My Lords, what a privilege it is to make my maiden speech in this Chamber today. I am incredibly honoured to have become a Peer of the United Kingdom. My thanks go to Garter but also to Lord Lyon for the formalities. I am indebted to the commitment and professionalism shown by Black Rod, the Clerk of the House and their teams for efficient online briefings and warm welcomes in person. The doorkeepers have been tremendous in keeping me on the right path and ensuring that I am wearing the right footwear. I thank them for their continued patience with me.
Since my introduction in the snows in February, I have been touched by the welcome from Members of the House. I should particularly like to thank my supporters, my noble friends Lord Strathclyde and Lord McInnes of Kilwinning, and my mentor, my noble friend Lady Chisholm of Owlpen, all of whom have been wonderfully reassuring and encouraging.
That I should have the opportunity to make my maiden speech during a debate on the union seems particularly fitting. On the list of new Peers to include me, I was the only name from Scotland. Indeed, I was the only one not from England. And having experienced the challenges of connectivity as I commute to this House, I was delighted to hear of the Government’s commitment to improving rail infrastructure in the Queen’s Speech.
I also welcome the Government’s support for the voluntary sector. I have spent the last 20 years in the charity, health and arts sectors in Scotland. All of these are devolved areas of responsibility and so, declaring my interests, I come here today as someone who wants to contribute to the constitutional debate as this House navigates the challenges faced by our United Kingdom.
It could be said that I am a unionist by descent. My great-grandfather, William Hutchison, sat in the other place as the Unionist Member of Parliament for Glasgow Kelvingrove. However, I came south to train as a ballet dancer. I believe that I am the first professional choreologist to be a Member of your Lordships’ House, a qualification that I could not have achieved if I had stayed in Scotland. But my career to date has been to enable others to shine, whether they were the dancers of English National Ballet or, more recently, people with cerebral palsy.
I am a supporter of devolution, as are the majority of Scots. And in this House, I note the work of the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee recognising the existing interdependencies between UK and devolved Governments. For too many people in Scotland, Westminster seems at best distant and at worst irritating or irrelevant. So I have been musing. If roles were reversed and Nicola Sturgeon were sitting in the Prime Minister’s seat, I suspect that her reaction to a request for indyref2 would not be one of outright refusal. Instead, she would send out a very public message that emphasised how she supported the principles of democracy and the importance of the will of the people. She might announce a period of public consultation around the details of how any referendum might be held, and she would announce the formation of an advisory committee, as the Scottish Government love advisory committees to pass difficult issues on to. In short, while seeming to act reasonably and responsibly, she would kick the issue into the long grass, for now.
For this is not an issue that will be solved by entrenched positions or the waving of flags. I point to the evidence of the common frameworks programme, which has revealed what is possible in joint working, even when one has parties with very different ideological and constitutional outlooks. I hope that the Minister can therefore confirm that future intergovernmental relations are committed to seeking consensus and working with an ethos of mutual respect. I hope that he will go further on future engagement, beyond new structures, to ensure that connectivity is strengthened at all possible levels. We should enable others to shine: close working in all areas of the NHS; encouraging students to study at the best institutions across the UK and not be constrained by separatist funding decisions; championing cultural and family ties; and recognising our ability to be loyal to more than one flag alone.
I feel that, in this Chamber, I am preaching to the converted. We do not have representatives from the independence movement among us; as such, our contributions to this debate are potentially flawed. However, to ensure that others will be afforded the opportunities that I have probably too often taken for granted, we must ensure that the future of our union is a conversation of co-operation. I look forward to contributing to this conversation from these Benches.