Bishop of Leeds speaks in debate on union and constitutional issues

The Bishop of Leeds spoke in a debate on a report from the Constitution Committee – Respect and Co-operation: Building a Stronger Union for the 21st century, on 20th January 2023 :

The Lord Bishop of Leeds: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Taylor, and the committee, for an excellent report. I hope that your Lordships will forgive me if I do not go into the detail of the report but offer what might sound a bit of a left-field observation. The report is subtitled Building a Stronger Union for the 21st Century. However, an assumption that we often bring to these debates is that what we had in the 20th century and before will automatically persist and that everyone buys into it.

Please forgive me for doing a segue into a different part of the world, but I did a lot of work in Kazakhstan in the noughties. I remember that on one trip, having done quite a lot of media work with young people there, it struck me on returning to the UK via Frankfurt that over there they would forgive corruption and all sorts of things because they were building something that they were investing in. They did not quite know where it was leading but they were building a future of which they were very proud. When I came back to the west, I was struck by the fact that we do not talk about our young people building anything. We have a set of institutions, particularly arising from the post-Second World War settlement, which we expect our young people to inherit and to buy into, but what are they building? You will sacrifice your life for something that you are building, not something that you simply inherit. My concern is about many of the young people, particularly those I have come across from Scotland, who are quite frankly either anti or indifferent to the union.

On the very first page of this report, the first line refers to the committee and then to “we”. It just bugs me; who is the “we” that we keep talking about? My generation cannot construct a narrative. When I came back from Kazakhstan, the concern I had then was about a new narrative for Europe, not one that we simply inherit but one we can build. The only people who can tell us this are the young people who will be around when we are long gone. What are the mechanisms we are building to enable younger generations to explore and articulate a vision for constitutional settlements that command not just their intellectual assent but their imagination, and into which they will invest their energy? I am afraid I do not have the answer. I puzzled over it in relation to a vision for a new Europe, but I also puzzle over what this might look like in respect of the union. If anything commanded attention and could show some leadership from Parliament in convening conversations that begin to identify how young people see the world and the union, it would have done something very important. I commend that to the Minister and hope that it will be taken seriously.


Extracts from the speeches that followed:

Baroness Heyman of Ullock (Lab): My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Taylor for introducing the report and all the members of the committee who worked to produce it. It is particularly welcome to see the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, in his place and to hear his very wise words. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Verdirame, on his maiden speech. I very much look forward to his future contributions. There has been much discussion about Scotland in this debate, so I should declare that I am half-Welsh, and so represent that side of the union.

I think that all Members of this House who believe in the union will nevertheless accept that a significant proportion of the population have lost faith in it, as has been mentioned by noble Lords throughout the debate. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds talked specifically about young people in this respect. We believe the task for unionists now is to make the case for not just the union as it stands but the potential of what it can be.

It is on that basis that I very much welcome the report by the Constitution Committee. Its recommendations build a vision of a more balanced UK, a modern style of governance and a stronger culture of co-operation and partnership. Each of these principles is crucial for the future of the union. The noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, referred to Gordon Brown’s report, which I hope shows that we on these Benches are committed to this.

Baroness Scott of Bybrook (Con): Before I finish, I want to respond to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds. His contribution was extremely interesting, and I would like to think on it further. Young people are the future—and they are the future of the union. Their views must be heard, and we must work with them. I thank him for his contribution, and I will give it some thought.

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