Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:22 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Morris of Aberavon Lord Morris of Aberavon Labour 12:22 pm, 17th January 2019

My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for initiating the debate. The principal organ for maintaining the stability of the union must be the Parliament of the United Kingdom. The role of the devolved Administrations, though important, is complementary. I will give an immediate example—two in fact—where the United Kingdom Government have not strained to fulfil this important role.

The original proposals of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill certainly did not do so. In its clawing-back proposals—Clause 11 in particular—it ignored what the devolved Administrations had been enjoying for years. As far as Wales was concerned, through the good sense of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Mr Mark Drakeford, agreement was reached. In Scotland, agreement was not reached. There has been litigation, referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, but the bottom line is the statement of the Scottish Constitutional Relations Secretary that he could not conceive of a situation where legislative consent would be given to any matter from the United Kingdom Parliament on agriculture, trade and fisheries. Perhaps the Minister could tell me what the state of play is now as far as Scotland is concerned on that aspect.

The Agriculture Bill now going through the Commons suffers from the same difficulty and the Delegated Powers Committee of this House has hammered its proposals because, again, they bypass Parliament and the devolved Administrations. The proposals give powers back to United Kingdom Crown Ministers and ignore what has been developed. We in this House will therefore have to return to this in due course. These are recent examples of what the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, referred to as “imperial condescension”. Nothing seems to have been learned and we are back to square one on this issue.

The next issue I want to raise is whether another independence referendum in Scotland would destabilise the union. I venture to think, perhaps surprisingly, that it might not. I regret that there is no SNP representation in this House. Sinn Féin has a long-standing objection to representation in the Commons; in my role as Attorney-General for Northern Ireland, I discovered that fairly rapidly. Nationalist parties from the time of the Irish Members have had an influence in the Commons well above their numbers. From 1885 to 1906, they dominated Parliament, and the Liberal Government of the day had to rely on them because they had no majority until 1906. The Callaghan Government, in which I played a part, lost their vote of confidence in 1979 by one vote because although the SNP had been warned that turkeys do not vote for Christmas, it pulled the plug on the Government. As a result, it lost nine of its 11 Members.

I am relaxed about whether the SNP gets its second referendum—another once-in-a-lifetime one, it has been called. As an outsider but an interested Celt, I do not think it would undermine the United Kingdom’s situation and perhaps the Scots might enhance our stability by being released from their grouse of democratic deprivation. I would not forecast the result but I would warn the SNP about any economy based on how a sheik in the Middle East turns the tap on oil, given the volatility of its price. Perhaps it should look at the biblical advice of not building its house either on sand or on the product of sand.

I close by remarking that the future must be resolved on a much more basic principle of having a convention, which we discussed in the last debate, to ensure that piecemeal reform is not continued. Rather, we should look comprehensively at the future while understanding the development of the existing and new powers. If we are to have a stable future, a convention is required.