Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:48 pm on 13th May 2021.

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Photo of Lord Lang of Monkton Lord Lang of Monkton Conservative 4:48 pm, 13th May 2021

My Lords, I join in the congratulations to the noble Baronesses, Lady Fraser of Craigmaddie and Lady Merron, on their excellent maiden speeches and welcome them to the House. I welcome the commitment in the gracious Speech to strengthen and renew the constitution. There are many separate constitutional issues where renewal and strengthening are urgently needed.

I would like to address the outcome of the Scottish election last week and its implications. The First Minister claimed it to be a landslide and a mandate for a referendum. The landslide amounted to a gain for her party of one seat while the mandate, which she had said earlier would be triggered only by an overall majority, was now to be founded on the support of less than 32% of the Scottish electorate. She now claimed that that represented the democratic will of the Scottish people.

It is clear now that there is no case and no preponderant settled wish for a referendum, either now or in years to come—and there is certainly no mandate for one. The Scottish Parliament is almost entirely unchanged from the last one, so its mandate is to rescue Scottish education, to rebuild the sick health service, to save the neglected Scottish economy and all the other responsibilities that are devolved to it and badly need its attention.

But there does remain an unsettling malfunction in the relationship between Scotland’s devolved Administration and its United Kingdom parent. It flows in origin from the Scotland Act 1998 and later variations, and from the structural failures, in several respects, of the Scottish Parliament to deliver open and effective democratic government. The problem will fester if nothing is done. The relationship between the two has to be improved but, until now, there appears to have been a depressing blindness within government to the need for a new approach to change the atmosphere —through many and various initiatives, to be sustained over years, to build mutual good will and understanding. Precious words alone are not enough.

Nothing of substance has been done over the past few years, despite painful advice from many sources including, for example, from your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, to which my noble friend Lord Norton just referred, and more recently from an excellent study by my noble friend Lord Dunlop, who I am delighted to see will speak shortly. Just recently there have been signs that the Government have begun to take on board the nature of what is needed, with their commitment to foster a culture of collaboration and co-operation between them and the devolved Administrations. I do not underestimate the nature of that challenge, but I welcome the emerging clarity of purpose that the recent election has triggered.

I will make two points—positive, I hope—about which I feel strongly. First, there is a constitutional problem over all this, but it is a British problem, not just a Scottish one. It centres on the strength of the United Kingdom and the need to revitalise its bonds with all its parts. It can do that only if the union itself is reinvigorated. If it is not, serious problems could lie ahead. A prominent part of future debate ought to be about the damage to the rest of the United Kingdom that the secession of Scotland would cause. It would surely be deep and far-ranging, with geostrategic implications, problems for defence and security, international status, foreign affairs and soft power, to name but a few—and of course all the familial links formed over the centuries. So the United Kingdom has every right and duty to be deeply involved in any future separatist referendum, should there ever be one.

My second point is that the design and implementation of any future referendum ought to require the full involvement and approval of the United Kingdom’s Parliament. That should include the requirement that a referendum could take place only after the electorate had been made fully aware of all the implications—social, economic, financial, right across the board—of Scotland leaving the UK and how the Scottish Government proposed to address them. That can be done only after negotiations have been conducted and the broad terms of secession settled. It is essential that the people of Scotland know and understand what they would be voting for, which would bring an essential realism to so crucial a decision.

But it could all be avoided. Since Brexit, our nation is now able to reclaim its identity in full. It is vital that we develop it now in such a way that all parts of the United Kingdom feel that they continue to belong here.