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Last Updated: Sunday, 1 April 2007, 10:26 GMT 11:26 UK
Independence issues
On Sunday 01 April Andrew Marr interviewed Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP and Lord Steel of Aikwood

Please note "BBC Sunday AM" must be credited if any part of this transcript is used.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP and Lord Steel of Aikwood
Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP and Lord Steel of Aikwood

ANDREW MARR: And now from France's fairest to Scotland's finest - Sir Malcolm Rifkind, key Cabinet Minister under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, and Lord Steel as we now think of him, former Liberal leader, and the first presiding officer of the Scottish Parliament. Welcome to you both.

Thank you indeed for coming in. DAVID STEEL: Thank you. MALCOLM RIFKIND: Thank you.

ANDREW MARR: Let's pick up on some of the things we were talking about earlier on the programme, if the Scot Nats win the position of being the largest party, it seems extremely likely here, the Liberal Democrats are going to face a pretty quick choice in Scotland - go into government with them or stand aside.

Which way do you think it's going to go.

DAVID STEEL: Well I can't speak for the Liberal Democrats, what I can say is that I agree with everybody that nobody is likely to get a majority, that's the first thing to realise. So either there's going to be a minority government or there's going to be a coalition.

I think what's instructive is to see underneath the Times poll this week that just over a quarter of the population are in favour independence, much less than are prepared to vote for the SNP. And well over half want the Scottish Parliament with more powers, which is in fact the Lib-Dem policy. And so there is a dilemma here, is the SNP prepared to give up their campaign for independence?

The answer is no. And they will suffer the same fate as the Parti Québecois has just done in Canada, where they had inflicted two referenda on the people and this time they got put out.

ANDREW MARR: That suggests that it would be relatively safe for the Scottish Lib Dems to go into government with them, because if eventually there is a referendum in your view the Scottish people will say no anyway?

DAVID STEEL: But you have to look at what Alex Salmond has been saying, he says if he becomes, if he takes power, he will start a series of constitutional confrontations with Westminster. That's the last thing Scotland wants, it really is the last thing, and I don't think the Lib Dems would have anything to do with it.

ANDREW MARR: Sir Malcolm, it's also been suggested in today's papers that the Scottish Tories might find themselves supporting a minority Labour administration up here, that's an extraordinary suggestion isn't it?

MALCOLM RIFKIND: Well there's all sorts of possible combinations you can get when no one party has an overall majority.

But as I see it, the current political situation in Scotland, there's two lessons we should learn from this, It's become fashionable to say that in Scotland it will always be run by the Labour Party, in England if it wasn't for Scotland it would always be run by the Conservative Party. That's nonsense. We're a democratic society, north and south of the border.

And so just as in England, some new party would emerge to challenge Conservative hegemony if Scotland wasn't providing Labour MPs. So in Scotland the Nationalists are doing this at the moment. So, the issue is not about the actual independence, as David Steel rightly says there is no serious majority or anything remotely like a majority for independence in Scotland.

The SNP are getting slightly more support now than they got 20 or 30 years ago. But in the context of devolution that is enough to enable them to overtake the Labour Party. So it's a serious problem. And I think the big question that Scots always have to seriously consider, do we want to condemn Scotland to ten years of constitutional instability, because if the SNP was to become the leading party they couldn't achieve independence, but they would start a process of constitutional squabbling.

And anybody thinking of investing in Scotland would just say, hold on, once you've made up your mind and it will take five-ten years of uncertainty, then I'll think about investing in Scotland. Until then I'm going to England or Wales or Ireland, or somewhere else.

Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP and Lord Steel of Aikwood
Sir Malcolm Rifkind MP and Lord Steel of Aikwood

DAVID STEEL: And that's why your colleagues on Newsnight when they did a survey of the 25 top companies in Scotland, found nobody who was in favour of independence. Because the last thing they want is a situation where the constitutional rows are such that it puts off investment, lack of jobs in Scotland, these are the things that people are much more concerned about.

ANDREW MARR: It could be said that business is always politically nervous. But let's talk about the English for a moment, you know, in all of this, because a lot of people in England will be saying well, you know, good riddance if that's what the Scots want to do. But what we really want to do in England is regain English power over all England policies. Do you support English votes for English laws?

MALCOLM RIFKIND: Well you're speaking to a Member of Parliament for Kensington and Chelsea.

ANDREW MARR: I am!!

MALCOLM RIFKIND: I have a very serious interest in these matters.

ANDREW MARR: Indeed.

DAVID STEEL: But as a Scot I also understand the other point of view. The House of Commons has to remain a United Kingdom parliament for matters that affect the UK as a whole. And that is virtually all taxation, defence, foreign affairs, social security, pensions and a range of other issues.

But there is unfinished business, and what the Labour Party has not begun to acknowledge is that if you have a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly, a Northern Irish Parliament, then the way in which we handle English business in the House of Commons cannot be untouched.

The answer is not to ban Scots or Welsh or the Irish from voting on English issues. But it is to change the rules of the House of Commons so when it's considering purely English business the English Members of Parliament...

ANDREW MARR: Hospitals, schools... that kind of thing.

MALCOLM RIFKIND: Yes.

ANDREW MARR: Quite big issues.

MALCOLM RIFKIND: They're big issues, but when these matters are being considered in the House of Commons let there be, for example, an English grand committee of all English MPs, and let us simultaneously have a convention that the full House of Commons does not overturn that.

Now that not only would work, it's actually rather similar to the constitutional relationship between the House of Commons and the Scottish Parliament because, if I just may finish this one point, there's no law that says the House of Commons cannot overturn any law that the Scottish Parliament passes. It's a convention that because of devolution we would never dream of doing.

ANDREW MARR: This is very interesting. Let me just, because as I understand it, you could therefore have, shall we say, a Labour or a Lib Lab government at Westminster which wants to have some policy for hospitals in England.

But that is not voted on by the House of Commons. The English members of the House of Commons reject that policy and the government then has to say, well we have to accept this as part of the price..

MALCOLM RIFKIND: It is not devolution, it's exactly what we actually had between 1974 and 1979 when the government didn't have an overall majority, it was a hung parliament. And therefore some of its business it couldn't get through.

ANDREW MARR: You're nodding your head at this!

DAVID STEEL: Well I am. And I've always argued that there ought to be an English grand committee, we used to have a Scottish grand committee, we both sat on it.

MALCOLM RIFKIND: But it didn't have the right to vote. And that's the difference.

DAVID STEEL: No, no, that's right, but an English grand committee makes a lot of sense, you could deal with all the main stages of English legislation without the Scots or the Welsh taking part in it. And I don't know why they haven't done that.

MALCOLM RIFKIND: It's not about constitutional changes, it's about fairness. People in England are entitled to feel that if the Scots, the Welsh and now the Northern Irish, can all conclude on their own domestic internal matters by their own judgement, then matters that only affect England, in some way suitable in the House of Commons, should be dealt with in a comparable fashion, it's about fairness, that's what the glue that holds the United Kingdom together.

ANDREW MARR: Very interesting. Looking at the record of the Scottish Parliament, you were the first presiding officer, Lord Steel. If you look at the polls, it's interesting, almost, a very, very small number of people in Scotland say we don't want the Scottish, we want to undo devolution completely.

MALCOLM RIFKIND: Very few.

ANDREW MARR: We had a lot of people say they want more powers for the Scottish parliament. Isn't this a further ratchet towards ultimate independence?

DAVID STEEL: No I don't think so, I mean, I think, just remind you that we were promised that after ten years of the Scotland Act there would be a review of it. And that'll come during this parliament. And I think that, two things that need to be looked at again are first of all the Scottish parliament has got the power to spend money, has no power to raise money.

And I think that that's got to be looked at very carefully. Also I think the election system, the list system, is very unpopular and hasn't really worked very well and I think that should be re-examined as well. So these two things I think do need to be looked at, and the parliament would be stronger and better if these things were put right.

MALCOLM RIFKIND: I mean that's all very logical but I was once told that logic was the art of being wrong with confidence. At the moment Scotland receives 20% more per capita expenditure paid by the United Kingdom taxpayer.

If it wants fiscal autonomy fine, but it will have to do one of two things, it will either have to cut expenditure by 20% on hospitals, schools and so on or it will actually have higher income tax in Scotland than south of the border. Now that may be only too fair. But is that really going to be the political campaign.

DAVID STEEL: Not necessarily. Go down the road of the Irish and have major cut in corporation tax for example.

ANDREW MARR: I can't leave this, former Foreign Secretary, you've written a lot in the papers recently about Iran. Do you believe that there is effective diplomacy going on behind the scenes, or is the situation as bleak as it appears from the outside?

MALCOLM RIFKIND: Lots of fine statements from the UN and from the EU. But the rhetoric by itself will not deliver freedom for these people.

The Iranians knew there would be protests, you need pressure. But if you're going to make threats of economic sanctions, for example, they have to be made privately because otherwise the Iranians are pushed into a humiliating climb-down. The biggest disappointment of the last couple of days if the reports are correct, is that our EU allies - France, Germany and Italy - were not prepared to support a proposal for a threatening to withhold export credit guarantees.

Now, if you're wanting to create a common European foreign policy it's about time we had a bit of solidarity from the French and the Germans, on something which could quietly and successfully put the kind of pressure on the Iranians that would lead to these people's release. Without that the rhetoric's fine but it's not going to deliver.

ANDREW MARR: Briefly David.

DAVID STEEL: Yes. I agree with that, but the other more hopeful sign in Iran is of course that they are a very divided government, a very divided authority. And that for the more back channels that there are to the reasonable people in Iran the greater the chances of success we shouldn't just take the words of the president as being the universal view inside Iran.

ANDREW MARR: Right. Well from two household gods of Scottish politics, thank you both very much indeed.

INTERVIEW ENDS


NB: this transcript was typed from a recording and not copied from an original script.

Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for its accuracy


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