My Lords, the gracious Speech recognises the importance of strengthening the bonds of our union of four nations. Whatever message the recent elections delivered nationally, the message from Scotland could not have been clearer: overwhelmingly, Scots want the threat of a second independence referendum removed. In the general election, 62% in Scotland voted for parties that support the union, and in a recent poll after the election, 60% of people in Scotland want a second independence referendum taken off the table. Nicola Sturgeon promised to listen and reflect—a novel experience, no doubt—and she needs to. School attainment levels in Scotland are falling, NHS targets are routinely missed, the reorganisation of Police Scotland is a mess and, for a second year running, Scottish farmers are not receiving their payments on time. It begs the question posed recently by the Scottish Government’s former chief economic adviser: are Scots getting value for the extra £1,400 per head of public spending Scotland gets compared to the UK average?
The reality is that today the biggest and most urgent issue facing Scotland is not constitutional but the current fragility of its economy. In the final quarter of last year, economic output in Scotland fell and the performance of the Scottish economy is diverging worryingly from that of the UK as a whole. Throughout 2016 the Scottish economy flatlined when the UK economy as whole grew by nearly 2%. This matters hugely. Fiscal devolution delivered by the Scotland Act 2016 means that public services in Scotland depend on the Scottish economy’s performance as never before, with 50% of its budget funded by revenues raised in Scotland by the end of the decade. If the SNP election slogan, “Stronger for Scotland”, means anything at all, Nicola Sturgeon should have made clear this week that she is removing completely the threat of another independence referendum. Because the very threat itself is adding uncertainty and blighting investment and job creation in Scotland. That is the almost universal view of Scotland’s business community, so despite what has been said this afternoon, I find it regrettable that the First Minister’s statement in the Scottish Parliament this afternoon merely fudges the timetable and does not remove completely the threat of another independence referendum in this Scottish parliamentary term. Removing this threat would create better conditions to reset relations between the UK and Scottish Governments at this critical time. It is right that intergovernmental relations should be conducted with respect, but respect is a two-way street.
My experience as a Minister was that Scottish Government Ministers sometimes approached bilateral and multilateral meetings as if they were show trials with UK Ministers in the dock. I hope that, going forward, there will be a fresh, more constructive approach, with less grandstanding by the Scottish Government, because there is important work that the two Governments need to do together to secure Scotland’s interests, as the gracious Speech makes clear: to get the best deal as we exit the EU; but also ensuring that Scottish legislation is fully operable on departure day as we import EU law into our own domestic law, and that the powers repatriated from Europe are devolved effectively and in a way which strengthens our UK home market. I hope, therefore, that despite some current sabre rattling, the Scottish Government will, in time, be supportive of the great repeal Bill. A second independence referendum seems more remote today than it did a few weeks ago. We would, however, be wise to remember that the separatist risk has not gone away. We need to work tirelessly to remove the threat completely by continuing to build trust and confidence in Britain and in British institutions within Scotland, so that in 2021 we can reclaim the Scottish Parliament as the unionist institution it was always intended to be.
In conclusion, I should like to say a very short word about Northern Ireland. It was my great privilege to serve for two years in the Northern Ireland Office. I had the pleasure to see what a wonderful place Northern Ireland is and the great progress it has made in the last decade. People in Northern Ireland want and deserve the re-establishment of fully functioning devolved institutions, ensuring that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard loud and clear as the EU negotiations proceed. Like the noble Lord, Lord Reid, and others, I hope that the current talks bear fruit before Thursday’s deadline and that we see a continuation of the longest unbroken period of devolved government for 45 years.