Queen’s Speech – Bishop of Blackburn on the Union and constitution

On 13th May 2021 the Bishop of Blackburn spoke in the second day of the House of Lords debate on the Queen’s Speech, focusing on the Union and the constitution.

My Lords, I add my congratulations on both confident maiden speeches today. I note that in the gracious Speech two days ago several references were made to strengthening the ties and integrity of the union, making the United Kingdom stronger, healthier and more prosperous than before. The pandemic and the period that follows it will give us a unique opportunity to ask what kind of a society we want to be and what changes we need to make for our own good and, more importantly, for that of future generations. I understand the desire to return to greater freedoms, but we must resist going back to how things were. Instead, we must plan for a better future.

It is encouraging to hear that the Government intend to achieve this strengthening by levelling up opportunities across all parts of the United Kingdom and within each of our four nations. Levelling up has become something of a new watchword in political circles and appears as a welcome driver for many of the intentions outlined in the gracious Speech, seeking to remove those inequalities within our culture that prevent all people and communities from reaching their God-given potential and calling. The pandemic has brought to the surface a number of issues which have been hidden under the radar for far too long and not given the attention they deserve.

Improving the national infrastructure to strengthen transportation and economic ties will go only so far in encouraging better unity. The north-west, like other parts of England, often feels like another part of the world. I know of a recent mayor in a north-west town who has never visited London and has no desire to do so, and of a competent PA in her 50s, again in the north-west, who had visited London only once—in her school years—before having to attend a training session recently. It is a problem almost universally acknowledged that, despite moves to share power and decision-making, government is too London-centric and, as a result, appears and feels divorced from the economic, social and political realities of life in other parts of the UK. This has led to the elevation of mayoral roles in some regions in England. Imaginative work is required to create unity within each of our four separate nations.

The union of the United Kingdom continues to be challenged on many fronts—not only at a geographical level but also ideologically, as was seen in the divisions over Brexit and in recent elections. Levelling up across the union and within the nations of the union is a key strategy which is relevant to many of the proposals in Tuesday’s gracious Speech. Following both Brexit and the pandemic, the country needs a time of reflection and leaders who will create a desire for a consensus within our fragile union about the way ahead—a leadership that serves. There was a leader 2,000 years ago who came to a sticky end but who has millions of followers today, and he said he came not to be served but to serve.

Diversity within the family of the United Kingdom is something to celebrate and not remove. The current strong diversity agenda argues not just for the value of retaining difference but for the importance of celebrating it. A loss of one part affects the whole. On that basis, there is an argument for decisions about independence and devolution being taken by all parts and not just one. There is even a question of whether more than a simple majority would be wise in such major decisions. Surely this gives hope that there is room for a carefully crafted and increased sharing of responsibility within the four nations of the union without total separation.

The pandemic has one other vital lesson to teach our union. The heroism of many, the brilliance of science and the wonderful sense of community spirit have taught us that we need each other and that we are stronger together. But we have other global crises to face: climate change, poverty, injustice, and freedom of expression and belief. As the UK, we can face some of these challenges in a devolved fashion, but we will have a far better chance of mitigating their impact if we co-operate and support each other. In a crisis, strong family bonds are essential. I commend the intention of strengthening the ties and integrity of our union by levelling up opportunity and providing good sharing of responsibility without total separation.