Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:03 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat 12:03 pm, 17th January 2019

My Lords, I shall focus on the English question and emphasise that England’s place within the union is also in flux and confusion. One Brexit-supporting placard outside Parliament on Tuesday read, “Save England’s Constitution” —but you cannot save something that does not exist.

After the confused debate on an English Parliament and English votes for English laws, it remains doubtful that England as such is an appropriate framework for devolution in a looser UK. In a blog for the Constitution Unit in December 2018, Sir John Curtice stated that opinion polls show,

“little evidence that there is a growing sense of English identity south of the border”.

The EU referendum highlighted the political and social divisions within England, and we all know that regional equalities between English regions are the widest in any European country. Flows of EU funds to universities, companies and other bodies in the poorer regions partly help to redress this imbalance, but there is no guarantee that they will continue after Brexit.

Unlike the Barnett formula, there is no political framework for fiscal redistribution within England. The bias in infrastructure spending towards the south has become a highly visible issue across the north of England in recent years. Disillusion with the northern powerhouse—now an empty slogan—is widespread.

The Government’s approach to devolution within England is top-down, based on city regions and elected mayors. For the north of England, they are becoming steadily more confused. Last weekend, the Minister for the Northern Powerhouse proposed the establishment of a “Department for the North”, with its own Secretary of State to sit alongside those for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—a major administrative change, if not a constitutional one. Can the Minister tell us whether this reflects the Government’s current position and when they will provide more detail on this interesting idea? Meanwhile, devolution for Yorkshire is stalled, with the same Minister insisting that Yorkshire has to have four city regions, while the overwhelming majority of Yorkshire local authorities, across all parties, support a “One Yorkshire” approach. Can the Minister tell us when we may expect a coherent government response to this proposal?

The Prime Minister repeatedly claims that the Conservatives are “the party of union”. It is much more the party of England, and predominantly of southern England at that. Senior Conservative Ministers overwhelmingly represent Home Counties constituencies. One of the major flaws in our first past the post voting system is that it exaggerates the regional differences between our major parties, with Labour representing the north and the industrial Midlands of England, together with Scotland and Wales, and the Conservatives the comfortable and wealthy south.

Other speakers will, rightly, point out how far devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has altered old assumptions about the British constitution. Reductions in the powers of English local authorities in recent decades and cuts in central support for their funding, which are still continuing, have left England the most centralised state in the democratic world. The shrinkage of local democratic government has contributed to popular disillusionment with politics as such, and the psychological distance from England’s west and north to London has fuelled discontent further. Of course, it is not easy to agree on a map for devolution to English regions across the Midlands and the south—but, with London as a city now an outpost of devolution in an otherwise centralised England, we have to address the issue.

Devolution within England, as well as to our other three nations, should also feed into constitutional reform at Westminster. I have been one of a long succession of Ministers who have tried to promote reform of the Lords, and I still bear the scars of that experience. A stronger second Chamber, more effectively checking executive power, would appropriately be constituted on the basis of regional representation, whether directly or indirectly elected, as the coalition Government proposed. However, both Conservative and Labour Front Benches continue to oppose a stronger second Chamber for fear that it would limit the power of a Government—executive sovereignty, of course—with a majority in the Commons to push through their legislation unamended.

Brexit will shake the union of the United Kingdom, but it will also worsen the growing divide between the richest and poorest regions of England. That divide, and the disillusion it has bred, must be addressed through constitutional change, as well as through economic redistribution.