On 18 March 2020, I wrote to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to confirm that the Scottish Government has paused work to prepare for an independence referendum in order to focus on the response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Aside from the publication of a draft bill for an independence referendum for introduction during the next parliamentary term, which will require a minimal amount of civil service resources and time, that continues to be the Scottish Government’s position, and all other work is currently paused.
We are clear that an independence referendum should only take place once the Covid-19 pandemic is over. If there is majority support for an independence referendum in the next parliamentary term, we will return to the issue when it is appropriate to do so.
Let me help the cabinet secretary out. The total cost of the independence referendum in 2014 was in excess of £16 million. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance is at pains to stress the financial pressures that the Scottish Government is under as it responds to the pandemic, with the First Minister making it clear that we have a long way to go before the pandemic is behind us. Given those facts, does the cabinet secretary seriously expect Scots to agree that a rerun of a once-in-a-generation referendum before the end of the year is a better and more urgent use of public funds than restoring and rebuilding the economy and our public services?
I made that clear in my earlier answer. Clearly, Mr Whittle was not listening, so I will repeat it. An independence referendum should only take place once the Covid-19 pandemic is over. I ask Mr Whittle to reflect for a moment—although self-reflection is not a talent that he has—that the cost of Brexit is hundreds of billions of pounds. To be lectured by a Conservative on the cost of democracy is something that even I find hard to swallow.
It has been reported that Downing Street is looking to hire up to 50 taxpayer-funded advisers for its anti-independence campaign unit. I suggest that that is quite an allocation of financial and personnel resources. Does the cabinet secretary agree that that looks like a panicked attempt by the UK Government to gear up for a referendum and suggests that the Tories may finally be coming to the realisation that standing in the way of democracy is unsustainable?
It makes me reflect on the two questions that we have just had, which appear to have been desperate attempts to deflect attention not only from those sorts of facts but from, for example, the fact that, last night, someone who has never been elected, as far as I know, even to the presidency of a bowling club—David Frost, who is now a peer—became a minister in the Cabinet. That is utterly undemocratic.
I suggest that Mr Whittle and Mr Greene go and consider what democracy is, then come back and ask a question. Until they do, they are not in a position either to ask a question or to get an answer other than that.