Debating the Constitution

At the beginning of a new session, several days in each House are devoted to debating the 44105 Queen’s Speech, with each day allocated to a particular topic.  On Thursday of last week, the debate in the Lords was on the Constitution and the Union.  I spoke in the debate.  Given the number of speakers, the advisory speaking time was 5 minutes.  I focused on the Union, making more general comments on other constitutional issues in the last minute or so of the talk.  The speech can be read here.

My principal point was that we need to be making the case for the Union, emphasising the fact that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, rather than being in response mode, reacting to pressure from those demanding independence and in effect making concession after concession, in the mistaken belief that this will stave off pressure for separation.  I quoted from the Constitution Committee’s excellent 2016 report, The Union and devolution (which can be read here).  It noted the ad hoc way in which power had been devolved and declared:

‘This haphazard approach to the UK’s constitution, in which power has been devolved without any counter-balancing steps to protect the Union, recently culminated in an existentialist threat in the form of a referendum on Scottish independence.  An inattentive approach to the integrity of the Union cannot continue.’

Had the Government paid more attention to the report – and indeed to other reports from the Committee on devolution, including the 2003 report  (which can be read here) on Devolution: Inter-Institutional Relations in the United Kingdom – when I chaired the Committee – it may well have been in a much stronger position.

I also made the point that we need to be making the case for the Union in all parts of the United Kingdom.  The attempts to keep Scotland in particular in the Union have exacerbated the English question, stoking resentment south of the border at the perceived beneficial treatment of Scotland (the Barnett formula, the West Lothian question).  All parts of the United Kingdom benefit from the Union.  We need to stress the benefits of remaining one constitutional union under the Crown.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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1 Response to Debating the Constitution

  1. Andrew Turvey says:

    Indeed. The approach to devolution reminds me of the EU’s passarelle cause through which powers could be passed to the EU but not back. Just as the latter results in “ever closer union” and, inevitably, a superstate, the former results in ever more devolution and, just as inevitably, independence.
    If split competences is the right answer then there will always be areas where we could say powers should be transferred up as well as down. Politically and constitutionally we need to be making that case.

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