Scotland: Devolution — Motion to Take Note

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Lord Lyell (Conservative)
My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Leader for being here for this debate. I have attended many debates on Scotland and we have not had all the assistance and help that we shall get from my noble and learned friend Lord Wallace and have already had from my noble friend the Leader. This is one of the most important debates that I have attended in 50 years—I shall say that again: 50 years—in your Lordships’ House. Fifty years ago I was an apprentice accountant in that great city of Glasgow and I never imagined that I would have the chance to discuss what we are discussing today—the onward march of devolution and political developments in Scotland—but we have it and here I am.

I declare an interest as I live in the boondocks of Scotland. To the real happiness of the government Whips who have tried to find me, I live about one station before Vladivostok, but I manage I get here by 12 hours on the train each week. I spent the whole of our Summer Recess in rural Scotland. Day after day, the electronic media, both visual and aural, told us that this was a major decision. It was, but feelings ran very high and I certainly listened with great care and appreciation to the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Liddell. In my little town of Kirrie—known to the rest of the world as Kirriemuir—never in my 74 years have I seen not one or two, but four policemen at the town hall where the vote was taking place. It may have been an 80% turnout but, as the noble Baroness pointed out, passion and feelings of varying degrees were whipped up to, I might say, “Bash the English”. That was behind it all. Certainly, I felt that in my neck of the woods in Scotland and it really rather worried me.

Happily, things turned out very well on 19 September and since. What happened and what have we had since then? I am pleased that the noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord McAvoy, are here, because the three of us frequently hear, when the men in dark blue have not done terribly well, “We were not defeated; it was the referee”. That has been the great cry of the yes voters, and we are still hearing it today. It has been gradually calming down, but it will be an ongoing battle, probably for the rest of my career in your Lordships’ House or elsewhere.

I was in the boondocks of Scotland. I was very lucky; fortunately, in Kirrie, they regard me as something of an intellectual—they are quite wrong—because I obtain and pay for a copy of the Financial Times. One of the most hard-hitting articles that I read was by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson. I warned him that I would mention him although I knew that he would not be not here today. He wrote the most devastating article for the centre pages of the Financial Times. He was speaking to a taxi driver in Glasgow who said, “I want to be part of the United Kingdom, but I am going to vote yes to give those so-and-sos south of the border something to think about. Anyhow, all the negotiations will be done by the likes of you”—that is, the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, Mr Darling, and the rest. As the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, said, that is sheer brass neck.

I fear that that was what was appearing in the electronic media but, happily, not in the printed media. Two days later, I read another article, again in the Financial Times, which I have no hesitation in praising because it is read throughout the world. My friends in America and New Zealand know precisely what is going on, even without the BBC World Service. Martin Wolf wrote a searing article for the centre page, saying, “You had better take care in Scotland; I have a shock for the Scots if they were to vote yes”. He looked at the economic and political aspects throughout Europe if there were to be a yes vote.

Happily, it did not turn out that way. Professor John Kay, who I understand is a leading adviser to the Government of Scotland, wrote that, “nationalist sentiment” will not,

“be assuaged by the transfer of responsibility for housing benefit”.

There is an awful lot more to be done. He concludes:

“Effective political leadership and a strong economy are the only way to define the resentment is expressed in current public opinion”.

I started, and will finish very quickly, to the happiness of the Whips, by saying that I commenced my apprenticeship in Glasgow. I am very lucky to be followed by the noble Lord, Lord McConnell. In that great city, we have enormous industry. There is the Weir Group, which my noble colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Kelvin, chaired and ran for many years. I think that he has one year more than me as a qualified accountant. You could not find anyone in Britain or in the United Kingdom who would do a better job than he will for Scotland, its industry and its economy.

Five minutes ago, we had a huge group of young Royal Navy ratings up in the Gallery. Barr and Stroud is a world leader in naval equipment; once again, it is in Glasgow. We also have British Aerospace, or BAE, and the shipyards. My noble friend Lord Stephen came with me to Babcock International in Renfrew—world leaders in energy, microwelding and nuclear security. Those four firms are world leaders and they are in Scotland. They will provide the foundations and the seed corn for any development or devolution that will be discussed in my lifetime or further on.

I am very grateful to your Lordships for giving me five minutes.

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Lord McFall of Alcluith (Labour)
My Lords, in the referendum, no has won the battle, but it has not won the war of words. Those words were pretty ugly, divisive and depressing throughout the referendum campaign. What we saw was an intolerant streak, demonstrated in the social and political debates; so much anger, venom and sneering contempt directed by individuals and groups at one another. The social media mirrored this throughout the referendum.

To have a decent debate you have to have a good tone at the top. That is where the First Minister and his deputy were lacking. They were lacking in the area of business. I was engaged with businesses for many months on this issue and they were afraid to put their heads above the parapet. I was engaged with academia, and that was a mirror image. The only one who stood out against that was Dr Louise Richardson of St Andrews University. In a personal call with Alex Salmond, she told him, no, she was going her own way. We also saw that with the SNP-inspired demonstration against the BBC for Nick Robinson asking a hard question—the sort of hard question that he asks politicians in Westminster day in and day out. Alex Salmond took exception to that.

What has happened is that Westminster has become a toxic term as a result of this debate. Both Alex Salmond and, indeed, Nigel Farage in his own way, have enhanced that toxicity. What does that mean? That means that Westminster is to be very much involved in ensuring that we progress this devolution debate. We need to ensure that we correct our politics and ask the question: how do we contain and how do we eliminate the disturbances that we have seen? There is something unnerving in the air—witness the social and political fragmentation. Westminster needs to reassert its authority and produce a confident voice in this debate; one that respects the constituent parts.

EVEL has been mentioned. If we go down this line as a primary consideration, we will not achieve that. Let us reflect on the situation. The English voice is alive and well in the mother of Parliaments: 650 constituencies with 533 English ones. That voice is alive. England remains the dominant nation. There is no need, as Vernon Bogdanor, the Prime Minister’s Oxford tutor, says, to beat the drum or blow the bugle. If we beat the drum and blow the bugle too much, that

will strain the devolution settlement to breaking point—as will the 100% tax devolution to the Scottish Parliament. This is a slow way to independence. Why? If there is 100% tax devolution, Scottish MPs will not vote on the Finance Bill or indeed debate it as we do here. There will be no Scottish Chancellor and, given that the Prime Minister is the First Lord of the Treasury, there will be no Prime Minister from Scotland.

There is another way of getting independence. Members of Parliament and parliamentarians here have to realise that. If Westminster is to maintain its voice, there has to be no dereliction of duty by the Prime Minister in the future. A dereliction of duty was undertaken with the Edinburgh agreement. There was a casual treatment of the Edinburgh agreement by the Prime Minister. It was way in the future, so the timing, giving a two-year timescale, was given away—just like that. Also, the wording of the question was given away. The wording, style and tone of a question are crucial in determining the value and quality of the answer received. As one who campaigned, I can tell the House that it is very hard to enthuse people if one is proposing a negative. That should have been looked at at the very beginning. The constitutional debate since 1999 has been all about process; what further powers can be devolved to the Scottish Parliament or the Welsh Assembly? There has been little focus on the effectiveness of the delivery of politics. The concept of devolution as a process of events needs to be re-examined.

I have some very close friends who voted yes. I challenged them on why they were voting yes. I put it to them about the currency union, “Do you agree with Jim Sillars about stupidity on stilts?”. “Yes”. I asked about Trident and NATO. “Can you get rid of Trident while simultaneously getting in to a nuclear club? Do you think that is consistent?”. “No”. “What about EU admission? Do you think there will be problems about that? Will there by automatic entry?”. “No. There will be problems, but we are voting yes”. One highly sophisticated friend said to me that he voted yes and hoped that the result would be no. That illustrates the disconnection that there was. When I asked them why they were voting yes, they said it was for a fairer, more socially just society. But there was no means to deliver that. There is a disconnect and we must appreciate that here.

Arsène Wenger, in the Times this morning, made the point that we are moving from a thinking society to an emotional one. We are losing our sense of perspective on events because of the requirement for instant reactions and opinions. As Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman said in his bestselling book, instead of thinking fast, we should start to think slow. We have thought fast in the past and we have got ourselves into deep problems. We need a constitutional convention or a royal commission; one which is thought out; one where there is citizen engagement; one where we have to think out the purpose and the terms of reference. A constitutional convention or a royal commission is the way forward. We should do it slowly so that we get wise decisions out of it—wise decisions which can secure a union that is not safe yet and wise decisions which, through reconciliation and good disagreement, can secure the peace.

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Lord Elder (Labour)
My Lords, moving as we are towards the end of a long debate, I start by wishing the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Kelvin, well and his fellow committee members the best of luck. I say that as someone who spent eight years, I think, on the Scottish Constitutional Convention, most of them on its Executive, who was in the Scottish Office at the time of the White Paper and Bill and who, more recently, was on the Calman commission, so I kind of know the course.

I want to make a couple of general points. First, I suggest very strongly that we take care with the language we use in discussing further devolution. In the years running up to 1997, when we were talking about devolution we said that everything was reserved and then published a long—an increasingly long—list of things that were to be devolved. That was reversed in the 1998 Act, which says that everything is devolved except a much shorter list of central powers that are to be reserved. The issue is not just what powers we need to devolve—I am, of course, prepared to look at further powers to be devolved—but what powers we need to retain if the union, which was backed in the referendum by a substantial majority, is to be upheld. The SNP will always want more powers. We should be more careful, as was Scotland in the referendum vote.

Some of the more extreme suggestions—devolving all income tax, VAT, social security—look to be ending the union by the back door. If all that is left is defence and foreign affairs, and perhaps a residual and declining Barnett formula, then the Scottish people will feel that they have got rather less than they expected. The SNP of course wants to become a member of NATO, a nuclear-backed alliance, though it does not want to have anything to do with nuclear weapons. The fear is that, if we end up with this further great swathe of economic powers being devolved in some way, the majority in the referendum will feel hugely and rightly let down.

There has always been a school of thought in Scotland that you could stifle independence by granting more powers to the Scottish Parliament. That has always seemed to me to be flawed. If you argue for more powers in all circumstances, then you are actually arguing for independence, but with a slightly longer timetable—and that is not what Scotland voted for.

Secondly, I note the very tight timetable that is being followed by the new Commission. I wonder whether we might be in a better position if the same degree of urgency had been shown about the introduction of the Calman proposals, particularly those about tax. I declare an interest both as a member of the Calman commission and as someone who had a heavy hand in these tax proposals.

The commission reported in June 2009 and I believe that the tax changes are going to be introduced in 2016-17. These are substantial powers, and I should have liked to have seen how they might have changed the argument, had they been introduced rather more quickly. It is after all one of the ironies of devolution to Scotland that the income tax powers in the Scotland Act, backed by the people of Scotland in a separate referendum question, were allowed to lapse, not because they were not in the interests of the people of Scotland—

who had voted for them explicitly—but because they did not fit well with the very narrow party aims of the SNP.

I hope the day will come when the debate in Scotland is not about more powers alone, but that we will move on to the vastly more important point of what is to be done with the powers that are there. For goodness’ sake, let us get back to the business of health and education policy, the power of local government, and all the rest. That is what is now needed.

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