2013 is the year that the debate about Scotland’s future moves from process to substance. Many people - including some of you, I’m sure - feel that the process discussions have gone on for too long.
I share that frustration: I certainly want to get on to the real issues as soon as possible.
But it’s important that we recognise the centrality of getting the process right. On 15th October the Prime Minister and I signed what’s become known as “The Edinburgh Agreement”, along with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. That Agreement saw both Governments commit to ensuring that there is a legal, fair and decisive referendum on Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom.
In December the Scottish Parliament backed this Agreement. And this week, both Houses in the UK Parliament gave their unanimous approval. There can now be a legal referendum. In recognition of the Scottish National Party’s election pledge to hold a referendum on independence, it will be the Scottish Parliament that sets out the detailed rules for that referendum. This will make sure that the “Made in Scotland” principle which lies at the heart of devolution also lies at the heart of this referendum.
The Referendum Bill is promised in March and will set out the question, the date, the franchise and the rules about how money is raised and spent during the campaign, in light of recommendations from the Electoral Commission. This is the body that has unparalleled expertise and unquestionable neutrality in these issues and whose recommendations aim to ensure an unbiased and impartial referendum process.
I am pleased that the Edinburgh Agreement commits the Scottish Government to hold the referendum according to the highest international standards. And I pleased that the crucial role of the Electoral Commission is now recognised by all. The referendum must be regarded as fair and reasonable: not only by those on the different sides of this passionate debate, but also by each and every person living in Scotland whose choice will determine our nation’s future.
This referendum is too important to get wrong. Too important to see either side accused of using the rules to gain political advantage.
When all the votes are counted, this must be a referendum result that is decisive and that is accepted by all. A referendum result that allows Scotland to move on.
The eyes of the world will now be on the Scottish Government as they bring forward their proposals and the Scottish Parliament will be responsible for scrutinising, challenging and approving the final legislation. That is a serious job. But I am confident that it will be fulfilled. All of us here will look to the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament to act on behalf of all of us, irrespective of our views on Scotland’s future.
Some argue that the SNP’s dominance of the Parliament means they will simply railroad through a one-sided referendum process. But in the referenda established by the Westminster Parliament in recent years the governments concerned, of different political complexions, have always had majorities and could have abused their position to suit their preferred outcome. But they did not. And so UK referenda have been recognised internationally for their exemplary processes.
Central to that reputation has been the role of the Electoral Commission and the respect shown to its advice by successive UK governments. These governments, including ours, could have ignored the Electoral Commission’s advice. But to do so would have called into question the fairness of these referenda. Time after time the wording of the question has been altered to respect the thoroughness and impartiality of the Electoral Commission.
They offered advice. No more than that.
But it would have been a foolhardy government that ignored that advice and used their majorities in Westminster to bulldoze through a biased referendum. The Scottish Government and Parliament are now placed in exactly the same roles as the UK Government and UK Parliament have been. The same expectations are placed on the Scottish Government and our Parliament here as on the UK Government and our Parliament at Westminster.
Nothing more, nothing less.
So, the Electoral Commission advises and the Scottish Parliament determines. But in delivering the question, the rules and the campaign financing agreements, we are entitled to expect that our Parliament sets aside party or campaign advantage and acts for all Scots, whatever their views. Following the Electoral Commission’s advice will give everyone confidence in the process and allow nobody to cry foul.
So 2013 starts by resolving the process that took centre-stage in 2012.
And we sorely need to move on from process alone. We need a loud, clear and robust debate about the impact that independence would have on Scots’ lives. Those who support independence must bring forward a detailed proposal of what they would hope to achieve through negotiations.
Over the last few days, we’ve had the First Minister speculating about the new written constitution of a separate Scotland. And the Deputy First Minister blogged on Tuesday that “All parts of the Scottish Government will be working on a transition plan considering what needs to be done to give effect to the decision of the Scottish people when they vote yes”.
Nicola wants talks about talks. Not talk of what an independent Scotland would be.
I really don’t think that this is where the debate should be. We cannot have the Scottish Government fast forwarding through all the difficult bits to their longed for ending where they clinch a referendum victory. People want to know what independence would mean for them, their families, and their communities. It is on that basis that they will decide how to vote.
Planning the summits and designing the constitutional apparatus is like framing and hanging a picture that is yet to be painted. No matter how gilded and fancy the frame, the missing image is the essential part. I know that it is also the most difficult part for the SNP.
But, to be blunt, that is their problem. They must treat all of us with respect and start painting the independence picture. 2013 must be the year of evidence, not assertion.
So today I want to set out what the UK Government is going to do to help inform this debate.
Last summer, I announced that the UK Government was embarking on a programme of analysis to consider how Scotland contributes to and benefits from being part of our United Kingdom. Our work will be comprehensive, open and robust. We are engaging with experts in order to flush out the issues and establish the facts. We want you to examine our work and we want you to scrutinise it.
Over the next few weeks and months we will publish a series of papers that look at Scotland’s position in the UK today and make clear the choices that would face all of us as Scots if the UK family were to break up. The first paper will be published in February. I believe that this work will show not only that every part of the UK makes a valuable contribution to the whole, but that, together, we are greater than the sum of our parts.
Together our economy is stronger and more secure. Scotland’s five million citizens are part of the UK’s economy of 60 million people with no boundaries, borders or customs, but with a common financial system, rules and currency. Together we have shown that we can withstand global economic challenges, pool our resources in the good times and manage our risks together in the bad. By working together we have a stronger place in the world. We have a great and wide consular network with over 14,000 people in nearly 270 diplomatic offices, projecting our values around the globe and looking after Scots abroad. And as an integral part of the UK Scotland benefits from significant levels of influence in the EU, UN, G8 and other international institutions.
But it’s not just on the international level that you can see the integration and benefits that being part of our shared United Kingdom brings. We also have close social, cultural and family ties across the UK. More than 800,000 Scots live and work in other parts of the UK. Each year, around 50,000 people move to Scotland from the rest of the UK. One common passport, one national insurance system and one shared tax system that allows the free movement of people, goods and investment. Together providing a level of prosperity that is greater than the sum of its parts.
There is no-one in this debate who says Scotland couldn’t go it alone.
What we - and those who share our view - are saying is it is better for Scotland and the rest of the UK to stay together in our United Kingdom. Devolution ensures power is practised as close as possible to the people it affects whilst keeping the strength and security of the United Kingdom. Important decisions on health, education and justice are made here in Scotland, but Scotland enjoys the economic strength and security of being part of our United Kingdom, working in our interests, for us all.
We enjoy the best of both worlds.
Our papers over the course of 2013 will set out the evidence about how devolution works in 21st century Britain, the facts about the way in which it benefits us as citizens and the analysis of what would be lost by leaving the UK family. In this debate, I want all of you to be active participants. Many of you are already involved in the UK Government’s work. But for those of you who aren’t, I say: please get involved. We want you to read our papers; ask us questions in the same way that you will ask the Scottish Government questions about their proposals.
The next period of this discussion must not just involve politicians and business people. I want charities, voluntary organisations, and social enterprises to be at the heart of this great debate as well. You have a crucial role to play. But most of all, you must help each and every voter in Scotland to seek out the evidence and find the information that will allow them to reach an informed decision in the referendum.
Over the course of the next year, you, Scots, all citizens in our United Kingdom, have a right to expect both of Scotland’s governments to deliver in our national interest.
Over the course of the next year you have a right to expect your UK government to demonstrate its commitment to Scotland and prove its value and relevance to Scotland’s future.
And over the course of the next year you have a right to expect those who doubt that value and question that relevance to set out how things would be better if Scotland goes it alone.
In tough times, and in the heat of constitutional battle, these are big challenges.
I relish meeting them.
I hope others do too and I look forward to the debate.