United Kingdom: The Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:35 pm on 23rd June 2022.

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Photo of Lord Bruce of Bennachie Lord Bruce of Bennachie Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Scotland) 4:35 pm, 23rd June 2022

It was a valid point, nevertheless.

It is also important that the dimension of England is addressed. We recognise that England is very much the largest component of the union, but it is also very diverse. The shortcomings of governance in England are real, and part of the tensions we are talking about, but a federalism based on English regions is not something that anyone really believes is the way forward.

I am sorry to say this, but it is clear that the union is in no way safe in the hands of this Government under their dysfunctional, incoherent and—frankly—careless leadership—or rather lack of it. As I have said, we all know that a tidy federal solution to the governance of the United Kingdom is not easy to achieve, even if there were a will for it, which there is not. However, that does not excuse us for not striving for a relationship among the component parts of the UK based on consensus, mutual respect, fair shares and, as has been said repeatedly, co-operation—all ultimately reinforced by a legal constitutional settlement and dispute resolution mechanism.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Norton, that it is not about more power; it is about attitude and engagement. However, there must be a backstop with some kind of recourse and dispute resolution mechanism, because we have seen how the UK Government behave without one in relation to the devolved Administrations. I for one, privately, did not think that the vow at the end of the referendum in 2016 was necessary or helpful. I agree that lots of people were voting to stay in the United Kingdom as it was, without necessarily requiring change.

It is also an inescapable fact that the glue—the word used, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane—provided by the EU helped in regard to agreed rules and to secure the Good Friday agreement; after all, the EU is one of its guarantors. It also gave the devolved Administrations and the UK Government a degree of clarity and security. That has all been swept away by the return of EU powers to the UK. I am not trying to reverse that, but it has been aggravated by a ham-handed application, for example, of the internal market Act and, to a lesser extent, the Subsidy Control Act.

I am also a member of the Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee, which is about to agree its final report. When first set out, it appeared that common frameworks offered the way to achieve the kind of partnership within the UK that would build confidence, and they still could. However, it is clear that they are in danger of being downgraded into a simple process rather than being rather more substantial policy agreements allowing for divergence.

Thanks to the excellent report by the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, we have new inter-government agreement, set out this year, which appears to offer a positive way forward, but, again, it depends on the will of the UK Government to apply it in spirit as well as in letter. It depends on that, and the UK Government, as always, have the upper hand. Frankly, the qualities needed are sadly lacking, and when they are not applied, there is no redress. But—and it is a big but—the strains on the union are not all one-way. The agreement signed by the Prime Minister to give appearance to his claim to get Brexit done was flawed at the outset, in terms of Northern Ireland in particular.

The Government’s own website made that clear. On the day during the election campaign when the Prime Minister was categorically denying that there would be extra bureaucracy between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the website showed exactly how much bureaucracy there would be. That was the price for no border on the island of Ireland, and the Government and the Prime Minister knew that. The intransigence of the DUP and the belligerence of the UK Government have aggravated a situation which could be substantially alleviated by an agreement, so the governance of Northern Ireland is stalled and the Good Friday agreement is at risk. I may be biased, but there is one glimmer of hope in this situation, which is the stagnation of support for the two more extreme parties and the strengthening of the middle ground in the form of Alliance—I must point out that it is the Liberal Democrats’ sister party.

It is true that in Wales we have an Administration who clearly want devolution to work—it is important that we acknowledge that—but are frustrated by the attitude of the UK Government to the extent of taking legal action. They have set up their own constitutional committee, and I hope it will come forward with positive proposals designed to secure devolution, not independence. However, if the Government cannot carry opinion in Wales, what hope do they have elsewhere?

Respect needs to be a two-way process. The DUP’s refusal to go back into government lets down the majority of people in Northern Ireland, who require a Government to take decisions. In Scotland, the SNP has shown scant regard for public opinion. Twice in a democratic vote, the people of Scotland have, in effect, supported the devolution settlement which has evolved, yet the SNP has shown no interest in making devolution work. Of course, as has been said, the nationalists campaign for independence, and that is their right, but Scotland has not voted for independence, and by undermining and trashing devolution and United Kingdom co-operation, the SNP is betraying the people of Scotland and letting them down.

The SNP claims it has a mandate for independence, but that is not the case. When the question was asked, independence was rejected, and opinion appears to be settled at about the same level. The coalition with the Greens has a majority and both parties support independence, but it is questionable whether that is really a mandate. The SNP appears to be a champion of first past the post at the moment and has questioned the legitimacy of pro-UK MSPs who are elected from the list, seemingly missing the irony that the Greens are entirely elected from the list. Is the Scottish Green Party a surrogate nationalist party or an environmental campaign party? Either way, its mandate is very unclear.

This raises another strain on the United Kingdom in the shape of an outdated, flawed and less than representative voting system. The SNP secured 3.88% of the UK vote in 2019 and 9% of the seats. The Conservatives secured 43.63% of the vote and 56% of the seats. Labour fell only six seats short of that vote share, and, yes, the Liberal Democrats, with 11% of the vote, secured less than 2% of the seats. This is important because it means that, with its sister party the Alliance, a UK-wide political grouping with three times as many votes as the SNP is severely squeezed in its participation in UK parliamentary business in the House of Commons, and that distorts the balance of the House of Commons, in which SNP MPs, on 45% of the Scottish vote, secured 81% of the Scottish seats. That is neither proportionate nor healthy.

In conclusion, I want to ask the SNP and its followers: “Do you speak Belgian?” I know noble Lords will appreciate the subtlety of that question. The SNP is suggesting to the people of Scotland that they have more in common with a country that has three languages, none of which is English or Belgian, than they do with their fellow citizens elsewhere in the UK. To reinforce this to nationalists, all things British are demeaned and vilified. That is easy when talking about the current Prime Minister, but when applied to values across our culture, it is insidious, nasty, divisive and unjustified.

The by-election today could well demonstrate that the character of the government of the United Kingdom is heading for a change. Destroying a centuries-old arrangement that has served us well, for all its strains, should not depend on the short-term vicissitudes of changing political colours. Politics should be more than demonising your opponents. The SNP has denied the obvious benefits of being part of the UK, and however compromised those are currently, it needs to recognise that a majority still wants the United Kingdom to thrive.