Constitutional Settlement — Debate
Lord Maclennan of Rogart (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I welcome this opportunity to raise broad constitutional issues that it is timely for us collectively to consider. The referendum proposed on Scottish independence is without precedent since 1707 and the Act of Union. I know it is widely considered that the majority of Scots in Scotland who will participate in this test of opinion are unlikely to take such a self-damaging step, but there is no ground for complacency.
The fact that the Scottish National Party, which is committed to the break-up of Britain, won a majority of the seats in the Scottish parliamentary elections is not a political outcome to be taken lightly. To my mind, the likeliest explanation of that outcome was that the three United Kingdom parties at the time of that election were not in good standing because of the economic downturn in the United Kingdom and the proposed means of dealing with it. Unfortunately, the prospects for Britain emerging from these difficulties by the date which I understand is proposed for the referendum in 2014 are not good. Consequently, it is to be hoped that the Scottish people will draw a clear distinction between supporting a party of protest and weakening the voice and influence of Scotland by separation from the United Kingdom.
In the world in which we live, it makes no sense to lift the drawbridge and retreat into an embattled redoubt. With the global advance in economic power of countries such as China and India, and the rapid development of such countries as Brazil, we should recognise that decisions affecting the citizens of this country will not all be taken at the level of the nation state. Trade, the utilisation of scientific discovery, the protection of the environment, the regulation of global finance-in these, and in many other areas of policy, Governments should move in the direction of integrating systems of political decision-making, not towards fragmentation. Too much navel-gazing is going on around the United Kingdom without proper recognition of our inevitable diminution in global power if we do not associate ourselves with other like-minded countries. If we in Britain want to have a continuing voice in such decisions, we need to enable our representatives to be seen to be speaking with democratic authority-and with a broad democratic consensus that o'erleaps national frontiers. That is the actual strength of the European Union, and it could become even greater if we recognise the need to develop and reform the Union's constitutional structures to achieve that goal.
To my mind, competition among nation states is not always wise and it is not necessarily the way ahead for the United Kingdom. As that highly successful entrepreneur, Henry Ford, once said:
"Coming together is a beginning. Keeping together is progress. Working together is success".
I am sure he was right.
A glance back at Scotland following its parliamentary integration with England demonstrates that the national culture, the national identity, was not adversely affected by the union. Not only did the age of enlightenment that followed hard on the heels of the Act of Union bring Adam Smith, David Hume and Allan Ramsay to the forefront of Great Britain but they were seen as giants on the world stage. At the same time, in the professions, the Adam brothers in architecture, the Hunters in medicine and Lord Stair in the law could be seen as fundamental to Scotland's reputation.
It is surely right, however, to recognise that representative democracies must adapt to changing circumstances. The key is to recognise that the tiers of government must be structured to enable them to accomplish what the people want. Decision-making by government in this country has become more extensive with every passing decade. The weight of the volumes of statutes that we have as a result of our legislative activities grows with every year. The executive arm is ever more stretched. The Better Government Initiative, in which distinguished Members of this House participated, made valuable suggestions. Parliament has already accepted significant changes to our ways of governing and discreet constitutional reforms have been effected that have improved our system of governance. I shall not go back to the period of the beginning of the Labour Government, which I think was very profitable, involving as it did the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into our law, but I would mention in particular the steps to strengthen the judicial system by ensuring the separation of legislative and judicial roles in the forming of the Supreme Court.
The time is now ripe, however, to open a national discussion on the modernisation of our British constitution. What is happening in Scotland will have a difficult fallout and impact on other nations of the United Kingdom. It has already led to discussions in Wales, which have been considered in this House, the Silk commission and other reports on devolution and additional decentralisation. However, I believe that an ad hoc approach to constitutional reform is no longer enough, and that we must look at these issues in the round and recognise that what we choose to do in one area may have a ripple effect in other areas, which were not necessarily considered because that was not what gave rise to the reforms.
The House of Commons made a very important step with the consideration given by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee to the possibility of establishing a nationwide United Kingdom convention on the future structures of our Government. Graham Allen has personally followed this debate and led it with considerable distinction. I have been in favour of piecemeal reform in the past, but it seems to me that the time is ripe to bring together the issues that are causing unrest, discontent with politicians and a sense of failure of Governments and come to conclusions that enjoy a broad consensus. The Scottish convention was very successful in that respect in Scotland. It is not a precise model to be followed, because some consideration ought to be given to whether citizens should be individually elected to participate in such a convention, but it is clear that decisions should not be taken in a partisan way to benefit individual groups of politicians around the country; and that they should enjoy widespread non-partisan support if they are to be brought forward in Parliament.
A deliberative constitutional convention could be informed by the best and wisest heads who have considered these things, many of whom have been giving evidence to the committee in another place. It would assist greatly the achievement of consensus if we aspired to that solidity of approach. I do not believe that Parliament itself, constructed as it is in a partisan way, or the executive arms of government, can achieve these needs without the wider participation of the interested and informed public.
If we are to build that wider consensus into a coherent constitutional framework for decision-makers that allocates responsibility to the appropriate levels, we need the input of our citizenry. That is the sensible way to distil the best options and obtain wide-reaching consensus. We have seen some very helpful deliberations initiated around the country by, in many cases, non-politicians. We have, for example, had very perceptive criticism of the Barnett formula on the distribution of central government funds, and ways out of that dilemma, from Professor Iain McLean of Nuffield College, who has drawn particular attention to the Australian federation system of distributing central government funding. We have had sensible evidence-and again this was part of the Graham Allen approach-that led to the view that a process internal to England would be appropriate in order to establish a clear regional model, ensuring that no single unit within the United Kingdom was too large to participate in what might be seen as a modern federal structure.
There is much to be said for such a structure, but it is not my purpose in opening this debate today to advocate particular solutions to the need to obtain accepted subsidiarity. My purpose is rather to open the discussion in this House about the possibility of a nationwide convention, which I believe should take years, and not months, to deliberate, so that the people of Scotland recognise that the choice is not between separation and the status quo and so that they can see, like everyone else in the United Kingdom, that there are a range of opportunities that would lead to better governance.
Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale (Labour)
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, for securing this debate. His consistent and very considered contribution over the years to debates across the United Kingdom on matters relating to the UK's role in Europe, Scottish devolution and a whole host of other constitutional issues has earned him the right to open this debate and he did so in some style. However, although I welcome the fact that the debate covers both the potential break-up of the United Kingdom and the case for considering an alternative constitutional settlement, it is vital that we do not just propose the need for a debate on an alternative constitutional settlement in response to the current situation in Scotland. Our objective should be to seek the best constitutional settlement for the United Kingdom and for the people of the United Kingdom-and, from my perspective particularly, for the people of Scotland-not just that which is tactically helpful for those of us who believe that the United Kingdom has a role in the modern world at this time.
I believe passionately that Scotland is best placed inside the United Kingdom-the most successful voluntary union of nations the world has ever seen. The success of Scotland since 1707 in making probably the single biggest contribution to global development and thought per head of population of any nation anywhere in the world is one that we should be proud of, not one that we should reject. However, I am not wedded to the union itself as a value or a principle; I support the union because of values and principles and believe very much that membership of the United Kingdom is in the best interests of what I regard as my homeland, Scotland, and of the future of the people who live, and will live, there in the years to come. I also believe that it is best for the people of the rest of the United Kingdom and that we are-as I think the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, said in respect of the United Kingdom's relationship with other nations, whether in the Commonwealth, Europe or elsewhere-better when we work together than when we divide apart.
As I may have said in this Chamber before, my first vote was cast in 1979, in the unsuccessful devolution referendum. I remember the debates well. They had a lasting impact on my political outlook and my attitude to the conduct of politics. One of the many reasons for the outcome of the vote in 1979 was that there was no consensus on the best form of devolution or home rule for Scotland. There were doubts about the motives of even some who supported that position. Across Scotland, the conditions were not yet right for a decisive change to the UK's constitutional structure.
The work done by the Scottish Constitutional Convention-I had the honour to serve as a member of its executive committee from 1992 to 1997-was marked by its success. That was thanks to the terrific contribution by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, who will close the debate, but also because not only did it involve civic Scotland and wider public support, it was politically led with clarity of purpose. If I have one concern about the proposal for a constitutional convention for the whole of the United Kingdom, it is that it is important to have a sense of purpose for such a body and for it not to operate in a vacuum. There must be an end in sight, even if the details are not all clear at the beginning.
It is important to reflect on the changes that have been made since 1997. There is no doubt in my mind that, despite all the ups and downs, despite my criticisms of the current Scottish Government, despite the difficulties that have occurred over the years from time to time in Northern Ireland and the challenges that running an autonomous home-rule government has posed for the people of Wales and Scotland, devolution has been a success in the United Kingdom. The confidence of the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is undoubtedly higher than it was in 1997. Many areas of public life, economic life and social life in those three parts of the United Kingdom are stronger today than they were back in 1997. Despite the fact that things are not perfect, there is no doubt in my mind that things are better than they were then.
That is also true for the city of London. Whatever fun we may have with the current Lord Mayor-sorry, the mayor-and whatever criticisms some Members may have had of the previous mayor, having a mayor has been great for the city of London. I hope that, over time, the development of mayors in other parts of England or even other parts of the United Kingdom will ensure that the great cities of the UK can play their role alongside the devolved governments.
Those changes were important for the overcentralised United Kingdom that existed before, but they were followed by other changes: changes to our judicial system, changes in our relationship with Europe, changes in central government's relationship with local government and considerable changes in your Lordships' House and even in the House of Commons. On far too many occasions, in my view, under both the previous and the current Government, those changes have been reactive. They have been in response to public disquiet or, sometimes, just media disquiet, about the behaviour of politicians or the outcome of political decisions. Although most of the changes were certainly welcome and have improved our democracy, they were too piecemeal to be as permanent and effective as they could have been.
Rather than reacting again and again to circumstances and events, it is vital that an overview is taken of the next constitutional steps and changes to the United Kingdom. Just as it should not be a reaction to a referendum on Scottish independence, it should also not be a reaction to the latest story that dominates the headlines and causes questioning of the role of politics, government and politicians.
Although there is definitely a need for some kind of debate on the nature of the United Kingdom and just how federal the UK is to become-we will have today a great contribution on this from the noble Lord, Lord Soley, supported by others-and perhaps a case for a constitutional convention or royal commission of some sort, there is a need among the political parties to provide some leadership in that debate with a sense of purpose and, where possible, unity.
I make three points that I would like considered as part of that discussion. They do not affect the wider constitutional framework of the UK or aspects such as the judiciary. First, in debate on reform of your Lordships' House, an aspect was missing. I remember interesting-almost exciting-discussions with the late Robin Cook when he was given the responsibility of constitutional reform as leader of the other House. One option that we discussed at the time was whether there was some way to create a second Chamber in the United Kingdom that better reflected not just the nations of the United Kingdom but the regions of England, as an alternative to the failed attempt to create regional self-government for England. Perhaps we could revisit that option in debate in this House. I think there is scope-not necessarily by direct elections, perhaps indirectly, and not based just on the nations but on the regions-for a more representative second Chamber for these Houses of Parliament that reflects all the regions and nations of the United Kingdom.
My second point was that I witnessed with dismay the Prime Minister's recent Cabinet reshuffle. Yet again, the Prime Minister backed away from an essential development of Cabinet government in the UK: the creation of a department for constitutional affairs. Moving away from the territorial departments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is long overdue. We will not have the culture of respect for the devolved Governments and an understanding of the regions and nations of the United Kingdom at the centre of the UK Government until such a change takes place.
As I am about to reach my 11th minute, I shall leave it at that.
Lord Kerr of Kinlochard (Crossbench)
My Lords, the House owes the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, thanks for securing this debate and for the wisdom with which he introduced it. As the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, said, he speaks from a consistent position down the years. He also speaks from the experience of a convention of which he was a member and which I tried to help-I will not mention that again.
I make two preliminary points. First, I was in the House on Monday to hear the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked about the fate of the Steel Bill, saying that it would languish in the Commons as a Private Member's Bill until picked up. Surely a Private Member's Bill has achieved a certain status if it has been passed by the House of Lords. I hope that the Government will look closely at the Steel Bill. It is extremely modest-it is much smaller than most of us would have wanted-but it passed by a large majority through this House and those minor reforms really need to be made. I hope that the off-the-cuff answer by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, who was not being asked about the Steel Bill, is not definitive of the Government's position.
Secondly, I make a point that I have made once or twice in our debates, especially on what is now the Scotland Act. It is in my view a great pity that there is no one among our number who represents the Scottish National Party. I understand why that is the case: the Scottish National Party's position is that it does not believe in this place and does not want to be represented here. I think that that is a serious mistake. We all-the Government and Parliament-should make it clear to the SNP that it is illogical to send Members to the House of Commons but not to the House of Lords. They would be warmly welcomed to the House of Lords. They would be seen as making a real contribution that is now missing from our debates. I can think of several people in Scotland. I can think, for example, of a Presiding Officer who followed the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, who would make an admirable contribution in this House. I hope this is a point on which, in the discussions that are going on with St Andrew's House behind the scenes, the Government are being extremely welcoming. It is a non-partisan point on which I think all sides of this House would agree.
On the major issues addressed in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, I have been unhappy since 1997 about the way Parliament tackles constitutional reform. In summer 1997, Jack Straw produced his White Paper calling for a national conversation on our constitutional settlement. I found it a very odd paper. I did not feel at ease with its lengthy discussion of values and the need to decide on and be clear about what it means to be British. I felt dismayed by the assertion that the primacy of the Commons would survive unscathed if the House of Lords were elected. That is ground that we have all been over and the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was absolutely right on Monday in telling us that he thought the penny on that one had now dropped in the House of Commons-and hence the Bill was dropped. However, I was astonished that the Jack Straw White Paper of July 1997 said not a word about the biggest threat to the constitutional stability of the kingdom, which was, and is even more so now, the independence threat in Scotland. That was passed over in complete silence.
At least Labour tried. There was a White Paper and some discussion of a future constitutional settlement. What have we had from the coalition? First, we have had an EU Act replete with referenda requirements and curiously making decisions of both Houses of Parliament-for the first time ever, I think-subject to subsequent approval by referendum. That seems to be a major attack on the Edmund Burke doctrine of representative democracy. I look forward to hearing the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, on that subject, as I regard him as the foremost exponent of Burkean doctrine in this House. Secondly, we have seen the attempt, repeating the Straw assertion, to go for an elected Lords without considering the role of the Lords. The Bill was about the composition of the Lords, but composition should be a function of purpose and we never addressed the role of the Lords. Thirdly, we saw the attempt at replacing first past the post by AV. I will not talk about that.
Fourthly, we saw the attempt to reduce the size of the Commons by equalising the size of constituencies. That seems to rest on a good democratic principle, but I would have liked to have seen that principle modulated by a greater concern for peripherality and geography. It seemed to me that Members of the House of Commons representing constituencies such as the one that the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, used to represent could perhaps be regarded as facing more difficulties than someone who represents a central London constituency that also had 75,000 people in it. Fifthly, we had the Scotland Act with its ragbag of further minor devolution-the choice not seeming to be based on any particular principle.
Yesterday we had the assertion from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, that a reduction in voting age in the Scottish referendum would not set a precedent. I understand exactly what he meant: it clearly would not follow ineluctably that the age of voting in parliamentary elections should be reduced. Yet we all know that it sets a precedent that will be followed. Actually, I support it. If we send kids off to fight and allow them to get married, we might as well let them vote. However, my point now is not that one but that we are approaching constitutional reform in an entirely piecemeal way. Here is something that may well make sense but has never been debated and is not part of any attempt to form a settlement.
I see six issues that it would be good to address in the sort of convention that the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, has in mind. First, do we still believe in representative democracy or are we moving more and more to direct democracy, and should we not have some criteria on what issues should be referendable? Secondly, do we still believe in the primacy of the Commons? Thirdly, what is the correct size of the Commons? Fourthly, what criteria should govern further devolution? This is the area that the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, spoke of, and it should not just be to Scotland. Which issues should the union lead on, and on which issues should subsidiarity take us towards further devolution? We need a principle there. Fifthly, there is the West Lothian question, which cannot be for ever ducked. Lastly, do we envisage that Scotland, presumably with increased fiscal autonomy, even if independence is rejected, should be represented in this House in the way that the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, was suggesting?
Indirect democracy could well be the answer: the cement of the union. I can see the Edinburgh Parliament electing its delegation to come here, and I see that as a precedent for the regions of England if they go that way, and certainly for Wales and Northern Ireland. There is a great deal to be said for a senate so composed, but of course that takes us back to the questions about the role of the House of Lords. It would no longer be a revising Chamber; it would have a quite different role. You cannot separate the big issues about devolution in the kingdom and the issues about the role of this House. I suspect that I am now heading for criticism from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, because I have gone further on the wider stage than he would, although I am on his side on a number of issues concerning this House. I always listen with great respect to him and am sometimes reminded of the 19th-century Prime Minister who, when persuaded that some change was necessary, rather plaintively said, "Change? Why must we change? Things are bad enough already as they are".
However, proposals for change need to be rooted in principle. I am not against the Graham Allen convention. Constitutional change should be considered, organic and consensual, and based on principles designed to create a stronger national settlement. I very much hope that the next two years will not just be devoted to partisan political debate about yes or no in a referendum. We should use this time, down here and throughout the nation, to have the kind of discussion that the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, is calling for. This House would and should play a major role in that discussion and is rather well suited to that kind of debate, if only the SNP could be persuaded to be represented, and if only the Government could be persuaded to permit the modest reforms recommended by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, in his admirable Bill.
Lord Cormack (Conservative)
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, and I thank him for his kind and complimentary references. No, I do not go with him all the way on all that he said but I strongly agree with him that form must follow function, and with my noble friend Lord Maclennan, to whom we are all indebted today, on the need for a holistic look at the constitution of the United Kingdom. I very much hope that the next two years will not be barren in that regard.
My noble friend talked of the contribution that Scotland has made to the United Kingdom, and did so very rightly and persuasively. I have a family background which is not dissimilar, I suspect, from that of many in this House and outside. My great-grandfather came from Scotland and was one of those who helped to set up the fishing industry in Grimsby. I have a son who lives in Scotland and who considers himself Scottish; his children go to Scottish schools and he is married to a Scottish wife. Both of my sons received part of their education in Scotland. We are integrated, individually and collectively, and to disintegrate would be not only an act of folly but a political and social tragedy because the United Kingdom is so much greater than the sum of its individual parts. It is on that basis that I speak in this House today.
I do not, however, want to be complacent. We must not just take things for granted, and the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, made that point himself in his speech. I was talking in the Corridors yesterday to a couple of colleagues who said, "Oh well, it'll be a bit like Quebec; they'll come to the brink many times but won't actually do it". I think that we have to take the referendum that is promised-or threatened, depending upon how you look of it-in October 2014 very seriously, and I want to address most of my remarks to that specific subject.
I was deeply disturbed by the response from my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace of Tankerness to the question from my noble friend Lord Forsyth yesterday. I have a high regard for my noble and learned friend; he has contributed enormously to government in the UK in general and in Scotland particularly, where he was a distinguished Deputy First Minister. However, I think that he got it wrong in a big way yesterday. Nothing is more calculated to cause intolerable strains within any country than a disparity of the franchise. If we have a situation where in Scotland people are voting at 16 and in the rest of the United Kingdom they are not, as night follows day, a precedent will have been walked into-there is no point in suggesting that the one thing will not follow the other. I listened with interest this morning on the radio to Vernon Bogdanor, who made this point: this is not the way to debate votes at 16. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, made it plain that he is in favour. That is a perfectly respectable point of view; I personally disagree with him, but nevertheless it is a proper point of view to hold. However, it needs properly debating but has not been debated. It should not, and it must not, be introduced through the back door.
We have had all sorts of indications that a deal with Mr Salmond is imminent. It is always easy to do a deal with someone if you capitulate to them. Mr Salmond made it plain from the word go that he wanted votes at 16 for the referendum. He somewhat quaintly added "and 17", as if you would give them to 16 year-olds but not 17 year-olds. Why did he want this? Because he thought it would be in his interests. Mr Salmond must not be underestimated by anyone in this Chamber; he is the most wily and skilful politician in the UK at the moment, in my view. He has something of the Boris touch about him-a sort of tartan Boris-and we underestimate him at our peril. However, we do not capitulate to those with whom we do not agree.
There has been no principled argument about this issue. It is indicated that we are suddenly going to have this announced next week; I sincerely hope that we are not. If it is indeed announced, then the Government of the UK will not have served us well in this. There is no point in my noble and learned friend suggesting that a precedent would not have been set; it would. Vernon Bogdanor was rather modest on this: he thought it "likely" that votes at 16 would follow throughout the United Kingdom, but I believe that it would be inevitable and I know that many colleagues, whatever point of view they take on the issue, agree with that. This is not the way in which you change the franchise or the constitution.
Personally, I believe that there should be a referendum. Let the Scottish people speak, but let them speak in a way consistent with their current membership of the UK-namely, on a similar register where the franchise is the same as elsewhere in the UK-and do not let us be faced with the situation where, with a narrow majority, it can be suggested that it was the 16 year-olds "what done it". Think of the implications of that for a moment or two. Let us have an intelligent debate before the referendum, and in that debate let us make sure that the issues raised by my noble friend Lord Maclennan and the noble Lords, Lord McConnell and Lord Kerr, are properly debated.
The United Kingdom is an extraordinary country. It was said by the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, I think, that the union of our two countries, England and Scotland, was the most successful union in history. Others around the world may debate that, but personally I think that he makes a very good point. I am proud to be British and I am very proud of my Scottish associations on that side of my family, even though I may feel that my own identity is more English. The great thing about this country is that we are all British. Our civilisation, our culture, is European, our nationality is British and within that we have individual national identities. It is a marvellous achievement and must not be put at risk. We need to argue this with force and passion throughout the whole of the UK even though, rightly and properly, the vote will be taken in Scotland.
I hope that some mechanism can be found to enable those who consider their roots to be in Scotland and wish to return there to vote. I concede that that could be difficult, but I do not suggest that everyone in the UK should have a vote and I accept that this decision has to be made in Scotland. However, it must be made in a proper manner in a proper referendum, and on the basis of our franchise arrangements as they exist in the UK at the moment. If there is any suggestion that there should be a change, then that is a change that should extend to the rest of the UK and should be brought into effect only if both Houses of the Parliament of the UK decide that is the right way forward. In such a debate I would not be favouring a lowering of the age, as I made plain, but the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, would be. We could honourably disagree and, as two people who believe passionately in democracy, he would accept the result if it went my way and I would accept it if it went his, but it would have to be on the basis of a proper parliamentary decision-perhaps endorsed in the referendum, because we now have the referendum mechanism for constitutional issues, but essentially made first in Parliament-not introduced through the back door or brought into Scotland in this way by wheeling and dealing. This is a cynicism that is almost beyond belief.
I am told that members of the Government are suddenly attracted this because a recent opinion poll of current 16 year-olds, who will be 18 in two years' time, indicated that they liked the United Kingdom. What a shoddy way in which to run any country and to be the guardians of the constitution. We can do better than that, and I hope we will.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Labour)
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, about whom one of our colleagues once said that if this place had not existed, it would have had to have been created for him. He fits into this place so well. I congratulate-I must refer to him as my noble friend-my noble friend Lord Maclennan. I have known him for so long and most of the time we were in the same party together. I appreciate his wisdom, which others have mentioned, his knowledge and his experience. I am particularly pleased that he has included those three words "alternative constitutional settlement" in the Motion. That is what I want to concentrate on.
Let us first remember why we brought about devolution in the first place. It was not as a reaction to the SNP, it was not as a bulwark against independence and it was not, as some people hoped, as the first step towards independence-the slippery slope argument. We introduced it because in Scotland for 200 years we had had a separate system of education and local government, a separate culture and, above all, a separate legal system, but we also had a democratic deficit because we did not have appropriate democratic control of all that devolution. It was dealt with administratively and inadequately here in Westminster as a codicil to UK or English legislation or as a hurried Scottish Bill late at night, if we had the time. That is why we brought it in. It was because we wanted to do something sensible about that democratic deficit. As with all the changes that have taken place, there have been unintended consequences, and they are what we need to deal with.
Perhaps I may add to what was said earlier by my noble friends Lord Maclennan and Lord McConnell and explain how we dealt with the devolution creating the Scottish Parliament. It was the Scottish Constitutional Convention. Let us remember that the SNP boycotted it. Some people forget that. We might almost forgive them, but not quite. We had wide representation from civic society in particular, and it was based on a clear aim in the Claim of Right. I do not know whether all noble Lords have had the opportunity of reading an excellent book by Owen Dudley Edwards-I contributed a chapter to it. All the Scots Labour MPs, except Tam Dalyell, and Scots Liberal Democrat MPs signed that Claim of Right. We had a purpose. There was a real understanding of what we were aiming for. Then the Welsh Assembly followed. There was not that enthusiasm originally in Wales, but when people saw what Scotland had and what we were doing with it, as noble Lords from Wales will know, they wanted something similar, and the desire for devolution has been growing in Wales. Thankfully, Northern Ireland revived its assembly under different circumstances, and Stormont is now working as part of the whole constitutional structure.
Lord Wigley (Plaid Cymru)
The noble Lord will have noted, I am sure, that support for the constitutional settlement in Wales shot up when the National Assembly for Wales got legislative powers after the referendum last year. Therefore, enthusiasm has grown, as have the powers.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Labour)
Indeed, it is understandable. It is welcome that we have a representative of the Welsh nationalists here. I underline what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, said: it would be helpful if we had a representative of the SNP. I know Pete Wishart and some other MPs are quite keen on that, but there is one person who vetoes it, and he has a veto.
To return to my argument, I have written a couple of blogs recently arguing that both from the point of view of Scotland and the point of view of this place, we need a UK constitutional convention because of the piecemeal looks at constitutional reform that we have had in the past and all the anomalies and unintended consequences that have resulted. We need a coherent, consistent look, and we need to work towards a stable solution. One of the anomalies has already been mentioned: the West Lothian question. That is being dealt with separately, and I think wrongly, by the commission under the chairmanship of Sir William McKay because it is looking at it in the narrow context of how we can stop Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs voting on purely English legislation. Incidentally, it has not considered whether it would stop Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Peers voting on that legislation. That did not seem to have occurred to it until some Peers drew it to its attention. So that is being dealt with.
The other thing is that we have ended up with asymmetrical devolution. Scotland, or perhaps Northern Ireland, has the greatest amount of devolution-we could argue that-and then Wales. We then come to the West Lothian question and the problem about England. That is why I and others argue-and it is an increasing argument-that there should be a constitutional convention. My noble friend Lord McConnell said, and I think he is right, that there should be a purpose and an end in sight and that we should know where we are going and not just hope that something will emerge. That is why I am in favour of a federal United Kingdom. I have been arguing that in my own party and with the Liberal Democrats. The Liberals used to want one. I remember going to meeting after meeting where the Liberals would argue so cogently in favour of a federal United Kingdom. They should return to that, we should look at it and I hope others will look at it as the stable solution.
The other stable solution would be a centralised United Kingdom or the break up of the United Kingdom. I do not want either. I do not want a return to a centralised UK, and I do not want the break up of the United Kingdom, but a federal UK would be the way forward.
As other noble Lords have said, the UK constitutional convention could also look at this House, its purpose and its constitution. I very much agree with my noble friend Lord McConnell and the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, about the need for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, of course, England and the regions of England to be properly and sensibly represented in this place, giving this place some enhanced credibility. That needs to be looked at. We also need to look at the relationship of the United Kingdom Parliament, the Commons and the senate, or whatever we call it, to the devolved Parliaments.
Some people argue that a federal system would not work because England is too large. If you think about it, that does not make sense because if the English Parliament-let us say that there is an English Parliament-deals with devolved matters, it is autonomous in those devolved matters, as is the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, so it gets on with its own educational system or whatever. If you agree with a federal structure, if that is the way forward, the size of the different parts does not matter. Where it may matter is when it comes to the federal Parliament, and that is where you have to look at how some balance can be struck.
Lord Watson of Invergowrie (Labour)
I support the point that my noble friend is making. Does he recognise that in Germany the Länder vary in size from Bremen with, I think, 700,000 people to North Rhine-Westphalia with about 20 million people, yet they still operate ostensibly on the same basis, which supports the point he is making?
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Labour)
I am grateful to my noble friend-he is very much my noble friend-for that example. Pakistan is the same. Punjab is a large state in Pakistan. Ontario is a very large province in the Canadian federal system. It can work. One of the ironies is that the German constitution was formulated by British people. We give these sensible constitutions to other countries, but end up with a bit of a dog's breakfast ourselves.
If there is one message that I want to come out from this debate today-it has come from all the contributions that have been made and, I predict, will come from others to come-it is that there is growing momentum in support of a UK constitutional convention. As my noble friend Lord Maclennan said, the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons, chaired by Graham Allen, is now looking at it. People have been arguing it here. People outside have been arguing it. I think we should try to be the forerunner of a campaign for a UK constitutional convention. We need to get the party leaderships behind it. I have started to encourage the leadership of my party to adopt this as their policy and I will continue to do that. I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, can say in his reply that he will encourage his party to adopt a UK constitutional convention, moving towards a federal structure, as his policy. He might even try persuading his coalition partners likewise; I know that it is not easy. It is only through cross-party agreement, if we can all see the way forward and the aim in mind, that something sensible will be achieved. My goodness, with the dog's breakfast of a constitution we have at the moment, something sensible is long overdue.
Lord Steel of Aikwood (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, if I were in church, I would simply say "Amen" to that speech and sit down; I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. But we are not, and I begin by expressing my sincere thanks to my noble friend Lord Maclennan for his wisdom in enabling the House to have this debate. He has done the House a great service, and also with the tone and content of his introduction.
When Mr Salmond first said that he would hold a referendum in Scotland in two years' time, I was extremely concerned. I thought that, as time went on, people in Scotland would become thoroughly bored with the whole issue. You cannot open a newspaper but for somebody, either a politician or a journalist, pontificating on some aspect of putative independence. I have also found-and I am sure that other Scottish Peers have had the same experience-that as you travel abroad people immediately ask, "Are you going to be independent?". The whole thing is an unsettling, long-drawn-out, boring process.
However, in fact it has had one benefit, which may be slightly surprising. It was well revealed in an opinion poll published in the Scotsman a couple of days ago. The number of people who were undecided at the start of the process has greatly diminished, and the people who were uncertain have moved to the "no to independence" camp. According to that poll, the support for those who agree that Scotland should negotiate independence has slumped from 40% to 28%, while those who are clearly opposed have grown from 37% to 53%. So the effect of this long-drawn-out debate has been to focus the public mind on the consequences of independence. Therefore, the potential risk to which my noble friend refers in his Motion has diminished. None the less, it is still a risk and we should be aware of it.
It is not really surprising that this has happened when you consider the number of issues that have been raised: the cost of independence and the cost of establishing a separate social security system. There is the question of what currency we have. It used to be SNP policy to join Europe and the euro; enthusiasm for that course seems to have disappeared in recent months. Are they going to be dependent on the Bank of England, in which case what kind of independence is that? That is another question that crept up. What is going to happen in defence? The SNP is currently going through a whole rethink about whether Scotland should be in or out of NATO. Of course, Scotland has always contributed much more than our population suggests to the defence forces of the country, so that has become a big issue.
So it has gone on. I am one of those who believe that the people of Scotland have a right to be independent if they wish to be. I do not argue that it is impossible to have an independent country, but I think that most people have come around to the view that it would simply be a great and unnecessary leap in the dark. Why are they going to make it? Why do we not instead intend to pursue the line of those who have been heading the devo-plus campaign to build on what we already have, and try to make it, as others have said, somewhat more coherent than it is at the moment?
Lord Lawson of Blaby (Conservative)
My noble friend mentioned the question of what currency an independent Scotland would have. Does he think it not slightly curious that, when events in the eurozone have shown conclusively that it is impossible to have a single currency without full political union, Alex Salmond is promoting a single currency and at the same time wants to break up a perfectly workable, working political union? Is that not rather odd?
Lord Steel of Aikwood (Liberal Democrat)
It is certainly very odd. I am grateful to my noble friend; he has taken a little time out of what I want to say.
I pick up a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr: the absence of any SNP representation here. As some may know, I have recently been elected chairman of the Scottish Peers Association; there is clearly no end to my political ambitions. In this onerous post, I wrote to the First Minister and relayed what we all felt during the Scotland Bill: that there was an absence of any SNP membership here in the House. I have invited him, therefore, to come and address the Scottish Peers Association, and he has accepted. Members will have an opportunity, at some point of his choosing, to hear what he has to say. That is really quite important. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said about pursuing certain people who should be Members of this House, and I have been privately lobbying the Prime Minister on exactly the same basis.
The point I want to make in this short speech, to follow up what the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, said, is that there is a clear potential role for the reformed House of Lords in dealing with a uniform structure for the United Kingdom. My noble friend's plea for some kind of constitutional convention is a wise one. Of course, although the House of Lords Bill has been withdrawn, the issue has not gone away. My right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister has made it clear that he intends to come back to the fundamental question of how the House of Lords should be constituted after the next election.
My simple hope is that, in the mean time, while there is this inevitable period before that happens, there should be some fundamental rethinking about what would be the role of the House of Lords before we get around the drafting yet another Bill. That role should take account of the different elements in the United Kingdom.
Some of my Liberal Democrat colleagues outside this place have been unkind enough to suggest that I have drifted away from what I said as leader of the Liberal Party. I therefore want to quote from the 1979 party manifesto:
"The House of Lords should be replaced by a new, democratically chosen second chamber which includes representatives of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom and UK members of the European Parliament".
More than 30 years later, I have not changed my view. I stand by what I said in the 1979 manifesto. If fresh legislation is going to come forward in another two or three years, we should go back to that principle and make sure that the new House of Lords has a clear role in a reformed United Kingdom. That is one of the key issues, which my noble friend is right to say that a constitutional convention should tackle.
In the mean time, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, referred to the "Steel Bill", I say that I could not get in on the exchanges on Tuesday, but I wanted to correct what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, said from the Opposition Front Bench. He said that the Government were opposed to it. That is not the case. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, was right to say that the Bill is "languishing" in the House of Commons. I have invented a new word: I wish to "unlanguish" it. I am glad to say that it is no longer the "Steel Bill". The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, made an important point: it has gone from this House. If you go and get a copy through the Commons, it no longer has my name on it. It is a Bill brought from the Lords and, as such, it should not be treated in the queue for private Members' legislation. I very much hope that the Government, even at this late date, will agree that this modest proposal to get a retirement scheme, which will result in getting our numbers down, should be pursued.
However, the main thing is that there is great scope here for a new role for a reformed Chamber. I hope very much that minds will be concentrating on that in the next two or three years.
Lord Judd (Labour)
My Lords, it is always a good thing to follow the noble Lord, Lord Steel. He is someone whom I have known, liked and admired throughout my political life. It was good to hear him endorsing so warmly the objective of his noble friend, the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, to establish a convention to look at the constitutional challenges to the United Kingdom as a whole. That must be right. I would argue that if ever there was need for an example of the dangers of pragmatism without a strategy, it is in the story of constitutional reform in recent decades in the United Kingdom. We have not had a road map of where we are going or our objectives and what we are ultimately trying to sustain, which is very foolish of us all. It is high time that we had a strategy to which we are all working.
I have something in common with the noble Lord, Lord Steel. His father was a pillar of the kirk. My grandfather was a minister of the Church of Scotland and secretary of its foreign missions. Originally, he was in the United Free Church but was part of those who brought the United Free Church and the Church of Scotland together again in 1929. He could not have been more Scottish but if you delve into his family history, there is migration from Ireland to Scotland and from Lancashire to Northern Ireland. The story of the British people is very complex. While my father could not have had a family more rooted in southern England-Hampshire and Surrey and, to some extent, East Anglia-if we go back far enough into that family history there are all sorts of issues about exactly where they came from, including the Middle East or wherever.
We are not just dealing with the pieces of a puzzle. We are dealing with people, their origins and their stories. We have to be sensitive about that. My mother was always completely loyal to her Scottish origins. Emotionally, she felt strongly about Scotland and deeply attached to her Scottish family. But being in London during the Blitz, as a young boy I saw her change. She also developed a deep-rooted sense of loyalty to that part of England in which she was living-London and the south-east-which would never change. She went to her grave committed to the people of the south-east of England. But that was not to deny her Scottish origins. It was to build on them and to enjoy the change of which she was a part.
Perhaps I might add that my wife's story has Wales, England and France in it, which again is an illustration of this complexity. I always say that her grandfather was one of the Welsh who came to England to educate the English. In the 12th century, the north-west corner of England in which we live was part of the kingdom of Strathclyde. The Vikings and the Welsh tribes had more or less colonised that part of England. It was so difficult, resistant, obstinate and wild that the Normans got fed up with it and ceded it to the kingdom of Strathclyde for a while before it was taken back. Those are only glimpses of the complex story of the United Kingdom but it is just as well to remember the human dimensions that are there.
For myself-the House has heard me say this in one context or another on many occasions-the starting point of political reality is that we are locked totally into an international community. From the moment we are born our destiny is that of an international community. We as a generation of politicians, whoever we are and whatever our convictions, will be judged by the success we make of that international reality. Any temptation to deny it is leading the British people badly astray. We have to make a success of that international reality.
However, when I was serving on the Commission on Global Governance, which was chaired by the former Swedish Prime Minister and Sonny Ramphal, the former Secretary General of the Commonwealth, I came to a mind change in my own attitude. As an internationalist, I suppose I had been a bit intolerant and insistent that we had to build the international institutions that were going to make a success-I am a bit dogmatic about this-of our future. It was a very interesting commission in which to work with people from all over the world and I came to realise that we, in a sense, were part of the problem because in the age of globalisation and impersonal technology, there was a real crisis among people in the world about their sense of dignity and identity, and of their importance as individuals. All those remote systems were making it worse.
I became convinced that we had to generate a political reality in which we recognised the importance of identity that then went on with leadership to say, "We can't possibly run the world on a base of a lot of separate identities. We have to have effective co-operation to make a success of our approach to this international reality". I think that we could take a look at the United Kingdom in that context and I am glad that there have been references in this debate to the possibility of a federal United Kingdom. I wish that that had been much more thoroughly examined and I hope that it would be one of the things that would be looked at very closely by any convention that was established.
Of course, there are all sorts of issues, including the disparity in size between Scotland and England. But I sometimes wonder whether we would not in the end have a much stronger United Kingdom if it was a federal United Kingdom, rather than one that was simply being imposed. That brings me to the decision on the form of the ballot in Scotland. I am sorry to introduce a word of dissent but I am not sure that I am very relaxed about this yes-no approach. We will get a result but will we get a settlement? Even if there is a significant majority against independence in Scotland, there will still be a significant minority who are not reconciled to this prospect. It seems to me that it would have been wiser to include that third question, which was, "Or would you prefer more authority and a stronger place for Scotland within the United Kingdom as a whole?". At least there is an issue to be examined again by a possible convention.
I would only say this about Scotland, but I can give another dimension to this complex reality. One story that I was brought up with in the Scottish part of my family was about the businessman in Scotland who had been building up his business and had various problems to resolve. He had taken them to St Andrews House and had success but, finally, there was a problem that he simply had to take to London. When he came back, his family all gathered round him, feeling rather anxious about how he had got on there. He said that it was fine. They asked him, "But how did you get on with all those Sassenachs?" He looked at them rather puzzled and said, "Sassenachs? I didn't meet any Sassenachs-I only met the heads of department".
That reality was reinforced for me as a young Member of Parliament in my first PPS job at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government for England and Wales. At our weekly meeting between senior officials and Ministers, there, towering in the room, was a great rugby-playing Scot who was, in fact, the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry. We have a very complex story to tell.
I say to my friends in Scotland that they should not, in considering their own future, believe for a moment that everything will be resolved with the issue of independence or no independence. They should look at the fraught, divisive, warring history of Scotland-and still there are all the issues of the borders, the central belt, the east coast and the highlands and islands, which all have very strong identities of their own. They are not all happy to be dominated by any one particular part of Scotland, which might be concentrated in the centre. So there will be challenges ahead.
I conclude by repeating what I said earlier. I do not want to overegg it but I believe that our approach to constitutional reform in the United Kingdom in recent years has been a disaster and will be seen as such in history. What the hell were we trying to do, where were we trying to go and how were these pieces meant to strengthen and underpin our ultimate objective? We need to get that ultimate objective very clear.
Lord Hughes of Woodside (Labour)
My Lords, I join everyone who has expressed their thanks to the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, for opening this debate. I was not sure when I saw this title whether it was an appropriate time to have this debate, but now I am convinced that it is. There are many people in this House who have a long and very honourable tradition of supporting and advocating devolution. I do not want to quarrel with them, but I want to try to look at the future and enter this caveat. History depends on one's interpretation, and because I was in the other place between 1970 and 1979 I know that the impetus behind the very modest Scotland Assembly Bill did not come primarily because of the arguments of those who favoured devolution but because of the defeat of Alex Wilson in the Hamilton by-election and the rise in the number of nationalist MPs from one to 11. That was the impetus. For too long since then, the view has permeated the debate that if we cede a little bit more power to the Scottish Parliament, and give a little bit here and there, it will somehow satisfy the nationalist beast. I have said it before and I will say it again that anyone who believes that is naive enough to believe that if you feed a carnivore more and more meat, it will one day become a vegetarian.
That does not mean that we should ignore what is happening or not try to face up to the future. Of course, there is a need for a constitutional settlement, but it must be based on principle and purpose and not expediency. Of course, the federal solution has its attractions. It would immediately resolve the so-called West Lothian question; it would abolish the House of Commons, to be replaced by an English Parliament, so we would have English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Parliaments, each with equal status and authority. Of course, that would be fine, but there would still be a need for a federal Parliament to deal with international issues, defence issues, and so forth. But another important issue, not mentioned so far in this debate, is that given the disparity in the size and numbers in the populations and economics, as well as in the fiscal possibilities of each of the four countries, there would still have to be mechanism to mitigate these financial issues. Someone would have to raise taxation nationally, and distribute it to bring out some equality of opportunity, and we would be back where we started. There is the argument about who is giving money where-and people constantly complain that the English are subsidising the Scots. Federalism would not remove that argument entirely.
There is also the possibility, although we do not know the dynamics of the situation, that you would land up with a federal Parliament where the majority of Members would represent English constituencies. I do not know how it would be elected. Would it be directly population controlled? There would have to be balancing and weights-and that is another debate. The possibility arises of people in Scotland electing members to the federal Parliament, none of whom were members of the majority party in the federal Parliament. This brings me back to the rather ludicrous proposition which was put at the time when there were no Tory MPs representing Scotland in the other place: namely, that the Tories had no mandate to govern in Scotland. Therefore, there are dangers inherent in these issues. However, I absolutely agree that they ought to be examined.
One of the problems that we have with our society today is the insistent and strident clamour for the instant solution-the instant fix. There is no time to think about things; they have to be done tomorrow. We are concerned about the next news headline. We also react to events and do not look far enough into the future. We are not looking at the long haul, yet that is what we need to do. We cannot look at a constitution as an add-on to democracy. A constitution is vital to democracy. A constitution offers all sorts of possibilities but it is not a mystical thing that can suddenly solve all our problems at a snap of the fingers. That is why we have to look at what will happen in the long run. We have to realise that the whole process will fail if we start by looking at solutions to a constitutional issue. What was the reason for having it in the first place? As has been said before, one of the reasons was the debacle of the coalition proposal for the House of Lords. Incidentally, one of the benefits of federation is that the House of Lords would disappear in its entirety as we would have a federal parliament. One of the difficulties is that we go along with these things without defining their purpose. The debacle happened because people were concerned about function, not result, and it is the result and the purpose which really matter. It is the purpose which really matters.
This is a valuable debate and I hope that we will take forward the details of it. However, we should not imagine for one second that the tensions in society will be resolved easily. There is no neat solution to our constitutional problems which can be written on one side of octavo-sized notepaper. However, that might be slightly better than a previous proposal which appeared to have been written on the back of an envelope.
I favour a royal commission over a constitutional convention for the following reason, which may be regarded as slightly controversial. A lot has been said in favour of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, the deliberations of which led eventually to the establishment of the Scottish Parliament. However, one of the major flaws of that process was that both the Scottish National Party and the Conservative Party refused to take part in it. Therefore, a whole spectrum of the debate was not considered in the discussions that took place. The other flaw, in my view, is that people come to a convention armed with their own views. No one who is involved in politics and is a member of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats or the Conservative Party can put their hand on their heart and say, "I went to the convention with a blank canvas. I had no views of my own". I was involved in the convention for two years as chair of the Labour Party Scottish MPs so I know a bit about what went on there. As I say, one of the flaws of the convention was that people came to it with their own ideas. There was too much of people saying, "This is what I want", and not enough of them listening to what other people wanted. Incidentally, one of the most ludicrous propositions put to that convention was that Scotland should have full control and ownership of Scottish nuclear power stations. I mildly asked whether that would include the historical costs. I was told, "We are not sure about that". I also asked whether it would include the Scottish Parliament taking over the cost of decommissioning. I was told, "We can't have that. For heaven's sake, bring some sense to the discussions". Therefore, a convention will not resolve issues unless all the political parties and civic society take part in it. However, everyone can submit their views to a royal commission, which can then be discussed. It is a matter of debate which is the best way forward. However, it cannot be done quickly-that is not a matter of debate.
I end by congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, and all who have taken part in this debate. The sense that has been spoken in it has been an eye-opener for me. I certainly hope that that will continue.
Lord Soley (Labour)
I, too, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, on introducing this debate, which has been very useful. A great deal of good sense has been talked so far. The debate also enables me to repeat what I have said on a number of occasions in this House over the past few years: the United Kingdom has been the most successful, long-lasting political and economic union the world has ever seen. I am glad that other noble Lords have repeated that with emphasis, because we need to get that message over in England, Scotland, Wales and, indeed, Northern Ireland, which is now in a more settled condition than it was before.
However, one of the things that we sometimes forget-this is what I want to talk about a little in this debate-is that with the Act of Union, it is arguable that Britain became a federal state without a federal structure. That in a way is now coming home to roost because generally we are all supportive of devolving power. It is a good thing. One of the problems for the SNP is that it is not clear about what it wants. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, mentioned that the party wants to keep the Bank of England, the sovereign and the Armed Forces. If we had given independence on that basis to the countries of the empire after the Second World War, we would still have an empire. It is nonsense to go down that route.
However, there is confusion, which is something that we in England need to remember: all too often in broadcasting, the media and government, the word "England" is at times used to mean Britain. We should always be more careful about that because it rankles in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. I do not blame them for that. There is of course a problem. We cannot stop the Italians, French, Americans or others referring to England as though it is Britain, but we know the difference, or we ought to.
One of the reasons why I welcome the debate is that one of the advantages of the government Bill on the reform of the House of Lords, after its failure, was that it focused our views on the key question: if you are going to reform the House of Lords, you first have to decide what you want it to do. That point has been made on a number of occasions. The article published today on progress, to which my noble friend Lord McConnell referred, tries to recognise that we are going through a period of change and that there is an opportunity to get things into perspective.
At the moment, the House of Lords has been used as a revising Chamber. In just one recent Bill, the Localism Bill, 514 government amendments were introduced here. You could say the same for a number of other Bills. The same happened under the previous Labour Government. We were using the House of Lords to do what should have been done in the House of Commons-getting right the role of scrutiny, which ought to be done by the elected Members. One of the fallacies in the debate is that Members of the House of Lords actually legislate. There is an implication that we do so, but in reality, if you look at the harsh facts, we do not legislate. Only the House of Commons has the power to legislate. It can overrule and throw out everything we do. We do not actually legislate, although we talk as though we do. Our problem is that the House of Commons has to be reformed, and I say that as a House of Commons man and chairman, at one time, of the parliamentary Labour Party. We were aware that the level of scrutiny that we were carrying out was not as good as it ought to be. There needs to be radical reform of the way the House of Commons scrutinises government Bills. That would take a large part of the work away from this place.
You then have the question: what is the role of the House of Lords? It does many important things over and above scrutiny. This is where I go back to the question of devolution. I was a great supporter of it and still am. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said that some people argued at the time that it was a slippery slope to independence. We could not have avoided devolution.
Lord Steel of Aikwood (Liberal Democrat)
I am following closely what the noble Lord says. One of the advantages if the House of Lords were a properly integrated force in a federal constitution is that it could also be a revising Chamber for the devolved Assemblies, which do not have one. Committees of the House of Lords could perform that function.
Lord Soley (Labour)
That is an excellent additional point which I had not thought of but I take it on board.
Politics is changing in other fundamental ways, as we all know. Political parties are becoming less important but politics is not, and it is the politics of issues. The issues are sometimes national and sometimes local, and they are also driven by new technology. Therefore, issues-based politics is emerging very rapidly.
Interestingly, the Olympics demonstrated how Britain as a whole could celebrate Team GB and yet in Glasgow, Sheffield, Cardiff and Belfast celebrate the individual achievements of people from those areas. In other words, we recognised that the United Kingdom was as one.
My complaint about the SNP is that it tends to see its history as based on the film "Braveheart" rather than on what really happened. The civil war, which is often wrongly referred to as the English civil war, was in fact a war of the three kingdoms. In Scotland there were people who fought for the king and those who fought for Parliament. The same applied in England, Wales and Ireland, and the brutality was quite extreme. The Act of Union finished all that. The civil war changed things for other reasons, but I emphasise that the Act of Union brought about not only the end of the struggles between England and Scotland but a recognition that the United Kingdom could act as one politically and economically. That, I would argue, opened up the possibility of Britain being a free and open society, and it also drove forward the Industrial Revolution. It is a crucial part of our history and I just wish that people could forget "Braveheart" and remember their actual history.
The other thing that is often forgotten is that if you break up a successful political and economic union, the break is not necessarily a clean one. I dearly hope, and indeed expect, that if we are foolish enough to break up the United Kingdom it will not be anywhere near as disastrous as the break-up of the former Yugoslavia-there would not need to be that blood-stained record. One should just think of the break-up of Czechoslovakia into two states and the disadvantages that it has brought to the poorer part of those two states.
A break-up is not automatically clean. I speak as someone who spends a lot of time in Scotland. I was talking to people in Shetland recently and it is clear that they have very mixed views about being governed from Edinburgh. They get quite cross when they hear Alex Salmond talking about Scotland's oil, as though it will be divvied up for Shetland. Interestingly, if you look at the two local flags that were devised for the islands of Orkney and Shetland, you will see that they reflect the flag of Norway. It is only about 500 years since they were part of Norway. One should not assume that the break-up of the United Kingdom will be as clean and neat as one would like it to be.
There is another reason for arguing for a federal approach to these issues and that is the whole question of England. I have never been a great English nationalist-I am a mix of British people, as are others here-but I believe that in a way English nationalism is more dangerous than Scottish nationalism. We have to be aware that there is a genuine feeling among people in England that they are not having their voice heard as they need it to be heard. Of course, Alex Salmond would say, "Well, that's good. England can be independent". However, we need to recognise all the points that have been made here today: we are stronger together than separated, and we need to look at the new settlement.
I wrote today that we need a royal commission, and this is where I am with my noble friend Lord Hughes. I would prefer a royal commission to a more open-ended one because we need to be very focused about this. There are obvious problems with federalism-how you define it with the relative balance of the nations, England being by far the biggest-but they are not insoluble. As was indicated in an intervention, Germany copes with this quite well. We wrote the German constitution, so we should have quite a good idea of how to do this sort of thing. There is a real possibility that if we approach this properly, we can have a good debate on what powers are devolved. One of the great successes of devolution is that we were very clear in saying what was devolved and leaving everything else separate. Once you get into the problem of defining the powers of the central government, you are into writing a constitution, and I would not recommend going down that road. You just need to be very clear about what powers you are devolving.
I have only one minute left so I am reluctant to take another intervention. I am sorry.
The way we do politics in any democratic nation is changing, partly because of new technology and partly for other reasons. In Britain, we have an opportunity to revisit the federal structure that we created in the Acts of Union but without having a formal federal system. If we do that we can also look at the role of the second Chamber in that light as long as we also have a reform of the House of Commons in the way in which it scrutinises government legislation. That should not be a primary role of the House of Lords. Frankly, if it were not a primary role for it right now, legislation would reach the statute book in a pretty dreadful state. That is not an ideal way of doing things.
Lord Browne of Ladyton (Labour)
My Lords, I thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, on proposing the Motion at the beginning of the debate. As we have been reminded by my noble friends Lord McConnell and Lord Foulkes and as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, reinforced, the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan is, if not uniquely, at least very well-qualified to introduce this issue because of his consistent history as a great veteran of constitutional change. There is another reason of which he may not care to be reminded: in a sense, he is a one-man coalition and has a reach across the political spectrum of the United Kingdom which is not unique but is very extensive.
In the first minutes of the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, my heart sank as his wide-ranging introduction, which covered, among other things, globalisation, the reform of multilateral institutions, the role of the Enlightenment and the better governance initiative, made me think that I had agreed to respond to a debate that was well beyond my scope. I was glad to see that in the substance of his speech he came back within the scope that I had anticipated. I have some notes that address some of those issues, although when the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, intervened in the speech of my noble friend Lord Soley and introduced the idea of your Lordships' House becoming a revising chamber for the devolved Assemblies and Parliaments, my heart sank again as I thought I would have to grapple with procedural and other complications of that sort. The noble Lord will excuse me if I am not tempted into a discussion about whether the Parliament that he presided over has an adequate structure of committees to provide that revision and anticipation. That is a debate for another date. That may be work for a constitutional convention or some other institution which may be created at some time in the future.
Once again, I am indebted to my noble friend Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale for his consistent contributions which set out the progressive case for the union of the United Kingdom. He does it very well because he not only does it by assertion but explains the reasons for it in a way that is accessible.
That leads me to my second point, which is that when I looked at the words of this Motion, I thought that there was a danger of this becoming another kind of Scot fest, with arguments about independence or the pros and cons of independence and nothing else. As one of those who has argued consistently since I have been in this House for a diversity of voices in a debate about the future of the United Kingdom, I am delighted to see that the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and my noble friends Lord Judd and Lord Soley have ventured into the Scottish environment to make a contribution. However, I regret that the diversity of voices in this debate did not manage to extend to a woman's voice. I should like to hear the voices of more women in the debate about the union of the United Kingdom because they have a significant amount to offer.
It has become fashionable recently for politicians to explain what is called their back story. We have heard a lot of that over the past couple of weeks. My noble friends Lord McConnell and Lord Judd, in explaining their back stories, explained why these islands are so important to so many people. I come to this Chamber every day from a household in London where I have a son who has made a choice to pursue his career here. He is unlikely to go back to Scotland, although he may go elsewhere. The diversity and integration of these islands are crucial to this debate. Hearing voices from beyond Scotland from people who have connections with Scotland and who value those relationships, in exactly the same context as my noble friend Lord McConnell explained, is valuable. There are probably no Members of the House who do not have connections somewhere across these islands without going very far back. When we scratch the surface we find that we are all in a sense connected to each other.
I shared the view of my noble friend Lord Hughes of Woodside when I first looked at the words of the Motion. The topic of the debate is extremely timely-and has become even more timely with yesterday's unofficial announcement that there has been an agreement at least about the number of questions in the referendum. I was concerned that the wording would be unhelpful to the arguments that I want to make, first, because I do not believe that come 2014 we will face a landscape in which the UK is broken apart. I am not complacent but I do not believe that that is what the people of Scotland want or what they will vote for in 2014. I am pleased that my noble friend Lord McConnell does not believe it, either. The words could have been misinterpreted to suggest that that was what he anticipated.
Secondly, I was uncomfortable about the wording because I thought it implied that the people of Scotland deem the current devolution settlement grossly deficient, and consider that a much more radical constitutional settlement is required to prevent secession. I know that legitimate voices in this debate suggested that we need to go further in the context of devolution; I will come to that in more detail. However, I do not believe for a moment that the people of Scotland are overwhelmingly of that view. It may be that there is a preponderance of political commentary on some of these issues-we have already heard comments about that-but that is not my sense of where the people of Scotland are. I will come to the polling figures in a moment because I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, on this issue.
Thirdly, I was uncomfortable because the wording seems to imply that the case for considering the issue of the future constitutional settlement in general is contingent on the break-up of the United Kingdom, or the prospect of such a break-up. Again, I am pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, indicated that it was not his intention to suggest this, and that his was a different argument. I will take advantage of this opportunity to address some of these concerns and issues because, first, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, said, polling has consistently showed that the majority of the Scottish public are not in favour of secession.
Since last year, the number of people in favour of breaking up the United Kingdom has steadily declined, depending on which poll one looks at, from about 38% or 40% to the most recent poll, conducted by TNS BMRB, which shows 28% of respondents supporting secession. Much more importantly, it shows a trend of a hardening of the vote of those who had not made up their mind in favour of the status quo. That is welcome news and will reinforce the trend that the UK and Scottish Governments have finally reached a point of agreement on the terms of the referendum. Despite the reassurances given to the House yesterday by the noble and learned Lord, I am not sure that I am as content that they appear to have agreed to change the nature of the franchise for this individual purpose-for many of the reasons that have already been expressed in this debate.
Now is the time to focus on making the case for why the United Kingdom is stronger together than apart. It is time to begin a frank discussion about what departure from the union would mean for Scotland. It is also time to consider the strength of the devolution settlement as it stands. That is because it is misleading to imply that great consideration has not been given, and given recently, to the question of the constitutional settlement in relation to Scotland. This is in many ways the big con of those who argue for independence. The only way that Scotland can achieve meaningful autonomy is by leaving the United Kingdom, but it is arguable that the Scottish Government already have many, if not all, of the tools they require for autonomy. The Calman commission process was set up by all the unionist parties when I was the Secretary of State for Scotland. It was completed by this Government in the Scotland Act 2012. Despite the continued assertion and insistence of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that it is a rag bag, it is part of a process to consider the ways in which the devolution settlement can be strengthened. In short, it grants the Scottish Government new tax-raising powers, including powers to set a Scottish rate of income tax and borrow on the capital markets that are worth in the order of £5 billion to £6 billion. Crucially, it also makes provision, subject to agreement, to devolve further taxes in the future. We will not go into the detail of the debate we had on the Scotland Bill in relation to those powers. Here, achieved, is a clear and concrete vision for the future of devolution, a vision that is evidence-based and has the support of Scottish business, civil society, experts and academics. It will support the future prosperity and aspirations of Scotland within the union.
Before I have even addressed the meat of this debate, I have run out of time. Perhaps I may ask the indulgence of the House to say something that I think is very important. I commend to all those who wish to make a contribution to this debate the speech made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness, on
I also want to say this to the noble and learned Lord: the BBC has been remiss, but he should also capture the page on the Cabinet Office's website on constitutional reform. It still contains a list of things that have now been consigned to the dustbin of constitutional reform in this country and makes no reference to the ongoing process in Scotland. I suggest that the Government ought to listen carefully to what has been said in this debate to find a way of identifying at least the interim, or even the long-standing, end they have in mind for constitutional reform. They can draw on the Constitution Committee of this House and others, and then they can come back to this place to explain the process of how that will be done across all parties in a way that they can all buy into together.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness (Advocate General for Scotland; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, I start by thanking and congratulating my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart on bringing forward this Motion, and I thank all who have contributed to what has been both a thoughtful and thought-provoking debate. My noble friend's long-standing interest in constitutional matters is well known. I counted it a privilege to serve on the committee that he co-chaired with the late Robin Cook in 1996. It is fair to say that these so-called Cook-Maclennan talks helped smooth the way to many of the very substantial constitutional reforms that took place in the first years of the Labour Government after 1997, which saw a much needed modernisation of our constitution.
There are two themes to the Motion before this House this afternoon: first, what the Motion refers to as the,
"potential break-up of the United Kingdom";
secondly, the further consideration of alternative constitutional settlements. At the outset, I assure noble Lords that the Government believe passionately in the United Kingdom and are committed to devolution within the United Kingdom. We do not anticipate the break-up of the United Kingdom, nor are we planning for such a contingency. However, as was echoed by my noble friends Lord Maclennan and Lord Cormack and the noble Lord, Lord Browne, we are in no way complacent. Rather, we see a vibrant and strong United Kingdom with its constitutional arrangements such as devolution thriving and developing.
As the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, pointed out-as indeed he has done in previous debates on Scottish matters-if there is unanimous support for the future of the United Kingdom it is because the Scottish National Party has chosen not to send Members to your Lordships' House. I certainly note that point and I think our debates are the poorer because we do not have that particular perspective.
In the context of the forthcoming referendum on Scotland's future, it is important to distinguish between independence as a country separate from the United Kingdom, and devolution within the United Kingdom. These are two fundamentally different issues and we should not see independence as a logical extension of devolution. Devolution would come to an end if Scotland left the United Kingdom, which is why we need to settle the independence question by a referendum, as an entirely separate matter from the devolution settlement. The devolution settlement will continue its evolution now, in the months ahead and after the referendum.
The view of the Government is that the people of Scotland deserve a referendum that is legal, fair and decisive, and that aim is best achieved with a referendum that poses a single, clear question. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Judd, said about the third question. One reason we do not believe that a third question is right is that devolution is a different issue from independence-quite apart from the fact that no one has yet come up with a definition of devo-max or devo-plus. People would be invited to vote for something that had no shape or form to it.
I can confirm that further substantial progress towards agreement on the terms of a Section 30 order to facilitate a referendum was reached on Tuesday between my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and the Deputy First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. No agreement has been finalised and officials have now been tasked with doing further work on the details of the agreement.
My noble friend Lord Cormack raised what I accept is an important issue with regard to 16 and 17 year-olds. The United Kingdom Government have no plans to lower the voting age for elections. I do not accept that there is an inevitability about it. The United Kingdom Government's position has always been that any reform of the franchise ought to be agreed by consensus across all United Kingdom elections and not for a single election. However, if we were to agree to a transfer of powers to the Scottish Parliament to hold a referendum, as has happened in other referendums, it is the Bill enacting the referendum that determines the franchise. There is no proposal coming from this coalition Government to change the franchise for UK elections or Scottish elections in the lifetime of this Parliament. If the concern is that there will be an absence of debate, I do not think that is a real one. If it is going to be done in another Parliament, I am sure that there will be ample opportunity for debate.
Lord Cormack (Conservative)
It really is very difficult to buy what my noble and learned friend says. The United Kingdom Parliament has the power to ensure that any referendum in Scotland is fought on the basis of the existing franchise. Can he not see that to allow this change in through the back door would fundamentally alter the whole balance of our constitution as far as the franchise is concerned?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness (Advocate General for Scotland; Liberal Democrat)
My noble friend and I are going to have to agree to disagree. I do not accept that that would be an automatic consequence. Before any change to the franchise for the House of Commons, or indeed for the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly, there would have to be full, proper debate and consideration, and it would require legislation in this Chamber. I do not think for one moment that my noble friend suggests that the House of Commons will suddenly roll over and vote for votes at 16. Apart from anything else, it will certainly not be at the hand of the Government, although they will have no opportunity to do so in the lifetime of this Parliament.
As I have indicated, the Government believe in the United Kingdom. We believe that the United Kingdom is greater than the sum of its parts, as was said by more than contributor to this debate. Our shared history during the past 300 years has been as a stable, successful, political, economic and cultural union. That has benefited our citizens, our economy and our place in the world. It is a unique constitutional achievement and one of the great success stories. It was striking that, in their contributions to the debate, my noble friend Lord Cormack and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, reflected on their own Scottish ancestry. The noble Lord, Lord Browne, indicated that, within his own family, the benefits of being part of a United Kingdom are manifest. Having looked up the origin in Scotland of the name Wallace, I found that it undoubtedly came from Shropshire or Wales in the 12th or 13th century, so it is clear that there has been movement of peoples in these islands for centuries. Geography is probably one thing that binds us more than anything else. Common sense says that we should not split up what has been successfully brought together.
Perhaps I may paraphrase the excellent case made for our United Kingdom in the report by my noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood-the so-called Steel Commission report. That talked about nations which had been in conflict for hundreds of years, which were brought together and which together were able to exert a global influence. Our concepts of liberty, democracy and the rule of law, our philosophy and our ideas, have done much to shape the modern world.
Within our United Kingdom, Scots have made an important contribution-in science and engineering, medicine, administration, economics, finance and philosophy- and we have done so as an integral part of the United Kingdom's success. In unity and co-operation with the other parts of the United Kingdom, Scotland has been able to punch above its weight as a small country and, in doing so, we have helped to build a United Kingdom which is more effective together than its combined resources would merit.
We benefit from being part of a strong United Kingdom and I believe that the United Kingdom benefits from having Scotland as a constituent member. Our experience together in the past 300 years has created a number of key British institutions which are part of a shared national identity: the BBC, the British Army, the Navy, the Royal Air Force, the Crown, the National Health Service and, indeed, this very Parliament. It is the strength of these institutions which will help influence people in Scotland when they cast their votes in the forthcoming referendum.
The Secretary of State for Scotland announced to the House of Commons on
Part of that future, and part of our immediate past, has been devolution. We have demonstrated a strong commitment to devolution, as it gives people choice and a real say over their own affairs. It is consistent with the decentralisation of power which is a core aim of this Government in line with our belief that there are benefits in making decisions at local level. We have an active devolution agenda. There is no status quo to defend because the devolution settlement, as the noble Lord, Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale, pointed out, has continually evolved from day one. He will remember, when he and I were in government together in Scotland, the devolution of the railways under a Section 30 order and the fact that we were able then to take forward some important new railway building and construction in Scotland. That settlement continues to evolve.
Most recently, the Scotland Act 2012 was passed, representing the most significant development in devolution since 1998. Like the noble Lord, Lord Browne of Ladyton, and contrary to the view of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, I cannot accept that it is a ragbag of measures. First and foremost the measures that changed the devolution settlement in terms of powers were the product of a very detailed consideration by the Calman commission. The fact that it did not amount to a great number of powers is a testament to the settlement of the 1998 Act and the work that was done then. But it also included, very significantly, a substantial transfer of financial powers. That addressed a very important principle of the accountability of the Scottish Parliament, which hitherto has had total discretion on how it spends money but precious little responsibility or accountability in how it raises money.
Lord Kerr of Kinlochard (Crossbench)
Churchill said of some pudding-I do not know what pudding it was-that "this pudding lacks a theme". That was what was wrong with the Bill. Individually, there was a rationale for particular measures and many of them came out of Calman, I entirely understand that. But nowhere was there anything architectural or anything explaining the principles of the settlement with Scotland. That is what we still need and that is why I am very strongly in favour of the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness (Advocate General for Scotland; Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, there is a theme. I hate the word "subsidiarity", but the overall theme is about where decision-making can best be achieved and delivered consistent with good governance. I think the issues and headings that we identified in the Calman commission, which were taken forward in legislation, did subscribe to that theme. Also, as I have said, a very important theme was the accountability that came to the Scottish Parliament with the devolution of financial powers. It must now answer to the people of Scotland as to how it raises money and not solely as to how it spends money.
There is more than just what we have achieved in the Scotland Act 2012, which of course is still ongoing in terms of its delivery. We have established the McKay commission to explore how the House of Commons might deal with legislation that affects only part of the United Kingdom following the devolution of certain legislative powers to the Scottish Parliament, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the National Assembly for Wales. The Silk commission, set up in October last year to review the present financial and constitutional arrangements for Wales, is due to publish its first report on financial accountability within the next few weeks. These are significant processes, and we must allow them to reach fruition and not impede their development. They have a common aim, which is to deliver improvement in the lives of the people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Each evolved in different historic ways, and we believe that recognising the different features and factors that make up the constituent parts of the United Kingdom has been an important part of the process.
My noble friend suggested that we should be looking at alternative constitutional settlements. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, suggested there should be a royal commission, while my noble friend Lord Maclennan said this is something that might go on for years and not something that was going to be done in just months. My noble friend-as he was, and still is personally-Lord McConnell talked about the Scottish Constitutional Convention, one of whose features was that it had a very clear end in sight. It is important that we remember that.
I was interested by the number of noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Soley-whose article I have had the privilege to read-Lord Foulkes and, I think, Lord Judd, who mentioned federalism. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, that it remains the policy of the Liberal Democrats and I am sure that when he reads the report of the Campbell committee, which was set up by the Scottish Liberal Democrats, in the next weeks, he will be pleasantly reassured, not necessarily surprised, by what he reads in that.
Numerous ideas have been put forward by your Lordships in debate. My noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood referred to the 1979 manifesto when he talked about the second Chamber having a role to play in the representation of the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. If I am not mistaken, I rather suspect that was in the evidence that he wrote for the Scottish Liberal Party to the Kilbrandon commission in about 1967. We can check back, but it has been a consistent theme for some time. Clearly there are issues there that merit further examination and discussion.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock (Labour)
The Minister has kindly acknowledged that almost everyone who has participated in this debate has called either for a UK constitutional commission or a royal commission. I am not expecting him to announce one today or even to say that he agrees with that. However, surely the very least he can do is to say that he recognises this groundswell, on all sides of the House, and that he will take it away and discuss it with his coalition and his own colleagues. Can he do that?
Lord Wallace of Tankerness (Advocate General for Scotland; Liberal Democrat)
The noble Lord certainly makes a tempting proposition.
The noble Lord is right to say that there has been a groundswell among people here, but, as my noble friend Lord Maclennan said, experience in many other countries seems to suggest that constitutional conventions work best when they come from the citizenry and work up rather than from Houses as grand and noble as this and feed down. They are often driven by the public rather than politicians. That was certainly the case with citizens' assemblies in Canada and the Netherlands, which considered issues such as electoral reform before putting their findings to a referendum, and Iceland, where a constitutional council drafted a new constitution for consideration as a Bill by the Parliament. It is also fair to say that the Scottish Constitutional Convention did not come from the Executive, the Government. Indeed, it came in the face of the Government's opposition to it. It came from civic Scotland and two of the opposition parties and was very successful because it engaged civic Scotland.
Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale (Labour)
Perhaps the most important thing about the Scottish Constitutional Convention was that combination between the demand from campaigning organisations and civic Scotland for such a convention and the political leadership that allowed the convention to be meaningful and to make the decisions required that allowed parliamentary change to occur. The combination of the claim of rights which came from the campaign for a Scottish Assembly and civic Scotland, then endorsed by the parliamentarians and the parliamentary leadership, including the noble and learned Lord, ensured that the decisions made in the convention could be implemented and enacted.
Lord Wallace of Tankerness (Advocate General for Scotland; Liberal Democrat)
That is an important combination but, as the noble Lord confirms, the initial surge came from the people. In all fairness, there is no evidence at present of a strong public appetite for a wide-ranging convention, but the issue will certainly not go away. Work is being done by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee in the House of Commons; it will report. Fertile ideas are being put forward. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister, when he was asked by the First Minister of Wales about establishing a constitutional convention on the future of the United Kingdom, said that he agreed that we will need an open, involved and comprehensive conversation about the kind of union we want to see and that, almost 15 years after the process of devolution started in the United Kingdom, we should consider the best way to go about doing so. However, he went on to say he believed that a better time to do that would be once the Scottish referendum debate has come to a conclusion and that we need first to focus on wining the case for the union in Scotland.
A lot of other important constitutional developments are taking place with the theme of trying to reconnect with the electorate, to face up to some of the disrepute into which our political system had fallen-for example, the proposed legislation on recall of Members of Parliament and on electoral administration to try to eliminate electoral fraud. They are all relevant in trying to reconnect, but I fundamentally believe that although in no way should we stop thinking about those things-in Scotland, the three unionist parties, which are the Labour Party, the Scottish Conservatives and the Scottish Liberal Democrats, are all thinking about how we might take forward the devolution settlement-when we consider the future of the constitution of the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom includes Scotland. In the next two years, we need to focus first on winning the case for the union in Scotland. It is a strong case, but we cannot for a moment be complacent about it.
Lord Maclennan of Rogart (Liberal Democrat)
I express my appreciation for all the speeches made today, which brought to this debate a wide range of experience and knowledge of the subject. I am happy that it has ventilated a number of positive proposals from all sides of the House and hope that the dialogue between Parliament, the Government and the citizenry about the appropriateness of a convention to consider a more integral and, in some ways, more uniform constitution will have been assisted by this process. I particularly thank my noble and learned friend for his reply to the debate, which I believe at least leaves the door open for further consideration of these matters, and for the recognition which I believe he has given to the fact that constitutional change can sometimes bring about unexpected results. That is why a coherent approach within an overall view seems, to many of those who have participated today, to be appropriate for this country to take at this time.