HC Deb 16 July 1996 vol 281 cc1050-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bates.]

10.21 pm
Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)

I welcome the opportunity to speak on an important constitutional matter. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced on Wednesday 3 July that, on the advice of Ministers, the Queen had agreed that the Stone of Destiny—which I call the Stone of Scone—should be returned to Scotland, I asked him a question, which I now repeat: My right hon. Friend will be aware that Scone is in my constituency. The ancient capital of Scotland would be proud to have the stone back and I hope that, when consideration is given to its location, its roots will be remembered."—[0fficial Report, 3 July 1996; Vol. 280, c. 974] As I was the first hon. Member to be called after the Front-Bench spokesmen, I can justifiably claim to be the first person to request that the stone be returned to Scone. I welcome the fact that many individuals and groups have since joined me in my request.

I notice that the hon. Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham), who is in her place, has been getting some copy in the local press. She has given the impression that the city of Perth has a claim to Scone. I should make it quite clear that Scone is in my constituency and will remain in my constituency after the boundary changes. The hon. Lady has been getting what I consider to be not very good publicity for the Stone of Scone, when she was reported in The Courier last Saturday as saying: We ask for jobs and they give us a stone. I find that quite sad and depressing.

I find it even more sad and depressing that the hon. Lady should write to me, on stationery on which the signature is obviously printed, asking me to support a petition launching a request for the Stone of Scone to be returned to Perthshire. That is a bit much, given that Scone is in my constituency—

Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth and Kinross)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Walker

No, I shall not give way to the hon. Lady. [Interruption.] This is an Adjournment debate, and one does not give way in an Adjournment debate unless one has previously made arrangements to do so.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Walker

I even welcome those who were less than enthusiastic—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. There is a point of order.

Mr. Salmond

Will you confirm, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this is an Adjournment debate, with the rules attending to an Adjournment debate, and that we are not debating the excellent parliamentary performance of my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham)—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That was a waste of time, because the hon. Gentleman knows full well that that is not a point of order for me.

Mr. Walker

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That sort of action does two things: it destroys the credibility of the case and it demeans those involved.

I believe that we should welcome even those who were less than enthusiastic about the decision to return the stone to Scotland. I shall say more about the Perthshire petition later, because it is important. As everyone knows, the reason given for returning the stone to Scotland was that it is the 700th anniversary of its theft from Scone abbey.

The logic behind that calls for the stone to be returned to the place whence it was stolen. I know that Scone abbey no longer exists, so there will be pressure to place the stone in a suitably consecrated building. We cannot rebuild the abbey, although I can see the merit in building a suitable place of worship in the difficult and dangerous world in which we live. Sadly, Scotland already has too many empty or half-empty places of worship, so rebuilding the abbey is not a realistic or viable option.

So what am I proposing? On Friday 5 July, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Scotland and many of Scotland's Members of Parliament paid a visit to a special building in Dumfries that houses the remains of Scotland's bard, Robert Burns. My proposal is that the Burns example can be a guide to what we should do with the stone.

A suitable building should be built on the site of the abbey. It would not need to be large—just big enough to house the stone, with sufficient space for the many visitors who would be expected. It would need to be a secure building and, as it would be on the old abbey site, it could be a properly consecrated building.

Sir Michael Neubert (Romford)

Does my hon. Friend know that one of the misgivings that some of us have had about the decision is that insufficient attention has been given to the stone's religious connotations? Does he therefore accept the fact that his support for the principle that it be held on consecrated ground is greatly to be welcomed?

Mr. Walker

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, and I shall say more about consecrated ground later. The building must also be open to the public throughout the year.

I shall now talk about the history of the stone, because I believe that other parts of Scotland will claim that the stone should be brought to them. Legend has it that the stone's history goes back to the time when Jacob used it as a pillow when, as is described in the Bible, he rested his head in Bethel. There is also the somewhat romantic view that the stone arrived in Scotland via Egypt, Spain and Ireland.

It is also claimed by some that Irish kings sat on the sandstone slab when they were crowned, and it is further claimed that the stone groaned if the sitter was royal but stayed ominously silent if he was a pretender. I have no knowledge of the stone groaning during the past 700 years, or before that when it was located in Scone.

I understand that the stone was brought to Scone during the ninth century. In 838 AD, Kenneth MacAlpin, King of Scots, brought the stone to Scone. For almost 500 years, it was at Scone. In accordance with custom, the King of Scots was not crowned at the beginning of his reign but was "set upon the stone". Scone was the legendary crowning seat of the kings of Scotland, and 48 kings of Scotland were crowned there, including Macbeth and Robert the Bruce.

In 1296, King Edward I of England—known in history as the "Hammer of the Scots"—removed the stone from Scone abbey. Some claim that the stone stolen may not have been Stone of Scone, and that the abbott and his monks switched stones. Be that as it may—what cannot be disputed is that Edward I removed what he believed to be the Stone of Scone, or the Stone of Destiny. The stone removed to Westminster abbey was used in the coronation of English and then British monarchs after James VI of Scotland became James I of Britain. The stone was certainly believed to be genuine and was used for those purposes.

What also is not in dispute is that on Christmas day 1950, a group of Scottish nationalists believed the stone at Westminster was the Stone of Scone, because they removed the stone from Westminster abbey and returned it to Scotland. I understand that the papers about this and other matters concerning the stone have been released today. I also understand that the papers confirm that the stone in the abbey at Westminster is the stone that was removed by the nationalists in 1950.

The 1970 files have been examined, and I understand that the national library of Scotland has been convinced by the X-rays that show the position of the bolt used in the repair to the damage caused during the removal from Westminster abbey on Christmas day 1950. I also understand that a clerk of works at Westminster abbey, William Bishop, examined the returned stone and declared it to be the stone that he had earlier examined in detail while it had been in the abbey before Christmas day 1950.

In 1984, the late and sadly missed Donald Stewart moved a motion in the House calling for the stone at Westminster to be returned to Scotland. The motion said: Its retention in England all this time is outrageous and unjustified. So Donald Stewart and his nationalist colleagues believed the stone at Westminster to be genuine at that time—otherwise he would not have moved the motion.

Then there was the promise, or pledge, given to return the stone to Scotland. The 14th-century treaty of Northampton decreed that the stone should be returned to the place from whence it caim. We all know "from whence it caim"—from Scone in my constituency.

Perth and Kinross council, the Perthshire tourist board and the Perthshire chamber of commerce—supported by the Earl and Countess of Mansfield, the owners of Scone palace—have initiated a claim of right petition. That petition is designed to press the case for bringing the famous symbol of Scotland back to the place "from whence it caim"—Scone.

It is clear that the Government's advice to the Queen to return the stone to Scotland was good advice, and the people of Scotland, in the main, have responded positively. Even the politicians who made rude comments at the time of the Prime Minister's statement now have to acknowledge that the people of Scotland, in the main, have welcomed the Government's advice to return the stone to Scotland. The stone is a great exciter of public opinion, and the debate today is about where the returned stone should be located.

Arbroath has made a claim and I understand that Argyll, Stirling and Edinburgh have also declared that the stone should be located in their areas. Robbie the Pict, not to be outdone, has suggested that the middle of the North sea is where the stone should be deposited. Perhaps he meant that the new age travellers who gave us all the trouble at Dunnichen should be deposited in the middle of the North sea.

There is also the matter of the stone's links with religion and the idea, which I support, that wherever the stone is housed in Scotland, it must be in a suitable building on consecrated ground. It is also claimed that the stone should be located with other Scottish regalia. The proposal for a kingship centre on the site of Scone abbey meets all the requirements of history, as well as those of the stone's relationship with religious belief.

A kingship centre at Scone, with its links with Kenneth MacAlpin, Macbeth and Robert the Bruce, is the only realistic way to give the returned stone a suitable, prestigious home in Scotland. I do not expect my right hon. Friend the Minister to give me an answer this evening, but I expect that the claim of Scone will be given the full and proper consideration that it merits.

I cannot pretend that I was not surprised by the statement of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, yet following the anniversary of the second world war and the public reaction to such events of recent British history, I should not have been surprised. People, including the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, care deeply about the Union, the monarchy and our history. The more I think about the need to recognise the importance of history and the place that symbols and events have in the minds of the people, the more I realise how in this insecure and dangerous world it is wise to acknowledge the importance of the Union of the Crowns and of the 1707 Act of Union.

The Stone of Scone is much more than a piece of sandstone; it is a symbol of Scotland as a separate, unique nation. It is also a symbol of the Union between Scotland and England—a Union that I believe has brought great benefits to all its parts. That is why I believe that it was right to make the advice to the Queen and why I was so pleased that Madam Speaker agreed to this debate. I am proud to be a Scot; I am also proud to be British. The Stone of Scone—the Stone of Destiny—is a symbol of Scotland and Britain. It is part of the cement that holds the Union together. Returning the stone strengthens the Union.

The Government were right to advise the Queen to honour the 14th-century treaty of Northampton and return the stone. Returning it to the place "from whence it cairn" could not be more clear or precise. It means returning the stone to Scone and building a kingship centre at the site of Scone abbey—consecrated ground. It means building a centre worthy of the stone by public subscription so that the centre, like the stone, will belong to the people and to the present and future monarchs of Scotland and Britain.

10.38 pm
The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) on securing this debate, on highlighting the close relationship between Scone in his constituency and the Stone of Destiny and on the persuasive way in which he advanced his case. There are many Scottish Members present, but none from the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats. That will be noted.

The Stone of Destiny is the premier symbol of Scottish kingship and, consequently, an embodiment of our cultural and historical identity. It was associated with the enthronement of Scottish kings as far back as 840 AD, when—as my hon. Friend suggested—Kenneth MacAlpin, King of Scots, took it to Scone.

The stone's legendary origins, however, are much more ancient. It was mythologically identified with the biblical Jacob's pillow—as narrated in Genesis 28, 10–12—when he dreamed of a ladder to heaven, And he took of the stones of that place, and put them for his pillows, and lay down in that place to sleep. Exactly 700 years ago, in 1296, King Edward I of England invaded Scotland and removed the stone from Scone abbey, a building that has since been completely demolished. King Edward's claim to the stone was by right of conquest, but that fiercely contested and short-lived claim lapsed in 1328, when, as an ancillary arrangement attached to the treaty of Northampton, King Edward III ordered the stone's return to Scotland. A writ to that effect was issued on 1 July 1328 under the Privy Seal. The King's writ was defied by the stone's then custodian, and Queen Isabella, the Queen Mother, who was to have taken it north, departed without it.

Against that background, the Prime Minister's historic announcement to the House on 3 July 1996 could be regarded as a belated carrying out of the wishes of Edward III and of English obligations under the treaty of Northampton. In contemporary terms, it should be seen as a gesture of good will to the Scottish people and a confident assertion of their full and equal partnership in the Union.

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister stated: After 700 years, it is right to recognise the importance of the stone to the Scottish nation."—[Official Report, 3 July 1996; Vol. 280, c. 974.] That importance is evidenced by the vigorous debate taking place across Scotland, as an ever-growing number of venues and communities, such as that represented by my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside and his constituents, press their rival claims to house the Stone of Destiny. Further testimony is provided by the volume of correspondence in the Scottish and British press.

Ms Roseanna Cunningham

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

No; I must deal with the many points made in my hon. Friend's speech. The Prime Minister announced that Scottish and Church opinion would be consulted. Accordingly, today we have issued a consultation paper, which has been circulated to all appropriate organisations and individuals, inviting the general public to contribute their views on the disposition of the stone. The hon. Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham), like all hon. Members, will be able to send her representations on behalf of her constituents.

Ms Cunningham

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

No. This debate was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside, and I must deal with the points that he made. The hon. Member for Perth and Kinross will have an opportunity in due course.

Since the measures that we have announced would be meaningless without public confidence in the stone's authenticity, about which rumours have abounded since its temporary removal from the abbey in 1950, we have today published the confidential files relating to the authentication tests carried out on the stone.

The newly published documentation consists of a set of six files relating to the removal of the Stone of Destiny in 1950 and its return in 1951. The file that is likely to command the greatest public interest is that dealing with authentication, Scottish Record Office file HH41/2099. The investigation that it records was triggered in response to claims advanced in 1972 that the "real" Stone of Destiny was lodged in St Columba's church, Lochee, in Dundee. Bailie Robert Gray, a monumental sculptor in Glasgow, had repaired the stolen stone, and the inquiry was concerned to establish that no last-minute substitution had taken place before its return.

The papers record the very firm conclusions of William Kerr, chief constable of Dunbartonshire—who had been the detective inspector in charge of the hunt for the stone in 1951—that the real stone was returned. They also include a report, in 1951, from the clerk of works at Westminster abbey, setting out his reasons for being certain that the stone that was returned was genuine.

In scientific terms, the papers include a report of July 1973 from the Home Office police scientific development branch of a radiographic examination of the stone, which confirms that it was broken and was repaired by insertion of three metal bolts. That confirms Chief Constable Kerr's report that the original stone had been repaired in that manner while it was in Bailie Gray's care. All that supports the testimony of Ian Hamilton, QC—one of my brother advocates, and one of the four who took the stone in 1950—that the returned stone was authentic.

On the consultation process and the criteria that should apply in determining where the stone should be housed, the consultation paper states: The place where the Stone is housed should clearly have strong links with the historic past and the surroundings should support and enhance the solemn and historic significance of the Stone itself and should be devoid of incongruous features which might conflict with that. The physical arrangements and ambient conditions for housing and displaying the Stone should be fitting and dignified; both these and the general location should meet the most stringent security requirements. Accessibility is clearly important. The Stone is presently housed in Westminster Abbey which is open to the public throughout the year and is visited by very large numbers of people. The Stone's new Scottish home should similarly be readily accessible, open all year round and capable of accommodating a continuing high level of visitors without strain. It should also be capable of offering interpretative material of high quality which helps visitors to understand the Stone's historic and ceremonial significance. Clearly, the Stone should be kept in a place of solemn character. It is currently housed on consecrated ground and there is obviously a case for considering whether its Scottish home should be in a building set aside for religious purposes. Views are invited on this point. We are inviting comments in response to the consultation paper from the public at large and from experts and those with a special interest. I hope that there will be a full and thoughtful response, so that a decision can be reached next month and arrangements made to bring the stone north and install it in its new Scottish home with suitable solemnity.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, the Prime Minister, in his statement of 3 July, said: The stone might be displayed in Edinburgh castle alongside the Honours of Scotland, Europe's oldest crown jewels. Alternatively, it might be appropriate to place it in St. Margaret's chapel inside the castle or in St. Giles' cathedral. There may be other options."— [Official Report, 3 July 1996; Vol. 280, c. 973.] My hon. Friend made an eloquent case, on behalf of his constituents, for bringing the stone to Scone. We shall certainly take that into account along with all the other representations that we receive. I am sure that he will understand that I cannot be drawn further tonight on where the final choice might lie.

I hope, however, that the whole House will join my hon. Friend and me in welcoming the decision that the stone should return to Scotland. The Stone of Destiny is the stuff of legend and history. It is dear to the hearts of the Scottish people. We all look forward to welcoming it home.

The decision to return the Stone of Destiny to Scotland was both historic and courageous. Inevitably, it has been attended by a degree of controversy. Much of that controversy, however, is based on misunderstanding. Let us be clear about the significance of this event.

Some commentators have seen this event as a precedent for repatriation of other historical objects. The Queen, advised by her Ministers, has every right to be consulted about the destination of her property within her realm. The transfer of the Stone of Destiny to Scotland in no way alienates it from the United Kingdom, within which it will still repose.

The stone will be returned for the coronation ceremonies of all future sovereigns of the United Kingdom. On those solemn occasions, the reuniting of the stone with the coronation chair will potently symbolise the Union of Scotland and England under the Crown of the United Kingdom. A century before there was a Union of the Parliaments, Scotland and England were joined by the Union of the Crowns, in 1603. At that time, the King of Scots peacefully inherited the throne of England, thus achieving, in peace and good will, what Edward I and Edward II had been frustrated from accomplishing by force 300 years earlier.

I warmly welcome the return of the Stone of Destiny to Scotland. It is fitting that, during the periods between coronations when it is not required to fulfil its solemn function, it should repose in its historic homeland. But that homeland is also part of the United Kingdom, of which the Stone of Destiny is now a significant symbol.

My hon. Friend struck a strong chord with me when he said that he was proud to be a Scot. So am I and, like him, I am equally proud to be British. I hope that I shall never have to choose between the two. So, in a way. it is with the Stone of Destiny. It is part of the common heritage of Scotland and Britain. The recognition of its Scottish identity complements its vital role in cementing the combined sovereignty of the United Kingdom.

I strongly congratulate my hon. Friend on the service that he has done the House in allowing us to explore the matter further, and his representations will be taken into account. I value the reality—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Perth and Kinross will have a chance to make representations.

I value the fact that the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Prime Minister had the foresight and vision to see that the matter was of tremendous importance to the Scots. It will never be forgotten by the Scots that this gesture has been made when there has been a refusal to make it for 700 years.

Mr. Salmond

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

Nothing can detract from that point, not even the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Salmond

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order, in an Adjournment debate, for the Secretary of State for Scotland, clearly audible, to tell the Minister at the Dispatch Box to keep going, to exclude my hon. Friend—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. That is again a bogus point of order. The Minister must have been in order—

Mr. Salmond


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Did I hear the hon. Gentleman right?

Mr. Salmond

Of course I would withdraw that remark, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and try to think of a parliamentary alternative, but I am objecting—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman certainly did not find a parliamentary alternative there. He was completely out of order. I take it that he has withdrawn.

Mr. Salmond

I withdraw the remark and submit, "Nonsense."

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.