Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:47 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hain Lord Hain Labour 12:47 pm, 17th January 2019

My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend Lord Lisvane secured this debate; I referred to the Act of Union Bill and its parent, the Constitutional Reform Group, in my speech in your Lordships’ House on 13 December. But what is the case for the union now, which is under threat from Brexit in both Scotland and Northern Ireland?

The former Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown set out a compelling vision in rejecting Scottish independence, both in a speech on 10 March 2014 and in his book My Scotland, Our Britain. He rightly insisted that the issue is not simply about patriotism: both pro and anti-independence Scots could claim to be equally patriotic. Instead, he argued, the incontrovertible advantage of modern Britain is its 20th-century innovation: the pooling and sharing of risks and resources across the whole of the United Kingdom to ensure common welfare and decent standards of life for all citizens, regardless of where you live, through common, UK-wide old-age pensions, common UK social insurance—sick pay, health insurance and unemployment insurance—common UK child and family benefits, a common UK minimum wage, and a UK system of equalising resources, so that everyone has the same political, social and economic rights, and not simply equal civil and political rights.

With around 40% of UK GDP concentrated in London and the south-east of England, separatists have no answer to the great benefit of the United Kingdom: redistributing resources from its better to its less well-off parts and, through a UK-wide minimum wage and tax credits, guaranteeing a minimum family income and stopping regions and nations undercutting each other, thus preventing a damaging race to the bottom between the nations and regions within the UK.

Although England remains highly centralised and the English question has not been properly addressed, as it should be, the 1973 Kilbrandon royal commission made a convincing case against a separate English parliament which has never been rebutted. Such a federation of four units would be,

“so unbalanced as to be unworkable. It would be dominated by the overwhelming political importance and wealth of England”,

with,

“Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, together representing less than one fifth of the population”.

Instead, I believe in a modern federal United Kingdom, which is set out in the noble Lord’s Act of Union Bill. English interests could be better protected through regional devolution outside London—again, I suggested how that might be done in my speech on 13 December.

We should be wary of devolution in the form of “neoliberal outsourcing”, in line with the right’s ideological objective to shrink the Whitehall state, offloading as much responsibility as possible to individual citizens to fend for themselves, outsourcing to private providers and “subcontracting” tax and spending to devolved legislatures and cities. In that respect at least, the outcomes if not the ideologies of nationalism and neoliberalism can converge because, under both, the redistributive power of the United Kingdom state is either severed or severely stunted.

The great majority of individuals need the state on their side but not on their backs. They need active government which intervenes to curb market excess and market power. They need a social context to ownership. They need the assistance of strong communities. They need the solidarity which comes from acting collectively to exercise influence over the decisions which shape their lives and to experience the fulfilment of active citizenship. They need power to be decentralised and fairly distributed—which is precisely what the Act of Union Bill provides for. And much needed it will be in the current Brexit mess, not least to help hold our country together.