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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:32 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Hope of Craighead Lord Hope of Craighead Judge 6:32 pm, 8th January 2020

My Lords, I would like to add my own few words to the powerful speech of the noble Lord, Lord Reid of Cardowan, about Scotland. The gracious Speech said:

“The integrity and prosperity of the United Kingdom is of the utmost importance to my Government.”

The Government’s briefing note says that the Government

“want 2020 to be a year of opportunity, growth and unity for Scotland, not of further division.”

I agree with these sentiments, of course, but my concern is that, despite what the noble Lord, Lord Lang of Monkton, said, this message is not being put across clearly enough in Scotland to the people who live there. We are at risk of sleepwalking into the breaking up of the United Kingdom, as the noble Lord, Lord Reid, rightly said.

The future of the union in the face of the SNP’s relentless demands for another referendum on independence is a matter of huge importance. The other parts of the union have a strong interest in holding it together. Take defence, for example: the SNP will not allow any nuclear weapons to be based in Scotland. That is a red-line issue for it. So the future of the submarine base at Faslane, and all that that means, will not be negotiable after independence. We need therefore to give careful thought to what needs to be done if the integrity of the union is to be preserved.

The first point to notice is that the SNP’s relentless demands for complete independence will continue. It will not go away, despite everything that is said in the briefing note about how the Government are investing in the Scottish economy. We must give it full credit for its beliefs. It will never be satisfied with less. The briefing note is right to point out that a raft of additional powers were devolved to the Scottish Parliament in 2016. There was a time when it was thought that devolution would settle the matter for ever, but that is not so now, as the Labour Party has been replaced by the SNP as the established governing party in Scotland. Just saying no to Nicola Sturgeon’s call for another referendum on independence because of what the result was in 2014 may be enough for now, but as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, pointed out, it will not be enough for very much longer.

The second point is that if and when it becomes clear that independence is the settled will of the Scottish people as a whole, the demands for it will almost certainly be unanswerable. Many believe that it would be unthinkable that the people of Scotland should be held within a union to which the Scottish people as whole did not wish to belong. It needs to be stressed that this is a high standard. However, short of holding another referendum—which the Prime Minister refuses to agree to—how is one to determine whether that high standard has been reached? That is the key question.

The SNP is a master at answering that question by making capital out of the way election results play in its favour. It did this in 2015, just one year after the country rejected independence by 56% to 44% of those voting in the referendum. It said that there had been a material change of circumstances because it had won 56 of the 59 Scottish seats in that year’s general election. It did so again just a few weeks ago when it won 47 of the 59 seats in the last general election. It claims that this was a mandate for a second referendum— indyref2, as it calls it. Of course, the results in a first past the post election are not a true guide to where the settled will of the Scottish people lies. Although the SNP won by far the most seats, its share of the popular vote was only 45%.

The SNP is now looking forward to the next election for the Scottish Parliament in 2021. It is almost certain that the SNP will be returned to power again by a substantial majority; there will then be even more vocal demands for a second referendum. Of course, it can be said that the issues in that election will be about devolved government in Scotland, but we can be sure that this is not what SNP will ask the Scottish people to believe.

As a matter of law, the integrity of the union is a reserved matter to be decided here in Westminster, but I cannot emphasise too strongly that relying on the legal position will not hold up against the political campaign demanding that Scotland’s future is for the Scottish people to decide. The SNP knows that if it is to win the popular vote on this issue, it has a lot of persuading to do. Last time, many people—the silent majority—were put off by the aggression and intimidation that were used. This time, gentle, steady persuasion is likely to be the preferred, and much more effective, tactic. It is already under way as I speak.

I do not claim to have the answers to this problem. That is for the Government to work out, if they mean to make good their pledge in the gracious Speech. The purpose of my intervention is to draw attention to the scale and urgency of the issue. There is no time to lose if that pledge is to be made good.