Meeting date: Wednesday, January 29, 2020
Meeting of the Parliament 29 January 2020
Agenda: Recognising Scotland in Europe, Portfolio Question Time, Scotland’s Future, Points of Order, Business Motions, Decision Time, Right to Full Care to Die at Home
- Recognising Scotland in Europe
- Portfolio Question Time
- Scotland’s Future
- Points of Order
- Business Motions
- Decision Time
- Right to Full Care to Die at Home
The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-20615, in the name of Nicola Sturgeon, on Scotland’s future.14:41
Today, I ask Parliament to endorse a basic but fundamental principle: that Scotland’s future should be decided not by politicians at Westminster who have not won a general election in Scotland since the 1950s but by all of us who live here and call Scotland home.
It is the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to determine the form of government that is best suited to our needs. That is the declaration at the heart of the claim of right, and it should be endorsed by this Parliament today.
I am sure that we will hear a lot of faux outrage from Opposition parties today about the fact that this debate is taking place at all, so let us, at the outset, remind ourselves exactly why it is. On Friday, because of the Brexit obsession of the Conservative Party, Scotland will be removed from the European Union against our will. In Scotland, the vote to remain in the EU was more than 60 per cent, and that desire to stay at the heart of Europe has been reiterated at every election since.
It is not just about the fact of Brexit; it is also about the consequences of it. Let us make no mistake: those consequences will be significant for our country now and well into the future. There will be consequences for our economy and trade, our public services and the opportunities that are open to our young people.
Some of those consequences are already known to us. For example, there is the practical and emotional impact on the 200,000 EU nationals who have made such an enormous contribution to our country. There is also the impact on our population levels in the future, which will make it much harder for businesses to recruit the workers that they need and for successive Scottish Governments to sustain our public services. Other consequences will become clearer as trade negotiations get under way.
I do not support independence—that will be no surprise to the First Minister. However, had the motion been more realistic and rational, I might have voted for it, because I believe absolutely in the sovereign right of the Scottish people to decide their future.
The First Minister herself has said that we do not know all the implications of Brexit, and we do not. Therefore, it is unrealistic to have any referendum until we know exactly what is happening with Brexit.
Neil Findlay has a more respectable position on the issue than many of his colleagues, but he either accepts Scotland’s right to choose our own future or he does not. It is not conditional on what he thinks the choice should be. That is the principle at the heart of the debate.
As I was saying, other consequences will become clearer as the trade negotiations get under way. Contrary to what we hear, and as Neil Findlay just said, Brexit is not yet done. However, the trade negotiations are about to be led by a United Kingdom Government that is completely deaf to Scotland’s interests, needs and voice. At no point in the three and a half years since the Brexit vote has any effort whatsoever been made to understand Scotland’s different views or to accommodate our interests in any way.
Indeed, as recently as Monday, when the Scottish Government published practical proposals on migration, which are backed by businesses and civic Scotland and are designed to work within the current constitutional arrangements, the response of the UK Government was to dismiss them out of hand, with no consideration whatsoever. That is the reality that Scotland faces as part of the Westminster system, and it is not good enough.
Will the First Minister give way?
I hope that Jackson Carlaw will back our migration proposals.
If the First Minister was trying to build a genuine consensus in this Parliament on the proposals, she might have circulated them or offered them to the leaders of the other political parties. I have still received no such communication from her office. I do not know how she expects us to build consensus when all she does is grandstand in public and shout about the proposals rather than circulate them to this Parliament.
I assure Jackson Carlaw that the proposals are available on the internet. I am sure that he is able to use a computer. However, in the interests of consensus, I will ensure that a copy of the proposals is personally delivered to Jackson Carlaw’s office later this afternoon. Perhaps we can then get his support for the proposals and he can try to persuade the UK Government not to dismiss them out of hand. I will wait for that intervention from Jackson Carlaw.
Having our future imposed on us by a UK Government that is utterly contemptuous of our views is not good enough. It is a Government that is contemptuous of our interests and that seems intent not on preserving a close relationship with the EU but on diverging and deregulating. What that means for the future of workers’ rights, environmental protections, the shape of our economy and the nature of our society is profound.
Labour, in particular, should reflect on this point. If it continues to stand against the right of the Scottish people to even consider a different future, it is that Tory vision for Scotland’s future that it is giving the green light to—a Tory vision that is driven on the part of some by jingoism and xenophobia; a Tory vision that will narrow the horizons of the next generation, make the country poorer and hit hardest those who are already poor and vulnerable. If Labour stands aside and lets that come to pass, it will be on Labour just as much as it is on the Conservatives.
At the heart of all this is a basic fact. Brexit—and everything that will flow from it—is happening against the will of the vast majority of the Scottish people. It is an affront to democracy and, of course, it represents a material change of circumstances from those that we faced in the 2014 independence referendum. Back then, the message from those on the anti-independence side could not have been clearer. The only way to protect EU membership, they said, was to reject independence. As Ruth Davidson said:
“No means we stay in. We are members of the European Union”.
Of course, we were also told back then that the Tories would probably not win the next election and that the prospect of Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister was just a scare story. Yet now, because we are not independent, we have a Boris Johnson-led majority Government that Scotland did not vote for and we stand just two days away from losing our EU membership and all the rights that go with it.
In my view, it is now beyond doubt that the only realistic way for Scotland to return to the heart of Europe and ensure that we get the Governments that we vote for is to become an independent country.
Will the First Minister give way?
In a moment.
I accept that many people in this chamber—including the member who is trying to intervene—and across the country take a different view on independence. That is entirely legitimate. However, what should be beyond any democratic argument, in the light of the material change of circumstances that Brexit represents, is that it must be Scotland’s choice to make. It must be for this Parliament, not Westminster, to determine when and on what basis an independence referendum should take place—a view that is backed by more than 60 per cent of people in Scotland, as was shown in a poll at the weekend.
On that point, I am happy to give way.
It is appropriate that the First Minister gives way on that point, because she has just cited an opinion poll that puts the figure at 60 per cent. However, we had a vote last month in which 55 per cent—the majority of Scottish voters—voted for candidates who did not want another referendum. [Interruption.]
Order. Can we hear the question, please?
Some members might not like that, but it is a fact.
How about recognising a democratic mandate?
I know of at least one Liberal Democrat candidate who stood in that election in Scotland and backed Scottish independence, so Mike Rumbles’s argument is somewhat flawed. On the subject of elections, my party has now won three successive elections on a manifesto commitment not to impose a future on people, as the Tories want to do, but to give them a choice between accepting Brexit as part of the Westminster system and choosing a different future as an independent country.
In the general election just past, it was the Tories who explicitly recognised that the result would provide a mandate. It was on the ballot paper, they said. A vote for the Scottish National Party was a vote for a referendum, and the only way to stop it was to vote Tory. Well, people cast their verdict. In that election, the Tories lost more than half of their seats and the SNP won a higher share of the vote than Boris Johnson did UK-wide. The democratic case for allowing people in Scotland to decide whether or not to become an independent country is overwhelming, and it is that principle—not the substance of the independence issue—that the Parliament is being asked to endorse today.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that it is their fear of the choice that Scotland would make on the substantive question that is driving the anti-democratic position of the Opposition parties. Parties that had confidence in their case and believed that it would win the day would have no problem whatsoever in trusting the people of Scotland to make their choice. It is only ever parties that know that their arguments are bust that have to resort to blocking democracy.
The problem for the Tories, Labour and the—completely misnamed—Liberal Democrats is that the more contempt they show for the right of Scotland to choose our own future, the more they demonstrate the urgent need for us to become independent as the only way to protect our vital interests. I cannot remember the last time that I heard any of those parties make a positive case for the union. All they ever do is tell us to keep quiet and accept whatever the Tories want to throw at us. For my part, I will continue to make the positive case for independence. It is the means by which we can shape our own future and build a better Scotland.
With control over tax and social security, we can protect our schools and hospitals from the Tory austerity that has been imposed on us for a decade; we can do more to lift people out of poverty; and we can build a fairer country. With control over economic levers, and as part of the world’s largest trading bloc, we can build a more prosperous country. With control over migration policy, we can end the hostile environment and ensure that we remain the welcoming, tolerant nation that we must always be. With independence, we can choose to become a member of the European Union in our own right.
As I said, I know that not everyone agrees with my position on independence, but I am happy to have that debate and let Scotland decide.
What members of the Scottish Parliament across the chamber have to decide today is this: do they support the principle in the claim of right for Scotland that it is for the Scottish people to determine our future? Do they support the principle that, in any democracy, people must be entitled to change their minds—particularly when they face a democratic outrage such as being forced out of the EU? Do they support the principle that election results in Scotland matter?
I know that the Tories will vote against all of those principles. Others in the chamber should consider this: if they support the Tory position, they will not only be voting against the right of the people of Scotland to choose our own future; they will be voting for something, too. They will be voting for the right of the Tories to impose a hard Brexit on us. They will be voting for a future to be foisted on Scotland that they know will make us poorer in so many ways. They will be voting to expose our workers’ rights and environmental protections to a Tory party that is threatening a race to the bottom. They will be voting to give Boris Johnson the right to negotiate—over our heads—a trade deal with Donald Trump that they know will threaten our national health service. They will be voting to end freedom of movement, knowing that it will lead to a decline in Scotland’s population. If we refuse people in Scotland the right to choose a different future, all those things will happen.
Given what the Tories have in store, proposing a further decision on independence is not simply legitimate; it is necessary. It is time to put Scotland’s future into Scotland’s hands, which is why I urge the Parliament to back the motion in my name.
That the Parliament recognises the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to determine the form of government best suited to their needs; agrees with the cross-party Smith Commission report published after the 2014 referendum and backed by the UK Government that “nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose”; recognises that there has been a material change in circumstances since 2014 and that a referendum should be held so that the people of Scotland can decide whether they wish it to become an independent country, and calls on the UK Government to reach an agreement with the Scottish Government on such a referendum taking place on a date and in a manner determined by the Scottish Parliament, which the Scottish Government proposes should take place in 2020.14:55
I thank the First Minister for fulfilling—for the first time, in my experience—a promise that she made here, in the Parliament. I have just received a copy of her migration proposals, which I have here.
Let us be up front about why we are here today. It is not because the First Minister thinks that she is going to hold a referendum this year; she knows that that is not going to happen. The reason that we have been called here today is that she needs to convince the yes movement, behind her and beyond, that something is happening—or that, if it is not actually happening, they should not worry, because it will soon.
That points to the real indictment on this Government: it is divided and fearful of telling hard truths to its own political supporters. It is so obsessed with mollifying them in some way that the interests of the people of Scotland are shoved to one side. If the First Minister feels the need to attend marches in her spare time in order to shore up her position with Joanna Cherry and the die-hards, that is up to her, but I do not see why the majority of people in this country have to play along with that ridiculous charade.
The First Minister says that there will be a referendum by Christmas. Really? Given the state of the ferry service over which she presides, they had better start sending the ballot papers to the islands now. There is also to be a new white paper—and yet, according to the First Minister, we are still to accept that the last one was the most authoritative ever. Her tame polling company breathlessly claims that people support the holding of a referendum being agreed, yet somehow it forgets to ask them whether they actually support independence. If only the Government spent the same amount of attention on the police and schools as it spends on polling and spin we might have the safest streets and the best schools in Europe.
While SNP members debate among themselves their favoured route to another referendum, what the timetable should be and whether they need the approval of Westminster, most people outside the political bubble just look on in either wearied resignation or abject fury. The debate that people outside the chamber want to see is on how to drive up educational standards and give their children the solid start in life that they need and deserve. Instead, they get parliamentary statements about more referendums.
People also want to see action on how to tackle a drugs death crisis that is claiming over 1,000 Scottish lives every year—the highest rate in Europe. They want to see action to reverse the record low in attainment in the highers and advanced highers results in Scotland’s schools. They want to see the four-year rise in violent crime stopped, front-line police officer numbers protected and a Government that does not describe collapsing ceilings in police stations as “hyperbole”. Instead, civil servants are directed to waste time in drawing up more plans for independence.
People want a debate over how to grow our economy; how to create more, better-paid and more secure jobs; and how to drive up living standards for everyone in Scotland. Instead—here we go again—we get more time devoted to the First Minister’s personal obsession at the expense of the country’s real and pressing priorities.
Perhaps the First Minister really cannot let it go. Perhaps she is fated to see out the rest of her days in office single-mindedly banging the drum for separation. That is a grim prospect for the rest of the country, but perhaps that is the way it will be. Only in the corridors of the Scottish Government—alone in the four nations of the United Kingdom—do we see a Government that is determined to keep us stuck in the past. The rest of the UK is moving on, but Scotland is being left behind.
There is a real tragedy here, too. The Government promised a fresh start after the divisions of the 2014 referendum, and the First Minister made, in her own words, a heartfelt promise to serve all Scots, regardless of how they voted in that referendum. How hollow that all sounds now. Instead of healing the divisions of 2014, the Government has exacerbated them. Instead of the fresh start that it promised, we have had five years of unceasing agitation for independence. Instead of a laser-like focus on education, health and the economy, all of those matters have been sidelined in favour of the First Minister’s singular priority.
Will Jackson Carlaw address the fact that Scotland, against its will, will be taken out of the EU in two days? He used to oppose that but is now a born-again Brexiteer. The people of Scotland deserve to hear him justify that fact.
I am speaking to the amendment in my name, which concentrates on the priorities that the people of Scotland want to see addressed.
Most people will see the past five years as a catalogue of wasted opportunities to improve Scotland. Public service failure under the SNP is the real “material change in circumstances”. Most people want the Government, the Parliament—all of us—to dedicate our efforts to the education, health, prosperity and wellbeing of our people.
Is it not about time that the Government listened to the voice of most people and that the First Minister finally acted on the pledge that she made at the start of her term in office, to serve all Scots and their interests whether they voted for or against independence? Is it not time that the First Minister and her Government put aside their endless campaign for a vote that a consistent majority of the people in the country do not want, to focus instead on the country’s real priorities?
Today, another two and a half hours of parliamentary time will be wasted on debating yet another statement on independence in which nothing new is said—that is all to be saved for other people, not this Parliament, on Friday. Instead, let us get back to dealing with the business that the people outside the chamber elected us for, and let us make this the last such debate—we are fed up.
I move amendment S5M-20615.1, to leave out from “the sovereign right” to end and insert:
“that the sovereign right of the people of Scotland was exercised in 2014 when more than two million people voted to reject independence; agrees with the cross-party Smith Commission report published after the 2014 referendum and backed by the UK Government that ‘nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose’; recognises, however, that the 2014 referendum was rightly described as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that it is incumbent on all parties to abide by its result; calls on the Scottish Government to abandon its obsession with a second independence referendum; expects the Scottish Ministers to devote their energies to, and to use their parliamentary time to debate, matters of devolved competence, such as health, education, transport and the economy in Scotland, and regrets that yet again the Scottish Government has chosen to debate the constitution instead of the failures in Scottish public services for which it is responsible.”15:01
I completely understand that the thought of five more years of a Boris Johnson Government is driving some people to despair and others to anger, and that discontent is widespread, but it must be understood that the people of Scotland do not want another independence referendum anytime soon. The people know—they have applied common sense to this—that we need to do some hard thinking and work through the Brexit situation. They know that until we do that, given the profound uncertainty about the nature and terms of the future economic, trading, social and cultural relationships between the people of the UK and the people of the EU, a referendum in 2020 makes no sense whatsoever. Yet that is the proposition that we are being asked to vote on this afternoon. The First Minister herself said that a second independence referendum should not happen until after Brexit is done. Brexit is not done and it will not be done in 2020.
The Government motion talks of a “material change in circumstances”, but we do not yet know what those changes will be. However lofty the First Minister’s rhetoric is, she and everybody knows that she is playing a game. Nobody in the chamber really believes that there will be a referendum this year—I am not sure that many people in this chamber believe that there should be one this year. Members are being asked to vote for what they know to be a falsehood and many of them are prepared to do it willingly.
This debate is not an example of a good use of power. The First Minister claims to be speaking for Scotland, but she is not even speaking to Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon is using the Parliament to speak to her own party and she is not even telling it the truth. The way in which the Government is using the Parliament shows a rather contemptuous use of power.
The Government’s motion is a synthetic political manufacture dressed up as high principle. It is our duty as members of this Parliament to expose that and to offer real leadership on this question. It is our duty to represent all of the people, not just placate an overagitated political base of activists.
We know the numbers in the Parliament, and we know that the Greens will support the motion. I say in all sincerity to the Greens that a turn to nationalism at a time when we face a global economic and climate crisis is a move in precisely the wrong direction. We should not be putting up national boundaries; we should be pulling them down.
Our objective as members of this Parliament is to promote the welfare of the people—not just their material welfare, but their welfare in the broader sense—so, in our amendment, we call on the Government to focus its energies on minimising the impact of the Tories’ disastrous Brexit deal; to double down on ensuring that, in the coming months, powers are repatriated to Scotland during the Brexit process; and to focus on establishing a new home rule principle that is fit for the 21st century whereby, in the wake of Brexit, all that can be devolved is devolved, not just to the Scottish Parliament but to local government and local communities right across Scotland. Our vision is of a modern 2020 home rule that recognises that we need to radically redistribute wealth and power by tackling inequalities rather than simply reproducing them in a separate Scottish state.
Will the member give way?
I am in my final minute.
Our vision is a realistic vision of not just a redistribution of power between Parliaments, but a redistribution of power and wealth between people because, in the end, that is where the divisions in our society really lie. That means that we must amend and extend the Parliament’s financial powers and start to use the powers that we already have for planning our economy, building the homes that our families need, tackling the long-standing challenges of public health—[Interruption]
—giving hope to our young people and dignity to our pensioners in retirement, meeting the challenges of climate change and technological change, creating the caring society and extending democracy into our economy and our communities, thereby creating a more tolerant and equal Scotland. That should be this Parliament’s priority—giving people hope over fear.
I move amendment S5M-20615.3, to leave out from “and that a referendum should be held” to end and insert:
“with the UK, including Scotland, due to leave the EU on 31 January; believes that a period of uncertainty for individuals, communities and businesses will follow; recognises that the majority of the people of Scotland do not want a further referendum at this time; calls on the Scottish Government to focus all of its efforts and energies on minimising the impact of the Prime Minister's disastrous Brexit deal and, as such, does not believe that a further independence referendum in the near future is in the best interests of Scotland; proposes instead the pursuance of 'Home Rule’, which fully utilises the substantial powers that are already devolved, and urges the UK Government to ensure that devolved powers are repatriated to Scotland following Brexit and that the Scottish Parliament gains the further devolved powers needed to create a fairer and more equal Scotland.”
Before I call Willie Rennie to speak on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I ask members to stop the on-going heckling. That applies to members across the chamber. In particular, I ask front-bench members not to engage in such behaviour.15:08
When I saw the wording of the motion and realised that we would have not just one but two speeches on independence this week, I wondered whether the debate was for me or for the different factions of the SNP, so that they could sort out whether they would move for a referendum now, next year or ever, what the timing and the framework would be, and whether it would be a wildcat referendum. However, I like to engage in such debates, if only to put the SNP right on important constitutional issues.
I am intrigued by the fact that the Brexiteer Alex Neil is using Brexit as a justification for having not just another independence referendum, but a wildcat referendum. Although that idea is backed by Mhairi Black, Joanna Cherry and a few others, Kenny MacAskill thinks that we should not have another independence referendum at the moment and that the Government should focus on the day job. It is probably the first time ever that I have agreed with Kenny MacAskill. His expressing that view has even led some people to say that we should bring him back, but I am not sure that that would be met with wild appreciation.
Mike Russell thinks that it is racist to heckle Ian Blackford in Westminster while believing that he can heckle Willie Rennie in this chamber.
Of course, it is important to mark this moment, but this is a sad week for pro-Europeans such as me. We are leaving the European Union. We fought hard every step of the way, not just when it was politically convenient to do so. We spent more in the European election than we did in the Shetland by-election—who would have thought that? It was important to stand up for what we believe, and we did so in that campaign. This is a sad week for pro-Europeans.
We should learn the lessons of Brexit, and not repeat them with independence. We have had years of division over Brexit and over independence before that. People are sick of it and fed up with it. They want to move on to the big challenges that the country faces.
Let us look back at the division that we faced all those years ago, in 2014. Friends, families, neighbours and businesspeople were all divided over independence, and those divisions were repeated on Brexit. We should consider all the investment that was held back for all those years during the independence and Brexit debates. We should not repeat those mistakes all over again. Let us learn the lessons of Brexit. Let us consider the problems that the debate about the Irish border has caused in the affected communities.
In the United Kingdom, people north and south of the border have deep-rooted relationships that have lasted for 300 years. We have seen the turmoil that comes with breaking up a 45-year-old partnership with the European Union. Just imagine how much more difficult it would be to break up a partnership of 300 years.
Apparently, by the end of this afternoon, the SNP will claim that the Parliament has voted, again, for a mandate for another independence referendum. I disagree. The SNP does not have a majority in the Parliament.
In 2016, the Greens put forward a proposal that a petition with 1 million signatures would be needed for another independence referendum to be held. I have hunted high and low, but I cannot find such a petition. I would be surprised if it had one name on it, let alone 1 million names, so there is no mandate this afternoon.
The claim that the general election result is a mandate is also false. I admit that, as has been referenced, the SNP did well in the general election. However, 45 per cent of the vote is no more votes than the SNP got in 2014—in fact, because turnout in the general election was lower than it was in the referendum, the SNP got even fewer votes than it got in 2014—so there is no change at all in that regard. I thought that the SNP supported a proportional representation voting system—a fair voting system—but, all of a sudden, it is claiming that having 47 or 48 MPs is a mandate. It is not.
I remember Nicola Sturgeon softening the message in the last week of the general election. I remember her appealing to people who were in favour of the United Kingdom.
Will Willie Rennie give way?
Not just now.
I will come to the First Minister in a second, when I am ready.
The First Minister softened the message during the general election. She appealed to Labour and Liberal Democrat voters and said, “Come with us to stop Boris Johnson.”
Will the member give way?
Not just now.
There was hardly any mention of independence at that stage, then talk of it was ramped right up after the general election. The First Minister does not have a mandate for an independence referendum.
Willie Rennie has set out what, in his view, does not constitute a mandate for an independence referendum. Perhaps he could use some of his time to tell us what would constitute a mandate for an independence referendum. If he does, we might make some progress.
I am not obsessed with independence. [Interruption.] I do not spend every day of the week thinking about how we get another independence referendum. If people vote Liberal Democrat, I guarantee that we will use every opportunity to vote against independence, because it is dividing our country and damaging our economy—[Interruption.] Presiding Officer, I do not know whether members are following your encouragement to be quieter in this debate but I suspect that they are not.
We need to recognise that the SNP does not have that mandate. As far as I am concerned, if people vote Liberal Democrat, the SNP will never have that mandate. We need to move on. We need to unite the country. We need to tackle the challenges that we all face. If we do that, we will have a better Scotland and a better United Kingdom.
I move amendment S5M-20615.2, to leave out from “; agrees” to end and insert:
“, and believes that the people of Scotland want the Scottish Government to focus on tackling the slipping education standards in Scotland’s schools, reduce long waiting times in the health service, take mental health more seriously, address the crisis in social care, repair the damage to police services caused by centralisation, reverse the rise in fuel poverty, and take consistent and determined action on the climate emergency, all of which are currently being given secondary status to the issue of independence.”
Again, I encourage members not to heckle too loudly.15:15
In a week in which we heard that even a Conservative leadership candidate thinks that those who bang the no-indyref-2 drum sound obsessed with independence, Willie Rennie might do well to listen to the sage words of Michelle Ballantyne.
I am delighted to join others in not asserting but reasserting the mandate for putting the future of Scotland back into the hands of the people who matter, the people who should make the decision, the people who live here. The Conservatives’ position—that the sovereign right of the people of Scotland was exercised in 2014—is a partial position. It is as though they can see only 2014 and cannot see the subsequent exercise of the right of the people of Scotland to say something about their future.
In the European Union referendum in 2016, the people of Scotland said clearly that they wanted to remain. In 2016, they sent a pro-independence majority to the Scottish Parliament. In 2017 and 2019, they elected majorities of pro-independence candidates. In 2019, they also elected three pro-independence candidates out of six in the European Parliament election. Even those who defend the first-past-the-post system—and claim that, for a UK Government, 43 per cent is a mandate to do whatever the hell it likes to the people of the UK and Scotland—refuse to accept that a pro-independence majority of MPs is a mandate in Scotland.
Jackson Carlaw says that those who support independence are stuck in the past. The empire 2.0 fans in the Brexit extremist faction that has taken over his party are stuck in the past. The reality for the Conservatives is that, although, once upon a time, the Scottish Conservatives pretended to be the Conservative moderates in these islands, there are no Tory moderates any more. They have all thrown in their lot with the Brexit extremists and the Boris Johnson regime. Everything that that Government does is now on them. There are no more Tory moderates.
As for the Labour position, I say to Richard Leonard that the Scottish Green Party is proudly pro-independence and not nationalist, because we understand that the two are not the same thing. I hope that he respects the fact that I would never call him, as someone who supports membership of the UK, a British nationalist. Those points of language matter. Nationalism is not the only factor that can lead someone to express a view about sovereignty and our future.
He says that we are being asked to support something that we know is not going to happen and he asks whether the Greens ever argue against the odds. Yes, of course we do. Maybe last month, when Richard Leonard was arguing for a UK Labour Government, he knew, in his heart of hearts, that that was not about to happen either.
As for his argument on home rule, I still have to ask myself—what is it? Even if he can put forward a solid, well-defined, fleshed-out proposition for what home rule means, how does it escape the same problem—UK says no—that is encountered not only on independence but on everything from powers over drug laws to a Scottish visa system? The UK will keep saying no until the people of Scotland are given the ability to assert their sovereign right.
As for the Liberal Democrats’ position, their amendment says that the domestic agenda matters. Of course the domestic agenda matters; we all think that, whichever side of the independence debate we are on. The Greens regularly challenge the Scottish Government on its support for the oil and gas industry, its education policies, its support for aviation growth and other issues.
None of that should prevent Scotland from also debating its future beyond the currently devolved powers. Let me pick just one example from the Liberal Democrat amendment: fuel poverty. We know that fuel poverty is determined by energy efficiency and can be affected by things that the housing minister can do to reduce energy consumption; we also know that it is determined by energy prices and incomes. It is the approach of the UK Government, including the Conservatives that Willie Rennie’s party put into power in the first place, that has had such a deleterious effect.
We know that objective harm is coming from Brexit: economic harm, social harm and environmental harm. Greens will oppose that, because of the political position that we have taken throughout.
My view is that all powers should be devolved unless there is an overwhelming reason not to devolve powers, and I think that there is an overwhelming reason not to devolve some powers. If the member wants all powers to come to Scotland, does he accept that harm will come from that, too?
If Neil Findlay’s party had taken that position in the Smith commission, we would have a swathe of powers on employment law and rights in the workplace—powers that Mr Findlay’s party should have recognised that there was no reason to keep reserved to UK level.
Aside from the objective harm that is coming from Brexit, a point of principle is involved here. Albeit that I disagreed with the result in 2014, Scotland, in recent years, has voted in favour of both unions, but it is now being told that it cannot have what it voted for. A democratic choice is being made today in the European Parliament on whether to support the UK withdrawal agreement—a democratic choice by a UK Parliament that was not elected with a majority in Scotland. It is only the people of Scotland whose voices are being ignored and overruled—and that applies not only to the voters of Scotland but to Scotland’s Parliament, because the EU withdrawal agreement required and failed to be given legislative consent by this Parliament.
Scotland is not being given respect for the claim of right and sovereignty of the people who live in Scotland. That is not being respected by the UK Government, and the only way to change that is by giving the people who live in Scotland the right to make that decision for themselves again.
On Friday, with campaign events in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Greens will relaunch the Green yes campaign. We are ready to go out and fight that campaign, and—even if the UK Government continues to say no—we look forward to saying, “Scotland demands.”
I did not want to stop the member in mid-flow, but I urge him now to be careful about his use of language and not to use expressions that would be regarded as offensive elsewhere. I am not trying to suppress passionate debate; I just ask members to keep it respectful, please.15:23
In a little over 48 hours, the majority of people in Scotland will, in effect, cease to be citizens of the European Union. I am one of those who are set to be stripped of their citizenship. I have no means of reobtaining citizenship under our current constitutional settlement; my Irish ancestry is too distant to enable me to qualify for an Irish passport. For me, this is a bitter and hurtful experience. I struggle to imagine what Brexit must feel like for the EU nationals who have made Scotland their home.
Although I and many others who have valued our place in the EU will be hurting, I know that many in Scotland will welcome our departure. More than 1 million people in Scotland, including many in my Renfrewshire South constituency, voted to leave. I believe that the overwhelming majority of those who voted leave did so for honourable and principled reasons and were motivated by a desire to protect the interests of their families, communities and country. Similarly, I believe that the 3.6 million people who voted in 2014, whether they voted yes or no, cast their vote based on their honest judgment of what was in the country’s best interests at that time.
As someone who voted to remain in the EU, I think that the experience of Brexit has given me an insight into what people who oppose Scottish independence might have been feeling as the polls narrowed in September 2014: anxiety, fear and perhaps even a sense of unreality.
I know constituents who passionately value their British citizenship and their sense of British identity, often alongside an equally passionate sense of Scottish and European identity. I am their MSP too, and I will always be a staunch advocate for all my constituents in Renfrewshire South.
It is with that sense of responsibility that I approach this debate on Scotland’s future—a debate that, at the time of my election to this Parliament in 2016, I did not expect that we would be having. I stood on a manifesto that called for a referendum on independence to be held only should there be a material change in circumstance. The then hypothetical scenario of Scotland voting to remain in the EU, but being forced to leave because of votes elsewhere in the UK, was specifically given as one such material change in circumstance.
I said that I would not have expected to be having this debate and that is because, in 2016, I did not expect that the people of England and Wales would vote by majority in favour of leaving the EU. Had they voted as I had hoped, we would not be leaving the EU on Friday 31 January and the threshold of material change would not have been met.
Equally, had Scotland joined England and Wales in voting to leave the EU, I would have sought to work with colleagues to implement the decision of the people we all serve. However, the people of Scotland did not vote to leave—they voted by an overwhelming majority to remain and they have taken every opportunity at the ballot box to reaffirm that decision. Scotland being taken out of the European Union against the democratically expressed wishes of the Scottish people is a material change in circumstances. We cannot simply ignore that and pretend that it did not happen.
The UK is a union state; it can exist only with the consent of its members. Scotland is not a city like London or an English county; it is a nation, a country in its own right—just as much as Ireland or Denmark or New Zealand are countries in their own right. It is the people of Scotland who are sovereign.
I turn to the question of timing. Had the UK Government negotiated a form of Brexit that maintained membership of the single market and customs union, or had it provided for a differentiated settlement for Scotland, it would have been reasonable to question whether a referendum on independence was required in the timescale proposed by the Scottish Government.
However, it is the UK Government’s policy to pursue divergence from the single market and to leave the customs union. It has also ruled out any extension to the transition period beyond the end of this year. Therefore, there is a powerful case for people in Scotland having the opportunity to choose, in principle, independence in Europe before divergence makes that proposition more difficult to obtain.
Alex Cole-Hamilton (Edinburgh Western) (LD) rose—
I am afraid I do not have time to take an intervention; otherwise I would.
On the broader question of timing and the oft-repeated, once-in-a-generation line, I will say this: in all honesty, following the referendum in 2014, I did not see the circumstances arising that would justify revisiting the question of Scottish independence in the near future, although other more experienced heads did.
My thinking was informed by the political dynamics of the previous 50 years of constitutional politics in Scotland. Consider the following pairs of dates: 1967 to 1970, 1974 to 1979 and 1988 to 1992. There was a clear pattern of SNP electoral success, movement on the constitutional question from opponents of independence, followed by reduced support for, or underperformance of, the SNP—then the only vehicle for those wishing to express an appetite for constitutional change in Scotland.
Following the devolution referendum of 1997, it was not until 2007 that the SNP became the largest party, and only by a single seat. While it is not a universal view, I am sure there were many people who, prior to 2014, would have forecast that the SNP would go into a period of decline following a no vote. Well, that did not happen.
The events since 2014 are without precedent. Scotland has consistently returned a pro-independence majority of parliamentarians and the constitutional settlement of 2014 no longer exists. We are a nation, we are a country, and it is the people who are sovereign—not this Parliament, not Westminster and not the Crown. We, the people of Scotland, will determine our future. If a majority choose independence, as l hope they will, Scotland will be an independent country.15:29
It tells us all we need to know about the SNP Government that it is devoting debating time this afternoon to the one thing that it knows will not happen in 2020 and which is a total irrelevance to Scotland’s future: an independence referendum. An independence referendum will not happen, because there is no legal power for the Parliament to hold such a referendum, there is no broader support for it outside the ranks of the nationalist parties in the Parliament, and there is no public support for it happening. However, we should not be surprised that the SNP is spending its debating time on the issue, which is the one issue that it is obsessed with above everything else. It is a party that cannot find debating time to discuss education and would rather focus on the one issue that distracts its followers from all its manifest failures across public services.
Instead of debating independence, we should be debating the SNP’s failures in education. The most recent programme for international student assessment—PISA—figures have recorded our worst-ever results in science and maths; teacher numbers are lower today than when the SNP took power; today, we learned that the Government is set to miss its targets to improve attainment among pupils in deprived areas; there are real issues with the implementation of the curriculum for excellence, with leading figures in Scottish education such as Keir Bloomer and Professor Lindsay Paterson calling for an urgent rethink before a generation of young people are failed; and, despite all the promises that the SNP has made to wipe out student debt, we learned last week that Scotland’s students have an accumulated debt that has doubled over the past decade.
We should be debating the SNP’s track record on health. No fewer than six geographical health boards are now in special measures due to performance and management issues and the 12-week treatment guarantee has never been met under the SNP Government.
Will the member take an intervention?
No, thank you.
According to the latest statistics, barely three in four patients are seen within the 18-week referral to treatment period; children have died in the Queen Elizabeth university hospital in Glasgow and today we learned that as many as 80 children could have contracted infections; the new sick kids hospital in Edinburgh is years late and is costing the taxpayer £1.4 million a month; Scotland is now the worst place in the EU for drug deaths after the sharpest-ever rise in fatalities, following on from a reduction in rehabilitation beds by 80 per cent since the SNP came to power; and the number of young people waiting for a referral for mental health treatment is increasing, with more children waiting longer than a year.
We should be discussing the issues with our police—issues that are so severe that they led to the chief constable, Iain Livingstone, speaking out against underfunding of the police by the Scottish Government, with 750 officer jobs at risk. The police estate is in the worst condition that it has ever been in. I recently witnessed for myself water running down the walls and tiles coming loose in the police station in Pitlochry, and the roof falling in in the Cabinet Secretary for Justice’s local station in Broughty Ferry.
Will the member take an intervention?
No, thank you.
We should be discussing failures in the toxicology service, as a result of which some families could wait a year to get results that tell them how their loved ones died.
We should be discussing the Government’s ferries fiasco. We are looking at a £100 million overspend for the delivery of two CalMac ferries by the Ferguson Marine yard in Inverclyde, under a contract that is running at least two years late, with a whole host of unanswered questions as to why the yard was given the contract in the first place and why the Scottish ministers sat on their hands when they should have intervened at a far earlier stage instead of watching taxpayers’ money being wasted and island communities being badly let down.
We should be discussing issues with the Scottish economy. We are in a decade of serial underperformance compared with the UK average and figures out this morning tell us that, over the past year, our economy grew at less than half the UK rate.
Would Mr Fraser care to reflect on all the issues that he has raised and answer this question: if all of that is the case, why did the Conservatives lose half of their parliamentary constituencies in the election in December? Why are the Tories so awful in Scotland?
I gently remind Mr Swinney that, despite all the campaigning that the SNP did, it could not get more than 45 per cent to support the proposition that there should be another independence referendum. The SNP does not speak for the majority.
We should be discussing the fact that the employment gap between Scotland and the rest of the UK, at 2 per cent, is at its highest in two decades. That represents at least 30,000 adults of working age who are economically inactive and who could be contributing to Scotland’s economy, driving forward growth and contributing to tax revenues.
We should be debating last week’s Scottish Trends report. In the very week that the First Minister called for us to measure our economy not by growth but by wellbeing, we saw the publication of that comparative index of social and economic wellbeing in 32 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, which showed Scotland falling down the table into the third quartile for the first time due to the decline in education and income performances, with our very poor life expectancy performance as our weakest area.
We should be discussing Scotland’s tax position, as decisions made by this SNP Government have made Scotland the highest-taxed part of the United Kingdom. There is a £1 billion black hole in the Scottish public finances due to an overforecast of devolved tax revenues, meaning that, in future, public services will suffer due to this Government’s failure to create the environment for a growing economy.
We should be discussing local government in Scotland, which has had cuts to its core funding of more than 7 per cent over the past six years, putting vital local services at risk.
That is the record of the SNP Government after nearly 13 years in office. Those are the issues that it should be tackling. Those are the problems that Scotland faces today, which the Government is ignoring because of its obsession with independence.
This Parliament is here to hold the Scottish Government to account and highlight the matters for which it is responsible, not to waste time posturing on constitutional questions. The people of Scotland are sick fed up of this Government and its independence obsession. It needs to stop this nonsense and get on with the day job.15:36
I am pleased to speak in this afternoon’s important debate on the rights of the people of Scotland to choose their own future.
At the outset, it might be useful to restate the fundamental constitutional principle that underlies our democracy in Scotland, which is that sovereignty lies with the people of Scotland and not with this Parliament, the Westminster Parliament, Boris Johnson or the Tory party. That means that the sovereignty of the people of Scotland is not time limited, subject to a cut-off period or capable of being unilaterally and indefinitely suspended by political parties. Therefore, the contention of the Conservative Party and others that, since the sovereign right of the people of Scotland was exercised in 2014, their sovereign rights are to be put on pause until some unspecified date in the future is, as a matter of law, a constitutional nonsense. It is also anti-democratic.
I turn to the situation that we now face in Scotland. It is a matter of fact that there was the most fantastic engagement on the part of the people of Scotland in the 2014 independence referendum. During the campaign, a number of key interventions were made, including the infamous vow and the unequivocal statements from those advocating a no vote that the only way to protect Scotland’s membership of the EU was to vote no to independence.
However, what we have seen since is—regrettably and, I submit, entirely predictably—a whole host of broken promises. The vow was not delivered. Our EU citizenship will indeed be removed, notwithstanding the undertakings to the contrary. Our views have been ignored. What happened to the love? What happened to, “Lead us, don’t leave us”? Whither the respect agenda? As has been said, at 11 o’clock on Friday night, Scotland will be dragged out of the EU against our will.
All the Scottish Government’s sensible compromise proposals over the past three and a half years, such as on staying in the EU single market and customs union, have been simply ignored. There has been no seat for Scotland in key talks over the past three and a half years, which will continue to be the case in the future. As mentioned by the First Minister and put forward on Monday, our detailed proposals for a Scottish visa to tackle the damaging economic consequences of the end of free movement were simply dismissed by the UK Government on Tuesday without being properly considered. Take another example: the UK Tory Government has ensured that, once again, our fishing industry is to be sold down the river as we leave the EU, just as it was by a UK Tory Government on our way into the EU.
That is where we are at the start of 2020. It is a very different place from the one that we were promised. We in Scotland do not need to blithely accept that; we do not need to go back into the cupboard and shut up. We know that the people of Scotland do not want that to happen, because the SNP has won each of the past four parliamentary elections: the Scottish parliamentary election in 2016, the 2017 Westminster election, the 2019 European Parliament election and the 2019 Westminster election. The SNP stood in each of those elections on an unequivocal manifesto on the right of the people of Scotland to choose their future in an independence referendum, in the event of
“a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.”
Will the member take an intervention?
I will not.
It is clear that that is the manifesto on which the SNP fought and won each of those four elections. Moreover, this Parliament backed that position, and we will see whether it reaffirms that mandate tonight. That is the democratic position and it must be respected.
I can understand why the UK-controlled parties that are advocating a no vote—the Tories, Labour and the Liberal Democrats—do not want there to be an independence referendum, for it is evident that they are running scared. However, they cannot turn their face against the democratic wishes of the people of Scotland. That is an untenable and unsustainable position that simply cannot prevail.15:41
Another day and another call by the First Minister for another referendum on independence. We had a referendum on independence, and the Scottish people gave their opinion. There is no indication that the majority of Scottish people want another referendum right now—far from it.
The First Minister knows fine well that, even within her own party, there is no agreement on the urgency of a referendum. In The Scotsman this morning, Jim Sillars warned that
“It’s a longer process than a few months; and one that cannot have any worth until we know the final details of the Brexit negotiations.”
Therefore, the priority of this Parliament should be to keep our devolved powers and resist attempts by the UK Government to cut across the devolution settlement by attempting to make secondary legislation in devolved areas without the Scottish Parliament’s consent. We need to dedicate our attention to the eventual outcome of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, a journey that will begin in a couple of days. The challenge that we face as we begin the Tory withdrawal from the EU is to minimise disruption to Scottish businesses, local authorities and communities and to our citizens, rather than cause further constitutional upheaval.
Meanwhile, on The Scotsman’s front page, we find the headline “Growing health gap exposed between Scots rich and poor”. The headline relates to a report based on the Scottish Government’s own statistics, which show a widening health inequalities gap. The poorest Scots are four times more likely to die prematurely. Surely that should be a priority for debate in the chamber. Instead, today we are debating flags and the constitution.
When the member considers all the health and other problems that she listed, does it cross her mind that when we compare ourselves with a country such as Denmark or Norway, the difference is that they are independent?
I will come to comparisons in a moment.
After 13 years in office, it is hardly surprising that it has become normal for the Scottish Government to be complacent—John Mason’s intervention maybe showed that. It has also become normal for the Scottish Government to dismiss concerns or to blame others when it comes to its mismanagement and underfunding of public services.
Cutting council funding to the bone—and worse—could result in the loss of vital local services, such as those provided by North Lanarkshire Council’s Kilbowie outdoor centre in my area, or by the schools and nurseries in Edinburgh that face £1.8 million in cuts over the next two years. The local Educational Institute of Scotland secretary in Edinburgh has warned of an already desperate situation, in which teachers are putting their hands in their own pockets to buy basic materials, including pens, pencils and rulers.
The Scottish Government is letting Scotland down in too many ways to list in the time that I have today. On the other hand, the Scottish Government has many powers that are not being used, such as the power to reform the council tax—as I believe that it promised to do—which could help to address the underfunding of local government. Our children are suffering the consequences of school budget cuts, and the failure to deliver on personal care is leading to distress for many families and to delayed discharge from hospitals that are already struggling to cope.
The blinkered view that independence is the solution to the problems that Scotland’s families and communities face leads to a failure of governance. With more flexibility, creativity and political will, the Scottish Government could make much more effective use of the devolved powers that we already have. For example, with regard to the need to fight the drugs epidemic in Scotland, we could use all our devolved powers over health, policing, justice and public services to make an effective intervention and save lives. I am serious: what could be more important than removing Scotland from the top of the list for drug-related deaths per capita in Europe?
Another priority should be the immediate implementation of the benefits that have already been transferred from Westminster. I am sure that many in the SNP will agree that people are denied dignity and fairness by the punitive Department for Work and Pensions regime. However, although we could already be rolling out a new and humanely delivered disability assistance scheme without the degrading assessments that are conducted by private companies, the Scottish Government has failed to take control and people are suffering while they wait for change. More children in households with a disabled family member are living in poverty than children in other households, and we could be starting to give disabled people the dignity that they deserve, and to tackle child poverty further. We know that people are pushed to the brink every day by DWP decisions, and that they are humiliated and degraded by unnecessary and intrusive assessments. Why on earth would this Government delay taking control of those benefits?
According to the Resolution Foundation, child poverty is on an upward trajectory, and our 2030 target will never be achieved if addressing child poverty is not a top priority. The Scottish Government should be finding ways to empower local government through legislation and fair funding and by devolving power away from the centre, not grabbing it back. It should shake off its complacency, take a fresh look at the powers that we already have and fully use them, rather than insist that the solution is another divisive referendum on independence. I add that the previous referendum on independence was divisive in my area—it was definitely not respectful civic engagement.
We need this devolved Parliament—which was, I remind members, delivered by the Labour Party—to be a Scottish people’s Parliament that uses to the full the extensive powers that are already devolved, gains the appropriate repatriated Brexit powers and seeks further devolution in areas such as employment rights and equality. It should be a Parliament in Scotland that prioritises tackling poverty, inequality and injustice, because that is what its members were elected to do.15:48
I start by apologising to my constituents in Mid Fife and Glenrothes. I say to the European nationals I represent, “I am so sorry. You have been let down. This is your country—please stay with us.”
Friday will be a sad day for our fellow Europeans—for folk such as my Uncle Knut, who came here from Berlin, my friend Maciej, who came here from Poland, and my constituent, who has lived here for nearly 30 years, working as a foster carer for Fife Council, and who has been denied settled status on three occasions. I am so sorry. They do not deserve to be treated in this way.
Since the Brexit vote in 2016, hate crime has increased across the United Kingdom. In July 2016, police recorded a 41 per cent increase in the number of racially or religiously aggravated crimes in England and Wales compared with the same month the year before. Police Scotland recorded 6,736 hate crimes in 2017-18, which was a rise of 2.4 per cent on the previous year. More than two thirds of those incidents were race related. Three of the four Welsh police forces have reported rises in racism and race-related hate crime since the 2016 referendum.
Hate has also seeped into our political discourse, changing the acceptability of language that would not have been thought acceptable previously. For example, last year, Conservative Party chairman James Cleverly said that Brexit was a “warning shot” and argued that “democracy breaks” if votes are not respected. Similarly, our Prime Minister openly described those who tried to block Brexit as “surrender operatives” and termed the Benn legislation “the surrender act”. Just last week, one of Labour’s leadership contenders, Emily Thornberry, said, “I hate the SNP”. Setting aside the sheer paucity of intellect exhibited by all three, it is clear that language matters in politics. Hatespeak trips easily off the tongue. If people blame someone else—another party—for their electoral defeats, they quickly create a culture in which hate becomes normalised and understanding evaporates.
As the motion says, the SNP’s manifesto commitment in 2016 was absolutely clear. We said that we would seek a second independence referendum only if there was
“a significant and material change in the circumstances that prevailed in 2014, such as Scotland being taken out of the EU against our will.”
I invite any member of the Opposition to tell me that it is not a change in circumstances for EU citizens who live in Scotland, contribute to our communities and give love and protection to some of the most vulnerable children in society to break down in tears because of the threat that they might be forced to leave after Brexit. I invite any member of the Opposition to tell me that Scotland’s vote to remain in the European Union was not about the people of Scotland desiring something different from the Brexit crisis that has engulfed UK politics since June 2016. No member of the Opposition can say those things—but then, neither can I, because the simple truth of the matter is that we have not asked the people.
What is it about a second independence referendum that terrifies the Opposition so much? It seems sensible to conclude that, unlike in 2014, a visceral fear has arisen among the unionist parties. The values that were enshrined by the Smith commission, which focused on inclusive engagement, have been replaced by a new policy narrative. We hear people say, “We said no and we meant it”, “No means no”, and, “You need a mandate in 2021”. My particular favourite, which came from the Secretary of State for Scotland, Alister Jack, is, “Even if you win in 2021, you still can’t have a referendum”.
That will not hold, and Opposition members know it. That is precisely why they are now running scared, and it is why the UK Government did not even bother to read the sensible proposals that the Scottish Government put forward this week on migration. The pretence of mutual respect has gone.
Jackson Carlaw’s amendment points to the more than 2 million people who voted to reject independence in 2014. I know one of those 2 million very well. I also have friends who voted no—yet they voted for the SNP in the general election in December for the first time in their lives. Those people exist, and although they might not yet be convinced of the merits of independence, why should Westminster deny them the opportunity to choose once again? The same body politic promised our constituents that a vote to stay in the UK would guarantee them European Union membership. The people might say no once more. They might opt to stay part of the United Kingdom and out of Europe. However, that should be for the people to decide.
The Conservative and Liberal Democrat amendments are—predictably—blinkered to the reality that Brexit has fundamentally shifted the focus of UK and Scottish politics. To bang the day job drum when the UK Government shut down Parliament last year to stifle debate is sheer hypocrisy. Sixty-one per cent of the Scottish population now believe that Holyrood should decide on holding a future referendum on independence.
This debate is about Scotland’s right to choose. It is not about dictating to the people in one way or another. Sovereignty lies with the people, as my colleague Annabelle Ewing said. It is not about saying sorry; it is about saying that there is another way to govern our country, and whether or not people agree with that immutable fact, they should have a say on it.
James Wilson, who was one of the founding fathers of the United States, was born at Carskerdo farm near Ceres, where I was brought up. Some 230 years ago, he wrote:
“Does man exist for the sake of government? Or is government instituted for the sake of man?”
I hope that the Parliament will listen to the words of my fellow Fifer, Mr Wilson. Scotland voted to remain. The UK voted to leave. Scotland is meant to be an equal partner in this union of nations, but Westminster remains cloth-eared to that political reality. Government should exist for the sake of the people, so we should let the people decide our future.15:53
What a day. It is a day of flags and the constitution, and categorically not a day for debating our public services, as many other speakers have pointed out, or matters that affect the everyday lives of people in Scotland. A Government with a strong record of delivery on education, the national health service, transport and broadband would want to debate such matters, but this Government does not want to do so. I wonder why. Why does the SNP want to talk about the constitution instead of talking about its domestic achievements? I will try to answer that by looking at the region that I represent, because the Highlands and Islands have been left behind more than most places by this Government.
Let us look first at education. Audit Scotland’s recent report on the performance of Highland Council gives just one example of the failure in a portfolio area that is the First Minister’s priority. The report says:
“Performance against national benchmarking indicators has deteriorated over a five-year period, with poor performance in priority areas including education.”
The most recent figures from the Scottish Government revealed that, last December, just 60 per cent of Highland Council primary 7 pupils had reached the expected level for writing, and only 54 per cent had reached it for literacy. Even John Swinney is on record as saying that
“performance levels in Highland schools need to improve.”—[Official Report, 18 December 2019; c 9.]
Over the past year, teacher numbers dropped in both Highland Council and Western Isles Council, despite the Government’s insistence that teacher numbers must be maintained.
What about our health services? The NHS in the Highlands and Islands continues to have an issue with vacancies across the board—that is part of a severe staffing crisis that has existed since before I was elected. Just recently, my colleague Edward Mountain found out that NHS Highland alone spent more than £20 million on locums and bank and agency staff in the past financial year. Figures show that between September 2018 and September 2019, there was a 9.2 per cent increase in vacancies across all specialties in NHS Highland, a 10 per cent increase in NHS Grampian and a 25 per cent increase in NHS Shetland. In fact, just yesterday, it was reported that a new kidney dialysis service for Skye has been delayed due to recruitment problems.
Those are the issues that matter to the people we represent.
Donald Cameron talks about a recruitment crisis in the NHS. Does he agree with NHS managers that the loss of EU workers due to Brexit will make that even worse? Highland Council’s own figures estimate that the area will lose at least £100 million a year because of Brexit.
Donald Cameron will get the time back.
Thank you, Presiding Officer.
As I have often said, the staffing crisis in our NHS began long before 23 June 2016.
On top of serious staffing issues, NHS Highland continues to experience serious claims of bullying. Only yesterday, Gavin Smith of the GMB union said on “Good Morning Scotland” that he has
“staff across the organisation that say they do not notice any change in the culture since the Sturrock Report”.
Those are the issues that really concern our constituents, but they are falling by the wayside.
Why will the SNP not debate ferries? Because its stewardship of our ferry network has been an calamity. We now know that the two new ferries will be delivered even later than was originally forecast. Need I remind the Scottish Government that CalMac said in 2010 that it would have to build a new ferry every year just to stand still? Need I remind the Scottish Government that almost 50 per cent of the existing fleet are beyond their 25-year life expectancy? That is what is damaging island communities, which care a lot more about their transport links than they do about the SNP’s obsession with the constitution.
I turn to broadband. If the SNP majored on one area in its 2016 and 2017 manifestos, that area was the delivery of broadband. I will recap. The SNP promised to deliver superfast broadband to 100 per cent of homes and businesses by 2021. That is next year, and the date was selected by the SNP and no one else—it is the SNP’s target and its alone. Despite all the grandstanding, we now know that homes and businesses across much of the Highlands and Islands will be lucky if they get superfast broadband by 2026—five years late.
Will the member give way?
That is another abject failure—that is what matters. Taking all those issues together, and given that abysmal record, I say that it is no wonder that the SNP is so desperate to escape being held to account.
Such avoidance of scrutiny does not end there. It is a running theme that continues right into this afternoon’s debate. When the debate was first announced, its stated purpose was to allow the First Minister to set out her plans, in response to the UK Government’s refusal to authorise another independence referendum. I am sorry that she is no longer in the chamber to take part in the debate that she led.
We were told that the “next steps” were to be set out today. It was going to be the big reveal. Here we are—except we are not being told what the fabled next steps are, so we do not have the opportunity to debate them. We are left in the dark, boxing with shadows. We have learned nothing new today, because the announcement is apparently being saved for Friday, after a late change of heart.
Far from the madding crowd—and far from the scrutiny of this chamber: the First Minister prefers the grand theatre of Bute house and Brexit day for her big statement. It is a cynical move in and of itself, but it is made worse—much worse—by the fact that, having avoided proper interrogation of those next steps in the chamber today, the First Minister will nevertheless use tonight’s vote as a rubber stamp for whatever plan she comes up with on Friday. That is the true “affront to democracy”, to use her phrase.
So, what a day: 29 January 2020 has been a day that will go down in the history of this Parliament for all the wrong reasons. It has been a day when the SNP has wanted us to debate flags and accordingly usurp the decision of our own corporate body; a day when the SNP wanted us to debate the constitution rather than public services; and a day when the First Minister will lay claim to the will of Parliament without having the courage to put her detailed proposals to the Parliament.
In short, it has been a day when, from start to finish, Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have treated this Parliament and its institutions with contempt. I support the amendment in Jackson Carlaw’s name.16:00
I will start with the words of the late Donald Dewar when speaking in the debate on the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill in the House of Commons on 21 May 1997:
“I should be the last to challenge the sovereignty of the people or to deny them the right to opt for any solution to the constitutional question which they wished. For example, if they want to go for independence, I see no reason why they should not do so. In fact, if they want to, they should. I should be the first to accept that.
It is on that basis that I had no difficulty—perhaps this is a Scottish point—in signing the Claim of Right, but that does not imply that the people had to exercise their right by travelling on one particular road. That does not imply that if they failed to pick the road with the exit sign from the United Kingdom, they were betraying their trust. That is not my view. I believe that people have a right to choice, but that they have the right to every choice.”—[Official Report, House of Commons, 21 May 1997; Vol 294, c 725.]
I say to Richard Leonard and the Labour Party that the wording of the motion that is before us today is an echo of the principles that were laid down, and adhered to, by Donald Dewar and his colleagues in the passage of the legislation, first of all for a referendum and then for the establishment of the Parliament.
I listened to Mr Leonard very carefully. His only real issue was about the timing of a referendum. He does not want it this year. I can understand why he does not want it this year, but the motion does not commit the Parliament at this stage—[Interruption.] Read the motion. It talks about a referendum taking place
“on a date and in a manner determined by the Scottish Parliament”,
not determined unilaterally by the Scottish Government. I do not understand why the Labour Party now is reneging on the fundamental principles that Donald Dewar laid out.
With reference to Mr Neil’s comments about the claim of right, I concur with what Donald Dewar said then. However, the issue—Mr Neil knows this more than anyone—is that we have no idea what the outcome of Brexit will be. If he can tell me what the trading arrangements, the regulations and all that stuff will be, I would say that we can go forward. However, he knows that we cannot. Until that is clarified, we cannot follow.
That is a very fair point. Indeed, the First Minister is on record a number of times as saying that we need to know the broad shape of the Brexit deal before we can vote in an independence referendum. We obviously hope to know that at some point this year. However, the point is the resolution and what we are being asked to vote for. The resolution says that the date will be decided by the Scottish Parliament. It will not be decided today. Therefore, there is no excuse; if members believe in the claim of right, there is no excuse for voting against the motion today.
I will now deal with Boris Johnson’s position. He has changed matters dramatically. Every Prime Minister in living memory—Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, David Cameron and Theresa May—is on record as saying that, if the Scottish people at any time vote for independence, independence they must get. They recognised that they had to fulfil the democratic wishes of the Scottish people if we voted for independence.
In turning down the First Minister’s proposal for a referendum this year, Theresa May replied, “Now is not the time”. She did not say that we can never have a referendum.
Will the member take an intervention?
I will, in a minute.
Theresa May did not say, “If you win on the back of a mandate in 2021, with an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament, you still cannot have a referendum.” She said not now, but Boris Johnson is saying not ever—no matter what the Scottish people say. That is totally unacceptable, not only to the SNP. It should be totally unacceptable to any self-respecting Scot.
The SNP has always said that, in its view, referendums such as the one on independence are once-in-a-generation events.
In September 2013, Nicola Sturgeon said that the independence referendum was probably a
“once in a lifetime opportunity”
for people in Scotland. I know that Alex Neil does not always agree with his party leader, but does he agree with that?
That is nonsense. In the Good Friday agreement, there are two provisions. First, it says very clearly that, if there is majority support for a referendum on reunification, a referendum should take place. Secondly, it provides that, if a referendum takes place and the result is a vote against reunification, there can be another referendum within a seven-year period. The British Government has already defined in law that a generation between referenda is seven years. If that is good enough for Northern Ireland, why is it not good enough for Scotland? It is because the Tory party has always held its country in contempt. It fought against devolution when that was clearly the wish of a majority of Scottish people for a long time. It now needs to come to the table and say whether it is going to stand up to Boris Johnson. If the Scottish people vote and give a mandate for a referendum on independence next year, will the Tory party abide by that democratic decision or will it ditch democracy?16:07
The Government motion before us is a bit of a classic of the rather disingenuous genre. It has taken a simple statement of fact about what the Smith commission said and used it as if it is some clever reveal—a rabbit pulled out of the hat—instead of something that we all know perfectly well that it said, and tries to ascribe a meaning to it that it patently does not have. The truth is that the phrase that is quoted in the motion is simply the commission’s response to a straw-man argument that was mounted by the SNP at the time.
The early days of the commission were spent listening to the tiresome angst of the SNP. If it signed up to a more powerful devolved settlement, that would be taken to mean that it had given up on its purpose of independence—as if empowering this Parliament was some kind of cunning conspiracy against the SNP.
It was Lord Smith himself who suggested the quoted formula to allow the commission to get on with the job of strengthening the Parliament. We all signed it, because it is only a statement of fact. What it is not, of course, is a suggestion that the Scottish Government can have as many independence referendums as it likes, as often as it likes, on whatever pretext occurs to it. To pretend that it is, is nonsense.
What we also discussed in the Smith commission, and all then signed, was the explicit, deliberate and crystal-clear continued reservation of powers over constitutional issues. That is a fact too, albeit a rather inconvenient one for the Government’s argument, which it is entitled to carry on making.
We are repeatedly told that it is Brexit that changes everything. As much as anyone here, I regret what will happen on Friday. That is why I campaigned against Brexit in 2016, but where was the SNP then? I recall the First Minister only occasionally sallying out to attack and undermine the very remain campaign that she purported to be supporting. Famously, the SNP invested less of its resources in that campaign than it did in a single unwinnable by-election.
My party is probably guilty of having campaigned less hard in the EU referendum than it might have done, but is the fact that the referendum was called just a matter of weeks after our national parliamentary election not just one more sign of the level of contempt that the UK Government continually heaps upon Scotland?
Frankly, that is the most pathetic excuse I have ever heard. Mr Harvie says that he failed to campaign on the very issue that only five, 10 or 15 minutes or an hour ago he was arguing was the most important one that Scotland currently faces.
What about the campaign on the ground? I remind Mr Harvie that Scottish Labour managed to get out and campaign. In East Lothian, our activists campaigned on the ground, but where were those from the local SNP group? They were nowhere to be seen until the weekend after the referendum, when they suddenly appeared on the High Street with European Union flags—finally galvanised by their grievance, but after their goal was gone. I will take no lessons from the SNP on being anti-Brexit.
That is why I want the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government now to focus on using all our powers not to double down on the constitutional crisis or spend another year on independence campaigning but to redouble our efforts to address the impact of Brexit that we have heard about today. We need to set aside the grievance and face the reality of the challenges that the people whom we represent face right now.
The truth is that, when it comes to building and deploying the real powers of the Scottish Parliament, the SNP’s track record is woeful. Today we have heard much about the claim of right, but I remind Mr Russell that the SNP refused to sign it. Then there was mention of the constitutional convention—the SNP walked out of that—and of the Calman commission. In order to deliver the Calman recommendations, the Parliament had to seize power back from a minority SNP Government that came within a hair’s breadth of voting against new powers for the Parliament. That led all the way to the Smith commission, which recommended wide-ranging powers over tax, welfare and spending, which the SNP signed up to one minute and denounced the next. The SNP has never been backwards about demanding more powers, but it has never been to the fore when Scotland’s Parliament stands to be strengthened.
Where does all this endless revision of history—the reinterpretation of agreements, the recalibration of referendums, the redefinition of election results and mandates, and Mr Neil’s complete rewriting of the motion that is now before us—get us? It gets us to a day on which we hear that health inequalities are worsening; that the map of Scotland’s deprived areas is ever more sharply focused; that the attainment gap in our schools is as wide as ever; and that, every day, we are failing even to provide decent housing for our children.
It also gets us to a day on which the Government strains every sinew to deploy Parliament—with all its powers over tax, welfare, health, education and the law—not against want, neglect or poverty, or even against the consequences of Brexit, but against our own corporate body and our own Presiding Officer on the symbolic matter of which flag we should fly. That is against the wishes of most Scots, who do not want another independence referendum. Today has been another day of symbolic sound and fury—and not much else.16:15
It was Disraeli who said that
“finality is not the language of politics”,
and we would do well to remember that democracy is not a one-off event. Politics, like life, goes on, whether times are good or bad. The mandate for Scotland’s right to choose has been repeatedly secured and it is galling to see a party that has not won an election in Scotland for 60 years behave as if it has a veto .
A rare and precious moment occurred in 2014—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to chart a different course and avoid being dragged out of Europe against our will. We might not know everything about the next chapter in the Brexit boorach, but we surely know enough. The consequences of leaving the EU, the single market and the customs union, to face the uncertainty of a free trade agreement and a race to the bottom on human rights, safeguards for workers and environmental protections, are akin to those of replacing your superfast broadband with your old dial-up connection—it is a step backwards.
The Scottish Government, John Major and Philip Alston—the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty—have in common that they all recognise that it will be those with least who will suffer the most as a consequence of Brexit. There are real concerns about the supply of food, fuel and medicines.
The Smith commission did not deliver what was promised—far from it. Nonetheless, when I look to the aftermath of the 2014 referendum, the pragmatist in me recognises that, collectively, we took some steps forward.
Let us contrast that with the post-2016 events, when the UK Government remained resolute in its intransigence, unprepared to compromise with the highest remain-voting part of the UK, and Scotland alone faced an outcome that it did not vote for. What happened to those Conservatives who said that
“what goes for Northern Ireland must go for Scotland also”?
If Brexit has taught us anything, it is what not to do if you want to persuade, lead, and bring people together.
The emboldened UK Government has not only said no only to Scotland’s right to choose. It has said no to all the devolved nations by imposing its withdrawal agreement and trampling over the devolution settlement.
The prorogation of the so-called mother of all Parliaments was a new low for parliamentary democracy across the UK, but the all-time low was the UK Government saying no to unaccompanied child refugees, who are the most vulnerable group of children and young people in the world. The UK Government has also said no to 237,000 EU citizens in Scotland, who now face the indignity of applying for rights that they already have—to stay in their own home. Without EU migration over the next 25 years, our working-age population will fall by 3 per cent and the negative impact thereof is beyond measurement for both our economy and the wellbeing of our society.
Devolution over the past 20 years has taken Scotland forward, but we now risk being locked into decline. I wish that we could have a better debate about the indivisible relationship between where power lies and the bread-and-butter issues that matter most to us.
I never walked away from a debate about what more we can and should do with our existing powers and resources. I steered the Child Poverty (Scotland) Bill through Parliament despite it not having all the social security powers or any employment law. I want the right to food to be enshrined in Scots law despite the fact that the UK Government welfare policies drive up demand for food banks.
Fewer powers means fewer options and, although I want to see us continue to sweat our powers for more impact, we might not be able to do enough. We will not be able to tackle issues with one arm tied behind our back and some of our choices will be impossible to make. For every £1 that we spend on making amends for the actions of the Westminster Government and stopping it dragging people back and making them poorer, we have £1 less to spend on taking people forward and making them richer.
The debate about Scotland’s future is inextricably linked to day-to-day life. That debate has not evaporated and cannot be ignored. To ignore it is not only unsustainable and undemocratic; it is the utter folly of those who fear that they are on the losing side of the argument and on the losing side of history.16:20
Perhaps surprisingly, I will start by thanking the Scottish Government for bringing forward today’s debate, because it wants to talk about Scotland’s future; well, so do I. I want to use our precious parliamentary time—the modest nine or so hours for which this chamber sits per week—to rightfully debate matters of importance to the people we serve. Surely that is what is expected of us all. I would like to think that, regardless of members’ politics or constitutional views, this chamber should be a place of free debate. It should be a place where Opposition members and—dare I say it—even Government back benchers are free to hold ministers of the Government of the day to account, day in and day out, for their actions and their inaction.
Therefore, if the Scottish Government calls a debate about Scotland’s future, I am all ears, but Scotland’s future lies in how this Parliament, its parties and its Government use their time and their responsibility to deliver on devolution for the good of the people we represent—and we should represent all our constituents. We have spent 40 minutes having a debate about how to overturn the independent decision making of the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body, and now we are spending two and a half hours on the constitution. I say to the people in the gallery or those who are watching the debate at home that we can do so much better than that.
What does this debate tell people about the Scottish Government’s priorities? [Interruption.] I can hear heckling, but I know that there are SNP members who have worked in our NHS, taught in our schools, fought for our country or dedicated their lives to public service. There are many such members for whom I have great respect, having got to know them over the past four years, but surely even they must be nervous about the imagery of this Parliament prioritising flags, the constitution and referenda over schools, hospitals and police stations.
The First Minister wants to talk about Scotland’s future, so let us talk about Scotland’s future. Scotland’s future is as precious to me as it is to my mother, my neighbours, my friends—those of political persuasion and those of none—just as being Scottish is precious to me, despite what some might say.
The motion talks about forming a Government that is “best suited” to Scotland’s needs, but the question is whether the Scottish Government’s track record fulfils that ambition. Let us talk instead about the fact that violent crime rose by 18 per cent in Inverclyde last year. We are told that there is nothing to see there. Let us talk about the subject choice reduction in our schools, the teacher shortages in science, technology, engineering and mathematics or the fact that Scottish students are being squeezed out of university places. In raising those issues, we are accused of having a moanfest.
Let us talk about the new hospital on the east coast that is still not open and the one on the west coast that is open, but which is under investigation. Let us talk about the two new ferries that were promised to our island communities that are lying half built in the dock while our island communities suffer. Scotland’s future does not lie in constitutional debate or buried deep in white papers on independence; it lies in improving opportunities and outcomes for everybody in Scotland. Scotland’s future lies in tackling general practitioner shortages and waiting times in our hospitals. It lies in delivering affordable, reliable public transport that meets the needs of all our communities and the environment, just as it lies in ensuring that there are enough teachers so that we can address the significant growth in multilevel teaching and give our children the education that they deserve.
Scotland’s future lies in looking after our police officers, tackling violent crime, reducing drug deaths and making our streets safer. It lies in growing our economy—
Will the member take an intervention?
I say to Mr Mackay that Scotland’s future lies in growing our economy, so that my home town of Greenock is not ranked top of the deprivation table. Housing, health and education are all major factors in the depressing accolade that it has inherited. That is a sad indictment of Mr Mackay’s Government, and it is what happens when a Government takes its eye off the ball.
Will the member give way?
The truth is that, when the going gets tough, the Government deflects, as we can hear. Today’s debate is really about nothing more than sheer, unashamed deflection from debating the very powers with which devolution has empowered us.
The sad but inevitable truth at the heart of the debate is that I often wonder whether the SNP Government really cares whether devolution succeeds or fails, because, by its misguided logic, either outcome will give credence to the notion that independence is somehow the answer to all our woes.
When I say to the First Minister, “Get on with the day job,” I say that not only to her but as a challenge to each and every one of us. This is not about sovereignty; it is about duty. Our duty is to ensure that excellence prevails in every health board, in every local authority and in every place of education. If we do not ensure that that happens, we will all be failing in our duty. Scotland’s future is already in our hands. The sooner we realise that, the sooner we can all get back to the day job.16:26
I will touch on two points that Jamie Greene made. First, the constitution matters. If it did not, we would not be leaving the European Union on Friday evening. Secondly, on flags, I suggest that he goes online and looks at some of the images of London at the moment. The city is festooned with union flags, whereas we had a debate about one flag outside this building.
Today’s debate has been very much as I suspected: pro-independence members gave a robust defence of independence and, on the pro-union side, we heard a robust defence of that position. However, one thing that is certain is that Scotland’s status and its position in the EU will change come 11 pm on Friday evening. I am an English-born Scot, and I am also a European. My circumstances will change on Friday night. For me, that material change of circumstance necessitates that this Parliament take forward a referendum on independence.
In 2014, we were told to lead the UK, not to leave it. We were love bombed by many, and the political class from Westminster were sent up to tell us to stay. However, since then, the respect agenda has ended, and the Westminster elite have shut their ears to the concerns and suggestions of the UK’s devolved Parliaments and Assemblies. The fact that the UK’s three devolved law-making bodies voted against the UK Government’s withdrawal agreement and refused to grant their consent tells a story. Added to that is the fact that England and Wales get their wish to leave the European Union, and Northern Ireland gets a better deal, but Scotland gets nothing.
Over many months, we have heard the Tories in particular, and the Lib Dems today, use the word “divisive”. I would go further than them: clearly, in any multiparty democracy, there have to be divisions, because there are different political parties, different views and thoughts, and different policies. In this Parliament, we divide at 5 pm every night that the chamber sits. By its nature, political debate creates some element of division. Every five years at elections, the population divides and people vote for the parties that they wish to vote for. Therefore, the arguments about division that some of those on the pro-union side highlight are nonsense.
As Alex Neil said, the Tories did not want the Scottish Parliament to be created. The Lib Dems seem to want federalism, and Labour seems to want home rule. The Tories’ position is very clear, but the other two positions are as clear as mud.
At last week’s Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee meeting, we heard the unfortunate truth for the Tories.
Professor Anand Menon stated:
“On ratification, I absolutely agree with what Dr Fabian Zuleeg said about the European Parliament”.
He went on to say that we should
“bear it in mind that, if we end up with”
a mixed trade agreement
“that needs approval by Parliaments across Europe, what is curious about this negotiation is that it is the only negotiation in history whose specific objective is to make trade more difficult.”—[Official Report, Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Affairs Committee, 23 January 2020; c 6.]
On Friday evening, pro-Europeans will be dragged out of the European Union against our will. If a trade deal can be done, it will make Scotland’s economy worse off. Here will be another material change of circumstance to our country and to the people who live here.
In 2013, the UK Government reiterated that the people of Scotland have a right to decide on our future. Every party signed up to the Smith commission’s proposals, the report on which stated:
“nothing in this report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose”.
Last week, the Survation poll indicated that, of those people who were asked, 61 per cent backed this Parliament deciding whether to hold an independence referendum.
I understand what Stuart McMillan says about the opinion poll but, as I said to the First Minister, just one month ago, 55 per cent of voters—[Interruption.] Why do members object to that? It is a simple fact that 55 per cent of voters in Scotland voted for candidates who do not want another independence referendum. There is no real demand.
Elections and referenda are two different forms of public engagement. I want independence for many reasons. Fundamentally, I want the lot of every single person in my constituency to improve. My constituency has never fully recovered from the systematic deindustrialisation strategy of the Tories from 1979.
The Scottish index of multiple deprivation data that was published yesterday makes sobering reading. It tells me that the austerity agenda from Westminster is not working and that, in order to grow and strengthen communities, things need to change. It also tells me that the full powers of independence would ensure that my constituency and others like it will improve.
Over Christmas, Scotland lost one of our greatest writers—Alasdair Gray. He famously wrote about working
“as if you live in the early days of a better nation.”
That is what independence will bring and it is why I will be voting for Scotland tonight at 5 o’clock. It is also why I want the lot of every single person in my constituency to be better.
I call Alex Cole-Hamilton to close for the Liberal Democrats, for a firm six minutes, please.16:32
It is a great privilege to close the debate for my party this afternoon.
The debate feels very different to other debates of this kind in this parliamentary session. Deputy Presiding Officer, I invite you to look around you. The public gallery is largely empty, and has been for most of the day. The press gallery is largely empty, with the honourable exception of Liam Kirkaldy, who is one of the finest comedy sketch writers in Scotland. He is not writing the front page splash of tomorrow’s papers. The gallery is symptomatic of public interest on the wane. I fear that Jackson Carlaw is right that, this afternoon, we have been playing only to the hard core of the yes movement—each of them dutifully tuned into Parliament TV and occasionally looking up from the crossword on the back of The National. Our country has judged this afternoon’s debate for the theatre that it is, and has turned away and moved on to other things. It is high time that Parliament joined them.
At the start of her speech, the First Minister suggested that Opposition politicians such as me would speak with faux outrage. I assure her that my outrage is real. It is outrage because we are spending another afternoon of Government time not debating the many crises in our public services that her Administration has presided over. It is outrage because, once again, the First Minister is misappropriating my vote to remain in the European Union as a catalyst for another divisive independence referendum. It is outrage because, once again, she is falsely trying to characterise the debate as an unambiguous choice between two unions.
Since the Brexit result of 2016, the First Minister has sought to capitalise on the grief response of many ardent remainers—I know what that grief feels like. She has sought to characterise independence as a bridge back to membership of the European Union.
However, as with so many arguments that the Government deploys, the argument fails to withstand exposure to reality. The First Minister knows that membership of the single market that an independent Scotland would have to join would mean hard border checks at Carlisle. She knows that the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union requires that accession states have a structural deficit of no more than 3 per cent, but ours is 7 per cent. To put it simply, the EU might choose not to have us for years—[Interruption.]
Excuse me, Mr Cole-Hamilton. There is too much chuntering going on. I cannot hear what is being said.
The European Union might choose not to have us for years, and then it might have us only on the back of savage spending cuts and tax rises.
The SNP’s commitment to the European Union is hollow, too, as is evidenced by the reality of the SNP’s having spent far more on the Shetland by-election than it spent on the remain campaign in Scotland, as Willie Rennie said, and by its refusal to back a people’s vote for two and a half years.
Moreover, a third of the SNP’s supporters—supporters that the SNP will require if it is to deliver the independence that it craves—voted for Brexit. I say to the First Minister that remain voters will find her out.
I am a Liberal Democrat, so I know something about losing elections, but the Brexit result devastated me. It has made Britain smaller as a country and it has worried the many European Union citizens who live and work among us. I echo the words of Jenny Gilruth when I say to those people, “You are welcome here; this is your home and we want you to stay.”
I am an internationalist to my fingertips, so the last thing that I could do would be to meet the loss of one union that I care about by jettisoning the other union that I care about. Brexit is not a catalyst for independence, but a warning against it.
Donald Cameron put his finger on it, in his excellent speech: we have learned absolutely nothing from the Government this afternoon. Indeed, as Richard Leonard rightly said, the debate was designed to appease the First Minister’s “overagitated ... base”. Every few months, there is the launch of, for example, a new fact-checking service that does not check any facts, or of the 10,000 dinner conversations that The National asks people to have—not at my house, they won’t—but the First Minister knows that such things will not cut it any more.
Will the member take an intervention?
I am afraid that I am running out of time.
The First Minister knows that she has to keep her base marching. She knows that unless there are meaningless debates such as this in Parliament, the eyes of her base will begin to drift to the failures of the Government—and those failures are legion. Legally binding waiting time guarantees are being broken every single week, tens of thousands of times. People who are in pain are coming into members’ surgeries clutching letters that say that they were to be treated in 12 weeks, when they have not been seen in 50 weeks.
Then there are the child mental health waiting times. Children in my constituency and other members’ constituencies are waiting up to two years for first-line treatment.
Will the member take an intervention?
The member is closing.
Police officers are off work with stress, and when they are at work they are forced to inhabit stations that are structurally unsound. A children’s hospital is lying empty and is costing £1.4 million per month. In primary schools, talented teachers are teaching overcrowded classes to tests that none of them agrees with. The list goes on and on.
We heard a lot about mandates today, but at no point have the parties that support independence attracted 50 per cent of the vote between them, when the pages of their manifestos have contained a proposal to have an independence referendum. Furthermore, neither of the parties that will vote for the motion tonight has met the test of public opinion that it set itself. We shall vote against the motion.16:38
In speaking in this debate, I want to make it clear that I very much recognise
“the sovereign right of the”
“to determine the form of government best suited to their needs”.
That is the position of the Labour Party, which is why the amendment that we lodged would keep that phrase. I acknowledged that right during the 2014 referendum. I have done so in debates since then and I recognise it now.
I also do not disagree with the motion that the First Minister has lodged when it recognises that
the Smith commission
“report prevents Scotland becoming an independent country in the future should the people of Scotland so choose”.
That is just a matter of fact.
I also agree that
“there has been a material change in circumstances since 2014”.
However, there is no evidence whatever to suggest that the material change to the UK—that is, Brexit—has resulted in any material change in public opinion on independence or, indeed, in the desire for another independence referendum.
The 2014 vote was 45 per cent yes, 55 per cent no. Six years on, all the evidence suggests that there has been little movement either way—the country remains absolutely divided on the question. That said, poll after poll has demonstrated that there is no majority right now demanding another referendum. I suggest that people are more concerned about the impact of Brexit and what it will mean for Scotland and for the people of Scotland. I hear people asking, “What about the general election result? Isn’t that a mandate?”
I refer to Professor Sir John Curtice’s recent blog, in which he outlined two polls that were held during the general election campaign that specifically asked for views on whether people supported or opposed another referendum being held within the next year. Ipsos MORI found that 42 per cent supported the idea and 50 per cent were opposed to it. Panelbase found that 38 per cent supported the idea of another referendum in this year, and 51 per cent were opposed to it. That led Professor Curtice to say:
“On the basis of this evidence it is difficult to argue that there is a clear majority support for holding a referendum on the timescale proposed by the Scottish Government.”
The argument that Alex Rowley puts forward is about the timing of the referendum. The motion says that the Scottish Parliament would determine the timing of the referendum; therefore, Scottish Labour would vote accordingly at that time. Does he agree with all the other principles that are laid out in the motion? What other principles in the motion does he disagree with?
My reading of the motion is that the Scottish Government has called for a referendum in 2020. Scottish Labour has been absolutely clear that we respect the right of the Scottish people to determine their own future, but what I have just set out demonstrates that, right now, there is no majority calling for an independence referendum. I can understand that, because people are genuinely and sincerely worried about the impact of Brexit: there is still a serious risk that we could crash out of the EU without a deal at the end of this year.
Scottish Labour is saying that we respect the right of the Scottish people to determine their own future, but that the party also respects the fact that there is no majority demanding a second independence referendum, right now. Members therefore need to ask themselves who the First Minister is representing with the motion. I suggest that she is representing a minority of people in Scotland, at this time.
To decide that the best course of action during this period of great political, constitutional and economic upheaval is to hold another independence referendum is, in my view, simply ill-conceived. It is also disingenuous to the people of Scotland, because a clear picture of what they would be voting for cannot be presented to them, no matter what Michael Russell says. We would not know what we would be voting for until the dust from Brexit settles, and we will not know what impact it will have on Scotland, the UK or the rest of Europe. It is essential that the negative consequences of Brexit must be properly dealt with and mitigated before any clear proposals can come forward.
Speaking of mitigation, I have to say that those who are most disingenuous in Parliament are the members of the Tory party and the illiberal Liberal members opposite me. The hypocrisy of their amendments is that they identify education, health and other public services when it is absolutely clear that the main contributing factor to poor public services in this country over the past few years has been failed Tory austerity, which was introduced when the Tory-Liberal coalition came to power. Scotland is using £100 million to mitigate the bedroom tax—an abhorrent tax that was introduced by smiling Willie Rennie’s party and the Tory party. If that £100 million was not being used to mitigate welfare cuts, it would be ploughed into our schools and other services.
Labour supports the democratic right of the Scottish people to determine their own future, and we will continue to do so, but right now there is no demand for another referendum.
You must conclude.
The progressive parties that want to tackle the big issues and that want Parliament to have the powers to do so should come together to work on an agenda for greater powers for the Parliament, in order to address Scotland’s issues.
I call Adam Tomkins to close for the Conservatives. You have a strict six minutes, Mr Tomkins.16:46
Time is precious and limited, yet the problems facing the Scottish Government are mounting, and many of them are problems of the Government’s own making. This debate is entitled “Scotland’s Future”, and Scotland’s future depends on addressing the problems that the Scottish Government faces, such as our underperforming economy, our struggling health service and the appalling mismanagement of our schools. However, the SNP does not want to talk about any of those issues. This week, we wanted a statement on what the SNP proposes to do about the disastrous and crumbling state of Scotland’s police stations, but we were told that there was not time because the SNP wanted to hold a debate about flags.
Presiding Officer, this has been a dismal day for the Parliament over which you and your colleagues preside. We all know that the priorities of the Scottish people are that Scotland’s politics should be resolutely focused on schools and hospitals and on skills, jobs and the economy, yet our time, precious and limited though it is, has been devoted to debates on flags and the SNP’s pet obsession with independence.
I want to talk about Scotland’s future. Let us talk about the future of Scotland’s economy and about the SNP’s long record of economic failure. In breach of clear manifesto promises, the SNP has raised income tax for more than 1 million Scots, making Scotland the highest-taxed part of the UK. That has not increased revenues at all because, at the same time, the SNP has failed to grow the tax base. The Scottish economy is growing at less than half the rate of the UK’s economy. Scotland has slower business growth, a lower employment rate, foreign direct investment is down and business investment is down. On top of all that, we have the ruinous car park tax to look forward to. Scotland’s future requires a Government that is determined to address those economic failures, whereas all that we have is a tired Government running from its record to force on us debates on flags and independence.
I want to talk about Scotland’s future. Let us talk about the future of Scotland’s schools and the long record of SNP failure on education. We have an attainment gap that is widening and not narrowing. Overall, attainment is declining and not improving. Pupils who are already struggling are suffering more than brighter pupils. SNP policy on closing the attainment gap is failing and having no material impact. Subject choice in Scottish schools has been squeezed, with multilevel teaching on the rise, leading to particular problems in science subjects. It is no wonder that, on Mr Swinney’s watch, in the international PISA scores, science in Scotland stands at a record low and, likewise, maths is at a record low. On reading, about which Mr Swinney likes to brag so much, we are just about average.
Scotland’s future depends on the success of Scottish schools and the Scottish education system, in general. That is devolved and the responsibility of SNP Scottish ministers, but—again—they do not want to talk about any of that. They want to hide behind a flag and bang the drum for independence.
Scotland’s future needs a healthy population that is supported and nurtured by a world-class, fit-for-purpose, 21st century health service. How is the SNP doing on that front, apart from the serial health boards that are being taken into special measures and the hospitals that cannot even open their doors?
The 12-week treatment guarantee has never once been met. We have urgent cancer patients waiting more than two months for treatment. We have the highest number of drug deaths ever recorded and the worst levels in Europe. We have nearly 500 consultant vacancies, an increasing lack of nurses and midwives and high levels of mental health vacancies. The NHS in Scotland has been persistently underfunded and mismanaged by the SNP. That is the issue affecting Scotland’s future that I would like the Scottish Government to focus on and the Scottish Parliament to debate.
I believe in the sovereign right of the Scottish people. I believe that it was exercised in September 2014, when more than 2 million of our fellow Scots voted to reject independence.
Rather like this afternoon’s debate, the independence referendum was rancorous and divisive. However, I finish on a point of consensus, because there is something that the First Minister said with which I agree. In September 2013, she said:
“The SNP have always said that, in our view, these kind of referendums are once-in-a-generation events. This is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for people in Scotland.”
It was not once in a generation; in her own words, it was once in a lifetime. In that referendum, the people of Scotland exercised their sovereignty to say no, and the people of Scotland meant it.16:51
Let us start with a fact: the debate is taking place because, in two days’ time, Scotland will be taken out of the EU against our will, and everybody here who has a passport that says that they are an EU citizen will lose that designation. That is something that we do not want to happen and that this Government has fought against.
However, we are fortunate in Scotland, because we have the opportunity to move on from that and back into membership of the EU. From polls, we know that most people in Scotland want to be in the EU. This is a debate about the potential for Scotland to move away from Brexit, which has been imposed on us, and to move towards the normality of being a small nation in Europe.
The debate has also been about the record of the Scottish Government, and so it should be. I think that Jackson Carlaw should be concerned about Government failure. He should be concerned about the failure of a Government that has been in power for a long time and has failed to deliver over that period. He should be concerned about that, but the trouble is that he is focused on the wrong Government.
There is another Government that we need to look at in regard to these matters. It is a Government that tries to exercise its control and exercises substantial budgetary control over what we do. All that we have to do is a Google search on the record of the UK Government. Let us look at some headlines from over the past few weeks and months. “Doomed Royal Liverpool hospital costs set to soar to staggering £1.1 billion” is about a hospital that is unfinished, like the Midland Metropolitan hospital in Birmingham. [Interruption.] I notice, as ever, that Labour—
Neil Findlay rose—
Excuse me, Presiding Officer, but I am not taking any interventions from Mr Findlay, which is likely to improve the quality of the debate significantly.
There are more headlines, such as “One in eight secondary schools in England are ‘failing’” and “Commuters are heading into their third week of train chaos as the new timetable is implemented”.
When the Prime Minister wrote to the First Minister some weeks ago, he used the word “stagnation” about the Scottish economy. The Financial Times used the headline “Economic conditions remained ‘stagnant’ in the second quarter amid ‘relentless Brexit uncertainty’”, so the stagnation is in the UK economy.
If we touch on the health service, there was the headline “Fifth of patients miss NHS targets”. Going back to education, we had “Examiners left ‘horrified’ by flaws in English GCSE marking”. What about housing? We had “England needs to build four million new homes to deal with an escalating crisis”. [Interruption.] Opposition members do not like what I am saying. I do not care whether they like it or not, because it is the truth.
Order, please. I want us to hear the cabinet secretary.
The crime rate in the rest of the UK is much worse than that in Scotland. Rural payments are worse. The UK food industry threatened to stop co-operating with the UK Government because of the catastrophic impact of Brexit. English councils are braced for the biggest Government cuts since 2010.
Mr Fraser was particularly excited about the police and police stations. At least there are police stations in Scotland. Six hundred police stations have closed in England since 2010—[Interruption.]
Members are allowed to react, but could they please keep the noise down? We cannot hear the cabinet secretary.
Mr Fraser was concerned about the overspend on ferries. Has he seen the defence overspend? It is £1.3 billion on the frigates—[Interruption.]
Conservative members do not like what I am saying, but the reality is that there is deflection going on in every area of UK Government business. It is a deflection from their failures, while they try to pretend that in some way those failures are somebody else’s. They are deflecting from their own abysmal record, on which they were supported by the Liberal Democrats. It is pure deflection.
Let me touch on some of the things—[Interruption.]
On a point of order, Presiding Officer. If the cabinet secretary is going to insult the Liberal Democrats, I would like to hear him do so.
That is a very good point of order. It is the very point that I am considering; it is simply too noisy. I can hear that the cabinet secretary has slightly lost his voice. I urge all members to keep their comments to themselves. If they wish to speak, they should stand up and make an intervention.
There is a list of things—I could and should read it out—that this Government has been doing, even in the past seven days. Let me touch on some of them. The export statistics, which Mr Mackay released this morning, show a £1.1 billion increase in international exports; the gross domestic product statistics show that Scotland’s economy grew by 0.3 per cent during the third quarter; we have launched a wide-ranging research project to understand the needs of students; today, a major report was published on deer management; we have launched our payment programme to provide financial security for farmers; we have announced a new climate change group; we have published the latest update of the Scottish index of multiple deprivation; and we have welcomed the Scottish Funding Council’s budget round. We have been working in every area of national life and continue to do so.
Are we perfect? Not even the First Minister is perfect—I am sorry to say that. However, we are delivering as a Government and the people who are failing and who have a constitutional obsession are those who are sitting on the Conservative benches. They are the people who are taking us out of Europe.
Admittedly, the Conservatives’ constitutional obsession is not as great as Willie Rennie’s; his save Fife from freedom campaign is now an absolute obsession. However, it is the Tories who are taking us out of the EU and who are spending every single moment of legislative time and every single penny on Brexit; every political issue is about Brexit. That is the problem. The problem that we have in Scotland is a Tory Government that is taking us out of Europe.
How do we resolve that problem? We do so by voting for independence. Independence is not peripheral. A choice in Scotland is not peripheral. The choice is central and that is why this debate is important. If the chamber votes this evening in favour of a referendum, that must happen.
We have parties in this chamber that say all the time that what is voted for in this chamber must happen. If this chamber votes, by majority, for a referendum, it must happen. It is bizarre for any party in this chamber to argue the opposite. The Liberal Democrats, who are meant to be the champions of proportional representation, have said this afternoon that it does not matter how this chamber votes, because they will still not recognise the wish of the Scottish people. That is not liberal, and it is not democratic.
Just over a century ago, in Cork, in January 1885, Parnell said something that needs to be borne in mind. He said:
“no man has the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation. No man has a right to say to his country, ‘Thus far shalt thou go and no further’.”
No man—certainly not Willie Rennie; not Richard Leonard, not Jackson Carlaw and absolutely not Boris Johnson. If this Parliament votes for a referendum, it will have it.