Normal countries have constitutions, and they have constitutions for very good reasons, which include constituting a state, setting out its institutions, giving them power and saying what they can and cannot do. However, a constitution is much more than that; it is about ambition, imagination, setting out the sort of country that we aspire to be, identifying and making real our values as a country, and protecting and promoting people’s rights. A constitution reveals as much as it prescribes. It tells us what a country’s priorities are and where power lies.
What do we learn about the United Kingdom’s priorities and where power lies from looking at its constitution? The UK has an unwritten constitution, which has only one immutable principle, to which everything else is subservient, and that is Westminster parliamentary sovereignty. The idea is abstract, but its effect is not abstract—it is very real.
I will give members some examples. The Human Rights Act 1998 is one of the greatest parliamentary achievements of the past 30 years. It has delivered justice for people across the whole of British society and has ensured that public authorities can be held properly to account, yet it has no more protection under Westminster sovereignty than any other law has. Successive UK Governments have threatened to repeal protections that the citizens of other modern democracies take for granted.
The Supreme Court has ruled that, under the Scotland Act 1998, this Parliament’s children’s rights bill cannot extend even across all of devolved law because, if it affected acts passed by the UK Parliament—although such laws would be entirely within devolved competence, in areas such as health and education—that would impugn Westminster’s sovereignty.
As we saw with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, the UK Government considers itself able to seek to legislate contrary to its international obligations, because Westminster sovereignty sees international law not as a celebration of common humanity or as an essential tool in rising to the challenges of the 21st century, but as a threat to Westminster’s place as the ultimate source of legal authority.
That is true even in relation to the Scottish Parliament’s powers and responsibilities, which all of us, regardless of our parties, were elected to exercise and to hold the Government accountable for using. Nine times—and counting—the UK Parliament has ignored the votes of members of the Scottish Parliament and passed laws within or about devolved competence without our consent.
The UK’s unwritten constitution therefore reveals its priority to be the preservation of Westminster power; and that power elsewhere is held on sufferance, at Westminster’s grace and favour.
Presiding Officer, if you were to extend the period that I have to speak to the question, I would happily go into the highways and byways of the UK’s unwritten constitution, but I see that you are shaking your head.
I suggest that we can do better than the situation in which we currently find ourselves in the United Kingdom. I believe that, in Scotland, we have aspirations and values in common and that we can organise ourselves around those. I am not talking only about the approach of this Government, or even those people in this country who support independence as our ultimate constitutional destination; I am also talking about something more fundamental and more long term, which reaches across the parties in this Parliament and across people who live and work in Scotland.
It is a belief in putting rights and equality at the heart of everything that we do. It is a belief in creating opportunity in a wellbeing economy that combines dynamism and entrepreneurship with fairness. It is a belief in being outward looking as a nation, as was reflected in our overwhelming vote to remain in the European Union, and recognising that we amplify our sovereignty and do not diminish it when we work together with our international partners as a sovereign state. It is also a belief—one that certainly used to be shared across the parties—that, as was set out in the claim of right for Scotland, the constitutional tradition in Scotland is that it is the people who are sovereign here.
In our first paper in the “Building a New Scotland” series, the Scottish Government has shown that countries that identify, pursue and organise around such common aims do best and are wealthier, happier and fairer. In the fourth paper in that series, we have set out how, with independence, we could make real the promise of those shared values and common priorities. We say how we could put in place an ambitious interim constitution at the point of independence so that a newly independent Scotland would start benefiting from constitutional government from day 1. We say how we could come together as a nation, how the people who live and work here could contribute through a constitutional convention to the drafting of a permanent constitution for an independent Scotland, and how a Scottish constitution could put power where it belongs: in the hands of the people who live here.
That is what it means for there to be constitutional recognition of the national health service in Scotland and a right to access a system of healthcare that is free at the point of need. It puts power in the hands of the people. If ever a Government in Scotland sought to retreat from or compromise on that principle, the constitution would empower the people to stop it. It would empower the people with the fullest range of rights and give them the tools to enforce them.
We propose constitutionally embedding not just the rights in the Human Rights Act 1998—which are derived from the European convention on human rights—and the related protections that are built into the Scotland Act 1998, but the rights in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and all the rights in the proposed Scottish bill on human rights.
With independence, those rights would not be limited by Westminster sovereignty or by the devolution settlement. They would extend across matters that are devolved and matters that are currently reserved. It would not be possible for any Government simply to use a majority in the Scottish Parliament to repeal such rights, as is the case at Westminster. Those rights would belong to the people. It should be beyond the authority of any democratically elected legislature to violate the rights of the people whom it serves. Further, we could—finally—constitutionally prohibit nuclear weapons from ever again being based on Scottish soil.
Who could fail to be excited by the opportunities? Who, faced with the question “What sort of country would you like Scotland to be?”, could answer, “One that organises itself around the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament”?
I find it hugely encouraging that there are people beyond the independence-supporting voters of Scotland who agree. Many members in the chamber will know and, no doubt, hold in high regard, as I do, Baroness Helena Kennedy, who is one of the leading human rights lawyers and constitutional campaigners in this country. Although she does not support Scotland being independent, she said:
“If Scotland is thinking one day it is going to be independent, I happen not to be in that camp, but if that is the road Scotland is going down then people should be going to work on creating a written constitution for an independent Scotland, definitely. I would do it now if I were in that camp.”
That camp is represented by a majority in this Parliament who were elected by the people of Scotland, and that is exactly what we are doing. We are doing what we have been asked to do by the electorate, and we have published what I think is a hugely exciting document.
I ask members, regardless of whether they wish Scotland to be independent, to imagine a future for this country in which its form, its rights and its obligations are represented through a written constitution, as is the case for pretty much every other country in the world. If it is good enough for them, it is good enough for us.
In the “Building a New Scotland” papers that we will go on to publish, we will set out what this Government sees as the opportunities of independence and how we would address the challenges of becoming independent. The next paper in the series, which will be published this summer, will set out what an inclusive and welcoming approach to Scottish citizenship could look like: one that would ultimately see the people of Scotland have their rights as European citizens—rights that they never voted to give up—returned to them. Future papers will go on to set out what we would do on culture, our extraordinary marine resources, the energy market and Scotland retaking its place in the European Union and the wider world.
Sitting behind all the papers will be the propositions and the possibilities of this paper. What could Scotland look like if we had the chance and the opportunity to put its future in the people’s hands?
That the Parliament welcomes the publication of
Creating a modern constitution for an independent Scotland and the opportunity that it sets out for the people of Scotland to directly shape a new, modern and more democratic country with constitutional safeguards for human rights and based on the constitutional tradition of the sovereignty of the people.
Ordinarily, I welcome the opportunity for a robust debate, even if the subject choice is deeply questionable, but not today.
I will come to the paper that is the subject matter of this debate in a moment. However, it pales in comparison with what we witnessed over the weekend in Dundee, which very much set the context for the debate. We saw a First Minister—or “first activist”, as he calls himself—announce that he wants to turn the next general election into another polarising and divisive vote on breaking up the United Kingdom. Let there be no doubt about this: the Scottish National Party has said, unequivocally, that it wants the next general election to be about independence. That will be “page one, line one”, in the SNP’s phrasing. The SNP will treat a victory, whatever that might be—it is a word that SNP members struggled to define at the weekend—as a mandate for independence. “Page one, line one.” Every vote for the SNP in the election will be taken as a vote for separation.
I do not deny that for a second. However, I make the point that Jamie Hepburn has said that every vote for the SNP in the election will be taken as a vote for separation, just as every vote for the Scottish Conservatives will be taken as a vote to remain in the United Kingdom. That is why what was announced in Dundee is so serious. [
Please resume your seat for a second, Mr Cameron. I detect that this is a debate where emotions will run high, but I encourage members to listen respectfully to whoever has the right to speak. If a member wants to intervene, they should get to their feet and ask for an intervention.
I will give you the time back for the intervention, Mr Cameron.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I will try to remain good humoured throughout this.
The Scottish National Party has, in effect, come up with a turbocharged version of Nicola Sturgeon’s de facto referendum, except that, this time, it seems that it has set the bar even lower by saying that it does not need to win a majority of votes or even a majority of seats. It says that it just needs to win more seats than any other party. That is a nonsense. The SNP knows that a majority of people in Scotland do not want another referendum in the next few years. That is why it has come up with a desperate, barrel-scraping strategy that plays to a narrow audience of nationalists and ignores the wishes of a majority of Scots.
People across Scotland will have witnessed—
People in Scotland had a referendum about their future in 2014, and they voted in that historic referendum to keep the United Kingdom together.
People across Scotland will have witnessed the events in Dundee last weekend and will be horrified that the SNP is trying to make the future of the union the one and only issue at the general election that is expected next year. Instead, people in Scotland want the Government to deal with the problems that affect them in their everyday lives. That means a focus on cutting the NHS waiting list backlog and recruiting more doctors, nurses and dentists. It means a focus on narrowing the educational attainment gap across all age groups, investing in additional support needs and cutting class sizes. It means a focus on supporting victims of crime and making sure that criminals serve proper sentences. However, none of those things is important to the Scottish Government—they are not its top priorities. That is a tragedy, but it is also a scandal.
I turn to the paper, “Creating a modern constitution for an independent Scotland”. In doing so, I note the sincere pledge that the Minister for Independence gave to
’s “Holyrood Weekly” podcast, which I listen to with great interest most weeks, on 12 May. He said:
“Given government is accountable and responsible to parliament, and that’s a responsibility I take seriously, it’s incumbent on me to recognise we should say to parliament what the next subject material of the forthcoming prospectus papers will be.”
Evidently, his words were lost on the First Minister, because the paper was announced with great fanfare at a press conference last week and it was debated in Dundee, with just a Government-inspired question to let MSPs know that it had been published.
I will not. I will carry on.
I love talking about the law, history and the constitution, but I will not take the bait today, tempted though I am to point out that the devolution settlement already enshrines the European convention on human rights. Acts of this Parliament and of Scottish ministers must, of course, comply with that convention.
The paper argues a hypothetical of a hypothetical. It concerns an issue that is entirely academic. It prioritises a referendum on the monarchy and the weakening of Scotland’s defences. How depressing is it that, after 16 years of SNP rule, that is all that it has to offer Scotland? We have long known that this Government has run out of ideas and ambition, and today’s debate is further proof of that.
There is one point in the paper that I will cover as a Highlands and Islands MSP. I take a keen interest in how this Government might prioritise the region that I represent, but the paper does none of that. Its proposals for island communities are glib and vague. It argues that a future constitution could place
“a duty on the Scottish Government to take the needs and unique geographical character”—
I am sorry but I do not have enough time.
The paper says that a future constitution could place
“a duty on the Scottish Government to take the needs and unique geographical character of island communities into consideration when it conducts its functions.”
That is precisely what the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018, which became law in the previous session of Parliament, was meant to do. “Island proofing” is the phrase that was used. However, rather like island proofing, this is likely to be no more than warm words. What about a right to a ferry? What about actually providing a ferry?
There was a moment a few months ago when I thought that, perhaps, a hint of realism was occurring in the SNP. During the SNP leadership election, Humza Yousaf said that independence was not yet the
“settled will of the Scottish people” and Mike Russell, the president of the SNP, said that independence could not “be secured right now”. There was a moment, temporary though it was, when a realistic and honest appraisal was being made by senior figures in the SNP. That is why the announcement in Dundee showed such absence of judgment, and that is why, in launching the paper, with all its myths and theories, the SNP has completely misread the mood and temperament of people in Scotland.
I do not expect a nationalist to stop believing in independence any more than I expect a unionist to give up their faith in the United Kingdom. Those views are sincerely and genuinely held. However, I expect nationalists to read the room and to understand what truly matters to people in Scotland right now and what they expect us, as their representatives, to debate.
For all those reasons, we encourage others to back our amendment, to reject the fantasy and to focus on what the people of Scotland put us in Parliament to do.
I move amendment S6M-09711.3, to leave out from “welcomes” to end and insert:
“recognises that the people of Scotland voted decisively to remain within the United Kingdom in 2014 and that any discussion on a written constitution in an independent Scotland is both academic and hypothetical; deplores the announcement by the First Minister that the Scottish National Party will use the next General Election campaign as an attempt to hold another polarising vote on breaking up the United Kingdom; agrees that another divisive independence referendum is not a priority and is simply an attempt by the Scottish National Party to divert attention away from its poor record in government, and calls on the Scottish Government to focus its time on addressing the pressing issues that Scotland faces day to day, including growing the economy and rebuilding vital public services.”
Today, thousands of our fellow Scots are worrying about their mortgage payments, our junior doctors are considering three days of strike action because of low pay, and every one of our public services is creaking because of a lack of investment. Those are just some of the very real and pressing issues that the people of Scotland face right now.
People who are watching today will therefore be wondering why Scotland’s parliamentarians are not talking about their priorities. Instead, here we are discussing a fantasy constitution for an independent Scotland that the people do not want. Why is that the most pressing topic when every other part of Scottish life, from health to education, the economy and transport, is in dire need of attention?
No, thank you. Not just now.
Let us be honest and clear to anyone who is watching about why we are having this debate today. We are having this debate today because of the SNP convention in Dundee at the weekend and the need for the SNP leadership to kid on to the grass roots that it is making progress when it is not. Therefore, we are having to indulge in an exercise in SNP internal party management as well as a desperate attempt by the SNP to try to be relevant at the next general election.
At the weekend, SNP members were asked to ignore the blue police tents, the opinion polls and other minor issues such as the currency, borders and the promised referendum date in October, and instead to take their imagination for a walk up to the top of the hill once again, to imagine a world in which Scotland is free, everyone agrees with one another, and the scary problems of the outside world dare not intrude.
I am glad that Mr Bibby has chosen to give way. He talks about imagination. I would like to hear what the imagination of the Labour Party is in relation to these matters. Does the Labour Party believe fundamentally that people’s rights should be set out in a codified written constitution, or does it believe in the philosophy of the supremacy of the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament by which people’s rights can be changed at the whim of a Government?
We believe that there should be a change in the Government at Westminster and that we need a Labour Government to bring about the social, economic and political change that Scotland and the rest of the UK need. We look forward to setting out our plans for the general election in the coming weeks and months.
SNP members are being asked not to ask any hard questions about an abysmal record in public services and a failure to make a credible case for Scottish independence that can command the support of fellow Scots. I presume that the Government knows that it is failing to make that case.
At the weekend, Humza Yousaf shifted the goalposts—so much so that independence can, apparently, now be achieved without a majority of people voting for it or the SNP. The previous plans for a de facto referendum lacked credibility with the public and many inside the SNP, but the new plans are, frankly, ludicrous, and the Government knows it. The paper is not a game changer, and the strategy has not been thought through. For example, a special envoy to the EU was announced at the weekend, but the EU has already indicated that it will not speak to them. There are many other questions that I could ask about the inconsistencies on thresholds, which a bowling club’s constitution would not have, and other issues, but doing so would be completely pointless.
Back in the real world, in its document, the Government is promising people basic rights in the future, but it is failing to get the basics right for people today. Scots are no longer falling for the SNP’s empty promises and just accepting what it says.
We already have legislation on climate change targets and on homelessness, but climate progress is off track and homelessness is at a high. The SNP claims that it wants to protect the rights of islanders, but the Government cannot even sort out the ferries. The SNP says that it wants to defend and enshrine local government, but it and the Greens have cut a combined total of £6 billion from council budgets over the past decade. The SNP says that it wants to protect a right to healthcare, but it has broken the treatment time guarantee—a law that it passed—more than 500,000 times. We do not need Police Scotland to tell us whether this is a Government of lawbreakers.
The cabinet secretary tells us today that we need a written constitution for an independent Scotland to tackle such issues—when what people need is competent government, focused on their priorities. Let us contrast that with another announcement last week. While the First Minister, Humza Yousaf, was unveiling his imaginary constitution for an independent Scotland, there was another political speech in Scotland. Keir Starmer—[
.] Keir Starmer, the man who most Scots—in fact, most people across the UK—want to be our next Prime Minister, was setting out a real plan to secure our energy supply, green our economy and create jobs here in Scotland. The SNP promised and abandoned plans for a publicly owned energy company, but Labour will create a publicly owned Great British energy company, headquartered here, in Scotland.
While the SNP manages a divided party and plays fantasy politics, wasting taxpayers’ cash on papers described by the Minister for Independence as campaigning tools for SNP activists, Labour is getting down to the real business. We have a plan for real change—a plan to fix the mess that our country is in by tackling the everyday problems facing Scotland.
The next general election will not be a de facto referendum; it will be a general election. The latest poll suggests that Labour is gaining more and more support in Scotland. Whether people voted yes or no, the Tories need to go. While members of the SNP talk to themselves about themselves, we will seek to offer Scotland the economic, social and political change that it needs.
I move amendment S6M-09711.2, to delete from “welcomes” to end and insert:
“notes the publication of Creating a modern constitution for an independent Scotland; considers that, rather than theoretical future plans, the focus of the Scottish Government should be on the priorities of people living in Scotland, and calls, therefore, on the Scottish Government to deliver a real recovery plan for the NHS to reduce long waits, fix lifeline services for Scotland’s island communities, ensure a fair local government funding settlement, and take measures to improve living standards and tackle the cost of living, with a £100 water rebate, a freeze to rail fares and a revamped mortgage rescue scheme.”
Ten years ago, when Alex Salmond was sitting in the seat where Angus Robertson is now sitting, we could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. We could feel the anticipation on the SNP benches and the desire to get stuck into the independence referendum. To give the SNP credit, it built a quite phenomenal campaign; it was quite daunting.
Today, the more Angus Robertson said—and I am sure he said this several times—“Who could fail to be excited?” or said that he was hugely excited or hugely encouraged, and the more he implored people to be excited, the more SNP back benchers got stuck into their laptops or looked at their phones. There is no anticipation. There is no excitement about this.
I am somebody who does get excited about written constitutions, but even I have not read the paper. I would be surprised if more than 0.0001 per cent of the population have read the document that has been produced by the new Minister—
Indeed. I have not read it, I am not going to read it, and I will tell the cabinet secretary why I am not going to read the paper. This week, I have been dealing with constituents who are facing cuts to fire services in their constituency; I have been dealing with the victims of Professor Eljamel at Dundee, who have been scarred for life by that professor, because of a failed system; I have been dealing with a family—now SNP members are looking at their phones, because they are not interested. The only thing that gets them interested is the constitution. When they face the hard reality of life that my constituents are facing, they are not interested any more. That is the harsh reality. I am dealing with patients in Newburgh who are about to have their NHS dentist’s close. I am dealing with the family of a pupil in my constituency who was beaten up because of the violence and behaviour in our schools. I have been dealing with a constituent who has been waiting for months to get their adult disability payment, because Scotland now has longer waits than the Department for Work and Pensions—the evil DWP, according to the SNP.
Those are the harsh realities of life. It is not about a written constitution for a fantasy independence campaign that nobody on the SNP benches is at all excited about because they simply do not believe that it will happen. We are wasting our time.
Last week, we were debating the Children (Care and Justice) (Scotland) Bill, and whether people should go through the children’s hearings system and whether they should go to secure units rather than to young offenders institutions. I had four minutes in which to make my speech. We had a whole range of issues to discuss on a bill that has enormous consequences. It is a good bill, but it is potentially being mismanaged, so that is why we needed to spend more time on it. I was given four minutes to discuss that phenomenally important bill.
Today, we have a fantasy debate just to keep SNP members united behind the First Minister, who is failing. We need to be focusing on the harsh reality that my constituents are facing and that I know all members’ constituents are facing as well. Let us get real.
Today, of all days, the Government chooses to have this debate. We have the longest delayed discharges of all time. Such delays were supposed to have been eradicated. We are not debating cancer waiting times, which are the worst on record—again. Why are we not debating those issues rather than this fantasy paper? I would be surprised if even SNP back benchers have read it, it is so bloody boring.
Let us get focused on what matters in people’s lives rather than waste our time with this debate.
I move amendment S6M-09711.1, to leave out from “welcomes” to end and insert:
“believes that the Scottish Government’s priorities should be on tackling the cost of living crisis, reducing the number of those waiting on NHS lists, ensuring that councils have sufficient funds to run public services, and working to reduce emissions in order to meet net zero; further believes that there should be no deviation from these priorities, as doing so can have a devastating impact on people’s livelihoods and the services that people rely on; calls on the Scottish Government to focus on these priorities rather than on separation, and acknowledges that the best way to secure change for people in Scotland is through a full programme of constitutional reform enshrining the partnership of the United Kingdom.”
To put it simply, the UK’s current constitutional arrangements are not good enough. There is nothing to protect our health service or workers and citizens’ rights, which we have seen the Westminster Government take advantage of, with creeping NHS privatisation and the ripping away of the right to strike. It seems that we will be offered nothing different from Labour. Mr Bibby has admitted so today: Sir Keir Starmer will carry on in the same old vein, saying, “You’ll have had your rights, and we’ll keep the House of Lords to boot.” That is Labour’s way, too.
In terms of dealing with constituents, which Mr Rennie just mentioned, all of us are dealing with the problems of the cost of living, Brexit, the Ukraine war and, of course, Tory austerity, which has been driven on us by a Westminster Parliament that is sovereign.
Independence offers the people of Scotland the chance to create a permanent, modern written constitution that puts their rights at the heart of Scotland’s democracy. In my opinion, the first line of Scotland’s interim constitution should make clear that Scotland is an independent country in which the people, not the Parliament, are sovereign.
The new paper, “Creating a modern constitution for an independent Scotland”, sets out how people in Scotland can shape their newly independent country. It tells us how independence could radically shift where power lies, replacing Westminster sovereignty with the sovereignty of the people who live in Scotland. It explains how a written constitution could put rights and equality at its heart, including by protecting the right to strike and by giving constitutional recognition to the NHS in Scotland. It also lays out how a permanent written constitution could be developed by the people of Scotland and their elected Parliament, giving Scotland a constitution and enabling it to be ready to take on the challenges of the future.
I share the view of the First Minister that the constitution should very clearly and explicitly state that Scotland should not have or host nuclear weapons. As I have stated in this Parliament before, the hundreds of billions of pounds spent on weapons of mass destruction would be much better spent on our public services and on supporting our people. Nurses, not nukes. Teachers, not Trident. Bairns, not bombs.
Our constitution must be for all the people of Scotland, enshrining human rights and ensuring progress and aspiration. In the past couple of decades, we have seen progress in areas such as LGBT rights, with the likes of the passing of equal marriage legislation. However, in the past couple of years, we have also seen an effort by some, including politicians, to roll back on the progress that has been made. In my opinion, these hard-won rights should be embedded in the constitution of an independent Scotland. We need to ensure that the voices of minorities are heard in the formulation of our constitution and that we create a system that serves all.
The words “dignity”, “fairness” and “respect” are now used a great deal in the Parliament by MSPs from all sides of the chamber. I am very proud that those three words that mean so much—dignity, fairness and respect—were first enshrined in law through an amendment that I lodged to the Welfare Funds (Scotland) Bill. In my opinion, dignity, fairness and respect should be at the very heart of the constitution of an independent Scotland. For far too long, many people with physical disabilities or learning disabilities, autistic folk and those who are neurodiverse have not been listened to to the degree that they should have been. Let us change that in our written constitution.
This Parliament was set up to improve the lives of people in Scotland by creating more highly skilled jobs, generating exciting new opportunities for young people and improving public services such as our NHS, our education system and our roads. We should be spending all our time on those key issues—the things that really matter to local people. We could be increasing the number of subjects that pupils get to experience in schools. We could be investing to improve vital roads such as the A77 and the A75. We could be overhauling the justice system so that it puts victims first. That is the Scotland that I want to build—one where victims get justice, schools provide more opportunities, motorists have good roads to travel on, vulnerable people get mental health treatment, islanders can get a ferry and everyone can access vital NHS treatment quickly.
However, nothing that the SNP is talking about today will help to build that better Scotland. It is not focused on those top priorities; it is focused only on its endless constitutional obsession. This debate is a total waste of everybody’s time and effort. It is a disgrace that the SNP has come here to talk about some fantasy constitution when people in Scotland desperately need better public services now. However, that shows what the SNP Government has become. It is not really a Government any more; it is nothing more than a constitutional campaign group. It now exists solely to create grievances with the UK Government, to divide people in Scotland and to promote division above everything else, no matter the cost.
The SNP Government has somehow convinced itself that a Minister for Independence is a necessity. It is now in the ridiculous position of insisting that it is good value for taxpayers to divert Government resources and a team of civil servants away from front-line issues.
Just look at what the SNP announced over the weekend. It has said that the next general election will be fought on the issue of independence and that every seat that it wins will count towards a mandate. Humza Yousaf has taken Nicola Sturgeon’s reckless referendum plan and put it on steroids. He has decided that the de facto referendum is not extreme enough. Now, the SNP genuinely seems to be claiming that it will try to break away from the United Kingdom if it gets one more vote than any other party in Scotland.
Normally, when we have debates in the chamber about things that actually matter, there is not a minister to be seen. Today, when we are talking about the constitution, everybody is here. Everybody is here to discuss the constitution instead of what matters. [
.] I would much rather see the Minister for Public Health and Women’s Health finding dentists.
Will you resume your seat for a second, Ms Dowey?
I made a plea earlier in the debate that members who had the floor should be listened to with respect. The member has taken an intervention, and her response should be listened to with respect.
You need to conclude fairly shortly, Ms Dowey.
The ministers are all here to speak about the constitution. I would much rather that the public health minister was looking to find out why we do not have any dentists and why my constituents cannot get dental appointments, and to find a solution to that. The social care minister should be looking at bed blocking and why people are stuck in hospital. If the community safety minister looked at the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service, I would be able to clear my inbox, which is absolutely jam-packed with emails about the service asking what is happening with the cuts.
I note that I can look forward to a future paper in the summer as part of the “Building a New Scotland” series. I would much rather see a paper on building the new national treatment centre at Carrick Glen in Ayr, which seems to have come to a standstill. Having the ability to have orthopaedic surgery there would greatly help my constituents.
People across Scotland, including many SNP supporters, can see that the Government is out of touch.
I welcome the publication of “Creating a modern constitution for an independent Scotland”. The opportunity that it sets out for the people of Scotland to directly shape a new, modern and more democratic country with constitutional safeguards for democracy and human rights provides hope in what can feel like pretty desperate times—times when important values are under attack by the Westminster Government. That Government has introduced laws that stripped rights from asylum seekers and other vulnerable people; encouraged voter disenfranchisement; limited judicial oversight of Government actions; and placed new draconian restrictions on the right to peaceful protest. It should be noted that none of the UK parties appears to be interested in reversing those attacks as they appeal to general election voters outwith Scotland.
On the Opposition amendments, in summary, I would say three things. Number 1 is that democracy is not a one-off event. Number 2 is that debate and disagreement are normal and healthy and do not have to be divisive. Politicians can take responsibility in displaying that and not fuelling bad feeling and fear among those with different views, beliefs and aspirations. Thirdly, and further to that, as for the point about our not discussing “theoretical ... plans”, at first I smiled at that phrase, because I thought that that is surely how all political policy ideas start out, but then I actually felt a bit sad for whoever wrote it—the misery of it. Goodness me, can we not raise our eyes a bit and imagine a better way of doing things and a better Scotland? If not, I do not know what we are here for.
With no written constitution, the UK is an outlier. It is one of the very few countries in the world that does not have a single written document that could be called a constitution. The issue with the series of laws, conventions and precedents that form how the UK works is that at its heart is the idea that the Westminster Parliament is sovereign and requires a simple majority to legislate on any matter. That means that, no matter how central any law is to our society—such as those on a publicly owned NHS, workers’ rights or even devolution itself—a simple majority vote at Westminster could change or overturn that.
Perhaps the thought of a first line of a Scottish constitution stating “Scotland is an independent country in which the people are sovereign” will not spark as much joy in those for whom sustaining the union is a priority as it does in me and others who want Scotland to regain her independence. However, I hope that, when we get to that point and when the people of Scotland make it clear via the ballot box that independence is the destination that they want, all colleagues in the chamber—as democrats and as people of principle—will see that the chance to create a permanent and modern written constitution that puts rights at the heart of Scotland’s democracy is above party politics. I hope that they will participate fully and positively in a written constitution that the people of Scotland believe in and that has the collective authority of our nation, so that those in power accept that, under the constitution, they are accountable to the people. In a modern, more democratic country, surely we can all get behind that.
Usually, I would welcome the contents of a debate at the start of my remarks, but it is worrying and frustrating in equal measure that, yet again, we find ourselves debating the SNP’s confusing and incoherent plans for a referendum. Those plans are, by the admission of independence supporters, at best unclear.
It often seems that, when scrutiny of the Government’s performance on issues such as the deposit return scheme—
Not at the moment, thank you.
When scrutiny on issues such as the DRS, the NHS or the Government’s general inertia becomes too prevalent, we can guarantee that the next item on the agenda will be independence. Here we go again.
For many members of the public, a debate such as this afternoon’s looks like navel gazing during a continuing cost of living crisis and an increasingly unstable geopolitical situation. It is verging on fantasy that the Government considers discussion about a written constitution to be a priority during these difficult times. I implore the Government to get its act together and work on things that are important to the communities in Scotland.
Not at the moment, thank you.
Why not use the time to produce a real recovery plan for the NHS that will have an immediate impact on staff morale, pay and patient capacity or to fix lifeline services for Scotland’s constantly underappreciated island communities? What about the ferries?
Not at the moment, thank you.
Why do we not address the crisis in local government funding in Scotland, which has meant that many of our towns and villages are without key services? SNP members will have that in their inboxes. They will know it to be true.
Perhaps, most importantly of all, we could maximise assistance to families across Scotland who are struggling with the surging cost of living, which is rapidly eating up their pay packets.
Any one of those matters is of much more immediate importance than a sitting Government acting like a debating society.
Absolutely not, thank you.
The Government is looking to consider hypotheticals rather than the wolf at the door. The debate is clearly and blatantly an attempt to play to the crowd because the First Minister is on the ropes in his own party and voters are turning away from the Government. Let us not pretend otherwise.
On the notion of a constitution, although I have no issue with a clearer statement of rights or with protecting such important ones as the right to strike, there are plenty of positive steps that the Government could take right now simply through its own actions. We can give people more power in their workplaces and communities with the powers that are available to us currently, so why is that not being pursued? The Government does not need another mandate to implement such measures.
Jamie Hepburn and Angus Robertson are quick to tell us that they have a mandate to deliver a referendum on independence, but they are equally quick to forget the commitments to abolish council tax or reduce primary class sizes. Who can forget, as we have heard before, the treatment time guarantee? Only the SNP Government can do that.
The SNP’s talk of a mandate suits it only when it comes to independence, not when it comes to delivering on the real priorities of the Scottish people. In short, the public want the Government to deliver on what it has already secured votes for before it starts to construct the next promise that it will break.
I do not think that that is too much to ask. All that it takes is accepting the obvious reality that the Government should appreciate what the communities of Scotland want. They are not looking for independence and, certainly, at the moment, none of them is looking for another referendum. That is the hard political reality that faces the Government. A mature Government would consider accepting that point. It is not the time to discuss this paper.
I was going to talk about the virtues of a written constitution, as many of my colleagues have done, but it is important for the chamber to realise exactly what the Opposition members, who are all looking at their phones just now, support when they support the current unwritten constitution. Rather than quoting Dicey, Edmund Burke, Montesquieu or any of the other thinkers they would normally cite in defence of an unwritten constitution, they have just made a puerile attack on the SNP. I do not know how many times Neil Bibby mentioned the term “SNP” in his speech.
Let us look at what those members support. What do we get with an unwritten constitution? First of all, we get the proroguing of a Parliament when it becomes inconvenient—just stopping the Parliament, and then lying to the head of state about the proroguing of Parliament. The proroguing of Parliament stopped it working altogether. What the Opposition members are doing in the empty benches that we see in the chamber is walking away because they have no arguments to counter our proposals for a written constitution.
We also have the situation in which you can make international agreements and then break them immediately once you have made them—it may only be in a “specific and limited way”, but you have lied to people you have made an agreement with and trashed the reputation of the state that you support in the process of doing that.
Or, of course, you can stuff to the gunnels the House of Lords—that paragon, that mother of Parliaments, where there are 800-plus cronies of the Labour and Tory parties and people who have donated to those parties—and then call that a democracy. It must be the only legislature in the world where the majority are unelected, yet there is not a word of condemnation from any of members of those parties in this Parliament.
For years, we had the fiction that we had a separation of powers within the UK Parliament but, of course, there was a person with the title of Lord Chancellor who was a member of the executive and the justiciary, as well as the legislature—the embodiment of the fact that there was no separation of powers, with all the attendant problems that that brought, as well.
When we put all those flaws together with the fact that we have an unwritten constitution, and with the presence of the constitutional vandals that we see in Westminster just now, that is where we get some of the major breaches of that constitution. It would have been much more difficult for those constitutional vandals to have done that had there been a written constitution with protections for individuals and groups within society. However, it is easy to go through that constitution and make those breaches if there is the thin veneer of respectability of an unwritten constitution.
It has been a source of shame to me for many years, having studied political science, to see some people put the unwritten constitution up on a pedestal as some fantastic, almost mythical, virtue of the UK state. It is anything but.
An unwritten constitution also allows for democratic denial—a rewriting of what most people understand as the basic principles of democracy such as the idea that, if you win an election, you get to implement your manifesto. That has been ditched. The idea of the mandate, a cornerstone of democracy, has been ditched by the Opposition parties in this chamber, and, of course, there is the devolution mess that we are seeing just now, whereby parties that simply do not like our party can change their mind and act with caprice to stop our legitimate aims of exercising devolved powers within the devolved settlement.
Before Labour gets too comfortable, I point out that there can be illegal wars as well—you can consign many people to death in those wars at the same time as going straight past their normal democratic processes.
There is also the point that Paul McLennan
made—we can have an Act of Union that we are told is voluntary, but you just make sure there is no way that people can exercise their right to leave that union, even if that was the deal that they signed up to in the first place.
Therefore, it is quite clear to me that the virtues of a written constitution will appeal to people. Despite what others say about fantasy, I think that it will appeal to the people of Scotland, not least because the curtain has been pulled back from the unwritten constitution. I think that the idea of a rights-respecting Scotland that looks after the rights of individuals in the way that we have heard will prove to be very effective in making sure that people vote for independence for Scotland.
Independence is a worthy goal in and of itself. Greens believe that bringing power closer to people is worth while, and we certainly believe that we want the powers of independence for a purpose, as I am sure that SNP colleagues do, as well. We believe that our nation can do and achieve so much more with the powers of a normal, independent nation. We can be fairer, greener and more democratic.
The process of establishing that new nation is a hugely exciting opportunity. It is an opportunity to discuss, decide on and enshrine our founding values. Who do we aspire to be, as a nation? In Scotland, the sovereignty lies with the people, not with Parliament. That is a radical and ancient tradition and it is one that we will honour with a process that allows the people to write the constitution, not just the politicians Too often, for people across the UK, politics feels like something that is done to them, not something that we all do together. To me, that is what Westminster is—a politics that is done to people. An independent Scotland is our opportunity to do politics differently—to do politics together as a people.
Greens see a huge opportunity in the fundamental questions of democracy, such as who our head of state should be. We are told, of course, that the British monarchy is an appropriate head of state because it is neutral and does not interfere in our politics, but that is not the case. The royal family is exempt from police searches, so we cannot search their properties for the loot of centuries of British imperialism. They are exempt from equalities legislation, so their staff cannot take them to court if they are mistreated. They are exempt from inheritance tax. Now, we have the ludicrous spectacle of the heir to the throne claiming to dedicate himself to ending homelessness while committing to that cause only a fraction of what his family should have paid in tax.
His dad claims that he is committed to tackling the climate crisis, but their family’s lands in Scotland are exempt from various bits of climate legislation such as the Heat Networks (Scotland) Act 2021. An independent Scotland can follow the wave of Commonwealth nations that are switching to an elected head of state. We just need to look to our nearest neighbour in Ireland for examples of how astounding individuals can come forward for that position—Mary McAleese, Mary Robinson and the incumbent, Michael D Higgins, who gave the greatest speech ever heard in this Parliament.
Independence is about democracy above all else. We will root our new nation in that principle from top to bottom. We can also enshrine the powers that are exercised at the local level. This is not just about creating another sovereign Parliament like Westminster here at Holyrood, it is about empowering our communities. We need democratic renewal.
We certainly need to get rid of the House of Lords. If it was not thoroughly discredited before this week, the revelation that MI5 officers had to warn Boris Johnson not to appoint Evgeny Lebedev to the Lords only for him to ignore that warning should surely destroy any credibility that that institution still has, and that was hardly the first scandal. There has been cash for honours and the appointment of donors and hangers-on for decades and centuries.
Writing a constitution can be an opportunity for us to be bold in guaranteeing the rights that are needed by people and the planet. We can enshrine the right to healthcare and protect the status of our NHS. We can enshrine the right to strike and to protest, which are fundamental rights that are required for any group of people to be genuinely free but which are under attack from the UK Government. The party of government in the UK is attacking those rights and the other party is either supporting that attack or, at best, committing not to repeal the legislation once it has been passed.
Through our constitution, the people will constrain the power of Parliament and Government in an independent Scotland. Parliament’s role in relation to the Government will be made clear. Major decisions, such as declarations of war, should be passed by Parliament rather than taken by the executive power of a Government.
Few inequalities in Scotland have lasted as long or are as unequal as the concentration of land ownership in few hands. That is exactly the kind of issue that we could tackle with our constitution. We only need to look to international examples such as Brazil, whose constitution requires land and property to fulfil a social function, or New Zealand’s ban on nuclear weapons or the Swiss model of direct democracy. There are so many inspiring and exciting examples of the kind of nation that an independent Scotland could be, and I am excited for us to take the first steps on that journey.
The Conservative and Labour amendments allude to or promulgate the proposition that a written constitution is an abstract that displaces the real and current issues for the people of Scotland such as the economy, the cost of living crisis, free access to healthcare at the point of need, a warm affordable home, a decent living wage, the right to withdraw labour, the right to be free of weapons of mass destruction and the ability to provide a sanctuary to those who are fleeing from persecution. A written constitution is the framework and foundation of a just society in which human rights, the rights of our children, the rights of the vulnerable, the rights that I have just referred to and—I say to Willie Rennie, who is not here—the rights of my constituents are fundamental and protected. It is a contract with the people, who are sovereign and have remained so despite the union in 1707. In 1953, MacCormick v Lord Advocate, session case 396, on appeal to the Inner House, Lord President Cooper, obiter dictum, said that
“The principle of the unlimited sovereignty of Parliament is a distinctively English principle”, and this was restated in the claim of right, which was signed on 30 March 1989 and said:
“We, gathered as the Scottish Constitutional Convention, do hereby acknowledge the sovereign right of the Scottish people to determine the form of Government best suited to their needs, and do hereby declare and pledge that in all our actions and deliberations their interests shall be paramount.”
Yet the UK Parliament has placed what is, to all intents and purposes, a permanent veto on the Scots exercising their sovereign right through a referendum.
I remind the unionists in here that, in 2014, the Scottish people were told that, if they voted yes to independence, they would be thrown out of the EU. We voted 62 per cent to remain and we were dragged out against our will.
Given that there is no written UK constitution, Westminster has free rein to undermine and even erode basic human rights, especially those of the vulnerable: the rape clause; the bedroom tax; providing a haven in Scotland for nuclear weapons; and, for those seeking sanctuary, the irony, given its imperial past, of a reverse slave trade, involving paying for the shipping of desperate migrants to Rwanda, whose own breach of human rights the UK has questioned. We, in this Parliament, find that our protection of those rights is restricted and is being eroded in the context not only of a majority of members whose parties’ manifestos are committed to an independent Scotland but of a majority of Scottish MPs: 45 SNP to six Tory, one Labour and four Liberal Democrat.
Independence with a written constitution would mean that no Scottish Parliament could unilaterally remove or amend the rights of the Scottish people that were embedded in that constitution. To do so would require the consent of the people, who are sovereign. That is not what the Westminster Parliament does, day in and day out. Such a constitution would be pragmatic in its implementation, giving rights and remedies to the people of Scotland should any Scottish Government default. Those rights are the stuff of fact, not fiction.
Of all the issues on which we could spend precious parliamentary time, we are here today to debate the “constitution for an independent Scotland”. We could have spent today focusing on the NHS waiting times crisis, which includes the cancer treatment target that has been missed for almost a decade. We could have focused on coming up with a plan to reduce Scotland’s shockingly high drug deaths rate, which the SNP is unable to get a grip of. We could have addressed falling education standards and closing the attainment gap, which continues to widen under the SNP; tackling violent crime, which is at its highest level since 2014; or tackling climate change—for example, by exploring how the SNP and Greens can stop missing their emissions targets or rescue their botched deposit return scheme.
Instead of dealing with the real issues that affect people across Scotland, the SNP and Greens would rather use up the time of the Parliament discussing their ever more convoluted independence fantasy—a fantasy constitution, triggered by a fantasy independence referendum, which triggers another fantasy referendum to adopt the fantasy constitution. That is all the latest independence paper is—more fantasy, released in time to placate the party faithful at the SNP’s weekend conference on independence.
What is not a fantasy is the £1.5 million a year that the Scottish Government is paying 24 civil servants in its constitutional futures division to work on the “prospectus for independence” papers and similar projects.
The First Minister suggested that the prospectus for independence papers were a waste of time because they were being ignored by the general public. However, according to the First Minister, it will be different with him, because he wants to be known as the “first activist”, and it would be his job as First Minister to get those fantasy documents into the hands of activists.
That begs a number of worrying questions. Does he really think that that is what the role of First Minister entails? More alarmingly, how can it be appropriate to have 24 civil servants, at a cost of £1.5 million a year, producing documents to be used by SNP activists? I know that £1.5 million might seem like a drop in the ocean compared with the hundreds of millions of pounds that this Government wastes, but try explaining that to the families up and down the country who are struggling every day with the cost of living crisis.
To state that an independent Scotland would have a written constitution is an exercise in stating the obvious. In a fine and eloquent speech, Christine Grahame took that very straightforward statement and turned it into something more like poetry. Now, no new state that is formed does not develop and adopt a written constitution, so it was a statement of the obvious.
The lack of a codified constitution in the UK is a historical oddity and anomaly that is maintained by institutions that have, in relative terms globally, been stable over centuries.
I will not right now, but I will certainly come back to Jamie Hepburn.
The debate that has been brought to the chamber, which is based on the suggestion that there is a benefit to codification above flexibility, has offered very little insight so far into the trade-offs between those two things, although Keith Brown gave a good speech in that regard.
I have to say that it is not a debate that greatly animates me or my party. We are, and always have been, more animated by delivery of social protection and progress than by the writing down of those aspirations on parchment.
No, thank you. I am just getting started.
The paper in question suggests that the NHS will be written into our constitution, but the reality is that the protection of our NHS will not be achieved in prose or by plebiscite. As Bevan made clear,
“The NHS will last as long as there are folk left with faith to fight for it.”
It is a political question of having the will and means to raise the resources and having a competent Government to channel them appropriately. It is the incompetent SNP Government that has driven our NHS to its knees and to the brink of collapse.
Professionals who have dedicated their lives to our citizens through our NHS are now openly asking whether it can survive. As was quoted this weekend in
, 7,000 Scots have been awaiting treatment for more than two years, compared with 600 people in England—a country that is 11 times our size. There has been the complete failure of the NHS recovery plan, and there are the longest waiting times ever and a plethora of waiting times guarantees that have not been met. The SNP is making an unholy mess of protecting our NHS.
We are invited, today, to welcome the NHS’s protection by a fictional document in some undetermined future. That should be a worry to all of us. None of it addresses the fact that no comparable small nation has an NHS or that the weight of such committed expenditure is not normally borne by a more limited tax base. None of it recognises the immediate loss of over £10 billion in revenue in the event of secession, which we are being asked to believe would have no adverse effect on our ability to retain and improve our NHS. None of it recognises the cost of establishing a new state and building exchange reserves to defend a pegged currency from a foreign power—which would, at that point, be setting interest rates for our separate country. None of that is my proposition—it is this Government’s policy platform.
That brings us to this weekend’s headline performance at the great Caird hall in Dundee. The reviews are rolling in, and they do not make for pretty reading. It is extraordinarily difficult for anyone to genuinely know what to make of the whole thing—SNP MPs included, apparently. “Maybe it’s just dreadful writing,” they say. “Surely it could not have been purposely ambiguous.” Well, the First Minister is certainly trying to get good value from his money for his new spin doctor. The First Minister appears to be telling the country—taking Nicola Sturgeon’s widely discredited proposal and going even further—that independence can be decided by 33 per cent of the vote. Will the vote be monitored by a slightly smaller independence thermometer? Ash Regan might let us know. It is not a serious plan, but that is no surprise, because he is not a serious First Minister. He is attempting to reframe an election and to manage party expectations in a desperate attempt to hold on to his job.
All of that is at a time of NHS distress, a cost of living crisis and mortgage rate meltdown. Would that we could talk about all of that instead.
In preparation for the debate, I have been reading the words of James Madison, who was the father of the constitution of the United States of America. One quote in particular really struck me. I will share it with the chamber. It is this:
“The people are the only legitimate fountain of power, and it is from them that the constitutional charter, under which the several branches of government hold their power, is derived.”
For centuries, sovereignty here, in Scotland, was said to lie with the people, so it should come as no surprise that such an absolute should have been instilled within James Madison, because he was educated by a Scottish tutor, Donald Robertson.
When the United States of America declared independence from the United Kingdom, one of the first lines of the declaration of independence said:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”
When Scotland regains her independence, we too should put equality—although not only for men—in the opening lines of our written constitution.
The declaration of independence goes on to say:
“let Facts be submitted to a candid world”.
In that list of facts, the document outlines why independence is needed. It says, of the then leader of the United Kingdom:
“He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good ... He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly ... He has refused to pass other Laws for the Accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of Representation in the Legislature” and the king is condemned
“For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world ... For taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments”.
Does that sound familiar to anyone?
Since 1939, 62 countries have become independent from the United Kingdom and, to date, none has asked to return. Almost all those countries have codified a constitution. It took three centuries for Scotland to regain her Parliament but just a few short decades for the UK Government to overrule and undermine it.
Without a written constitution, the UK is an outlier, and, although the Scottish Government is enshrining rights, the UK Government is trying to take them away. The first line of Scotland’s interim constitution should make it clear that Scotland is an independent country in which the people are sovereign. Never again should powers that are so far away—both geographically and democratically—from the people of Scotland be able to undermine our sovereign will.
The publication “Creating a modern constitution for an independent Scotland” lays out a vision for our constitutional future—one that embraces the principles of democracy, human rights and the sovereignty of the people. It is a document that reflects the aspirations and values of our nation.
In recent years, we have witnessed the UK Government, and the Conservative Party as a whole, persistently restricting the democratic will of the Scottish people. Time and again, our voices have been undermined and our choices disregarded. The power imbalance is evident, with decisions that directly affect Scotland being made without our consent or our consideration.
Here are just a few ideas that are close to my heart. The constitution could protect workers’ rights and could protect the NHS, which would be free at the point of use.
I will finish my remarks with a plea to Scots across the country to dwell on, and to articulate, our vision for Scotland. We do not have to imagine a better country. This is not a fantasy—we can build it and should not let anyone think that we cannot. A written constitution is absolutely the opportunity to create the foundation of a society in which every citizen is valued, rights are protected and the interests of the people take precedence over narrow political considerations. [
The debate could have been used to discuss the crisis in our NHS and how children are having to wait months for routine medical tests or to discuss how to help students who are threatened with homelessness because of rising energy costs and housing supply issues. We could have discussed education reform, which is much needed, or local government budget cuts. Instead, we are debating independence again. The document brings nothing new to the table; in fact, it is the fourth of its kind.
The SNP has said time and again that devolution is being undermined but, in fact, devolution is being trumped by two Governments that refuse to work together. It is being undermined by the Tories at Westminster and by the SNP here, at Holyrood, refusing to communicate and co-operate. While the two Governments cannot reach agreement, Scotland suffers.
The Scottish Government should be spending its time on the real problems that Scotland faces.
The Scottish Government could be tackling waiting times in the NHS, helping the people of Scotland to pay their bills or addressing social and health inequalities. However, as Willie Rennie mentioned, the SNP does not want to face the hard reality of the issues that people in Scotland face. That is why, as Sharon Dowey pointed out, we often struggle to get ministers to the chamber to address such issues.
Instead, the SNP is doubling down on the politics of division. Scottish Labour’s constitutional offer would strengthen devolution, not weaken or undermine it. It would ensure that the Government focused on the principle that power should be based as near as possible to the place in which it is exercised. It would focus on moving power into the hands of local authorities and communities.
Neil Bibby spoke about the £6 billion in cuts to local government budgets. Scottish Labour would ensure fairer funding for communities. That is the reality that Scottish Labour offers—not an ideological pipe dream of independence, which has little more support than it had in 2014.
No—I have a long list to go through.
Scotland is not a colony. At the SNP convention at the weekend, Mhairi Black MP referred to Scotland becoming the 63rd country to gain independence from the UK. Such rhetoric followed an SNP MSP commenting in the chamber last year that it was “beyond belief” that a Labour MSP would support a motion celebrating Indian independence but not support Scottish independence.
In Kenya, during the Mau Mau uprising in 1952, there were widespread reports of detention camps, torture, sexual assault and brutal bodily harm. During colonial rule in India, the Amritsar massacre of 1919 saw protesters against colonial rule brought inside a walled garden and fired on until the guns ran out of ammunition. British rule also saw widespread famine and poverty. In 1943, up to 4 million Bengalis starved to death while millions of tonnes of wheat were exported to Britain. Are we actually comparing that to Scotland’s relationship with the UK?
To compare the experience of British rule in those countries to Scotland’s relationship with the rest of the UK is insulting. We must stop the rhetoric of Scotland as a colony and address the legacy of Scotland as a coloniser.
While SNP members talk to themselves about themselves, hide behind their ill-founded arguments and continue to fail to make the case for independence, Labour is focused on strengthening devolution and being the change that Scotland needs.
I suppose that this afternoon’s debate fits neatly into the traditional BBC summer schedule of repeats.
I apologise to members in advance of making my remarks. Unfortunately, I am suffering from a chronic migraine this afternoon. Although I can see you, Presiding Officer, I cannot see anyone else around the chamber—members are all just in a fog. I hope that they will take that into account.
A couple of weeks ago, I attended an event at Eaglesham primary school, in my constituency, which had gone into partnership with Scottish Opera to put on a marvellous production. The kids were in fantastic costumes and they were singing. It was altogether more coherent, joyful and original and better rehearsed than any speech that I have heard from members who have been advocating the motion.
I understand the importance of the games industry to Scotland. I have never played one, but when my sons were younger they used to play something called “The Sims”. It is a video game in which players can construct a completely artificial little world by using ideas from their own heads. They can construct buildings, put in police stations and write constitutions.
I see that Mr Robertson knows more about the game than I do—it has inspired him in making his contribution.
I never expected a video game to be the hallmark and the centre of Scottish Government policy. Mr Robertson, who is indulging in that fantasy, in what must be regarded as the high watermark of his contribution to public office, has otherwise written some really rather nice books. He wrote an excellent one on Vienna, which I recommend that members read. He would be far better applying himself to that task rather than to the ridiculous nonsense and fantasy that he has brought before the chamber this afternoon.
I do not know how many SNP or Green members who are sitting behind Mr Robertson were in the Parliament in 2007—a smattering, perhaps. That Government, which was led by Alex Salmond, with no record to defend, was actually quite impressive. In the 2011 election it won an absolute majority and the right to fight a referendum on Scottish independence. It fought that referendum and it lost despite the highest turnout for any public vote that there has ever been in any contest at any time in the entire history of the United Kingdom.
I am grateful to Jackson Carlaw for taking my intervention. Earlier, I intervened on his front-bench colleague Donald Cameron to ask what the position of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party is on Scotland’s being able to make a decision about its democratic future. Mr Cameron failed to answer that. Could Jackson Carlaw tell members what Scots need to do to enable them to secure a vote on their own independent future?
In the referendum campaign in 2014, which the separatists lost, they said that the vote would be a once-in-a-generation event. What genuinely surprises me is that, in the years since, there has been no attempt whatsoever from the SNP to define what a generation is and say when another referendum might reasonably take place. [
Oh, I see.
Some people have defined a generation as being 25 years, and others as 40. By the end of this parliamentary session it will be 12 years since the date of the last referendum. Surely a far better purpose in engaging on Scotland’s constitutional future would have been to work with others to say when another referendum might reasonably take place.
If it was two Parliaments before now, we will have covered that 25 years by the end of two Parliaments from now. But no, instead—
I think that Mr Brown and I had all of this out in a television programme once, and I am afraid that he failed lamentably. I happened to notice that, since he accused other members of looking at their phones, he has done nothing but look at his own phone, which I find deeply ironic.
We heard Christine Grahame talk about the European Union. It is true that Scotland voted to remain in the EU referendum in 2016; I was one of those who voted to remain. The fact that we voted to remain has been trumpeted by the SNP, but it has not changed the opinion polls in favour of independence.
Mr Brown likes to pop to his feet and talk—sometimes, not even from his feet—about Liz Truss and the dreadful economic catastrophe, as he sees it, that was brought about by the UK Government last year. It was certainly an inglorious period in the history of Conservative government, but that has not changed the opinion polls in favour of Scottish independence. Nothing has changed the opinion polls in favour of Scottish independence. Nicola Sturgeon repeatedly said on television after the independence referendum that she would not call for another until there was a sustained, substantial and consistent majority in opinion polls in favour of independence, but that has never happened.
We have this wheeze, which is a little backroom exercise in how to keep the conversation on independence alive—“What can we pretend to say differently?”—when, as other members have said, that is not the real issue. No constituent of mine in Eastwood has ever knocked on my door and said, “Mr Carlaw, what I want is a new constitution to be thought up for an imaginary, post-independent Scotland.” What they have said to me is, “Why is it four years before I can get my gallbladder operation?” when, 20 years ago, when I had mine, the wait was four months. They have asked why it is that they cannot get a ferry to and from the Isle of Arran, why it is that schools are unable to provide qualifications and an education of a standard that we had before this Government came to office and why it is that firefighters are queuing up to complain about the SNP Government.
Those are the real issues, and Sharon Dowey was quite right to say that, in the debates that we have in the Parliament on those issues, the SNP benches are largely empty. Where are SNP members today? [
] We turn out to discuss the real issues that affect Scotland—[
—while SNP members turn out to discuss nothing but fantasy.
At the climax of it all, we heard from that would-be international revisionist historian, Ross Greer, with his usual backdoor attack on the monarchy. I say to him and the serried SNP ranks beside him that I am confident that the majority of people in this country look forward to the reign of King Charles III, King William IV and, long after we are all dead and gone, King George VII.
I conclude with two simple statements that sum up the mood of the unionist majority in Scotland: advance Britannia, and God save the King!
I do not intend to make the monarchy the central focus of my speech. However, I noticed a little discomfort from Mr Cameron during that ovation for the current monarchy. Mr Cameron understands his family history; Mr Carlaw might need to read the history of the Cameron family to understand the reference that I have just made.
On the debate at hand, I thank members for their speeches. I begin by thanking Mr Rennie, who confirmed what many of us have long suspected, which is that, in advance of debates in the chamber, he undertakes no form of reading or research to inform his contributions.
I will respond to Foysol Choudhury’s speech. On the cases that he laid out, the historical experiences of the countries that were colonised by the United Kingdom do not bear any comparison with the modern Scotland in which we live now. No SNP member would have the insensitivity to suggest—
There is no chance that I am giving way to Mr Choudhury. He did not give way once.
No SNP member would make such an insensitive comparison. Surely, that is not the standard by which it should be determined whether any country should become independent.
Let me begin with some of the critique that has been—
I was not conscious that it was not directed towards myself. I hope that it is better directed now.
I will again direct my remarks to members, starting with the criticism about holding the debate. The first critique was that we should not hold it at all and that the issue is not important. I remind members that the Scottish Government secured a mandate in the 2021 election. We stood in that election on the basis of seeking to advance the case for independence, and we won that election. Mr Cameron suggested that we should read the room in the context of what should be debated. I suggest that he look around the chamber and look at those who constitute the members of this Parliament. His party is in the minority and this party is in government and has every right to advance its case.
Secondly, it is perfectly legitimate—and necessary—for us to bring forward this debate. Mr Cameron suggested that we did not announce the publication of the document to Parliament, but we did. We answered the Government-inspired question, I wrote to the relevant committee conveners and now we have brought forward a debate on the Government paper to enable Parliament to hold the Government to account. I take that matter very seriously indeed, and I find it odd that we routinely hear from other parties, wrongly and inaccurately, that we do not open ourselves up to scrutiny, but, when we seek to do so, we are criticised for doing it in the first place.
Thirdly, I want to talk about the idea that we are not concentrating on the priorities of the people of Scotland. This Government has lifted 90,000 children out of poverty through its policies. Over the course of its lifetime, it has built 122,000 affordable homes. It has put in place a just transition fund to help people move into opportunities in the renewable energy sector. It has tripled the fuel insecurity fund. It has promoted the real living wage, and Scotland has the highest percentage of working-age population of any UK country paid at that level at least. This Government is mitigating the Tory bedroom tax. That is some of what this Scottish Government has done, and it is nonsense to suggest that we are not focused on the people’s needs.
Donald Cameron is mistaken if he thinks that we are directing attention away from our record in government, as his amendment suggests. Let us focus on his party’s record in government. It was telling that Carol Mochan talked about
“the wolf at the door.”
Let us talk about the wolf at the door. Let us talk about a UK Government that is attempting to roll back the Human Rights Act 1998. Let us talk about a Tory Government that put in place the pernicious Trade Union Act 2016. Let us talk about a Tory Government that is taking forward the creeping privatisation of our national health service. Let us talk about a Tory Government that is taking a draconian approach to asylum policy.
All of that is happening in the “real world” that Mr Bibby spoke of but which he appears to be letting pass him by. All of that is made possible because of the UK Government’s uncodified constitution, which is anachronistic. It is an outlier, as Karen Adam suggested, because it enables the sovereignty of Parliament. The UK Government is able to pursue that agenda unfettered because it is able to do so under the precepts of the primacy of the sovereignty of Parliament.
On where we are and the contrast with our proposition, we want to see—
No one is suggesting for a moment that there are not challenges in the national health service. The Cabinet Secretary for NHS Recovery, Health and Social Care is pursuing an agenda to make sure that we can rebuild from the challenges that we experienced during Covid. We believe in the fundamental proposition that we should have a health service free at the point of need, but that is under attack from the Tory Party, and the Labour Party should have its eyes open to that.
A written constitution is how we can best defend that principle. One of our propositions is to have a written codified constitution that would have a constitutional right to a healthcare system that is free at the point of need. A written codified constitution is perfectly normal. The overwhelming majority of countries in the world have such a constitution; indeed, fewer than 10 countries do not, of which the United Kingdom is one.
There are other rights that we could secure in a written constitution. We could include in a written constitution some of the fundamental human rights that are laid out in the European convention on human rights. Unlike the UK Government, which is abolishing the Human Rights Act 1998, we could put in place the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Earlier today, we heard a statement from Shirley-Anne Somerville in which she showed some of the limitations that we have faced in being able to put that into legislation.
We could have in our constitution a right to an adequate standard of living. That should be contrasted with research that was published just yesterday by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which shows that, while housing benefit has remained frozen since 2020, rents have gone upwards, with only one in 20 private rental properties advertised on Zoopla now able to be covered by housing benefit. That hardly speaks to an adequate standard of living. We would, of course, ensure that workers’ rights were in our codified written constitution.
That is core to the approach that we would take. In that sense, the notion that the discussion is hypothetical or abstract is, frankly, nonsense. It matters. It is not, as Mr Carlaw suggested, an exercise in playing games.
What we are seeing is the casual erosion of rights and a narrowing of the scope of devolution under the current constitutional settlement. That is why the discussion matters. We should have a written constitution so that rights cannot be overturned on the whim of any Government at any given point in time.
Donald Cameron, Neil Bibby and others were wrong to suggest, as the amendments do, that the discussion is academic or theoretical. This is about a vision and ambition, and we aim to turn them into a reality.
At least Mr Marra accepted that the UK is anachronistic in not having a written constitution.
“Anomalous,” I hear him say. Anomalous/ anachronistic—it is a case of potato/potahto. Let us just focus on that. Mr Marra did not give any single commitment to change that state of affairs. When I put the point to Mr Bibby, he utterly dodged the question. It is clear that the Labour Party does not support the codification of people’s rights in any way. That should be contrasted with the position of Helena Kennedy of the Labour Party, who said:
“people should be going to work on creating a written constitution for an independent Scotland, definitely. I would do it now if I were in that camp.”
I thought that the response from Mr Bibby was rather a meagre one. He talked about the way to deal with the matter being to change the Government. The Labour Party is U-turning and flip-flopping on various pledges, such as abolishing tuition fees in England and Brexit. Keir Starmer says that those in the Labour Party are the real conservatives. That does not really sound like much of a change of Government to me. The real change is in securing independence and having a written constitution.
We want to do that with the participation of the people of Scotland. Unlike members of the other parties, we fundamentally trust the people of Scotland. We want to engage the population to ensure that we can first of all have an interim constitution from day 1 of independence and thereafter create a convention that is representative of the people of Scotland to bring back a proposition to the people of Scotland—
We would create a constitutional convention to ensure that the people of this country can have their say. I trust them. They could come back. We would put the question to the people of this country.
Let me close. The cabinet secretary opened the debate by talking about the rhetorical power of an ambitious constitution. He was right to do so. However, I recognise that it takes more than just a written constitution to secure good government or to protect and advance people’s rights. A written constitution is necessary but not sufficient. What is required is the right culture, and it takes commitment. After all, the world is full of countries with written constitutions whose Governments and way of governing fail to live up to their ideals.
However, I am convinced that we have what it takes to embrace a new constitution and that Scotland needs one if it is to embrace fully the opportunities of independence. We already have strong and highly trusted institutions. We have a Scottish Government, and we have shown over 25 years of devolution through coalition, minority, majority and co-operation models of government that we are innovative and responsive. We have a Government that, according to the Scottish social attitudes survey, three times as many people in Scotland trust to act in Scotland’s best interests than trust the UK Government to do so.
We have a Parliament that is elected through a fair system of proportional representation, we have an independent judiciary and we have public bodies such as Social Security Scotland. We have the underpinning things that we need in order to be an independent state; what we do not have is a written constitution, which enables that lot over on the Tory side of the chamber to attack our rights and that lot over on the Labour side of the chamber to do absolutely nothing.