Rory Speaks on the Scottish Independence Referndum


I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and my colleagues for allowing me to contribute to the debate. I feel that it is very difficult for someone who represents an English constituency to speak about this subject.

I want briefly to discuss three questions. First, should there be a referendum at all? Secondly, what are the criteria on which we should determine whether there should be a referendum? Thirdly—this takes up a point raised in the powerful speech of the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West (Mr Darling)—why do we need more investment in information, and, in particular, the spending of more money on media debates?

The question of whether there should be a referendum is a very big issue. Traditionally, we have not had proper procedures for constitutional change in Britain. The reason this question is so important is that it matters not just in relation to Scotland, but in relation to every constitutional change introduced in this country. Britain is the only advanced democracy left in the world—in fact, almost the only country left in the world—that does not formally distinguish between constitutional law and normal law, and tries to introduce constitutional change by means of simple majorities in Parliament. That cannot be right. Every other country recognises that the constitution exists to protect the people from the Parliament: to protect them from us. We cannot, with shifting single majorities, set about changing the thing that protects the people, which is why every country from America to Italy to Greece to Spain demands super-majorities, constitutional assemblies or referenda.

The answer to the second question—why should we have a referendum about this issue?—is also extremely important, and it too relates to what was said by the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West. It involves the very difficult issue of how political institutions such as this Parliament—this building—can define an entire identity. A serious problem with some of the arguments advanced by supporters of the Scottish National party is the way in which they have tried to trivialise the issue. They have tried to suggest that it does not really matter, and that it is possible to get rid of a single Parliament without anything really changing. My constituents are often told that nothing will change, although 12,000 of them registered as Scots in the census and more than 50% of telephone calls made from Carlisle are made to people in Scotland.

In fact, everything we know from every country in the world suggests that the fundamental, defining feature of identity is a political institution. Much more than ethnicity, much more than culture, political institutions keep people together, which is why we must have a referendum.

How do we know that? Well, I know it from my own constituency, because Cumbria was itself a nation. It was a kingdom. For 700 years, Cumbria and Northumbria ruled the kingdom that stretched from Edinburgh in the north to Sheffield in the south. Why does Cumbria not have an identity that crosses the border today? Because it is no longer a political entity. It no longer has a Parliament, and it no longer has a king. Why are French people in France different from French people in Switzerland? For one reason only: their Parliaments split. Why has Britain grown apart from the Commonwealth countries to which it was so close 50 or 60 years ago? Because the political institutions split.

Scotland itself is another example. Why is it a nation? That is a difficult question to answer. Scotland has had Norwegians in the north, Welsh Celts around Strathclyde, Irish sea raiders, and Anglians coming into Lothian. The one thing that holds it together is the community of the realm. It is the political institution that creates the nation. We in Cumbria know why that matters in Britain. Cumbria was a centre point of horror because two Parliaments and two kingdoms split apart. That border created the monstrosity.

That leads me to the question of why more money needs to be invested in the campaign, and why we need more media investigation. The answer is that the issue of political institutions and Parliaments is difficult, and perhaps even boring. It is not stuff that gets people excited. People voting in a referendum will find it hard to follow all the issues without an enormous amount of information. The Scottish National party is, of course, right to say that some of the prophets of doom who suggest that independence will lead to the end of the world are wrong. Independence will not lead to the end of the world, and that is why information matters.

Independence will not cause the war between England and Scotland to start again. Those days of savagery, murder, pillage and rape—what we saw in Cumbria for 400 years—will not return, because the world has changed. Nor will Scotland or England become a failed state. Scotland and England are extremely advanced, educated countries, each with its world-class businesses, and although both may undergo a process of difficulty and insecurity, they will subsequently be able to adjust and thrive. That is not the problem; the problem is something much more difficult and much more elusive, which anyone voting in a Scottish referendum needs to understand but will not be able to understand unless we invest money in enabling the subject to be discussed as openly as possible. That is the importance of political institutions. It is a question of understanding, as we understand in this House, why this place matters. Why does it matter that Scottish and English MPs sit together in a single Parliament? It matters because it provides the formal process for mutual consideration.

The SNP is again absolutely correct that, theoretically, there is nothing to stop Scotland being friendly to England or England being friendly to Scotland in the absence of a joint Parliament. There is no reason, theoretically, why an English MP could not take into account Scotland’s interests when thinking about their constituency in relation to common agricultural reform or agricultural subsidies, for instance. There is no reason, theoretically, why a Scottish MP in an independent Scotland could not think about England’s nuclear interests when considering the positioning of submarine bases. In practice, however, it is the formal elements of this Chamber and our Committees and Government that force us to think about each other.

I sit on the Foreign Affairs Committee. It matters that the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr Roy) attends that Committee day in and day out, forcing the Foreign Office to answer questions that relate to Scotland. Instead of having to rely on good will, we have created institutions. Those institutions bring together much better people, too.

Fiona O’Donnell (East Lothian) (Lab): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that that good will is under threat, as well as the institutions? What would be the effect on his constituents of an independent Scotland having a substantially lower corporation tax rate than England?

Rory Stewart: That is a good question, and there are many other similar questions we might ask. It is easy to come up with hypothetical examples—such as that corporation tax point—of ways in which people could grow apart, but the key point is that, without a United Kingdom, there will be no formal processes and incentives to think through such matters. At present, however, we create the forums.

I am only three months married, so I hesitate to say this as I do not know what on earth I am talking about, but it strikes me that formal institutions such as marriage force people to discuss things, to compromise and to think in ways that we might not if that formal institution were not in place. [Interruption.] Perhaps I am wrong about that, however. It was foolish of me to hold forth on the importance of that institution on the basis of just three months of married life.

The institution of the United Kingdom and its Parliament has four key benefits. The first of them is that it brings people together. Over more than 400 years it has brought together incredibly talented people, including people we barely recognise as being Scots or English, who would not have come together if we had not had a United Kingdom. It has brought together leaders of all our parties. We often forget that Scotland produced not just the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), but also William Gladstone and, indeed, the crofter’s grandson, Harold Macmillan. Scotland produced the ideas, the culture and the nation that challenges England and makes the United Kingdom better. Scotland played an important part in creating not just our modern economic theory, but the ideas behind the national health service, and also all the richness of the culture of Britain. Because we have this United Kingdom and this shared institution of Parliament, as our different strengths alter over time, we contain that within a single unity. There was a time when Scottish novels were better than English novels. There was a time when—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Order. I absolutely understand that the hon. Gentleman is setting his major argument in context, and I was following what he was saying, but he is going on a little too long about the context. Please will he return to the subject of the order itself?

Rory Stewart: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will accelerate towards my conclusion, which involves returning to a very good point made by the right hon. Member for Edinburgh South West.

All the issues I have raised are extremely complicated. They are issues of history, of culture and of identity. They are issues of the ways in which borders work and parliamentary institutions function. In order for people to be able to vote properly in a referendum and make that simple yes or no choice for which the SNP is pushing, the debate needs to be widened much further. More money needs to be spent, and the media need to get involved. At present the media are far too worried about not being political on one side or the other and are therefore not setting out the arguments and creating the debate powerfully enough. We need to have a proper debate because if an Englishman, a Scotsman and a Welshman together is a joke, an Englishman or a Scotsman on their own is a tragedy.

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