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Brexit: Appointment of Joint Committee - Motion to Agree

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:37 pm on 3rd July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Reid of Cardowan Lord Reid of Cardowan Labour 4:37 pm, 3rd July 2019

My Lords, for the first time in my life I fear that we are marching steadily towards the break-up of the United Kingdom. I want to spend some time today on the subject of Scotland and its place in the United Kingdom, and the implications of a no-deal Brexit for that relationship. To do that, I want to go back a number of decades to orientate ourselves to what might happen.

To state the obvious, Scotland is a nation. It is a nation with commonly recognised borders, a common thread of history and, above all, a national consciousness. Over the last few centuries Scotland has obviously been a nation inside a larger nation state—within the United Kingdom—so the question of national consciousness is therefore very complex, with the development over time of what Professor John Mackintosh MP once called the “dual consciousness” of the Scottish people: part-Scottish, part-British. That balance has varied from time to time, as might be expected, but it has always been a balance. Devolution did not create that national consciousness; it was the response to its existence.

Now, as we countenance Brexit, I want to ask two questions. First, why, as late as the 1950s and 1960s, was there such a significant feeling of Britishness in that balance and such an antipathy towards separation, especially in the populous west of Scotland, which acted as a block for many years on separatist ambitions but which, counterintuitively, contains the most significant number of the descendants of Irish immigrants, who might have been assumed to have the least affection for the Crown, the union and the union jack? Secondly, what has changed since, and what implications do those changes have as we countenance Brexit?

The answer to the first question, about the strength of Britishness in Scotland 50 years ago, is complex, but I suggest it included the personal experience and fresh memories of common struggle and sacrifice throughout the United Kingdom, especially in World War 2; the lingering suspicions, especially in that populous west of Scotland, of the right-wing and in particular the anti-Irish-immigrant origins of the SNP; the resultant fear that a separation would threaten the Ulsterisation of Scotland and the ascendancy of the majority over the minority; the self-interest in jobs provided by British-wide industries in coal, steel, shipbuilding and so on; the solidarity consequently arising through the Britain-wide trade union movement and fellow employees in these industries; and, above all, the recognition that for a nation of 6 million, a United Kingdom of 60 million provided the framework for economic opportunity, security and stability, in recent decades enhanced by membership of the European Union’s additional 440 million people.

That was the position 50 years ago. What has changed? Well, social, economic and political radical change has happened. The experiences of the common sacrifices during World War 2 have diminished decade by decade. Nationalism and the SNP have moved from the right to the centre-left of politics, abandoning the anti-Irish-immigrant leanings, towards a more inclusive nationalism. The massive expansion of educational provision, opened up by the Labour Governments of the 1960s and 1970s and made available irrespective of class or ethnic background, and the growth of white-collar jobs, both provided opportunities for social advance hitherto denied, and as a result of that came the growing confidence and diminished fear of the ascendancy of one group over another. I was a beneficiary of some of those changes.

Then, from 1979, the political, social and economic effects of Thatcherism, from massive unemployment to the experimental poll tax—remember that Scotland was chosen as the guinea pig—had a profound impact on the collective Scottish consciousness. The self-evident employment benefits of the great British industries disappeared. British Steel has gone, British Coal has gone, British shipbuilding has all but gone, and there are many others. With the disappearance of these industries and jobs went the Britain-wide solidarity which the employees and the trade unions afforded. Those changes are not comprehensive but they are significant, and they led to a referendum result in 2014 where almost 50% of people in Scotland voted to separate from the UK.

This is the warning that I give to this Chamber, and to my colleagues in all parties in the other House. There were only two things remaining that stopped that 45% becoming over 50%. One was devolution itself, which afforded the Scots significant control over their own affairs, but more important than anything else was—and remains—the perceived benefit of economic opportunity and stability from remaining inside the UK, a nation state of 60 million people, and a gateway to the 500-million market of the European Union. Economic opportunity, security and stability have been the crucial factor from 1707, when Scotland joined the union after the disastrous economic failings of the Darien scheme, to 2007, when the RBS went down with a greater loss than Scotland’s annual GDP. They are the crucial pivot on which the partnership of nations which constitute the United Kingdom now hinges, but it is that very pivot that is under threat from Brexit. Of course a Boris Johnson leadership would be bad for unity—that leadership with Brexit would be even worse—but a Boris Johnson leadership tied to a no-deal Brexit is a disaster waiting to happen for the unity of the United Kingdom, precisely because it threatens that economic opportunity and stability.

The Government can of course ignore what I say, what Gordon Brown says, what Professor Tom Devine—who knows more about Scotland than anyone in either Chamber—says, or what John Curtice says. They can even ignore—my God—what Liam Fox says. Today, her own Government can choose to ignore what the Prime Minister is about to say in Scotland. Indeed, it may be that the Conservative membership referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, simply does not care. In fact it is certain that it does not care: a recent survey suggested that the membership would prefer a no-deal Brexit to the retention of Scotland or Northern Ireland inside the United Kingdom. So be it. Be careful, however, what you wish for, and please take heed of the warnings. It would be a supremely tragic irony if a course of action nominally designed to restore the sovereignty of the United Kingdom were the very vehicle that ripped it apart. Let us think on the implications of that.