Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:53 pm on 13th May 2021.

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Photo of Lord Morris of Aberavon Lord Morris of Aberavon Labour 4:53 pm, 13th May 2021

My Lords, given the result of the elections for the Scottish Parliament, it is incumbent on Westminster to listen. The first priority is to have a meaningful mechanism for regular joint consultation, at the highest ministerial level—that means led by the Prime Minister—between the four Governments of the United Kingdom. If the United Kingdom is to remain united, the present spasmodic ministerial meetings will not do.

As one of the architects of Welsh devolution, from as early as 1953 to 1999, and as Attorney-General, I had the privilege of presenting the Wales Bill, in both languages, to Her Majesty for signature. A wily commentator at the time said, “It must be legal, because the Attorney-General is doing it”. On that basis, I yield to no one in my defence of the right of devolved Governments to decide their own policies in devolved fields. My maxim always is: once powers are devolved, there can be no reversal.

I am, however, surprised by the comparatively minor differences between each country in their policies to deal with the pandemic. We hear constantly about the reliance on data—meaning scientific data. I would have thought that there are no national boundaries to the spread of infection and that, more likely than not, the scientific evidence should be similar. Where is the stubbornness—at Westminster or elsewhere?

Turning to Scotland, I well remember, when I was Welsh Secretary, Willie Ross, my Scottish counterpart, claiming that it was Scotland’s oil. The way that the price of oil has gone up and down should make anyone caring for the economic welfare of his country be wary of building his house on the product of sand and at the mercy of the whims of Middle East sheikhs. It is beyond dispute that more is spent per head in Scotland than in the rest of the United Kingdom. In the recent election, the spending promises made bore no relation to equality of spending throughout the United Kingdom. Instead, they bore a striking relation to Charles Dickens’s Eatanswill election.

It seems, from Mr Michael Gove’s press conference in Glasgow, that Westminster plans to throw money at the Scottish problem. I say immediately, having had the Barnett formula imposed on me as Welsh Secretary, that, if any money goes to Scotland, Wales is likely to demand something similar. The Government are on a dangerous course of reversing devolution if they intend to spend directly in devolved areas. Any new expenditure should be funnelled through, and agreed with, the devolved Governments—otherwise it would be another manifestation of Eatanswill. Ms Sturgeon is right to put another referendum to one side for now. What is proposed is the second referendum in a generation.

I make two further points. First, for years in your Lordships’ House and elsewhere, I have advocated a royal commission or similar mechanism to examine, inter alia, the results of the working of devolution and make proposals for the future governance of the United Kingdom. Secondly, in my recent published book, written in Welsh, I came to the conclusion that, if the demand for a Scottish referendum prevails, I could not see why the Scots should not be given the opportunity to have one. Having a referendum does not, by a long chalk, mean that far-sighted Scotsmen would vote to leave when the economic strength of Scotland is properly weighed and the question of currency and cross-boundary trade is clarified.

Ms Sturgeon may need to be reminded of today’s House of Lords Library calculation: over 2,600,000 people voted for non-unionist parties and over 2,700,000 for unionist parties—a margin against of nearly 50,000. The immediate task is for the Government to make it clear beyond doubt that only through a Section 30 order can a legally binding referendum be permitted, as opposed to the cardinal events in Catalonia in Spain.