Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

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

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Photo of Lord McInnes of Kilwinning Lord McInnes of Kilwinning Conservative 12:17 pm, 17th January 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hay, who correctly reminded us that the question on the ballot paper in 2016 was of course whether the United Kingdom should remain or leave, not constituent parts of it. I would like to begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for not only bringing this important issue before your Lordships’ House but, above all, the constitutional expertise he invests in trying to find and take forward a sustainable and workable solution to our imperfect and—as I think we all acknowledge—asymmetric union.

As I said in my own debate on this topic a year ago, above all, and like many in this House, I increasingly find that my unionism drives and underpins my political opinions. Unsurprisingly, in 2014 I voted no, and Scotland remained part of the United Kingdom. My decision in 2016 to vote to remain in the European Union was, like that of many in Scotland and Northern Ireland, more than influenced by my fears for the impact on the union of a leave vote.

My concerns failed to understand that, even for those Scots who voted to remain in the United Kingdom in 2014 and to remain in the European Union in 2016, remaining part of the United Kingdom and avoiding a further divisive independence referendum was far more important. In underestimating that feeling I was not alone. Many in the unionist commentariat in Scotland saw the end of the union coming with a UK leave vote in 2016. It is little wonder, therefore, that Scotland’s First Minister saw her opportunity on 23 June 2016 to once again start the process of an independence referendum, which she continued by asking for a Section 30 order in February 2017. The Scottish people gave their judgment on that in the general election of 2017 and the Scottish National Party lost half a million votes and 21 Members of Parliament.

I understand the motives of those who wish to see a “big bang” moment to protect our union. However, I am not quite as convinced as others in your Lordships’ House of the need for a constitutional convention or, indeed, a new Act of union. In the excellent debate in this House in December it was correctly identified that further constitutional change could not be top down—something I wholeheartedly agree with. I am not convinced that there is the public consent necessary for a further constitutional convention, or for the referendum that would need to follow a new Act of union to guarantee that consent. I fear that, certainly in Scotland, such a referendum on a new Act of union would not be a calm, dispassionate discussion on the pooling of resources in the UK but rather, once again a divisive and passionate independence referendum filled with fake news.

However, I am not complacent about our constitutional settlement. The Clause 11 debate during the passage of the withdrawal Bill demonstrated that our inter- governmental relations are not perfect, as has the detail of Brexit. Last year, I could speak optimistically of the devolved Administrations’ understanding of the importance of the single United Kingdom market and of the desirability of legislative consent Motions in the Scottish and Welsh Administrations. I am afraid that our intergovernmental relationships were not strong enough to broker that reasonably. That underlines the importance of ensuring that future intergovernmental relations become an arena not purely for debate but for agreement, where the principals do not leave the room and immediately take to platforms for press statements. That might require a statutory basis.

In my opinion, the union—certainly in Scotland—has survived the Brexit stress test so far, but until we properly institute an improved, robust and regular opportunity for proper intergovernmental engagement, I fear that more stresses lie ahead.