Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:50 pm on 13 May 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench 3:50, 13 May 2021

It has been a great pleasure to hear two such admirable maiden speeches, and it is an honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde—our lost Leader—who clearly has not lost his panache. I would simply say in response to his attack on the Cross Bench that there is no Cross-Bench line and no Cross-Bench Whip. Cross-Benchers tend to listen to the arguments, and it is conceivable that they may vote on the merits. There are a number of explanations for a number of government losses in recent votes; it may have something to do with the merits of the issues.

What I want to talk about is Scotland. Sixty-two of the 73 constituency Members of the Scottish Parliament that convene today come in SNP colours. That would equate to 550 seats in the House of Commons. If Mr Johnson had done as well in 2019, his majority today would be 450. Of course, the balancing of this system has done its job and the SNP falls one short of a majority, but to call the election a setback for Mrs Sturgeon, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, came quite close to doing, would be a little absurd. Like it or not, by winning a fourth consecutive term, the SNP Government are now the voice of Scotland, with the right to be heard. I do wish we could hear them in this House.

It would be no less absurd to assert, as Mr Johnson regularly did until recently, that the UK Government and this Parliament could flatly refuse a Section 30 order permitting an independence referendum should it again be sought. The union in 1707 was by consent, not coercion, and the best way of boosting the independence cause in Scotland would be to deny the right of the Scottish people to make a democratic decision. I am very torn about all this. My working life was spent in UK government service. I was privileged to head the Diplomatic Service of the United Kingdom. I liked having three identities and three citizenships—Scottish, British and European. I deeply regret losing one; I do not want to lose another.

In 2014, when Mr Salmond claimed that an independent Scotland could slip easily and instantly into the EU, I disagreed, pointing out that a period outside and an accession negotiation would be inevitable, and the terms obtained from outside inevitably less favourable than those Margaret Thatcher and John Major had secured from inside. The prospect of temporary exile from the EU may have dissuaded some Scots from voting to leave the UK in 2014. In 2016, the Scots voted by a larger majority against leaving the EU, only to be dragged out against their will, which might make some of them now regret and change their 2014 votes. It is a material change of circumstances, with leaving the UK now seeming the only route back to the EU.

But probably a bigger vote-changer in Scotland is the changed way the London Government have handled Scotland—and Wales and Northern Ireland. We have a Prime Minister who calls devolution a disaster. Seen through Scottish eyes, Whitehall risks seeming not a United Kingdom Government but an English Government, deaf to Scottish concerns. It was a very bad mistake when, on the morning after the 2014 referendum, Mr Cameron chose not to bind up the wounds but instead to promulgate EVEL—English votes for English laws. The promise to write the Sewel convention into law was honoured only in form without binding effect. Brushing aside Mrs Sturgeon’s White Paper and going for the hardest of Brexits, ignoring how much free movement meant for Scottish demography and the Scottish university, research and financial communities, Mr Johnson added insult to injury. Then came the internal market Act, driving a coach and horses through the devolution settlement—taking back control, but for England.

Trust, once lost, is not easily rebuilt. Maybe Mr Johnson will now try. I hope so. Parity of esteem and an end to gratuitous and patronising attacks on Scotland, Scotland’s elected Government and their mandate would be a start. But the key point is that if the union is to survive, its Government—the union Government, the Government of the four nations—must stop behaving like English nationalists. Precisely because they now have so few seats outside England, and no Macmillans or Douglas-Homes in their ranks, they must be seen to be alive to Scottish concerns. Why does Rhode Island have as many senators as California, and why did the EU adopt qualified majority voting? It was to give the views of smaller member states greater weight. Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the highest wisdom. Condescendingly throwing in a couple of freeports and some levelling up largesse will not take the trick.

As the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, pointed out, it is 18 months since the report of the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, found

“broad consensus … that the UK’s intergovernmental relations machinery is not fit for purpose”,

but one heard nothing in the Queen’s Speech or from the Minister today about concrete steps to put that right. What is needed is genuine decision-sharing, which probably requires the permanent decision-taking forum for which Gordon Brown has called. Who knows whether 1707 can survive? What is certain is it will not unless Scots want it to, and they probably will not unless London rediscovers a United Kingdom mindset. Of course, for Scots, the economic hit from the break-up would be far greater even than that of Brexit, but Mr Johnson proved in 2016 that heart can overrule head. It could happen again. It is up to him now.