Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:27 pm on 13th May 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland) 1:27 pm, 13th May 2021

My Lords, the opening speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Stewart of Dirleton, was somewhat breathtaking in presenting the idea that Brexit has gone like a dream and is without problems and that we are about to see a transformation of our democracy. Indeed, reading the sections of the Queen’s Speech on democracy and the constitution might make you think that there was a reformist agenda—but of course there is nothing of the sort. In reality, the Government want to strengthen the Executive against Parliament and reduce the independence of the courts to adjudicate on the propriety of executive actions. At the same time, they want to suppress participation and fairness in elections by requiring voter ID and by replacing the supplementary vote system for elected mayors with first past the post—an increasingly regressive form of electoral democracy. The Prime Minister then wants to recover the freedom to manipulate the electoral cycle for incumbency benefit by repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, so do not be surprised if this leads to an opportunist election next year on the back of the hoped-for ending of Covid restrictions and the hoped-for bounce-back of the economy.

What is missing is any thoughtful or imaginative consideration of how our democracy can be enriched and how the tensions in Scotland and Northern Ireland—and, to a lesser extent but validly, in Wales—can be addressed. A cavalier, careless Prime Minister has stirred up a crisis that threatens the integrity of the United Kingdom and, what is worse, the English nationalist wing now in control of the Conservative Government frankly do not really care what happens. During the general election, the Prime Minister said that there would be no border in the Irish Sea and that the Northern Ireland protocol would not lead to extra bureaucracy and costs, even though the Government’s own website at the time spelled out the exact opposite—something I repeatedly pointed out in debates in this House. The reality has led to tensions, disorders and threats of violence, and the toppling of the leaders of the two unionist parties. Instead of criticising the deal they signed up to, will Ministers engage constructively with the EU to secure a veterinary agreement that would benefit food producers across the whole of the UK and reduce the problems in the Province? Can the Minister confirm what progress is being made to achieve a practical working veterinary agreement?

Now thrown into the mix is the suggestion that the Government might put a statute of limitation on offences committed during the Troubles, something which is not being called for by anyone in the Province itself. The Government say they will work with all relevant stakeholders, including the parties in Northern Ireland and Westminster, the Irish Government, and civil society, including victims’ groups, as part of this process, but so far there seems little chance of winning them around. So then what? Positively, the proposed reform of the petition of concern is welcome, as far as it goes, but will the Government monitor its working and review it if it proves inadequate, as some fear it will?

To be frank, fairness and justice, facts and the truth are strangers to this Government, which has compromised their capacity to uphold the Good Friday agreement. The polarisation of politics that has plagued Northern Ireland for so long is in danger of being reinforced, although growth in support for Alliance is at least one positive development.

And now Scotland is similarly deeply divided. I have never believed that dislike and resentment of a Tory Government is a valid reason for breaking up our family of nations, but it is a potent fuel. The SNP and its fellow travellers, the Greens, peddle the myth that Scotland’s problems can be resolved only by independence, yet they have no coherent plan for how independence could be achieved and what it would look like. Nor can they have such a plan, because it is not down to Scotland alone but to the rest of the UK and the European Union.

Much worse, this grievance-sustaining, which frankly suits the SNP and the Tories equally, paralyses decision-making and sucks oxygen out of tackling the wide range of problems we face in Scotland today which are within the responsibility and power of the Scottish Government to address. But the SNP do not want to do it, because it would ruffle feathers and reveal the paucity of talent and vision behind the bluster of demanding indyref2.

Scotland’s NHS has been squeezed, year on year, by the SNP Government to the point where spending per head could soon lag behind England, yet there is a huge backlog of non-Covid cases to address and a mental health crisis. Intervention in the economy has been an embarrassing disaster, with failures over ferries, airports, aluminium smelters, fabrication yards and the investment bank. Practical skills training has been undermined by cuts to college places, and more and more Scottish university students are paying tuition fees in England because places for Scottish-domiciled students are capped by the SNP Government. Secondary school pupils have been let down by a curriculum and examination regime that was conspicuously failing before the pandemic and has now collapsed, with no solution in sight.

These issues, plus the worst rate of drug deaths in Europe and poverty and deprivation at its worst in the First Minister’s own constituency, are deprived of oxygen and light by the distraction of a bare-knuckle clash between the SNP and the Tories. Whichever way you look at it, to suggest that a country recovering from a pandemic and a botched Brexit agreement should launch itself into convulsions over independence is disastrous, irresponsible and negligent.

This is especially true when the depth and even distribution of division is so apparent. The country is literally split down the middle on the issue. This is no basis on which to build a new nation under any conditions, but under the present circumstances, it is just reckless. After 14 years, the SNP has a stranglehold on nearly all the levers in Scotland. It is pretty near a one-party state. As a result, it is able to use all the instruments at its disposal to spread disinformation. This involves two parallel strategies. The first is to distract attention from the miserable failure of the SNP Government in building a stronger and more cohesive society, and the second is to ignore or discredit the benefits of being part of the United Kingdom.

Many may be persuaded that there could be a quick move to independence which will somehow realise a dream of prosperity and the resolution of all our problems. Yet ask people how they will feel if their pensions and mortgages are paid in an untested Scottish currency, backed by an as yet non-existent central bank, and enthusiasm might be dimmed. It will wane further if people realise that there is no quick way back into the EU, and, even if it were eventually achieved, it would mean a hard border with the rest of the UK, where most of Scotland’s goods and services go and where many of our family and friends live.

I am proud to be Scottish and British. I know, regardless of my opposition to this Government, that the development, procurement and rollout of vaccines is a striking and visible example of the benefits of the United Kingdom. So when Nicola Sturgeon says that Scotland could have achieved comparable vaccine progress as an independent country, she is not only deluded but deliberately seeking to deceive. You have only to look at the challenges facing, for example, Ireland and Canada to see that.

Support for the Scottish economy through Treasury-funded furlough; self-employed income support—not enough, but welcome—supporting more than 1.3 million jobs; £3.4 billion extra through Barnett, although not all of it passed on; and VAT cuts for hospitality: all of this is glossed over or suppressed by Scottish Ministers. When challenged, they claim, disingenuously, that they could have funded it as it is “our money”, suggesting, in defiance of the facts, that Scotland subsidises the rest of the UK. When it is pointed out that their own analysis shows that the Scottish deficit is significantly greater than the UK’s, they either lie or bluster that an independent Scotland, free of the shackles of the UK, would soar into the stratosphere of prosperity and untold wealth.

However, and nevertheless, the strength of support for the SNP and the Green nationalists has to be acknowledged and addressed. Countering misinformation is legitimate and necessary, and making the UK Government more visible in the devolved Administrations is also a good thing. But simply dismissing the result and patronising the devolved areas will only add fuel to the flames. We need a vision to reach beyond this and look for a solution that combines to deliver the best of devolution and the best of the benefits of UK-wide co-operation. It requires the Government to reach out and engage with other parties and organisations that support the continuation of the United Kingdom but want to make it work better. They should listen to calm voices in their own ranks, such as the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, they should take Gordon Brown seriously, and they should recognise the thoughtful ideas set out by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem.

Perhaps this would lead to a federal solution, which some argue is not possible because of the imbalance between England and the devolved areas. However, there is evidently a desire for a voice for the English regions, which a battle over the red wall cannot satisfy, but which could help for a more balanced political settlement. It could end up being a uniquely British, quasi-federal outcome, embedding the devolution settlements, structuring the mechanism for co-operation across the UK and unlocking the voice of the English regions.

The Government say that first past the post enables voters to kick out unpopular politicians, but of course, in reality, it enables a minority, such as the current Conservative Party, to secure an overwhelming majority and brook no opposition. The Scottish electoral system has a proportional dimension, but the SNP dominance is down to the tactical squeeze of first past the post and the successful gaming of the proportional system by the Greens. A reformed constitution in which all elections are conducted by a fair voting system, and this House, the House of Lords, reformed to be similarly elected but also to reflect the voice of the nations and English regions, would represent the imaginative reform that would make our democracy fit for purpose and would perhaps re-engage voters in the excitement of actually being listened to and being able to influence and shape the debate in the United Kingdom. But under this Government, do not hold your breath, my Lords.