On 8th December 2015 the House of Lords considered the Government’s Scotland Bill at Committee stage. The Bishop of Chester, Rt Revd Peter Forster, spoke during debate on amendments to the Bill from Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Forsyth of Drumlean.
The amendment from Lord Norton proposed the removal from the Bill of two new clauses to be added to the 1998 Scotland Act, namely:
(1) The Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government are a permanent part of the United Kingdom’s constitutional arrangements.
(2) The purpose of this section is, with due regard to the other provisions of this Act, to signify the commitment of the Parliament and Government of the United Kingdom.
Lord Forsyth’s amendment sought to change the wording of (1) so that it instead read
(1) The Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government are recognised as a permanent part of the United Kingdom’s constitutional arrangements.
The Bishop argued against both amendments on the grounds that they conflicted with settled political reality and would send unwelcome signals. The amendments were withdrawn after debate.
The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, it is always dodgy for bishops to speak about Scottish matters. The kirk has sometimes considered the possibility of introducing bishops but the one condition it has always applied is that they must not be like English bishops—they must be quite different.
I have some credentials inasmuch as I have had a close association with Scotland for 40 years, since I went to Edinburgh as a student. I have had a house in Scotland for 30 years, I have two Scottish degrees and one Scottish wife, who has kept my feet on the ground over the years. I shall also retire to Scotland shortly, and very much look forward to doing so.
My observation, from my perspective, is that when Parliament, a London-centred body, speaks about Scotland, the Scots always perceive it as being rather patronising and as not taking them seriously. That was the underlying dynamic which led to such a close shave in the referendum. I speak as a unionist through and through, but the Scots felt that they were not taken seriously. When the Scottish Parliament was created, it was not created but reconvened. It was made clear when it first met that it was a reconvening rather than a wholly new event. One has to acknowledge that over the years Scotland, for most of its history, has felt itself to be an independent country, and it participates in the union as an independent country.
When I first saw these clauses, they jarred with me. They remind me of when I go to services and an enthusiastic minister overemphasises the wrong word: I hear, “This IS the word of the Lord”, and I think, “Oh, is it?”. Sometimes, if you emphasise a word you create an uncertainty by emphasising the wrong part of the sentence. “This IS a permanent part of the UK” almost creates a doubt because the emphasis is in the wrong place. My second reaction when I read this was, “Death and taxes are permanent—we are now to add the Scottish Government”.
The absence of a written constitution means that constitutional elements are enshrined in our Acts of Parliament. This is being enshrined in the Bill because we do not have a written constitution. It is a fact of life that the Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament are a permanent feature, and at the end of the day, it is probably wiser to say that than to raise doubt about it.
To remove this part of the clause from the Bill at this point would be utterly disastrous and give all the wrong signals. For whatever reason it has got here—and it may be that I do not know about the legislative process—to remove it would give all the wrong signals. In the Bill, we must not create the sense—
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: If the clause is dishonest in the information which it conveys to the public, how can it be wrong to remove it or amend it as such, and how can it be disastrous to amend it in a way which makes it clear what its real meaning is?
The Lord Bishop of Chester: If the people of Scotland are told, “We toyed with the thought of saying that it was a permanent Parliament but we decided that it wasn’t”, it will simply give the wrong message. Of course I agree that laws can be changed, just as if you have a written constitution it can be changed by some process. However, it corresponds with the reality on the ground.
Lord Maxton (Lab): The fact is that we have a written constitution; we do not have a codified constitution.
The Lord Bishop of Chester: I am not sure that I entirely agree with the point, but I will not argue as it would take me down the highways and byways in a way that would not be helpful. I will end on the following point—and I speak as someone who loves Scotland and who will live there in retirement and no doubt will be buried there. When we talk about Scotland, often a slightly grudging spirit comes into our discussions, which is a great mistake. At the end of the day, this provision is a valuable one.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: [extract] My Lords, we have had quite a good debate already—some two hours or more —on Clause 1, but I would like to move Amendment 2. Anticipating what the noble Lord, Lord McAvoy, would say when he advised us to tread carefully on people’s dreams and anticipating that the Front Bench might not be inclined to listen immediately to the wise words of my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth, I tabled Amendment 2, which at least softens the impact of the clause as currently drafted.
The effect would be to introduce after “are” the words “recognised as” so that it would read, “The Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government are recognised as a permanent part of the United Kingdom’s constitutional arrangements”. Adding “recognised as” implies that there is another party, which is the sovereign Parliament…
The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, perhaps I may clarify a point. I would not want to introduce a question mark over the commitment to permanence. Perhaps I may try an analogy, although it may not work. When I solemnise the marriage of a couple as a permanent union, I do so because of the significance of that, but knowing full well that future circumstances might make that union untenable. That is the possibility. It is simultaneously true that one is committed to the permanence of something but can recognise that circumstances can change in the future. That is simply the nature of a vow—a word that we have not used this afternoon but has been used in previous debates. A vow is a solemn intention, and the commitment to permanence in the Bill is in a sense a solemn commitment. That is what it is and it is the basis on which it has been included. To withdraw it would simply send the wrong signal. That is not to say that something is then set in stone and Parliament cannot change it; that is clearly not our constitutional arrangement, but it is, as it were, the solemn commitment to the people of Scotland that is enshrined in the use of the word “permanent” in the legislation.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: I am most grateful to the right reverend Prelate, but the vow is something that was dreamed up, as I said at Second Reading, by the editor of a tabloid newspaper, the Daily Record. The party leaders, some of whom are no longer with us as party leaders, who signed up to it were unaware that it would be presented on the front page of that newspaper as a vow. It is the old story. When you complain to an editor about a newspaper story, they always say, “I am terribly sorry. It was the subeditors who wrote the headlines and they did not really read the text”. In this case, that is the status of the vow. I hesitate to intrude on the right reverend Prelate’s territory, but I certainly would not confuse it with the marriage vows, which, in my own case, I took as being absolutely permanent and for life. My worry about the Bill is that this marriage of the United Kingdom is being turned into a system where we appear to be living apart from each other, in houses next door to each other with different regimes operating in those houses, but that is for another day. I beg to move.
The Bishop also spoke during debate on a further amendment from Lord Forsyth to insert a new subclause into the first clause of the Bill stating “Nothing in this section alters the sovereignty of the United Kingdom Parliament.” That amendment was also withdrawn following debate.
The Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, I think that nothing in this Bill qualifies the ultimate sovereignty of the UK Parliament. My concern about the proposed insertion reflects what I said earlier—namely, that we need to recognise that devolution is changing the way the United Kingdom is governed. It just is. The Scotland Bill, when enacted, will have a major effect in Scotland in ways that I suspect the Scots have not taken on board. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has made this point before. Normally, I agree with what he says. However, we need to face the fact that although devolution will not change the ultimate sovereignty of this Parliament, it does change the character of governance in this country. We need to accept that, go with it and own it, even if we do not like it.
There has been some discussion about whether or not devolution aids the separatist cause. I suspect that if we had not had devolution, and certainly if we did not have this Bill and the Smith commission, there would be much more of a threat to the union than is the case. The cultural forces of separation are much deeper than whether we draft a Bill this way, that way or the other. Although in one sense I am not bothered whether or not this provision is added to the Bill, it is symptomatic of an attitude which does not face the reality of what devolution is all about.