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When the Finance and Constitution Committee was in the process of finalising its stage 1 report, I was representing the Parliament at the Council of Europe’s Congress of Local and Regional Authorities. Nonetheless, I have no hesitation in associating myself with the report because—as is usual under the stewardship of Bruce Crawford—the committee has pursued the art of the possible and of achieving consensus wherever possible. It is a pity that some contributors to the debate—especially those who are members of the committee—have not taken on board Mr Russell’s opening remarks or his significant concessions.
The committee convener outlined that the recommendations in the stage 1 report were drafted with the intention of informing further discussion and debate on how we get the very best referendums legislation. I believe that the committee’s report can help us to learn from the best of the 2004 referendum experience, but also from the worst of the 2016 experience and its unfolding consequences.
I have never hidden that I have believed in independence since I was eight—I have waved a few flags in my time, and I have campaigned and marched for independence since I was 18, at a time when it was far from fashionable.
In 2016, I was elected on a manifesto commitment that said:
“We believe that the Scottish Parliament should have the right to hold another referendum if there is ... a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.”
I want our journey towards independence to be built on the highest of international standards, so we cannot pick and choose when we apply that gold standard. Therefore, I want any referendum on Scotland’s constitutional future to be built on primary legislation, because fundamentally I want this Parliament to decide and every member of it to have the opportunity to choose to vote for or against.
I have never expected or demanded either citizen or politician to abandon their own deeply help convictions and conscience. We can seek only to persuade, and we can never do that by closing down debate or scrutiny.
Ultimately, it should be this Parliament that decides whether there is a referendum, the details of the legislation and what powers to confer—or not—on ministers. For the record, I support amending the bill so that it includes a minimum campaign period. Such a measure is based on good democratic practice, and I welcome the cabinet secretary’s commitment to it.
The issues of the referendum question and testing were robustly explored by the committee. I am somewhat surprised that there seems to be some concern about conspiracy, given that there are different views on the issue across the wider yes movement. My own view is that it is entirely logical and legitimate to say that the 2014 question has already been tested by the Electoral Commission and that it remains current because it has been asked 200 times since 2014. Also, there is nothing to prevent the Electoral Commission from publishing and sharing its views in the future.
Nonetheless, I accept that it is prudent and mature of the committee to ask both the cabinet secretary and the Electoral Commission, in the first instance, to go away, find some space, look at the evidence together and see whether they can come to an agreed way forward to bring back to members prior to stage 2. I can support that approach, despite my own grumbles about some aspects of the Electoral Commission’s structure as a UK-wide body. I will not repeat Patrick Harvie’s comments—I raised those issues at committee.
Although the cabinet secretary is characteristically up front about his own thinking and instincts, in his remarks today and at committee, he has consistently indicated that he remains open to on-going discussion. I was tempted to say that he is being uncharacteristically flexible, but that would be unfair, as very few people will have observed the inflexibility of Westminster in recent times without seeing the self-destruction of the UK Government’s approach and seeking to avoid it.
The UK Government has failed to generate consent and trust among remainers, and it has even lost the support of some of its own. If Brexit has taught us anything, surely it is what not to do if we want to persuade and lead. We have to reach out, and we have to reach out to those of a different opinion.
Although we live in uncertain times, I believe that history will show that ignoring the highest remain-voting part of the UK will lead to the demise of the UK. I suspect that I am not alone in that thinking, and it may be the reason why the UK Government is running scared of a section 30 order—