Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:20 pm on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Adams of Craigielea Baroness Adams of Craigielea Labour 8:20 pm, 22nd May 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley. I agree with her and my noble friend Lord Foulkes that we need some kind of constitutional commission to look at the devolution of the whole UK. One of the problems with devolution is that we have taken it piece by piece, area by area and country by country, but we have never looked at the whole. This has caused grievances in England because the English feel that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own parliaments or assemblies while they have purely Westminster, where their issues are decided on along with those of every other part of the UK. This means that voters in England think that they are badly done by, while voters in Scotland and Wales think that Westminster is an English Parliament. No one wins until you look at the whole and make sure that there is fairness in that for everyone.

How did we get to this situation in Scotland? For me, it was never about nationalism; it was always about democracy. When I was first elected to the other place in 1990 after a very hard-fought by-election with the SNP barking at my heels, I came to a House where my party was sitting on the Opposition Benches along with the Liberal Democrats and the SNP with 61 Members in Scotland. On the Government Benches the then Conservative Government had 10 Members for Scotland. Ten Members out of 71 in Scotland were taking all the decisions for Scotland, no matter what was said. This was not a matter of nationalism, it was a matter of democracy, and people were feeling it. They were pushing further and harder for some kind of democratic solution. The Scottish Constitutional Convention had already been set up and was doing a good job. Together with the Liberal Democrats, civic Scotland and the churches, we were discussing all the ways to resolve the problem. Unfortunately the Conservatives refused to take part, which was a great pity, as did the SNP, which I am not convinced was such a great pity because its whole thing was separation not devolution.

Did devolution block the road to independence, and was it meant to do so? When Donald Dewar said that devolution was a process, I think that he was often misquoted. People saw the process as one leading to separation, but I think that he was talking about further devolution. By that I mean devolution down to the point nearest to the people, not up to the centre. The Scottish Parliament was never meant to create another centre which would suck more powers up to itself instead of spreading more powers to local authorities. Local authorities have been drained of most of their powers and certainly most of their money because it is being sucked into the centre. If the Scottish Parliament has one big fault, it is that. It is not talking about democracy, it is still concentrating solely on independence.

Good things have happened and a lot of them have been mentioned, and there have been bad things. One of the first things the Scottish Parliament did was to change street names into Gaelic. Anyone who lives in Scotland knows that Gaelic was never the language of southern Scotland, of lowland Scots or of the north-east, which was Doric. In fact, if it had wanted to reflect the second most widely spoken language in Scotland at the time, it would have been Polish. It has been the second most commonly spoken language in Scotland since 1940 when the Free French, the Polish navy and army settled into various parts of Scotland, particularly where I live in Renfrewshire and in Dundee. Since then the population has remained pretty static. It is Polish that should have been put on to the street signs, not Gaelic, which most of the population has never spoken.

One of the things the Scottish convention agreed to was a 50:50 Parliament—a Parliament that would represent 50% women and 50% men. Unfortunately we did not quite achieve that, but we are at 35% and I hope that that will rise as time goes on. Members are continuously asking for more powers. They have not used the powers they have but they have sucked powers away from local government. It is time for them to look at how their powers should be devolved.

I have some fears for the future because, while I hate to mention Brexit, I should say that it is not going down well in Scotland; it is going down very badly indeed. People who have been friends of mine for years and members of my family who are totally opposed to nationalism—they do not like it one bit—are now telling me that if there is another referendum in Scotland, they will vote yes this time because they have had enough. They now think that this union is an unfair marriage with a subordinate partner. No matter what the subordinate partner says, because it is smaller, the bigger partner wins every time. That is not going down well and it is forcing people down a road that they never wanted to take. That is something we have to take into account if we do not want independence in Scotland within the next half dozen years. It is also spilling over into Ireland, where undoubtedly people, particularly young people, are now saying, “No more, we have had enough. We do not want the old things that divided us. We want the things that will bring us together”. The only thing I can say in defence of people in the SNP is that they are not isolationist. They want to be part of the European Union, so if they do not remain part of this union, I fear that that will be the fault of this Parliament, not the SNP.