Devolved Administrations: 20th Anniversary - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:43 pm on 22nd May 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Labour 8:43 pm, 22nd May 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, with whose views on constitutional matters I usually find myself very much in agreement. We are indeed at point in devolution when it is a good time to take a look at the past 20 years and to contemplate the future, not least in the light of developments such as Brexit. The aspect that I know best, of course, is Scottish devolution.

Most Labour student politicians of my generation strongly believed in the ideal of a Scottish Parliament. Some of us, such as my old friends John Smith and Donald Dewar, carried that into their political careers. We all suffered the disappointment of the 1979 referendum when, although Scotland voted yes by a margin of more than 77,000 votes, it was only 32.9% of the electorate, not the 40% required at that time. In parentheses, one cannot help thinking and saying, “Why on earth was a threshold not required for the Brexit referendum?”

After the 1979 referendum, John Smith always spoke of devolution as the “settled will of the Scottish people”, and he always called it “unfinished business”. The Scottish Constitutional Convention was set up in 1989 and issued its report on 30 NovemberSt Andrew’s Day—in 1995. This was the blueprint for a Scottish Parliament, and it also helped lead to every area in Scotland voting in favour of a Parliament with tax-varying powers in the referendum of September 1997.

The Scottish Constitutional Convention is important not only because its 1989 report, Scotland’s Parliament: Scotland’s Right was the blueprint for the Scotland Bill, but because it can serve as an example of how to approach fundamental constitutional change in the United Kingdom. The convention consisted of very diverse elements—the majority of local authorities, two political parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and some smaller parties. All parties were invited. The Conservatives refused from the beginning to take part and the SNP came in initially but did not continue for long. Then, as now, it favoured independence, not devolution.

But 80% of Scotland’s MPs and MEPs of the time were present in the convention, plus all important elements of Scottish civic society, including the STUC, the churches, ethnic minority groups, women’s movements and sections of the business and industrial communities. There were two co-chairs—one Lib Dem and one Labour. I had the privilege of succeeding the late Lord Ewing of Kirkford as the last Labour co-chair, along with my old friend from student politics the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, who I know would be speaking tonight had he not had to be in Edinburgh at the events taking place in the Scottish Parliament.

Later I was one of the three, along with Lord Sewel and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hardie, who took the Scotland Bill through this House and through its marathon of many nights and days in this House—and, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, explained, nights really meant nights. All in all, the Scotland Act has served Scotland well. Of course, not everything that we expounded worked out exactly as we had envisaged, but, as Donald Dewar often said, devolution is a process, not an end, so it was always going to find its own way of developing.

But we must face up to something that has already been referred to in tonight’s debate—the serious and pressing constitutional problem of a democratic deficit for England. From Scotland’s experience, I believe that what is needed is an equivalent of the Scottish Constitutional Convention—not a copy, but following the same principles of wide and diverse membership, including all the English regions, representation of local and national elected members, civil society and the wider public, exactly as was done in Scotland, but in ways to suit England. My noble friend Lord Foulkes and the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, should be congratulated on all the imaginative initiatives that they have been taking over the past couple of years to try to get the issue of a UK constitutional convention raised. But all the reasons they advance for that are now more than ever justified by the urgent need for an English convention—not a UK convention but a convention for England, to tackle the English deficit.

An additional positive result of an English convention would be to produce a structure that would allow our constitution to change to deal with reform of the House of Lords. I do not think that anyone can deny that we ought to be looking at the structure of our House. However much we love its traditions and however well, in some cases, it does its job, it is not really fit for this century. I think that the House of Lords should look at reforming itself on the basis of Scottish, English, Welsh and Northern Irish components. That has been mentioned by other people; it is not an original idea, it keeps coming up. It could be dealt with by having a convention in England, for England to find a way of sorting out its democratic deficit in the system and coming towards a federal situation. Whether Members would be directly or indirectly elected is to be settled. The second House in Westminster could be called anything that people want: Senate, Upper House or whatever.

I do not want to be a Cassandra, but unless urgent action is taken the UK will fall apart. In any case, one needs to take notice of the elephant in the room: Brexit. I am very sorry not to be able to end my contribution in a happy and upbeat way, but I am afraid that I predict that, if the UK leaves the European Union, in a short period—even shorter than the two to three years that another noble Lord mentioned—Scotland will be independent and will join the European Union. In Scotland 62% to 38% voted to remain in the European Union, with every single region of Scotland separately voting in favour of remain. It is pretty unanswerable.

Ireland will be united. I will not go into that now, and I know that there are different opinions. But, like my noble friend Lady Adams, I have links to both communities in Northern Ireland, and I know that there has been a sea change in views in Ireland about a reunited Ireland. It is coming, and Ireland will automatically be in the European Union once it is united.

That leaves England and Wales alone outside the European Union, and we have to ask ourselves whether that is what anyone really wants for the United Kingdom. That might not be averted by trying to solve England’s democratic deficit by a radical move such as a constitutional convention—but without such an attempt, the break-up is absolutely inevitable.