United Kingdom: Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords am 1:15 pm ar 14 Mawrth 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Lord Inglewood Lord Inglewood Non-affiliated 1:15, 14 Mawrth 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.