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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 Colin Beattie Colin Beattie Scottish National Party

To be honest, that has no relevance to what I am talking about in relation to the bill.

We need to re-engage the public with truthful, honest and fair politics, and enacting a bill that ensures that we will have comprehensive processes and open debate is a positive first step in making politics once more accessible and open.

The Brexit advisory referendum—yes, it was only advisory—clearly sets a precedent that we need to consider seriously when we set our own framework for referenda. Serious consideration has to be given to how an advisory referendum became the “settled will” of the people of all of the United Kingdom. In fact, of course, it did not reflect the views or wishes of the people of Scotland, and that has created a new impetus for the need to hold within the Scottish Parliament the appropriate powers for any future referenda.

The residents of Scotland have a fundamentally different opinion on Brexit, but they are being forced to submit to an alternative reality, although it is against their values and democratically expressed wishes. All that has come about as a result of an advisory referendum, not a legally binding one. Surely the fact that the clear majority view of the Scottish people can so easily be disregarded is a cause for grave concern. Throughout the entire Brexit process, Scotland has been treated with contempt by Westminster. We voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, and we have been ignored. Not only that, but our Parliament has been prevented from protecting the interests of the Scottish people. We must not disempower our people by denying them the ability to make their own decisions on such life-changing matters; that is why it is so important that we support the bill.

As we are all aware, the franchise was extended to include 16 and 17-year-olds for the independence referendum in 2014, and then for all following Scottish elections. The fact that those young people were denied a vote in the EU referendum in 2016 has left their voices unheard and has denied them access to democracy. In Scotland, various studies have concluded that 16 and 17-year-olds are perfectly capable of engagement and making informed decisions. Through the referendum bill, they would have a guarantee that they will not be excluded from the decision making that is vital to their futures, as they were in 2016.

Similarly, we need to secure the right for EU citizens to have the ability to exercise their democratic right. During the 2016 EU referendum, many of their experiences were very unsatisfactory. We need to ensure that their rights are protected and we need to make them feel welcome. We need to have provisions in place to guarantee that the mess that took place in 2016 is not replicated, and I do not think that we can trust Westminster to protect the rights of EU citizens.

A hallmark of the Scottish Parliament is that the structure of this establishment promotes and encourages cross-party collaboration. Rather than having a Parliament that is divided and paralysed by our differences in opinion, we can generally find areas on which we can agree or find common ground. It is difficult to deny that we are operating with fundamentally different values from those that Westminster is exhibiting. The bill will give us the power to draw on our abilities to work together across parties, to scrutinise, debate and approve rules and procedures for future Scottish referenda.

When we already know that the Scottish people emphatically do not want Brexit, we cannot simply wait to see what fate the UK Government decides to impose on us. We are all aware that, even in a best-case scenario, the people of this nation will be worse off. Morally, we have a duty to our people to ensure that we have some influence over that outcome, even if the Westminster regime seeks to thwart that democratic duty. As a result, there is just cause for Scotland to have the power to ensure that our country has a say over huge constitutional and economic changes, such as Brexit, and that Scotland’s views are heard and respected, especially when people overwhelmingly tell us that they do not want something. We have an opportunity to ensure that the people of Scotland are presented with referenda that are built on a proper framework, which is well considered, carefully constructed and has legal standing.

This debate is not about whether members want a second referendum on independence or Brexit. It is about whether they believe that the people of Scotland deserve the right to something better than the desperate aftermath of Brexit, which will be brought about as a result of deceit and flimsy legislative chicanery. It is about whether members believe that the people have the right for their decision to be respected. It has been a long time since the UK comprehensively reviewed the framework governing referenda. It is more than reasonable for our Parliament to seek higher standards on such an important issue. The bill has been welcomed by the Electoral Commission, the Electoral Management Board, the Faculty of Advocates and the Institute for Government. It is common sense that all of us in this Parliament should welcome it, too. The people of Scotland, whom we serve, deserve no less.