Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:57 am on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Lord McConnell of Glenscorrodale Labour 11:57 am, 17th January 2019

My Lords, in my maiden speech in your Lordships’ House in July 2010 I expressed a hope that a new generation of politicians and leaders in the House of Commons, many of whom had been elected after 1999, might provide a fresh opportunity for reinvigorating the relationship between Westminster, Whitehall and the devolved Governments and Parliaments of the United Kingdom. At that time I said that I wanted to use my time in your Lordships’ House to celebrate and contribute to debates on the future of that multinational, multicultural union. For that reason if no other—even if I have been disappointed since by the performance of successive Governments, who have let us down in that fresh hope—I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, on securing this welcome debate today and on the work that he has done since entering your Lordships’ House in bringing a fresh and positive approach in looking ahead to the future of the United Kingdom. The balanced tone of his introduction was extremely welcome.

I do not want to concentrate in this debate on the old debates from 2014, 2016 and since about Brexit and the nations of the United Kingdom. I hope I can use the title of the debate loosely in order to say something about the future. In relation to Brexit I wish to make two points.

First, the lack of transparency and openness on both sides in the discussions between the UK Government and the devolved Governments on the way in which Brexit affects the devolution settlement is something I warned about in your Lordships’ House, and it has contributed to the situation we are in today with such a stalemate in the other place. Secondly, I think there is a real difficulty in many of the arguments that have taken place over the past two months in relation to the so-called Northern Ireland backstop. There is diversity in legislation throughout the United Kingdom, not just between Scotland and the rest of the UK or just between Wales and the rest of the UK, but consistently between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. To say that that diversity could not be part of the long-term deal that results from the other agonies of Brexit is wrong. The idea that there is some uniformity of legislative and constitutional approach across the UK is simply not true. It never has been, but it is certainly not true in the period since 1999.

The piecemeal approach to constitutional change since 1999 has done great damage to belief in politics and government and the future of the union in the UK. While I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, that not everything that has happened since devolution has been successful, it has also not been a disaster, which is what was predicted. There is incredible positivity around some of the diversity of legislation, policy initiatives and leadership across the country, but we face a new challenge following the referendum of 2016. So far the Government have not met that challenge.

There is an opportunity here. Perhaps the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the first of those devolved Parliaments gives us another opportunity to do this. There is an opportunity to look again post-Brexit at the way in which the UK state relates to the different constituent parts of the UK and at how in practice we exercise government between Whitehall, Westminster, the devolved Parliaments and the devolved Governments. There is a need for much more accountability and transparency in whatever relationship occurs. I have never been a supporter of the joint ministerial committees. I did my best to abolish them when I was First Minister. I think they are the wrong mechanism. We need a much better and stronger relationship than committees that meet on an occasional basis and are just talking shops. We also need the UK Government to restructure themselves. The outdated posts of Secretaries of State should have gone a long time ago, and they need to go now with a new relationship inside Whitehall between Whitehall and the devolved Governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

As the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, said, the national institutions of the UK need to reform and change too. Twenty years on, there has been virtually no real change in the way in which the national institutions of the UK relate to the devolved Governments and Parliaments and take account of the diversity of identity. If the Government seize the opportunity to take that approach post-Brexit, perhaps we will see the positive approach of the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, reflected in our future constitutional arrangements.