Constitution: Gracious Speech — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:29 pm on 25th June 2015.

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Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 1:29 pm, 25th June 2015

My Lords, to abuse an allusion from a former Prime Minister’s phrase, our union is one that is not at ease with itself. In his opening remarks the noble Lord, Lord Wills, said that our union is frayed, and I cannot disagree with that. I thank him for bringing this debate to the House. The absence of ease within our union was demonstrated in the general election when the political imperative in our nation became almost overpowering, with fear of government in one part of the United Kingdom being set against that in another. The last time posters of the nature we saw being displayed in the United Kingdom were those of a century ago on the Irish question. The union is a remarkable and resilient creation, but I fear that its resilience will be tested if we have perpetual government in the same manner as the kind of election campaign we saw in May. Government of the United Kingdom cannot be sustainable in the long term if it is formed from only one nation within the union and a one-party state in another part of the country, always using opposition against that union Government to its electoral advantage.

Surely for all of us who believe in the union, there must be discomfort with the greater political incentive being identity rather than philosophy. We in the United Kingdom are not immune to the wave of nationalism in Europe that has been gaining ground either. In May, some 6 million people in these islands voted for overtly nationalist parties. However, there is nothing to be gained from criticising or blaming the people for doing that. Our role must be to consider carefully what our union means in all parts of it and what it offers for every citizen, from the northern islands to Cornwall and from Wales to the east coast or the south coast. With all their different political imperatives and pressures, and all their different economic situations, they are still part of the union, and it seems that it is indeed becoming more frayed.

Our task in this Parliament is therefore to work on how we can resolve our relationship within the union, and its relationship with the wider European Union. If the union is to be at ease with itself, surely it must be outward-looking rather than one where, even on reading all the party manifestos in the election, one gets the impression that we will be spending the next five years looking inwards at ourselves and not beyond. If there is any lesson to be learned from the Scottish referendum, I would caution the Minister that if he thinks the European referendum will be the resolution of many of these issues, that is perhaps a naive thought. As the noble Lord, Lord Norton, said, this debate is about the implications of constitutional change, but I wish to take a slightly different slant and consider what the implications are for the union as a whole. However, I cannot but draw the conclusion that if we continue with perpetual changes to one part of the constitution in isolation from consideration of their impact on the other parts, the pressure on the whole will become too great.

My noble friend Lord Steel highlighted the consistent view of Liberals and others for many generations that home rule or a federal arrangement is the most appropriate framework for government. Even in the constitutional crisis a century ago that led to the Parliament Act and others, there was no referendum in any one part of the union to secede from another. We have challenges ahead of us of a larger order that those which previous generations faced and we are not yet in a position to make a response in a commensurate way. We have not considered sufficiently what the referendum in Scotland tells us; we are still in the process of carrying out a sigh of relief rather than making a proper and rational assessment of what is required for the future. That is because for many years we have not been ahead of the debate on the constitution. We have debated it often, as has been indicated by other speakers, but we have done so almost in complaint about and in response to difficulties in one part of the United Kingdom, not to propose a new relationship for the country. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, and others, I do not question for one moment the ability of our Civil Service to make a silver purse out of a constitutional sow’s ear; we can do remarkable things by attaching a crown to something and giving it a historical name—suddenly it becomes a convention or a constitutional practice. But such a piecemeal approach, even with a degree of finesse, is no longer sufficient and it cannot be the pattern of things to come.

As my noble friend Lord Rennard indicated, it does not need to be that way. There can be cross-party agreements and ways forward so that we can secure some form of agreement. But we must change our mindset so that constitutional reform is not the Government having to do something in response to a political pressure of the day, but wanting to do something to hold the whole together. I hope therefore that my Constitutional Convention Bill will receive a fair hearing. It is meant to be one way of trying to gather together as much consensus as possible, along with a specific remit which means that we can address what the noble Lord, Lord Butler, indicated was his concern; namely, that we delay one part in order to try to make what is perhaps a naive attempt at achieving the whole in the future. We need not delay the Government, which to be fair are seeking to honour their commitment to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the cities, but it is important that we should commence at the same time a process to consider how the whole brings this together in a holistic way.

My Bill is a vehicle through which the Government can address the human rights legislation issue and how it fits in with our constitutional arrangements; about how we can have fair financing, not only for the cities and regions of England, but also about the formula which holds the whole together across the nations. And, yes, it also means that from that, we can then work out what the appropriate role for this institution is under the electoral system for this Chamber. I hope that the outcome may well be a charter of new union. It may well be a document which, while not a written constitution, would certainly signal what this union is and what it is for.

Finally, I know that a constitutional convention was not in the Conservative manifesto; it did not propose a convention, but nor did it rule one out. I am of an optimistic disposition and I know that the Minister is greatly experienced and a shrewd adviser. Since he was an adviser to the former Prime Minister who was seeking a nation that was at ease with itself, I hope that he will see the merit in a process that will assist in having a union at ease with itself too.