Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:06 pm on 22nd May 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench 7:06 pm, 22nd May 2019

My Lords, this has been a very happy birthday party so far. I am almost reluctant to admit that 20 years ago I wrote a lead piece for the Spectator that was pro devolution but worried about some of the ways in which it might develop. In view of that, I stress that I am a strong supporter of devolution and was a strong supporter of the Good Friday agreement before it became quite the fashionable cause it has become, and I recognise that we need to have devolution in the United Kingdom. I absolutely take the points made very powerfully by the noble Baroness, Lady Bryan, about the promotion of women in politics—devolution has been a very positive thing in Scotland—and by the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, on social care in Wales. None the less, as we have had quite a happy party, I want to draw attention to some of the less successful aspects of devolution, particularly in my own part of the United Kingdom—but I will talk a little about Scotland and Wales as well.

One of our 19th-century monarchs famously said that Catholic emancipation in 1829 was one of those issues on which all the fools and bigots had turned out to be right and all the intelligent wise men had turned out to be wrong—by which he meant that Catholic emancipation had not solved the Irish question and that Irish nationalism continued to be a very troublesome issue. It was a perfectly fair royal observation. If noble Lords look at the speeches during the Catholic emancipation debate they will discover all the wise men saying, “If we can only get our heads around this difficult issue, the world will be a vastly better place”. It did not actually really become a vastly better place.

If noble Lords look at the speeches when we decided 20 ago to go for devolution, one theme comes up again and again, in this House and the other place, repeated ad nauseam: “Get our heads around the question of Scottish devolution and I can assure you that Scottish nationalism and the thirst for Scottish independence is dead. Finito. We will never be bored again by the Scottish National Party”. Every wise man and wise woman said that—but it did not turn out to be true. That is why sometimes 19th century kings have a point.

It very important to understand that, if I can say this more darkly, devolution was born out of our failure in this Parliament. In terms of the Celtic regions of the United Kingdom, we ceased to be an imaginative focus for a community. We must always remember that devolution is born out of a central failure. We are making the best of a bad job. It would have been better had we not failed in this way—but we did, and I accept that. It is the only way, and for a long time now I have been a strong supporter of it, particularly in the context of Northern Ireland. However, there is a rosy way of talking about devolution which means that we do not see its darker sides and its weaknesses, and then we are surprised when they turn up in the historical record—or we are surprised that, funnily enough, the SNP did not just go away, despite the appearance of devolution. We have to understand the springs of local nationalisms. Not all of them are easily placated in any given circumstance by any given devolution.

There is a way in which the wise, cultivated mind of the country has tended to deceive itself. The conventional wisdom of every single book of 20th century British history which discusses these matters, without exception, is that the failure by Conservatives and Ulster Unionists to grant home rule meant that Ireland left the United Kingdom, and the failure was responsible for the 1916 rising. Noble Lords can go to our excellent Library and will not find a historian who says anything else.

At this point, you might stop and think, “What does Scotland tell us?” Actually, that one can give devolution and then nationalism becomes even more intense, almost to the point of taking us out of the United Kingdom. I do not wish to insult Scottish nationalism, but the reasons for it, the historical legacy it draws upon, are as nothing compared to Irish nationalism. The poll tax is not the same as the famine; it is as nothing, and yet it almost took us out of the United Kingdom. Therefore, why for so long have we assumed that devolution for Ireland would have solved all the problems? It would not have—Scotland’s history over the last 20 years tells us that.

We want to believe these benign things about nationalism, but it is not always such a benign force, and not always as easily placated as we would like. All of this I say as somebody who now believes that this is a crucial moment in the history of our devolved settlement, because it is undoubtedly challenged by Brexit. There is no question about that. I hope that my friends in Dublin will not hear us—they would get quite a shock. It would cause a lot of indigestion tonight if they thought that they would be acquiring Northern Ireland any time soon—so I hope for their sake they are not paying too much attention to Lords debates.

There is no question but that Brexit is destabilising Northern Ireland, although the extent of that should not be exaggerated. The balance between unionism and nationalism is essentially the same as it was before Brexit—but none the less Brexit has destabilised the place, even if people tend to exaggerate that. It is remarkable to me how little traction Scottish nationalism has gained from Brexit, which is, in many respects, a wonderful issue for it—although that does not mean that the argument is over or closed.

There is no alternative to making this system work. I will simply advocate a slightly more cautious, less starry-eyed way of talking about it. The noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, rightly said that there are certain things that have flowed from the EU which we have accepted but which are now going to be contentious, precisely because of this. I was in Cardiff this week, at the National Assembly, as chair of the intra-UK allocations review, which is trying to take some of these incoming problems to a better place. I also met with the Welsh Assembly’s environment committee, which is a clear-cut success for Wales. As has been said already, Wales has been ahead of UK policy in this respect and has set a fine example.

However, the noble Baroness, Lady Bloomfield, made a key point about Wales: the numbers and figures for Welsh educational achievement at any level are not impressive. That is putting it very kindly. This is part of the United Kingdom with a tremendous educational tradition. There is a problem with resources, which is also true of Scotland, which also had a tremendous educational tradition, and where again the numbers are not great. One would have thought that devolution in education and health would have been tremendously successful. It is often argued that in smaller countries in Europe the Education Minister can get a grip on what is required in terms of policy, can talk to a lot of headmasters and top people in education and push through a policy. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that a smaller country can get a good education policy going and introduce necessary reforms, but that does not seem to be happening in our devolved areas.

Northern Ireland also has a younger population than the rest of the United Kingdom. Therefore, why, even under devolution, are there longer hospital waiting lists and a general crisis in the National Health Service? Surely it is capable of some local policy-making to deal with the problem, since it does not have the ageing population which explains so many of the problems in the rest of the United Kingdom.

So it is important to retain a degree of balance when talking about devolution. There is no alternative to the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. Everything that was said by the noble Lord, Lord Hain, was entirely correct, and I particularly support what he said about victims. I have one area of dissent in defence of Her Majesty’s Government, which is that there is a double problem here. You can argue that the Prime Minister does not have a feel for Northern Ireland the way that recent Prime Ministers had, but we also have an Irish Prime Minister who has no feel for it in the way that other Irish Prime Ministers did. It is a double problem. These problems with devolution are not simply our Government’s fault. However, there is more chance of a deal in the next few months. It will not happen quickly, but there is more of a chance, and a new mood. The local government elections clearly showed that there was a better mood and a desire for a return of the Assembly.

However, before we get there, the consequences of the RHI heating scandal will have to be sorted. I will make a couple of observations on this. First, was it really wise for the centre to say, six or seven years ago, “We don’t need a Committee on Standards in Public Life in the devolved areas”? Are we sure that the Nolan principles have been respected more vigorously as a result of that decision in the devolved areas? Does this scandal—however you define it—suggest that the Nolan principles were really taken on board by many of the people in the Northern Irish Government?

Secondly, there is the major reform of the coalition period. The noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Lester —and, indeed, Lord Thomas—played a major role in libel law reform. That does not apply in Northern Ireland. The result is that we have a fantastically litigious local political class—our last remaining entrepreneurial activity is libel law. The achievement of the noble Lords was to open up a bias in favour of honest investigative reporting, making it easier to be an honest investigative reporter without being worried about landing up in court for libel—but it did not apply in Northern Ireland.

Is that unconnected with the fact that we had this scandal? Northern Ireland retained the old law, as, under devolution, it was perfectly entitled to do. It is a little example of the way in which devolution is sometimes not very progressive at all, while the things that come from the centre are that little bit more progressive. That is one of the things that stands in the way. The judge-led report will come out next month, and it will have to be cleared out of the way before we see a return of devolution. But there is significantly more chance of a return to power-sharing devolution than there was a few months ago. I think that is widely accepted, even though it is still a difficult path.

Perhaps by the time of the next birthday party for devolution that we have here 20 years from now I would like to see Scottish and Welsh education figures looking a lot better than they do today. That would be a tremendous, positive thing for devolution. As I mentioned, I would also like to see a better record on the health service in Northern Ireland. But above all, I would like Northern Ireland to make the transition from a form of devolved government that is—rightly and inevitably—essentially community psychotherapy in the form of a power-sharing Government, to something else. We will need a transition from that towards a form of devolved government that has as its main principle the objective of good government.