Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:07 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour 1:07 pm, 17th January 2019

My Lords, the House is pleased that the noble Lord, Lord Young of Cookham, is replying to this debate as it holds him in very high regard. The only surprising thing is that the noble Lord finds it possible to continue being a member of a Government who, in Brexit, are systematically destroying his own life’s work. If I may say so, he gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “semi-detached”. He appears to be attached to this Government in the way that the moon is attached to the sun, but we are none the less glad that he is speaking today. That is because he harks back to the days when Conservatives were indeed conservative and observed the dictum of Edmund Burke that:

“A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation”; but his underlying belief was that it should be the minimum change necessary to preserve a state which, by a long process of organic formation, works pretty well.

In Great Britain—Ireland is entirely different—that is pretty much the way we have handled constitutional reform in this country since the Napoleonic wars, which finally ended Jacobitism and the threat to the Hanoverian settlements. But Brexit has brought an end to all that because for the first time in modern history, the Conservative Party has stopped being conservative and has in fact become a revolutionary party that is seeking to undermine the entire fabric of our existing constitutional settlement, with an impact that will go well beyond Brexit. As other noble Lords have said, it will probably threaten the union with Northern Ireland and possibly in due course the union with Scotland too. It is perfectly conceivable that if Brexit proceeds, England will be a single unitary state within the lifetime of many of us present in this Chamber. Of course, that would make sense philosophically because it is the expression of an extreme form of English nationalism that we have not seen in recent history.

The question that is preoccupying Parliament at large at the moment is how we can stop that process democratically. It looks to me as though that will take the form of a referendum, in which I hope very much that the British people, having seen the kind of Brexit on offer and the threat it poses to their way of life, will actually vote to remain in the European Union.

However, the underlying social pressures and tensions that have led to Brexit are partly to do with the inadequate aspects of our constitutional arrangements and the way they deal with political and social issues. They need reform, and a good Burkean would be paying serious and particular attention at the moment—as the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, has done—to the big issue of the government of England. While we have had significant and beneficial reform in the government of Wales and Scotland and have brought an end to a virtual civil war within the United Kingdom in Northern Ireland—I pay huge tribute to John Major, Tony Blair and a generation of politicians in Ireland and Northern Ireland—the government of England has not undergone substantial reform of any kind since Redcliffe-Maud and the big reforms to county and local government in the early 1970s. It is not working well at all.

I will make three brief points on what I believe should happen. We need to reinforce substantially the devolution moves that have taken place in recent years. The single best reform to the government of England in the last 20 years was the creation of the mayoralty of London—a strong executive office with substantial devolution of funding and autonomous powers, accountable to an elected assembly—which has transformed the government of London. The quality of our public services in London, particularly our infrastructure and especially transport, have been changed for the better beyond all recognition because of the introduction of this very welcome measure of devolution. We need the same in all the city regions of England and in the wider regions, and it needs to be done on some kind of agreed basis. The noble Lord, Lord Wallace, referred to Yorkshire. There is at the moment a massive stand-off between the Government and local authorities and responsible leaders in Yorkshire, including the mayor of South Yorkshire, on this very issue. It needs to be resolved, city region by city region, with substantial devolution taking place.

Secondly, on finance, you cannot divorce devolution from money, in the way that you can never divorce government from money. The person who holds the budget is the person who wields the power. A good part of the reason why the settlements in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London have been so successful is the substantial devolution of funding. Ever since the settlement that replaced the poll tax with this extremely inadequate council tax, which now is pretty much inoperable as an effective property tax, there has not been an effective funding base for local government.

Thirdly, we need properly to codify this in a new federal constitution, which I think should involve a senate replacing the existing House of Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, said that we suffer from imperial condescension. I do not believe that that is a complete explanation.