It will give me enormous pleasure to move the motion in my name. In exactly a year’s time, the people of Scotland will choose whether to become an independent country. It is a precious thing for any country to be able to decide its own future through a democratic vote, following a free debate. That places a responsibility on each and every one of us.
When this Parliament was reconvened in 1999, Donald Dewar said in what, in my estimation, was his best-ever speech, that devolution was
“about more than our politics and our laws. This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves.”
How we carry ourselves—how we conduct the arguments—will be more important than ever over the next 12 months. Both the yes and the no sides must live up to the standard set by the Edinburgh agreement, an agreement that brings credit to both the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Government. The debate over the coming year must be respectful as well as vigorous, constructive as well as passionate, and influenced by empathy, not enmity. That is the best possible way of ensuring that Scotland emerges next September as a stronger nation. Although both sides will ask searching questions of the other, it is important for both sides—actually, it is incumbent on them—to set out a positive vision. History tells us that fearmongering is likely to be counterproductive.
It is interesting to look back at some of the rhetoric about devolution in 1997. The week before that referendum, a Conservative leader called William Hague—I wonder what happened to him—came to Glasgow to predict:
“devolution would make no difference to schools, to hospitals, to jobs or to business. The tartan tax would lead to foreign investors saying no to Scotland.”
Those fears were wrong—100 per cent wrong. Investors have not said no to Scotland; Scotland has led the rest of the UK at attracting foreign investment. Far from making no difference to schools, hospitals, businesses and jobs, devolution has helped us to reintroduce free prescriptions and to safeguard the national health service as a public asset, saving it from the chaotic fragmentation of the health service in England. Under this Parliament, employment is higher and unemployment is lower than in the rest of the UK. The Scottish Government has used its powers to create the most business-friendly local tax environment in these islands.
We are getting similar scare stories at the moment. George Osborne repeated the inward investment scare just a year past November. Using the full authority of his office as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he said that he knew that even holding a referendum would put off investment. More than a year later, we have had a record year for inward investment and are outperforming the UK as a whole.
There was an even less successful claim over the summer that mobile phone charges would go up in an independent Scotland, a claim published on the very day that the European Commission set about abolishing roaming charges across Europe. When we hear such stories, it is worth remembering why William Hague and other opponents were so wrong in 1997. They were wrong because they believed that the people of Scotland would make choices that were harmful to Scotland. The record of the Parliament proves exactly the opposite. It has shown that the best people to take decisions on Scotland’s future are the people who live and work in Scotland.
At present, however, decisions affecting Scotland in far too many areas are taken by a Westminster Parliament that has 59 Scottish members out of a total of 650. That democratic deficit affects the public services, employment opportunities and life chances of people across the country.
Just last week, the UK Government introduced its plans for Royal Mail privatisation, plans that were opposed by 80 per cent of MPs in Scotland. The bedroom tax was opposed by 90 per cent of Scottish MPs, yet it threatens to penalise 80,000 households in Scotland, 80 per cent of which include people with disabilities. Last week, it was condemned by the special rapporteur for the United Nations. The Conservative Party chairman said that it was disgraceful that the rapporteur was commenting. The disgrace is that she had to comment in 21st century Scotland.