My Lords, I declare my interest as independent reviewer of the UK Government’s union capability.
There is no doubt that the Scottish election results have once again put the union at the heart of our deliberations. Strengthening the union requires urgent attention. However, in searching for solutions, care should be taken not to overreact or adopt drastic changes which could inadvertently destabilise the relationships between the nations and regions of our country.
For all the excitable commentary, the reality is as it was five years ago. Basic questions about the implications of independence remain unanswered. In 2016, Nicola Sturgeon launched a national conversation to build a consensus for independence, yet it can be said with certainty that no such Scottish consensus exists today. The make-up of the Scottish Parliament is much the same as before, as are the broader political calculations. There will not be another independence referendum unless and until those wishing one think that it can be won. For those of us who care about the union, the task is to ensure that that day never comes.
In recent months, remedies offered have ranged from bringing power back to the centre, to offering Scotland so-called devo-max, to proposing federalism, involving the creation of an English Government and parliament. Each brings significant problems. While some may regret it, devolution is popular in Scotland. It is hard to believe that more “Whitehall knows best” will appeal to moderate, middle-of-the road Scots. Nor is the issue that the devolved institutions need more powers. The Scottish Parliament is already one of the most powerful devolved Parliaments in the world. Scotland already has devo-max. Indeed, many of the Scottish Parliament’s powers remain unused. To go further is not necessary and would risk fatally hollowing out the union.
A new tier of English Government, that most people in England do not want, crystallises why federalism will not work here. There is no example anywhere in the world of a successful federation where one part represents over 80% of the whole. It is also hard to see how this idea changes for the better the political weather in Scotland.
A better approach is to concentrate on making devolution work more effectively for all the UK. Devolution is not a failed project, but it is certainly an unfinished project. Over 20 years ago, devolution represented a substantial change to the way in which our country is governed, yet all the attention since has been on the powers of the devolved institutions. The implications of devolution for the centre of UK Government have been neglected. Devolve and forget is, as we have heard, a phenomenon we all recognise. Devolution has been a centrifugal force. The need now is for equivalent reform at the centre to provide better means for bringing the country together.
Covid has demonstrated beyond doubt that, while different tiers of government have distinct responsibilities, each depends on the other to be successful. What is true of a health pandemic is also true when it comes to tackling climate change, economic challenges and many other issues.
What is needed? First, a culture change is needed at the centre of Government, creating a Whitehall more responsive to the distinct needs of different parts of the country. There is no single silver bullet. My report for the Government identified a package of interlocking reforms. Secondly, a transformation is needed in the way the UK Government works with the devolved institutions. The creaking machinery for managing intergovernmental relations needs overhauling, to be less of a fractious talking shop and more a forum for joint decision-making in areas of common interest. I was encouraged by proposals that the Government published alongside my report. It should now be a priority to get this package agreed with the devolved Administrations. It seems to me that all the outstanding areas of disagreement are eminently resolvable.
In conclusion, the UK is the most successful multinational state in the world. It has for centuries been a beacon for people across the globe who have come here to make this beautiful, quirky and argumentative island their home. The UK has succeeded because it has felt for most of its existence like a shared endeavour of four nations. Our mission now is to build once again a co-operative union—a modern, inclusive United Kingdom fit for the 21st century. I am confident that we can.