Scottish Secretary speech on the Scottish independence debate

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Alistair Carmichael delivers his first constitution speech as Scottish Secretary at Eden Court Theatre in Inverness.

It is a pleasure to be here in Inverness today – as an MP of 12 and half years I’m used to making speeches, but this is my first key-note speech as Secretary of State. In terms of where and when to make it I gave only one wish for my speech it was not going to be in the central belt!

It is an enormous pleasure for me to be here in the city of Inverness, capital of the Highlands. This is a city that has seen enormous growth and change over the decades and is now home to many businesses in a wide-range of fields, but which is still identifiably a Highland community in its feel.

This seat is home to my friend and colleague Danny Alexander, I have been privileged to work closely with Danny over the years and we have both been Ministers in this coalition Government and he has become an enormously influential politician.

When Danny tells people in Government to listen they do - and Danny takes every opportunity in his job to speak up for the Highlands.

Now in Cabinet a boy from Colonsay sits across the table from a boy from Islay who represents Orkney and Shetland - two island men both represented at the heart of this Government.


I am very proud to take up the role as Secretary of State for Scotland particularly at the current time. Right from the start I got to see how quickly the labels get put on you on this job.

Their labels as a ‘bruiser’ or any of the rest of it are all a predictable part of how the press covers politics: plenty of reminders of what I look like dressed as a Viking warrior for the Up Helly Aa (and I can let you into a little secret – it’s not an outfit I wear every day) to being described as a ‘supposed Scot’: all in the space of four weeks!

The latter description was, I suspect, designed to provoke. It certainly did tell us something about this debate – that I’m not alone in experiencing.

Not content with trying to divide the UK, the supporters of independence also seek to divide our fellow Scots - depending on their voting intentions in the referendum.

I tell you this - once you start mixing up politics and patriotism you can quickly get into dangerous territory.

I am proud to be a Scot and come from a family that as far back as we can trace, have always lived in Scotland. My father is a native Gaelic speaker and as a child and a young adult I competed at local and national Mods.

I was educated in the Scottish state sector and studied Scots Law at the University of Aberdeen and qualified as a solicitor in Scots law. I have held a commission as a Procurator Fiscal Depute – one of the great ancient offices of the Scottish legal system.

Since 2001 I have represented a Scottish constituency in the House of Commons. I look forward to Hogmanay as much as Christmas Day. I drink malt whisky and I’m partial to the occasional tunnocks teacake.

What else do I have to do for these people to regard me as a “true” Scot as opposed to being a “supposed” one?


No one has a right to question my Scottishness or anyone else’s come to that.

Polls would suggest that most people in Scotland want to remain part of the United Kingdom. Many others do not.

A few weeks ago, in yet another effort to have a debate about the debate rather than having the debate itself, Alex Salmond called on David Cameron to debate independence. He wanted, he said, to see the Prime Minister “argue against Scotland”. Not, you note, “against Scottish independence” but “against Scotland”. In the nationalist mindset it seems to be the same thing.

Let me be clear: You are not a better Scot if you support independence. Nor are you better if you don’t.

Being a part of the UK doesn’t undermine our Scottishness – our identity as Scots is not and never has been at threat.

This is not a debate about patriotism – It is a debate about whether or not we should continue to work together across the United Kingdom, or whether we should go it alone.

A lot of airtime gets devoted to what independence would mean for Scotland – and rightly so - there are plenty of questions, I’ll return to just some of those later.

But before we make a choice about our future, we need to understand what it is we have right now as part of the United Kingdom.

The nationalists like to take us right back to 1707 and even further to Bannockburn. Don’t get me wrong - history is important: but our recent history is just as important as the more distant. That recent history has been one of collaboration, of partnership, of working together.

Best of both worlds

I’m not going to turn this speech into ‘the greatest hits of the UK’ – but I will say this: we have achieved a great deal working together. And I don’t think those of us who believe in a strong Scotland within a strong United Kingdom spend enough time talking about that.

So next time someone asks ‘what has the UK ever done for me?’ I want you to remember this….

Together our economy is stronger and more secure.

We have a domestic market of 60 million individuals rather than just 5, 4.5 million companies rather than 320,000 – with no boundaries, no borders, no customs, but with a common currency, single financial system, and a single body of rules and regulations.

I am in no doubt: businesses right across Scotland have no wish to change this system.

I put it like this: we have a stronger place in the world with a great and wide network of embassies and diplomatic offices across the globe – supporting our businesses overseas and looking after Scots abroad.

As part of the UK we are a major player on the international stage: with significant influence in the EU, UN, G8 and other international institutions. We can and do make a real difference to people in other parts of the world in times of trouble, as our work in the Philippines is showing right now.

Benefits of the UK

At home the benefits of our United Kingdom can be seen not just in the make-up of families like mine and many others right across the UK, but also by the more than 700,000 Scots who live and work in other parts of the UK and the 30,000 people who travel between Scotland and the rest of the UK each day to work. All of us benefit from a common passport, tax and national insurance system, meaning that people as well as goods and services can move freely.

Where it makes sense to have decisions taken in Scotland by the Scottish Parliament responsibility has been devolved to Holyrood. It is a constructive and positive approach. Devolution within a United Kingdom really does give us the best of both worlds.

Week two of the job and the crisis at Grangemouth petro-chemical plant landed on my desk. That illustrated well what the best of both worlds gives us: working together John Swinney and I could bring together the resources of government to secure the future of the plant more effectively than we could working separately.

That is why at the start of this year we embarked upon a detailed programme of work to examine Scotland’s position in the UK today and to make clear the choices that would face all of us if the UK family were to break up.

These papers have been detailed and evidence based and together set out a detailed case that shows every part of the UK makes a valuable contribution and that together we are greater than the sum of our parts.

When we go to the polls next year we’ll be asked the question: ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?’. We’ll be asked to put our cross in a box saying yes, or a box saying no.

That simple act – will be replicated right across Scotland from the highlands and islands, to the borders; in our great cities and our rural communities.

Each of us will be asked the same question. And when we answer – we will all do so on the basis of what is best for us as individuals, for our families and for our communities, now and in the future.

And the benefits of being part of the United Kingdom can be seen in our future as much as our past:

There are the challenges we already know about: by pooling our resources we are better placed to meet some of the demographic challenges that we will face in the future: funding pensions through contributions from the working populations of Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland is more sustainable than simply trying to fund our ageing population in Scotland alone: you don’t need to be an expert economist to work that one out.

Then of course there are things that we can’t predict:

Fifteen years ago the idea of broadband roll out across the UK, including our remotest areas would have sounded like a pipe-dream.

And yet here we are, with UK wide funding helping to join us up and bring us all closer together. Twenty per cent of the UK broadband budget is being spent here in Scotland – that’s more than our fair share – and we can do this because we pool our resources across the UK.

We need to ask ourselves: what will the next broadband be? And will it be more sustainable to fund it by clubbing together as the UK or doing our own thing in a separate Scotland?

It is this past, present and future United Kingdom that we need to think about when we go into the polls next year.

White Paper

But right now attention is turning to the Scottish Government’s White Paper which will be published in just less than two weeks. And rightly so.

This is after all a long awaited document.

Whilst we have published our analysis – on the legal implications of independence, on financial services, on the economy, on the challenges of an oil fund, or on the currency – what we’ve so often heard in response is ‘wait for the White Paper’.

The First Minister tells us that this Paper will resonate down through the ages and Nicola Sturgeon has said it will answer all the questions - boy does it need to.

But before we get to the detail let’s start with ‘The ‘why?’. Why do the nationalists want independence?

Since signing the agreement with the Prime Minister over a year ago to ensure that we would have a referendum, the answer to ‘why’ seems to have become less clear, rather than more.

In the few areas where the Scottish Government have sought to offer any answers, they – ironically - seem obsessed with UK wide solutions. According to them:

We will leave the UK…but have a shared currency and keep the Bank of England working as lender of last resort;

We’ll leave the UK…. But continue to share a UK welfare system;

We’ll leave the UK….. but still get UK warships built in Scottish yards;

We’ll leave the UK…but still share a single set of financial regulations….

The logic of the Scottish Government’s position has left many scratching their heads in puzzlement. But in truth it is just part of a pattern we see from the Scottish Government: They are doing this to offer false reassurance. Independence would prove very different in practice and they know it. Right now all they are proving is that they are prepared to say anything and promise everything to try to win votes.

But let’s be generous and leave that most fundamental question of ‘why become independent’ to one side for a moment.

The Scottish Government have another duty in the White Paper: to explain how independence would work and what it would mean. This is an important decision for us all. The details matters. We cannot be offered a prospectus of ‘it will be alright on the night.’

Now we know that for many issues all the White Paper can do is provide a wish-list of what the Scottish Government might like to secure in negotiations:

An independent Scotland would need to sit down at the negotiating table with the rest of the UK – who would then be a separate state from us.

Sit down with the member states of the EU and the Allies of NATO to thrash out an enormous amount of very important detail.

In each case an independent Scottish state would be pursuing its interests, just as the other states would pursue their interests.

So the Scottish Government should take the opportunity in the White Paper to tell it straight about the fact that many important issues will need to be negotiated and they need to be upfront that there can be no guarantees in advance.

Fundamental questions

But that does not excuse the First Minister and his team for dodging some fundamental independence questions that they can answer.

The White Paper must be frank on a few fundamentals of independence if they are serious about bridging the credibility gap that exists with their plans.

Today I am posing three very straight-forward questions that need to be answered if people in Scotland are going to get any closer to knowing how independence will work and what it might mean for them.

Let’s start with the pound in our pocket. Or, to be precise, the UK pound sterling in our pocket.

This is fundamental.

The First Minister is fond of saying that the pound is as much Scotland’s as it is the rest of the UK’s. It is now, but if Scotland decided to leave the UK, we would also be leaving the UK currency.

Public international law is clear: the UK would continue. The UK’s currency would continue and the laws and institutions that control it like the Bank of England would continue…for the continuing UK

But if Scotland became an independent country, we would need to put in place our own currency arrangements; new currency arrangements.

Currency union

The First Minister says he wants a currency union with the rest of the UK.

The UK Government – and plenty of others – have pointed to the challenges of currency unions between different states. You only need to look at the Euro area to see that everything can appear fine in year one, and how quickly circumstances can change.

And there are plenty of examples of currency unions that have failed. When Czechoslovakia broke up the Czechs and Slovaks tried it. It lasted 33 days.

The bottom line is that a currency union may not be in the interests of Scotland or the continuing UK and it is highly unlikely to be agreed – not because of any malevolence, but because it wouldn’t work. It would be very foolish for anyone to vote for an independent Scotland on the basis that they will get to keep the pound. It’s high time that the Scottish Government stopped claiming that a currency union is a given and instead answer this first question: will the White Paper set out a credible Plan B on currency?

Pensions are another fundamental building block of any state. The UK and other developed countries are facing rising pension costs because of ageing populations. Independent forecasts by the ONS confirm that the demographic challenge Scotland faces is greater than the rest of the UK. We will have more elderly and retired individuals receiving pensions compared to those of working age who are paying taxes.

So my second question is will the White Paper set out how much more pensions will cost each of us in the future if we leave the UK and leave behind 90 per cent of the people that are currently paying into the larger UK pension pot?

Price tag

Finally, the overall price tag of independence is something we never hear anything about. John Swinney’s private paper to his Cabinet colleagues said a new tax system alone would cost more than £600m each year. Setting up a new Scottish state from scratch will not be cheap. The White Paper must tell us how much it will cost us to set up.

But in truth it’s not just the one off set up costs we need to think about.

In public we see the Scottish Government promising more and more ‘goodies’ for an independent Scotland. But people aren’t daft: we know that every goodie has to be paid for.

So I want to know how much we are expected to pay to go it alone as an independent state. Rather than making empty promises, the White Paper has to tell us how an independent Scotland would fill the black hole.

Ok – I’ll admit – that’s more than three questions – trust me I could ask plenty more.

But what I’d really like to hear are the questions you want to see answered when you open up the White Paper.

Because this must not be a document that Governments alone pour over – as much as Alex Salmond might like it, this isn’t a debate between the UK and Scottish Governments.

Indeed despite the approach of those SNP members who question the right of ‘supposed Scots’ like me to speak out, this is a debate that each and every one of us has a right to be involved in: we each have a voice in this debate.

I hope to hear yours.