European Union (Withdrawal) Bill - Report (5th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 2nd May 2018.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 9:00 pm, 2nd May 2018

My Lords, I am not sure that it is permissible for an English Peer to intervene in this debate. We have been going for two hours six minutes on Scotland. Earlier, I think we went on for two hours and 57 minutes on Northern Ireland, which reinforces one of the strongest impressions that these debates on the EU withdrawal Bill have left on me, apart from the tragedy of the withdrawal from the European Union itself: the lopsidedness of our constitution.

The United Kingdom is a state of 63 million people, of whom 53 million are in England. The noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, said earlier that if Scotland were an independent state, it would be larger than 10 EU states. But if England were an independent state, it would be larger than 24 EU states. It would be fourth in the EU and the separation from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would make a difference of only one place in its ranking: it would be behind, rather than in front of Italy.

I only make these points because it is very clear to me that the future constitution of the United Kingdom is going to become increasingly debated and contested, particularly if we leave the European Union and one of its major existing planks is wrenched away. It is also clear to me that one of the reasons why we may be leaving the European Union—there is still a lot of water to pass under this bridge over the next 11 months—is that in England, politicians, particularly in the Conservative Party, which is the dominant political party of England now and historically, have huge difficulty with the notion of sharing power and of different tiers of government to which power is distributed.

By a very painful process, which has been graphically exhibited by all the procedures that have had to be gone through in this Bill—legislative consent Motions and all that—over the last two generations we have managed to reach an accommodation with Scotland and Wales which has enabled devolved Government to be introduced. It was extremely painful. It took two lots of referendums, in the case of Scotland and Wales, to do it and we all know the difficulties that there have been in Northern Ireland. In England, we have not even begun seriously to go through that process of sharing power and establishing new tiers of government, with the partial exception of London.

London is very interesting because, like all the metropolitan authorities, it had a long-standing authority, the Greater London Council, which had previously been the London County Council for the best part of a century, but when it diverged from central government policy in the 1980s it was abolished, though it was re-established afterwards. However, that is the only real exception in terms of an authority with significant power in England. Attempts to establish regional assemblies have failed. We are still struggling in the early stages of establishing mayoral authorities but, significantly, the mayoral authorities outside London are partial and weak, and in many parts of the country it is still not even possible to devise what they are.

I simply put down as a marker—it may be that we continue this debate on the next group of amendments—that this is going to be an increasingly big and problematic issue for us. Indeed, if Brexit is accomplished in the next 11 months, because the unitary state of England, which effectively runs the UK, will be even more powerful in its own sphere than it is now because it will not even be sharing any of its sovereignty and power with Brussels, then I suspect this is going to become a still more difficult issue to address in due course. I was very struck by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, mentioning federalism. At some point this issue will have to be grasped, but at the moment no one has the faintest idea how England would be represented and be able to exert its proper role within a federal constitution. I cannot see that happening any time soon.

I note that the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, has an amendment coming up. The noble Lord has played a complete blinder through these debates. I have to say that Wales has been spectacularly well represented—in his person, for a good deal of the time, with a bit of help from one or two other noble Lords. If England had had a voice as powerful as his in this Chamber, I think we might have got a federal UK with a Government and Parliament of England a long time ago. He is doing a spectacularly good job.

I notice—this is very telling—that the noble Lord’s Amendment 92A on the Joint Ministerial Committee makes no reference whatever to England. The JMC is about the Government of the UK and then Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That sums up the huge constitutional deficit we have in the UK at the moment, which is the government and proper representation of England within the UK. I suspect that this issue will increasingly dominate our politics if we leave the EU.