IT'S time for a "Project Hope" to keep Scotland in the UK, an influential ex-Scotland Office minister says.

Lord Andrew Dunlop says he was "worried" by the "muscular Unionism" adopted by the UK Government after the publication of his Dunlop Review last spring.

The paper on the workings of the United Kingdom was commissioned by Theresa May and kept under wraps for 16 months after its conclusion in November 2019.

It called for a new emphasis on inter-government operations and the creation of a new secretary of state position to represent the Union.

The Tory peer is a member of the House of Lords Constitution Committee, which last week published its blueprint for a "stronger Union in the 21st century". This includes reforming Barnett Formula funding and giving peers a stronger role in scrutinising House of Commons bills that impinge on areas of devolved competency.

In the House of Lords podcast, Dunlop has now said the tumult of Brexit and Covid means politicians must not "waste time on constitutional bickering" and instead "improve the relationships between the governments of this country and start delivering for the people who need help and support".

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Running on a manifesto that pledged a new indyref, the SNP received a record number of constituency votes at the Scottish Parliament election last year. Nicola Sturgeon has said she intends to "do everything that is within my power to enable that referendum to happen before the end of 2023". 

Meanwhile, the Welsh Government has formed a Constitutional Commission as part of a national conversation about the country's future, with independence amongst the options to be considered.

Dunlop stated: "In 2014 the No campaign was called Project Fear, but what we need now is Project Hope.

"The theme of our report is how do you build a Union of cooperation and respect? And I think that goes with the grain of public opinion.

"All the evidence suggests that the public want to see governments across the United Kingdom working together. And if any of those governments show themselves unwilling to work together, then I think there's a political cost to be paid for that."

Claiming that there is now a "renewed respect" for the Sewel Convention, under which the UK parliament will not normally legislate on matters under devolved competencies without prior consent, Dunlop went on: "After my report was published, I think we went through a period... of the government going down a road of muscular unionism, sort of overriding the devolved governments in their areas of responsibility.

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"I have to say that worried me and really wasn't in line with what I was recommending in my review. But I think as time has gone on, I think the government has changed its tack and is now adopting a more cooperative and respectful approach to the devolved governments."

Appearing with Dunlop, Labour peer Baroness Taylor of Bolton said the committee's proposals "should result in the resetting of the relationship between central government and the component parts".

She stated: "The UK is one of, if not the most centralised countries in the whole of Europe and much more centralized than those countries we identify with. So it really is time that we release the trap that central government has on law-making and indeed, on spending and delivering services.

"Unless we get a different balance, we don't think that we can face the challenges for the future in terms of Covid, in terms of dealing with Brexit, in terms of climate change, de-industrialisation.

"There are a lot of problems there, and we believe that all the answers are not in Whitehall and Westminster."

Taylor said evidence sessions turned up evidence of a "devolve and forget" approach and a more "muscular" viewpoint from the Prime Minister "and others". She said: "We're not getting any anywhere with either of those attitudes."

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Dunlop said "people feeling they're not sharing equally in the Union's benefits and that they feel powerless to make their voices heard" is the "biggest threat" to its future.

He said: "If you look at the places in Scotland that voted yes in 2014, places like Dundee and Glasgow, I don't think what people were feeling in those cities is very different from what people are feeling in the north of England. So I think tackling these issues can be and should be a great unifying project."