United Kingdom: Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 12:54 pm ar 14 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Moylan Lord Moylan Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee 12:54, 14 Mawrth 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.