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8.9 pm

Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East): First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson) on speaking with great distinction. Indeed, he made a funny speech. I am sure that he will make important contributions in future in this place and I look forward to hearing them.

I congratulate especially those of my hon. Friends who made their maiden speeches this afternoon and evening. All of them spoke with great wit and with an obvious

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pride and deep knowledge of their constituencies. Having sat in my place for the past four hours or so, it has become increasingly obvious that the new intake looks better than the old lags such as myself, and sounds better. We can look forward to a much better Parliament, I am sure, over the next five years.

I offer belated congratulations to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland on his appointment. They are belated congratulations only because this is the first opportunity that I have had to offer them. If my right hon. Friend were in the Chamber, he would probably be surprised to know that during the election campaign, in conversation with my hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, West (Mr. Ross), I predicted his appointment. My hon. Friend said that I was talking through a hole that was not in my head. I, however, was proved to be right. My right hon. Friend will be even more surprised to hear that I warmly welcome his appointment. Of all the realistic contenders for the job, I am sure that most of my right hon. and hon. Friends recognised that my right hon. Friend would be the best appointee. We wish him all the very best in future.

I commend the Government on the speed with which they have introduced the Bill. They have immediately honoured a manifesto commitment and, much more importantly, they have taken the first step towards re-establishing in my country, for the first time in nearly 300 years, a directly elected Scottish Parliament. I am greatly encouraged that an incoming Labour Government, after 18 long years of exile, should embark on a legislative measure that has long been a commitment of the Labour party. I am sure that the Bill will be a significant paving measure. We hope that that will be so and that we shall not witness the fate of the previous referendum introduced by a Labour Government.

The report of the commission on the conduct of referendums describes them as having an uncertain place within our system of government and as having no established rules accepted by the main political parties for their efficient and fair conduct. Anyone who has listened to the debate will acknowledge that the truth of that is obvious. That is illustrated by two examples, and I shall remind the House of them.

First, in the 1975 referendum on whether Britain should join the Common Market, each of the two umbrella groups formed at that time--Britain in Europe and the national referendum campaign--were given Government grants of £125,000, along with the costs of printing and distributing leaflets. By the time of the 1979 referendum on Scottish devolution, however, there was no recognition for any umbrella group. Indeed, there was no public funding or support for either side. That demonstrates an inconsistency of approach.

Secondly, there is the example that was provided in 1979, when the infamous 40 per cent. rule was imposed on the yes side but not on the no side. In 1975 there was no such rule. Had there been a 50 per cent. threshold, as suggested this evening, the United Kingdom would never have joined the Common Market. Perhaps that is why the suggestion was put forward.

The inconsistency of approach towards referendums persists. Back in 1975, it was the avowed enemies of Scottish nationalism who were pressing for an additional question on independence to be included in the then referendum. There were those, like the late Norman

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Buchan, who thought that by including that question the Scottish National party would be embarrassed, yet in this Parliament the Scottish National party is arguing that the option should be included in the referendum. That shows that we can never predict what will come up in Scottish politics. I am sure that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) never thought that he would see the day when he would be following the constitutional footsteps of the late Norman Buchan. I do not know whether he or Jennie Buchan would be more worried about that. I suspect that Jennie would be more worried than the hon. Gentleman.

Historically, resort to referendums has not been founded on constitutional principles when set against the background of the House. Instead, referendums have been political expediency. They have represented the necessity of holding together a divided Government party. In 1975, and again in 1978-79, the then Labour Government, including their Back-Bench Members, were deeply divided over whether Britain should belong to the Common Market and whether there should be Scottish and Welsh devolution. Referendums were the means by which the then Labour Government sought to escape the divisions within their own ranks.

It was Lord Callaghan, a key player at that time, who described referendums as a rubber life raft into which one day the entire Labour party might have to climb. That just about summed up the experience of referendums in this place.

The question before us in this debate is whether the past experience of referendums is about to be repeated in this Parliament. The answer, I think, is that it is not. The circumstances now are very different. First, the present Government are not divided. A Scottish Parliament based on a Scottish Constitutional Convention scheme is a manifesto commitment that binds every member of the parliamentary Labour party. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) is in his place to hear me say that. We are equally bound by our manifesto commitment to support both the referendums that are referred to in the Bill.

Secondly, the present Labour Government are not at the mercy of a Back-Bench rebellion. Given the majority that the Government enjoy they do not have to fear my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow, whatever schemes he may dream up over the next few weeks. I hope that he recognises that reality.

That does not mean that there will not be opposition. There must and will be opposition in any democracy, whatever a Labour Government propose. The official Opposition will continue to oppose any change whatsoever because they have yet to realise why they suffered an electoral wipe-out in Scotland and Wales. They are making the same mistakes in this Parliament that they made in the previous Parliament, mistakes which led to their defeat in those two countries.

The Scottish National party will continue to press for the independence option to be included in the referendum. It is its right to do that, and in a sense it is its duty. In doing so, the Scottish National party will represent the views of 22 per cent. of the voters in the recent general election. The Liberal Democrats will continue legitimately to ask why there should be a referendum in any event. I am not unsympathetic to that line.

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I think that everyone in his or her heart will recognise that in reality we shall be passing through the parliamentary motions. Such is the strength of the Labour Government that at the end of the day the referendum that will be held in Scotland this autumn will seek a double yes vote for a Scottish Parliament with tax-gathering powers.

As for the other place, if its unelected Members try to frustrate the elected Members of this place or deny them the right to place this proposed legislation on to the statute book, I for one will look forward to an early Christmas so that there can be an early settlement of accounts with that group of aristocratic turkeys.

I shall make one or two final points to my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench. For a long time Scottish politics have been dominated by the idea of cross-party consensus. It has widely been assumed in Scotland that no one party will be able to deliver for the Scottish people. That turned out to be wrong. The 1997 election proved that idea to be wrong. The Government now have a Commons majority of such a size that they can deliver that which they wish. As always in Scottish politics, however, there is a twist in the tail. The Labour Government are locked into the commitment of a referendum involving all the people in Scotland. In such a referendum, the Commons majority that the Labour Government enjoy will count for nothing.

At the election, Labour polled just 46.5 per cent. of the popular vote, not enough to carry the referendum that we shall hold in the autumn--and we are not even certain that all those Labour supporters will vote "yes, yes": a number of people in Dundee, for example, have told me that they will vote "no, yes", "yes, no" or "no, no", although they vote Labour in other elections. Labour Members must accept that we shall need the support of the other pro-home rule parties in Scotland if we are to carry the referendum that we are certain will be held later this year.

I was greatly encouraged by the speech that the Minister for Home Affairs and Devolution, Scottish Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Fife (Mr. McLeish), made at the launch of the cross-party campaign, "Forward Scotland" last Saturday in Edinburgh. In that speech, my hon. Friend reached out to all those outside the traditional Labour movement, asking them to come together in a national campaign that would win the referendum and lead to the establishment of a Scottish Parliament by a Labour Government.

The contrast between my hon. Friend's approach in 1997 and the approach taken by a Labour Government back in 1979 could not be more stark. At that time, the Scottish council of the Labour party sent an instruction to all constituency Labour party organisations in Scotland, warning them against collaboration with any body other than the Scottish Trades Union Congress or the Co-operative party. Indeed, the then Secretary of State for Scotland went on public record as saying, "Labour will not be soiling our hands by joining any umbrella 'yes' group." That was sectarian and wrong, and led to defeat in 1979. I am delighted that my hon. Friends the present Ministers have learnt from that defeat, and have rejected such an approach for the current Parliament. We need a

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result from the referendum, and the only way in which we can secure the result that we need is by reaching out to other parties in the home rule movement.

The debate has been dominated by the dichotomy between those who think that setting up a Scottish Parliament will be the slippery slope leading to the break-up of the United Kingdom, and those who believe that such a Parliament will provide the means by which the integrity of the United Kingdom will be preserved. I take a different position from either of those groups: I want the Scottish Parliament proposed by the Scottish Constitutional Convention because I believe that it will be the best form of government for Scotland. I want it for its own sake, not because it will lead to one development or the other.

I do not accept that--as one of my hon. Friends argued earlier--this is a matter for the chattering classes. Many people throughout Scotland feel deeply that home rule should be returned to their country. My favourite memory is of an elderly delegate who spoke at the STUC conference in 1993. He told the conference, "I wanted a Scottish Parliament when I was 20, and I still want it. I am hungry for it, and I want it before they stuff me in a wooden box and throw it on the fire." I hope for the sake of that delegate that this Labour Government's proposals are not too late, and that the Government remember his example and do not waste any time in securing the referendum, taking the Bill to establish a Scottish Parliament through the House and bringing democracy back to Scotland.

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