§ 'Greater Abaco as defined in section 6 of this Act shall continue to be a colonial dependency of the Crown under the name of the Colony of Abaco, and shall be governed in accordance with the provisions of any Order in Council which may be made by Her Majesty, 394 Which may be amended or replaced by any other order in Council made under this section'.
§ Mr. Bell
The effect of the amendment and the new clause would be to exclude the islands of Abaco from the independence provisions of the Bill and from all the provisions of the Bill, because Clause 6 is a definition clause related to every part of the Bill.
Perhaps I should declare my absence of any financial interest. That may seem an odd thing to do, but I do it because I became associated in a professional capacity with those in the island of Abaco who wish to be excluded from independence and wish their island to remain a Crown Colony. I advised them before the independence talks in December last year, and I appeared for them at those talks. It is right therefore that the Committee should know, as I informed the House on Second Reading, that I had that professional association with them, which might be thought to bias or influence my judgment in the matter. However, I do not think that it has and I believe that I should have taken the same view had I not had that connection. The Committee might well think that is very probable.
The historical background to this is that a few years ago there came into power in the Bahamas the Government of the present Prime Minister which appeared to some, and certainly to many of those living in Abaco, to adopt policies of a hitherto unfamiliar kind, namely policies of a nationalistic and colour-conscious nature. Perhaps in putting it in that way I am guilty of an understatement. It produced a great feeling of unhappiness among the majority of the population of Abaco, and two years ago the majority of the electorate there presented a petition to Her Majesty asking that their island should be excluded from any independence that might be envisaged in the near future.
We in this House know only too well the lack of value of petitions. They should be important and useful things. They are not. That petition went only to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, where I have no doubt it was read. The orthodox answer was given that a petition of that kind could be considered only if it came from the elected Government of the island.
395 I must say in passing that it does not seem to me to be a very useful right of petition to the Crown if it must be by an elected Government. On the whole, Governments do not need to petition the Crown; they have rather different approaches. One thinks of petitions as a remedy for the private citizens collectively to present a memorial to those who govern.
The importance of that petition is that it showed that two years ago, long before the general election in September, a great many people on the island were entertaining that opinion. Needless to say, a counter-petition was got up. I am afraid that under the present régime in the Bahamas one would take it for granted that that would happen. But it was not a very convincing counter-petition.
Then there came the general election last September, in which Mr. Pindling's party won 28 of the seats. The opposition party, which was against independence at this time, won eight of the seats. There was one tie, and there was a further very narrow win which was subject to an election petition which has now been withdrawn. Sixty per cent. voted for the PLP, Mr. Pindling's party, and 40 per cent. against it, so that the majority was only three to two over all, somewhat unevenly distributed among the islands making up the Bahamas.
In the island of Abaco the popular vote was nearly two to one against the present Government party, and therefore against independence. Abaco is the second largest of the 700 islands in the Bahamas. It is 120 miles long and its area is 850 square miles. It has an abundance of fresh water, which is something of a rarity in the Bahamas. It has fertile land, and it has deep water facilities which could be extremely valuable.
All of those things make it peculiarly suitable for standing on its own as a Crown Colony of this country. But the real case for its being treated exceptionally, in the way that the amendment seeks, is the long history of the island. It was uninhabited at the time of the American War of Independence, and, when the British fortunes failed in the contests, those who were most committedly 396 loyal to the British Crown on the American mainland were taken in British warships with their households and their slaves down to the Bahama islands, and in particular to Abaco. Others went to some of the other Bahama Islands, such as Long Island. The unique characteristic of Abaco was that it was uninhabited and that therefore the British loyalists formed the whole population.
Now, two centuries later, more than 90 per cent. of the whole population of Abaco are descendants of those who came down in British ships in that way to the island. Loyalty to the British connection is the very thing which brought them there. It remains an enduring and lively part of the tradition of that community and it still matters very much to them today that they should remain directly under the governance and protection of the British Crown. It is therefore a matter of great vexation and worse that now, after all that, they face the real risk of separation and alienation from that deep attachment which has been the informing principle of their community.
Living together for that long period of time, they have intermarried across any colour bar. There is a wide range of pigmentation and coloration in that country and there is no antagonism between people of different shades of colour in Abaco.
It is therefore particularly unacceptable to them that they should be in danger of going away from the British connection under a Government, a régime which is very nearly correctly described as a black nationalist government and which certainly is very keenly racially conscious and despises them for their lack of that colour consciousness and has despised them for it explicity in words which I quoted to the House on Second Reading. Perhaps I should now remind the House of them. It was the Deputy Prime Minister, I think, Mr. Hanna, who referred to the people of Abaco as "Uncle Toms and Aunt Chloes" and said that a swift doom would now fall upon their behaviour because the PLP had won and to the victor belonged the glory. That was swiftly said after the election.
By "Uncle Toms" and "Aunt Chloes" the Deputy Prime Minister meant people of colour not animated by 397 anti-white sentiment—a description which aptly fits the people of Abaco.
That is the background and what one might call the atmosphere of sentiment in which one should look at this matter. Unfortunately, it is not only a matter of loyalty and sentiment. Perhaps I should not say "only" because what is more important than those things when people are defining their political allegiance and boundaries?
Unhappily, the antagonism of the régime in Nassau, New Providence has taken much more concrete forms in the election. On Second Reading I said that I would not hold up the House, when we were debating the general principle, with the particularity of that, but in moving this amendment I should give a little particularity although I shall keep it short as befits the hour. I will give a few quick examples of political victimisation which have followed the election victory in September.
There were three employees of the Ministry of Tourism, all Bahamians and all from Opposition party families. Miss Sandra Carey was promoted at the beginning of September to senior information assistant. The letter of promotion on 6th September said:This appointment is based on merit.Three weeks later, she was dismissed and informed by her immediate superior that her dismissal was not connected with her performance of her duties but was the Minister's order. Miss Lynn Thompson was also dismissed on 25th September, and so was Mrs. Armbrister presumably because other members of their families, but not they, had campaigned for the Opposition candidate against Mr. Maynard, the Minister.
Mr. L. E. Sawyer was involved in a particularly striking case. Mr. Sawyer is a Canadian and gave a lift in his aircraft to an FNM supporter—a simple act of friendship normal in the out-islands. He was instantly turned out of the country on the allegation that to give a lift in his aircraft to a member of the Opposition party was interfering in local politics, though no objection was taken by Mr. Pindling's regime to the activities of the American actor Richard Round-tree, who appeared on a PLP platform 398 on the ground that he wanted to be in on the independence action.
Then there was the dismissal of Mr. Albury, the harbour master in Abaco, for expressing a political opinion in favour of the Opposition party. That might appear harsh in any country; a reprimand might have been justified. But the real significance is that he was at once replaced—this was at election time—by a Government party sympathiser who promptly plastered his van with the party's stickers and campaigned actively throughout the election without objection.
I must stop giving examples at this point. They are only personal cases happening to individuals, but if I were to make a general allegation of victimisation and gave no personal examples, I would be open to criticism for making the kind of allegation which can be made by anybody and is not substantiated by facts—and, of course, victimisation always is of individuals. I have given these examples, but there are others.
Then there is the growth of corruption, to which I also referred on Second Reading. I mention three examples to show that I am not making a general allegation. There was the granting of the Government contract for road construction in Abaco. It was awarded to the Abaco Supply Company, of which a PLP supporter was president, which owned no equipment whatever, not even a wheelbarrow, and which never built anything. Its tender of 30,000 dollars a mile was the highest submitted. It sub-contracted at once to a legitimate road construction company at 20,000 dollars a mile, and pocketed the difference of 10,000 dollars a mile—half the legitimate construction costs for not building anything.
At Mangrove Cay in Andros the unsuccessful aspirants for the PLP nomination were both consoled. One was given a political appointment, which is fair enough, and the other, Arnold Cargill, won the contract for the construction of the 3,000-feet runway at Mangrove Cay with a tender no less than 65,000 dollars above the lowest tender. The work was immediately sub-contracted to the Zince Construction Co. of Florida. A similar situation occurred at Ragged Island, where the unsuccessful lowest bidders were McAlpine's.
399 I give those examples so that I shall not be thought to be making generalised allegations. It may be asked why—if there is this racially intolerant Government, which practises victimisation after it has won the election, which has this record of corruption—have my representations to the Secretary of State not succeeded and why is it necessary for me to be moving this amendment? Why, when the Division bells ring, will the payroll vote come trooping in to vote it down without having heard any of the debate? The answer has been given by my right hon. Friend during the Second Reading.
First of all he says that there was a general election in September, won by Mr. Pindling. He says that after that election there was a vote in the National Assembly when no one voted against independence. Thirdly, he says that the body of people for whom I appeared in December called the Greater Abaco Council—a splendid name which I thought of myself as an agreeable label for some agreeable people—had withdrawn its opposition. Lastly he says that we cannot have this fragmentation of the Bahamas. Let us examine these points.
Independence was not the sole issue in the general election. It could not be. A general election takes in the lot. A government sometimes try to fight a general election on a single issue but they never succeed. In fairness it must be said that Mr. Pindling did not try very hard to fight it on the independence issue. He fought it on many other things, although independence was certainly mentioned.
I should like to read what a former Governor of the Bahamas has said in a letter to my right hon. Friend about this. I will not name him because I do not have his permission. He said:Your arguments are, of course, unanswerable except in one respect which is that you base them on the assumption that the will of the people was expressed in the recent elections. I do not think this is so. If you have visited the tiny and widely separated communities in the islands of the Bahamas in which two-thirds of the electorate live, you must appreciate how easy it is to rig elections.This was done by previous governments.Add to this that all the ballot papers were numbered so that in the comparatively densely populated New Providence it was easy for the 400 PLP to intimidate the electorate into voting for them. Add further that a majority of the voters are illiterate and quite ignorant of what independence means and you have the completely bogus result given in the General Election.That is from a retired Governor. It is an opinion and the Committee does not need to accept it as totally accurate. I think it casts some light on this sort of three-to-two vote allegedly in favour of independence. There is also the question of the vote in the Assembly, when the Member for South Abaco, who certainly did not agree, walked out. He probably would have been wiser to stay and vote because then my right hon. Friend would not be able to say that there was no dissident vote. In some of these colonial legislatures walking out is one of the techniques. It has been practised rather extensively in the Bahamas Legislature.
The attitude of the Opposition party, on which, again, I think my hon. Friend relied, was certaintly not of accepting independence in the sense of agreeing with it, but what their leaders said was, "We do not want it, but we have lost the election and a responsible Opposition has to accept the verdict of the electorate." That is the background to why there was not a formal division against independence in the Assembly.
Next there is the business of the Greater Abaco Council. I think two or three people who belonged to it—and, after all, it represented I suppose a couple of thousand people—went to Mr. Pindling and said they no longer opposed independence for Abaco. The only comment I make on that, and I know that my hon. Friends will not take it too much amiss, is that I find it very depressing that he—indeed any Minister —should find reassuring just that oppression and breaking down of individuals which are the very reasons why the people of Abaca do not want to be caught in this trap and why I and some of my hon. Friends who could be somewhere else—perhaps in bed—are here pleading their cause tonight. All too many people now in the Bahamas, with independence approaching rather less than two months away, no longer dare to stand up and argue with Mr. Pindling.
In any case if my hon. Friend thinks, or has ever thought, that perhaps we 401 speak for only a small number of these people, since this Bill was published, within the compass of a week the people in Abaca who wish it to remain a Crown Colony attached to Britain have whipped round and got a new petition. In a week, in an island 120 miles long, they have obtained the signatures of more than half the number of those who voted in the General Election in September, and of course there are more names to come in.
§ Mr. Sydney Chapman (Birmingham, Handsworth)
I wonder whether my hon. and learned Friend can tell us what is the population of Abaca and how it compares with that of the Bahamas as a whole?
§ Mr. Bell
The population of Abaca is 6,500 and that is approximately 4 percent. of the total in the inhabited islands. The number of votes cast in the General Election was 2,236 and this petition was signed by 1,700. Although it must be said that some of those are Abaconians at present living in New Providence, the number of registered electors who have signed it is already more than half the total of those who voted in the General Election. This was done in a week, and there are many signatures still to come in. I am told that in the same period there has been an attempt to run a counter-petition with all the persuasion of a nationalist Government behind it and up to date they have got only 40 signatures. I think I may legitimately claim that I am speaking for the majority of the inhabitants of the island.
It would be wrong at this late hour to read even the prayer of the petition, but perhaps the Committee will be good enough to take it from me that it repeats the arguments I have made about the long attachment of approximately 300 years to the Crown—we and our forebears have been dutiful adherents to the Crown. We are citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies and earnestly desire to remain such—and more to the same effect.
Lastly, there is the argument about fragmentation. I concede that some in the Department would regard this as a compelling argument because adminis 402 trative tidiness is very attractive to those who deal in such matters. My comments are as follows. I should like first to deal with the question of "archipelagisation". There is a belief that an archipelago is a natural political unit, but the history of the recent past appears to go against that view. One may get away with an archipelago in Indonesia where there is a group of totally dominant islands, although Indonesia has had a troubled history as an archipelago State and it is too soon to say whether it will survive as one. But the present case would embrace an archipelago State of 40 inhabited islands with other uninhabited islands stretching over 700 miles of ocean. The nearest point on Abaco to New Providence is 52 sea miles away. Therefore, it is artificial to say that the second largest island cannot be on its own just because it wants to be a Crown Colony.
Abaco is the most northerly of the Bahamas, and if we take the most southerly of the Bahamas we find that it is a separate Crown colony. I refer to Turks and Caicos which geographically are as much a part of the Bahamas as is Abaco.
§ Mr. Sydney Chapman
I am interested in the geography of the matter because I have done some research since the Second Reading debate. Will my hon. and learned Friend confirm that the vast majority of the Greater Abaco is nearer to Nassau than to the Greater Bahama island?
§ Mr. Bell
Yes, the starting point is undoubtedly closer to New Providence than to Grand Bahama. The northern part is equally further away from Great Bahama. One cannot have too much fine adjustment on these geographical points. I am merely seeking to meet the point about fragmenting the archipelago. I am merely pointing out that the corresponding group of islands—because Abaco is a group of islands—is a separate Crown Colony. I do not know the population of Turks and Caicos, but it would not surprise me if it were much less than that of Abaco.
§ Mr. Bell
I am interested to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Sydney 403 Chapman) that it is much less. Abaco is not 40 times as large as New Providence, as I said on Second Reading, but is only 10 times as large, and it is many times as large as Bermuda, which is a separate Crown colony. Therefore, arguments based on administrative tidiness and fragmenting the Bahamas are nonsense. One should not take any step in this area without deploying strong reasons for so doing, and I cannot think of a much stronger reason than this centuries-old bond which has been so vehemently expressed and the feeling of desolation and abandonment which is gripping the inhabitants of these islands at this time.
I wish to read to the Committee another comment by another and more recent ex-Governor of the Bahamas, who said:I have much sympathy"—
§ Lord Balniel
My hon. and learned Friend makes matters very difficult when he quotes from letters and we do not know their source. I appreciate that he does not wish to disclose the name of the ex-Governor concerned, but am I right in thinking that the person concerned—who I am sure is a very distinguished person —was Governor about 15 years ago in the Bahamas?
§ Mr. Bell
I think that my right hon. Friend is correct about the first quotation that I read. The one that I am now reading was said by a more recent ex-Governor of the Bahamas. He said:I have much sympathy with…all the Bahamians who oppose the present corrupt and racist régime, the incompetence of which is matched only by its lack of principle.Those are strong words from an ex-Governor, and they help to explain the sentiments which are felt by the inhabitants of this island who will be totally at the mercy of this régime in a way in which we in this Chamber are not and never shall be. We have no right to take a detached and generalised view about such a subject.
It has been said, in good faith, that there are safeguards in the new constitution. We have not yet seen it, but we have seen a White Paper giving its outline. We are told that there will be built-in safeguards so that personal rights are guaranteed, and changes can be made 404 only by certain procedures. That is true, of course. Safeguards have been built into all colonial independence constitutions. These, in their form, go further than other constitutions do. But we have also seen that very few of these constitutions survive. It is not very long before we have a one-party State. It is said, "One man, one vote, one election," and after that the people are exposed to the tender mercies of those in power.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will not mind if I make a further quotation. This is from the ex-Governor whom I first quoted. He said:I feel I must make one further comment …which is that if it is thought that the fact that fundamental rights will be subject to enforcement by the Supreme Court of the Bahamas will have any meaning for the present Government of the Bahamas, you—my right hon. Friend—are deceiving yourself.I do not think that my right hon. Friend is deceiving himself, because he pointed out on Second Reading that, once they are independent, they are independent. We all know what some of these newly-independent States do. But the fact is that these safeguards are an illusory protection if the will to oppress is there, because the power to oppress is there.
I conclude with these words, which were spoken during the independence talks by a young coloured Bahamian. He said:Yes. Those of us who are white—that did not include him—and oppose the Government have been referred to as racists and colonialists who want to dominate the black races for ever, and those of us who are black and oppose the Government are referred to as Uncle Toms and traitors to our black brothers. All this because we believe in racial harmony, have lived that way for years, and are not now prepared to identify with a country which is embarking on a mad campaign of a destructive and almost fanatical black nationalism which can only succeed in adding more human atrocities to the world. And as the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr. Hanna, has said at his party's convention on October 27th 1972, 'To all the Uncle Toms, your days are numbered; a doom swift and terrible is upon your behaviour, for we have overcome you and to the victor goes the glory.' How can we ever hope to live as equal citizens under those conditions? How can we ever expect to become an integral part of an independent Bahamas when we are despised as traitors by 405 a vindictive Government when all we did was to exercise our freedom of choice and choose to remain loyal to the British Crown?
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
When the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) quoted the remarks of the vice-premier of the Bahamas, I was reminded of the remarks made shortly after the Labour Party won the General Election in 1945 by a gentleman who at the time occupied the Front Bench. He said "We are the masters now." Perhaps some people's blood ran cold when they heard that, but equally the passage of time has given Lord Shawcross a somewhat less menacing appearance than he may have had then. Indeed, if remarks of that kind were made in the Bahamas— [Interruption.] I take the point: look at what happened to Lord Shawcross.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell
I may be wrong, but my recollection is that Lord Shaw-cross never threw the Mace out of the window. Is that right?
§ Mr. Maclennan
My recollection is that more recent threats upon the Mace were equally undisturbing to the equanimity of this place.
In the excitement of an election of the kind that took place in the Bahamas last year it is natural that statements should be made which might be regretted later, but upon which it would be unwise for us to build an image of an intention to oppress the minority.
There were a number of points in the hon. and learned Gentleman's speech that we would do well to look at. I do not feel that he has fully discharged the burden of proof that either the separation of Abaco from the Bahamas is logical and necessary for geographical reasons or that it is what the people want.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the geographical fact of the archipelago of the Bahamas being stretched across 700 miles of ocean as though this were in some way almost sufficient to demonstrate the unlikelihood of this new nation cohering. These British Isles belong to an archipelago of islands which stretch across about 700 miles, and there are groups of islands contiguous to my constituency with populations not so different 406 from the population of the island of Abaco, but they do not suggest that it is impossible for them to belong to the United Kingdom. Of course, they sometimes feel that their interests are not noticed or that they are discriminated against economically by the Government, but there is no geographical impossibility in their belonging to the United Kingdom.
Indeed, the very fact of history, on which the hon. and learned Gentleman placed so much importance in the earlier part of his speech, gives the lie to geographical arguments. The fact is that for 200 years these islands have cohered politically and administratively.
The hon. and learned Gentleman spoke of 90 per cent. of the inhabitants of the island of Abaco having been descended from expatriate British loyalists. I do not deny that, but they are descended from many other people, including slaves from West Africa. The races are very intermixed. They have that in common with other Bahamian citizens with whom they are about to embark on the new experiment of independent nationhood.
The hon. and learned Gentleman had a heavy task to discharge if he intended to satisfy the House that the will of the people of the Bahamas had not been expressed clearly in the election last September. First he said that Mr. Pindling had wrapped up the issues in the election so that it was not clear that it was all about independence. Then he relied on the fact that in the island of Abaco a majority had voted against Mr. Pindling to suggest that they thought that they were voting against independence.
The hon. and learned Gentleman cannot have it both ways. Either people thought that they were voting for independence or they did not. It is clear that the majority, in supporting the Government of Mr. Pindling, recognised that they were voting for independence and that the issue which divided the parties was not the fact of independence but simply its timing. The attitude of the Opposition, who would have preferred a more protracted progress to independence, in accepting the outcome of the constitutional conference, is consistent with that interpretation.
407 We have to recognise—we have had experience enough of it—that micro-States are not truly capable of genuine independence. The Bahamas are a small enough country in all conscience.
§ Lieut.-Colonel Colin Mitchell (Aberdeenshire, West)
When the hon. Gentleman talks of micro-States, does he have in mind macro-States like India and Palestine, for example?
§ Mr. Maclennan
When I spoke of micro-States, I was thinking of States which are recognised as such—mostly oceanic States like the islands of Polynesia and the Maldive Island and others—which have all acquired independence, to which their geographical position means that there is no alternative. They are not strong States and are bound up with their neighbours even when they are far-flung.
The problem for a small island the size of Abaco if it is left on its own is that it will undoubtedly be dominated by others. It is inconceivable that, with a population of 6,500, it could live a wholly independent existence. It is equally inconceivable that it would wish indefinitely to remain a Crown Colony. That has not been the pattern of the other micro-States, which have all eventually recognised the desire for, and the advantages of, independence. The Minister's argument on Second Reading against fragmentation was an ineluctable one and had great strength.
While one sympathises with those who do not share the satisfaction of the majority of the people of the Bahamas at their achievement of independence, one must recognise that the voice of the people spoke clearly in the election and afterwards in the resolution of the Parliament.
The hon. and learned Member has referred to the history of the Bahamas. They have a long parliamentary tradition—200 years. We in this Parliament should respect and listen to the voice of the Parliament of the Bahamas and reject the hon. and learned Member's move to fracture the newly-independent State
§ Lieut.-Colonel Colin Mitchell
At this very late hour I must be brief. Most of the relevant points were covered in 408 the Second Reading debate, but at this closing stage in Committee I want to stress my support for the amendment. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) has carried out a deep analysis of this problem and, unlike most of us, he has been to Abaco and he knows the problem on the ground.
I judge this question in terms of loyalty. The Abaconians have shown by their gesture and attitude a loyalty towards the Crown, and there is a clash on the question of disengagement. It may not suit the Government to accept that there is a clash on that question. but it exists. I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the Committee would agree with that.
Secondly, the Government must concentrate on a bit of quick thinking, because the international media are taking an interest in the problem of Abaco and we may find that this change will become a dominant factor between now and 10th July. I hope so, at any rate.
Thirdly, I want to stress the importance of accuracy. What is happening in the Bahamas? Are we being led astray by the belief that the Bahamas are moving towards the peaceful Utopia type of British concept when the Government hope to get rid of one more of our colonial dependencies, or is there arising in the Bahamas a sort of black Mafia situation? I do not know, and I should like to hear the Government's answer to that question.
Fourthly, on an important question of common sense, I feel that most hon. Members who spoke in the Second Reading debate took the view that there was a situation in the Bahamas of "A prés moi la deluge"—to quote in my miserable French as an anti-European.
All I ask, in closing this 60-second speech—because it is not worth going on longer at this time of night—is fair play for Abaco. We must ensure justice, and I believe that the amendment supports that aim.
§ Mr. Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)
Hon. Members on both sides of the Committee must appreciate that the Government are in a very difficult position after the vote in the Bahamas Parliament. The trouble is that Governments listen to evidence adduced by people like my hon. And 409 learned Friend the Member for Bucking hamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) only when there is violence, as in the case of Anguilla. I believe that there has been clear evidence of corruption in the general election and that it should be thoroughly investigated. I do not believe that it has been. There is clear evidence of deliberate discrimination, as pointed out by my hon. and learned Friend. I therefore believe that there is a case for Abaco's remaining a Crown Colony.
It is clear that we shall not get that yet, but I believe that we have not seen the end of this story. I believe, therefore, that it is necessary to have a vote tonight, and that we shall have to return to the problem at a later date.
§ Mr. Sydney Chapman
I dare to intervene in the Committee stage of this important Bill only because I listened to the whole of the Second Reading debate last week, making only a short intervention in the speech of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) to ask for details about Abaco.
After much heart searching I feel I must resist the amendment and the new clause, though I was deeply moved by the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees- Davies) on Second Reading, although I did not agree with all he said, and by the eloquence of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire. South and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Lt.-Col. Colin Mitchell).
However, having listened very carefully to the Second Reading debate, I did some research on this matter, because it is a grave subject upon which we have to deliberate before reaching a decision. I cannot accept the gist of the amendment and the new clause which says, in effect, the Greater Abaco should be regarded as separate from the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.
It is important to recognise that however many islands there may be in what we call the Grand Bahamas, at least 30 are inhabited. These 30 make up a total population of almost 170,000 people, and they cover over 5,000 square miles. It is important to realise that the Bahamas as we know them consist first of 410 New Providence, which is one of the smaller islands but has by far the greatest population and includes the capital city, Nassau. The population is about 100,000. Then there is Grand Bahama Island with a population of about 26,000. Andros has a population of nearly 9,000. Then comes Abaco with a population of 6,500. Eleuthera has about the same population. There are many other islands. Long Island has a population of 3,900. Exuma's population is 3,750. Harbour Island and Spanish Wells, Cat Island, Bimini and Inagua have populations of over 1,000, and about 20 other islands have populations below 1,000.
I hope that I am not boring the Committee. Detailing these populations gives some idea of the complexity and comprehensiveness of what we call the Grand Bahama islands.
Geographically, Greater Abaco and Little Abaco are east of Grand Bahama Island. They are much further away than is Grand Bahama Island from the coast of Florida. When talking about separation of Abaco, one is talking very much about a group of islands which would physically and geographically be out on a limb. Abaco has absolutely no sense of affinity with any land or islands other than what we call the Bahamas islands, of which it is at present a part. As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South has said, Greater Abaco and Little Abaco and the circumjacent islands have a population of 6,500, which is less than 4 per cent. of the total population of the Grand Bahamas.
Although it is not a conclusive point, when one is considering the separation of Abaco, and forgetting for a moment—although I do not want to forget it entirely—the historical context, one should remember that many islands in the Grand Bahamas have a much greater claim than the Abaco islands to separation from the new independent State that it is proposed to set up. One example in Andros, with a population of nearly 9,000. Not only has Andros a greater population than Abaco but it is greater in area than Grand Bahama Island, New Providence and Abaco added together.
Although it may be true academically that the extreme north of the Abaco islands is further way from Nassau and New Providence than is Grand Bahama 411 Island, which is the second largest populated island of the Grand Bahamas, the vast majority of Abaco is much nearer to the capital city than is the Grand Bahama Island. Therefore, from a geographical and population point of view, I consider from my researches that there is no case to be made for treating these islands as separate from the Grand Bahamas.
After one has studied the local political history, the fears of some of my hon. Friends can be understood only too well. According to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South a recent poll, which apparently is not complete because some of the outer islands have yet to report, shows that a majority of the people who live on Abaco would like to secede from the independent Commonwealth country.
But we must return to the point made by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) that a democratic vote has been taken. There may be a majority of only 60 to 40, but some of us in our less arrogant moments might be satisfied if we have a majority at the next General Election of 60 to 40 per cent. There is no doubt that a democratic vote was taken at an appropriate time and that a majority of the people on what have always been regarded as the Grand Bahamas islands voted for the independence of their country.
There are three points I wish to make on the political aspect. First, the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, as it is now called, has been, in effect, self-governing with cabinet responsibility since January 1964, and when we talk about internal self-government, we should remember that that was by universal adult suffrage. At any rate, people over 18 have had the right to vote since 1959, and Abaco has been part of that self-government.
Secondly, every hon. Member must recognise and consider recent enfranchisement of colonies as part of the Commonwealth. We must accept that there have been abuses. Somebody said that there is perhaps one thing worse than one man, one vote, and that is one man and no vote. We have only to look at the 412 recent histories of some of the recently independent countries of the old British Empire to realise that.
There have, of course, been abuses of the system. If independence is granted in a real sense, there is nothing we can do about it. However, I believe that the situation in 1973 is somewhat different from the situation in the 1950s and 1960s. World opinion and public opinion count for more today and influence nations much more than might have been the situation 10 or 20 years ago. I cannot prove that but I believe it to be the case. Perhaps the speeches and the counsels made on Second Reading and in Committee will cause Mr. Pindling to be very wary of abusing the power that might fall to him or his successors.
Thirdly, if Abaco and its attendant islands were allowed to secede from this independent Commonwealth country, although they would remain for the time being a Crown colony, that would not, I believe, be a permanent status. I think that the opportunities for the island to be abused would be much greater than if it played its part, as it has done successfully for the last nine years, as part of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas.
Of course, we all have worries and it would be stupid to pretend that we do not, but the weight of the evidence and the balance of counsels must come down traditionally, historically, physically, geographically and, let us hope, politically in favour of giving the Bill a Committee stage and seeing that this relatively small and new member, as an independent country of the Commonwealth with less than 170,000 people will have a part to play as an entity not only in trying to promote its own standard of living but in living in peace and harmony with the other countries in that part of the world.
§ Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)
I should like to take up the point raised by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) about an archipelago. Has he considered what would happen if this country decided to take over the Isle of Man or Guernsey or Jersey? Does he imagine that the Manx people would like it particularly if we decided that they were a part of our archipelago, or that the people of Guernsey, Jersey or Sark 413 would like it if they were suddenly to be taken into our part of Britain? The islands of Abaco want to remain a colony. They are in a large and far-flung archipelago. They cover an area of 120 miles in length and include 6,500 people in a colony which could develop very successfully on its own. We can disregard the island of Andros, which is populated by a number of black people and is largely an area of swamp.
The people of Abaco have their own self-sufficiency and, although they are small in number, they could develop. The Grand Bahamas represent a bastard situation which was produced by a number of developers largely for their own benefit. There are a large number of people there because of the vast amount of money flowing from Miami into the casino and other operations in that area. It is an area where one could make a large amount of money financed largely by American money, and it is a part of the world which will shortly be taken over and dominated by large-scale American finance in association with the new Government.
This is not an issue of counting heads. There are plenty more heads in Nassau, but none of the heads has a particularly racist background. As the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland rightly said, many of the coloured people in that island have descended from slaves. They live in an attractive place, but it was the British people who developed it as one of the finest tourist complexes. Now we are to put it into the hands of people who are totally unsuited to govern it. This is not a nation and it should not be made into one. It is far too small. It is a series of islands that should have remained under the British Crown. Having taken a wrong decision in that direction, we do not have to take another wrong decision by imposing on a perfectly good colony what it does not want.
As for the poppycock about a democratic vote, it is not a democratic vote for the people in Nassau to vote one way in order to dominate a tiny place miles away which does not want to participate. If the people of Abaco had shown by a majority that they wanted to join in with Nassau, that would have been a different matter. If the people 414 of the Grand Bahamas want to join in Bill—and they do—with Mr. Pindling, good luck to them; that is their misfortune. But the fact is that each of these islands could have been separate, as the Turks and Caicos islands are separate.
It is said that there are a number of areas where there are small islands which should remain separate. We must consider Bermuda, which is a small island. If we set the seal on the Bill tonight, we may find a breakaway crowd who want to try to bring that to nationhood. What shall we say there? Shall we have Bermuda next in line?
The point is that no democratic vote taken in Nassau can bind Abaco, any more than a vote taken in London can bind the Isle of Man. The Isle of Man happens to be an offshore island from Britain, but we are not entitled to say that we intend to take it over. The people of Abaco are not the people of Nassau. Equally, the people of the Grand Bahama Island are not the people of Nassau. They are totally independent.
Those in control in Nassau, like Pindling himself as a Jamaican, are a number of different people who together are entitled to speak for Nassau. They are not entitled to speak for other islands over which they have no say—or should not. There may be a few very small islands scattered around with so few people in them that they can have a say.
The real issue is whether these people are so far away and so independent that they have the entitlement to come to the Queen and express their own opinion. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell), who has made a deep study of the matter, has pointed out that the overwhelming proportion of them do not want to join. Are they such an integral part of Nassau that we must compel them to join in what Nassau believes to be right? I do not think so. That is the real issue that we must decide.
If we decide to force them against their will to join Nassau and come under its control, we can do so only if we feel that that will be a benevolent control wisely and properly exercised. I do not believe that for one moment, nor does anyone who knows that part of the world. We cannot trust the present men in control.
415 They will in due course relieve the existing British citizens of control. There is nothing in the Bill that will stop them from doing it. I am not sure that we have any right to criticise the present Government in that regard. I do not think that nationalisation of land can be stopped, or that development and planning that are totally against the interests of the people who control the main estates in Nassau can be stopped. But certainly a number of British people concerned with the development of that part of the world are afraid of the future development in that part of the Caribbean.
Whether or not the elections were properly conducted—and I certainly do not know—is not really the issue, save only whether they were fairly conducted as reflecting the opinion of the people in Abaco. I accept that the people in Andros wanted to go with the Bahamas and that the people in Grand Bahama so voted. They are not the people who concern us tonight.
We must consider fairly and independently the situation of the small island of Abaco. We must also recognise that nowadays small islands develop very fast, particularly in the Caribbean. A population of 6,500 now could well be 65,000 in 10 years' time. They have plenty of room and a good island which can be properly and effectively developed.
If we turn down this opportunity, those people may well be taken over and their future development will rest not in what they believe to be right and what they believe is best for them, but in what the Government in Nassau believe to be best for them.
When one is dealing with a large number of islands, one is not dealing with a close, tightly-knit group as in Britain, France or any other nation. That is why I keep on coming back to the question: what really constitutes a nation? I do not believe—and this is why I am fundamentally in agreement with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South—that one can make a nation out of 100,000 people.
I do not suppose that the people of Caithness would like it much if the Isle of Thanet took them over, but there we 416 have a population every bit as big as that of Nassau and Grand Bahama combined. If we proposed that they should operate under our control because we happen to have a population of 150,000 people, I think the Scots would be profoundly upset. Scots and people in the Hebrides recognise this type of argument.
It is a pity we have gone ahead with this independence but, if we have to, let us try to give the people in Abaco a chance to obtain their independence. Nothing would be more attractive and desirable than if we were proved to be wrong and in a few years' time the people of Abaco were to come to us and say "We are happy about the way Nassau has developed, about the way Grand Bahama has developed, and we feel that it would be wise to join them." There would be no opposition whatever. We could then, with good will, say that our fears were wrong, and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South and I would be the first to say that we were delighted to be proved wrong.
These fears expressed today are expressed by many others. I cannot give the names of the developers who feel as I do but they are there and are well-known in this country. They feel that the rather dramatic and emotional views I was expressing the other day are not so wide of the mark. It was perhaps overstated to a degree, because late at night one tends to overstate to a degree when putting this kind of thing across. I regret that, because in certain things, and in saying that the Government had not dealt with the matter openly, I was probably quite wrong, but that does not prevent any appealing now to the Government to reserve this issue.
I hope the Minister will say that he will look again at the matter and not pressurise the people of Abaco into this situation at present but will go to Mr. Pindling, who I understand is worried about the feeling on the matter in this House, and say to him "Why not reserve this, leave it for a while and, if you are able to establish a good case, come back on it in three years' time, when the matter has been established?". It would not mean much to him but it would mean a lot to relatively few people who can continue successfully in the years head.
§ Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)
I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) will forgive me if I do not take up immediately what has been said.
I hope one does not have to hold one's head in shame while one mentions a little group of people, only a few thousand, who are keen to maintain their present contact with the British Crown.
I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Sydney Chapman) was mistaken when he talked about secession. There is no question of secession. The Government are doing something in the Bill which will affect the people of all the Bahamas. A certain number of them do not want to be affected in that way, so my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) is trying to get them out of it.
I take a view rather different from that of my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Thanet. He hopes that the Government will change their mind. I think the Government are waiting to have their mind changed for them. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State was waiting for this debate so that he could know how strong the feeling was on the part of those of us who take the case of the people of Abaco. He has the interests of democracy at heart. We use that term rather freely in this House without really thinking what it is about. We have heard about a democratic decision which has been taken. But everything we have heard tonight from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South and my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Thanet shows that there is no question of a nice, tight and cosy little democracy having been formed because of a vote a few weeks ago. Everyone knows that that is nonsense—unless both my hon. Friends are wrong, which I doubt. I doubt, too, whether the excerpts from letters by two former Governors were wrong, ill-informed or stupid.
It surely is not beyond the wit of my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, who has done such wonderful things for the country, to find a way out for the people of Abaco—at least, I hope it is not. I 418 hope that after this demonstration tonight quite a number of hon. Members will support the amendment in the Lobby and that afterwards perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister of State will use the time to give further thought to this very long but lightly-populated island of Abaco.
§ Mr. Goronwy Roberts
The Committee is about ready for the Minister of State to address himself to the points raised in this interesting and essential debate. The hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) spoke very much on the lines he took on Second Reading. He dealt with the matter in very much the same way, in a sincere mood and in temperate tones, and at times most powerfully.
Everyone shares with the hon and learned Gentleman and with the hon. Member for Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) a feeling for the attitude which a majority of the people of Abaco have. No one in this House would be immune from sympathy with the attitude of that section of the population. But the point is how one defines a nation, especially at a time when a constitutional change is necessary to be made. In this case, leaving aside the geographical assessment and the argument about what constitutes an archipelago, there is surely an historical basis for treating the Bahamas as an established political entity over two to three centuries at least.
The Abacos are part of that political entity, having been represented in the House of Assembly since 1784. That is the situation from which any Government would have to proceed. As for denying to an aspirant Crown Colony or associated State, as this was, the right to proceed in independence in its own way, I do not think that that is a dictum which anyone could long uphold.
The hon. Member for Isle of Thanet may not like the present Government in the Bahamas. Possibly no one in this Committee would like everything they have done or are likely to do. Possibly no one in the Bahamas would like everything the British Government have done or are likely to do. Independence is independence, and the Bahamas, like other States which have achieved this status by negotiation and agreement, must 419 be allowed to use that independence in the way it sees fit.
Through the many thoughtful speeches, in particular that by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), this debate has stated the will and feeling of the Committee and, I think, of the British people. As independence is given freely to this State, the latest in a long series of colonies to be granted independence, we state our profound hope—and it can be no more than that—that as a member of the Commonwealth, which it has chosen to remain, subject to the same Monarch, it will uphold the tradition of parliamentary democracy and the equality of all citizens under the law. This is a hope expressed by Britain as a member of the same Commonwealth.
I cannot fault the Government on what they have done. The White Paper shows that they have followed the proper and necessary procedure of considering carefully all the relevant views held in the Bahamas, in the accepted political entity applying for independence. I have no doubt but that the points put by the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South and others about the reservations felt by the majority in the Abacos islands have been weighed and considered carefully by the Government in the period leading up to the conference, during that conference and during the drafting of the White Paper, the contents of which are now being given effect to in this clause.
It is not only the views of two-thirds, or 6,500 people, of those living on the Abacos which have to be taken into account. The Government have to take into account the fact that a general election yielded a substantial majority, 60 per cent., in favour of indepedence now. That election was fought on that issue. It was not subsumed in a welter of other issues. This was the outstanding question on which the people of the Bahamas voted. In the islands which are the subject on the amendment, Mr. Pindling's party contrived to win one of the two seats, using a voting system identical to our own. Unless we suddenly prescribe for the Bahamas the single transferable vote or some form of proportional representation which we do not practice our- 420 selves, we must accept that with a first-past-the-post system of voting their decision is as conclusive and as valid as ours in any election since the war.
It is, of course, very attractive to argue that one cannot bundle a small minority of people who feel strongly about attachment into a new system because they are only 4 per cent. of the whole, but we must think beyond that to whether it is not equally relevant, once having granted that argument for one-third of the islanders of the Abacos who by the same token passionately want to join in the independence which is now being given, that we should equally apply the argument that, as the Abacos should be given separate treatment, the very substantial minority within the Abacos should in turn have separate treatment. Where does one stop?
I have no time to deal with the fascinating but, I think, somewhat misleading analogies which the hon. Member for Isle of Thanet produced. He spoke about a remote part of Scotland being dominated by Thanet. Surely the true analogy would be of an island off Scotland being dominated by the rest of the United Kingdom, or an island off Wales—we have many—being dominated by this House.
I think this debate will prove very valuable to the new State as it commences this new phase in its history. Enough has been said, very sincerely, by hon. Members on both sides of the House to indicate to this new sister State in the Commonwealth to which we all belong about our hopes and expectations for it. These people have a long history of parliamentary democracy, almost comparable in length and probably in nature to ours. It is our fervant wish that, as they move into independence, the feelings as well as the interests and rights of the people of the Abacos, equally with those of every part of the new Bahaman State, will be strictly, fairly and fully born in mind by the new Bahamian Government.
§ 1.18 a.m.
§ The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Lord Balniel)
I am afraid that inevitably, as we debated this matter at considerable length during Second Reading, the remarks which I make, and indeed those which have been 421 made by other hon. Members, tend to be slightly repetitious.
I begin by saying that, as so often happens in this House, although I might disagree with the conclusions reached by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) and his colleagues who supported his argument, I was impressed by the way, as I expected he would, he developed his argument. He and his colleagues developed their arguments with conviction and in a temperate and, I believe, constructive way. Certainly they have expressed the deep sense of concern which animates them while we discuss this subject. I am sure, however, that they for their part will agree that the speeches made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Handsworth (Mr. Sydney Chapman), the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) and the right hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Goronwy Roberts), expressing a different view but equally reflecting the worries which exist in the minds of all hon. Members, were of value to this debate.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South spoke of the safeguards built into the constitution, but thought that to some extent they were illusory. When a country takes a step towards independence, there are worries in people's minds and, therefore, I can fully understand the worry in the minds of some of my hon. Friends. We have also to accept the fact that, when a country moves to independence, responsibility passes to other hands which may or may not conduct affairs wisely. I am sure that in old colonial times when Britain had responsibility in these matters our affairs in the Bahamas were sometimes conducted wisely; equally I am sure that there were occasions when, in retrospect, we feel that they were not as wisely handled as they could have been.
Bahamas has had full internal ministerial self-government since 1964. My hon. and learned Friend may not particularly like that Government, but it has been British policy since 1964 to entrust the internal affairs to the indigenous people who live in the islands which make up the Bahamas. Our sole responsibility, beyond the ultimate sovereign 422 responsibility of our Parliament here, lies in defence and external affairs. Whether we in this House approve or disapprove of the actions of Mr. Pindling's Government, it is clear that they have the support of the population of the Bahamas. As the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland said, we must at least respect the express wishes of the people of the Bahamas and their Parliament. It is fundamental to this debate that they are the elected representatives of those who live there.
§ Mr. Wall
My right hon. Friend is dealing with a very important point. Is he satisfied that the view of the people was fairly expressed at the general election, that that election was run on reasonably democratic lines and that pressures were not applied and, indeed, are not being applied to the people of Abaco at the moment? This is a key point.
§ Lord Balniel
No evidence has been adduced to convince me that the elections do not reflect the views of the people. I have no evidence to this effect. But I know that in the election held in September 1972 the Government party campaigned on a platform of early independence. This may not have been the sole issue in the election but it was a major issue. The Government party won the election with 29 out of the 38 seats in the Assembly, or 60 per cent. of votes cast. Abaco has two Members of Parliament. One Member, Mr. Bootle, who represents Coopers Town, wrote to me on 18th May saying that he disagreed with the views expressed by my hon. and learned Friend. The other Member of Parliament is Mr. Watkins, a member of the Free National Movement, and he represents Marsh Harbour.
The governing party in the House of Assembly and the Opposition party both regard Abaco as an integral part of the Bahamas. There is no major political party in the Bahamas which supports the idea of Abaco seceding. The Government and the Opposition were both represented at the independence conference. Both had the full opportunity of deploying their arguments and, at the end, both were able unanimously to agree to the conference report, which is the basis of a constitution for the independ of the Bahamas.
423 From the British point of view, Abaco has been a part of the Bahamas for 200 years. We have always treated it as a part of the Bahamas. We have administered it as such, and we have governed it as an integral part of the whole.
The Bahamians want independence. A resolution was passed last year in both Houses of the Bahamian Parliament without a dissenting vote asking that independence should be granted.
I turn to the geographical argument that Abaco has some kind of claim to special treatment because it is 50 miles away from Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas. With respect to my hon. and learned Friend, the argument is absurd. The Bahamas consists of 700 islands and atolls. Of these, 22 are inhabited, and many of them are much further away from Nassau than are the islands of Abaco. Nor, incidentally, is Abaco a single island. I am told that it consists of some 16 islands and cays, all of which are to some extent inhabited. This grouping of islands is divided into two constituencies, one of them represented by a PLP Member and one by an Opposition Member. The logic of my hon. and learned Friend's argument is that if we are specifically to represent the views of a certain area, inexorably it will lead to the Abaco islands being split into two for the purposes of the constitution.
I repeat my general argument that the greatest need in the Caribbean is not for a further fragmentation. This is one of the worries existing in the Caribbean area. The greater need is for cohesion. The idea of fragmenting the Bahamas, which for more than 200 years have been administered as an integral constitutional unit and one which has had internal ministerial self-government since 1964, and of taking these 16 separate islands and creating a new Crown Colony against the wishes of a substantial body of their 2,286 voters seems to be unwise.
This debate has emphasised the value of the Government of the Bahamas going out of their way to secure cohesion of the Bahamas by good will and by seeking the support of the people in all the islands. This is one of the beneficial effects of the debate.
424 1.30 a.m.
I must continue with the argument. The population of Abaco is only about 3 per cent. of the total population of the Bahamas.
§ Lord Balniel
If I am mistaken, I apologise. The percentage of supporters of secession must be substantially smaller than that percentage which I gave or the percentage given by my hon. and learned Friend. It is misleading to suggest that Abaconians unanimously want the continuation of colonial status.
In the 1972 election more than one-third of the Abaco voters voted for the present governing party, which campaigned for early independence. By very definition, more than one-third of the people living in the islands are opposed to the suggestion of secession which is being put forward.
I turn now to the argument I developed before, contradicted by my hon. and learned Friend on Second Reading, that there has been a change of heart among some people previously associated with the secessionist movement. My hon. and learned Friend invented the name for this self-appointed group. There is nothing wrong with a self-appointed group to represent a viewpoint. The name invented by my hon. and learned Friend, the Greater Abaco Council, is a very fine one. The Greater Abaco Council sent a delegation of seven people, I think it was, to London last year to plead the secessionist cause. One of the delegation's leaders, Mr. Leonard Thompson, and three other members of the council held a meeting with the Bahamas Prime Minister on 19th March and said that they, on behalf of the majority of people in Abaco, wished to be actively associated with the changes which were about to take place in the Bahamas.
On 26th April the council issued a Press statement to the effect that, having failedin this legitimate exploration of the possibility of separation ",they were now persuaded thattheir duty is to work for the success of an independent and prosperous Bahamas.425 My hon. and learned Friend referred to an earlier petition in 1971 urging secession. In 1971, 20 Abaconians presented a petition to the then governor seeking secession in the event of independence. Again, a number of these seem to have changed their minds. For instance, I am told that working on the committees which are actually organising the independence celebrations are Mr. Stratton, who was a most leading member of that petition, and Mr. Leonard Thompson, whom I have mentioned. They are both working for the Marsh Harbour Independence Committee for the independence celebrations. Mr. Cecil Mills, another of the eminent signatories, is also now supporting the views of the Bahamas Government. In fact, he is in London at this moment accompanying the Bahamas Prime Minister on his visit with the very purpose of emphasising the undesirability of Abaco seceding.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell
When my right hon. Friend refers to the petition and the people who have changed their minds, he is referring to the same group of people who saw Mr. Pindling in respect of the Greater Abaco Council. I repeat what I said when I moved the amendment. It is no cause for gratification, no cause to buttress his case, but rather to weaken it, that a few people, owing to their personal circumstances, which to some extent I know and sympathise with, have had to crack, knuckle under and serve the purposes of Mr. Pindling. One or two have been brought as exhibits to London by Mr. Pindling on this visit to enable him to say "This is what I can do to people." The whole point is that this can be done. I do not blame them. I know what is at stake for them and why they have done it. That is why we feel that other people in Abaco must be protected.
§ Lord Balniel
I can understand the argument—whether I agree with it is irrelevant—which my hon. and learned Friend is putting. But that does not alter the fact that people who not so long ago, in 1971, were, with the Opposition, opposing independence, now, following the unanimous agreement of the conference and of the constitution, are participating in the efforts of the Bahamas Government and with the support of the Bahamas Opposition in trying to ensure 426 that the Bahamas will go forward as an integral unit towards its independence.
My hon. and learned Friend cast doubt on the value of petitions but in the same breath told us how a new petition was being organised in Abaco. We must be wary of the evidence provided by petitions. Before accepting such evidence, I should want to know a great deal about the circumstances in which the petition was signed and the identity of the signatories. I should want to know whether they were people of Abaco. I notice that the petition to which my hon. and learned Friend referred, which is now circulating, specifically invites the signature not only of people living in Abaco but of descendants of people born in Abaco.
Both the chairman and secretary of the new organisation, the Council for a Free Abaco, are reported to be resident in Nassau and not in Abaco.
§ Mr. Ronald Bell
I made this distinction when I moved the amendment. I gave the total figure and said that some were Abaconians at present resident in New Providence. But I added that, taking the strict definition of registered electors of Abaco, they constituted more than half the number who voted in the election and that the number was not complete.
§ Lord Balniel
I take the point, but one wants to examine these things with great care. For instance, according to the Government of the Bahamas, 320 signatories of the 1971 petition were resident in Nassau with Abaco connections, not residents of Abaco, 314 signatures were made by persons other than those named, some apparently signed their children's names and some were not even Bahamians.
But my general point is that, in circumstances like these, we must rely on the solid evidence provided by the ballot box at a general election. I have already indicated the views of the people of the Bahamas as expressed in that election.
The House will not be doing a service to the future of an independent Bahamas or to the relations between an independent Bahamas and this country if it elevates this case, which is deeply felt, of course, into a major issue. Britain will continue to have important interests, 427 including defence interests, in the Bahamas and the best way to protect those interests and also to protect the interests of the people living in the Bahamas, whether in the islands of Abaco or elsewhere, is to respect the wishes of the elected representatives of the Bahamian people.
My hon. Friends have developed their arguments with moderation and conviction. I fully recognise the problem which worries them. I recognise the difficulty raised by my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) about defining what constitutes a nation. There is this long historical entity, stretch-
§ Question accordingly negatived.
§ Clause 6 ordered to stand part of the Bill
§ Clause 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ Schedules 1 and 2 agreed to.
§ Bill reported, without amendment.
§ Motion made, and Question, That the Bill be now read the Third time, put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 56 (Third Reading), and agreed to.428
§ ing back for many hundreds of years. There is the outcome of the general election. Independence is the express wish of the Bahamian Parliament, which is the fourth oldest Parliament in the Commonwealth. Like the right hon. Member for Caernarvon, I express the profound hope that in advising the Committee to reject the amendment we are advising it in the best interests of the people of the Bahamas as a whole and of those living in the islands of Abaco.
§ Question put, That the amendment be made:—
§ The Committee divided: Ayes 4, Noes 74.427
|Division No. 141.]||AYES||[1.41 a.m.|
|Fell, Anthony||Soref, Harold||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Mitchell, Lt.-Col.C. (Aberdeenshire, W)||Wall, Patrick||Mr. Ronald Bell and Mr. W. R. Rees Davies.|
|Alison, Michael (Barkston Ash)||Gower, Raymond||Oppenheim, Mrs. Sally|
|Atkins, Humphrey||Gray, Hamish||Page, Rt. Hn. Graham (Crosby)|
|Baker, Kenneth (St. Marylebone)||Griffiths, Eldon (Bury St. Edmunds)||Peyton, Rt. Hn. John|
|Balniel, Rt. Hn. Lord||Gummer, J. Selwyn||Pym, Rt. Hn. Francis|
|Barber, Rt. Hn. Anthony||Hawkins, Paul||Reed, Laurance (Bolton, E.)|
|Biffen, John||Heseltine, Michael||Rippon, Rt. Hn. Geoffrey|
|Blaker, Peter||Higgins, Terence L.||Roberts, Rt.Hn.Goronwy (Caernarvon)|
|Brocklebank-Fowler, Christopher||Hornsby-Smith, Rt.Hn.Dame Patricia||Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)|
|Buchanan-Smith, Alick(Angus,N&M)||Jenkin, Patricx (Woodford)||Royle, Anthony|
|Buck, Antony||Johnson Smith, G. (E. Grinstead)||St. John-Stevas, Norman|
|Butler, Adam (Bosworth)||Jopling, Michael||Scott, Nicholas|
|Chapman, Sydney||Joseph, Rt. Hn. Sir Keith||Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby)|
|Chichester-Clark, R.||Kershaw, Anthony||Smith. Dudley (W'wick & L'mington)|
|Clegg, Walter||Kitson, Timothy||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Costain, A. P.||Knox, David||Stewart, Donald (Western Isles)|
|Dean. Paul||Lane, David||Thomas, John Stradling (Monmouth)|
|Douglas-Home, Rt. Hn. Sir Alec||Le Marchant, Spencer||Thomas, Rt. Hn. Peter (Hendon, S.)|
|Eden, Rt. Hn. Sir John||MacArthur, Ian||Walder, David (Clitheroe)|
|Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke)||Maclennan, Robert||Weatherill, Bernard|
|Eyre, Reginald||Macmillan, Rt.Hn. Maurice (Farnham)||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Farr, John||Money, Ernie||Wood, Rt. Hn. Richard|
|Fenner, Mrs. Peggy||Monro, Hector||Younger, Hn. George|
|Fox, Marcus||Murton, Oscar|
|Gilmour, Ian (Norfolk, C.)||Normanton, Tom||TELLERS FOR THE NOES|
|Gilmour, Sir John (Fife, E.)||Nott, John||Mr. Tim Fortescue and Mr. Kenneth Clarke.|
|Goodhew, Victor||Onslow, Cranley|
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.