Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:55 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Thomas of Gresford Lord Thomas of Gresford Liberal Democrat Shadow Attorney General 1:55 pm, 17th January 2019

My Lords, in my youth, the union was strong. Not only had the four nations survived two world wars side by side but there was a community of interest that bound people together. Coal miners faced the same hazards in pits across Britain. The Gresford hymn is still played and sung annually at the Durham Miners’ Gala to commemorate the 266 miners killed underground at the Gresford pit in 1934. Steelworkers from Merthyr to Shotton, Sheffield and Motherwell had common interests, and workers in the shipyards of Belfast and Glasgow, Liverpool and the Tyne shared common dangers.

However, as those great UK-wide industries declined and departed, the solidarity of the union weakened. Devastated communities were left isolated—high and dry. Then the European project got under way. European development funds underpinned the economies of areas in decline, and nowhere has benefited more than Wales. European structural funds have invested more than £4 billion in supporting many thousands of jobs and creating new enterprises. Europe helped to stabilise the union at a time of profound economic and social change.

Devolution has played an important part in creating stability. In Wales we regard Sir John Redwood not so much as the architect of devolution but as its cause. As Secretary of State between 1993 and 1995, two years before the 1997 referendum, he attacked the non-governmental organisations delivering services in Wales with Thatcherite zeal, halved public funding to the Welsh Development Agency and cut his own Welsh Office staff, outsourcing to the private sector. He banned the use of the Welsh dragon on a leaflet entitled Wales in Europe and refused to second staff to ensure a Welsh presence in Brussels. He boasted that he had returned £100 million of the funding allocated to Wales, unspent, to the Treasury. He travelled home to Wokingham every night to avoid staying in Wales, refused to sign documents in the Welsh language because he did not understand them, and his rendition of the Welsh national anthem remains a YouTube classic that is very dear to our hearts. Therefore, we thank him for ensuring for us the slim majority of 0.3% that brought devolution to Wales two years after his regime, and we wish him a similar outcome for his dreams in the ERG.

It is that same contempt—that imperial condescension, as the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, put it, or colonial complacency, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, described it—which has been exhibited in the Brexit negotiations. As the noble Lord, Lord McConnell, pointed out, the devolved Administrations were not consulted. The Joint Ministerial Committee did not meet for eight months, the joint letter written by Mark Drakeford and Mike Russell in protest on behalf of Wales and Scotland was ignored and the recommendations by the committee chaired by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, were put on the shelf. It is not surprising that the Government struggled and, in the case of Scotland, failed to get legislative consent to the withdrawal Bill.

Brexit involves abandoning EU mechanisms that have delivered the most generous regional assistance that Wales has ever seen in favour of a shared prosperity fund of indeterminate size and effect. This fund will be in the partisan political control of a UK Government, dominated by England, whose instincts are, as my noble friend Lord Wallace pointed out, incorrigibly centralist. I do not think Wales will get a fair deal. European funds have been distributed on the basis of need but I strongly suspect that this shadowy new fund will be distributed, like the Barnett formula, on a crude headcount.

In the last year we have observed the abandonment by the Westminster Government of exciting plans for the Swansea tidal lagoon and the electrification of the railway to Swansea. Japanese investment is under threat in the proposed new power station at Wylfa, as we discussed earlier today. Agricultural support is not guaranteed beyond 2020. Jaguar Land Rover, Ford, Vauxhall, Toyota and Airbus—all industries with vital outlets in Wales—have announced plans to move investment into Europe. As for steel, Anthony Taylor, the former mayor of Port Talbot and a steelworker for 39 years, told the Financial Times last March that a hard Brexit would be disastrous for the local economy:

“We are going to have to compete in markets that we are not big enough to compete in. It’s OK to say we will take back control, but control of what? It makes me a bit a nervous to see ministers going around the world trying to sign trade deals with anybody and everybody. It doesn't look good”.

Independence has not been a strong sentiment in Wales. It was a passion that dared not speak its name. A recent analysis has shown that in the 20 years between 1997 and 2017 the word “independence” appeared 150 times in the SNP manifestos but only 15 times in the manifestos of Plaid Cymru. It was therefore a sign of these Brexit times that Adam Price, who recently defeated Leanne Wood for the leadership of Plaid, campaigned on an independence platform and wrested the leadership from her.

I wish the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, whom I congratulate on getting this debate, well. I will certainly study it and I promise to respect it in the morning. However, if Brexit happens, I am with the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, in believing that the movement for separation will grow. I hesitate to talk about Northern Ireland since I once asked the noble Lord, Lord Rogan, what was wrong with a united Ireland, and he told me to wash my mouth out. However, a special relationship between Northern Ireland and the EU through the Republic of Ireland could have a very positive benefits for the people and economy of that Province. The special economic zone of Shenzhen, founded in 1982 on the borders of Hong Kong, has caused a market town of 30,000 to grow into a metropolis of nearly 13 million people. We talked on Tuesday in this Chamber about the flood of expensive English lawyers who have already joined the Irish legal profession in Dublin to protect their existing businesses in Europe. Belfast could attract them and other leading service industries for the same reason. A referendum on the border is only a generation away—and I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord McCrea, will respect its outcome. There may be much attraction then for a prosperous Northern Ireland seeking at least a confederation with the south.

Thirteen of the 27 countries of the EU have smaller populations and economies than Scotland, and five are smaller than Wales. If Brexit happens, it is not beyond the bounds of possibility to envisage a successful confederation of Celtic states as part of the single European market and in a customs union. There was a time when the United Kingdom was more united and devolution seemed just as far away. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and I should resume our talks, adjourned in 1967, for the formation of an alliance of Welsh radicals.

Brexit, which makes people poorer, will weaken the bonds and, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, has just pointed out, adds to the instability that the many problems of the modern world present us with now.