Constitutional Convention - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:38 am on 13th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour 11:38 am, 13th December 2018

My Lords, I am particularly grateful to my noble friends in the Labour group in the House of Lords for agreeing to this topic and allowing me to speak to it. It is very important, as indicated by the number and distinguished nature of the speakers who have put their names down for the debate. I hope others will forgive me if I start by saying how pleased I am that my friend and former colleague, in the other place and in this House, the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, has agreed to make his valedictory speech in my debate. I am honoured by this; we look forward to it very much indeed. But we shall miss his wisdom when he is no longer with us.

It is encouraging that we are debating a constitutional issue that is not Brexit. Is that not a relief? This issue is a long-standing interest of mine—some might even say that it is an obsession. I was first motivated to become interested in it in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the late Professor John P Mackintosh, a Member of Parliament whom some noble Lords will remember. He was a very powerful and eloquent advocate of the need for devolution of power away from Whitehall and Westminster to the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. He was the author of the seminal book The Devolution of Power and a very good friend of mine. He and all of us who were concerned about devolution of power at that time saw a central metropolitan bureaucracy here in London that did not understand or take account of the different needs of the different parts of the country—not just Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland but the regions of England.

We sought to remedy that for Scotland with the devolution of both legislative and administrative power to a Scottish assembly, as we called it at the time, and we campaigned for it. I am glad that my noble and good friend Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale will speak today, because he and I fought shoulder to shoulder in that campaign, along with my noble friend Lord Maxton, who I am glad to see is also here, and many others. Sometimes it seemed like a lone fight but it gathered momentum—if noble Lords will excuse that word—as we went along.

We succeeded in persuading the Labour Government to agree to a referendum, which was held in 1978, but frustratingly, although we got a majority in that referendum, it failed to achieve the 40% turnout threshold that had been forced into the legislation by opponents, led by the late George Cunningham. Sadly, 1979—a date I will never forget, as it was when I was honoured to be elected to the House of Commons—saw the return of a Tory Government, which meant that nothing was done to pick up the idea and campaign for devolution. Some felt that the opportunity had been lost for ever.