My Lords, I want to focus my remarks on the gracious Speech on the strengthening of our United Kingdom and its prioritisation in that speech, and to talk specifically about Scotland. When I signed up for the debate today, I did not realise how topical the situation of Scotland would be, thanks to the First Minister’s statement of this afternoon. I would like to cover the context of the constitutional debate in Scotland, the general election result there and the response of the First Minister and, finally, how I think the union can be strengthened.
We must not forget that the context of the existential debate that has taken place in Scotland since 2012 as to whether it should remain part of the United Kingdom was based on a premise that, in 2012, 90% of Scots supported a referendum. Whether they intended to vote yes or no, 90% of Scots believed that the Edinburgh agreement signed by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the then First Minister, Alex Salmond, was the correct way forward. There was public consent for a referendum in 2014. That is a very important premise for any future discussion of referenda.
In September 2014, as everyone knows, Scotland voted decisively to remain part of the UK. I should say that the issue of a potential Brexit had been fully campaigned upon by those supporting a yes vote at that referendum. It is incredible now to reflect on the assertion from the SNP and Nicola Sturgeon that when Scots voted in that 2014 referendum, they did not recognise that there was a potential risk of Brexit. At that time, it was also made clear by Mr Salmond and Ms Sturgeon that the result of the referendum would be respected and that it was a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Scots to make the decision on their constitutional future.
There is no doubt that, thereafter, the politics in Scotland were decisively reshaped around that constitutional issue. Suddenly, all politics—as well as cultural and social views—were shaped around whether individuals had supported a yes or no vote in that referendum. This split of the electorate, along with a honeymoon period for Nicola Sturgeon, resulted in the SNP’s 2015 general election triumph. It took 50% of the popular vote and 56 out of 59 MPs. Then hubris set in. Suddenly, independence for nationalists became a matter of when, not if—one more heave and Scotland would be free, they cried. A heavy remain vote in Scotland in 2016 gave them, they thought, the excuse for another referendum on Scotland’s place within our United Kingdom. However, Ms Sturgeon had reckoned without two things: first, that most Scots did not want another referendum and, secondly, that Her Majesty’s Government were able to represent public opinion in Scotland better than she by saying that now was not the time for a second referendum. On Ms Sturgeon ploughed, avoiding for a year within the Scottish Parliament all legislation to deal with the significant domestic crisis that we have heard about today. She focused rather on a desire for an immediate referendum.
Earlier this month, we saw the result of that. The Scottish nationalists lost 21 of their Members of Parliament and 500,000 votes in a general election which, in Scotland, was widely framed around the issue of a second referendum. The people of Scotland do not want another referendum. I am very disappointed that today, as my noble friend Lord Dunlop said, the First Minister did not take the opportunity to take that off the agenda. The Prime Minister, supported by the leaders of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats, made the point forcefully that Scotland did not want a referendum now; the people responded to that, as your Lordships would expect them to.
As unionists, though, we cannot in any way be complacent about the future of our United Kingdom. We have seen the work it is necessary for the UK Government to do to represent Scottish public opinion, working with the devolved Administration to ensure the best possible deal for Scotland out of Brexit, along with the rest of the United Kingdom. The Secretary of State and my noble friend Lord Dunlop have spent hours, days and weeks working with Scottish stakeholders to ensure that Scots are fully engaged in that Brexit process. It is very important that Her Majesty’s Government play their full and legitimate part in the governance of Scotland as we move forward.