United Kingdom: The Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:20 pm on 23rd June 2022.

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Photo of Lord Norton of Louth Lord Norton of Louth Conservative 4:20 pm, 23rd June 2022

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, on securing this important debate. Stresses now exist in all four nations of the United Kingdom. My purpose is not to examine the specific stresses, but rather to focus on what needs to be done in response. There are four points I wish to make. In so doing, I will be reinforcing conclusions drawn by the Constitution Committee and the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, in his excellent opening speech.

First, the challenges created in each nation require bespoke responses that are considered and evidence-based. There is a danger of rushing in with a policy that does not meet people’s needs or expectations. A clear example of this was seen during the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. When an opinion poll showed a slight lead for independence, all three main party leaders rushed to Scotland to promise more devolution if Scotland voted to remain in the union. That was clearly premised on the assumption that that was what those who may vote to stay in the union wanted. Survey evidence suggests several different reasons for voting against independence, but that of favouring more devolution hardly figured. The biggest influence was the economic consequence of leaving the union.

Secondly, a reactive approach to the challenges in each nation must be complemented by a proactive UK-wide approach stressing the value of the union. As the Constitution Committee noted in its 2016 report, The Union and Devolution, the Government’s ad hoc approach to devolution had not been matched by any counterbalancing steps to protect the union. The four nations are stronger together. Each one benefits from being part of the kingdom. As the committee emphasised:

“The Union has brought stability, peace and prosperity to the United Kingdom”.

It is vital that the Government stop being on the back foot in dealing with stresses on the union. It must address them but, most importantly of all, if the union is to hold together, the Government must make the case for the union and the benefits it brings to all within it.

Thirdly, picking up on a point that has been stressed already, there needs to be complementarity, or rather comity, in relations between Whitehall and the Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. There is a tendency for Whitehall to act in what has been termed a “grace and favour” way, rather than in one of mutual esteem and participation. As Sir Jeffrey Donaldson told the Constitution Committee, Whitehall tends to see UK issues from an English perspective. There has always been a problem in communicating and in resolving any differences.

When I chaired the Constitution Committee in 2003, we produced a report on inter-institutional relations in the United Kingdom. We argued the case for ensuring that the mechanisms for resolving disputes, not least through the Joint Ministerial Council, remained in working order. Unfortunately, our recommendations were not acted on.

Fortunately, following the Dunlop report, there has now been progress in the form of the review of intergovernmental relations. Reform, though, must extend beyond structures to attitudes. What is needed is encapsulated in the Constitution Committee’s report of this January—to which we have already had reference—appropriately titled Respect and Co-operation: Building a Stronger Union for the 21st Century. As the report says at paragraph 279:

“To deal effectively with and respond to the challenges of governing the United Kingdom in the 21st century, significant culture change is required in Whitehall, including the end of its top-down mindset.”

There needs to be much earlier and more constructive engagement. There needs to be comity.

Fourthly, although the stresses in the four nations require bespoke responses, those responses need to be co-ordinated by a Cabinet Minister with responsibility for the union. As it is, having a Secretary of State for each of the three nations lends itself to seeing their departments as occupying silos—the Constitution Committee has expressed concern at the Government’s tendency to “devolve and forget”—and at times it may not always be clear what the purpose of each department is. I appreciate that there is now a Cabinet committee, the Union Strategy Committee, chaired by the Prime Minister. The fact that he chairs it signifies its importance, but the Prime Minister has many other responsibilities, including chairing eight other Cabinet committees. I appreciate that the Union Policy Implementation Committee is chaired by the Levelling Up Secretary, but he too has other responsibilities. The Dunlop review recommended a Secretary of State for intergovernmental and constitutional affairs. Such a Secretary of State would ensure that a holistic approach was taken to the union and that the needs of the union were heard in Cabinet. The more senior the Minister in the pecking order, the clearer it would be that the Prime Minister is committed to the union.

The stresses facing the union are considerable. By tackling some, there is the danger of creating others. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, emphasised, we have now to address the English question as much as the Scottish one. To tackle the stresses, we need to be on the front foot to take the lead in making the case for the union. We need to be proactive and confident, not reactive and defensive. These are all points made in various reports of the Constitution Committee. The Government should act on them. I trust that my noble friend the Minister will explain in more than broad aspirational terms the Government’s plan to make the case for the union and how leadership will be provided in government, ideally by a Secretary of State for the constitution.

There are obviously other challenges facing the Government, but they cannot afford to take their eye off ensuring that the union of the United Kingdom remains exactly that.