Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab)
It is a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Ms Nokes. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) who opened the debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. I thought he gave an excellent and measured speech. He had spoken to the petitioners and expressed what they were trying to achieve by this debate, which just shows the breadth of what they were trying to do. I was quite shocked—really shocked—when he said that the petitioners wish to remain anonymous because they fear the consequences of speaking out. That is one of the main reasons we should not have another independence referendum. It is hugely divisive; businesses, charities and third-sector organisations feel they cannot speak out and make their voices heard. Members of the public cannot speak out. There is division in families and division in workplaces. It is really shocking that the petitioners feel as if they cannot put their name publicly to this kind of petition.
We have just had another debate in the House that is all about process with none of the answers. Last Wednesday in the House of Commons Chamber, we had seven hours of debate and no answers about the proposition being made. That is one of the major reasons why the debate has turned into a debate about process, rather than the actual issues. The SNP spokesperson, the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), talked about “meaningfully engaging”. There is no meaningful engagement at all in this debate, because none of the big questions are answered.
Let me give an example, which will be recorded in Hansard from last Wednesday. The hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Tommy Sheppard), who opened the debate, was challenged about some big questions on currency, the EU, borders, debts and the deficit—the list is pretty endless. He said there was no need to answer those questions at the moment, because they would all be addressed when an independence referendum is actually held. However, just two speakers from the SNP Benches later, we had a detailed analysis of how an independent Scotland’s asylum policy would operate. On the one hand, we have answers. On the other hand, we do not. I suspect that that is because the answers to the big questions are not forthcoming.
We have heard a number of times today, including from the petitioners and from my hon. Friend the Member for Islwyn, that the Scottish Government could be not only answering a whole number of questions but looking at a whole number of really important policies for the Scottish people. My hon. Friend talked about food poverty, about energy poverty and about the education system catching up—is it not strange that for the first time in its history the Scottish education system is plummeting down the international rankings and we have heard nothing about that?
That is all at a time when the Scottish Government are using precious Scottish Government time in Parliament —just 24 hours before Parliament’s last full day—to introduce another referendum Bill. Not a Bill on educational attainment or food poverty. Not a Bill to ensure that the 220 people who were queued up in the snow and sub-zero temperatures in George Square are fed and given a home. It is not a Bill on poverty, or on how we grow businesses. It is not a Bill on any of those things, but a Bill to have another referendum. That is the only priority that the Scottish National party has and it is paralysing our politics. It is paralysing our Parliament and, as we have heard from the petitioners, it is poisoning our national discourse. Where is the debate about a fairer society? Where is the debate about some of these big questions?
The hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (John Nicolson) spoke inaccurately, I think, when he tried to muddy the line between patriotism and nationalism. It is as if someone who is not a nationalist is not a patriot. That surely cannot be the case. We are all patriotic about our country, but it is possible to be a patriot and celebrate everything that is Scottish—I certainly do— without being a nationalist. Blurring that line is incredibly dangerous. The hon. Gentleman also talked eloquently, and he was right, about the damage that leaving the EU is doing to Scotland and the rest of the country. However, he did not spend any time telling us what the SNP’s plan would be for getting back into the EU. It is contradictory and impossible to deliver, and that is not being honest with the Scottish people.
The right hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) rightly challenged the SNP on the rewriting of history, which is really the only tool in its box at the moment: speaking about things that did not happen, making assertions about what other people have said and what the Scottish Parliament is for, and making the huge assertion that the SNP’s voice is the voice of the Scottish people. It is not. The Scottish people is much wider than that. I certainly would not suggest that I could speak on behalf of all the Scottish people. The SNP should not do so either.
The hon. Member for Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill (Steven Bonnar) said no one was talking about a referendum at any time soon. Well, no one apart from the First Minister—and the Cabinet Secretary responsible for it, Mike Russell, and the SNP leader at Westminster, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). They have all talked about a potential independence referendum this year. Can you imagine, when most Scots are thinking about their jobs, worried about their livelihoods and concerned about their health and that of their family, friends and colleagues as we come out of probably the most serious economic and health crisis the country has seen in peacetime, going straight into an independence referendum? Here is a little bit of a conundrum for the Members who have said, “We are not talking about having it this year; we will wait until covid is over, because it would be too difficult at this time to have this big debate and get people to the polls while there is a pandemic on”—apart from the fact that there is a Scottish election on 6 May, with people going to the polls. That is more contradictory stuff from the Scottish National party.
We heard from the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson). It is wonderful to see the screens in the new hybrid situation, because while he was talking about his Scottish heritage, and his pride in it, there were SNP Members shaking their heads. The hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) shook his head as if that point could not legitimately be allowed to be made, because the hon. Gentleman is not living in Scotland and represents Darlington. He has every right to celebrate his Scottish heritage. We should all celebrate it with him. He is very welcome to tell us that he wants Scotland to stay in the United Kingdom because it is part of him, and of his family’s history. It is wonderful to see people’s reactions on the screen when such points are made, because it is clear that the issue is very much about being anti the rest of the United Kingdom, rather than about a proper argument. The hon. Member for Angus also said that the debate shows the worst of Westminster. The debate was called by the public. There is a Petitions Committee, and if a petition gets the relevant number of signatures a debate can be held. That is why the debate is happening.
The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) talked of sovereignty. He talked very much about the Smith commission and other issues like that. He is right to assert that the Scottish Parliament is not one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. Why not? Because the powers it has are not being used. It has the potential to be the most powerful devolved Parliament in the world. It could use the social security powers that SNP Members seem to think it does not have. Sections 25 to 27 of the Scotland Act 2016, which came out of the cross-party Smith commission, mean that Scotland can essentially design its own social security system. What did the SNP Scottish Government do? They handed all the powers back to Westminster until at least 2024—eight years after the commission document was signed. Using the powers of the Scottish Parliament would make it one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. Not using them means it is possible to sit back and say, “We have no powers, and it is everyone else’s fault.”
We need to concentrate now on a national covid recovery plan. We need an NHS recovery. All those people who have missed out on treatments for cancer and other illnesses need to get their treatments and diagnoses. We need that to be at the forefront of everything we do post the next election. We need an education catch-up for all the kids that have been left behind. The education system, and the NHS, were in a poor place before the pandemic and are in an even worse place now. We need a jobs and business recovery. Scotland’s economy was in a bad place before the pandemic and is in an even worse place now. We need a climate recovery. All those wonderful climate targets that the Scottish Government set—it is great to set targets—will not be met. We were in a dreadful place with regard to climate targets before the pandemic, and we are in an even worse place now. We need a community recovery; we have a housing crisis and local services starved of cash, with billions taken from local council budgets. That was in a bad place before the pandemic, so we need a recovery now.
On what the Scottish Labour party wants to do, I can read from the speech of the leader of the Labour party, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). He talked about Scotland in a modern United Kingdom and the process of devolution going forward. There does not have to be a binary choice between the broken status quo and separation. There is another way that it can be done. This is about looking at the United Kingdom, at a post-Brexit Britain and at how it manages itself. On the consequences of independence and another referendum, he said that that is why the First Minister’s
“call for an independence referendum in the…next Scottish Parliament—perhaps even next year”—
this was in December—
“is so misguided. Given the damage and division this would cause”,
particularly during a pandemic,
“no responsible First Minister should contemplate it—and no responsible Prime Minister would grant it.”
Those are the words of the leader of the Labour party, and the new leader of the Scottish Labour party, Anas Sarwar, has been pretty clear that we will go into the 6 May election saying that we are setting aside every single bit of constitutional division to unite our country and put forward a national covid recovery plan to ensure that people do not need to worry about their health, their jobs or their livelihoods. Post the election in May their Scottish Government will have that as their sole focus.