Rarely does Parliament stop to consider issues as fundamental as the future composition of our country, but this afternoon in the House of Commons that is exactly what MPs are being asked to do.
The title of this afternoon’s debate – on the draft Scotland Act (Modification of Schedule 5) Order 2013 –isn’t likely to inspire much interest among anyone except the most hardened of constitutional lawyers. However, go beyond the title and into the substance and this is actually a debate which will have an effect on every person living not just in Scotland, but across the whole of the United Kingdom.
This afternoon’s debate is the result of the agreement signed by David Cameron and Alex Salmond in October and will see power over the “Union of England and Scotland” passed from the UK to the Scottish Parliament.
It’s a move which we support. Like them, we want to see a referendum which is “made in Scotland”, with the terms and detail of the referendum set through a Bill in the Scottish Parliament. This is important so that the process and result of the referendum is wholly accepted by all sides. Putting the responsibility for the referendum in the hands of the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament means that no one, including the SNP, can question the result. In the words of the agreement that was signed by both the UK and Scottish Government, the referendum will:
“deliver a…decisive expression of the views of the people of Scotland and a result that everyone will respect.”
In the Labour Party, we should take pride in the fact that the Scottish Parliament is being charged with this responsibility. It is worth remembering that in 1998, when Labour created the Scottish Parliament, many people (including a large number of Conservative MPs) said it would never work. With this agreement, we see another step in the evolution of Scottish democracy. The new powers also places a high responsibility on Scottish Government Ministers to rise to the occasion and act not just in the interests of partisan advantage, but in the interests of the whole country.
For those of us who have always seen constitutional change as a means to an end, and not an end in itself, this afternoon’s debate means that we might now be able to move further beyond process and into the substance of what affects Scottish people day in and day out. The debate ahead on the future of Scotland has to be more than an accountancy exercise. The tone and tenor of it has to match the high aspirations that people on all sides have for an event of this significance.
As we have been doing from the outset, we will continue to grasp the nettle and deal with the difficult and challenging issues that Scotland has to face with rigour and honesty. It has to be a debate that meets the ambition of the generations of Labour advocates for devolution. In the words of Donald Dewar, Scotland’s first First Minister:
“Introspection will not solve our problems. Nor will preoccupation with constitutional point-scoring. Responding to the needs of the Scottish people is what matters.”
For those of us who have spent a life time in Scottish politics, this is an important opportunity to settle this question once and for all. When Parliament’s debate concludes this afternoon, we will be one step closer to that end.
Margaret Curran MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland