HL Deb 08 July 1998 vol 591 cc1301-10

(".—(1) The Parliament shall not meet until a referendum has been held in Scotland on the single question of whether Scotland should be an independent state rather than continuing to be a part of the United Kingdom.

(2) The referendum referred to in subsection (1) shall be held on such day as Her Majesty may, by Order in Council, appoint.

(3) The Secretary of State shall by order make such further provisions for the conduct of the referendum referred to in subsection (1) as he thinks appropriate.

The power to make an order under this subsection shall be exercised by statutory instrument and any such statutory instrument shall be laid in draft before Parliament for approval by resolution of each House.

(4) Regardless of the outcome of the referendum referred to in subsection (1), the Parliament shall not approve any resolution or otherwise make any decision to hold, or to call upon Her Majesty's Government to hold, any further such referendum for a period of ten years beginning with the day on which the referendum referred to in subsection (1) is held.").

The noble Lord said: I consider this to be a very important issue and it is one that I raised when we discussed the initial Scottish referendum. It relates to the question of independence. I feel strongly that we should have a referendum on independence because the parliament must work. I apologise; I know that I have already said this today, but I shall say it 100 times before we finish this Bill. We must give the Scottish parliament some strength. It would be a very bad thing if the parliament were to have hanging over its head the sword of Damocles of the SNP wanting independence if it gains control.

There has been a great deal of media interest already in this amendment. Scot FM has already been on to me, as have several newspapers. We must discuss this issue fully. I feel strongly that SNP voters do not necessarily want independence. The majority of SNP voters are young, nationalistic (with a lower case "n") and very proud of being Scots. So am I—I may talk with an English accent, but I am a Scot through and through and am very proud of that. Tactical voting has been used to a tremendous extent in Scotland and, very undemocratically and very sadly in my opinion, it has cleared the Scottish Conservative Party out of Scotland. I do not think that those voters will appreciate the Government's stance yesterday on student fees. That was playing into the hands of the nationalists. We must be very careful about that.

On Monday 6th June, the Glasgow Herald had the huge headline, SNP set to be largest party at Holyrood". On the following day, Tuesday, it produced a map which was SNP yellow all over. We know that opinion polls are dodgy things, especially when we are close to an election. However, according to the Glasgow Herald, once all the voting has taken place in all the areas and regions, the SNP will have 56 seats; the Labour Party will have 46; the Liberal Democrats will have 15 and the Conservatives will have 12 seats. If that is true, it means that the SNP will have the greatest number of seats.

The SNP has always declared that it will use the Scottish parliament to try to gain independence. That is its raison d'être. It has been trying to make Scotland an independent country. We must not be frightened of the SNP; we must tackle it head on. Many people have said to me that to hold an independence referendum is playing into its hands. I do not believe so. It would be a great pity if this opportunity were not taken. It is also an enormous pity that there is not a Scottish nationalist Peer in this Chamber who can stand up and put that case. Instead of considering a knighthood for Sean Connery perhaps he should have been offered an earldom so that he could sit here prognosticating on the matter.

But the people of Scotland need to be shown how the parliament can work within the United Kingdom. They voted for a particular parliament—a Scottish parliament. However, only 60 per cent. of Scots voted, which means that 40 per cent. did not vote for one reason or another. Of those who voted, a huge majority, 74 per cent., voted for the parliament. However, of the total Scottish population only 45 per cent. voted for a parliament and in Britain only 4 per cent. did so. Therefore, 96 per cent. of the British public did not want a Scottish parliament. We must make this parliament work for the 74 per cent. who bothered to leave their houses and vote for it. If in a referendum there is no call for independence that vote will give the parliament the impetus to succeed. It will remove the spectre of independence for at least 10 years. The parliament can then bed in and prove itself and show the Scottish people that it can work and do everything that the Government and I want it to do. That can be done from within the United Kingdom. If I am wrong and the Scottish people want independence we will still be sorting out what type of parliament should be established, but the arrangements for the reserved powers will be a complete waste of time because they will not be necessary. We cannot put our heads in the sand and forget about it. The spectre of nationalism will not go away; it is growing. We must make quite certain that the Scottish parliament can work. I beg to move.

7.30 p.m.

The Earl of Mar and Kellie

The noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, has tabled an amendment that will strike a chord with many citizens of the kingdom of Scotland. He has grasped the issue of the moment; the question of self-government for Scotland. The referendum held on 11th September last year established that Scotland was a political entity. The widely drawn question about the establishment of the Scottish parliament asked about self-government and did not refer to the limited self-government proposed in the White Paper and now in the Bill. For many, the problem to be addressed is: why can the people of Scotland be overruled by a majority from elsewhere who may have different objectives? Clearly, this is the Westminster question. The Bill answers that question in part for Scotland because Scottish domestic legislation is to be devolved, but the very significant reserved powers keep the Westminster question on the table.

To be in a union must be purposeful. That is true of the British Union, especially if it is not a de facto annexation. Scots may well have to decide between Britain and Europe. The Union of the Crowns in 1603 brought chaos to Scotland's European trading pattern and cultural exchange. Being ensnared in Great Britain has made very difficult the re-establishment of those links with Europe. The reaction of England to Europe fills me with gloom. Scotland is supposed to be a European country.

There is a demographic issue to be resolved; the question of being Scottish or British. The combined sense of Britishness and Scottishness is strongest among those with life experience of the Second World War. Those born subsequently may have increasingly less strong identification with that sense. What is sought generally is political rather than national autonomy. There is a paradoxical demand to be Scottish politically and to retain British links, especially as we all have friends and relations either side of the Border, not to mention trading patterns.

It has been said that Scotland should put up with the pain of disaggregation and any interim budget reductions as a long-term investment that will be worth it. The demand for political autonomy can be non-seccesionist. It ends only the parliamentary union. Such a position gives the Crown a linchpin role as the cement in a social, linguistic and economic union. This amendment allows the people of Scotland to test their real desire for political autonomy both now and in 10 years' time, if necessary building on the useful experience of the devolution project. I support the amendment.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Gordon of Strathblane

The Committee can rest assured that any intervention by me at this hour will be extremely brief. Having had the great pleasure of sharing an aeroplane journey from Scotland with the noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, I am well aware of the sentiments behind his amendment and have a great deal of sympathy for them. In particular, I should very much like to see the Scottish parliament placing a hiatus between any referendums that are held on the issue of independence. We do not want to return to this business every year, as tends to happen in Quebec. Where I disagree with the noble Lord is that I believe that this is another issue where the initiative must come from the Scottish parliament. If it comes from Westminster it runs the risk of being misinterpreted. I do not want to become obsessed by appearances, but there is a very great danger that nationalists may portray the amendment of the noble Lord as one that places an unnecessary hurdle between Scots and their ultimate desire for independence. I can see the argument that will be made: "Vote now or you will not have another chance for 10 years". That will be used as a positive argument for independence.

Lord Rowallan

Does the noble Lord accept that if there is no referendum the parliament will have a sword of Damocles suspended over it for 10 years and it will not have a chance to get going because of that?

Lord Gordon of Strathblane

I believe that the Scottish people will become rather impatient with anyone who holds up the provision of better education, health and transport in Scotland by constantly holding out the prospect of a Scottish referendum. I believe that that would be counter-productive from the viewpoint of the SNP. The essence of this parliament is to get it working as well as possible. I believe that very quickly people will realise that what the Scottish parliament is about is not gesture politics but the real business of making the day-to-day life of Scots a better one. The parties who contribute to that will succeed at the second elections and the parties who do not will fail. I have great confidence that the experience of the Scottish parliament will prove to be a good one from that viewpoint. I cannot side with the noble Lord because the outcome of his amendment may be precisely the reverse of what he intends.

Baroness Linklater of Butterstone

I, too, rise to oppose the amendment. I understand the motive and intention behind it and have heard the argument put by both Labour and Tory supporters in Scotland. I believe that the argument is misplaced and that the amendment is both unnecessary and undesirable. It is unnecessary because a referendum on the constitution has already been held on the basis of the White Paper. The Scots delivered their view unequivocally in favour of a devolved parliament within the Union. In the previous year, they also had the opportunity to vote for the SNP and an independent Scotland. They conspicuously failed to vote for it.

I believe that to introduce a further referendum simply on the basis of mid-term opinion polls is to undermine the constitutional process. It is like saying, "Do you really mean it?" On that basis, when would you ever stop?

I believe all Scottish people want a period of calm, and that is what the new Scottish parliament will need. A period of calm and stability will enable it to settle down to its new existence.

As Jim Wallace said, pulling up the newly planted tree is one sure way of killing the tree if you want to examine its roots. The duty of politicians will be to get on with the business of running Scottish domestic affairs and address issues that really concern people, for example, education, health and employment. Everything will be new and all concerned will be learning as they go on. The eyes of the UK and the world will be on the new parliament to see how it handles its task. The last thing that the country needs at that moment is the prospect of yet another referendum hanging over it which would in any event solve nothing. In Quebec, where there have been repeated referenda on independence, the economy has been seriously undermined. Uncertainty, as we all know, is the enemy of a stable economy.

The time to judge the parliament will be after it has had time to prove itself and has demonstrated how well it is meeting the needs of the Scottish people. Imagine if a referendum did take place. What would the Scots be voting on? The SNP policies have never been properly challenged and tested, certainly not in a parliamentary forum. What does independence really mean? My belief is that it is not very much more than a slogan, and at the very least a period of debate and analysis, and the challenge of what the SNP stands for within the context of a properly established parliament will go some way to determining the issue.

If another referendum was held before the Scottish parliament was established, people would not be voting on the pure constitutional issue of independence: they would use the occasion to express an opinion on new Labour, on Tony Blair, on Donald Dewar's ineffectiveness, on local government mismanagement, on Sean Connery's knighthood and a whole raft of issues which have nothing whatever to do with independence.

As I stated in my speech at Second Reading, I believe that the surge in support for the SNP has everything to do with Scottish dissatisfaction with new Labour and not a lot to do with nationalism and separatism. I do not believe that there has been a sudden surge of belief in this philosophy and those principles. Anecdotal evidence has been referred to showing that most people who say they would vote for the SNP actually want what they are getting through the Bill, a devolved Scottish parliament responsible for its own domestic affairs within the framework of the United Kingdom.

We have a duty to put that to the test first. Referenda are blunt instruments and should only be used very sparingly to test major constitutional issues, above all in a parliamentary democracy like ours where the ballot box is the way people express their views. There is always the possibility that the result will be inconclusive and then nothing will be gained and much damage could be done. We have held a referendum and we have been given the answer. In the next general election the Scots will once again have the chance to express their views on the basis of how the parliament has performed, which is the right and proper way for them to do so.

Lord Sempill

My Lords, I regret that I cannot support my noble friend's amendment. The multi-option discussion has been held in some depth here and in another place and it has been rejected. We have moved forward. The forthcoming months will see the issue coming to the fore. Every major political party has an opportunity to put the argument to the Scottish people on the benefits of voting for the parties that are concerned and, one hopes, to diminish the vote of the SNP. I believe this will be won on the hustings and not through a referendum, which, by the nature of its format, is limited in its questions.

7.45 p.m.

Lord Watson of Invergowrie

My Lords, I also oppose the amendment, although for reasons slightly different from those so far advanced. The question as to whether or not there should be a referendum on independence and at what time is very interesting. I do not share the views of the noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, that the amendment would remove a sword of Damocles hanging over the parliament for years on end. It may be his aim equally to shoot the SNP fox by holding a referendum, whereby independence would be beaten and sent scurrying into the woods never to reappear. The latter part of that proposition is quite wrong. The question of independence will never disappear from Scotland; nor should it while 25 per cent. of the people believe in voting for a party that advocates independence.

However, it is also dangerous to argue that the level of support enjoyed by the Scottish National Party at the moment is not an entirely accurate reflection of the people wanting independence. To argue that point one would equally have to argue that the positions of the parties of the noble Lord or the noble Baroness in the opinion polls were similarly suspect, and indeed that of my own party. That argument does not stand up to scrutiny. There is always an element of protest in mid term or in opinion polls between elections. It should not be assumed that people who vote for the SNP are always doing so as a protest; that would be dangerous and would signify complacency, which I would not wish to endorse.

The issue of whether or not there should be a referendum exercised Members in another place at Report stage and Third Reading. There were many exchanges on the subject of whether or not the Scottish parliament could initiate a referendum. Perhaps the Lord Advocate can confirm the position. My reading of paragraph 1(b) of Part 1 of Schedule 5 on the Union between Scotland and England is that it would be impossible, it being a reserved power, to make a change via the Scottish parliament, and the Scottish parliament could not therefore initiate the referendum.

The position could become very difficult if sufficient numbers of people living in Scotland voted for the Scottish National Party and gave it a minimum of 65 seats in the parliament. If the SNP then decided to use what would be a majority in that parliament to decide that there should be a referendum on independence, it could provoke a constitutional crisis. It would be interesting to consider how that situation could be avoided. As the noble Lord, Lord Rowallan said, the most recent opinion poll projected a SNP representation of 63 seats, which is not very far from a majority. It would be a very difficult position and would cause real and dangerous friction between the parliament in Holyrood and Parliament here if the majority of the SNP decided to push for an independence referendum.

When faced with the choice, I believe it unlikely that the majority of Scots would vote for independence. I would argue against it. However, I repeat the view I expressed at Second Reading. I would respect the views of a majority of Scots and people living in Scotland voting in a referendum if that is what they wanted. I firmly believe that that is what they should have, not because I do or do not believe in it but because it is democracy. We should not remove that basic right from the people of Scotland.

I oppose the amendment because it would delay the implementation of the parliament. It is not appropriate that we should decide at this stage whether or not there should be a referendum. I do not think there should be a block of 10 years put on until a subsequent referendum is held. For those reasons I oppose the amendment, but this very important issue will not go away and should be clarified. I repeat my request to my noble friend to clarify the position.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

My Lords, I am fairly convinced that after the first Scottish parliamentary elections the Scottish Nationalists will probably be the biggest party in the Scottish parliament and that possibly after the following election they will have an overall majority. I know the Government do not like it but they have to face the fact.

Would it not be possible to have a referendum now, organised by the Westminster Parliament, with the Westminster Parliament deciding on the questions to be asked rather than one later, organised by the Scottish Nationalists, with them deciding on the questions to be asked, bearing in mind that those questions will be designed carefully to get the answer that they want?

As one who, I am afraid, regards it as inevitable that Scotland will become independent, probably within the next five or six years, I wonder, first, whether we are not wasting our time taking this Bill through this place. Would we not be better just to let it go through as it stands, since the future seems to me to be inevitable?

If we had a referendum now, and the result was in favour of independence, Scotland might be saved the expense of building a perfectly frightful and perfectly hideous parliament building, possibly totally unsuited to its requirement, because I suspect strongly that the Scottish Nationalists would start off in the old high school and then decide later that they required a new parliament building.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

This has been a short and interesting debate. If the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, thinks that the constitutional issue was settled in the referendum last autumn, she did not see the same ballot paper as I did, because it did not put the three options. On 17th June—I would quote my words if it would not take time—I said that it would be an unsettled referendum, because it was not asking all the questions. I prayed in aid no less than the current Secretary of State who said in the Daily Telegraph of 13th April that year that the party's 49 Scottish MPs would campaign for a multi-option referendum on the country's political future. They did not do that. They joined, as the noble Lord, Lord Ewing, pointed out this afternoon—foolishly in his view and in mine—with the SNP.

I suggested to the Government last summer that to campaign with the SNP was dangerous. The Secretary of State was saying, "Vote for devolution and you save the Union" and Alex Salmond was saying, "Vote for devolution as the first step to independence". From looking at any public opinion poll, if I were to go to the bookmakers I would be putting my money on Alex Salmond. It is not just one or two opinion polls, but a serious number of them. As recently as last week the Scotsman showed 56 per cent. of my fellow countrymen for independence.

A good reason for not having a referendum, given the Government's incompetence on this issue, is that they would not be able to hold the line. George Robertson gave us the defence review earlier today. I hope that he is a better Defence Secretary than prophet. He said that devolution would kill the nationalists stone dead. Stone dead? With 56 per cent. voting for independence and 48 per cent. voting for the SNP in the latest opinion poll, some stone! Some dead! I say to my noble friend that we will need to do a bit more campaigning before we risk a referendum on the future of the UK.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

The noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, will not be surprised to hear that the Government do not support the amendment which would require the Secretary of State to hold a referendum on independence before the parliament could meet and would prevent the parliament from requesting another referendum for a decade.

The noble Lord believes we need to seek the views of the people of Scotland on independence before we can allow the parliament to meet. I could not disagree more. The task we have in government, and I would say in this place, is to deliver the Scottish parliament for which the Scottish people so overwhelmingly voted last September. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted by fluctuations in opinion polls, however exciting they might be, from meeting the commitment to establish a functioning Scottish parliament as soon as possible.

For more years than I care to remember there has been feverish press speculation on what the people of Scotland wanted, or did not want, by way of self-government. To formulate views on the future governance of Scotland, the Scottish Constitutional Convention was established in 1989 to draw together a wide range of interests, not just the political parties, to try to reach agreement on a way forward which would secure a broad basis of support.

As the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, and my noble friend Lord Ewing explained in great detail, from their first-hand experience, the painstaking work of the convention over the years produced a proposal which was set out in Scotland's Parliament, Scotland's Right, presented in 1995. That proposal underpinned the Government's White Paper. It is upon that foundation that the Bill builds.

I can see no reason for this amendment. The people of Scotland have made their views very clear. They voted overwhelmingly in favour of parties supporting the Union at the general election. Out of a possible 72, they returned 66 Members of Parliament in Scotland from parties which were committed to implementing the Scottish Constitutional Convention's proposals. For our part the Government subsequently put our devolution proposals to the people of Scotland in the White Paper, Scotland's Parliament, and received a resounding endorsement of those proposals in the referendum last September. This Bill gives effect to those proposals.

The noble Lord's amendment would simply delay giving effect to those proposals with another round of quite unnecessary consultation, as my noble friends Lord Gordon and Lord Watson said. The noble Lord, Lord Rowallan, seems to argue that the Scots were not given the opportunity to vote on independence. I disagree. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater, and disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. The general election gave them that opportunity, and those advocating independence at that general election were unable to secure the necessary support of the Scottish electorate. The Scottish electorate had an opportunity to vote for the SNP and did not take it; they rejected it. The people of Scotland have made their views clear, and it is time that their expectations were met.

My noble friend Lord Watson asked about a referendum. It is my understanding that it is not for the Scottish parliament to legislate to hold a referendum. That will be dealt with in more detail when we come to Schedule 5. The referendum last September followed years of detailed preparation and consensus-building across a broad range of Scottish opinion. The Scottish people have endorsed overwhelmingly the concept of a Scottish parliament as proposed by the Government in the White Paper and established in the Bill.

We do not need yet another referendum. We need to deliver on what the Scottish people have the right to expect: a devolved parliament within the framework of the UK. That is what the Bill delivers. I urge the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.

Lady Saltoun of Abernethy

Before the Minister sits down, she said that the people of Scotland voted resoundingly in the general election for the present Government. That is true but we have always been told that a week is a long time in politics. That general election was over 60 weeks ago.

Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale

I said that the people of Scotland voted overwhelmingly—66 members out of a possible 72—for the parties which campaigned for the proposals put forward by the Scottish Constitutional Convention. I do not share the noble Lady's gloomy view about the future of politics in Scotland.

Lord Rowallan

We have had a good debate on this interesting subject. I am delighted that once again the noble Baroness, Lady Ramsay of Cartvale, had to answer for the Government. It seems that whenever I put up anything she is always there. However, I welcome her comments. If the noble Lord, Lord Watson, reads Amendment No. 174 in my name, he will find that we are discussing the point that he raised.

I appreciate the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater of Butterstone. I think that I can call her my kinsman. Whether or not we are kinsmen, we are both related to the noble Earl, Lord Glasgow. Her points were apposite and correct. I agree with her in almost every case.

I put forward the amendment not because I was frightened of the rise of the SNP or of opinion polls, but because I want to see this parliament succeed and work well. I want to prove to the Scottish people that it can work well without having the independence issue continually raised by a rampant SNP.

The arguments have been strong from all sides of the Chamber. It is appropriate that I read Hansard, consider the matter further and perhaps return to it at Report stage. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

I beg to move that the House be now resumed. Perhaps I may suggest that the Committee does not begin again before nine o'clock.

Moved according, and, on Question. Motion agreed to.

House resumed.