Constitutional Convention - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:58 pm on 13th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Labour 12:58 pm, 13th December 2018

My Lords, in the autumn of 1987, while spending a very cold and damp day in Stirling at the annual conference of the Campaign for a Scottish Assembly, I could never have imagined that 15 years later I might be First Minister of Scotland, partly because the prospect of a Scottish Parliament seemed so far away. A small group of members of the campaign were asked by the then chair of the assembly campaign, the late Jim Boyack, to convene in a bar after the conference to discuss a new idea that he had for a commission to look at the way ahead in building greater unity and a sense of purpose on the campaign for a Scottish Parliament. Shortly after that small group met and discussed the idea that day in Stirling, Sir Robert Grieve was commissioned to chair a commission to look at the drafting and the agreement of a claim of right of sovereignty for Scotland. Several months later, after much discussion and debate, Sir Robert Grieve produced his report outlining that claim of right—the sovereign right of the people of Scotland to choose their form of government—and the demand that we find a way of taking forward what was then clearly the settled will of the Scottish people and giving it greater clarity and momentum towards achieving that eventual goal.

To his great credit, the late Donald Dewar later that year accepted the idea, launched the constitutional convention and put Labour at the centre of it—contrary to many of the ways in which the party had operated for decades before—working with other parties to develop the scheme and the consensus. As leader of my local authority, Stirling District Council, I was a member of the convention from 1989, when it first met, to 1992. I was then a member of the executive committee of the convention between 1992 and 1998, when we finalised the scheme and set about turning it into a reality in the 1997 referendum. That convention had many strengths, and I will highlight three in this debate.

The first is that the convention had democratic legitimacy. It was not a collection of interested individuals, a gathering of civic Scotland or a campaign. There were one or two observers, but the full members of the convention were either Members of Parliament or leaders of local authorities. Those were the people who signed the claim of right and made the decisions. That gave the convention democratic legitimacy.

The second thing is that the convention had a sense of purpose. It was pulled together, through the signing of the claim of right, to design a scheme and to try to turn it into reality. The clarity of that sense of purpose was very important to its eventual success.

The third thing—this is critical for this debate in your Lordships’ House—is that the convention reflected the settled will of the people of Scotland. The discussions in 1987, 1988 and 1989 resulted from a 1987 election in which the settled and expressed democratic will of the people of Scotland—for example, on the poll tax or community charge—was so radically ignored by the Government of the day here in Westminster. That challenge to the legitimacy of Westminster to govern in Scotland required a solution, and the convention helped provide that. The settled will was for a democratically elected Parliament in Scotland as part of the United Kingdom.

So I thank my noble friend Lord Foulkes not just for initiating this debate here but for the work he has done on this issue over many years and his relentless campaigning over many decades to improve the governance of this country. I also welcome the intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Norton, who has campaigned long and hard for a convocation, as an alternative to a convention. While I absolutely agree with Members of your Lordships’ House who have expressed concern about the current state of governance in the United Kingdom, I think we should be cautious on this proposal and ensure that whatever steps we take are effective. There is no doubt that one of the many missed opportunity of Brexit over the last three years has been the absence of the initiation of a debate on what returning sovereignty to the United Kingdom might mean for improving the governance of the United Kingdom. That opportunity is perhaps now gone, but it does not mean we do not rise to the challenge.

Your Lordships’ Chamber cannot exist for many more years. We need to find an alternative solution that is better representative and reflective of our country. But we also need, 20 years on, to look at the relationship between the devolved Administrations, Governments and Parliaments and Whitehall, Westminster and the UK Government. In my view, it is ridiculous that we still have territorial Secretaries of State. They should have gone when Tony Blair first proposed that in 2003, but 15 years on we still have them sitting around the Cabinet table. It is a dysfunctional system that needs to go. We need to ensure that a whole number of other changes take place as well, and it has been rightly raised that local government has been messed around with by Governments of all parties over the years and has never had a proper, concrete, long-term solution that enhances our democracy or the provision of services.

If we are going to bring people together, either in a democratically legitimate convention that is representative, authoritative and purposeful or a convocation that might be a more open-ended discussion, we need to be clear about the purpose of that body, why it has been established, who its members will be and what the outcome might or might not be. If we do that, perhaps over the next 20 years we can take steps towards sorting out some of the problems in UK governance that were at least partly solved in Scotland 20 years ago next year.