Thank you for my introduction.
And my thanks also to all of you here at the Durham Union Society for inviting me to talk about Devolution in the Continuing Union.
This is my second visit to Durham University in just a few months, and it is always a huge pleasure to visit this world-renowned academic institution in one of the loveliest cities of Britain.
I am pleased, too, to learn that Wales is well represented here by the Durham Welsh Society, Cymdeithas Gymraeg Dyrym (Cym Gym Dyrym) which provides those with ties to Wales or those simply interested in Wales with opportunities to learn the language, to network or to socialise through more traditional student activities.
I want to reflect this evening on the United Kingdom and the benefits it delivers for us all; to explain why I, as a proud Welshman and equally proud Briton, believe in the Union; why I would not want to see that Union wrenched apart by Scotland’s separation; and why I believe that devolution works - and works well - for the United Kingdom and for all parts of the United Kingdom.
Why, in short, I believe we are truly Better Together.
I am happy to take questions at the end.
Future of the Union
As I speak to you this evening, 2014 is just over a month away. Constitutionally, it will be the most important year for the United Kingdom in over 300 years.
There are, I suspect, few of us who, until recently, would ever have thought that the day would arrive when we would be contemplating the end of the United Kingdom in its current form. But that is precisely what is at stake in the referendum on Scottish independence next September.
In just ten months time, the people of Scotland will be asked to make an historic choice between a continuing Union – staying part of the UK – or taking the huge gamble of walking away; a choice that would truly be a leap into the unknown.
There is a vigorous and vibrant debate going on right now north of the border - and indeed across the UK - about the best future direction for Scotland. And as decisions go, they don’t come much bigger; make no mistake, it is a decision which has important and far reaching implications for all parts of our United Kingdom and for all its citizens, not only Scots.
It is a decision on whether Scotland should end over three centuries of history, shared endeavour and success. Whether Scotland should turn its most important trading partner into a foreign country, and put up barriers against it. And whether Scotland should turn its back on the shared values and mutual dependence of the UK’s family of nations.
Benefits of Devolution within the Union
The UK Government is making a strong, positive and, I believe, convincing case to the Scottish people for Scotland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Devolution has enabled Scots to take important decisions locally in relation to schools, hospitals, transport and many other issues which affect daily life. In many respects the decisions taken north of the border have differed from those taken in relation to England, and in relation to Wales.
That is, of course, a legitimate consequence of devolution. But devolution has also enabled Scotland, like Wales, to benefit from two legislatures and two governments working in its interests. It has provided the flexibility to evolve and adapt to changing circumstances in both nations: a flexibility that Scotland would lose with independence.
The Benefits of a United Kingdom
Our Union is of course about much more than devolved decision-making. It is about the interrelations and interdependences that make us more prosperous, more secure and more innovative together, rather than apart.
Together, we enjoy the benefits of a strong economy in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.
The UK is the world’s seventh largest economy and is ranked in the top ten most competitive economies in the world. The Government is committed to an internationally competitive tax system and, when Corporation Tax falls to 20 per cent in 2015, it will be the lowest in the G20.
The UK is the number one destination in Europe for foreign direct investment. London remains the world’s leading financial centre according to the Global Financial Centres Index, but Edinburgh, too, is home to many important financial institutions.
All parts of the UK benefit from being part of an internal market of over 60 million people, rather than a market of only 5 million which a separate Scotland would provide.
Over 4.5 million British companies benefit from the trade and investment opportunities delivered through the strong UK brand.
And these companies carry out their business within the UK unimpeded by borders and customs, with a strong common currency and single financial system.
How exactly would Scottish businesses, and the Scottish jobs which depend on those businesses continuing to thrive, benefit from separation?
The UK is a key player on the international stage.
We are a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a key member of NATO and have a huge degree of influence in many other international institutions and alliances - from the EU and the G8, to the Commonwealth.
We have recently seen several examples of the UK’s important world role - from the Geneva talks earlier in this week which resulted in a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, to the British people’s magnificent support for those affected by the Philippines typhoon.
This global role is not just of passing benefit to the people of Scotland. It benefits them directly, as it does people across the entire UK directly, by making our country safer and more secure. Together, the UK has a strong and influential place in the world; a position from which we are able to promote the British values of democracy and fair play.
And we, the British, are an inventive and enterprising people. We have a proud and long history of invention and innovation, from the world-wide web to the jet engine and carbon fibre.
Our universities co-operate on research in a way that is possible only as part of a common UK framework. If we are to continue to innovate to deliver the next revolutionary technologies, we need to ensure that our research institutions, like here in Durham University, can continue to use the UK-wide networks and infrastructure that have proved so successful in the past.
Continuing the Union
So I believe that the United Kingdom is a great country, with an important global role and a strong voice in the councils of the world.
But a vote for independence would place all that in jeopardy. Let us be clear: it would be a vote for the permanent separation of the nations of these islands. It would be irrevocable. There would be no going back.
So I want to see Scotland remain in the Union.
I certainly believe that we are better together as one economy with one shared currency. But it’s about more than mere economics. All the nations of the United Kingdom benefit from being part of a larger Union, with strong, shared bonds of culture, values and heritage.
There is nothing contradictory about Scots considering themselves both Scottish and British. Or, for that matter, Welsh people feeling comfortable with the notion that they are Welsh and British, too. I certainly do.
Indeed, I would hope all Britons feel - and most do - that they can unselfconsciously assert two nationalities with equal pride.
I am a proud Welshman, but I am also a Unionist, heart, mind, body and soul. I am campaigning vigorously in favour of Scotland remaining part of the Union, and I hope that as many others as possible from all parts of the UK’s political and civic life will do the same.
From Carwyn Jones, the First Minister of Wales, who made an important speech in Scotland last week in support of the Union, to all of those who are working for, or publicising, the Better Together campaign on social media – we are all committed to the same goal: a continued Union of the peoples of these islands for the good of all those who live in the United Kingdom.
A Positive Case for the Union
Just a few days ago, the Scottish Government published its White Paper on independence. Alex Salmond called it a “mission statement” for Scotland’s future. But it reads to me like a “mission impossible”, already showing signs of self-destruction.
Because the White Paper fails to give credible answers to fundamentally important questions. It is founded on a fantasy of a Scotland that could leave the United Kingdom whilst keeping all the benefits that it currently enjoys by being part of the UK. And it sets out a wish-list of promises without any credible plan for how an independent Scotland would pay for them.
Let’s start with the crucially important question of currency. Alex Salmond believes an independent Scotland could retain the pound in a currency union with the continuing UK. But could it?
If Scotland decided to leave the UK it would also be leaving the UK’s currency. The pound would of course continue to be the currency of the UK, and the laws and institutions that currently oversee our stable, resilient and successful currency - like the Bank of England - would continue in place.
But a separate Scotland would sit outside those arrangements, and would need to put in place new currency arrangements of its own.
But could there not be a currency union, which is what the Scottish nationalists seem to assert? Well, the challenges and difficulties of currency unions are many and varied. Just look at what has happened in the Eurozone in recent years. Who would want that repeated in these islands? And the currency union between the Czechs and the Slovaks following the break up of Czechoslovakia famously lasted all of 33 days!
There’s simply no guarantee that a currency union would be agreed. And even less likelihood that one would work. So I would say to the Scottish people, don’t vote for an independent Scotland on the basis that you will be able to keep the pound in your pocket. I think that is simply wishful thinking on the part of Alex Salmond.
Secondly, the White Paper makes a raft of eye-catching commitments, from pensions to tax, from childcare to the minimum wage. But how exactly would these promises be paid for?
The impartial Institute of Fiscal Studies has said that an independent Scotland would face big tax rises or big cuts in public services because of an ageing population and falling oil revenues.
Even under the most optimistic scenario, the IFS says there would need to be an 8 percentage point rise in the basic rate of income tax – meaning an average increase in the tax bill of basic rate taxpayers in Scotland of around £1,000 a year - or a 6% cut in public spending, by 2021-22, in order to balance the books and put Scotland’s long term finances on a sustainable footing.
Hiking the basic rate of income tax from 20% to 28%.
That’d be a hefty price tag for discarding the 300 year old United Kingdom, and a heavy burden for the people of Scotland to bear long into the distant future.
The simple fact is that an independent Scotland would not come cheap. It would mean either higher taxes or much poorer public services than the people of Scotland currently enjoy. Little wonder then that the Scottish Government chooses to be evasive on the true cost of independence.
But, as I’ve already said, it’s not just about economics. It’s about culture, too; about enjoying the things that make us British.
Take the BBC.
The White Paper says that in an independent Scotland, BBC Scotland would be replaced with a new Scottish Broadcasting Service, continuing a formal relationship with the rest of the BBC. The result of that, says the Scottish First Minister, is that people in Scotland would still be able to watch Strictly Come Dancing in an independent Scotland.
That continues a familiar theme of the SNP; that independence would not mean changing anything about being British that Scottish people might enjoy. That Scotland could leave the United Kingdom but still enjoy all the benefits that being part of the Union brings. And what could be more British than Bruce Forsyth?
In truth, there are many consequences of independence that would become apparent only in the event of a “yes” vote, and after negotiations had ended. Alex Salmond might claim he is presenting certainties in the White Paper. But they are only certainties as he sees them. The simple truth is that a vote for independence would truly be a leap into the unknown, as his own White Paper makes only too apparent.
Scotland is part of one of the world’s most successful unions. Scots hold great influence in government, finance and industry. The test for the White Paper is whether it really convinces people why they should give that up and leave the United Kingdom.
Independence doesn’t bring about a new union – it means Scotland leaves the United Kingdom, a fundamental and irreversible change whose implications cannot be determined in advance of a referendum. We are continuing to study the detail of the White Paper, but initial impressions are that it appears to be nothing more than a wish-list designed to hide what independence means.
This cannot be a manifesto for independence. If Scots vote to separate, then their future will need to be negotiated with dozens of countries who will be acting in the interests of their own citizens, not Scotland’s, on issues like currency, defence and borders.
It would, at the very best, be a very uncertain future.
An Evolving Union
There are those in Scotland who accuse campaigners for the preservation of the Union of negativity, of seeking to stand in the way of Scottish nationhood. I simply do not agree.
The campaign for continuation of our Union is called “Better Together” because that is its key message and that is what I, personally, strongly believe.
We are indeed better together as a strong Union that does what is right for each part of the UK and for the UK as a whole.
And sometimes the right thing to do includes further devolution.
I have on occasions been accused from certain nationalist quarters in Wales of being lukewarm about devolution - a “devo-sceptic” as it is termed in the lexicon of post-devolution political journalism.
That is an accusation I flatly reject. On the contrary, I am a strong believer in the devolution of decision-making to the most appropriate level; and I also believe in government at all levels that is accountable to the people who elect it.
Devolution is here to stay. For the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland it delivers the best of both worlds; important decisions made in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast and the benefits that come with being part of a greater United Kingdom.
And devolution is not static. It must evolve as we constantly seek to do what is best for each constituent part of the UK.
In Wales, for example, it was this Government that delivered a referendum on further law-making powers for the Assembly in 2011 and it was we who set up a Commission under the chairmanship of Paul Silk (“the Silk Commission”) to look at the Assembly’s powers.
And devolution in Wales continues to evolve. Earlier this month, we announced that we will implement almost all recommendations made in the Silk Commission’s first report. We are devolving a package of tax and borrowing powers to the Assembly and the Welsh Government - powers which are already being devolved to Scotland - which will give the Welsh Government the tools to invest in Wales and make the Assembly and the Welsh Government more accountable to the people in Wales who elect them.
It is only right that our elected representatives think carefully about how they spend taxpayers’ money, and are held accountable for the money they spend.
Since devolution the Assembly and the Welsh Government have been accountable for how they spend taxpayers’ money. Now they will also be more accountable for how they spend it.
It is, after all, the easiest thing in the world to spend other people’s money; it’s an altogether different thing to explain why they should hand it over.
The Silk Commission will publish its second and final report in the spring, looking at where the Welsh devolution settlement needs to be modified to make it work better. We will of course be looking carefully at the recommendations the Commission makes, and how devolution in Wales can be made to work even better.
As a Government, we are strong believers in the importance of localism.
Devolution is part of the way we are delivering localism in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
And we are delivering localism in England, too, by empowering councils to deliver for the people they serve; and by agreeing new city deals with our urban centres, including here in the North East, so that they can focus on delivering prosperity and economic growth.
These changes are about decision making at the right level and they are happening across the UK. Councils in the North East - including here in Durham - have been working together on proposals to create a Combined Authority from April next year, to work more closely to support economic growth in areas such as skills, transport and investment.
This all demonstrates that our Union is flexible and adaptable to meet the evolving needs of different parts of the United Kingdom.
They show the benefits of the United Kingdom working together.
As we have demonstrated, by staying together we can achieve so much more.
In summary, our United Kingdom is a family of nations with shared values and culture and a strong sense of mutual dependence.
I believe that our current approach to devolution – evolving settlements, avoiding one size fits all - is right, and should continue. It provides flexibility, and can constantly adapt to changing circumstances. I believe that is what people in Scotland, and in Wales, really want, and what this Government has been delivering.
Our four nations have different histories, different institutions and different relationships with each other and it is right that they have different frameworks of Government which best meet their needs, whilst benefitting from being part of a strong, successful and continuing United Kingdom.
The biggest advantage by far that the four nations of our Union have on the world stage is that they are constituent parts of our shared United Kingdom.
And I believe that for each and every one of those nations – including Scotland - we are “better together”.