Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:28 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland) 12:28 pm, 17th January 2019

My Lords, across the UK, Scotland and London voted most strongly for remain, which is somewhat ironic given the nationalists’ antipathy towards London and London-based government. Northern Ireland voted clearly for remain, only to find its hard-line Brexit party tweaking the tail of a Brexit-traumatised Conservative Government. A lot has been said, I think rightly, about Theresa May’s and Jeremy Corbyn’s cavalier disregard for those who voted remain. “You lost. Get over it”, they say, but they have been unable to come up with anything that can unite a majority. When the DUP is challenged for representing a minority in Northern Ireland, it asserts that remain voters are predominantly nationalists and can therefore apparently be discounted—second-class votes.

Membership of the EU resides with the United Kingdom and it is not possible for parts of the UK to be in and parts to be out. I suggest that raises the question as to whether we should ever have sought a simple binary majority, or one that was qualified by the views of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom as well.

During a recent visit to Derry, I was able to see and hear how differences already affect what is located on which side of the border and how people and services operate. Moderate unionists who voted remain are beginning to consider whether the complexities of Brexit might make the prospect of a united Ireland unexpectedly attractive, especially now they see a much more liberal Republic and a frozen conservative Province in the north. The polarisation of Northern Ireland politics has left the Province without a democratic voice. Disillusioned young people at an integrated school that I visited in Derry told me that they thought that violence would return to the Province. I was quite shocked that they were unanimous in their view.

For a long time—the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, referred to this—many people thought that nationalism could be contained within the European Union or at least under its umbrella. That is kind of logical given that the raison d’être of the European Union was to find mechanisms to avoid conflicts getting out of control and leading to war—which has been one of its great achievements.

For many years, the SNP campaigned under the slogan, “Independence in Europe”, so leaving the EU is a problem for it. First, a significant proportion of its voters chose Brexit. Secondly, leaving the UK without the comfort of the EU umbrella could leave Scotland in a cold place, with no prospect of a quick re-entry into the EU. Campaigners in favour of remain have sometimes prayed in aid divergence with Scotland as a threat to the union in simplistic terms. The people of Scotland voted remain by a large margin. Theresa May’s dead deal, something similar or no deal would in many ways be a betrayal of Scotland, or at least an insensitive disregard for the concerns and preferences of its people. Of course, that is seized on by the SNP to make the case for a second independence referendum. “Let’s vote for independence and rejoin the EU”, it says, except it is not that simple. First, the UK is overwhelmingly Scotland’s biggest market. Secondly, however sympathetic the EU may be to Scotland’s warmth towards that Union—in contrast with the SNP’s hostility to this union—Scotland would have to take years and deep economic pain before it could accede to membership, during which time it would be outside both unions.

Surely it is time, Brexit or not, to sort out the mess that the United Kingdom has become and to create a constitution worthy of its name, which guarantees the human rights of everyone in the United Kingdom and accommodates the views and wishes of the devolved Administrations and the regions of England in a legal framework. The Bill in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, is a good start. I understand why he asserts that nothing could challenge the sovereignty of this United Kingdom Parliament, but I think that he would recognise that, if it were a matter of a transition to a federal Government, we would eventually need a constitution to which even this House and the other House would have to be subordinated. That is how most modern democracies work. Ours is not working; it is time that we modernised it.