Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:25 pm on 13th May 2021.

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Photo of Lord Elder Lord Elder Labour 5:25 pm, 13th May 2021

My Lords, I also congratulate the two new Members of your Lordships’ House on their outstanding contributions, and we look forward to hearing from them again in the future—I hope in a rather fuller House in the not-too-distant future, when we get past the current Covid problems, when the atmosphere will be somewhat different.

I will speak a bit about Scotland. The last referendum, which rejected independence, was said by the then SNP Government to be a “once in a generation” event. Generations seem to be getting rather shorter. We are bound to have a further vote—I understand that—but I want to try to set out the context of what the next vote should perhaps look at.

I have always been in favour of devolution; unfortunately, the SNP Government are not, and not just because they believe in independence. I believe in devolution and that as much power as possible should have been moved from London to Edinburgh—it was—and from Edinburgh to local government and other organisations, but it certainly has not been. They have not just left it where it was; they have dragged everything back into the centre, and that is just bad government.

It is always very uncomfortable if you are from one party and find that a bit of the country voted for someone else, but, for goodness’ sake, if they are running their own local services, why should they not have their own people doing it? It seems to me that that is an essential flaw in some of the things that the SNP stand for: they want to have all their power centralised—end of story. That needs to be stressed, and stopped.

The referendum in which I was most closely involved was the one that set up the Scottish Parliament. It was preceded by a White Paper that was written at great speed—although, in fairness, we had been drafting it in opposition for about 20 years—and that set out, in great detail, the powers and responsibilities of the new Parliament and how it was going to operate. My concern about another referendum is that it will simply be on the issue of whether or not Scotland wants to be independent. Unless it is backed up by equally detailed papers, saying what the powers and consequences will be, I do not see how Scotland can genuinely make a decision.

This will sound as though I am trying to put obstacles in its way, but, for goodness’ sake, if Scotland is going to be independent, there must be something produced by the Government that says things like: what the currency will be; how the undoubted budget deficit that the Scottish Government, like every other Government, will have will be financed; who will be issuing the paper; who will have the central banking role; what the border will look like; how trade going to Europe will cope with two borders—it has had trouble with one; and some of the fishery matters. It seems to me that all of these things have to be spelt out. That is not with a view to trying to block things; it is to say that, actually, Scotland is an intelligent country—we have been through all sorts of things and are the home of the Enlightenment —and, for goodness’ sake, we ought to be honest and straightforward about the consequences of some of the things that will occur. It seems to me that that is the absolute bare minimum that we should stress.

We should also find out what on earth we will do about defence. I say that because there are an awful lot of defence assets in Scotland. Some people do not regard them as assets, but, considering Rosyth, Faslane, Coulport and the RAF bases in the north-east, is Scotland really going to say that it will turn its back on NATO? Is it really going to say that, if it is an independent country, it will stop co-operating on defence with the rest of the United Kingdom? Where does that leave Scotland? It does not naturally come to mind as a neutral country; that is not what our historic reputation suggests. This is a huge issue that is difficult for a lot of people to face up to, but, for goodness’ sake, we have to be realistic.

Of course, finally, there is the matter of EU membership. I have always been very sceptical about the EU’s enthusiasm for encouraging bits of countries, even former member countries, to join separately. There are an awful lot of bits of European countries with histories as long as Scotland’s: Catalonia, the Basque country and lots of Italy and other places, which would really quite like to be there as separate states. For that reason, Europe’s enthusiasm for accepting Scotland as a separate state will not be as great as Scotland would like to think.