United Kingdom: The Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:38 pm on 23rd June 2022.

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Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative 3:38 pm, 23rd June 2022

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, in this debate. It is an important debate, and one that takes place from time to time because it is right we should look at the stresses and strains that exist within our constitution and within the different parts of the United Kingdom.

I join the noble Lord in looking forward to the speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn, and his valedictory few words; no doubt that will entertain all of us, and I am very keen to hear it.

We have had nearly 25 years of devolution—enough time for us to get used to it and for it bed down with our constitutional arrangements. But as the noble Lord has just pointed out, we have not done so. The stresses and strains are only too visible and too complicated, and it is clear that it will take considerably more time for them to bed down into a workable proposition.

The noble Lord mentioned his Act of Union Bill, which I regard as a good draft that we can all spend a great deal of time discussing. It is something that Governments should take seriously, because it points to a different intellectual approach to the governance of the country, rather than the one we have now. However, it is extremely hard to pursue that kind of debate politically when, in Scotland at any rate, we have a political party in power which is trying to tear up the United Kingdom as we speak and has so recently pledged itself to having a referendum in the next 12 months.

I will concentrate on Scotland, because I know and understand Scotland better than other parts of the United Kingdom, but some of what I will say has a read-across to the other parts. I will start with the need for co-operation, flagged up very much in the title of the Select Committee’s report. Co-operation seems to me fundamental to the workings of the British constitution, more so than mutual self-respect, which it goes without saying is important.

On co-operation—talking to each other and not doing things deliberately to undermine each other—I will give a very simple and personal example. As we overcame Covid through the use of vaccines, I went to my local GP and received two vaccines, several months apart. I received a certificate in the shape of a letter and then, miraculously, an app appeared on my phone. That was all very well and is an experience shared by most Peers. When it came to the third vaccination, the booster, I was spending a bit more time in London. I walked past a walk-in centre and, seeing no queue, I had it done quickly here. I explained that I was from Scotland and had a Scottish app, and they said, “That shouldn’t be a problem. I’m sure they’re all talking to each other.” No, they were not. There was no hint of co-operation at all and it took another two and a half months to get my Scottish app to recognise that I had already been boosted in England.

Translated many thousands of times, this all undermines the union we are talking about in very practical ways that are very visible to people in Scotland. The census was done differently in Scotland from the rest of the United Kingdom—how utterly daft. The whole point of a census is that it is all done together, yet in Scotland we decided to do it rather differently and have been unable to achieve the kind of results achieved in the rest of the United Kingdom. The price of non-cooperation is unnecessary, expensive and bureaucratic processes, letting down people and affecting how they live. People are crying out for co-operation and that is what we should champion as much as possible.

People such as me who opposed devolution did so because we feared that there would be centralisation in Scotland. I am afraid to say that that is exactly what has happened. Local authorities have had their powers taken away to Edinburgh and the central belt dominates. None of this has done much good for the people of Scotland. Other parts of the United Kingdom can perhaps recognise what has happened.

I should say something about the SNP at this point. The noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, mentioned the noble Lord, Lord Wigley. I have said in the past and say so again today that it would be good for us to have a member of the SNP here. I know the SNP generally have a view that they should not send people here, but I wonder if it is not time for our Prime Minister to seek to do that. It is a voice that we do not hear in the House, but one that we really should have.

I therefore very much welcome the steps taken by the office of the Secretary of State for Scotland to try to fund local authority projects directly, looking at special instances where central money can be spent more wisely, so that devolution would mean real devolution down to local institutions.

There is another outstanding issue, that of tertiary education. If you are a Scottish student, it is very hard to be educated anywhere but in a Scottish university because of the way the funding works. In other words, Scottish students are excluded from the rest of the United Kingdom. This is not a sensible way of going forward. I do not offer a solution to that today, but central government should look at ways for students throughout the United Kingdom to be dealt with fairly.

My time is up. I very much hope that this debate will be taken seriously by the Government and that they will look at ways to strengthen the union.