Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:51 am on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Dunlop Lord Dunlop Conservative 11:51 am, 17th January 2019

My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane. He and I made our maiden speeches on the same day and he speaks with the greatest authority on constitutional matters.

Brexit raises fundamental issues, not least the question of trust in democratic institutions here and right across Europe. It is absolutely right, therefore, to consider afresh governance within the UK. Brexit is seen as, at best, a challenge to the stability of the UK and, at worst, leading inexorably to its break-up. However, the picture is much more complex. The biggest threat to the union hitherto—the 2014 Scottish independence referendum—took place at a time when no one thought Brexit a serious possibility and after 40 years of EU membership. That should give us all pause for thought. Yes, continued membership of the EU was an argument in the 2014 referendum, but it was neither a primary nor decisive one. Currency and fiscal questions were much more important. Nicola Sturgeon’s efforts since the 2016 vote to weaponise Brexit to justify a second Scottish independence referendum have so far failed. Support for independence remains at or less than the 45% level registered in the 2014 referendum. Why might this be?

First, there are around 400,000 yes voters in Scotland who support Brexit. Secondly, linking Scottish independence to EU membership is a hard sell for many nationalists. In their minds, throwing off the yoke of Westminster for that of Brussels is not the most persuasive pitch. Thirdly, if the Brexit negotiations demonstrate how difficult it is to leave a 40 year-old union, they also highlight how fraught it would be to disentangle a 300 year-old partnership. Alex Salmond’s confident assertions that Scottish independence could be negotiated in 18 months, incurring just £200 million in set-up costs, seem even more fantastical today than they did at the time. Nevertheless, the risks and challenges to the union should not be underestimated. However, the key point, which the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, has already made, is that renewing the UK’s territorial constitution is necessary irrespective of Brexit.

The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, has proposed a new Act of Union. I sympathise with its underlying purpose to provide a coherent UK framework within which powers are exercised. However, I am sceptical of federal-like solutions. First, there is the problem of England. No federal state in the world has one component part representing 85% of the whole population or has as few as four federating units. There is also scant evidence that this is what people in England want. The British Social Attitudes and Future of England surveys offer little sign of a growing sense of English identity. Attitudes have hardly changed in the past 20 years. England’s laws decided by English MPs is, in surveys, more popular among voters than either creating a separate English Parliament or a set of regional assemblies.

Secondly, there is the problem of the SNP Government in Edinburgh. I have difficulty seeing SNP Ministers agreeing to renew their constitutional marriage vows in a new Act of Union when their raison d’être is to sue for divorce. Moreover, a big-bang approach as described simply provides the SNP with a fresh platform to argue for more powers, and risks hollowing out the UK, when the Scottish Government are struggling to use the powers they already have.

A more incremental approach is required. Over the past 20 years significant powers have been devolved to Holyrood, Cardiff and Belfast. However, less attention has been paid to the glue—the institutions and mechanisms —that holds together the UK. Reform here has not kept pace with the extent of devolution which, once the repatriation of powers from Brussels is settled, will arguably have reached a natural limit.