HC Deb 01 March 1989 vol 148 cc293-5 4.31 pm
Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the establishment of a Scottish Assembly and Executive and for their functions and powers; and to make consequential provision. Ten years ago today the people of Scotland voted by a majority of 77,000 to establish a directly elected national assembly for their country. Scotland was, of course, cheated of that assembly by procedural manoeuvring in this place. A cleverly constructed wrecking amendment, allied to the intriguing of Westminster party politicians, was sufficient at that time to ensure the repeal of the Scotland Act 1978 and with it the defeat of the Labour Government who had steered the Scotland Bill on to the statute book.

In the long years since then, Scotland has had extremely good cause to regret that missed opportunity, which briefly opened up in that referendum a decade ago. Clearly, being realistic, my ten-minute Bill will be of symbolic significance only. It cannot and will not put right the many wrongs that have been done to my country by Conservative Governments since 1979, but that is so only because my Bill will never make it on to the statute book.

When Scottish home rule is finally enacted, as enacted it will be, and when, at last, an elected national assembly convenes in Edinburgh, there is no doubt that the prospects for social justice and for economic recovery in Scotland will be transformed for the better. Those who put their faith in the present system of governing Scotland are either blind to its deeply undemocratic nature or not entitled to call themselves democrats.

Scottish Office Ministers, and the army of civil servants behind them, are accountable only upwards, to those above them in the Westminster system, and never downwards, through Scottish Members of Parliament, to the only true source of democratic government in Scotland, the Scottish people themselves.

The particularly Scottish elements in the current machinery of government—the Scottish Grand Committee, the Scottish Standing Committee and the Scottish Select Committee—are either dissolved, patronised or packed with non-Scottish representatives. Those Committees are never allowed to carry out their intended function of scrutinising the Executive and placing a democratic check on the legislative or Executive excesses on behalf of the Scottish people. Those Committees, and with them the ballot box in Scotland, are rendered impotent by a flawed system of parliamentary government which places overwhelming and unaccountable Executive power in the hands of an unrepresentative, albeit an elected, minority.

That flawed system of governing Scotland can no longer be tolerated. In the words of the recently published "Claim of right for Scotland" Either we advance to an Assembly or we retreat to the point at which Scottish institutions are an empty shell. The purpose of the Bill is to serve notice that Scotland intends no retreat, but is determined to advance to the assembly for which its people have repeatedly voted. The advantages of an elected assembly for Scotland are many. Through it, for example, the Scottish people would directly control their own unique system of education. No assembly that was accountable to the people of Scotland would ever countenance the scale of university cuts seen in Scotland or the introduction of student loans into Scotland. No assembly based upon genuine democratic consent would consider for a moment the closure of established and successful dental and veterinary schools. No assembly, which relied for its legitimacy on the Scottish people, would promote opting out or subject seven-year-old school children to the trauma of national testing. Yet all of those developments are taking place in Scotland today only because those who control Scottish education are unaccountable to the Scottish people for what they do.

An assembly would likewise transform the prospects for tackling Scotland's endemic housing crisis. The answers to the plight of the homeless, to the despair caused by dampness and condensation, to the problems of overcrowding and the problems of growing rent arrears and indebtness are already known to those who are daily involved with Scottish housing. They understand the need for a programme of public investment in the housing infrastructure. They recognise the importance of subsidising owner-occupation and public renting in a fair and equal manner. They appreciate that choice and diversity in housing must be available to everyone by right, not just to those who happen to be able to afford it. But they do not have the ear of Scottish government, because government in Scotland is not Scottish. If the resources to solve those problems are ever to be released it will be only through art elected Scottish assembly.

It is also important to consider local government in Scotland, which is distinct from local government elsewhere in the United Kingdom. It has its own unique structure, its own unique system of finance and its own separate traditions of public service. All of those are now put at risk by a centralising and authoritarian Government determined to impose uniform controls that will ensure that Westminster runs every corner of the country, imposing a sameness that stems from submission to central Government.

Worst of all, there is the poll tax—unwanted, unloved and despised by eight out of 10 Scots—imposed on Scotland in circumstances so undemocratic as to call into serious question the claim of this House to any kind of democratic legitimacy. A Scottish assembly elected by the Scottish people would, as a matter of priority, abolish the poll tax and restore the independence of Scottish local government. For me that in itself makes the case for a Scottish assembly unanswerable.

Tonight there are to be Tory celebrations in London and Edinburgh to mark the 10th anniversary of the defeat of the Scotland Act 1978 and to plan for the defeat of any future Scotland Acts. We are told that the Tories will be celebrating 1979 as a turning point in Conservative party fortunes, although, God knows, Scottish Tories have had little enough to celebrate about in the past 10 years—there is little enough about United Kingdom politics of the past 10 years for any of us to celebrate. Local democracy has been all but strangled. Trade union rights have been smashed. The right to dissent and to freedom of speech have been and are being seriously curtailed. A secret and all-powerful state grows more obsessively secret and ever more authoritarian behind a parliamentary facade, which no longer relates to the people and which is now distantly remote from any democratic reality.

In those circumstances an elected Scottish assembly would present the most important democratic breakthrough in post-war British politics. To borrow a phrase from the Scottish poet, Hugh McDiarmid, it would be: A flash of sun in a country all prison grey. The days of Scotland waiting for others to make up their minds about Scottish government are over. At the end of this month the Scottish constitutional convention will hold its first historic meeting in Edinburgh. That convention will bring forward proposals for an assembly which will unite behind it an unprecedented level of majority popular support in Scotland. Other hon. Members may question the level of democratic support behind this ten-minute Bill, but no hon. Member will be able to question the level of democratic support for a Scotland Bill that will come from the work of the Scottish constitutional convention.

There is and there will be an absolute democratic imperative on the House to recognise the will of the Scottish people. If that imperative is ignored and if this House again sells the pass on the Scottish question, it can no longer claim any democratic legitimacy in Scotland and it will deserve to be opposed by democrats not only in Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John McAllion, Mr. Ernie Ross, Mr. William McKelvey, Mr. George Galloway. Mrs. Maria Fyfe, Mr. Thomas Graham, Dr. Norman A. Godman, Mr. Jimmy Dunnachie, Mr. Jimmy Wray, Mr. Harry Ewing, Mr. John McFall and Mr. Martin O'Neill.

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