Lord Salisbury, Chair of the Constitution Reform Group, has written to major party leaders on the urgent need for constitutional reform.

The letter has been sent in the wake of the Act of Union Bill, published by the cross-party Group, which seeks to resolve tensions between the devolved parliaments of the UK and Westminster.

The full letter is printed below:

I write on behalf of the Constitution Reform Group of which I am chairman. The group is made up of members of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Parties, including former First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and former officials. I attach a list of the members of the Steering Committee.

The Group came together in the wake of the 2014 Scottish referendum, believing that, in spite of the vote against independence, the existing constitutional arrangements for the United Kingdom were both unsustainable and deficient. The sadness was that the debate on our future was reducing itself to two options: on the one hand, independence for Scotland and Wales together with Northern Ireland’s unification with the Republic; and, on the other, a version of the status quo.

The Group is convinced that the break up of the United Kingdom would be a tragic and fundamental strategic blunder, leading to the dissolution of a union that has been astonishingly successful, culturally and economically, and which has stood as a powerful defence of its people’s values and liberties in a dangerous world. Equally, the process of breaking up the Union would subject its citizens to an unknowable number of years of uncertainty and disruption, destabilising their lives and the governance of their nations. Nevertheless, if the Member Nations are to endure and prosper, the Group believes the U.K. must be refashioned and that a new constitutional settlement is a necessary part of that refashioning.

To this end, we have for the last six years worked with leading constitutional lawyers and experts to draft legislation, which is comprehensive, internally logical and consistent. Its implementation would provide the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom with a clearer view of their local and UK-wide responsibilities. It would also clearly define the scope and purpose of their cooperation and consequently reset anew faith in the Union. The Bill includes provisions for the creation of a UK Central Bank, which would better and more equally serve the interests of all parts of the United Kingdom.

In 2018, Lord Lisvane introduced our draft of the Bill into the House of Lords and we subsequently felt that this first version of the Bill could be improved, particularly in its financial provisions. Accordingly, Sir Andrew Large convened a group whose amendments have now been incorporated into a second version, a draft of which I attach. I also attach the names of those who contributed to the further discussions on the Bill’s financial aspects. Lord Lisvane plans to lay the revised Bill on the Table of the House of Lords during the course of the current year.

The Bill makes some radical proposals. Many will disagree with them. Indeed, not every member of the Steering Committee fully agrees. However, all of us do feel that there is an increasing sense that constitutional change has become urgent. Outside our Group there is a predictably wide spread of views as to what needs to be done, ranging from improvements to existing process to radical changes to the constitutional architecture of the United Kingdom. Our Bill can, we hope, be seen as an example of what the basic architecture of a new settlement between the Member Nations of the Union could look like. You will, however, note that, apart from the substantial proposals regarding the future of the Houses of Lords and Commons, we have not addressed the crucial question of the future governance of England: 85% of the whole. This is deliberate as we are in touch with a number of groups considering that aspect.

At a minimum, we hope that the Bill can serve as a basis of consideration for reform in what must be a wider debate across the whole of the United Kingdom, to deliver bottom-up reform of the system which binds it together. I hope, of course, that you will find time to read it and even support its provisions. However, in more practical terms, I hope you will agree that a new constitutional settlement is indeed urgent. If so, we need a way forward and I hope that you will be prepared to consider support for establishing a forum, perhaps led by the Parliaments of the United Kingdom, which would consider how to lay a path towards building a new constitutional settlement.

The CRG for one feels that such a forum and a wider debate are needed if we are to preserve and build on the advantages that Union provides.

[Robert Salisbury]

21 April, 2021

Lord Salisbury is chairman of Reaction.