Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:01 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Crossbench 1:01 pm, 17th January 2019

My Lords, I should like to add my voice to those of others to congratulate and thank the noble lord, Lord Lisvane, for giving the House the opportunity to debate this Motion. The subject is an important one. In all the discussions and debates about Brexit, we have perhaps not sufficiently addressed the consequences of Brexit for the integrity of the United Kingdom.

The problem of retaining an open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic when that becomes the only land border between the United Kingdom and the European Union has of course received a great deal of attention. The Prime Minister has been resolute in the pursuit of arrangements to ensure that the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom should be preserved and ensured. But the arrangements are complex and to some extent artificial, as well as controversial, and of course they are part of an agreement which has now been overwhelmingly rejected by the House of Commons.

I follow the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, in reminding the House that Northern Ireland is different from the rest of the country in that the Good Friday agreement, like the Anglo-Irish agreement of November 1985, in which I played a part, guarantees that there will be no change in the status of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom unless and until a majority of the people of Northern Ireland want it and decide to vote for it. Whether that time will ever come, none of us can say, but it seems that it is likely to come sooner than it otherwise might when the United Kingdom is going to leave or has left the European Union.

Then it has to be remembered that in Scotland there was a majority for remaining in the European Union in the referendum of June 2016. That was not just an echo of the “auld alliance” between Scotland and France. It could become a significant factor in any future referendum on Scottish independence, although like other speakers I should be a little surprised if that took the number of supporters for independence over the threshold of 50%. Scotland would find it a cold place to be outside the UK and the European Union.

I am not at all sure that I wish to enshrine these matters in a written constitution, which is like a great statute. Such a statute would become like a large building which cannot be changed when the conditions outside it or the requirements being made of it change. We need to go rather carefully when trying to freeze or fossilise the existing constitutional arrangement because it then becomes in a sense a dead thing and unable to adapt to changes in life, changes in requirements and changes in circumstances outside. I approach that with a certain amount of scepticism.

The union that is the United Kingdom was created and developed by successive changes made over centuries. It was not set out in advance in a written constitution, but has developed in response to the needs of the day. The United Kingdom has been a source of strength and benefit to all its constituent parts, as one can see from the number of Scottish people who have made such a large contribution to our public and political life. It has achieved a strength, standing and an influence in our relations with other countries which none of the constituent countries would have had on their own. It has also remained a steady beacon of freedom and democracy and of political stability and maturity—living together, as it were—to which other countries have looked with respect and envy. We take it for granted because it has always been there for us. However, there are times, and the present is one of them, when while looking at our constitutional arrangements, we should be counting our blessings and actively seeking to protect and preserve them.