Monday, September 17, 2012

Interview with Tom Harris MP

On Tuesday Sept 11th I interviewed Tom Harris MP, the Shadow Environment Minister and MP for Glasgow South, on the Commons terrace on Scottish Independence. In the background on Westminster bridge, a bagpipe was playing. How ironic that is I don't know! Below is some of the transcript of that interview

 PAUL BURGIN: You recently stood for the leadership of the Scottish Labour Party?

TOM HARRIS: You noticed?

PAUL BURGIN: Yes I did I saw you on Newsnight. What made you decide to stand and what issues do you see...

TOM HARRIS: Gosh I haven't revisited this for a while. I was basically in a very depressed state politically, having watched be absolutely hammered in the Holyrood elections last May, and I did feel very strongly that more of the same just isn't going to work and we needed a new approach and I didn't see any other candidates providing that new approach,and I was getting frustrated and I have done in the past at a UK level as well that I do get frustrated at the so-called big beats who find every excuse in the World not to step forward for the good of the Party and that frustration boiled over in a heated moment to say I'd do it myself

PAUL BURGIN: So at the moment what is your view on Scotland? Because as someone asked me on twitter, how much of a degree of self-government are you supporting with Scotland and what are your views on the forthcoming referendum for those who do not know?

TOM HARRIS: Well I support devolution and therefore by definition I oppose independence. There used to be only one anti-devolution party in Scotland and there still is only one anti-devolution party in Scotland, but it used to be only the Tories and now it's the SNP. The SNP oppose devolution because devolution doesn't just mean a degree of self government in Scotland it means a degree of reserved powers at Westminster, that's what devolution means, that's what the Scottish people voted for in '97. The SNP want to bend that '97 devolution settlement, the campaign for a Yes vote, but they actually don't want devolution anymore... I don't necessarily see increased power for a Scottish Parliament as a good thing and decreased powers as a bad thing, neither do I see it the other way round. Increased powers are a change in the balance of powers between Westminster and Scotland, should come as a result of necessity, of practicalities, and just what is appropriate at the time and I don't think it should be done on political ideology. I absolutely reject the notion, initially developed by that famous badger hunter and druid, Ron Davies, that devolution is a process not an event. It is an event. It is an event that might be repeated but it's not a process, if it is a process then that means there has to be an end result in every process and if it's a process then the question is invited "Then what's the end result? What's the final destination?" and for most people the final destination for a continual series of process of devolution would be independence and I think that is dangerous and therefore I don't think that it's a process it's an event and one that is repeated a few times

PAUL BURGIN: The Scottish National Party do seem to.. I mean I remember once Alex Salmond said in an interview how he clarified an independent Scotland and he said there would still be some powers at Westminster, you would still have a British Passport, there doesn't seem to much clarity within the SNP

TOM HARRIS: To be fair to Alex, I don't think he ever said an independent Scotland would be a British Passport, it would have to be a Scottish Passport, but what he's trying to do is he is trying to make independence far less threatening to majority of Scotland. Let's make it absolutely clear, there has never been a majority of Scots in favour of independence. If Scotland wanted to be independent we would have been independent a hundred years ago, we would have been independent anytime during the Twentieth Century! The reason we are not independent is because the Scottish people do not want independence, we are a democracy, we could have voted for a process, we could have voted for parties that had taken down the road to independence beforehand but we didn't and we haven't done that and I see no evidence that that is changing, the support for independence is pretty much where it's at when Alex Salmond first became leader in September 1990. He is trying.. the SNP are aware of that so they are trying to make independence a less threatening prospect, so they will say things like "We will still have The Queen, we will still have the pound. There's a suggestion we still have the British Army!" What they are trying to make it sound now is that the only way of saving the Union is to go for independence. Just ridiculous and it is up to the unionist parties to expose those lies that somehow you can remain British

PAUL BURGIN: How does this look for secessionists in the rest of the UK and Europe with regards to the SNP's stance? I mean if say for example they win in this referendum, which is unlikely from what you have said, but taking that argument  what would it say to secessionists elsewhere?

TOM HARRIS: Well obviously it would give encouragement.. it's up to individual countries and individual nationalist movements to say what's best for them. I'm not going to try and tell them that what's best for Scotland is not necessarily the best solution for anywhere else, I happen to believe that Scotland is better off within the UK, that wouldn't necessarily be the case for other countries they have to make their own minds up on that

PAUL BURGIN: So with regards to the Union and the strength of the Union, how much of this Summer would you say has strengthened it, I mean we have had the Olympics, the Paralympics, Diamond Jubilee, do you think they have been great encouragement and support for the..

TOM HARRIS: I think, almost at a subliminal level, they have helped. They certainly haven't harmed the cause of unionism, but I would caution against assuming that this has been a great boost for the unionist cause. My expectation when the next opinion polls are published that there probably won't be that much of a change and that it'll be 2% in either direction, so, you know, it's been great. I think where the SNP have done themselves a lot of harm, once again not so much that it will affect independent support but I think where they have politically done themselves harm is with the past seven years bitching and moaning about the Olympics and saying "Scots don't want anything to do with the Olympics!" and then when the Olympics actually happen and Scots are clearly just as much behind Team GB as everyone else in the country, then they start, you know, saying to Unionist Parties, "Stop making politics out of the Olympics!" well you know the SNP have for the past seven years and you know people can make their own judgements from that. The Olympics is about much more than domestic politics in Britain

PAUL BURGIN: You mention the Olympics, Andy Murray is resident in England, my understanding from what someone has said, and you can correct me if I'm wrong, he won't be able to vote in a referendum because he resides in England! Is this the case?

TOM HARRIS: Yes that's the case, and actually that's right. You cannot have a referendum on Scottish independence and allow everyone with any Scottish connection and Scottish heritage living anywhere else in the World to have a say, if you really want to have a say in the future of Scotland go and live there!

PAUL BURGIN: What about UK General Elections when you have overseas votes?

TOM HARRIS: Yeah Good point and we still send we still send out.. actually we decided in Glasgow South to stop sending leaflets, we get a list of, you know, overseas voters who are registered in my constituency, we used to send them election literature, I don't bother anymore cos I think, "Well sod you if you don't live in the country then don't bother voting!" so they probably won't vote for me. Yeah I do have a problem with people living outside the country having a vote in  general elections as well! I mean, I just think "If you want a say then go and live in the country where you have a vote. Now having said that, if Andy Murray is on the Electoral Register both in Scotland and in England he will have a vote in Scotland! If you are on the Electoral Register you will have a vote. I'm on the, well I am now longer, I used to be on the Electoral Register in Glasgow and here in London, which is legal so long as you don't vote twice in the same election!

PAUL BURGIN:I know this because when I was, the '97 Election happened when I was at University and I think it's just about the only time in my life where I had a Polling Card for North East Hertfordshire, where Oliver Heald is MP, and for Luton South where Margaret Moran was MP, was about to be MP..

TOM HARRIS: Least said soonest mended

PAUL BURGIN: Exactly, I did vote for Labour in Hertfordshire North East because it was easier for me that day, but I remember the choice

TOM HARRIS: Yes, it's not quite true to say he won't have a vote, I don't know if he is resident in Edinburgh but if he is he will have a vote

PAUL BURGIN: So, again a hypothetical argument, if in this referendum, the SNP are successful,  what would that do to the infrastructure of the country? Like, say, the UK Defence Industry, will there be a move away from Scotland do you think? Will people pull out?

TOM HARRIS: I happen to think that economically it will worse for Scotland if it were independent, I also think if we were independent we would make a go of it! You know, we're not going to.. our economy's not going to collapse, our infrastructure's not going to collapse, our schools are still going to be there, you know, we will have to make some pretty tough decisions but, you know, we will  succeed as a small country, a small independent country if that's what we want! So I don't go along with these, you know, dystopian predictions, cataclysm, if we were independent, I just happen to think that we would be better off if we don't! Not just economically, it's not just about economics, it's about culture as well, and it's also actually it's about taking a stand against nationalism itself which I have never found to be an attractive philosophy, you know, we have a shared history, a shared language, a shared culture with people in the rest of Britain! Glasgow where I represent, has more in common with Manchester and Newcastle than with Edinburgh and Aberdeen! So this idea you can draw a line just north of Carslile and everyone above that line thinks one thing and everyone below that line thinks another is such a palpable nonsense that the SNP have been getting away with peddling that myth for such a long time

PAUL BURGIN: One of the questions that has been used so often, I am almost worried I might bore you with it, but one of the questions that's always asked about devolution, independence, is the West Lothian Question. How.. Do you think the West Lothian Question still defines the Union in a way? Should England have a Parliament? Should we be more of a federal country along the lines of Canada?

TOM HARRIS: Well, I didn't want to pass comment on the nationalist aspirations of small countries elsewhere in Europe, but I am not going to start dictating solutions for England, if English people want and English Parliament they should absolutely have it! No doubt there are opinion polls which will say that 80% of the English want an English Parliament, I suspect if you drilled down those numbers you will see that actually in terms of priorities, you know, potholes in the road probably come above it! But if that's what the English people want then that's absolutely fine, they don't need it I would hasten to add. I mean this idea that, the reason it was right for Scotland to get a Scottish Parliament was because we're living in a country where 90% of the people are English and a very small proportion are Northern Irish, Welsh, and Scottish, so it was always possible for anything, any aspirations of the Scottish people to be outvoted by very large numbers. It's not possible, not remotely possible, for the will of the English people to be overturned by the regions of England, now when people say, look at Top Up fees for example, back in 2004 I think, and that was, oh no foundation hospitals, carried on the back of Northern English MP's allegedly against the wishes of English MPs, look at the voting figures there! You cannot carry something in the Commons against the will of English MP's unless you've got something like 200 MP's, English MP's, voting with you. Once you separate them all into national blocs, England still gets it's way on domestic issues, on everything, they only.. You know the foundation hospitals thing was a case where it was split down the middle, that's when you get odd decisions, but this idea that the case for an English Parliament is the same as was the case for a Scottish Parliament is just nonsense. I wrote a piece on this actually for the campaign website, Campaign for an English Parliament, which remarkably few people were rude about because I was trying to be reasonable, I was trying to explain the arithmetic's, because it is about arithmetic, it's not about nationalism it is about arithmetic! If all of the non English MP's combined together on any issue, will get nowhere unless a 150-200 MP's from England join us, and that should say enough to reassure the English that  they may want an English Parliament but they don't need one!
But also in terms of the West Lothian Question I am reading Alastair Campbell's diaries, the unedited diaries at the moment, it's fascinating when you look behind the scenes, the debate on the Scottish White Paper leading up to the Referendum, because Tony's view in opposition was very much that the answer to the West Lothian Question is that sovereignty lies in this Parliament ultimately, because a devolved parliament therefore, you know this Parliament can overturn anything in the Scottish Parliament anytime it wants! It chooses not to by convention

PAUL BURGIN: Rather like the Queen can interfere far more than she actually does?

TOM HARRIS: Yeah that's right, but sovereignty remains remains with the UK Parliament and that's a controversial thing to say in Scottish politics and I will be lambasted for saying it, but everyone knows it's true, but you're not supposed to say it! But that in fact is the answer to the West Lothian Question, that ultimately, sovereignty is not devolved, policies are, ours are, but sovereignty remains at Westminster and that's why it's perfectly right for Scottish MP's to continue to be fully functioning members of the Commons

PAUL BURGIN: Peter Robinson recently spoke about Scottish Referendum..

TOM HARRIS: And I am sure he was very helpful

PAUL BURGIN: I was going to ask, Northern Ireland First Minister, the nationalism and unionism politics obviously far more contentious in Northern Ireland. Not helpful or helpful?

TOM HARRIS: I don't know what he said?

PAUL BURGIN: He basically was supporting.. he said something along the lines of what you said; (along the lines of) "It's not my business to interfere in another country's views, but I think that it's in our interests that in a referendum that they vote for unionism!"

TOM HARRIS: Yeah is anyone really surprised that the Unionist First Minister of Northern Ireland is saying that the Union should remain?


TOM HARRIS: I mean, I'm quite happy on paper to say that the people of Northern Ireland, if they ever get the chance to be a part of a United Ireland, a part of the United Britain should remain in Britain!

PAUL BURGIN: I mean the reason I asked, I mean obviously not a surprise, but the reason I asked is that Northern Ireland has a far more contentious history and a contentious..

TOM HARRIS: Yeah but that's.. You know there are elements of the Northern Ireland conflict in Scotland, particularly the West of Scotland, but it doesn't actually permeate into our politics so actually I don't think it's unhelpful

PAUL BURGIN: Okay. How do you see the next two years with the Referendum debate going on? What pattern do you see emerging if you do see a pattern?

TOM HARRIS: The pattern will be that we start off from a position where just about everyone in Scotland apart from journalists are bored to the back teeth.. The level of interest that the people are showing in the debate at the moment is going to be much less in a couple of years time. You know it will go back and forward, there will be some bare research, some leaked paper from 1890 showing  that someone in the UK Government didn't like Scots and this will be revealed by the SNP as a great reason why we're not to have a union and, you know, there will be some businessman who is threatening to pull out his business if there is independence and that's what happens and you go back and forth, back and forth. The SNP will wheel out a few more big names and people who are basically living abroad to avoid tax and saying "How wonderful it would be if Scotland were independent but don't expect me to live there!" and it's all just a silly game I just can't wait to get it over with!

PAUL BURGIN: Okay, well thankyou very much, Tom Harris, for your time!

TOM HARRIS: Did I come across as too cynical again?

PAUL BURGIN: (Laughs) I don't think so!


cynicalHighlander said...

But also in terms of the West Lothian Question I am reading Alastair Campbell's diaries, the unedited diaries at the moment, it's fascinating when you look behind the scenes, the debate on the Scottish White Paper leading up to the Referendum, because Tony's view in opposition was very much that the answer to the West Lothian Question is that sovereignty lies in this Parliament ultimately, because a devolved parliament therefore, you know this Parliament can overturn anything in the Scottish Parliament anytime it wants! It chooses not to by convention

Maybe a little research of what Lord Cooper in Hansard 1953 might help Mr Harris over where Scots sovereignty lies and it is not in Westminster.

Anonymous said...

"sovereignty lies in this Parliament ultimately, because a devolved parliament therefore, you know this Parliament can overturn anything in the Scottish Parliament anytime it wants!"

That's a great arguement for independence over devolution. Perhaps it should be the referendum question. Do you want
a) to keep Holyrood as a wee pretendy parliament with no sovereignty that Westmisnter can overrule anytime


b) for Scotland to return to being a fully soveriegn country, where Holyrood's decisions on things like keeping the NHS public can't be overturned by a Weestmisnter government?