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Referendum on Scottish Independence — [Mr Adrian Bailey in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:22 pm on 13th November 2017.

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Deputy Leader, Liberal Democrats, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 6:22 pm, 13th November 2017

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Roger, and to take part in the debate. It has been interesting to hear speeches from all sides; I found the contributions of the hon. Members for Glasgow North East (Mr Sweeney) and for East Renfrewshire (Paul Masterton) particularly thoughtful.

More than 4,500 people in my constituency signed one of these two petitions. Of those, 494 were in favour of having indyref2 but 4,050 were against—my constituency voted strongly against independence in 2014—so for many, this is a very divisive issue. All our constituencies have people who voted yes and people who voted no, and there will always be some of our constituents who are disappointed with the views that we espouse on these issues. I appreciate that my constituents who are in favour of independence will not necessarily welcome the points I make.

There were some positive aspects to the 2014 referendum. Alan Brown talked about the great engagement with democracy. That was certainly true in my constituency where I think 91% of people turned out—the highest ever turnout compared with UK elections in recent years. We also had 16 and 17-year-olds voting, which was a very welcome change in our politics. That has led to a change for voting in local government elections and I hope there will be a wider change in due course—it was frustrating that the private Member’s Bill promoted by Jim McMahon did not succeed.

To SNP Members who sigh and are dismissive when other hon. Members raise negative aspects of the 2014 referendum, I say that those aspects are genuine. Luke Graham referred to the anti-English comments made to the wife of a now councillor. In my constituency, a brick was thrown through an activist’s window where she had a “No Thanks” poster. I spoke to an elderly lady in Bearsden town centre who was wearing her “No Thanks” sticker on the inside of her wrist. She was afraid to wear it on her coat because of the visible animosity in the atmosphere at that time.

Some of the scenes in the run up to the vote, such as the huge protests outside the BBC where people were chanting for the political editor, Nick Robinson, to be sacked, did not make me proud of what was happening in my country and I did not welcome them. There was also a huge amount of online abuse, although I will not suggest that there was a monopoly on any one side. In fact, the evidence shows that SNP Members, particularly women, suffered a huge amount of misogynistic online abuse in the last election. None the less, that was part of the tenor of the campaign, which is regrettable. Debate should be robust, but it should be respectful.

Independence was overwhelmingly rejected by Scotland in 2014. It would be an even worse choice today. For example, figures in the White Paper estimated that oil would be at $100 per barrel, and we know what has happened to the oil price. The argument the SNP makes for having a referendum because of Brexit is actually an argument for why it would be even worse for Scotland to choose that path now: it would be piling chaos on top chaos. The single market we enjoy with the rest of the UK is four times as valuable to Scottish businesses as the single market with the rest of the EU. This is not an issue only of economics, however; as the hon. Member for East Renfrewshire so eloquently put it, this is an issue of identity and how we feel as a country. It is about being Scottish and British, which is certainly the identity I feel.

There is a wider issue. In this day and age, we should not be putting up new borders. We should recognise that we live in an interconnected world. It is much easier to tackle our shared problems—climate change, combating extremism, creating a more prosperous future and improving quality of life for all our constituents—in a strong United Kingdom, in a strong European Union, and in multinational organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, NATO and the United Nations.

There are downsides to a second referendum. Some people have asked, “What are you so scared of?” but I do not think it should be done lightly. A referendum creates economic uncertainty; we saw what happened to investment in the Scottish economy in the run-up to 2014. It also creates a distraction for Government. The huge constitutional upheaval meant that there was less focus on other issues in the Scottish Government and, bluntly, we see that now with the Government’s focus on Brexit. I do not say that in an overly negative way, but as a basic fact. I have been a Minister so I know what it is like to have a ministerial box and all the competing issues that a Minister must turn their attention to. I can only imagine the extra stuff that Ministers are having to wade through for the Brexit negotiations, as was no doubt the case for the Scottish Government in the run-up to the independence referendum—and would have been even more so if the referendum had had a different result. I do not think referendums should be embarked on lightly because of those issues.

Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, sometimes seems to have reflected on whether she has the mandate, as hon. Members have mentioned. Her words sometimes suggest that the referendum is on the back burner for now, but I am concerned by the way that SNP Members firmly stick to that mandate article. They fail to appreciate the anger on the doorsteps at this year’s election. Some of us were elected, or re-elected, in June because people in our constituencies in Scotland felt so strongly that indyref2 must be stopped. I have never experienced an election campaign like it where one issue has been so overwhelming and the determination has been so complete. The SNP lost 21 seats in that election, so a little more humility and a little more listening to the people of Scotland is in order from SNP Members. The people of Scotland deserve that, and the SNP should take heed for the sake of party preservation.