireland have welcomed the decision of the Scottish Government, and are now trying to see whether they could have a pincer movement and have both referenda at the same time? Is it not clear that the Government are going to have to take a much more robust position? Will the Minister confirm that neither a Scottish referendum nor a Northern Ireland border poll will be held?
I have made the position on a Scottish referendum absolutely clear. With regard to Northern Ireland, there are clear mechanisms under the Belfast agreement for the holding of a border poll. My right honourable friend the Northern Ireland Secretary has been very clear that the conditions for such a poll do not exist.
The last referendum left a deep legacy in Scotland of division that affected families, friendships and communities. During that referendum, there was regularly a real problem of aggression and, occasionally, violence. Can the Government guarantee that, in any discussions that take place over these next two years about the possibility of another referendum in Scotland, they will keep uppermost in their mind the need to ensure that any debates are conducted properly and that the leadership of those debates behaves in a way that inspires people positively?
All political debates should take place with courtesy and respect; the Government would obviously want to promote and uphold that. The key question here, however, is whether there should be another Scottish independence referendum. The Government are absolutely clear that there should not be.