Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:14 pm on 17th October 2022.
It is a pleasure to serve under you in the Chair, Mr Mundell. It is a bit of a challenge to prepare for a debate like this, because we are living through the most unprecedented series of political earthquakes, with the ground constantly shifting beneath our feet. It is almost as though we are living in a time when the longevity of a Prime Minister or Chancellor of the Exchequer is measured in hours rather than months or years, so please forgive me if I keep an eye on my phone to ensure that Ministers and policies remain the same as they were when I rose to speak. It is good to see this Minister in his place. He is certainly not hiding under any desks, as it may have been suggested that others were.
This short-lived Government have pivoted so many times already—there have been so many U-turns—that we have absolutely no idea what direction we are travelling in, but we are lurching speedily towards a cliff edge. In effect, all the promises and pledges so firmly given by the Prime Minister during the long and tedious leadership campaign and reinforced several times over the last couple of weeks have been abandoned. We have been left wondering whether the notorious mini-Budget was a mere mirage to our collective consciences. The tax cut for the wealthiest, the basic rate cut, the dividend tax cut and the corporation tax cut are all gone—along with the former Chancellor himself. The only positive bit, I guess, was the two-year energy cap, which provided some much-needed certainty to struggling households, but it is also gone; even it is not there now. So what next? Who knows? The Prime Minister might even have gone by the time I finish speaking and sit down, although who would take the poisoned chalice is another matter.
Even for an Opposition Member, it is at times almost too painful to watch this embarrassing farce of a Government limping on. It feels like a particularly shambolic episode of “The Apprentice”, and at this stage I do not think I would be surprised if Lord Sugar suddenly appeared and fired the lot of them. It is certainly beyond any parody that could be imagined in “The Thick of It”. I am sure that a few of us could imagine, or begin to imagine, what might be coming out of the mouth of Malcolm Tucker if he were having to deal with such a situation.
We know that it has gone too far when we can no longer tell the satire from the ridiculous reality, but the gross economic incompetence of it all has deadly serious consequences for millions of people across the UK. There are people who are working 40 hours or more a week and are still unable to make ends meet. Established businesses are at risk of going under because they cannot afford to pay soaring energy bills. Families are going hungry or are afraid of losing their homes.
I held a cost of living event in Gorebridge in my constituency just on Friday past. I had invited the Prime Minister to attend so that she might be able to answer constituents’ concerns directly. However, despite watching out for her, I regret to inform the House that she did not attend—a bit like earlier today. I was hearing harrowing stories from many people struggling simply to make ends meet. They did not know where to turn. We have a fantastic sense of community in Midlothian and we had a great range of partners in attendance, so we were able to point people to some of the right places. But what can people do when the Government fail so spectacularly the people they are meant to serve?
I therefore completely understand where the petition has come from and why it has gathered such a high number of signatures. It is now 633,000 and continuing to rise—I am watching the petition clock up signatures as I stand here. That number includes more than 1,000 people in my own constituency of Midlothian. People are absolutely scunnered by what they have witnessed. At a time of crisis, they want a competent Government of their own choosing, not a Prime Minister chosen by a few.
In response to the petition, the Government argued that the UK’s is not a presidential system. I am glad that they finally acknowledge that, because the Prime Minister and her predecessor—whose paw prints are all over the mess that we are in—do not seem to have much truck with collective decision making. They blatantly disregard evidence and seem reluctant to inform Cabinet colleagues of their latest back-of-a-fag-packet policy. For some time, there has been an unhealthy trend in the UK towards more personality-based politics—something that perhaps needs to be reflected on in calmer times.
Of course, having a Government we did not vote for is not something new for those of us in Scotland; it is the normal state over the last number of years. I am very grateful that we at least have a clear exit route in front of us to escape from this bourach: we have a modern, proportional parliamentary system working well at Holyrood already and a Scottish Government ready with an alternative plan for our future should the people choose it. Independence for Scotland is not a threat to the rest of the UK or the social bonds that we cherish. It is an opportunity for a more equal partnership, whereby Scotland could demonstrate to the rest of these isles the genuine alternative to the status quo.
We could protect the fabric of our communities, look after vulnerable citizens and protect our landscapes and nature. We could build a new, greener industrial base, becoming the renewable powerhouse of Europe and rejoining our European partners in free trade and travel across the continent. We could value everyone, no matter where they come from, and create a fairer, wealthier and more equal society. That will create sustainable, shared prosperity far better than any trickle-down economics—relying on scraps from a rich man’s table—ever could.
In Scotland, we have a cast-iron mandate for a referendum on our future, yet this discredited Government and—disappointingly, I have to say—the official Opposition still seem to block all democratic paths to achieve it. Choice is the key issue here, and that is something that seems to have been forgotten in the corridors of power in this place. The right to self-determination is a fundamental and inalienable right of all people. It is enshrined in international law, the UN charter and the international covenant on civil and political rights. The UK Government support that principle for other countries, but not, it seems, for Scotland. For this chaotic and unpopular Government to continue to say no to a referendum is more like the actions of a dictatorship than those of a democracy, and I hope the next Prime Minister will reconsider that position, whoever they are and whenever they come along.
While I agree with the growing call for a general election, it is not a long-term solution for our broken system. I urge all democrats, whether or not they support independence, to get behind Scotland’s right to choose. Democracy is not a one-time event—the Prime Minister has been able to change her mind on her policies in the space of a matter of days, so why should the people of Scotland not be able to change their mind after eight years of broken promises? The ground has shifted many times. All the big claims from Better Together have been spectacularly wrong: staying in the UK did not keep us in the European Union, it did not protect energy prices, and it most certainly did not keep the economy on a steady course. The future of Scots’ mortgages and pensions has never been more uncertain than it is today. When circumstances change, the people have a right to change their mind, as the current Prime Minister demonstrates again and again with U-turn after U-turn.
Whatever the party of government chooses to do next, we have to remember that the crisis we face did not begin with the current Prime Minister—the one who was Prime Minister at the time of writing, at least—and it will not end when she goes, if indeed she is still in post. We have had 12 years of Conservative mismanagement. We have energy policies that are unfit for purpose, and austerity policies bringing public services to their knees. We have no solution to the continued chaos from Brexit, which has been a disaster for our businesses, public sector, education and research, holidaymakers, travel and cultural life. Sadly, Labour has no answer to that point. Another general election might put a plaster on some of those wounds, but it will not heal the UK’s chronic problems. Independence for Scotland is an idea whose time has come, and it cannot come soon enough.