I beg to move,
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr Gray. I have to say that this debate has taken on a bit of a different taste in the past few days. On Monday morning, I was quite clear about what we would have to discuss, but by lunchtime my party leader, as well as the Prime Minister, had rather knocked me off my stride. She does that sometimes—she is pretty good. I find myself coming back to the basics of the debate and considering what it is we really need to know: what is in store for Scotland?
If Members will allow me, I will keep things a bit sober and restrained so that we can have a sensible discussion of the issues, which I consider to be extremely important. Over the past few months we have asked questions about the Government’s approach to, hopes for and starting position in the negotiations over the UK’s leaving the EU. I am afraid we have received no substantive answers, which has led some people less charitable than me to suggest that the Government do not know the answers to those questions. I would never suggest such a thing—not yet, anyway.
The point of fracture for me came at the Scottish Tory conference in Perth, where the Prime Minister did two things in her speech. The first was to claim that Scotland has the most powerful devolved legislature in the world and the second was to suggest that competencies repatriated—if that is the correct word—from the EU will be exercised in Whitehall rather than in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast.
Let me first address the idea that Scotland has the most powerful devolved legislature in the world. I have seen no evidence to support that claim, although it has been made repeatedly over a number of years. I have seen no comparison made that supports such a suggestion, nor any indication of the definition of a devolved legislature being used. I cannot but think that there are more powerful examples of sub-state bodies, such as the German Länder and the Australian states and territories, which would better fit that description. Anyway, it strikes me that we should not care whether Scotland is the most powerful devolved legislature in the world; we should be asking whether the arrangements—current and proposed—are what best suit Scotland’s needs.
I will argue that Scotland should be independent, because I believe we have a different outlook on public life from that of the fine people south of the border. Our public discourse is different and our values and societies are different. I understand that people on the other side of the debate will see it in a different light: they look at the issue from a UK point of view and decide that Scotland is better where it is. They are entitled to do that. In my view they are entirely wrong, but they are entitled to be wrong and to support the continuation of the UK rather than the re-emergence of its constituent nations.
The idea of the most powerful devolved legislature in the world brings us to the point about where power should rest. In the early days of devolution, some believed that they had squared the circle and that the separation of policy areas that should be reserved and those left devolved was finalised. We discovered fairly quickly, however, that that was not the case and that the issue had to be revisited. The prediction of Ron Davies, the one-time Welsh Secretary, came to pass. Devolution is a process, not an event.
The extension of devolution, by the way, was described by the previous leader of the Scottish Conservatives as the most important debate in the Scottish Parliament. Interestingly, she said that at a time when a Labour Scottish Secretary, Des Browne, was busy trying to strip powers from Holyrood—presumably because the Scottish National party had won the Scottish election in 2007. The upshot was an extension rather than a constriction of the competencies of the Scottish Parliament, and the debate continued. In policy area after policy area, power and competency has been ceded to Holyrood as it becomes clear—even to those opposed to any further devolution—that those powers and competencies are best exercised in Scotland. It is a process, not an event.