United Kingdom: Union - Motion to Take Note

– in the House of Lords at 11:56 am on 14 March 2024.

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Lord McInnes of Kilwinning:

Moved by Lord McInnes of Kilwinning

That this House takes note of the case for strengthening and safeguarding the union of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Lord McInnes of Kilwinning Lord McInnes of Kilwinning Conservative

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to open this debate on the union. I refer to my interest in the register as a constitutional adviser to the Secretary of State for Scotland.

I am particularly pleased that today’s debate furnishes my noble friend Lord Cameron of Lochiel with an opportunity to answer for the Government and to give his maiden speech. It is my privilege to have been able to call my noble friend a true friend as we have experienced the highs and lows of life as Scottish Conservatives and Unionists over the last two decades. My noble friend’s forebears as clan chief would, I am certain, have joined your Lordships’ House if not for their principled commitment to the Jacobite cause in the past. I am glad that, in the year of our Lord 2024, this objection has been overcome, not least because of the very deserved appointment of my noble friend. It seems fitting that his maiden speech will be on this never-ending question of the strength of the union. As a former Member of the Scottish Parliament, he will bring great wisdom on the issues of devolved politics to your Lordships’ House.

I am also delighted to have such a wealth of speakers in this debate from across our United Kingdom. I am sure they will bring forward a number of positive suggestions as to how to strengthen our United Kingdom in all its parts. That very much needs to be also from the English and, dare I say it, in looking forward to the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, the Cumbrian perspective as well. I apologise in advance to colleagues from Wales that I will focus my remarks on Scotland and Northern Ireland. That is not to say that much of what I have to say cannot apply equally to Wales, but I wanted to concentrate on the two areas where a perceived fragility in the union is often identified—such is my sunny disposition. I am therefore very pleased to see the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, who will, I am sure, help properly ensure that our debate is inclusive of Wales. I also look forward to the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee, who, despite the excitement of much of the London media, was actually the first female First Minister of Northern Ireland.

As a former member of your Lordships’ Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee and a former Number 10 union special adviser, I could have been tempted to discuss at length the importance of intergovernmental relations, the structures of devolution, the importance of my noble friend Lord Dunlop’s excellent review into intergovernmental relations and the essential nature of the UK Government’s programme of direct financial intervention through levelling up and other schemes, all of which I agree are absolutely necessary to maintain and make the argument for the union. However, to me, these are the physics of the strength of the United Kingdom, and today I want to talk about the chemistry.

I want to start my remarks by quoting a former Member of this House, the author and unionist MP John Buchan, later Lord Tweedsmuir, who in 1932 said:

“I believe that every Scotsman should be a Scottish Nationalist. If it could he proved that a separate Scottish Parliament were desirable, that is to say that the merits were greater than the disadvantages and dangers, Scotsmen should support it”.—[Official Report, Commons, 24/11/1932; col. 261.]

In this age, it is difficult to appreciate how someone whose very political identity was unionist—a unionism formed around Irish unionism—could make such a bold and seemingly contradictory assertion. However, that statement is not as contradictory as it first appears; in fact, it may offer a glimpse of how the union can be strengthened over the next 10 to 20 years.

A stocktake of the union may seem to some to be a fool’s errand from a unionist perspective when one considers the apparent, if superficial, fragility of the union in both Scotland and Northern Ireland over the last decade. In both, a demographic inevitability is often cited in favour of Scottish independence and Irish unity. In Scotland over that decade, British identity has plummeted while political nationalism has dominated the Scottish political scene. Perhaps that is soon to change, but the SNP was seemingly only strengthened by the referendum defeat in 2014. In Northern Ireland, meanwhile, the assumption that demographic change could lead to a nationalist majority seems at first glance fulfilled with the Sinn Féin primacy at the ballot box and a Sinn Féin First Minister. That is the sunny disposition coming out.

However, regarding the future of the United Kingdom in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, public opinion and party-political support should not be confused. Yes, since 2014 Scotland has been divided almost equally on the desirability of an independent Scotland, however—not to sound like the BBC—despite the foretold supposed kryptonite powers of both Brexit and my former boss Boris Johnson, that parity has not changed. Most importantly, the number of people who want an independence referendum now is less than half of those who favour an independent Scotland. Only yesterday, a poll showed that independence as a priority for Scottish voters is at its lowest level ever. It is no wonder that Nicola Sturgeon probably felt she had run out of road—as well as for various other reasons with which I shall not detain your Lordships this afternoon.

In Northern Ireland, support for Irish unity remains stubbornly stuck at 30%, with the fastest-growing demographic groups—self-identified Northern Irish and “neither unionist nor nationalist”—favouring remaining in the UK by 2:1. As we also know, the number supporting Irish unity diminishes as people consider the disruption and changed public services that would result.

Should those who support the union therefore enjoy a feeling of complacency about the continuation of the status quo? The answer is clearly no. While the current level of support for the union seems broadly stable in Scotland and Northern Ireland, in Northern Ireland most people see unity as inevitable when asked and traditional political unionism appears to be in retreat. At the same time, despite the fact that the SNP is now going through its own political travails, support for independence remains stubbornly stuck at 50%, with support among young people very high. Political uncertainty and a reaction against disruption and existential change have provided the union in Scotland and in Northern Ireland with a strategic breathing space of which the UK Government and those who support the union must take advantage. That is why John Buchan’s words in 1932 now seem so prescient: the union needs a new identity.

Born in 1875, John Buchan was the epitome of British imperial unionism. He was to serve as Governor General of Canada as well as being a unionist MP. However, if one looks at the unionism he celebrated, it was a union of diversity. In the Houses of Parliament, we see the English rose, the Irish harp and the Scottish thistle equally displayed—a display of diversity, difference and national pride. It was not some uniform symbol of British national identity that we would see, for example, in France at the same time. Even at its international height, the strength of the United Kingdom came from its diversity and not a desire for uniformity or what would now be called “muscular unionism”, where only the union flag, Britannia and related symbols can be deployed to argue for the union.

Some unionists may regret that the union is not to be saved by even more red, white and blue. They will be disappointed by what they will portray as my weak-kneed approach to the union’s cultural identity. There is, though, often a disproportionate relationship between those who did least in the 2014 Scottish referendum, when the future of our country was under existential threat, and their now fervent muscular unionism. The very idea that this approach will do anything other than alienate from the union the broadly younger and forward-looking median voters for whom the constitution is not a priority seems to me obvious. Yes, unionists must be able to celebrate their sense of Britishness as they see fit—I always will—but for the state to try to enforce a false Britishness on people who are currently, on balance, in favour of the United Kingdom would be counterproductive at best.

That means that the First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland reaching out to celebrate all Northern Ireland’s identities and cultures should be celebrated, and not pilloried as we have seen over the last fortnight from some quarters. Reaching out to all communities was something that the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, was a trailblazer in during her time as First Minister and it is surely the very essence of unionism. One need only look at how much damage the nationalist cause in Scotland has done to itself by using government as an extension of its narrow vision of Scottish nationalism. Unionists should rejoice that the SNP has chosen to do so. By refusing to engage with those who disagree with it or understand their views, the SNP has only helped secure the integrity of the United Kingdom. There is a lesson for all of us in this.

The danger to the union, both in Scotland and Northern Ireland, is a radicalised, nostalgic, reductive unionism of the last resort, where speaking forcefully about the union in a way that is completely disconnected from the priorities of real people does little to strengthen it. Too often, those of us who support the union assume that others see the world as we do, through that prism. A new train service to Glasgow or Cardiff, if it happens, should be celebrated by the United Kingdom Government because it improves connectivity and not because, as all too often department press officers are told to say, “It’s good for the union”. Immediately, a cynical public assume that the UK Government make an investment not for the betterment of all their citizens but for some distant and disconnected political term. Constantly using the word “union”—as we are doing in today’s debate, very helpfully—and not pursuing policies that strengthen the union does nothing other than tick a box. Supporting the union should always be about actions in real people’s lives and not political polemic. A United Kingdom responding to its people’s priorities across the United Kingdom is the very best way to secure that United Kingdom.

Of course the constitutional settlement must be upheld, and I applaud the UK Government for doing so over the recent gender reform issue in Scotland, but it should not be done for political partisanship. I find it odd that some of the most vociferous commentators concerned about the Scottish Government engaging in reserved areas did not have the same concerns when a Labour/Liberal Democrat Administration were doing exactly the same thing.

Instead, the United Kingdom should play to its strengths and go with the groove in both Scotland and Northern Ireland. That means ensuring in Northern Ireland—this will go down very well with some contributors to the debate—that the “best of both worlds” economic advantage of being in the UK and EU single markets is fully utilised. The UK Government should not be mealy-mouthed about the Windsor agreement and the return of Stormont, which has the support of the vast majority of unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland, as evidenced only this week in Liverpool University’s Institute of Irish Studies poll.

The UK Government should be doing all they can to ensure that Northern Ireland can build on the dynamism unleashed since the Good Friday/Belfast agreement. Let us make Belfast and Derry/Londonderry the tech hubs of the UK, using all the human resource and higher education network the UK has to offer. For too long, the view of the UK Government has been that “Northern Ireland is different”. We need to properly invest the leverage that the UK has. In Scotland, we should work with the Scottish Government and local authorities to ensure that the economic leverage of the UK builds on its energy past to become the renewable superpower of the world while we maximise the continuing opportunities of the North Sea.

John Buchan would have approved of the strength of the UK being used to build and strengthen the success of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, making them ever more vibrant and successful parts of their country. These steps and this progress will then in turn make people even more risk averse to constitutional change, but in a positive, confident way—not the politics of financial transaction and “project fear”. For the union to build on its current structural stability, it needs to culturally change its attitude from fighting seeming inevitability to embracing diversity, returning to the roots of a successful and dynamic United Kingdom, where identity is not subsumed but celebrated—the chemistry complementing the physics.

Photo of Lord Lilley Lord Lilley Conservative 12:11, 14 March 2024

My Lords, it is a great privilege to follow—and slightly unexpected to follow immediately —the noble Lord, Lord McInnes of Kilwinning, who has made an extremely thoughtful and valuable speech in opening this debate. I expected to follow the noble Lord, Lord Parekh, and I am sorry that he has had to scratch because, as the author of a distinguished report on multiculturalism, he would have had much to contribute to this debate, I am sure. I want to contribute very briefly from a partly English perspective to this debate about the union and emphasise that we should not merely strengthen it but celebrate it.

I always feel slightly uneasy when I hear the term that has come into vogue only over the last few years of us being four nations. I have always thought of us as one nation—certainly of one union. Though membership of that union is ultimately voluntary—“the King has no unwilling subjects” is an old maxim—we should not passively say, “Well, it is up to you”. We should say, “We rejoice in the membership of all four parts of this union, which makes this union as great as it is”. Certainly, as someone who was brought up to be proud of my rather remote Scottish ancestry on my mother’s side, I know it would feel like losing a limb if Scotland were to ever leave. Although any Irish ancestry I have is even more remote, it would feel similar if Northern Ireland were to be separated from us.

Philosophers and politicians have debated what makes a nation. Certainly ideas that it could be based on some single thing like common race or even common language have long since rightly been discarded. It is a whole range of things that unite people and create a sense of being one nation or one union: common language, common religious and cultural history, and common ancestry—certainly all the historical events that go into our background and forge our memories are important. Particularly, of course, nations and unions are very often forged in war, as ours have been. The sacrifices made by people from all parts of that union in the great battles and wars of the last century unite us by sacrifice and loss of blood. No one can forget the sacrifice made voluntarily by those of Northern Ireland—and of course the huge contributions from Scotland and Wales as well as England.

Above all, Britain is unique in being bound particularly by common institutions: the monarchy, this sovereign Parliament, our common-law traditions—of course, Scotland has its own law but it is simultaneously a common law and a different tradition—which unite us in a way that few other countries can claim to be united. I did not even visit Scotland until my early 20s or Northern Ireland until my late 20s. When I did go over to Northern Ireland during the Troubles—in fact, studying the Troubles—I felt simultaneously that it was different and home. I felt I was at one with the people I met, even though I had an enormous amount to learn from them and about different traditions that prevailed there. That is why it is very different from the fact I have had a holiday home in France for nearly 40 years and have spent a month or two a year there. It is always a different country; whereas all parts of this union seem to me part of my home and the people bound to me. Much as I love France and the French, it will always be a different country.

We should celebrate our union and strengthen it but recognise too that it has an economic basis which we must not allow to be weakened by the arrangements that have been set up in the North Sea. I hope that they will be so diluted that they do not weaken it. Our job is to make this union something we all want to belong to, feel enthusiastic about and be warm towards each other—warm enough, of course, to be rude and make jokes about each other. That positive approach, that sunny optimism with which the noble Lord, Lord McInnes of Kilwinning, began the debate, is something we should all share and rejoice in.

Photo of Lord Bew Lord Bew Crossbench 12:16, 14 March 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, for introducing this debate in the style with which he has. Much of what I say—indeed, all of what I say—is operating emotionally at a similar level.

In the last few days we have lost Lord McAvoy. I want briefly to pay tribute to him. His life embodied one of the many complex trajectories characteristic of the union, in his sympathies and his background as a Labour politician in Scotland. I recall with pleasure one exchange. A few years ago Sinn Féin had issued a statement and the Labour Party—actually, the Labour Government—did not like it and he said to me, “We are very cross with Sinn Féin and now we are going to send a very low-level delegation to its party conference to indicate how cross we are”. I said, “Oh, really, Lord McAvoy?”, and he said, “Yes. Me!” We will miss him.

I remember writing in the Sunday Times in the immediate aftermath of Brexit in January 2019, when the mood at the paper in many articles—including, to a degree, my own—was to the effect that Brexit may have triumphed but might now well destroy the union. There is no question that, for example, in some of the polling at that time—indeed, I was commenting in an article on that issue—you could see the rise of support for Irish unity within Northern Ireland, and similar things were being said about Scotland. Both Northern Ireland and Scotland had, after all, voted to a very large degree against Brexit.

Things today are considerably more stable. The Royal Irish Academy polling from Dublin—the ARINS project—would seem to indicate a substantial long-term lead for the union in Northern Ireland. It is arguable that it is probably the best polling we have. Again, in Scotland, many people feel that the union has been strengthened—I will return to this—by the collapse of the leadership of the Scottish National Party.

There is a point here that is sometimes missed: the sheer complexity and misery of the debates on leaving the EU, in this House and the other place. Even the most enthusiastic supporters of Brexit acknowledge that there were difficulties that nobody anticipated, along with the miseries, the points of discussion, the anguish. There is no question about that. That ended a relationship of a few decades, but I think there is a public sense that, if you start to end a constitutional relationship that is far more detailed—lasting for 224 years in the case of Northern Ireland—the mess and anguish that will set in for the next few years will make the Brexit debate and its miseries look like a tea party. I really think that, in that strange way, the Brexit debate has not, in the end, weakened the union.

I want to make one point about the connection between Scottish nationalism and Ireland. This week, the leader of the Scottish nationalists came to London to speak at the LSE. Once again, he returned to what used to be very fashionable in Scottish nationalism: the greatness of the Irish example and what an independent Scotland could do. Up to 2007, this was called the Atlantic arc. Then Ireland went bust in 2008 and suddenly, everybody forgot the Atlantic arc and how wonderful that was. Now Ireland is again doing wonderfully well, with remarkable growth rates, so it has become permissible again for Scottish nationalism to flirt with the idea that Ireland shows it will be okay. This is regardless of the fact that the sort of economists Scottish nationalists tend to like on other issues—the big-name economists such as Krugman, Stiglitz and Piketty—are all critics of the Irish model of development, which they all regard, in a certain sense, as dubious. It is worth noting that the EU Tax Observatory’s Global Tax Evasion Report 2024, published in January, has a tone that would make any Scottish nationalist who studied it carefully realise that, whatever happens with respect to Ireland’s still extremely interesting tax policies—extremely complex and, in some people’s eyes, extremely dubious—there is absolutely no possibility that Scotland, as a new member of the EU, would be allowed to play the same game.

There is one other thing that ought to be stressed. We are proud in England that the PISA rates for educational performance have risen in the last few years, against the expected trend. So it is too with the Irish Republic. After the crash, it was told by the big American firms, “You think your education system is great? It’s not so great—you have to do better”. There was a clear, serious response to that on the part of the Irish Republic. Education is one of the mysteries of devolution: we assumed it would work well, but the performance of the devolved regions, particularly Wales and Scotland, is strikingly unimpressive. Again, if Scotland is paying attention to Ireland, the reality is that Ireland did, in one way, pull itself up by its own bootstraps.

I turn to the resolution and the very welcome return, in my view, of the functioning Good Friday institutions in Northern Ireland. After the major negotiating setbacks embodied in the 2017 joint report with the EU and the first draft of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, there has been a slow and steady struggle to get to the point we have finally got to and to take the poison of Brexit out of Northern Irish politics. This involved, among a number of things, insisting that the Good Friday agreement was based not on something called an Ireland economy but on the co-operation of two economies—north and south—and insisting that a harmonious east-west relationship between Belfast and London was important. Another crucial part of the international agreement is that the UK Government, being the sovereign Government, cannot leave a political community in a state of alienation.

These were the key points that lay at the heart of what has been, in one shape or another, five long years of negotiation to get these institutions up and running. People talked about Britain’s—or London’s—neglect of Northern Ireland, but this was a huge labour of patience and hard work. Even those in Northern Ireland who criticise it and believe it does not go far enough acknowledge that it was a serious attempt to deal with the problem, in so far as it could be dealt with.

There is no doubt in my mind that if, after continuing on the basis of the DUP leader having enunciated seven tests, he had then said, “No, we didn’t quite mean that; we meant something else more extensive”, it would have been disastrous for the union. He did not do that, to his credit; he said, “These are my seven tests, and we now have enough progress on those”, and he did not introduce a new agenda. There is no doubt that it would have been disastrous for the union if many Northern Ireland Catholics had continued to believe, not without reason, that the unionists had not accepted the outcome of an election result, which was under their rules, essentially, and not accepted the first Sinn Féin First Minister. It is very good that those poisons have been removed from the union, and it is now clear that it is possible to develop the politics of Northern Ireland along more progressive lines.

Finally, I find myself slightly surprised to be supporting this Motion, because I am certain that I am the only Member of your Lordships’ House who was once a member of Sinn Féin, then the Workers’ Party, and then the Democratic Left, which played a very important role in the Bruton Government in the mid-1990s and opened up contact with Belfast, which no previous Irish Government had done. I am proud of that connection and, in the aftermath of the death of John Bruton, I pay tribute to the work that he did. Without him, there would not, in my view, have been a successful negotiation of the Good Friday agreement, because trust was built up. But that has now evaporated. The trust that used to exist between leaders in Dublin and in Belfast has evaporated and needs to be radically reconstructed.

The recent referendum in Dublin, which was a startling defeat for the whole political class—the opposition as well as the governing parties—reveals that they do know even their own people. What is certain is that, if we are going to have Irish unity at any stage, it has to be based on a level of understanding between north and south. We are nowhere near that at this point. That is one reason why I am very happy to support the Motion.

Photo of Lord Dodds of Duncairn Lord Dodds of Duncairn DUP 12:26, 14 March 2024

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bew. What he has just said about his political journey is a reflection of the complexities of Northern Ireland politics and indicates how far many people have travelled in their support for the union and their acceptance of the arrangements set out through the St Andrews agreement and, before that, the Belfast agreement, as has now been amended by the consensual approach of unionists and nationalists. I also join the noble Lord in paying tribute to the late Lord McAvoy, who I had pleasure of working with in the other place for many, many years. For obvious reasons, he did not speak very much in the Chamber, but he was the consummate politician. I remember he told me once that he was a fervent Celtic supporter, which of course did not go down so well in certain quarters in Northern Ireland. He said, “But I keep myself right—I have some shares in Rangers”. He knew how to operate very well in Northern Ireland

I also welcome the Minister to his place and look forward to hearing his maiden speech. I thank the noble Lord, Lord McInnes of Kilwinning, for initiating this debate and for the way in which he introduced it. We have had some very thoughtful contributions; I hope I do not spoil the atmosphere in any shape or form. I look forward to hearing from others today.

The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, spoke about what we have in common across the United Kingdom, and he is so right in that. There is a sense in which, when we travel to different parts of the United Kingdom, we feel at home in those parts, even though there are big differences in culture, attitudes, history and so on, but there is a commonality. That is why I am a believer in devolution, and always have been. When unionism had a big debate between integration and devolution, I and others in our party were strong devolutionists. We believed in having that difference reflected in a way that would allow people to have their own policies—laws, even, in certain areas—but also be bound together as part of one United Kingdom. I still believe that that is the way forward. I accept that people want to see devolution in Northern Ireland. Our point is that it should operate on a proper democratic basis that respects the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom. I will maybe say a word or two about that before I conclude, as noble Lords would expect me to do.

I believe in devolution and, as has been said, that there is a difference between party-political support, in terms of unionism and nationalism, and the general support of the populace—in Northern Ireland in particular—for the union. The noble Lord, Lord McInnes, has dealt with that point. There are issues for political unionism parties in Northern Ireland in addressing that and moving it forward, and gaining more and more support at the polls.

I have no doubt that there is still a very strong majority in Northern Ireland for the United Kingdom. Some of the propaganda and arguments that are put forward are not based on reality. I see that at the St Patrick’s celebrations in the United States this week, Sinn Féin has once again taken out advertisements, as it does in St Patrick’s week, calling for an immediate border poll. Even Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, has debunked this and said that there is no support for it, and I am glad he has done so. But this is not the way forward; we have just restored devolution and if Sinn Féin is serious about what it says, what is it doing stirring this up in the United States? It is a completely wrong approach.

However, I will say, in terms of the Irish Republic—and the noble Lord, Lord Bew, touched on this—that there has to be respect for the basis on which we have a political settlement in Northern Ireland, and for the three-stranded approach. The internal affairs of Northern Ireland—that there is a north-south dimension and an east-west dimension—are a matter for the people of Northern Ireland, the parties and the United Kingdom Government. The UK Government need to be quite robust in defending that, and there have been recent signs of this over legacy, including the pushback against Dublin’s legal claim on the legacy legislation. This week in Washington, Leo Varadkar talked about reform of the Northern Ireland Stormont institutions, and when that should happen. With the greatest respect, that is deeply destabilising to the politics of Northern Ireland and should be robustly rebuked by the UK Government.

This debate has been very positive. In a previous speech a week or two ago in your Lordships’ House, I referenced the positivity of the union and its important advantages for the people of Northern Ireland, and our many massive contributions—for example, to the Armed Forces, and that of the Harland & Wolff shipyard to industry—to the progress of the United Kingdom and to our history. But it is important to say that there is a concern among unionists today about the Windsor Framework—the Northern Ireland protocol. There has been a consensus in unionism that it has been damaging and wrong. I note what the noble Lord, Lord Bew, said about where we are at in all of this, but there are those who are concerned that a United Kingdom should not have internal customs and trade borders within it.

The recent Command Paper contains a lot of things which in and of themselves are positive, such as the east-west council and InterTrade UK, but the reason they are there is to mitigate a fundamental problem. The Select Committee on which I have the honour to serve took evidence yesterday from Steve Baker, the Cabinet Office and NIO Minister, in which he said, “Oh no, don’t worry about the border in the Irish Sea because, if you compare it with other international borders across the world, it is not as bad as any of them—it is nothing like them”. But that is not the point; we should be comparing it with borders between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—between parts of the United Kingdom.

There is no other country that I can see which has a situation where it is divided in such a fundamental way, in terms of customs and trade, and in relation to the imposition of foreign laws by a foreign political entity in its interests, without the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland—whether they be unionist, nationalist or other—having the opportunity to make, develop and amend those laws, or even to say yes or no if there is a change in them. That has to be addressed in the long term; it is an unsustainable position. It would be remiss of us if, while talking about all the other issues in this debate, we did not highlight that point and say it is an issue that must be resolved in a satisfactory way which restores democracy and UK sovereignty to part of the United Kingdom.

Photo of Baroness Goldie Baroness Goldie Lord in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip) 12:35, 14 March 2024

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to speak about the union and to listen to the experience and wisdom of my noble friend Lord McInnes of Kilwinning, whom I thank for securing this debate. I welcome my noble friend the Minister to his place on the Front Bench; he will be an asset to both the Government and this House, and I am only sorry that our gain has to be the Scottish Parliament’s loss.

I too pay tribute to Lord McAvoy, a formidable politician and doughty unionist. I used to greet him with that Glaswegian salutation, “Hoy, handsome”, to which he would give me the standard Glaswegian response, “Hello, petal”. I am going to miss him.

I take it as a given in this Chamber that there is both overwhelming support for the union and recognition of the benefits it brings. I am a Scot and I was an MSP for 17 years, a Westminster Government Whip for three years and a Defence Minister for over four years, so it is through that prism of personal experience that I view the union. I am also a member of this House’s Constitution Committee, which is currently looking at the governance of the union, so I shall not tread on its territory; let me come in under the broad umbrella of the title of this debate.

Is the union some abstract constitutional structure, defined by the devolution settlements? No, it is not. I agree with my noble friend Lord Lilley: the union is a vivant, sentient organism which connects all of us across the United Kingdom, reflected by an intricate political tapestry of a sovereign Parliament at Westminster and devolved legislatures of different political hues in Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff.

Do I see devolution as I saw it when I entered the Scottish Parliament in 1999? Absolutely not. I thought then that it was a neatly defined jigsaw, part of which was marked “reserved” for Westminster, part of which was marked “devolved”, belonging to Holyrood. The temptation was to create a devolution silo: “We know what is ours and we will get on with it; Westminster, you know what is yours and you get on with it”. Now it is unrecognisably different: there are enhanced devolved powers, increased competences and, of course, the consequences of Brexit, with Northern Ireland being a particular example, as has already been so eloquently described.

I now see devolution as a distribution of powers across the union, not a cascade of powers down from one part of the union. Westminster is, of course, still a sovereign Parliament and the devolved parliaments have defined competences, but there can be no silos. I consider we need an attitude framed by constitutional partnership rather than constitutional stand-off. With that change of culture, we shall strengthen and safeguard the union. Even political regimes driven by separatism understand a positive partnership and that culture can deliver mutual benefit for their devolved territories.

Do we have the necessary engagement frameworks across the United Kingdom to facilitate a partnership attitude? The early frameworks were fairly rudimentary and they were not required to be stress-tested. At Westminster there was a Labour Government, in Cardiff a Labour Government, and in Edinburgh a Labour/Liberal Democrat Executive. The Labour boys—because mostly it was the boys—simply picked up the phone and spoke to each other, so it all worked fine. For understandable reasons, Northern Ireland was different.

Let me focus on Scotland. In 2007 it elected a devolved SNP Government with a fundamentally different political objective from the Westminster Government’s. I was leader of the Scottish Conservatives at the time, and I had to work with the minority Government to get policies I supported delivered. Alex Salmond had to work with me. I believe there was a mutual respect, a relationship born out of pragmatism. The SNP entrenched its position in 2011 with an overall majority, which led to an unsuccessful referendum. That devolved SNP incumbency starting in 2007 threw up something unexpected about political and personal relationships, which I shall shortly come to.

The frameworks that structure the intergovernmental engagement have been modernised and are very different to what we started with. Importantly, the new version includes a dispute resolution mechanism. Further than that I shall leave to the Constitution Committee and to the deliberations of this House.

What constitutes a threat to the union? Obviously, it is political parties that want separation. They are visible and their arguments audible. We can manage that political and if necessary electoral pressure—we have done it in Scotland. That is not the threat that I fear. There is a more insidious and less visible threat: failing to understand that our constitutional structures do not exist in aspic. They evolve and breathe life into devolution. They need usage and, like any machine, lubrication. Unless they are approached with sensitivity, respect and, as I argued earlier, an attitude of constitutional partnership, we may by default preside over a systemic weakening of our constitutional structures, corroding the very union that I and others so strongly support.

Knowing the threat, how do we counter it? A partial answer is the engagement frameworks and structures. The remainder of the answer, without which the frame-works and structures are meaningless, is relationships. They are the lubricant, and they are pivotal.

In the other place, the Scottish Affairs Select Committee is conducting an inquiry into 25 years of devolution. Alex Salmond gave fascinating evidence to the committee, which I shall paraphrase. As First Minister in 2007, for the short time that he overlapped with Tony Blair, he was unable to have a single conversation with him. When Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, he spoke to him on his first day in office, and the joint ministerial plenary was re-established, as were other meetings. Alex Salmond went on to say that the situation improved again under David Cameron—all of which confirms that having different political parties with deeply diverging objectives in government, whether at Westminster or in a devolved Government, is not per se a bar to relationships.

My final question—perhaps the most important—is how we construct and nurture these relationships. They need to be cross-government in the inter- governmental sense, but they can also be cross- Parliament. As an MSP, I would have welcomed more UK Government Ministers appearing before Scottish Parliament committees. They could share experience and enhance knowledge. In my opinion, Westminster committees should not be shy about reciprocating that facility. In an intergovernmental sense, from Westminster they can involve the Prime Minister, territorial Secretaries of State and Government Ministers across Whitehall, but none of this will work without personal investment in taking the time to get to know devolved counterparts and regularly engaging with them. That is how you sense and pre-empt trouble.

In the MoD, I was the Minister responsible for engagement with the devolved Governments in relation to defence issues. I had a very constructive call with Wales’s First Minister, Mark Drakeford, and very useful engagement with Minister Hannah Blythyn. For Scotland I engaged constructively with Ministers Graeme Dey and Keith Brown. We had different political objectives, but with the importance of the MoD to Wales and Scotland in terms of economic contribution, jobs and skills, we had compelling common interests to discuss, and they delivered mutual benefit. I was not interested in what rank of Minister I spoke to; all that mattered was who had the knowledge to inform our conversation. Now, for all I know, maybe Mark, Hannah, Graeme and Keith thought I was an imperious old bat—but it did not come over that way.

I had a very constructive visit to Northern Ireland last year, meeting senior civil servants and business leaders and visiting Harland & Wolff to better understand how we in the MoD could make a positive contribution to Northern Ireland in the post-Troubles era.

We are living in a new age of devolution. Partnership is not inimical to the political objectives of parties with deeply divergent views. Indeed, they are much more likely to gain respect from the electorate for demonstrating that maturity and pragmatism.

Of course, it takes two to tango. I want to see our new partnership attitude deliver devolution’s own “Strictly Come Dancing”, a ballroom swirling with facts, opinions and views, exchanging observations. If we do not work to create these relationships, we will never get asked to dance: a bunch of political wallflowers perpetuating constitutional standoff. The union deserves better; I support the Motion.

Photo of Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Baroness Foster of Aghadrumsee Non-affiliated 12:45, 14 March 2024

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, particularly since she mentioned “Strictly Come Dancing”—I thank her for that. I declare my registered interests as the chair of Together UK Foundation. I thank the noble Lord, Lord McInnes of Kilwinning, for bringing forward this debate, and congratulate him on the pronunciation of Aghadrumsee, which he has done very well. One of his colleagues has now taken to introducing me as the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of unpronounceable—which is fine.

I will talk about Aghadrumsee but, before I do, I also welcome the Minister to his place. No doubt he will reflect on his beautiful part of the United Kingdom when he speaks. I welcome him to this House as a fellow unionist and wish him well for his time on the Front Bench.

I come from what some people call the edge of the union. When I was appointed to this place, there was never any doubt as to which title I would take. Aghadrumsee is a townland near the Fermanagh-Monaghan border. In Irish it means field of the ridge of the sallows, but for me it was my whole world growing up. It was where I was baptised into the Anglican faith at our small church, St Mark’s. It was where I attended the little primary school, and where I attended children’s parties at the local Orange hall.

It is now 45 years since the IRA upset the tranquillity of my home when it came to murder my father at our home just a mile from Aghadrumsee. He was, you see, a legitimate target because he was a police officer serving in the local RUC station in Rosslea. He survived, despite the IRA’s best efforts, but as a result he was advised to move to a safer part of the country, and so we moved. This was the strategy of the IRA: to target the eyes and ears of the Brits in the area, and to move them out of the area to create a buffer zone along the border for their nefarious criminality.

My father was one of the lucky ones. He lived for another 32 years, dying at the age of 81, and is now buried at Aghadrumsee parish graveyard. My sister and her family live in our homestead. Many did not survive the sustained attack on the union, and I pay tribute to their service and dedication.

Despite its intent, the IRA did not succeed, and now the title of the little townland of Aghadrumsee—taken to honour my late father and to bring a little bit of south-east Fermanagh to Parliament—is seen on the annunciator and in the Hansard of the House of Lords. It is as much a part of the union as it ever was.

The IRA did not succeed in its terrorist campaign to take us out of the union but, despite this, republicans in Northern Ireland, and indeed in Scotland, now tell us that a united Ireland or an independent Scotland are inevitable, so we should get with the project. They even have a few useful fools, who should know better, helping them to make that claim. There is nothing inevitable about a united Ireland or an independent Scotland. Nationalists continually push this narrative, just as they claim that all the ills of society will be solved by independence. That is a comfortable belief for the followers of republicanism across the United Kingdom that allows each generation to think that with one last heave, or one last push, independence will happen. We in Northern Ireland have retained the United Kingdom against fierce opposition for more than 100 years, so the historicism or inevitability argument has not worked.

In fact, both the assertions—that all problems will be solved and that it is coming around the next corner—are nonsense, but they are allowed to gain traction. The narrative from media is that we should engage with the conversation because change is coming.

We should always push back against that narrative, and instead move to a narrative of why the United Kingdom is good for all its citizens. The opinion polls in Northern Ireland, which have been referenced, show strong support for the union, so do not be fooled by the pro-nationalist press trying to push their agenda of a united Ireland, or indeed of an independent Scotland.

Unionism for its part should not pretend to be simple but rather be multi-faceted and address many questions. Unionism, as the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, referenced rightly, is not narrow or reductionist but broad and diverse, and that is its strength. It is true that the challenges unionism faces will evolve with each generation. The benefits of the union likewise will show themselves in different ways over the years. During the pandemic, for example, we saw the strength of the union in a very practical way through the financial schemes and the rollout of the vaccinations. I was able to get my vaccination in Enniskillen at the same time as people in Devon and Cornwall. In Northern Ireland we also had the expertise and advice available to the devolved Administrations from the centre, which was vital in moving ahead.

The union and the United Kingdom is a rational political ideal, and as such the majority of people in Northern Ireland will, I believe, continue to support it—yes, for different reasons, but that is okay. Some are cultural and constitutional unionists, like myself; others are economic unionists; others, as the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, said, are just content with the status quo. As unionists, we need to understand that not everyone will vote for the union for the same reasons—the important thing is to get them to vote for the union.

For my part, I am hugely proud to be British. Our Britishness is about much more than the passport we hold. It cannot and should not be reduced to a name or a badge. It is about shared history going back generations and pride in having ended the slave trade, being the home of the Industrial Revolution, and founding the welfare state. It is about the institutions that, as the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, has said, we cherish and are the envy of others. Our allegiance to our shared institutions—whether cultural, through the historic ties that bind us, or in wider society—also gives us that sense of togetherness that is important for our emotional connection to the United Kingdom.

When I stepped down from politics in Northern Ireland, I set up the Together UK Foundation to set out the positive value of the four parts staying together and thriving together. That foundation continues to advocate for the holistic view of the United Kingdom. We have pride in our role for good in the world, something which is tangible—not just two world wars and the struggle against communism in the past but the battle for freedom and democracy today, particularly in Ukraine.

Our place in the world is important to us in the UK, but it is also, from a defence, security and intelligence point of view, important for countries such as the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—our allies in the Five Eyes intelligence community. If the United Kingdom was broken up by separatists, what would happen to our safety and security and that of the wider western alliance?

Recently, Policy Exchange published an excellent paper called Closing the Back Door; I commend it to your Lordships’ House. It shines a light on the strategic importance of Northern Ireland and its assets, particularly its ports, to the defence of the UK and indeed wider Europe. With Ireland as a neutral state, it is important that Northern Ireland is kept as a base for when threats occur, and that is the case made by the paper.

The union has allowed people from all parts to make a contribution in political, social and cultural life. I know that some people like to present Northern Ireland’s relationship to the rest of the UK as one of more “take” than “give”. Certainly, in an economic sense the UK has allowed the sharing of wealth and prosperity not just between people but across the country, and Northern Ireland has been a huge beneficiary of that. This pooling of resources across the UK is one of the great attractions, but it is not just about financial support, even though that is particularly important.

My belief in and support for the union does not depend on economic arguments, although it is overwhelmingly the case that we are better together. Northern Ireland’s businesses and people pay into the Exchequer like their counterparts in every part of the kingdom, but our contribution is not just about pounds and pence. It is much broader than that.

I fully support this Motion. I thank the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, for bringing it to the Floor today. Our safety, stability, security and success depend on the union. We must continue our work to safeguard it for future generations.

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee 12:54, 14 March 2024

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend Lord McInnes of Kilwinning, on bringing forward this debate, and in advance I congratulate my noble friend the Minister on the maiden speech he is about to make. It is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee. Two sorts of speeches are made in this sort of debate: one is, like hers, consistent, coherent, flowing and logical in argument; the other consists of vaguely relevant but disconnected points. Mine is going to be more of the latter character, so I hope noble Lords will bear with me to some extent.

My first two points are connected. We need to remember that this union we are discussing has always been a voluntary union and a union of Parliaments. What happened? Back in 1706 or thereabouts, the Parliament of England and the Parliament of Scotland voted democratically to unify into a single Parliament. It was not a union of monarchies. The union of the monarchy had happened 100 years earlier. It was a parliamentary union, made on a voluntary and democratic basis. In 1800, the same pattern was followed in regard to Ireland. It may be objected that the Parliaments of those days were not representative of the whole population, but these were the representative bodies that functioned—full enfranchisement was not achieved until barely 100 years ago. Some things flow from that that are really quite important.

First, we do not sufficiently appreciate how unusual we are in that regard. The United States of America was a voluntary union until people tried to leave—which resulted in a civil war in which more lives were lost than the United States has lost in all the wars it has subsequently fought. Germany is a federal union, but there is no provision in the German constitution for a federal land to leave the union. The thought that part of France might leave France is an almost inconceivable thought in French mentality.

Secondly, I do not think other countries appreciate how unusual we are, and we do not really understand how they think. The response of the Spanish state to the attempt to secede in Catalonia not so very long ago—a quasi-military response on the streets followed by imprisonment and exile; the leader of that revolt is still in exile today, even though there are attempts to bring him back—is inconceivable in the United Kingdom. We have accepted, as in the Good Friday agreement, that if the people of Northern Ireland wish to vote by a majority to unite with the Republic of Ireland, that is what is going to happen. It is inconceivable that anything else would happen. There would not be the sort of response we saw in Catalonia. Similarly, although it is not subject to an international treaty, we accept that if there was a majority in Scotland for leaving the union, however sad we might be about seeing Scotland depart, as we would be for Northern Ireland, we would have to respect that decision and deal with it.

The second part of my thesis—that we are a parliamentary union—means that the deep devolution settlement that we entered into at the beginning of the 21st century was much more radical in its constitutional effects than it was presented as being at the time. It was not simply an administrative arrangement or the creation of a new tier of local government, which would be consistent with a parliamentary union; it was a breaking up of that parliamentary authority, which we have not fully incorporated into our thinking even today. We say that we regard it as a stable and enduring settlement, but it is not a stable and enduring settlement in the eyes of nationalists; in their eyes it is merely a stepping stone to something else. We must always be aware of that and stay ahead of it.

What is not the answer to our current constitutional confusion, however, is the adoption of federalism. This has been proposed by Gordon Brown as a means, he would say, of saving the union. It would not save the union; it would destroy the union as it exists and replace it with something wholly new, untested and ill thought out.

Despite all that, we remain a voluntary union that is essentially based on affection: we are attracted to each other. The fact that we choose to stay together is because of the affection that exists—not the coercion but the affection. That is our strength and what we need to build on—but none of this means that we should be insouciant about the continuance of the union.

Here I turn to the sensitive subject of language. It is a sensitive subject, but we should not be too sensitive about discussing it. There is no doubt—and Sinn Féin fully appreciates this—that the use of language is a tool for promoting nationalist sentiment. When I look at Wales and see the almost linguistic fascism that now exists in parts of it, I am deeply concerned that we will find ourselves, on some occasion in the future, in a situation rather like we were with Scotland in 2014, when, half way through the referendum campaign, we realised that unionism might lose the referendum, so out of touch we were. I do not want to see something like that happen in Wales.

Finally, I turn to Northern Ireland. There is very little for me to add to what was said by the speakers who come from Northern Ireland, but I will second what was said about the Northern Ireland protocol and the Windsor Framework. I speak about them from the point of view not of Northern Ireland but of the United Kingdom. It is not the trade aspects that concern me directly—they have an effect on the lives of people in Northern Ireland, which has already been addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn —but the constitutional implications of the fact that part of the United Kingdom is subject to laws made in the European Union by a foreign Parliament with no democratic say by the people who have to live under those laws. This is a classic definition of colonialism. It is a humiliation to this country that we tolerate it; I cannot think of any other democratic country that lives under such arrangements, and it is now explicitly acknowledged to be a constraint and impediment on the way in which we govern the rest of Great Britain. I believe that the Chancellor himself said only the other day that he was constrained from altering VAT rules by the fact that he was not allowed to do so in Northern Ireland, even though he had the power to do so in Great Britain, as that would create a disparity and he was prevented from making the change.

The Northern Ireland protocol was negotiated by a Government with no majority on their principal policy—the Brexit policy—and no majority in Parliament. Their principal negotiating tool, the right to walk away, had been taken away by Parliament. It is not—I second the noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn— a stable arrangement; it will have to be addressed at some point if the union is to survive and if the United Kingdom is to thrive as an independent country.

Photo of Lord Godson Lord Godson Conservative 1:04, 14 March 2024

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord McInnes of Kilwinning for securing the debate. He is part of both the physics and chemistry of our union and, when the history of these times comes to be told, his own distinguished part in the Scottish referendum will, I hope, have a bright place in the history books. I also join other noble Lords in welcoming my noble friend the Minister, whose distinguished forebear, who has already been alluded to, was known as “the gentle Lochiel”. His courtesy in the previous Parliament in which he served was legendary in this House, but I hope that he will not be too gentle on foes of the union, whom we may be discussing today.

My purpose is to discuss the security dimensions of the union, particularly the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The recent Command Paper made welcome reference to the defence and security aspects of the union in appendix B, relating both to the defence and strategic significance of Northern Ireland and to integrating Northern Ireland’s significant defence industries into the rest of the defence structure of the United Kingdom. It is worth taking a second to consider the historical dimensions of the Command Paper, because it is a very pro-union statement of principles. Much has been discussed about repudiating the doctrine of the Ireland economy, forged for ideological purposes—but it also goes into some depth, perhaps more than any other comparable paper, into the security dimensions.

Last December, we celebrated the 30th anniversary of the Downing Street declaration, in which the then Prime Minister John Major and the then Taoiseach, the late Albert Reynolds, forged the foundational pillar of what became the Northern Ireland peace process. Crucial to the consensus-building objectives of the agreement was the British Government’s declaration that they had “no selfish strategic interest” in Northern Ireland, thus signalling their commitment to a lasting and equitable peace on the island of Ireland. The ensuing peaceful decades have been to the lasting benefit of both sides of the Irish border and indeed across the Irish Sea—I think there is no disagreement in this House or the other House on that point.

At this moment it bears repeating—as others have pointed out before—that “no selfish strategic interest” never meant “no strategic interest at all” for the United Kingdom Government. Indeed, Northern Ireland has always retained vital strategic importance to the United Kingdom. As we find ourselves in an ever more dangerous and sharpening international climate, we must question whether the present security arrangements on the island of Ireland, on both sides of the border, now pose a wider threat to British security.

I think that almost all of us in this House are rightly focused on supporting Ukraine’s gallant self-defence on the European continent as Russia seeks alternative means of weakening our collective security in NATO and wider Europe. In the pursuit of asymmetric advantages against Ukraine’s backers—ourselves included —the Kremlin is probing the critical undersea infra- structure that, by carrying our digital communications and energy flows, undergirds our security and prosperity. Russia makes no secret of its ambitions in that regard. It has a military doctrine, known as SODCIT, for degrading the West psychologically and materially by targeting our critical infrastructure and that of other friendly countries. Suspicious incidents in recent years, such as successive cable cuttings in the Baltics last year, suggest that those fears may not be unwarranted.

Defence of this infrastructure is necessarily a collective effort, and the UK and its partners have rapidly bolstered their joint capabilities. That was most recently witnessed in the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force’s maiden seabed warfare mission, conducted by nine NATO member states across the north Atlantic this past January.

However, it needs to be said that the Republic of Ireland is still not playing its part but rather chooses to continue to freeload on the security guarantees of others. Although some 75% of the undersea fibre optic cables linking Europe to the United States pass through Irish waters, the Irish Naval Service remains entirely ill equipped to police and protect them. It lacks the radar and the acoustic monitoring systems for satisfactory maritime situational awareness, it remains without a fleet of underwater surveillance vessels and it suffers from a chronic staffing shortage which renders just one-quarter of its fleet serviceable at any given moment.

Although the Republic is now slowly engaging with more EU multilateral defence initiatives, it still does not participate in the one tasked with critical seabed infrastructure protection, and it is hard for many of us to understand why. Perhaps it is because it has little else to offer. As damage to this critical transnational infrastructure harms our national security, we must ask what we need to do to mitigate the risk. I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee —I hope I am the victor ludorum for the correct pronunciation of her townland—for saying that we have to consider what remains to be done. I am grateful for her tribute to Policy Exchange’s work on our paper Closing the Back Door: Rediscovering Northern Ireland’s Role in British National Security.

One of the solutions is to restore the United Kingdom’s naval and air presence in Northern Ireland by rebuilding our capabilities for maritime patrol in the Atlantic, perhaps in Londonderry, which played such a definitive role in allied victory in the Battle of the Atlantic and in our operations in the Cold War—as has been attested to by the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, who was briefly here earlier and who I think served there early on in his naval career. The UK must use any such revived facilities to deter future Russian snooping around undersea cables and pipelines.

I note with pleasure that, whatever the various opinions within unionism over the recent Windsor Framework, this is one area which unites all shades of unionist opinion. The recent exchanges between the right honourable Sammy Wilson MP and the Secretary of State for Defence and the Minister of State for the Armed Forces in the House of Commons and between the right honourable Jeffrey Donaldson MP and the Prime Minister at Prime Minister’s Questions indicate the tremendous potential for such a revived role for UK national security and defence structures in Northern Ireland.

There is a further dimension to our national security concerns on the island of Ireland: the growing Russian, Chinese and Iranian presence in the Republic. The soft border—a consequence of the common travel area, a core element of the British-Irish relationship—raises the prospect of a “back-door” threat to the rest of the United Kingdom. Russia has long viewed the Republic as a strategically positioned hub for its clandestine intelligence activity in Europe. In 2022, the Russian embassy in Dublin reportedly had 30 members of staff, second only in size to its embassy in Washington DC. While the Irish Government subsequently expelled four Russian agents masquerading as diplomats, there are concerns that Moscow has implanted illegal espionage networks which are far harder to trace.

Furthermore, in 2015 Russia successfully applied for planning permission to vastly expand its Dublin embassy, with a new underground operational “nerve centre”. It was only after the proposal came under media scrutiny that in 2020 the Government of the Republic intervened to revoke that permission on national security grounds at the behest of allies. Links between Irish organised crime and Iranian-backed terrorist organisations are also well established. Some of them are currently under investigation by the United States Administration for assisting in the illegal financing of Hezbollah and Iran.

Meanwhile, we know through the comprehensive report of the Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament last year that China is engaged in an expansive array of interference activities inside the United Kingdom. The markers are there that it is employing the same tactics in the Republic. Chinese investment is soaring, which has forced the Irish Government to introduce additional screening measures. At last count, there were 13 Confucius Institutes in Irish educational institutions, known to be controlled by the Hanban organisation which is affiliated to the Chinese Communist Party. A so-called Chinese police station in Dublin was shut down two years ago. The target of these is not any individual country, but the systems which service the transatlantic community, ourselves and the order which all that infrastructure upholds. Amid all this, fears are mounting that the Irish security agencies are overstretched, a concern raised by the independent Commission on the Irish Defence Forces set up by the Irish state in 2022.

Photo of Lord Inglewood Lord Inglewood Non-affiliated 1:15, 14 March 2024

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, for introducing this debate and offer my congratulations to the Minister. I do not think anybody with any sense of history can fail to be affected by the penumbra of Scottish Jacobitism which surrounds him. I hope he will accept my congratulations as an English Hanoverian borderer. One of my family was the Bishop of Carlisle at the time of the Forty-five, who recorded in his diary that in early 1746 he went up to Carlisle to see his successor hanged. I do not know what the Bishops’ Benches would think about that sort of thing these days.

I am a unionist because I believe the union is and can continue to be to the material economic, cultural and social advantage of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, individually and taken together. It gives added value. However, as a number of noble Lords have said, it is not an inevitability and has no guarantee for eternity. It must work to survive.

I will approach this debate from the perspective of the county of Cumbria, which is the most economically self-contained area in England. I have lived my life there. I am hefted to it, as we say. I chair the local enterprise partnership, I am the vice lord-lieutenant and I represented it in the European Parliament for 10 years. In my capacity as chair of the LEP, I arranged for the commissioning on its behalf of an analysis prepared by Metro Dynamics of the possible impact of an independent Scotland on our bit of the north-west of England. It probably speaks volumes about my political acumen that it was delivered on the day that Nicola Sturgeon resigned as First Minister.

Perhaps hardly surprisingly, it pointed out that such a step was very likely to damage the county’s economy, but it subsequently emerged from the discussion that the implications would almost inevitably be similar if some of the proposals for devo-max and greater regional devolution took place in England. We reached the conclusion that that might equally disadvantage us and damage our economy. It is further English devolution that, in today’s political climate, seems more probable to me. I do not believe that the union means homogenous rules over the piece, as a number of noble Lords have said. Rather, I believe in and subscribe to the desirability of local decision-making and local ways of delivering policies, tailored to the communities in which they are intended to take effect. It should be local electorates who hold those decision-makers to account.

Yet the context here appears to be that, unless there are some compensating measures, economic damage may be visited on some of the economically weaker and less resilient parts of England as part of that wider process. Do not get me wrong: it is not as if Cumbria is on its knees—it is not. In a variety of ways, it has a great deal going for it, but there are a number of pockets of real deprivation outside the orbits of BAE Systems and Sellafield where the economy performs less well and productivity is below the national norm. We need to be clear that this economy suffered significantly from Covid and Brexit and that the evolution of greater devolution/the independence of Scotland and various possible forms of devolution in northern England, which might be of economic benefit to others, does not look as if it will be a help to us.

We also know that the Barnett formula, as it has evolved, works less beneficially for those areas which have many similar characteristics to Scotland but happen to be in England. In the context of the economic characteristics of this area over the last 50 years, Cumbria, as part of the north, suffered from the mid-20th-century collapse of traditional industries. They have not been fully substituted with the new ones, which principally took root and were turbocharged by the European single market in the south of England. On top of that, we suffered from Treasury policies that got in the way of the full implementation of the European structural funds because they were not implemented in Britain quite as they were on the continent because of the rules about budget rebate.

Levelling up, which is a great catchphrase, has been a bit of a disappointment, possibly because it was oversold to perhaps over-sanguine people who were seduced by electoral rhetoric. What is needed is a recalibration of the economic relations between this and other similar parts of England and the centre in London, given the changes that are anticipated in Scotland and a number of other places in the wider north which are distinct from this particular area. For example, traditional cost-benefit analysis in the centre shortchanges big areas with low populations and low productivity. This is ironic, since increased productivity and output is exactly what is needed to bring about central government policy aspirations. This has been the subject matter of central government consideration.

I also want to ask the Minister about the Government’s proposals for the Borderlands initiative—I am a member of its economic forum. The Scottish side of this unique and worthwhile Anglo-Scottish initiative gives the impression of being more proactive than its English opposite number, although I am not clear how much real enthusiasm there is for it from either Whitehall or Edinburgh. I would be very grateful if the Minister could reassure me about these things.

The purpose of these comments is not parochial; rather, the issue is systemic. There is a real risk that, as proposals for various forms of devolution and domestic autonomy within the United Kingdom as a whole proceed, there will be collateral damage elsewhere in the country—possibly in those areas which are in the greatest economic difficulty. The UK Government need to recognise this and commit to responding fairly to that if it occurs.

Finally, will the Government unequivocally commit to doing just that? It really matters that all parts and components of the union are treated fairly and even-handedly, because fairness of that kind is the glue that is needed to keep the union together and to strengthen it, as the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, so lucidly advocated in his opening remarks.

Photo of Lord Udny-Lister Lord Udny-Lister Conservative 1:23, 14 March 2024

My Lords, I welcome this important and timely debate and, like every other speaker, thank my noble friend Lord McInnes of Kilwinning for bringing this topic to the Floor of your Lordships’ House and for the way in which he so eloquently made the case for why the union of the United Kingdom must always remain at the forefront of our thinking. I welcome my noble friend Lord Cameron to his place at the Dispatch Box and look forward to hearing from him in due course.

The union of the United Kingdom has been forged through centuries of shared history and culture. Today, the union represents a mosaic of identities and traditions of a united people who are bound together under one flag, in peaceful union, for the greater good. This union has endured domestic trials and tribulations and international wars and conflicts. It has endured, as it is a union that is built on the shoulders and sacrifices of an ever-resilient people who have adapted and evolved to the changing tides of time.

Today, we face immense global insecurity. We have wars waging in Europe, instability in the Middle East and global economic uncertainty. We cannot afford to underestimate the gravity of these challenges and the potential issues that may lie ahead. Against this backdrop of global uncertainty, when it comes to our national security there is not a clearer case for why the nations of our union are stronger together, and we must continue to make this case. The illegal war that has been waged by the Russian state against the people of Ukraine demands that we must now focus on strengthening our internal security arrangements to ensure that we are able to stand up against the aggression of rogue states.

As an island nation, our history tells us that our first line of security is the waters around us. We must now ensure that our naval capacity and capability is equally distributed around the shores of the union. With Russia and other aggressors posing a threat to the western approaches of the British Isles, so eloquently explained earlier by my noble friend Lord Godson, now is the time for the Government to expand our naval and air presence in Northern Ireland. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that it is time for us to look at an enhanced, one-union approach to national security? Can he comment on the need for the Government urgently to reconsider the role that Northern Ireland plays in the wider defence and security of the United Kingdom?

I raise this point, as have the noble Baroness, Lady Foster, and the noble Lord, Lord Godson, in considering a report published recently by Policy Exchange, Closing the Back Door: Rediscovering Northern Ireland’s Role in British National Security. It highlights why we cannot be reliant on the Republic of Ireland for the defence and security of the Irish Sea and our own national security. As others have done, in drawing this report to the attention of your Lordships’ House, it is worth highlighting the grim reality that, after years of underfunding, the Republic’s defence forces are wholly inadequate to face up to the challenges that we face today. With this in mind, it is vital that we consider an enhanced security role for Northern Ireland in the immediate future.

Some will argue that the Good Friday agreement necessitates that we have a separate approach to security in Northern Ireland. I remind your Lordships’ House that the agreement acknowledges the need for security co-operation across the entirety of the UK. If ever there was a time to strengthen and equalise that co-operation, it is now. An enhanced security role for Northern Ireland, built on trust and mutual respect, has the ability to strengthen the fundamental principles of the Good Friday agreement while ensuring the security of our United Kingdom. I therefore politely request that my noble friend the Minister, if he has not done so already, considers the recommendations made in the report. If the Government are serious about wanting to strengthen and safeguard the union, we need a one-union approach to defence and national security.

The union of the United Kingdom is not merely a political arrangement that has withstood the test of time. Foremost it is our security guarantee. It is a union of people who, while being distinctly different, can come together in heart and mind for these principles. This makes us collectively a force and a beacon for good in an ever-dangerous world. We should and must do more to promote this. It is our duty, as the custodians of the union, to move heaven and earth to ensure that the union of the United Kingdom is strengthened for generations to come. I am assured that this Government remain committed to that duty.

Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie Conservative 1:28, 14 March 2024

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord McInnes of Kilwinning for securing this debate and welcome my noble friend Lord Cameron of Lochiel to the Front Bench for his maiden speech. I express my regard for the late Lord McAvoy, who was always the most congenial and approachable of colleagues in this House.

If we want a stable and sustainable union then we require a stable and sustainable devolved settlement. It was helpful to hear from so many noble Lords of Northern Ireland, because their experience of devolution goes much deeper than that of those of us from Scotland and Wales.

It is worth remembering that Northern Ireland had a devolved Parliament for 50 years, up until 1972, and managed during that time without either a territorial office or a Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. During that period, the sovereign Parliament at Westminster exercised a self-denying ordinance: although a sovereign Parliament, it did not seek to interfere in the domestic affairs of Northern Ireland, although, from time to time, it was sorely tempted. And that reflects other developments at the time, one of which was the Statute of Westminster in 1931, where this sovereign Parliament declared that it would no longer legislate for the Dominions. Just a few years later, in the Judicial Committee of the House of Lords, it was argued that the sovereign Parliament could and would continue to legislate for the Dominions. The then Lord Chancellor responded, somewhat dryly, “That might reflect the legal theory of sovereignty, but it does not reflect political reality”. Today’s devolved settlements must reflect political reality.

In 2016, we passed Section 1 of the Scotland Act that stated that the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government would be permanent features of our constitutional settlement. The theory of sovereignty tells us that this Parliament could depart from that, but we know political reality is different. That brings me on to the condition of the present devolved settlement and a point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bew, about the impact of Brexit. Nobody designed the devolved settlement for Scotland or Wales with Brexit in mind. Nobody anticipated the reshoring of vast legislative rights and obligations in both devolved and reserved areas. We find it very difficult to cope with those events, and the consequence was that what we refer to as the Sewel convention became something flexible. We began to see primary legislation passing without legislative consent Motions from either Scotland or Wales. We saw secondary legislation increasing, which is not subject to the Sewel convention, and we saw the use of Henry VIII clauses that again are not subject to the convention. All this undermined people’s belief in the sustainability and stability of the devolved settlement.

To address that, I suggest that one step we should take is the abolition of the Sewel convention and the substitution of it with a very clear and unambiguous provision that states that this Parliament will not pass legislation in devolved areas without the express consent of the devolved legislatures. That would give us stability, sustainability and a safer union.

Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench 1:33, 14 March 2024

I agree with the noble and learned Lord. My point can be put much more succinctly. I warmly welcome the Minister and look forward to his remarks, and would be grateful if he could convey to the Leader of the House the point that I am about to make.

As a Scottish unionist, I believe that our debates in this Chamber would be much improved if the SNP took part. I would also, of course, like to hear from Sinn Féin, but I know how unrealistic that is. However, the SNP is in the other place and makes an important contribution there; its objections to being here must therefore be of a different nature from Sinn Féin’s and are possibly less adamantine.

A dozen years ago, a group of us from all sides of the House wrote to the then Prime Minister suggesting that this issue should be raised with the First Minister in Edinburgh. The then Prime Minister decided not to pursue that initiative, and it might have gone nowhere, though in fact the pitch had been very well rolled in Edinburgh. I think, with the changes of personnel in London and Edinburgh, it would be worth trying again, and I ask the Minister to consult the Leader of the House and consider whether, on a cross-party basis, the suggestion might be revived.

Photo of Baroness Humphreys Baroness Humphreys Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Wales) 1:35, 14 March 2024

My Lords, I am grateful the noble Lord, Lord McInnes of Kilwinning, for securing this debate, which has afforded us the opportunity to examine the state of our union.

Before I carry on, I will add my tributes to Lord McAvoy. He was the Labour Chief Whip when, 10 years ago, I became a Lib Dem whip. I must admit that he terrified me until I began to understand his sense of humour—which was a really different sense of humour.

We have had a fascinating, informative and wide debate and it has been good to hear voices from across the UK, from Scotland, Northern Ireland, England and the north-west of England. Before I bring some comments from Wales, I will highlight two or three speeches that I have heard today. I thank the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, for his reference to Wales so that we did not feel left out; and his emphasis on the fragility of the union because of the situations in Scotland and Ireland was an excellent analysis of the situation in both nations. He did say that, in opinion polls, 50% of people are still in favour of independence in Scotland and I concur with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that it is a pity that those voices are not represented in this Chamber—we need to see and hear them.

I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee, for the lesson in the pronunciation of her home town—I hope I attempted it rightly—and for her really moving speech about her background, her father being a police officer and his shooting resulting in them having to move house. This of course was the background to her setting up the organisation Together UK. I thank her for that speech; it was wonderful.

I will also comment on the speech from the noble Lord, Lord Moylan. I really object to the term “language fascism” and I thank Members in the Chamber for their response to that comment. People fail to understand that Wales is a bilingual nation, and people have the right to use their first language, whichever language that is, or both languages, if they want to.

I will now turn to the subject of the debate. From my point of view, and perhaps from many people’s point of view, the United Kingdom’s greatest weakness is that it is an unequal, or asymmetric, union. We are union of four nations: three smaller nations and one which is much larger in terms of land mass, population, wealth and political power. And each nation has a different vision for the future of its people. But it is in the area of political power, however, that the disparity between the four nations became increasingly obvious. For many of us in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, there was a desire to see government from a dominant and distant London replaced by a Government in our own country.

The first 20 years of devolution and our National Assembly brought a feeling of relative stability, for possibly two main reasons. First, the area of north Wales and the valleys qualified for EU funding because its GDP was among the lowest in the regions of the European Union. Secondly, and most importantly, the Welsh Government and consecutive UK Governments worked collaboratively to honour the Sewel convention and protect the Welsh devolution settlement. I concur fully with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, when he spoke in the gap.

All that changed with the 2019 election. The new Government’s desire to strengthen the union and bind it together led to a more cavalier approach to the Sewel convention and to increasing financial and work pressure on the devolved Administration as they struggled to defend their settlement, all resulting in a fraught, fractured relationship between the two Governments. Engagement between the UK Government and the devolved Administration at ministerial level became less frequent, and of great concern to Members in this House and in the Senedd. It is clear that, if the relationship between the nations of the UK is to be strong, it must be based on mutual respect and co-operation. The leadership for that must come from the strongest nation. Constant attacks on the powers of the devolved Parliaments are counterproductive and give rise to resentment and sometimes enmity.

As your Lordships’ Constitution Committee report, Respect and Co-operation: Building a Stronger Union for the 21st century, pointed out,

“the failure to develop a modern form of ‘shared governance’ which recognises central and devolved governments have distinct statutory responsibilities that often intersect, has undermined the strength of the Union”.

Do the UK Government have plans to develop such a modern form of shared governance, or do they have any other plans to develop the union in future?

The Welsh Government have indeed considered the future, and a recent report of the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future of Wales included 10 recommendations for reform which focused on both strengthening and protecting devolution. The report included an analysis of three options for the constitutional future of Wales:

“enhanced devolution, Wales in a federal UK, and an independent Wales”.

It concluded that “each option is viable” and that

“each offers strengths and weaknesses, risks and opportunities”.

As a Liberal Democrat, my preference, of course, would be for a federal system whereby power is devolved to the regions of England as well as to the three devolved nations. We really do need to solve the “English question”. England has no Parliament of its own, and its county councils, many of which represent areas larger than Wales, do not have the executive power our devolved Parliaments have—another disparity which will require attention over time.

I will end by referring to the speech by the noble Lord, Lord Bew. He reminded us that during the Brexit campaign, there were thoughts that Brexit might well destroy the union. It actually showed how difficult it is to leave the union. That is a lesson we all need to take from this: that it is difficult to leave the union. Perhaps, the words used during the campaign—as a Remainer, I would remember this—that we are “stronger together”, might apply here too.

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 1:44, 14 March 2024

My Lords, it is a real pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys; her comments on strengthening and protecting devolution were thoughtful and very helpful. I thank the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, for securing this debate, and echo his words of welcome to the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Lochiel, whose maiden speech I look forward very much to hearing.

This has been a helpful and interesting debate. Our union is precious to many of us. For some, that is because of our shared historical ties, common bonds and family ties. For others, there is an economic reality that we are more prosperous as a united group of nations. We believe in and respect our differences and our often-overlapping identities, and think that by pooling aspects of our sovereignty, we are better off and more secure. Prosperity, security, and opportunity: that is the promise of our union.

The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, invited us to celebrate the union, sharing his personal affection for it, but I would say that we must guard against the perception of support that relies too heavily on—how can I put this—a whimsical historical reference, as this can be at times alienating to some. I think the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, warned us of that in his introduction.

Most speakers in this debate have referred, at least in part, to the risks or threats we face, and they are right to do so. The noble Lord, Lord Bew, reminded us of the importance of public service delivery and demonstrating continual improvement. His analysis of the improving situation in Northern Ireland was positive; I hope that can be sustained. I warmly thank him for his kind words about Lord McAvoy, which were echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Dodds, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, and the noble Baronesses, Goldie and Lady Humphreys. I did not know Lord McAvoy as well as many noble Lords did, and I really feel, having listened to their comments this afternoon, that I missed a treat. I am sad about that.

As many have said, our union must never be taken for granted or assumed to have a God-given right to exist. Respect and care must be taken, especially by the UK Government. The call by the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, for an attitude of partnership was spot on. Her insight about respect, pragmatism and the importance of personal political relationships was valuable and very well made. It is sensible to acknowledge that the past decade has presented its challenges. Brexit, nationalism and, at times, the approach of the UK Government have all put the union under stress. The noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee, reminded us that independence is not inevitable—of course she is right about that—but neither is the safeguarding of the union, hence this debate.

I was sorry to hear the noble Lord, Lord Moylan, refer to “linguistic fascism” in Wales. I invite him, gently and with a great deal of respect, to consider his use of language and whether the tone that he deployed in that remark, which I think could be perceived as high-handed, serves in the longer term to strengthen or weaken the union. He referred to Gordon Brown. The central tenet of Gordon Brown’s report for the Commission on the UK’s Future is that our constitutional arrangements and our economic success are inextricably connected. He points out that the UK is one of the most politically and economically centralised countries in Europe. This leaves us stuck with great inequality between different regions and an economy that is less competitive.

Whitehall has failed to manage relations with the devolved Administrations well, sometimes interfering in areas it should not, while at other times pursuing a rather laissez-faire approach when agreed UK-wide joint approaches would have been much more effective. The UK’s different Governments have to work together. This is what the noble Lord, Lord McInnes, referred to as the physics of the union. It is widely recognised that the present Joint Ministerial Committee system has long struggled to be effective and has virtually been allowed to fail under the present Government. At the same time, there are no mechanisms for the voices of the cities and regions of England to be heard at the centre. The UK needs new and much more effective mechanisms for co-operation between regions and nations. These must respect local and regional voices as well as those of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Sadly, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, reminded us, there is a sense in the devolved Administrations that the UK Government have at times been happy to ride roughshod over devolution and do not trouble themselves over disrespecting convention. During the passage of the EU withdrawal Act in 2020, the UK Government overrode the Sewel convention but said at the time that it was a singular, specific and exceptional necessity. The problem is that the Government have proceeded to breach Sewel subsequently without even seeking to offer a justification. This is not a recipe for a strong union. For example, the shared prosperity fund, the levelling up fund and the widening levelling-up agenda have left the Welsh Government excluded from any meaningful involvement in the decision-making processes for these funds. Engagement between the UK Government and the Welsh Government was, it appears, superficial, late and limited in scope. Return of control of these elements of economic devolution to the Welsh Government, where it belongs, would be an important first step in improving this situation.

The decision to bypass Ministers in the Welsh Government is an overt and deliberate disregard by the UK Government of the constitutional settlement approved by the people of Wales in successive referenda and opens the door to progressive, incremental repeal of the devolution settlement with no debate and no consent from the people of Wales. Support for the union cannot be a thing of romance or nostalgia. It is about making sure that every citizen benefits and that power, wealth and opportunity are shared. As support for the union waxes and wanes, it is vital that those who believe in it and think it the best way to secure the future of all regions and nations continue to make the case for it. That is how the union will be protected, not for its own sake but for the sake of all those whom it exists to serve and protect.

Photo of Lord Cameron of Lochiel Lord Cameron of Lochiel The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland 1:52, 14 March 2024

My Lords, it is a very great honour for me to be standing here before your Lordships and to be delivering my maiden speech in a debate secured by my noble friend Lord McInnes of Kilwinning. I thank him not just for his guidance in the past few weeks but for his stalwart service to Scotland and the United Kingdom in this past decade—service that has been far more pivotal than many people realise. I also express gratitude to my two noble kinsmen who acted as supporters at my introduction last week, the noble Lord, Lord Cameron of Dillington, and my noble friend Lord Cameron of Chipping Norton. Having turned back with the rest of the Jacobite army at Derby in 1745, it has taken Clan Cameron only another 279 years to reach the capital. To the noble Lord and my noble friend, to Black Rod, to the Clerk of the Parliaments, to the doorkeepers and to many others who have given me invaluable assistance, my heartfelt thanks.

I believe it is customary before turning to the substance of the debate to say a few personal words. In terms of my own career, having studied history at university, I practised law in Scotland as an advocate, before being elected in 2016 to represent the Highlands and Islands in the Scottish Parliament. That too was a great honour as an MSP representing my home region—a place of wild and staggering beauty but inhabited by communities often challenged with depopulation, lack of connectivity and a frail local economy.

The task for any elected representative is of course to try to improve the lives of people within those communities. As someone who has now been given the huge privilege of serving as a Minister, the question for me becomes: what can government do to assist in that endeavour? Perhaps the answer lies in the islands of the west, if your Lordships might allow me to explain. If one travels along the main road that runs up the spine of the Western Isles, one uses a number of small stone causeways to make one’s way from island to island—causeways that many would never notice, given the majestic views offered on all sides, framed in the ever-changing light for which those islands are renowned. But those slight structures are important in the long, rich story of the Hebrides, and the tides of history that brought cultures and peoples to and from their shores: Gaels from Ireland, Vikings from Norway—waves of men and women sweeping in and sweeping out.

It was the last ebbing away of people from the islands in the 20th century as a result of eviction, world war and emigration that pre-empted the causeways’ construction. Quietly, steadily, they were built from the 1940s onwards in a bid to stem depopulation, linking tiny, fragile communities and so ending the isolation of centuries. That was a small accomplishment at the very edge of this country, achieved amid the crashing waves of the Atlantic and the cry of the oystercatcher, and far removed from the cut and thrust of metropolitan politics here in the capital.

However, those causeways are just as much part of our great country as the busy thoroughfares of London, and they represent one example of what government should be doing everywhere; namely, building the causeways for our citizens to walk safely over, both literally and metaphorically. A Government should connect their citizens and communities and allow them to realise their own potential. A Government should enable and empower, end isolation and ensure that every citizen feels entirely connected to, and part of, our joint efforts. No man is an island, indeed.

I turn to the substance of today’s important debate, which also supplies one argument for the union, and the role of the United Kingdom Government in strengthening that union by connecting the nations of the UK through strategic interventions, and thus bridging the gaps between us. It will not surprise your Lordships to hear me say that this Government have few higher priorities than strengthening and protecting our enduring union. In a moment, I will respond to various issues that have been raised here today, but I will begin by setting out why our union is of course worth safeguarding.

This Government believe that each part of the UK is stronger by being part of it, and the UK is stronger because of the immense contribution of each of its nations. When we work together as one United Kingdom, we are safer, stronger and more prosperous. We are better able to draw on the institutions that unite us, including our Armed Forces, our common social security safety net and our National Health Service, and we are better able to tackle the big problems, from supporting families with the cost of living to leading the international response to Russia’s illegal war in Ukraine. The UK Government are committed to delivering on the issues that matter most to citizens: driving down inflation, growing our economy and maintaining the UK’s energy security.

In the UK, our internal market is the basis on which thousands of businesses are able to trade freely across the whole of the UK, minimising red tape and maximising opportunities. In Scotland, for example, the majority of outgoing trade is with the rest of the UK, more than with the rest of the world combined. I firmly believe that the UK provides the best platform for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England to thrive.

This Government are steadfast in our mission to level up all parts of the UK. To date, UK government investment in levelling up across the country has included over £3 billion of direct investment in Scotland, more than £2.5 billion for Wales—plus a further £500 million to secure the future of Port Talbot’s steel industry—and just over £1 billion for Northern Ireland.

In practice, levelling up means working with local partners across the UK to regenerate our town centres and high streets. I am delighted that last week the Chancellor announced £20 million over 10 years for a further 20 towns across the UK as part of the long-term plan for towns. Those towns include Arbroath, Peterhead and Kirkwall in Scotland, Rhyl in Wales, and Derry/Londonderry and Coleraine in Northern Ireland.

Levelling up also means spreading opportunity more equally across the country, be it funding the first fully licensed UK spaceport in Shetland, committing £2 million to boost global investment and trade in Northern Ireland or launching an agri-food launchpad to grow innovation clusters across mid and north Wales.

The Government are proud of our work with the devolved Governments. In that spirit, we welcome the return to power sharing in Northern Ireland and the positive impact that the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive will have—a point I will return to in a moment.

This Government are also proud and respectful of the devolution settlements, which strike the right balance between allowing decisions to be taken closer to the communities that they affect, while still benefiting from the shared resources of the United Kingdom. I am delighted that, over the course of the debate, your Lordships have recognised and highlighted this important balance. I am particularly grateful for the contributions from those with experience of each of the devolved legislatures. I pay tribute to the experiences of my noble friend Lady Goldie and the noble Baronesses, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee and Lady Humphreys.

My view, from almost eight years as a Member of the Scottish Parliament, is that the significant powers that each of our devolved institutions possesses provide great opportunity to deliver on behalf of people in every corner of the UK. In my career, I have been proud to play my part in a number of initiatives; for example, promoting the Gaelic language as a part of the shared heritage of people in the Highlands and Islands and beyond.

People across this country rightly expect their Governments to work together, dedicating attention and resources to the issues that matter to them, their families and their communities. The UK Government engage with the devolved Governments regularly in a variety of ways, including through the formal intergovernmental machinery. Since the beginning of 2023 alone there have been more than 200 ministerial meetings between the UK and devolved Governments, underpinned by constant official-level engagement. In the very short time that I have been a Minister, I have already seen that at first hand.

This Government are committed to making devolution work by conducting positive and effective working across all levels of government, using the respective levers at our disposal to deliver the best possible outcomes for people, businesses and communities, and to tackle the challenges we collectively face. Such collaborative working is at the heart of important initiatives such as freeports, city and growth deals, and investment zones.

In relation to the last of those, the UK Government are also committed to engaging, via the east-west council, on the scope to extend Northern Ireland’s enhanced investment zone benefits to the Stranraer/Cairnryan area in Scotland, recognising this vital union connectivity route and boosting growth. In my experience, we are at our strongest when we work together, delivering on the priorities that matter the most to people across the UK.

I will now respond to some of the very important points raised today. Following a former Dean of the Faculty of Advocates, the former director of the Scottish Conservative and Unionist Party and a former party leader in Scotland, this is very much like a trip down memory lane. They are all prominent figures in my past, which is intimidating and reassuring in equal measure.

I begin with my noble friend Lord McInnes of Kilwinning and thank him for his very kind words. In his powerful and incisive speech, he cited John Buchan and the contradiction between unionism and nationalism —perhaps that provided a template for the future of the union. He is correct; the union is one of diversity. I suggest that the union flag itself reveals that; with its jarring symbols and clash of colours, it operates in the plural not the singular. Having said that, as he accepted and I think we all acknowledge, we of course celebrate the crucial UK-wide institutions and our British identity, and we adhere to those.

My noble friend Lord Lilley was the first of many English voices in this debate. It is so welcome to hear those voices because they have traditionally been quieter than those of the slightly louder Celtic contingent. He was right to celebrate the union. He spoke about the range of things that unify us: language, culture, history, ancestry and, perhaps most powerfully, sacrifice in war. My noble friend also spoke about the need to be positive and enthusiastic and to celebrate the union.

The noble Lord, Lord Bew, spoke about the upheaval of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union and how much greater an impact sundering a much older union would have—how right he is. He spoke about being careful about using Ireland as a model for an independent Scotland, especially in economic analysis. On behalf of the UK Government, I say that we of course welcome the return of the Executive and devolved government in Northern Ireland, after two years without an Administration. This deal has ensured that power sharing is up and running again, as people in Northern Ireland want and need.

The Government still provide the Executive with an unprecedented £3.3 billion spending settlement, with a new approach to support stability, prosperity and sustainable public services. This underlines Northern Ireland’s integral place in our union, fulfilling the Acts of Union and affirming that we will not countenance any diminution in that position without consent. Lastly, it safeguards the UK internal market, guaranteeing unfettered access for Northern Ireland firms and supporting trade across the United Kingdom, enabling all parts of the UK to benefit.

The noble Lord, Lord Dodds of Duncairn, spoke about his belief in devolution and made an important distinction between party-political support for the union and the support of the populace for the union. He asked for the UK Government to be robust. I reassure him and will give a brief exposition of the UK Government’s position on Northern Ireland’s place in the union. In accordance with the Good Friday agreement and the principle of consent, Northern Ireland will remain part of the UK for as long as its people wish. The Government recognise and respect the legitimacy of different constitutional ambitions, as long as they are pursued peacefully and democratically, and we are steadfastly committed to upholding the Good Friday agreement in all its dimensions. None the less, this Government are proud of Northern Ireland’s place in the union. We firmly believe that Northern Ireland has the best of both worlds, with the Northern Ireland Executive backed by the support and strength of the UK Government.

The agreement is explicit that any change to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland would require the consent of a majority of its people, and there is no clear basis to suggest that a majority of people in Northern Ireland presently wish to separate from the United Kingdom. The overwhelming consensus in Northern Ireland, rather like in Scotland, is that it needs a strong Executive or Government to deliver on the issues that really matter to people day to day—health, jobs, the cost of living and education—and that will remain our focus.

My noble friend Lady Goldie has long experience in the Scottish Parliament, and serving as a Minister in the UK Government here in your Lordships’ House. She posed various questions that she answered using this experience and expertise. I will reflect on them more broadly. The theme underlying her contribution was partnership and personal relationships, and I reassure her that they exist in government. There has been mention of the intergovernmental relations review, which proposed various levels of engagement. In my few short weeks at official level, I have seen that working as a reality. I also point out to my noble friend initiatives that the UK Government have brought forward such as the Islands Forum. Personal relationships are key, as she said, and, from a personal perspective, having been in the Scottish Parliament with colleagues who serve as Ministers in the Scottish Government, I hope I can play a small part in fostering those relationships.

The noble Baroness, Lady Foster of Aghadrumsee, gave me a warm welcome, for which I thank her. She spoke about her part of the world in Fermanagh, and that reminded me that, as an MSP, I would often drive down the Kintyre peninsula to Campbeltown and be able to gaze across to the Northern Ireland coast, a visible reminder that the Scottish highlands and Northern Ireland are close physically, geographically, emotionally, culturally and politically. There are so many ancient links between our two parts of the world.

The noble Baroness spoke about the rollout of the Covid vaccine across the United Kingdom. It was, of course, one of the greatest achievements of this Government. My noble friend Lord Moylan spoke coherently about the union of Parliaments, the voluntary nature of this union and how unusual it was. He spoke cogently about the affection binding the union together.

In relation to the Welsh language, I will be clear: the UK Government fully support the Welsh Government’s aim for there being 1 million speakers of Welsh by 2050. The Welsh language is devolved, but the UK Government are committed to supporting its promotion and use in Wales. Languages belong to everyone and, as I said earlier, I have taken a long interest in promoting the Gaelic language. I hark back to the UK Conservative Governments of the 1980s and 1990s and their contribution to Gaelic broadcasting.

My noble friend Lord Godson likewise gave me a very generous welcome. He might not remember, but the first time I met him was at a Policy Exchange event about the union. I recognise and pay tribute to his own interest in these issues over many years. In relation to security and defence, I point to the good working between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Irish Garda. There is an embedded culture of collaboration there. They co-operate in the context of terrorism—I accept that it is not a state threat—but, on the more specific questions on defence and security, I commit to writing to my noble friend on these issues. They are very much in the domain of my noble friend Lord Minto, whom I will make aware of these matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, spoke of being Hanoverian—another important English voice—and about Cumbria and its similarities to Scotland. I of course defend the levelling-up programme. It is a government achievement that occurs across the United Kingdom. Many towns in England have benefited, as well as in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I commit to writing to him in relation to the borderlands.

My noble friend Lord Udny-Lister spoke about issues relating to national security. I reiterate the same commitment to him to write to him in due course. I acknowledge his long interest in the union and recall meeting him in Edinburgh a few years ago.

My noble and learned friend Lord Keen of Elie spoke about Sewel. I am anxious not to step on the toes of your Lordships’ Constitution Committee, which I know is looking at this at the moment. The United Kingdom is committed to the Sewel convention and the associated practices for seeking consent. The United Kingdom Government seek legislative consent for any Bill that legislates for a devolved matter or alters devolved competence. We can and do take account of devolved Administrations’ views on those issues, including in reserved policy areas.

In relation to the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, I will indeed take the point about the SNP and this House to the Leader of this House. I just point out today that the objection to taking part in your Lordships’ House is the SNP’s, and effectively it is a red line for it as a political party.

The noble Baroness, Lady Humphreys, was a welcome Welsh voice. She asked about the Independent Commission on the Constitutional Future for Wales. That report was, of course, commissioned by the Welsh Government, and it is for Ministers in Wales to respond directly to it. People and businesses in Wales want to see all tiers of government working effectively together to tackle the issues that matter to them. Delivering on what matters to people and communities is exactly what the UK Government are focused on doing.

To the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington, I reiterate the points I made about working together and repeat that I have already seen that happening in practice. The review of intergovernmental relations is up and running. All four Governments are jointly responsible for upholding the spirit and content of the IGR structures and ensuring productive governmental relations. Since the review was published in 2022, we have established 16 interministerial groups. The interministerial council has met six times; the interministerial financial standing council has met five times; the council has met once, and the secretariat has been established. There will always be evolution, and it is vital through scrutiny such as this debate that we can help mature that system.

I will conclude with some words of assurance. This Government will never cease to be a Government who put the safeguarding and strengthening of our union at the centre of our work. As I have set out, I am honoured to be able to champion this mission in this place as a proud representative of the Scotland Office. However, we must never be complacent. We must always remember that safeguarding our union is an ongoing mission and not simply a short-term response to temporary political turbulence.

All parts of our great nation contribute to the strength of the United Kingdom, which remains the most successful political and economic union the world has ever seen. Under this Government, that will always be the case.

Photo of Lord McInnes of Kilwinning Lord McInnes of Kilwinning Conservative 2:15, 14 March 2024

My Lords, it is a great privilege to be able to congratulate my noble friend on the tour de force of a maiden speech we have just witnessed. To be asked to deliver a maiden speech from the Front Bench is a challenge indeed, and he has done it brilliantly. It was formidable content, delivered in the erudite way we would always expect of him, demonstrating well the intellectual heft that the Scottish Parliament has lost and we have gained.

My noble friend Lord Godson referred to a forebear of my noble friend Lord Cameron, Gentle Lochiel; I want to refer to another: Sir Ewan Cameron of Lochiel, who was a century before Gentle Lochiel, but was known and written about as a gracious master, a trusty ally but a terrible enemy. I am quite sure that noble Lords will take full notice of the last of the triplet in how they might wish to deal with my noble friend, but it is a great privilege to have him in your Lordships’ House and we look forward to all that he is going to add to debate in this Chamber.

In the minute I have left, I want to thank all noble Lords for bringing forward what has been an exposition of all the arguments that can be made for the union. That we have had detailed suggestions for government on security issues, on Sewel and on other measures is also important for our debate. While my sunny disposition might have been topped up today by lots of good unionist talk, it is very important that government continues to act on that and deliver for the union and strengthen it as we move forward.

Motion agreed.