Published date : 02 November, 2022
I start out in this debate on Scottish independence and the Scottish economy from the fundamental and irreducible point of principle that the best people to govern Scotland are those who have chosen to make their lives there.
I first started taking an interest in politics growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and that was quite a heady political time. It was before there was a Scottish Parliament of any kind. We were seeing the deindustrialisation process at the end of the Thatcherite economic experiment and the ramifications of the poll tax. It was the end of the cold war and the collapse of the iron curtain, with historic realignments as old nations emerged from the stifling power politics of the cold war. Of course, closer to home we had a debate about Scottish self-governance—not just about whether there should be a Scottish Parliament, but about how much power that Parliament should have and, indeed, whether it should be an independent Parliament.
In my particular journey to supporting independence for Scotland, I remember vividly a debate that took place in early 1992 in the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, where the four leaders of the Scottish parties at that time clashed with each other in a major public debate sponsored by The Scotsman newspaper. In the aftermath of that clash of visions, Scotland returned 12 Conservative MPs in the general election later that year, in contrast to the 60 non-Conservative MPs, yet still we had a Conservative Government running us with a Secretary of State and his team of Ministers coming under parliamentary scrutiny once every four weeks for half an hour ahead of Prime Minister’s Question Time, which seemed to me to be thoroughly unsatisfactory. Looking back to those times, I have a pet theory that if only we could get every single adult Scot of voting age to come down here, sit in the Public Gallery and watch Scottish questions followed by Prime Minister’s Question Time, we would not be having another referendum with a 55% vote to stay in the UK, but a near unanimous vote to become independent.
That formative set of experiences and references led me to conclude, as Jim Sillars subsequently described it, that Scottish independence is simply the constitutional settlement that is superior to all others. I have been an enthusiastic proponent of that point of view ever since, and I am happy to debate it with all comers. Indeed, I am sorry that the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) is no longer in her seat, as I have happy memories of debating against her in Victoria Hall in Ellon ahead of the 2014 referendum, before either of us were elected. I am not so sure that the hon. Lady has quite such happy memories of the debate that night as I do, but it was nevertheless a robust act of civic political engagement, which was all to the good.
The constitution is not the only political issue that has animated me over that time. I have also been striving for fairness in our economy, for social justice and equality in our society, and to improve and invest in our infrastructure. I have of course been seized of the urgent need to tackle climate change, and embrace the considerable renewable opportunities that we have in Scotland. Unlike others of different political stamps, for me it is impossible to ignore the clear link between the condition of Scotland and its constitution, and how decisions are taken, by whom, and off the back of what mandate. I do not believe it is possible to separate the need to improve the condition of Scotland from the reality that that constitutional status acts as a huge impediment to doing so. No matter how good an idea, or what people vote to endorse in elections, unless it happens to be compatible with prevailing political ideas at Westminster, and the parameters that sets for policy and also budgetary frameworks, it simply does not happen.
That is not to say that good things have not happened in Scotland since devolution. Since 1999, Scotland has been governed by a Lib-Lab coalition, then by an SNP minority and an SNP majority, and it is currently governed by a coalition between the SNP and the Greens. Each Government have taken and are taking Scotland forward in their way, and I have no hesitation in saying that whatever their stamp, each of those Governments helped to put Scotland into a better condition at the end of their period in government than it was in when they took office, despite the lack of tax, borrowing and welfare powers, which restricted the ability of Governments of all kinds to act as they might have wished over that time.
There is a rather partisan argument that gets made, but it is a bit too clever-clever for my liking. It usually comes from elements in the Labour party, and it states that devolution and independence are different constitutional processes, with no common ground possible between the two. I do not think the people of Scotland have ever seen it in such stark terms, because the immediate point of common ground that I have with anyone who wants devolution, is that every power they wish to be exercised from a Scottish Parliament, I want as well. The difference is that I do not believe that devolution can ever satisfactorily address how to resolve the conflict that inevitably arises whenever the choices and interests of people in Scotland do not coincide with choices made elsewhere in the UK, or the priorities that are divined from that by the UK Government of the day.
In his opening remarks the Secretary of State said that we had a referendum in 2014, and indeed we did. I say to him as gently as I can, however, that things have moved on quite a bit since then. I remember speaking in another debate during the 2014 referendum, not in Ellon but as part of a panel for a debate in Peterhead in the constituency of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid). It was in no less a place than the ballroom of the Palace Hotel, and it was extremely busy—again, I have very happy memories of that night, perhaps happier than those on the no side. I was confronted in my summing up by a familiar argument that an independent Scotland would somehow find itself outside the European Union. It was all part of a trope—by that stage it was pretty familiar—of fears and smears, and that somehow an independent Scotland would find itself on the outside, isolated from all that was good and at the mercy of all that was bad.
It was getting late in the evening, so I decided to dispatch that argument as quickly, as cleanly and as humanely as I could by saying that the only way in which we would be in danger of being outside the European Union in the near future was if people voted no to independence and afterwards the Boris and Nigel show was allowed to take over. Now, I freely admit that, when I said that, I thought that I was using a little exaggeration to make the point as best I could—it was an argument that did not seem to have any basis in political reality. Little could I have imagined that, just over two years later, it had turned into the ghoulish, nightmarish reality.
The fact is, in 2014, the no campaign made a number of bold pledges about how being in the UK was a guarantee of economic stability, that we would be progressing to something as close to federalism as possible over that time and that, of course—this is the real pearler—the only way to guarantee our EU membership was through a no vote, when in fact that was what deprived us of it. Practically every single rhetorical plague of locusts or horsemen of the apocalypse prophesised in that campaign as a result of voting yes has come to pass as part of Brexit Britain, so much so that the entire Better Together prospectus to persuade Scots to vote no has been put through the shredder. It is hardly surprising that support for independence has moved in the direction that it has since then.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) could not have been clearer about where he stands. The Labour party now supports Brexit, and it tells us that it will not reverse it. While he is content to excoriate the record of the Conservatives in office, and rightly so, it seems that he would rather persevere with a political system, which over the course of the last century has seen the Conservatives in power for two years out of every three—a party rejected continually by Scotland at the ballot box—simply for the distant prize that he and his party might hold power for one year in every three. That might be good enough for him, but it is certainly not good enough for me—and increasingly, it is not good enough for people in Scotland.
Why independence? Why not try to reform from within? Labour has made it clear that it has no interest in meaningful reform of our decision making process. It will keep the House of Lords and it wants to keep the voting system, because, as I said, having that untrammelled power one year in every three seems to make everything else worth while.
The Lib Dems talk about moving nearer to federalism. Of course, they have spoken about that since the days of William Ewart Gladstone—[Interruption.] I hear the hon. Member for Edinburgh West say, “Why don’t we do it?” Quite simply, there is no coherent, credible plan for it. Perhaps she could intervene and tell me how the Lib Dems plan to do it. Will there be an English Parliament? Will it be like “Strictly Come Dancing”? BBC regions? How will they do it?
That is the trouble—there is no support for it. I am willing to believe that the hon. Lady has not made a single speech or argument or delivered a single leaflet about that in any of the regions in England that she plans to create. I suspect that, were I to go to the south-east, the south-west or any region of England, it would come as an enormous surprise to people to find out that that is being planned.
The Lib Dems were in coalition Government with the Conservatives from 2010. They had a referendum that was supposed to be on proportional representation, but they could not even get a form of proportional representation on to the ballot paper, and now we are being invited to believe that, somehow, just because Gordon Brown says so, we will be able to rewire the entirety of the British constitution in a way that will satisfy aspirations. I do not believe that. It is just another dead end which Scots would be well advised to avoid.
I return to my central point. The best people to run Scotland and to decide how Scotland should be run are those who have chosen to make their lives there. As the UK post-Brexit turns in upon itself and away from its closest neighbours and the alliances that have served it so well since it joined the European Union, Scotland has a choice: to continue to attach itself to that British Brexit decline, or to take its place on the world stage as an independent country with Governments we elect who are limited only by the constraints of our own resources, the limits of our own imaginations, the limits of our own democratic choices, and by constraints set by nowhere else.
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