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Referendums (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 7th November 2019.

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Photo of Gil Paterson Gil Paterson Scottish National Party

I am pleased to speak in the debate despite the fact that I am not a member of the Finance and Constitution Committee.

It is very timely that we are now debating the principles of the Referendums (Scotland) Bill, which was introduced recently. When I talk to ordinary people, it is quite clear to me that their trust in the concept of the referendum has been somewhat shaken by the Brexit controversy. I am not here to knock Brexit, which members might be in favour of or against; I want to talk about the referendum process and how that might have happened a bit differently.

Although I fear that referendums themselves have now been discredited, the EU referendum process could have been somewhat different. The fact that a non-binding question was utilised, which then became binding, led to the first breach of people’s confidence. There should not have been one question. If it was intended that matters such as whether to remain in the customs union or the single market were to be decided by vote, I feel that there should have been at least three questions for people to consider. In my view, if those had been put in place in the first instance, a wholly different picture would have emerged compared with what has happened at Westminster in the more than three years that it has taken for us to arrive at the bad place in which now find ourselves. I also believe that the Brexit process would have been finished by this time, because the rancour and argument have not been based on whether we should leave—I think that people understood that question and made their decision—but came into play in the time after that. That has upset me.

I have looked at referendums that have been held in other places. As John Mason indicated, the referendum is a major tool in many European democracies, such as Ireland. It is used in a very positive manner to consult on a range of issues and to engage with the public—and the public do engage. At the same time, such countries give the public ownership of very difficult issues. If the political classes like us give ownership when we make important decisions, we can implement those decisions much better. That is a much more tried and trusted way to go about business and it provides one of the biggest benefits of the referendum process.

The bill illustrates another benefit—long-term planning—which we in this country do not do very well. For instance, all the parties that are represented in the Parliament agree that the national health service is very special, but we fight over it like cat and dog almost daily. We attack it, score points and talk about waiting times and ambulance shortages. I put my hand up to having done that in the past. The Opposition does it at the moment. If my party were in Opposition, guess what—we would be doing the same thing.

However, another way to deal with such matters would be to use a bill such as the one that we are debating. We could all come together over an issue such as the health service and come up with a 10-year plan to which we would all sign up. We could put that plan to the people, and ask the basic question first, which I am sure that everybody would agree with, such as, “Do you agree with a publicly funded national health service?” That would be point one. Under point two we might go on to ask, “Do you agree to pay a penny in the pound in tax, if we give a guarantee that we will spend every penny of that on the national health service?”

Therefore, it would not be a one-question approach but maybe a two or three-question approach—if we first agreed to sign up to a 10-year plan. That is what happens in most European countries; the political classes get together and fundamentally agree on something that should happen, although difficult issues might arise.

The bill is a way to implement such an approach and for us to look at doing things somewhat differently in the future. It provides a way for us to get together and take ownership of something such as the health service—which is so precious to us all and to the public—talk to the people, come up with a resolution and work to the 10-year plan. That way we would take the matter right out of politics. The health service should not be a political football that we kick all the time, because that is to the detriment of the service and the people in it.

I understand that my colleagues in the Conservative Party and elsewhere are looking at the independence referendum. I am looking well beyond that and at where we can make good use of a proper process within the bill in order to make change for the better.