The House of Lords contains more peers that are bankrolled by Russian oligarchs than it does peers who support Scottish independence. It is an out-dated antidemocratic institution packed with cronies of the UK’s ruling elite.
Some peers – led by Scottish Labour’s Baron Foulkes – are now putting forward a new law which would make it illegal for the Scottish Government to hold an independence referendum – here we answer questions about what this move means and the possible consequences.
Q What has been proposed?
The proposal is for the UK Government to pass a law making it illegal for the Scottish Government to spend money on anything outside a tightly-defined remit.
Q What other effects would it have?
The primary purpose would be to stop a new referendum. But this law would mean that Westminster would very much dictate what the Scottish Government is allowed to do, on a wide range of issues.
The bill would make it illegal for civil servants to work on post-independence planning, or for Scottish Government representatives to travel abroad to meet their counterparts in other countries, It would no longer be permissible for anyone employed by the Scottish Government to spend time on issues like defence, the post-independence Constitution or mitigating the effects of Brexit in international trade.
But the law could go further than this. Under the Internal Markets Act any measure which create a different trading environment north of the border are out of order. So even Scottish Government officials planning to put a 10p deposit on a bottle of Irn-Bru could be ruled illegal.
Q Who is behind this?
This proposal comes from members of the House of Lords. The main proposer is Labour Peer George Foulkes. Foulkes is drafting a Private Member’s Bill which he will put forward to the Conservative government after the Queen’s Speech on May 10, hoping that Boris Johnson will pick it up and decide to make it law.
Foulkes has reportedly won the support of Conservative Scottish peers Michael Forsyth and Liam Fox. The Daily Express called them a “Dad’s Army” of veteran politicians, referring to the Second World War TV show.
Q Do the rest of the Labour group in the Lords support this?
The Scottish Labour group in the House of Lords has 27 members. It is not clear how many of the rest of the group support this plan, but so far none of them has disassociated themselves from it.
There are 167 Labour Lords. Few of these understand much about Scotland – but they could be instructed to support this Bill if it passes to the next stages.
Q How many Scottish members of the House of Lords are there? How many support independence?
The current membership of the House of Lords is around 800. There are no geographical criteria for membership, unlike Canada which has an appointed upper house of just 105 members selected from each territory of the federation.
Around 87 members of the current House of Lords could be regarded as Scottish Peers, according to research by MP Tommy Sheppard in 2020. They are largely privately-educated males over 65. A quarter of this number, 22, are hereditary peers. The rest include Tory donor Malcolm Offord who was ennobled and appointed to the Scottish Office after failing to win an election in Scotland.
The bill for Scottish peers services has been calculated as around £3 million a year. Not one single Scottish peer is apparently in favour of Scottish independence.
Q How many members of the House of Lords support Scottish independence?
There are more people in the House of Lords bankrolled by Russian oligarchs than there are supporters of Scottish independence. Evegeny Lebedev is funded by his father Alexander, a former KGB agent who acquired a large stake in Gazprom. There are no peers at all among the 800 strong membership of this exclusive club who have voiced support for Scottish independence.
Q What could the Scottish Parliament do to prevent a Bill like this becoming law?
Very little. The House of Lords has the power to debate and amend legislation which affects Scotland – but Holyrood does not.
Despite being fully elected, by the Scottish people under a fairer proportional representation system, the Scottish Parliament gets no say at all over controversial laws that affect Scotland. In the post-Brexit settlement, the UK Government decided to remove powers from Holyrood under the Internal Markets Act. Holyrood refused consent for this as it has for other draconian new laws such as the Nationality and Borders Bill and the Elections Bill, which may disenfranchise 100,000 Scots.
But Westminster repeatedly ignores the wishes of Scotland’s elected Parliament. The UK Supreme Court recently ruled that “Westminster has merely lent powers to the three devolved territories, which can be reclaimed at any times.”
Critics of this position argue that because the devolved Parliaments – especially Scotland’s where 75% of voters said Yes in 1997 – were established by a referendum with strong popular support, they should be recognised as sharing sovereignty with Westminster. However, there is no suggestion that Westminster ever would share sovereignty with Scotland’s elected Parliament.
Q Will this become law?
At the moment, there is no clear path for the proposed bill to become law. It may be that Foulkes has been persuaded to float the idea in order for the UK Government to test the strength of opposition to it. Or the UK Government may feel they can use existing powers to dictate to Holyrood.
The House of Commons would also have to vote to pass this law. But if it were to make it that far, there would be little Scots could do to stop it. The majority of MPs elected in Scotland since 2011 have supported independence – but they are regularly outvoted on matters that affect Scotland, such as the Internal Markets Act.
This latest attack on the democratically elected Scottish Government is another sign that the House of Lords is out of touch with the country it seeks to govern. It is unacceptable that Labour peers like Lord Foulkes feel entitled to lay down the law when they can’t claim to represent the people of Scotland in any way.
Only in an independent Scotland would be free of the shadowy hand of this unelected body.