United Kingdom: Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:35 pm ar 14 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

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