My Lords, I congratulate our maiden speakers on their excellent contributions to the debate. We are really delighted to have them with us. In this final speech from the Back Benches, I will say a few words about the threat to the union from the Scottish National Party.
I am an Englishman, born and brought up in England. None the less, like many of us, I have connections with other parts of the UK; my mother has Scottish connections. Indeed, I remember vividly that, when I was made Health Minister in the John Major Government, the Chief Medical Officer at the time was Kenneth Calman—subsequently Sir Kenneth Calman, chairman of the Commission on Scottish Devolution. He came into my office and said, “Minister, are any members of your family medical professionals?” He was clearly fishing. I said, “Well, yes, there are quite a few actually; indeed, one of my relatives is a GP in Cambuslang”—if that is how you pronounce it. I said, “Not only that, my mother is part Scottish”, and mentioned her maiden name. He said, “Do you realise, Minister, that your mother’s family are hereditary physicians to the Lords of the Isles?” I have no idea whether this incredibly venerable position actually exists except in his romantic imagination. I assume all Scots are romantic by nature; perhaps not.
The SNP is, of course, a serious threat, but I believe we have a number of positive things going for us. The first is time. One year, maybe two or three years, is the sort of time we have available to come back with some strategy—and, my heavens, we need to do that.
Secondly, the economic penalties of independence have become much more apparent. One is well aware from the Brexit debates that things like Project Fear and all the rest of it matter little when questions of emotion come into play. But on any sensible analysis, the situation for Scotland is far worse than the UK’s was in relation to the European Union. For example, the whole question of currency or the funding of the public sector are issues which did not face the UK when we left the European Union. I think we can also use these obvious problems to flesh out exactly what they mean by independence. There are many unanswered questions which we should force them, on the defensive, to answer. Surely we cannot have another debate as ignorant in many ways as the Brexit debate was; surely we have learned something from that.
Thirdly, there is the opportunity to change the terms of the debate. The Prime Minister started this with his call for all four leaders to meet to discuss post-pandemic planning—team UK, et cetera. Gordon Brown followed this up with a suggestion of a meeting of national and regional leaders, and this could be built on. After all, we have the great advantage of the unwritten constitution; we can do things with it without having to go through the due legal process of a written constitution. So why do we not make this meeting of the four leaders of the four nations a regular occurrence with a regular agenda, going through the various capital cities, with a different chairman each time? Obviously, there are dangers in this. There are risks involved in that sort of thing—for example, the opportunity for grandstanding. We all know what politicians are like. There is the opportunity for needless disagreement, point scoring, et cetera. Indeed, some people may simply not turn up. There are also problems for the UK. If we are serious about giving this sort of influence to the four leaders, it will inevitably impinge on things which are, at the moment, purely UK responsibilities. They will have influence in other areas beyond devolution and the devolved powers.
But if we are serious about working as four nations together, this is an opportunity to build up something which has really creative potential—the noble Lord, Lord Lea of Crondall, made a similar point just now. If we can get everyone to understand that there could be a productive and co-operative balance between the four nations and that there is a better alternative, both in terms of security and the balance of freedom and security against the upheaval and uncertainty offered by the SNP, there is something here which could be sensibly put forward.
Finally, we should also remember that, even after all this time and all the work by the SNP to change opinion, it is still 50:50 between staying and leaving. Indeed, I saw recently in an opinion poll that independence is only eighth in the list of priorities of the Scottish people. So with the possibility of leaders like Gordon Brown and Ruth Davidson and a whole host of excellent MSPs in Scotland, we have the opportunity of setting out a clear way of co-operating between the four nations—but we have to start on it very soon.