§ 3.30 p.m.
§ Lord Jenkins of Hillhead rose to call attention to the case for constitutional reform, including a fair voting system, fixed term Parliaments, a Bill of Rights and a control over their own affairs satisfactory to the peoples of Scotland and Wales; and to move for Papers.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, reeling under the shock of the surprise announcement which the Chief Whip has made, the secrecy of which was so carefully guarded, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name.
§ After yesterday's ephemera in another place, I shall endeavour to turn your Lordships' attention to longer-term constitutional issues. Looking back I am often struck by the thought that Chancellors who occupy an immensely central political position in their day are nonetheless able to do little except put footprints in the sand—footprints which are washed away by the next high tide of their successors. Perhaps I feel that more strongly, for my successor, the noble Lord, Lord Barber—I do not see him in his place— was a particularly effective washerwoman in that respect. But I do not wholly think so, for if one looks even within governments of the same party Mr. Lawson did not leave many of Sir Geoffrey Howe's monetary targets in place for long.
§ By contrast, in the Home Office—which is my other main experience in government—for good or ill, what 1332 one does lives much longer after one, and this is particularly true with constitutional matters. If economic management is almost inevitably too short term, our constitutional practices are too stubbornly unyielding to the changing needs of a changing nation and society. We still live broadly under a constitution based on a late 17th century compromise between monarchy and oligarchy which was much more concerned with the rights of Parliament than it was with those of the individual. A system that settled roughly into its present form by about 1868 has not vastly changed since then and has hardly changed in the past 40 years.
§ Yesterday the annual spring festival of the Budget —hardly less hallowed in our national life than the Boat Race—was abolished. Like most ancient British traditions, it was mid-Victorian in origin. I believe that the change—particularly as the penumbra of secrecy had been largely dissipated by this Government's passion for leaking and counter-leaking, briefing and counter-briefing—was more than due and I welcome it. But institutional reform should certainly not stop at just getting rid of the Gladstone budget box which even two decades ago I thought showed serious signs of structural exhaustion.
So, rather more seriously, is our present voting system. It was quite a good system so long as two parties, and two parties only, had an overwhelming grip on the loyalty and even the enthusiasm of the British electorate, so long as,
every child that's born into this world alive was either a little Liberal or else a little Conservative",
with over the 50 years from 1900 to 1950 Labour being substituted for Liberal.
§ The reason that I earlier cited "the past 40 years" was that the 1951 election was the apogee of two-party dominance. At that election 83 per cent. of those on the electoral register voted, and of that 83 per cent. no less than 97 per cent. voted either Labour or Conservative. The result was that in 1951 the Labour Party was able to achieve the remarkable feat of polling 40 per cent. of the total electorate—that is, of those who did not vote as well as those who did—and still lose.
§ By contrast, in 1983 the Conservative Party polled 32 per cent. of the total electorate and won a majority of 140 seats. If that is not elective dictatorship—of which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, spoke so eloquently in 1976 when the system put him temporarily into opposition—I do not know what is.
§ What of course had occurred in the 32 years between 1951 and 1983 was that the 97 per cent. who flocked to the banner of one or other of the big parties had been reduced to barely 70 per cent. and that, partly because of the increasing inappropriateness of the system, the numbers bothering to vote had come down from 83 per cent. to just under 73 per cent. Thus a system which was reasonably appropriate 40 or even 30 years ago has become increasingly inappropriate, effectively disenfranchising large sections of the electorate, thus producing an alienation which shows itself in lower polls, and thus—a secondary effect— 1333 exacerbating the problem of a minority of the electorate producing large, nearly all-powerful, parliamentary majorities.
§ The effects of that are not confined to national government. The excuses for the weakening of local government, carried through by successive government measures in the 1980s, were almost all provided by the excesses of a few party caucuses given by the voting system a power out of all proportion to their popular support.
§ The justification for all that distortion is that it gives the electorate the inestimable benefits of strong, coherent one-party government. And how have that strength and coherence shown themselves? They have shown themselves in the legislative shambles of this Parliament, with the Government performing the unprecedented feat of repealing its own flagship measure within a single Parliament and buttressing it with such supporting nonsenses as the Football Spectators Bill and the Broadcasting Bill. Joy has definitely not been produced through alleged strength, and in any case the indications are that the electorate do not like one-party omnipotence but would prefer to see parties working together.
§ I am more than enough of a relativist to know that there is no perfect electoral system. There are some disadvantages to each system. Most of the objections to a proportional system need not apply under sensible variants of the system, but one or two will always remain. However, that is not a reason for sticking stubbornly to the present manifestly and massively unfair arrangements.
§ I turn more briefly to the other points in the Motion. Our practice in regard to the choice of election dates really is very odd if one stands back even the shortest distance and contemplates it. To give the starting pistol in a race to one of the competitors and to encourage him to fire it when he thinks that the others are least ready—when they are tying up their shoelaces or something of that kind—is not in accordance with the best athletic practice.
§ Nonetheless, I believe that in practice Prime Ministers have sufficiently often shot themselves through the foot with the starting pistol that it is the indignity rather than the unfairness which worries me here. We need all the respect that we can muster for politicians these days and Prime Ministers hovering on the brink rarely enhance their reputations. It was not the finest hour of the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, when he kept the TUC waiting at the church in the autumn of 1978; and Mr. Major has not done himself much good with his hesitations of the past six months. On the whole I believe that a fixed four-year term would certainly be more rational, somewhat fairer and maybe militate against both the economic uncertainty and the awful cacophony which has been the too long-drawn-out overture to this election.
§ A Bill of Rights would essentially put into British law the fundamental human freedoms already recognised by our adherence to the European Convention on Human Rights. But those rights cannot now be enforced except by going to the Strasbourg Court, with all the expense, delay and 1334 general cumbersomeness for the individual which is involved in that; and for the country the disrepute of having more cases before that court, and more of them lost by the British Government than is the experience of any of the other participating states. It is a matter, first, of enabling the British courts to deal with our national dirty linen and not sending too much of it, expensively and often embarrassingly, to be dealt with at the Strasbourg laundry; and secondly, of redressing after 300 years the imbalance left by the fact that the 1688 Bill of Rights was much more about the rights of Parliament than about those of the individual.
§ I turn finally to devolution and particularly to the Scottish question. I do not see how it is possible now to deny that there is now a settled Scots wish, fluctuating in intensity but settled in direction, to have a substantially greater degree of control over their own affairs. I was persuaded of that well before I had any thought of becoming MP for Hillhead. I was fortified in that during my five years as a Scottish Member of Parliament. I thought that the degree of devolution should go quite far, with powers to raise and spend money but not to run a budget deficit, and should stop short of anything which might endanger the currency union, let alone the political union, the achievements of which, both historical and actual, would make its severance a disaster both for Scotland and for England.
§ In fact I never took that possibility seriously, as it is only the effects of recent government attitudes which have made me begin to change my mind about that. The unholy alliance, for such it is, between the Conservatives and the Scottish Nationalists which has recently reared its head is disreputable. To say to the Scottish people, as the Government are currently doing, that if they elect a majority of nationalists they can have independence but that if they vote for devolution and reform they cannot have it, is a frighteningly irresponsible attitude.
The Conservative Party used to call itself the Unionist Party. I recall a phrase of Arthur Balfour's when he set your Lordships' House off on one of the most unwise excursions in its long history—the root and branch opposition to nearly all the legislation of the 1905 Liberal Government. The object, he said, was to ensure that:
the great Unionist Party should still control, whether in power or whether in Opposition, the destinies of this great Empire".
Well, the great Unionist Party in the first quarter of this century succeeded unnecessarily in completely severing the link with Ireland. It would be a supreme irony, but even more a supreme tragedy, if in the fourth quarter of this century, by sheer stiff-neckedness, it severed the link across the Scottish Border. My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.
§ 3.46 p.m.
§ Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone
My Lords, the whole House always listens with pleasure and attention to whatever falls from the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. I am sure that it will wish me to begin by congratulating him on selecting as a subject for debate the future of the constitution, which is very much in the air for public discussion.
1335 That said, except for his last two sentences I agreed with nothing in his speech. I am against all 57 varieties of alteration in the method of electing the House of Commons. I am against fixed-term parliaments. I am against a Bill of Rights in the sense in which it would have any significance —that is to say, in the American sense and not in the sense of our own statute of 1688 which can be altered as easily as any of our traffic laws. I am against the form of what was proposed in the last feature of the noble Lord's speech. I confess modestly to being British. My nationality would be destroyed if different systems of government were operated in the various regions of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. I believe that a uniform system is better than a diverse system.
Almost half of the noble Lord's speech was devoted to the voting system. I shall not devote so much of my speech to that topic since I have to polish off the entire constitution in six minutes! The variations in the voting system—all 57 varieties—would be a recipe for nobody getting the government for which they had voted and nobody getting the programme for which they had voted. What would occur would be a botched-up compromise reached among various distinguished statesmen in—I fear, on this No Smoking Day —smoke-filled rooms and it would bear no relation to what people had voted for. It would also be a recipe for splinter groups of extreme views and of various bizarre kinds and a recipe for no organised or continuous policy in the centre of affairs.
I am against fixed-term parliaments. If we had fixed terms of parliaments, as happens in every country which has them, the phoney war which has been going on for the past few weeks would be going on throughout the second half of every four-year parliament in which the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, has declared an interest. I am against the Bill of Rights in the sense in which it would have meaning. That is not because I do not favour the European Convention but because we cannot have two Bills of Rights. If that were the case, within six weeks there would be a divergence between the requirements of both.
I would say that the American experience is not altogether satisfactory. It failed to save the negro from chattel slavery for 80 years and from discrimination for the following 80 years. It led to the assassination by gunfire of a large number of successive presidents and an innumerable number of innocent citizens because of Article 2 of the Bill of Rights. There is no effective law of defamation because of Article 1.
The truth is that a Bill of Rights is obsolete by the time the ink is dry on the signatures. In this country we have one of the most sensitive, flexible and evolutionary constitutions in the whole history of civilised political life.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, would not merely interfere with that system; he would destroy it. Our constitution can be reduced to perhaps three or four propositions. The first is that the sovereign in Parliament is the supreme legislative authority with unlimited powers. It is not elective dictatorship because it is a forum for discussion. The second is that one parliament cannot bind its successors. Therefore, we can change our laws without 1336 any Supreme Court intervention as often as they require changing and by evolutionary and gradual means. The third is that we go in for Cabinet government, with members of the Cabinet all in one House of Parliament or another and responsible to the whole Parliament for what they do, and not an elective system of offices of fixed terms like the American presidency.
So much for the Bill of Rights. I have already touched upon control by Scotland and Wales over their own affairs. The truth of the matter is that there is a case for regional government throughout the United Kingdom but that is not what is asked for in the Motion. I conclude simply by saying that I am British and proud of it. I do not wish to lose my nationality.
§ 3.52 p.m.
§ Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos
My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, for this opportunity to debate constitutional reform and for his thoughtful speech. We also enjoyed the stimulating speech of the noble and learned Lord although I must proceed to differ from him on a number of points.
The debate assumes a greater significance because it takes place on the eve of a general election. People are entitled to know what plans the parties have for constitutional reform and what their implications are. Thus far, there has been no progress in the areas listed in the Motion, although we must not overlook the changes which have taken place and which continue to develop as a result of our membership of the European Community.
I regret to say that the record of the party opposite on constitutional reform has been less than stimulating. The Government have made it plain that they are opposed to any type of electoral reform and that they will not contemplate fixed term parliaments, a Bill of Rights or any form of devolution for Scotland or for Wales. Furthermore—and we have debated these issues in the House on two previous occasions in recent years—they have increased centralisation and have gravely eroded our individual and collective rights during their long tenure of 13 years.
Ministerial and bureaucratic authority has increased. Quangos have multiplied and local authorities have been undermined. Whole tiers of local government have been abolished and replaced by joint boards. Britain, which has always set an example, has been turned into one of the western world's most centralised and secretive states. That is a sad and depressing picture and I know that many noble Lord opposite are unhappy about it.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, dealt with the complicated subject of electoral reform, also referred to by the noble and learned Lord. As noble Lords are aware, we have set up an inquiry into electoral reform and representation under the chairmanship of Professor Raymond Plant. His report will not be available for some weeks. Professor Plant has however made some important suggestions, one of which is 1337 that a constitutional convention to settle the voting system should be established. He made the interesting remark:In a sense the outcomes of politics are not legitimate unless the procedures are seen to be legitimate as well".That subject has been debated and discussed throughout this century and in the last. It is not easy, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, said, to find an ideal "fair" system. All the systems have advantages and disadvantages but a Labour Government will consider which is most appropriate for the House of Commons, the European Parliament and local government in the light of the Plant Report.
I regret to say that the general public are fed up to the back teeth with the Government's failure to be decisive. The way the Government have handled their legislative programme in the past few weeks has been deplorable. A Budget Statement followed by an election proclamation is not the way to run the country. Their truncation of a Finance Bill is not the way to conduct parliamentary affairs. Those are indeed arguments for a fixed term parliament.
As regards a Bill of Rights, as I have said on a previous occasion, we favour a Freedom of Information Act together with the measures set out in a Charter of Rights, which we have published. We propose to introduce legislation to guarantee the following: first, an individual's right to prohibit or restrict the collection of personal information; secondly, the parliamentary scrutiny of the security and intelligence services; thirdly, the equal treatment of all citizens of this country irrespective of their sex or racial origin; and, finally, equal access to the law as well as equal treatment before the law. We would also introduce a Bill of Rights to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights. Of course, it will be necessary to look at the working of the convention at the time.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, dealt with devolution. He will be aware that I have great sympathy with what he said. I have never wavered from the view that measures of devolution to Wales and Scotland are desirable and right. Lloyd George entered Parliament in 1890 on a home rule ticket and the founding fathers of the Labour Party took a similar view. Of course, independence is one thing and devolution is another. At a point in history when the countries of Europe are drawing closer together and when their sovereignty is diminished, I cannot think that total independence is a practical objective. However, to deny a measure of national responsibility to the two old nations in these islands when devolution operates across the world from the United States to Germany and Switzerland is short-sighted obstinacy.
For the Government to try to argue that there is no constitutional formula between independence and centralisation is to be blind to all that has happened in the countries which I have mentioned. If New South Wales and Nova Scotia can be given a measure of devolution, why should Wales and Scotland be treated with such disdain?
1338 Another task which must be undertaken in due course is the reform of this House. We have on several occasions raised that question, and the subject must be explored very carefully and without unnecessary delay.
I regret coming to the conclusion that the party opposite has no plans for any constitutional change. I suppose it is right to say that we have not yet fully adjusted to the new world, which this country, with others, helped to create. Dean Acheson said that Britain had lost an empire and not yet found a role. In fairness, Britain voluntarily dissolved the empire and has now found a role in the European Community, the Commonwealth and the United Nations. However, many of us still tend to look back with nostalgia. Side by side with the huge task of getting the economy right, of creating work for our people and giving them higher standards, we must have the courage and foresight to undertake essential constitutional changes. They cannot be achieved overnight, in a Session of Parliament, or even in an entire Parliament. We must however make a start, and that is what the next Labour Government propose to do.
§ 4 p.m.
§ The Lord Bishop of Norwich
My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, for his stimulating and wide-ranging introduction to the debate.
It may be felt unnecessary that anyone from these Benches should speak in this debate. The terms of the Motion are broad. They are principally concerned with Wales and Scotland rather than England and do not apparently raise any question of relations between Church and state. However, I want to make the point that the breadth of the Motion does not exclude a possible reform of this House. The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, specifically mentioned that. Such an issue would inevitably and rightly involve a consideration of the role of bishops in this House. Furthermore, any proposal for constitutional reform might find itself, even if that were not the intention, raising the whole question of the Church's establishment.
Through its establishment, the Church of England may seem to some people to enjoy privileges which are anachronistic, unjustified and in need of abolition. At the very least, some say, it would be more appropriate if those privileges were shared by other Churches. I should like to comment briefly on those views, even though I sense that they exist rather more outside this House than within it.
While it is true that the senior bishops of the Church of England enjoy the great privilege of Membership of this House, it is a fact that leaders of other Churches have publicly stated more than once that, far from resenting that privilege, they value it, because more often than not when we speak we do so not merely in the name of the Church of England but on behalf of the other Churches as well.
Relationships between the Churches are close and cordial, and we regularly consult each other about matters affecting the spiritual and moral welfare of the nation. That ecumenical growing together has been a major feature of Church life this century, and we 1339 continue to draw ever closer. Of course, we have the odd setback in that progress towards unity, but the Church lives with long perspectives. In that context, such setbacks should be seen as no more than hiccups which do not in the least affect our commitment to unity. We do not jealously guard our privileges on these Benches, and if a constitutional reform proposed a wider representation of leaders of other Churches we should no doubt support such a development. But in the meantime I believe it is true that we are able to represent a wide Christian constituency which goes far beyond the boundaries of the Church of England.
Privilege is an empty thing unless it is accompanied by responsibility. I am a relatively new Member of this House —the junior but one of the senior bishops, to be exact—but I have already come to a much deeper appreciation both of the crucial importance of this House in the affairs of the nation and also of the potential value of the contribution that can be made from these Benches. The courtesy shown by your Lordships is legendary, but I believe that it is more than good manners which expresses its appreciation of the presence of bishops. Our duties locally in our dioceses, as well as our national and international responsibilities, prevent us from being present as often as we should like. But I feel sure that your Lordships will agree that the Lords Spiritual have a vital function and responsibility in standing for the truth that the sacred and the secular, the spiritual and the material are not two separate aspects of life but are essentially intertwined.
Establishment consists not principally in the privileges enjoyed by a few Church leaders or in ceremonies of state, but in the responsibility felt by the Church to care for the nation as a whole. That central meaning of "Establishment" is seen not only in our national institutions but also in such places as the rural areas of my diocese, where the parson exists to serve not merely those who go to Church but the whole community. Equally, the villagers regard the parson as belonging to them all, and the Church building as theirs, whether or not they darken its doors. That is a meaning of Establishment. It is a tradition I value greatly which can easily be threatened by those in Church and state who fail to see the essential interconnection of the sacred and the secular.
I apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, for raising matters beyond the scope of his Motion. Of course, it was not his intention to raise any questions concerning bishops in particular or the Establishment in general, but debates about constitutional matters can have reverberations in unanticipated and unexpected places. A debate about the Establishment of the Church of England may one day be appropriate, but it will need the most careful preparation and should not happen, as it were, by accident.
I personally hope that little will change in the near future because I very much enjoy being here.
§ 4.5 p.m.
§ Lord Mayhew
My Lords, a number of voters will today be asking themselves to which constituency they belong. When one has one-member constituencies, 1340 one has to carve up the United Kingdom into 600-plus areas of roughly equal population. That means one cuts across natural communities. We cannot have constituencies like Bristol, Edinburgh or Manchester. They must be chopped up into unnatural artificial slices like Bristol East, Edinburgh West or Manchester Central.
Having decided to which constituency they belong, on 9th April the voters will advance to participate in an electoral system which, as the polls plainly show, they heartily dislike—a system clamped on them by the Conservative and Labour parties acting blatantly in their own interests. At the polling stations they will be faced with two serious restrictions on their liberty —both unique in the European Community. First, they will be forbidden to show which candidate they would like to win if their chosen candidate fails. They will be forbidden to do other than place one mark on the ballot paper which must be an "X"—the universal symbol of illiteracy.
That is a totally unnecessary and serious restriction on the liberty of the voter. Among other things it means that if their main concern is to beat the Tory candidate and the main challenger is Labour, they will be tempted to vote Labour even though they are Liberal Democrats. If they are Tory supporters and their main concern is to beat the Labour candidate, they would be wise to vote Liberal Democrat. On 9th April millions of electors will vote, not for the candidate they like most, but for the candidate most likely to defeat the candidate they like least.
Secondly, their ballot paper, unlike the ballot papers of other countries, will prevent their showing any preference for different candidates of the same party. They will be unable to show preference for a moderate as opposed to an extreme Labour candidate; for a hard-working Tory as opposed to an idle Tory; for a female Liberal Democrat as opposed to a male Liberal Democrat; for an Asian candidate as opposed to a white candidate, and so on. The Tory and Labour parties insist that those choices must be made in advance for the electors by party activists in smoke-filled rooms. Experience shows that such choices unfairly favour the male and the white. That is why there are so few women in Parliament; that is why there are so few MPs from ethnic minorities. It is from those smoke-filled rooms that the half-baked, extreme Leftist MPs manage to make their way to Westminster. The electors are not given a choice between a moderate and an extremist Labour MP.
When the results of the election are published on 9th April the commentators will point out that half the votes have been wasted; that 6 million or 7 million voters could have stayed at home without changing the result in any way at all. For 23 years I represented a safe Labour seat. At each election a small gallant group of constituents would visit the polling station and vote Tory. My admiration for them was unbounded. They turned out and wasted their vote at election after election until death mercifully removed them from the register. Nor were theirs the only votes to be wasted. Half my own voters could have stayed at home without making the slightest difference to the result.
1341 Objections to proportional representation have changed over the years; some have disappeared. The one most frequently heard today is that proportional representation tends to produce hung parliaments, as it does, and therefore puts too much power into the hands of minority parties. The experience of Germany is quoted; how the Free Democrats arranged first a Social Democratic government and then a Christian Democratic government. The flaw in that argument is that any king-making powers of a minority party arise solely from the mutual hostility of the larger parties. That has happened in Germany. The larger parties agree to come together and then the minority parties are marginalised. The Tory and Labour parties may not wish to do that, but it is their decision and their choice. They can do it if they like. If they insist on the politics of confrontation they naturally confer on minority parties considerable influence. In this case, the country will be fortunate to have, in the Liberal Democrats, a party capable of requiring them to abandon or modify their more extreme policies such as the poll tax for which they will have failed to get an electoral mandate.
§ 4.10 p.m.
§ Lord Thomas of Gwydir
My Lords, in the short time at my disposal I intend to refer solely to Wales. I do so because I raised this matter a few weeks ago in the House and was unable to get a reply. What concerned me was what the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, said—that there is a forthcoming election and people are entitled to know what constitutional changes are proposed in Wales by the various parties there. I agreed with the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, when he said that. I waited with great interest to see what he was suggesting should be Labour Party policy for Wales in the forthcoming election.
We know that the Labour Party is in favour of an elected Assembly with fiscal powers for Scotland. I was a little concerned when all he gave us was something vague. He said that after the report a Labour Government would consider which was the best system for Wales. He referred to himself as one who had never wavered from the view that a measure of devolution in Wales was right. I certainly agree with that. Time and again I have listened with great interest to his powerful speeches in favour of a Parliament for Wales.
What concerned me was this. The Liberal Party in Wales is quite clear about its policy, Plaid Cymru is quite clear, and both their policies are tenable. They say that they wish to have an elected Assembly with tax-raising powers and a measure of legislative and executive independence from Westminster. I am sure that what concerns the people of Wales is what exactly is Labour Party policy. The only guide that one has had is from the 1990 document, The Future of Local Government in Wales. It states that the Labour Party intends to set up an elected body for Wales to deal with Welsh Office functions and with functions carried out on an all-Wales basis by nominated bodies. The document continues: 1342We recommend that the power of taxation should rest with Parliament".The elected body is referred to as a "regional government". The document goes on:It will be important for the regional government to have the opportunity to scrutinise any parliamentary legislation and regulation with relevance to Wales so that it may make appropriate representations on them to the Secretary of State and the Government".That is something which has concerned me somewhat. I, like the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, was a Secretary of State for Wales. Since 1964 I believe that the office has increased in value. It has done a great deal to help Wales. It is an effective institution. The Secretary of State is the legitimate executive authority for government policy in Wales. When he is abroad he speaks with authority for Wales and he is accepted as being the executive authority. It seems to me that the position of the opposition parties in Wales is to diminish that authority. That should be known so that the people of Wales understand exactly what is proposed.
Is it proposed that there should be an Assembly in Cardiff, presumably dominated in numbers by representatives of the populous South Wales? Is this regional government which is referred to in the 1990 document to be an executive talking shop unable to raise a penny in revenue and under the financial thrall of the Welsh Secretary? Is it intended that Wales should be relegated to what is in effect similar to a region of England? Is that what is intended?
This is a recipe for conflict between the Secretary of State and Westminster on the one hand and the Assembly on the other which may well lead to deadlock and economic disaster. I refer the House to what happened in 1979 when it was proposed that there should be a Parliament for Wales. There was a referendum in which 80 per cent, of the people said no. Following that, my party captured Montgomery, Brecon and Radnor and Anglesey, which were all places in favour of a Parliament for Wales. Plaid Cymru captured Meirionnydd and Caernafon. In 1983 the Conservative Party had 14 seats.
What that amounts to is that a panacea policy is not a real option. In Wales it is a decision between an autonomous Wales within a federal Europe or a continuation of the Union. My party believes in the continuation of the Union. Anything else would lead inevitably to a serious constitutional conflict. I shall adopt the words Mr. Kinnock used in 1979:It will be a costly millstone around the necks of the people of Wales".
§ 4.16 p.m.
§ Lord Houghton of Sowerby
My Lords, I am terrified that in a debate of this kind the time allotted may at some time be three minutes instead of six. Then I suggest that we shall have a breathtaking debate in which there is no time to do anything except recite our catechism of political belief. What the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, did in his interesting speech was to give your Lordships a whole collection of his prejudices in a matter of six minutes. When we come to deal with the Motion we should pass it because we want the Papers. There will be a great 1343 many of them and it may be worthwhile reading some of them on all these subjects while we are waiting for the House of Commons to be elected.
I am not going to recite my political catechism or express my prejudices over a wide area. I am going to deal with a part of constitutional reform which requires us to look at our own navel. I say that reform of the House of Lords is part of constitutional reform. It has been much talked about. Since the Labour Party gave up the idea of abolishing us and found that we are extremely useful and effective, even when there is a Conservative government, they decided that some kind of reform is on the books and not total abolition.
Our defeat of the Government the other evening on the Education (Schools) Bill was not really to do any harm to the Government or to the Bill. It was to demonstrate to the Labour Party the fallacy of the myth which they still stick to; namely, that in this House the Conservative Party has a built-in majority. It has not. All these debates prove that when the Cross-Benchers apply their minds to problems, as they occasionally do with great depth and understanding, we can defeat a Conservative Government.
I want to take noble Lords back to what we did in this House before I came here in 1968. There was a scheme which your Lordships passed by 251 votes to 56 votes. That scheme was put forward by the Labour Party. The Bill introduced on 19th December 1968 was passed by a very large majority in the House of Commons. It looked as if we had an accord for the future of the House of Lords, but owing to a series of misjudgments of strategic importance the Bill eventually had to be withdrawn. What the Labour Government had overlooked was that in order to get a Bill through, even with a good deal of support in the House of Commons, a good command of the procedures of the House is required because a Bill cannot proceed unless there is the power to move, and obtain, the closure and so make progress on the Bill.
When the House of Lords reform Bill had been on the Floor of the House for nine days and was still on Clause 1, it was time for the Prime Minister to consider what should happen to it. I was chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party at that time and the Prime Minister asked me what I would do with it. I said that I would drop it; but it remained on the agenda for the rest of that Session just to show that that government were not dropping anything.
We had an agreement, and I believe that that is the starting point for our consideration of the future of the House of Lords. Unless we deal with the House of Lords I do not think we shall make much progress on other items of reform.
In the remaining few seconds left to me I suggest that in the new Parliament we should attempt to get a corporate view in this House about our own future. That would be an exercise in wisdom, in mutual accommodation and in looking forward. Perhaps we should offer that corporate view based upon what was agreed in this House in 1968 because, if we look at it, a great deal is relevant and apposite today. Even the scheme that the Labour Party is talking about takes its roots in the report of the constitution committee—a committee of which I was a member—which linked 1344 the House of Lords with regional development. But I think that the House of Lords should be reformed quite independently of regional government. It is the repository of wisdom and experience. With suitable conditions of arriving here and departing—there is, of course, one condition of departing, but we do not like to face that—we are on the way to getting an agreed scheme.
Finally, let me say that no one party will get reform of the House of Lords through Parliament without a very large measure of all-party agreement. That is quite impossible. History shows that it is impossible for one party to carry through substantial constitutional reform of Parliament itself. Therefore, we should give some attention to our own position, our own future and what part we feel we can play in the forward looking period that we are entering, whichever party is returned. There is a good deal of forward looking necessary for this country.
§ 4.23 p.m.
§ Lord Simon of Glaisdale
My Lords, in the current political atmosphere which has even invaded your Lordships' House, as is apparent from the speeches that have been made, there is little hope I fear for a still small voice from the Cross-Benches to carry much resonance. Nevertheless, I desire to intervene to make one overriding point. What has already appeared abundantly from the general discussion today is the desirability of these important matters being considered by a Royal Commission on the constitution.
The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, has raised issues of far-reaching constitutional importance. Other issues, too, were raised by subsequent speakers. Those issues are not going to go away; nor are they going to be conjured away by rubbery phrases or putting down markers for subsequent negotiation in a hung Parliament. These are serious issues and not one has been raised that does not demand much further consideration than it has had.
My noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham, in his rumbustious speech, dealt with all the points that previously have been raised. But I missed one note which, to my mind, is the most percipient constitutional insight since the war. I refer to the danger in which we stand of an elective dictatorship. We cannot escape from that either.
I said that there was not a single issue that does not demand further consideration. Practically all of them will have abundant further consideration in a controversial way. I only desire to take one as an example—the question of devolution to Wales and Scotland. The further question that arises is that to which my noble and learned friend referred; namely, how far should that principle be carried into the English region? That is a profoundly important question. As soon as that is done, we have to consider what is the division of power between the regions, including Scotland and Wales, and the centre. That brings in the all-important question of how we are to deal with finance and taxation. At the moment both Scotland and Wales benefit financially from the union. We then have to decide whether it is right to face them 1345 with that sacrifice; though probably it is better to ask whether it is right that they should be faced with such a sacrifice. If we are to allow local taxation, what form should it take? There is much to be said for a local income tax, but the difficulties were spelt out at length in the Layfield Report. Those difficulties have to be faced, but they cannot properly be faced on the hustings.
Therefore, I end as I began, in a plea that these matters shall be considered carefully by a Royal Commission. Your Lordships will bear in mind the stark difference between, on the one side, the engendering of the American constitution, discussing constitutional conventions one after another and discussed at length by scholarly lawyers in the papers on the federal list, and the febrile constitution thought up in the heat of the moment during the French Revolution, none of which survived.
As I said, I end as I began by hoping that all parties —or at any rate the Conservative Party in its manifesto—will publish a commitment to a Royal Commission on the constitution.
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, your Lordships will not be surprised if I talk about Scotland. I have been involved in politics for a long time. The first election in which I took part, although I was not a candidate, was in 1950. From then on in Scotland we in the Liberal Party—as it was then; it is the Liberal Democratic Party today—were talking about a Parliament for Scottish affairs. That is what we are talking about now. I should tell the noble and learned Lord that if our scheme comes into operation he will not have to cross any borders and nothing will be done to make him take out a visa. Indeed, we will offer him a dram when he comes to visit us with the greatest friendliness and we shall consider ourselves still British together.
The whole history of the Union is rather interesting in the way that it has developed. There is no shadow of a doubt that when the 1707 Act was passed there was much skulduggery in the arrangement of the measures. But there is also no shadow of a doubt that Scotland and Scotsmen benefited from the access to English colonies and from the development of the tobacco trade, which is much maligned at present. All that brought a degree of prosperity to Scotland which was exploited.
The Scots have always been great travellers. In the Baltic states in the days of the Hanseatic League I believe it was said that regulations were put out that dogs and Scotsmen were not allowed on the streets after dark. But since the Reformation the Scottish character has changed. Indeed, Scotsmen have made tremendous use of their talents all over the world. Of course they had to do so because they came from a poor country. But it is a country and a people with a culture. It has great poets—and not only Burns. It also has writers and painters, not only Raeburn. Moreover, it has had and has economists—some of 1346 whom are much misquoted today. It has all the capacity to be an entity on its own within the British constitution—if there was one.
I much regret that there has crept into the SNP's propaganda today an appalling blowing up of a natural pride in Scotland into a hatred of the English. I personally rather like the English. They are a nice people. They are kind to animals; indeed, I have many friends among them. But looking at the Scottish Office and its achievements—and there have been considerable achievements and very good Secretaries of State —we can see that it has been fighting a corner to try to adapt English legislation to Scottish affairs. What we need in Scotland is a centre of power in a Parliament for Scottish affairs.
The control of great companies has drifted south. Many of the Scottish industries are now controlled from London. All of that has led to the unease which sensible people in Scotland are feeling. It is the sensible people—and, happily, the nonsense about independence and Europe is dying down—who want a centre of power which would eliminate a great deal of the unease and make Scotland a centre for people to return to, to stay in and to develop in all sorts of ways.
There is an example of that process. It is often said to be an impractical one but it is, nevertheless, a recent example. I refer to Ulster. Despite the appalling racial hatred, technically the Stormont Parliament worked extraordinarily well. I shall merely give your Lordships two examples, both of which I know of from personal experience. The first involves agriculture. I remember well just after the war when a new method of preserving grass by using silage was introduced. The Irish Department of Agriculture grasped it at once, co-operating with the university and Professor Morrison. It produced sensible legislation to give farmers in Ulster with their wet climate a subsidy for building silos to the great value of the livestock industry.
The other example was the attraction that industry had to locate in Northern Ireland. They were superbly good at that in that closely-knit community. There we have an example of such a process working without breaking up the United Kingdom in any shape or form. It would work in Scotland. It would work well and improve the relationship. Indeed, the United Kingdom would be much more of a united kingdom than it is today.
§ 4.35 p.m.
§ Baroness Carnegy of Lour
My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow my neighbour, the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie. I go along with much of the earlier part of his speech. His party, the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, do not, I understand, favour the setting up of an Assembly along the lines of the Stormont Parliament but a Parliament along the lines which the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party have spent so much time designing through the so-called constitutional convention. I think that most people would agree that the criteria by which we should judge such a parliament, whether it be that one 1347 or any other, is whether it would work and whether it would satisfy the Scots and so keep Scotland within the United Kingdom.
Now that the election campaign proper is beginning, it seems most important that the limitations of the scheme put forward by the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats should be understood. If it is truly understood, I believe that only those who want a separate Scotland will vote for it. If one looks at it in detail, the scheme has a number of major flaws. It is possible that later speakers will point out some of them. One of the least discussed, and one which seems to me to be the most important, is the proposed funding system for the Scottish Parliament.
The proposal is that such funding should come from three sources: first, from revenue raised in Scotland from income tax and VAT—that is, income tax and VAT set in the UK Parliament; secondly, from a block grant from the United Kingdom Parliament based on assessed need negotiated with the Treasury on the current Barnett formula by which the Scottish Office is at present funded; and, thirdly, by the ability to add or lower income tax by a defined amount. It is suggested that the latter might be 3p more or less than the UK income tax level. That in itself produces a number of major problems. The revenue from income tax and VAT—the so-called "assigned revenues"—will vary as the United Kingdom Government vary tax and as the economy of Scotland varies as it expands and declines from time to time.
Further, as the Scottish Parliament's decision-making and legislation begin to diverge from that of the United Kingdom —the Scottish Parliament will be legislating for everything except foreign affairs, defence, social security and fiscal matters—and as Scottish local government flexes its muscles (we must remember that it spends 52 per cent. of the Scottish Parliament's spending) expenditure needs will as a result diverge from the base currently agreed within the United Kingdom, which may be higher or lower. In theory, as that happens the increase or decrease of 3p can come into play. But in practice the extent to which that will happen will depend upon the amount of the United Kingdom block grant. A very small reduction or increase in that block grant will have a major effect on Scottish income tax. That is the gearing syndrome that we see in current local government funding—the effect on the community charge of a quite small change in government block grant funding. In other words, the same thing would happen but to a very much greater degree.
Therefore, under the plan every year there will be an enormously contentious negotiation between the United Kingdom Parliament and the Scottish Parliament. On those negotiations will depend the level of funding of local government in Scotland and therefore what it can and cannot do, the ability of the Scottish Parliament to legislate in the way that it wants if that legislation would add to expenditure and the level of income tax for the Scots and whether it is above or below that south of the Border.
1348 Professor Arthur Midwinter of Strathclyde University, who is a great expert on local and central government funding in relation to Scotland, estimates that the United Kingdom Parliament will decide between 96 and 100 per cent, of the Scottish Parliament's funding. It seems to me that the people of Scotland will become so frustrated by those annual negotiations that as time goes on separation will become inevitable. Therefore, if we look in detail at only that aspect of the matter—and the proposals for a Scottish Parliament involve many others—only those who want the separation of Scotland from the United Kingdom in due course should vote for it.
§ 4.41 p.m.
§ The Earl of Longford
My Lords, I should like to testify briefly to my conviction, which has been maturing for some time and which is now quite strong, that the Labour Party should adopt proportional representation as its policy. I hope that no one will tell me that that is opposed to the traditions of the party.
Not long ago I spent the evening in a famous monastery. After dinner I argued as best I could and against most of the monks in favour of women priests. They did not appear to agree with me, but I asked them at the end, "What is your objection to women priests?" The senior monk smiled and said, "Well, trad, I suppose". That is no doubt a strong argument in all walks of life, both secular and ecclesiastical. However, I do not think that there is anything in the tradition of the Labour Party to make it decide in favour of one method of election over another.
One can search the works of Sidney Webb without getting any enlightenment on the matter. So I turn to principles. We believe that all human beings are of equal importance—some would say, "In the sight of God", but I do not think that that can help us to decide this issue. We must look at it practically, taking a long and calm view.
I am glad to find that my party seems to be at least veering in the direction of proportional representation. I have persuaded myself that I am entitled to draw encouragement from the speech of my leader this afternoon and from other indications. I do not think that I am embarrassing my party in any way—even if it paid the slightest attention to my opinion, which is doubtful—in coming out boldly, strongly and quite unequivocally for proportional representation.
It is now almost 60 years since I began setting pupils at Oxford a weekly essay on proportional representation. The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, was one of my pupils and, although I missed his speech this afternoon, I must say that I am not sure whether he benefited from the guidance that I offered him on those occasions. No doubt others will have seen the light more clearly. At any rate, I knew all the arguments backwards and forwards. One could not fail to know them if one listened to pupil after pupil reading out the same or a similar essay on PR year after year.
The arguments were well known then and they are well known now. Proportional representation reflects the mind of the public much more accurately. However, it was argued then—it can be argued much 1349 less convincingly now—that the first-past-the-post system—or whatever one likes to call it—produces a strong government. Those arguments have been going on for 60 years and as far as I am aware there are no new arguments. The question that remains is how one applies those arguments today.
I hope that I shall not be breaking the rules of party warfare if I express agreement with the line of argument that was taken by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. I hate to say, however, that I arrived at these conclusions on my own and that I am not speciously following the noble Lord simply on the strength of his eloquence this afternoon. I agree with what he said. If there were only two parties and one gained a big majority of the votes, the first-past-the-post system would be the best way of doing things. However, as we now have three firmly established parties, none of which will ever get a majority of the votes, we are therefore left permanently with a series of governments who, on the face of it, do not command the support of the country.
That is why I am driven to the conclusion that proportional representation would strike an objective observer, if such a person existed, as the fairest and most sensible system for Britain to adopt in the future. If I am told that that would give Labour a tactical advantage after the election, I must say that I cannot see any objection to that because, if one believes in a party, one is entitled to want to see it win. As long as the method that is adopted is honourable, one favours a match-winning tactic.
Therefore, to put it in a nutshell, because we must all speak briefly, I believe that justice and party considerations come together in this argument. They do not always do so in this life, but they do in this case. I am glad that my party seems to be moving marginally in the direction of proportional representation. I very much welcome that movement.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ The Earl of Perth
My Lords, we should all be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, not only for his speech but for the other powerful speeches that we have heard in the debate that he initiated. I refer, for example, to that of the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, with whom I found myself very much in agreement.
I shall speak about Scotland. I have just returned from the United States where I was surprised by the great interest that is taken in the Scottish position. A whole page of the New York Times was devoted to the Scottish question and the Wall Street Journal had a long leader on it. Perhaps I should begin by saying that I am all for the Union, but for the Union with devolution. I supported that campaign five years ago. We failed, but I am convinced that we must now have devolution.
As I read it, there are two extremes. The first is the status quo. I hope that I am wrong in thinking that that is the position of the Conservative Government because, if it is, I foresee trouble ahead. I do not know whether Ministers really appreciate the degree of feeling in Scotland that the Scots should be allowed to 1350 run their own show and about the fact that we were the guinea-pigs for the poll tax. Almost all of the people in Scotland are fed up with the way in which Whitehall has behaved. Whitehall does not know best in relation to Scottish affairs. That is one extreme which should be ignored or abandoned in the future.
The second extreme is that of the Scottish National Party, which calls for independence within Europe. As your Lordships know, the Community must be unanimous when accepting a new member. I am almost tempted to use the word "laughable" about the idea of the Community accepting Scotland as an independent member. Just think of the trouble that that would cause with Germany and its Länder, with Spain and Catalonia, or with other countries. It is wishful thinking and unrealistic.
So, what are we to do? I suggest something between the two extremes. If I had time I would quote from the leader in the Wall Street Journal which began with a quotation from Mrs. Howdie from Sir Walter Scott's "The Heart of Midlothian". Suffice it to say for the moment that she said that we must have leaders in Edinburgh so that we can throw stones at them if we do not agree with them. If the leaders are in London, no nail is long enough to get at them.
There we have it. In the days of Walter Scott, it was already clear that Edinburgh should be the centre for Scottish affairs, and I know that that is the position of the Labour Party, the Liberals and, in a curious way, of the Scottish Nationalists, but I am less clear about the Conservatives.
What is the minimum? I am clear that it is an Assembly in Edinburgh, directly or indirectly elected. Further, the division of the block grant should be decided by that Assembly. That will be different from what happens in England. The Scots have a conscience. They are not interested only in material prosperity. They have a special thought for the underprivileged. I am sure that that will affect the way the cake is cut.
Whether an Assembly should have the power to override the Secretary of State or levy taxation are questions to be decided once the general principle that we are to have some form of self-government in Edinburgh has been agreed. The answer is probably gradualism. That has been the history of the steady advance of Scottish rule for Scotland. When I say that, I have in mind that over the last 100 years one has seen a Scottish Secretary of State, a Scottish Secretary of State in the Cabinet and a Scottish Office centred largely in Edinburgh. The Government should not try to buck the trend.
I hope that the Conservatives will mention in their manifesto that there will be a Royal Commission, as my noble and learned friend Lord Simon of Glaisdale suggested. The issue is a deep and important one for the whole Union. We have been together for 300 years. We have shared great times, but the time for some change has come. We must change realistically and not too emotionally; but change there must be.
§ 4.52 p.m.
§ Lord Hooson
My Lords, I intend to confine myself to the case for the people of Wales having more control over their affairs. Like all minority peoples in Western Europe, the Welsh people's hope for far more control over their own affairs has increased proportionately with the development of a more unified Europe which promises to provide an economic, fiscal and security umbrella. In people's minds the outmoded 19th century concept of sovereign independent states has been giving way steadily to the idea of surrendering such sovereignty in return for far greater prospects of long-term economic benefit and general security. Indeed, I hope that in the next century there will be no national boundaries, in Western Europe at least. The argument for boundaries is outmoded.
It is our view that devolution in Wales should evolve more gradually than in Scotland. The Act of Union of Scotland and England took place over 150 years after the formal Act of Union of England and Wales. That meant that Scotland retained its own legal system, and it had powerfully developed national institutions and financial institutions which Wales did not have. The Welsh identity was preserved by its language, its religion and its culture. Wales was without any formal institutions until the latter part of the 19th century when steps were taken to establish the University of Wales and the Welsh National Library, and we saw the development, under the Liberal Government of 1906 to 1914, of the Welsh Board of Health and the Joint Education Committee for Wales which was built on the foundations established by Acts such as the Welsh Intermediate Education Act. In our age we have seen the development of Cardiff as an administrative capital—many centuries after Edinburgh was the Scottish capital—and the setting up of the Welsh Office under a Secretary of State. There is general satisfaction in Wales, even among those who originally resisted the idea of a Secretary of State for Wales—many Members on the Conservative Benches opposed it—and with our administrative devolution. However, there is an increasing consciousness of the fact that Wales is ruled largely by quangos —bodies set up by government—with nominated members who often have few apparent qualifications for their positions, save that they may be described as "one of us", and who are appointed to run them without being accountable to any democratic institution.
I approve of the basis for the reform of local government in Wales now proposed by the Secretary of State; but in our view, that development in local government should be matched by the provision of a democratically elected body which can take over some of the functions or the oversight of our many quangos. The process should be evolutionary. In the first instance, we should have an elected senate with limited powers. Its main task would be to hammer out a practical measure of devolution for the future. I envisage that it will evolve naturally into a legislative body, although I would give it some legislative powers from the outset.
1352 There is an obvious parallel to the European Parliament, which began as a nominated body, became an elected body with advisory powers, is a forum for debate and is now seeking to evolve into a parliament with powers over the European Executive as well as having legislative powers. Its progress will depend upon the evolution of political thought within Europe and the practical necessity of having a European elected body to control the activities of the Brussels Commission. Likewise, in Wales we envisage a similar evolutionary approach which accords with common sense rather than a blueprint. I also envisage negotiations between the Westminster Parliament and the Welsh senate over a period of time. We should work steadily and sensibly towards devolution rather than seek to impose an immediate and so-called final solution.
In the course of that process, I believe that we shall see less of the adversarial politics than we have experienced in the past. The adversarial approach which British politics has inherited and which exists in our legal system could in the climate of modern conditions be a veritable impediment to progress. There is much greater scope these days for seeking a consensus and a gradualist approach to reform.
The vitally important first step is to have an elected body, democratically representing the interests of the people of Wales, within five years from now. Its initial powers may well be in the main advisory, but it can then evolve, gradually and securely, into a sub-parliament with powers to foster and develop the cultural, social and economic life of Wales in a way that is not being done today.
The setting up of the Welsh Office with its Secretary of State was an important step along the way, but the Welsh Office lacks legitimacy. Does the Secretary of State represent central government in Wales or does he represent Wales in government? It is impossible for him to speak as the true democratic voice of the Welsh people, especially when he represents a minority interest in Wales as does the Conservative Secretary of State.
Regional policy is now largely determined in Europe. There is a growing European dimension in the life of the Welsh people of which they are fully aware. The particular aspirations and distinctive political culture of Wales gathers strength on two fronts: on the European front with the realisation that there is an umbrella gradually replacing the British umbrella; and within Wales because, as people prepare to share their sovereignty, they aspire also to a greater control of their own affairs.
§ 4.59 p.m.
§ Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn
My Lords, we are a pragmatic nation. We do not have an elaborate written constitution; we regulate our affairs by convention and by precedent; and we change them when there is good practical cause to do so, and not before—a point well made by my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham.
The noble Lord who proposed the Motion might be felt to be applying a Cartesian logic, of seeking some lengthy syllogism, some Bill of Rights, some Code 1353 Napoléonique, some ordered tract, by which we might order our own affairs. But how many of the issues which he raises—all of them important—would best be addressed by this approach of the philosophe? It certainly has not got the French very far. The Fourth Republic was a shambles, sinking in a confusion of coalitions and ballets roses. The Fifth Republic was imposed, let us remember, by a president who came to power after unrest and armed rebellion; and very much less successful it looks when the central figure is a man of lesser stature.
One has only to look across the Channel to several European countries to see that proportional representation and fixed terms can have highly undesirable consequences: parliamentary instability; lame duck presidents marking time till their days run out; and, above all, the risk of giving undue influence to minority and sometimes extremist groups.
The great thing about our parliamentary system is that it works. Generally, there is a clear outcome and that is perhaps the most important point. It works through representative government—you know who your MP is; you elect him or her to represent you and you can go to that MP on constituency matters. That is something which is difficult to arrange under a proportional representative system.
Moreover, in a democracy governments change. Of 13 elections since 1945, the sitting government have won seven and lost six. That is a narrow lead in favour of incumbent governments which I personally would not wish to see diminished in the near future. Noble Lords will remember the dark days during the Wilson administration in 1974 when newspaper pundits like Cecil King proclaimed the country to be ungovernable. Not a bit of it! The constitutional difficulties, at any rate, were entirely illusory. Is this stable system what the noble Lord seeks to lose?
What then is wrong today? There are clearly several things wrong. The Scots and, to some extent, the Welsh—as we have heard this afternoon—sometimes feel that their voices are not heard or at any rate that they are not heeded. I think that they are often right.
However, I submit that it is not the constitutional system that is altogether at fault. In my view, successive governments and Prime Ministers often fail to spend time in Scotland or Wales and fail in practice to give British affairs a Scottish or a Welsh dimension as well as an English one. No new constitution would be required to rectify that omission. Again, no new system is needed to confer the rights which would be listed in a Bill of Rights. For example, oppositions have regularly promised to secure freedom of information by an appropriate Act in this country and to abolish unnecessary secrecy. But successive governments, of whatever colour, have invariably failed us in that respect.
Our successive parliamentary governments may have their shortcomings, but these are not constitutional shortcomings and I cannot support this philosophical Motion.
§ 5.3 p.m.
§ Lord Taylor of Gryfe
My Lords, whatever issues will be debated in the United Kingdom during the forthcoming election, there is no doubt that devolution will be one of the major issues in Scotland. The situation is that in a recent opinion poll 50 per cent. of the people in Scotland voted for complete independence. The current rating of the parties is that 30 per cent. of the electors will vote for the complete independence advocated by the SNP.
We must understand that in Scotland there is a considerable feeling on this matter and the Government would be wise to take heed. Of the 72 MPs in Scotland, only the nine Conservatives are in favour of the status quo. Noble Lords will therefore understand that the people of Scotland feel that their voice is not being listened to.
The campaign for independence is being hyped up by two newspapers read by four-fifths of the population of Scotland: the Daily Record and the Sun. One—the Sun—is in favour of complete independence, for circulation purposes. That does not apply in the south with the London Sun, but it is true in Scotland. In the case of the Daily Record, the newspaper is in favour of the constitutional changes visualised by the convention. So the public in Scotland is to some extent being manipulated by a cynical circulation war.
Why is there this resentment and strong feeling in Scotland? Let us face the fact that the worst piece of legislation in the present Parliament was the poll tax. It was imposed on Scotland a year before it hit England. It passed through this House with little concern about it and only when it hit England did people recognise that it was an iniquitous tax and it was withdrawn or revised. We can understand the feeling of people in Scotland. I notice that the Chancellor said yesterday that the uniform business rate in England would remain at its present level. That places Scotland and Scottish industry at a disadvantage of £362 million a year. These issues have caused an upsurge of the feeling in favour of some degree of independence north of the Border.
I agree with all the speakers who have said that departure from the Union would be disastrous. That should be spelled out and taken out of the emotional arguments about Scottish nationalism. At the same time, I am attracted by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, who has left the Chamber. He said that we must approach the subject in an evolutionary manner. I do not believe that the Scottish convention and other people who concern themselves with the matter have taken into account all the complications of what they seek to achieve. For example, the tax implications have been mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour. Income tax will be within the province of the new Scottish Parliament. People pay more income tax south of the Border because they receive higher wages in the South East than in Scotland. Consequently, in terms of income tax it would appear that to sustain present revenue levels income tax would increase in Scotland. The 1355 implications of that for inward investment and so on must be measured. Apart from income tax, the share of the national revenue must be discussed.
The whole problem of local government reorganisation has not been weighed in the balance. This is an expensive business because Scotland could become the most heavily governed country in Europe, with the Community, district, regional and what could become Strathclyde mark two sitting in Edinburgh as a Scottish convention.
The West Lothian question has not been solved. It concerns the ability of Scottish MPs to come to London and vote on English legislation while they have devolved powers to Edinburgh to deal with Scottish aspects. These issues and the West Lothian question must be faced.
I wonder whether the Scots really welcome the fact that the devolution demanded means the removal of the Secretary of State for Scotland from the British Cabinet. That is spelled out in the convention document. Does this diminish Scotland's influence in British politics? These issues must be faced within a scheme of devolution.
If the demand for devolution is as I have described it, then it would be wise for the Government not simply to say, "We are in favour of the status quo and everything in the garden is lovely". That is a recipe for trouble and growing tension within the United Kingdom. The Government should be much more willing to accept the fact that there is a strong feeling for devolution; there is too much centralised government and too much quango government in Britain at present which involves a reduction in the powers of the elected representatives. If the Government would face these issues, we might make sensible progress in the evolution of a correct balance. I hope that they will listen.
§ 5.10 p.m.
§ Lord Wilson of Langside
My Lords, I should have liked to follow the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, for there was much wisdom in his speech. However, in view of the timescale of this debate I wish to make a short, sharp point which arises out of the conclusion of the thought-provoking introduction to the debate by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. However, I hope I may also pick up on one or two points made earlier. In his thought-provoking and impressive speech the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, referred to the appointment of a Royal Commission. I was involved during the dark, dismal days of the government of the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Rievaulx, in setting up a Royal Commission in the late 1960s.
The report of that commission was profoundly disappointing. The best aspect of the report was the views held by the minority of members of the commission. Their views have provoked a good deal of thought and discussion. The only point in the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, with which I could disagree with no equivocation at all concerned Scottish devolution. Up until that point I had agreed wholeheartedly with everything he said.
1356 But I had some reservations about his remarks on Scottish devolution, although I put it no higher than that.
It is difficult to change a unitary state into a state with separate devolved parliaments. That is an intensely difficult task. I have always thought it was a great pity that the federalists did not win in 1707. The fight then occurred between the federalists and those who accepted the English conception of the corporate state. Concern has been expressed about the state of mind of the Scottish people and about the dangers of ignoring their reactions. It is not only the Sun, the Daily Mirror or the Daily Record that support the Scottish Nationalist Party. The Scotsman also supports that party.
Noble Lords opposite appear to be restless. I have only spoken for one minute. I find it disconcerting to be confronted with their restless behaviour. I could not understand what was happening. We should remember that a referendum was fought on a Bill of the Labour Party in 1979. The polls suggested that anything from 65 per cent. to 80 per cent. of the people of Scotland would vote in favour of the referendum. In fact only 32 per cent. voted in favour and the rest either abstained or voted against. That occurred after a campaign had taken place in which the Labour Party and its many supporters in the Scottish establishment had argued that a no vote was implied in an abstention.
§ 5.14 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn, opposes this Motion on the ground that it is a philosophical Motion. That was what noble Lords on the Benches of the noble Lord said to my great grandfather in 1832. Thinking of the parallel, I am tempted to wonder whether at this moment in some obscure recess of Central Office a draft Tamworth Manifesto is even now in preparation. I shall answer the noble Lord in the words of Edmund Burke, who said that a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation. There are occasions when those means must be used.
Our constituency system of representation in Parliament is in essence the system devised by King Edward I based on the writs for the Parliament of 1295. In my opinion my great grandfather tinkered with the system not quite radically enough. But the point about this system is that it was never designed to represent parties. It does not work to represent parties. It has not been overhauled at any time since the evolution of the party system. I do not think we appreciate quite what a lottery it is.
My noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead mentioned the general election of 1951. That is the only election since the war in which any political party has polled more than 50 per cent. of the votes and then lost. I remember as a boy of 13 listening to those results coming in and listening to the Labour Party turning all its majorities in South Wales and County Durham from majorities of 20,000 into majorities of 30,000, and never a seat the better for it!
1357 That was the moment at which my unease about the present electoral system began. I do not think we realise quite what odd results it is capable of producing. It is perfectly possible to imagine, if the Labour Party were to gain votes in areas where it has in the past come third, that a Conservative absolute majority might occur with 35 per cent. of the votes.
It is equally possible to imagine, if one agrees with Peter Kellner, that the electorate comprises four kinds of people —Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat and opposition. One can imagine an election which just about repeats the percentages of the poll of the previous election and wipes out the Government's majority. It is difficult to maintain consent to a system which is quite so unpredictable. During the course of this Parliament we have suffered a sea change in attitudes to consent.
At the previous election I thought the tide was running in favour of electoral reform, but it was—if I may so put it —a Mediterranean tide; that is, one has to be swimming to feel it. Now, as this debate has illustrated, we have an Atlantic tide. Whether it is a spring tide we shall not know until it reaches the flood which is yet some way ahead of us.
It seems to me that our present Government enjoy a far lesser sense of legitimacy than they did before. I believe the rise of the anti-poll tax federation is a phenomenon that ought to alarm us all. We are seeing the consequences of a loss of legitimacy. Also I believe we have not faced up to the immense extent of the power of parliamentary sovereignty. Absolute power is commonly defined as the power to make one's will law. How many times in this Chamber have we listened to a Minister on the Benches opposite bring in a Bill to repeal a court judgment while saying, "But our intention was"? There is an assumption here that their will is law, and that is dangerous.
We need a Bill of Rights. We also need European law, which is superior to an Act of Parliament, because in the European Communities Act 1972 Parliament has so willed it. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bridge of Harwich, has put it, Parliament's sacrifice of sovereignty was entirely voluntary. That is a good thing as absolute power is not good for the mind. It encourages slothful thinking.
We heard from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, an objection to devolution because he feels that power must be all in one place. The noble and learned Lord may wish to correct me, but I think that that is the Hobbesian illusion of a single sovereign power. It seems to me that we have the same problem with Conservative thinking on Scotland as with Conservative thinking on Europe and Conservative thinking on local government. They cannot imagine power being shared between a number of different places. They say that that might give us a botched up compromise. I wonder. Could it be much worse than what we have had for the past five years? Would we not perhaps be better off with a botched up compromise than with botched up absolute power?
§ 5.20 p.m.
§ Viscount Hood
My Lords, I should like to add my remarks to those that have already been made on the subject of devolution or home rule for Scotland and the implications of independence. It is now about 100 years since home rule was a national issue. While the problems of Ireland have no relevance to Scotland, the problems of devolution have.
Finance is the first issue and my noble friend Lady Carnegie has already pointed out some of the implications. It is to be presumed that, if there were a parliament in Scotland either that parliament would have taxing powers or it would receive a large block grant from the Parliament in Westminster. I believe that either would prove an endless bone of contention between the two parliaments and the two countries.
There is a further more serious problem regarding representation at Westminster. Clearly, if there is a parliament in Scotland and powers relating to foreign affairs, defence and certain other matters are held in London, there must be Scottish representation in the Parliament in Westminster. The problem is not so much the number of representatives but their powers.
A hundred years ago two alternatives were discussed endlessly in relation to Ireland. The first was that the Irish Members would have full powers. If that applied in the case of Scotland, Scottish Members would have power over English affairs while English Members would not have any power over Scottish affairs. I think that Englishmen would consider that intolerable. The alternative is for there to be limited powers. That is a very difficult concept, even more difficult now than it was a hundred years ago. We are now members of the European Community and many issues are both domestic and international, and the line of demarcation would be impossible to establish. A.J. Balfour, who was then Leader of the Opposition, concluded that the problem was insoluble and that home rule was impracticable. I share that view.
That leads one inevitably to the question of independence. I am very much of the same view as my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham. I am British, and over the years my family has played a part in the British Navy, not the English Navy. I shall touch on two of the practical problems which have been much mentioned in speeches in Scotland, namely, North Sea oil and a subject mentioned by my noble friend Lord Perth, membership of the European Community.
The position regarding North Sea oil is based on a 1964 convention of the United Nations which led to firm treaties with all the riparian powers, allocating the area which is now British. The North Sea is divided into 10-mile blocks on which major long-term contracts, involving huge sums, have been entered into with concessionaires. The United Kingdom cannot walk away from those contracts. It does not follow that an emerging independent Scotland would be acceptable to the other parties to the contract.
In addition, the issue of which oilfield goes with which coastline is a very difficult one. It may be that Scotland is closer to most of the oil than England, but the Shetlands are closer still, certainly to the major 1359 Brent field. That again is a very difficult issue and independence would not lead immediately to Scotland having the oil, which I read is constantly being said.
It would be essential for Scotland to be admitted to the European Community if it became independent. So much of its trade depends upon it being a member of the European Community. However, there is no precedent for a part of a member state being admitted to the European Community, and a number of members would strongly oppose that principle being established.
For those reasons I must stand for the status quo. It is much safer for Scotland to remain a part of the union. I believe that independence would be very damaging for England but it would be disastrous for Scotland.
§ 5.26 p.m.
§ Lady Saltoun of Abernethy
My Lords, in six minutes I cannot speak about both reform of the House of Lords and Scotland so I shall speak about Scotland. I am wholeheartedly in support of the Union, which I believe has been of inestimable benefit to Scotland in the past and will be of even greater importance in our European future, where the United Kingdom must have greater influence than any of its component parts, or possibly the sum of its component parts.
It has been said—indeed it is continually being said—that we must change in order to preserve the Union. That may well be so, but if we are to change a system of government which has not served us all that badly, we must take the time to be very sure that what we put in its place will be an improvement on what has gone before, not just something different, and that our heads rule when we are considering what must be a highly emotive subject.
I am not very happy about the proposals of the constitutional convention for a devolved Parliament. I have read its reportTowards Scotland's Parliament. It is heady stuff, but its proposals seem to me to be very general and to get us very little further than we were 14 years ago when the ill thought-out Scotland Bill, having been passed by both Houses of Parliament, was sensibly rejected by the people of Scotland in a referendum. I do not think that the constitutional convention's proposals will answer because I do not think that they have been thought through much more carefully. The convention simply has not got down to the nitty-gritty.
Too many unsolved problems remain. There is the West Lothian question, the question of the voting powers of Scottish MPs at Westminster; and the question of how many Members a Scotland with its own legislative assembly should send to Westminster. In addition there is the question of the assembly's tax-raising powers. It is no use members of the convention just hoping that, if they do not look at them, those nasty problems will go away. They will not.
It may be that the convention is going down the wrong road and that a totally different approach is needed. Perhaps instead of establishing yet another tier of government we should look at building up local 1360 government nationwide and giving it responsibility for much of what is at present the responsibility of central government. That could ease the burden on Westminster and enable both MPs and Peers to keep more reasonable hours. It could also solve the problem of over-government. If at the same time we went back to single tier local government, perhaps based on the old county councils in the main, with some small national co-ordinating bodies elected by the councils, we might save a great deal of expense while at the same time being able to reduce the number of MPs at Westminster.
One of the problems of a Scottish assembly is that whether it were elected on the first-past-the-post system or by some form of proportional representation, I do not see how one could get over the fact that Scotland would be governed by Strathclyde and Lothian regions. That is historically unacceptable to the northern inhabitants of the land, who are not in fact Scots (who were Irish immigrants) or Angles (who were English immigrants) but Picts or Norsemen. On a purely practical basis it is unacceptable because it means that rural Scotland would still be ruled by urban Scots. A local government solution might get over that.
I wonder whether the members of the convention ever troubled to read the Second Reading debate in this House on the Scotland Bill nearly 14 years ago. Winding up for the Opposition at the end of the third day the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham—I hope that he will not mind me quoting him now—said:What one cannot do and what has never been done is to graft on to a unitary state some of the characteristics of a federation as to some of its parts". Whether one goes for an assembly or whether one goes down some other road, constitutional change in whatever form for any part of the United Kingdom must surely involve constitutional change for every other part of the United Kingdom; and that change must be acceptable to every other part of the United Kingdom. Perhaps I am wrong, yet I believe that the convention hopes that that will be the case but has not ascertained whether in fact it will be.Other noble Lords, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, have talked of finance. Given that the figures in the report Government Expenditure and Revenues in Scotland, published the day before yesterday by the Scottish Office, are even approximately correct, how is the present level of government expenditure in Scotland to be maintained without increased taxation in Scotland? What worries me very much about the present proposals is that I cannot see how they can possibly work. I cannot see how Scotland can fail to become the most highly taxed part of the United Kingdom, nor how the proposed assembly can fail to be in continual conflict with Westminster. We need to return to the drawing board, and a Royal Commission might very well be the way forward.
I am very much afraid that the system proposed by the constitutional convention is bound to fail. When it has done so, people will not say, "We were wrong. We should have carried on being governed by Westminster. Let's go back to Westminster". Instead 1361 they will say, "We were wrong. We should have gone for total independence". That is what they will do and I very much fear that that will be the end of the United Kingdom and the beginning of a period of decline and strife such as Scotland has not known for centuries.
§ 5.32 p.m.
§ Lord Perry of Walton
My Lords, like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, I am proud of being British. But I also call myself a Scot and boast about it. Yet my Scottishness is very partial. Like most inhabitants of these islands, I am essentially a mongrel. It is true that my mother's maiden name was Flora Macdonald Macdonald but my father was half English and half Welsh. I was born in Scotland but have spent more than half my life in England. All my children were born in England but five of the six are much more vociferously Scottish than I am. For many of us, calling oneself a Scot is a conscious choice rather than an accident of birthplace or heredity. We are not a separate race but we are a kind of separate nation within a nation.
The awareness of nationhood in Scotland has been sharpened, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, said, by the unpopularity of Conservative governments of recent years. People felt that their views carried little weight at Westminster. They wanted a bigger say. It is true that there is a Scottish Office to administer Scottish affairs but it is staffed by Ministers whose views are not those of the Scottish electorate. That feeling of alienation from Westminster has led to the extreme separatism of the Scottish Nationalist Party and growing support for it. Yet we Scots are a canny lot. We may cast our bread upon the waters but only after making perfectly sure that the tide is coming in. The great majority do not want independence and the break-up of the nation. They want some of the powers of central government to be devolved to a Scottish parliament.
There are many varieties of such partial devolution. Labour and the Liberal Democrats in Scotland have come forward with one such scheme. The major problem about it—and the major problem about all schemes which devolve power to one region of a country and not to others—has been termed the West Lothian question. It can be answered most satisfactorily by a scheme which devolves the same powers to all the regions of the country.
The main stumbling block is that England does not easily divide into coherent regions. There would be no difficulty with Wales. But is there a necessity to subdivide England? Is England not a region like any other part? It is true that it has nearly 10 times the population of Scotland. But California has more than 10 times the population of Rhode Island and both have the same state rights devolved from the federal government. An English parliament would be given the same powers as a Scottish or Welsh one and the West Lothian question would not have to be asked. The British Parliament could consist of all the members of the regional parliaments and exercise government for all the non-devolved parts.
1362 I believe that that would work best with proportional representation. I see no logical justification for elections based on a first-past-the-post system. Assuming a two party system, when 51 per cent, of the electorate support Party A and and 49 per cent, support Party B, given a uniform distribution of people of all classes and occupations, there would be no Members of Parliament from Party B. All the Members of Parliament would come from Party A. It is only the non-uniform distribution that has yielded a relatively balanced legislature. Social changes could —indeed, I believe they are—leading to greater uniformity.
All arguments against PR are specious, for only PR will lead to a legislature which reflects the opinions of the population as a whole. If the population in high proportions wants two or three different parties, that is what it should have. To argue that only the first-past-the-post system yields a strong government —a government in which a party with less than 40 per cent, of support from the electorate can have an absolute majority of seats in the legislature—is essentially to deny democracy in favour of oligarchy and, worse, electoral dictatorship. In any case, where has that kind of strong government led us? Not to where I for one would have wanted to go.
§ 5.37 p.m.
§ Lord Beloff
My Lords, the programme of constitutional reform outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, and his fellows, is in itself so absolutely out of tune with the country's needs that it is odd for us to spend any time discussing it. It is based upon the rejection of experience, in particular of experience outside this country. The most extraordinary insularity enables noble Lords opposite to commend proportional representation as though it were a brilliant new idea. In fact, proportional representation has been in force in a great many countries in Europe and outside. Everywhere it has produced disastrous results. At the moment most countries are not trying to achieve proportional representation; they are trying their damnedest to find out how to get rid of it.
One example, which has been quoted before in your Lordships' House, is that of Israel. Proportional representation is the single most important obstacle to the peace process in the Middle East. I think few people would deny that. Nearer to home, there is Belgium, where a fragile national unity, particularly in the linguistic context, is being rent apart at the moment. The survival of the Belgian state, created by the international community in 1830, is certainly at risk. One may say, "Well, a small country like Belgium can't get it right." But what about a large country like Italy? At the moment, Italy is desperate to get rid of proportional representation, which has produced endless bargaining and haggling between a multiplicity of parties and groups and which is breaking up that country's national unity. Indeed, it is putting into question the work of Garibaldi and Cavour which we were all taught to admire: the creation of a unified Italy.
1363 One could go on. Wherever one looks, proportional representation has brought disaster. Why, then, should we wish it on ourselves? Proportional representation could be described as the HIV of the body politic. However it is introduced into the bloodstream, and the occasion may be gratifying, sooner or later fatal consequences invariably emerge.
Let us pass to another of the nostrums proclaimed by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, which has occupied a good deal of our time: devolution to Scotland and Wales. Again, we hear the most irrelevant comparisons with regard to what occurs elsewhere. I believe that it was the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, who said that Nova Scotia, New South Wales and Bavaria have rights. But they have rights within a federal system. The fact that Bavarians govern their own affairs does not mean that they can interfere in the way in which the inhabitants of Schleswig-Holstein govern their affairs. I have yet to find an advocate of devolution to Wales and Scotland who is fully prepared to accept the federal logic.
It is not a matter of the West Lothian question, or whether the egregious Mr. Robin Cook should be Secretary of State for Health in England and have a role in Scotland. It is a simple question of whether one can have an unequal distribution of power. The idea of the noble Lord, Lord Perry—that the matter could be solved by turning the United Kingdom into some kind of federal monstrosity—is extraordinary. Why should one-tenth of the population of the United Kingdom, or—if we understand that the Welsh support the concept too—one eighth of the population, dictate to the vast majority who prefer a unified system of government?
I do not believe that our constitution is perfect. I sometimes wake at night and think that this or that may be wrong. The noble Lord mentioned the possibility of a slight reform in our own affairs. Perhaps we should consider that. However, by and large, this catalogue of disasters—it can be proved to be disastrous from experience elsewhere—is surely a matter that we should take on board. We do not need these nostrums. It is perhaps appropriate that in a dying Parliament we should discuss a dying subject.
§ 5.43 p.m.
§ Baroness Seear
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, plainly does not like proportional representation. However, the debate today has shown that there is a strong mood of support for some form of proportional representation. Perhaps I may say to the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, that he chooses the most unsuitable examples in order to support his dubious thesis. One does not have to have the form of proportional representation which the Israelis were unwise enough to inflict upon themselves. One does not have to have exact arithmetical proportional representation in order to achieve a fairer system than the one that we have in this country.
I am delighted at the deathbed repentance—we are not quite sure whether it is deathbed or repentance —from the Labour Front Benches that they are at last moving in the direction of proportional representation. It has taken them a mighty long time. I wish that 1364 they would reach that conclusion before we go into an election and not after. I took a bet recently with a well known member of the Labour Party that if that party loses the election we shall hear a great deal from it about proportional representation but that if it wins the election we shall hear no more. I hope that I shall be proved wrong, but it is nice to know that the Labour Party is moving in the direction I have described.
Examples have been quoted to indicate how unsuccessful proportional representation has been. But no one has referred to Germany. I had the interesting experience last week of taking part in a forum at the LSE on the subject: what would be the result of a hung parliament? In answer to the accusation that it would be undemocratic for a small party to have such great influence in a coalition— which is what a hung parliament would lead to—I stated that one does not have to look at the numbers of people elected to the House of Commons but at the number of votes cast in the country.
In the last election the Alliance Party achieved 23 per cent, of the poll. The Conservative Party got 42 per cent. I give a totally hypothetical situation. If there had been an agreed programme between those two parties it would have been a programme which had the support of 65 per cent, of the country. No government in recent years have achieved anywhere near such support. For a democracy to have that support is a very strong argument indeed. One of the problems for the Conservative Party has been that it had only a minority of support in the country at a time when difficult changes needed to be made. If difficult changes are to be accepted any government need to have behind them a strong basis of support among the electorate.
In the discussion about proportional representation last week, I had made the point that it was democratic and that through coalition it could give a stable government. Few Members of your Lordships' House would deny that what this country needs more than anything else is stable government over a period of time with an agreed programme so that businessmen and everyone else know where they are. One very much hopes that we shall have stability of some kind after the next election.
My speech was followed by that of a Social Democrat member of the German parliament. I had never met him before. To my surprise, he underwrote everything that I had said. He stated that in Germany under no circumstances would people accept as democratic a government which had only 42 per cent. of the country behind them. He stated that the coalition government had made for a much less adversarial approach. Much greater consensus had made it possible to concentrate on finding the best possible solutions to problems instead of continuously scoring party points. I suspect that in the country as a whole a move to a more consensual form of government would be welcome indeed. He explained how that was supported by a federal system. Herr Genscher once said to David Steel, "You British are extremely generous. You gave our country decentralisation in a federal system, industrial democracy and 1365 proportional representation. It served us fine. But you never took any of it for yourselves." I hope that after the election we shall proceed to take some of it for ourselves.
The next issue that has been most discussed is Scottish devolution. I agree entirely that Scottish devolution needs to be part of a federal development in this country. I believe that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, agrees with that. Does the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, ever travel north? Does he ever listen to Lancashire people or Scottish people carrying on against the domination from London? We in the South East are not in the least popular in many other parts of the country. A move towards a federal system inside this country is surely urgently needed. I must say how tolerant the English are. I was looking at the Government Front Bench. I do not know the origins of the noble Earl, Lord Howe, but the other three noble Lords on the Front Bench are all from Scotland. There will be great danger of a break-up unless the Scottish demand for more power is met. Of course there are difficulties. But such considerations are part of a real examination of the constitutional position.
Huge changes are taking place in Europe which will affect government in this country. There are demands from Scotland, from Wales and from the regions of this country. There are demands for changes in the way the two Houses are run. I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, that these important issues must be looked at altogether and not piecemeal and that a Royal Commission is urgently needed to deal with them.
§ 5.50 p.m.
§ Lord Macaulay of Bragar
My Lords, the noble Baroness spoke of a deathbed repentance on the part of the Labour Party. I assure your Lordships that there is no question of the Labour Party being on its deathbed. Indeed, it is about to spring into life and take control of the affairs of this country after spending too long in the wilderness.
Unfortunately, the Motion tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, is too wide for me to deal with comprehensively. Each topic in the Motion is worthy of a debate. It lists the voting system, fixed term parliaments, a Bill of Rights and control over their own affairs for Scotland and Wales. I am sure that your Lordships' House could have a three-hour debate on each topic. However, we have had to crush the debate on those topics into one three-hour period. I do not intend to review what each noble Lord said but perhaps I may mention a few issues.
In introducing the debate the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, said that he would like to see the parties working together. That matter was also mentioned by the noble Baroness. Working together is not important, but agreeing together is. That is where coalitions fall apart. No matter how well disposed parties are towards each other, no matter what their long-term views are, when the political philosophy of one party overcomes the good will towards the other, the coalition tends to fall apart.
1366 The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, also spoke of an unholy alliance between the SNP and the Government. I am not aware of when that alliance was signed or whether it has been promulgated elsewhere. In fact, it is not the case. In an act of political cowardice on the part of the Secretary of State for Scotland the Government have hidden behind the Union. They have said, "We are for the Union and for nothing else but the Union". They tried to focus on the issue of the Union but were caught out by the Scotsman debate in the Usher Hall. On that occasion 2,500 people attended to debate the case for devolution for Scotland. To use a football phrase, the Government were well and truly cuffed at the end of the day.
The Government must recognise that in Scotland there is a call not for independence but for people to be able to govern their own affairs because the Westminster machine cannot cope. If it cannot cope with the affairs of Scotland and Wales, those countries are entitled to have something else in its place which can deal with matters pertinent to both countries without destroying the Westminster machine. That is what we should look at.
I was disappointed to hear the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, refer to Scotland as a region. He shakes his head but he equated Scotland with a region. Perhaps I may remind the House that Scotland stands as a nation as part of the Act of Union between England and Scotland. It will always remain so and has no intention of becoming a region of this country. If other regions attain self-government, all well and good, but Scotland stands as a nation and always will. The sooner people down here realise that the better.
I was also disappointed to hear the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, say that the letter X was a symbol of illiteracy. That was a contentious remark. My grandfather signed my mother's birth certificate with an X. That was his mark as a crofter in the Highlands. Fortunately that does not happen now, but one must not confuse illiteracy with lack of knowledge. My grandfather was a most knowledgeable man and the fact that he marked a birth certificate with an X did not mean that he was unaware of what was happening around him. The letter X is a symbol of the power of the people and noble Lords on the Benches opposite will find out about that on 9th April. I also wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, protested about smoke-filled rooms when he was being selected as a Member. But that is another matter.
We on this side of the House agree that there is a case for having a Royal Commission on the constitution. It would pull together all the strands of thought which were set out in the varied and knowledgeable speeches made today. It is a matter which should be considered. I wish to remind the noble Earl, Lord Perth, that there are four parties in Scotland, not three. That gives Scotland a different dimension.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, referred to a poll showing that 50 per cent, of people in Scotland were in favour of independence. That figure is now out of date; it is decreasing rapidly day by day. People are in favour of some form of devolution in order to allow 1367 Scotland to look after its own affairs. In Scotland there is a growing feeling not of antagonism towards England or Wales but that, if the Westminster machine cannot cope with Scotland's affairs and allow Scottish legislation to be dealt with properly and quickly, the machine should be overhauled or a new one put in its place in Scotland.
§ 5.56 p.m.
§ The Lord Advocate (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie)
My Lords, I have listened with interest to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, and others in the course of this debate. I immediately acknowledge the importance of the issues that they have raised. There have been some 23 contributions to the debate. I hope that it will not be taken amiss if during the time allocated to me I fail to respond to all the points raised.
I cannot but agree that constitutional reform of the kind that has been proposed would have far-reaching consequences for the United Kingdom, but I cannot accept that the effects of such changes would necessarily be either beneficial or desirable. No country can claim to have in place a set of faultless constitutional arrangements, but what is missing from the current discussion is the recognition of the very considerable strengths of our own existing system and institutions. We ignore those at our peril.
I shall deal first with proportional representation. The Government have always made it clear that they have no plans to introduce any form of proportional representation for local government elections in Great Britain or for elections in the United Kingdom to Westminster. The system that we have may not be perfect but it is simple, it is familiar and it is well understood by the electorate. I know that to my personal cost. It provides close and direct representation, whether it be in this House or on the local council, and it is much more likely to produce an overall majority for one party to provide strong and effective government at either local or national level. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, thought that that was a dated idea but it seems to me still to be as important as it was when he was lecturing students.
Proportional representation, on the other hand, in whatever form it takes, often results in some form of coalition based on a programme which the electorate has not had the opportunity to approve or disapprove. Voters can only guess what kind of coalition their party might have to enter into after an election, what new policies it might have to adopt and what compromises it might have to make to keep the coalition in existence. Furthermore, parties which poll few votes can exercise an influence out of all proportion to the number of people who voted for them and can keep on exercising it notwithstanding the fact that they continue to be placed low down in the poll. Nor has it proved to be a bulwark against the risk of extremist politics.
The noble Baroness, Lady Seear, made a splendidly adversarial speech in favour of the consensus that proportional representation would bring. However, I know that she and others are aware that ardent supporters of proportional representation regularly go 1368 apoplectic when they are reminded that it was within such a system that Hitler first engineered his rise to power. They also tend to brush aside the extraordinary influence that minor and extreme religious parties have had in Israeli affairs under what is arguably a very pure form of proportional representation. They must blush as they regard Italy going, in this Roman spring, into an election where there will be 100 parties which range from a very respectable Republican Party to the Housewive's League, Anybody's Party, the Yes Party and the Party of Love, which is represented by four women who have made careers out of taking off their clothes. What has welled up in Italy as a result of that multi-party approach is that there is now a growing demand for a referendum on the first-past-the-post system. The problem is that the 100 parties cannot agree on what the question should be.
Closer to home we have watched with no surprise the fall-out between the Labour and Liberal Democratic Parties in the Scottish convention over the right model for a Scottish assembly once it dawned on the Liberals that what was under discussion might in its practical application unduly benefit the Labour Party. While two models were put forward, no agreement could be reached. The short answer is that any search through all the models of proportional representation as applied by other countries throughout the world, including the EC, reveals there is no democratic Holy Grail. There is no wholly satisfactory replacement for our present system. I think the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, acknowledged that.
The Liberal Democrats propose a single transferable vote system which necessarily requires the formation of large multi-member constituencies and in consequence—and this is important—severely erodes the links between a Member and his or her constituents. My mind boggles at the idea of a single parliamentary constituency stretching from the Mull of Kintyre to Muckle Flugga in the north of the Shetland islands.
As regards a Bill of Rights, possibly entrenched in a written constitution, which is also part of the noble Lord's Motion, the first thing to say is that such measures would fundamentally alter the constitutional balance between the courts, parliament and the government. The great virtue of our democratic system, with its unwritten constitution, lies in its flexibility; it is able to change and adapt in accordance with society's needs, through legislation, decisions of the courts and the evolution of constitutional conventions. We see no merit in substituting a written constitution or a Bill of Rights for the present delicate system of checks and balances which have been developed over centuries and which provide the safeguard of our democratic freedoms. It is worth reflecting that some of the most repressive regimes in the world have written constitutions: they are hardly a guarantee of liberty.
Aside from that, the Government would argue that a Bill of Rights is unnecessary because the possession of rights and freedoms is an inherent part of being a member of our society. That understanding is fundamental to the United Kingdom's constitutional arrangements. Rights do not need to be conferred: 1369 they exist unless Parliament decides that the needs of society are such that they must be restricted in some specific way. A written constitution or Bill of Rights would undermine the principle that it is Parliament which has the supreme responsibility to determine society's needs. In the Government's view it is infinitely better for Parliament to enact legislation in areas of public policy rather than to look to the judges, who are not elected to take the lead in these matters. Imposing the task of interpreting a Bill of Rights would inevitably propel judges into the political arena. Some might welcome that role but I do not believe that that is their true responsibility. Many of the matters commonly proposed for inclusion in a Bill of Rights in fact involve hard political choices which Parliament should make. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord McCluskey, made clear in his Reith lectures, the character of those choices is not altered because they are cast in the noble language of fundamental human rights.
The Government are a firm believer in, and supporter of, the European Convention on Human Rights. The United Kingdom played a major role in its drafting and in 1966 accepted a citizen's right of individual petition to the Commission much earlier than many of our European colleagues. But we are opposed to the incorporation of the convention into United Kingdom domestic law for much the same reasons as we object to a proposal for a Bill of Rights.
The noble Lord raised also the question of a fixed-term parliament. That there should be a maximum duration for the life of a parliament is not disputed and there would appear to be little disagreement as to the length of any such parliament. If there is to be a fixed period, the only real issue is the circumstances in which earlier dissolution is permissible. If the circumstances allowing for that are too restrictively stated, it is not difficult to envisage a wide variety of occasions when it could not be for the good of the country to require a parliament and government to continue without seeking a fresh mandate from the electorate. If conditions for early dissolution are too loosely framed, the change proposed would in effect be purely cosmetic.
I believe any public support for fixed terms is mistakenly based on the view that somehow the change would reduce the amount of confounded politicking to which the modern electorate is subjected. On the day after "Super Tuesday", when the American presidential elections are in far distant November, I conclude that such a change would increase rather than reduce that exposure to campaigning.
Perhaps I may turn now to what the Motion describes for Scotland and Wales as "control over their own affairs". I immediately question the assumption that there is any consensus on the degree of change which would be satisfactory to the people of Scotland, or, indeed, Wales. In the development of the debate in Scotland in recent months it is unfortunate that those who should know better have adopted the 1370 language of nationalism. The noble Lord who spoke before me must be well aware of how unfortunate that is.
I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, was horrified when the Liberal Member of Parliament for Gordon, in what was the noble Lord's former constituency of Hillhead, described some Conservatives at the weekend as quislings. I consider that to be a strong term of abuse, well beyond what is reasonable political invective. I hope that the noble Lord, who has great stature within his own party, during the weeks which lie ahead may invite his colleagues to address this matter calmly and rationally, as he did, and not surrender to the forces of xenophobia which are regrettably to be found in Scotland.
Opinion polls demonstrate to me only that there is a remarkable volatility in Scotland. As the debate has extended, there has been a steady rise in support for the status quo. As the various proposals are explored in depth, and when it is realised what are the costs and consequences of such radical moves, support wanes markedly. Today the CBI, after taking a long and cool look at all the proposed changes—when it did not start in favour of the status quo —concluded:The separation and devolution proposals would not stimulate Scottish companies to compete on price and quality in international markets, nor to secure higher levels of inward investment. The objectives of Scottish business are likely to be best achieved by an improvement of the current administrative arrangements within the United Kingdom".If there is to be a debate in Scotland and the United Kingdom about the improvement in administrative arrangements, let us all join in.
I believe that the Union between Scotland and England has been a great and glorious success. The right reverend Prelate, in intervening, adopted a slightly apologetic note as though he should not interfere in these matters. On the contrary, this is a matter that affects all the people of the United Kingdom. Those who live in East Anglia under his religious charge have at least the same right to be interested in the matter as I do as a Presbyterian Scot.
As I understand it, the Liberal Democrat Party advances a scheme for federal reform for the United Kingdom as a whole. In spite of the highly dubious parallels which Sir David Steel brought back from Canada referring to asymmetrical federalism there, it seems to me that if it were to be adopted it could only be done on the logical basis of providing the constituent parts of the federation with the same rights and powers.
Within Scotland there is undoubtedly a desire that there should be an assembly which has legislative power. There is a separate legal system. In some respects we want there to be separate laws applying in Scotland that are different from those that apply south of the Border. But unless I speak to some very strange Englishmen, I have yet to find that those who live in Newcastle or Southampton seriously advance the idea that the laws that the High Court should be asked to apply and enforce on this side of the Border should be different for those living in Newcastle or Southampton. I am bound to say that I have found 1371 little or no indication that within England there is any desire whatsoever to see the break-up of the nation of England into federal units.
If we turn to what is on offer, as I understand it, from the Labour Party as part of what comes from the Scottish convention, it is something quite different. I do not propose to rehearse what is set out in its rather thin document. One issue that is not addressed within it is the one to which my noble friend Lord Beloff referred—what is commonly known as the West Lothian question. It has been much debated here and elsewhere. What was intriguing is that neither the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, who is familiar with matters of constitutional change, nor the noble Lord, Lord Macaulay, in their contributions sought in any way to address that most difficult of issues.
The only person in the Labour Party of whom I am aware who sought to address the difficult issue of what one does if one is a Scottish Member of Parliament and there are some issues dealt with by a Scottish assembly which are dealt with also by the House of Commons and this House was Robin Cook. When he honestly said that he could not see how he could be Minister for Health in respect of responsibilities in England if there was a Scottish assembly having responsibilities for health there, he was taken into the headmaster's study the next day; and I do not believe that any of us have truly determined whether he has wholly retreated from that position or whether there are others who have been leaning on him.
It is a critical matter. It is important that it should be addressed. There have been a number of calls from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, and others that the way to resolve the matter is by a Royal Commission. Royal Commissions can always be appointed. But as the noble Lord, Lord Wilson of Langside, pointed out—it may be longer ago than some people remember—there was indeed a Royal Commission looking at constitutional change for Scotland. I leave him with his characterisation of it as very unsatisfactory.
I believe that the status quo is what we should persist with. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland called for a great debate on the matter in Scotland. I have no doubt, as others said during the course of the debate, that it will indeed be at the centre of the election campaign that is about to begin in Scotland as elsewhere.
My noble friend Lord Thomas had something to say on matters in Wales. I tread warily into Welsh affairs. However, it seemed to me that his concise summary of the position there was accurate. I remember with great affection and admiration, as he does, the powerful advocacy of Neil Kinnock—now the Leader of the Labour Party—in opposing root and branch any change in the arrangements for Wales.
My right honourable friend the Prime Minister said that if the Union between England and Scotland were to be disrupted and dissolved, it would diminish Scotland. I agree with him. He went further and said that the dissolution of the Union would diminish England. I agree with him. As a United Kingdom we are greater than the sum of our parts. Those of us who wish for some form of constitutional change, I hope 1372 —at least within this House—share my view that, however we may differ upon those matters and however much we debate them, that is a prize we must not surrender.
§ Lord Jenkins of Hillhead
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in the debate and in particular the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate for his engaging with the arguments in an ingenious and occasionally amusing way. I do not think that he took the imaginative high ground in his speech. There are substantial replies to be made to many of the points that he made, but there is nothing that he said which will provoke me, at any rate, into indulging in the hyperbole of abuse in response to his speech.
In general, I do not greatly believe in second goes at the end of a debate. Nonetheless, as we are well within time, I shall take two minutes if I may. I regard this Motion not as revolutionary but as conservationist in order to preserve the best parts of what we have.
The noble Lord, Lord Renfrew, accused me of being a Cartesian, a philosophe and all sorts of dreadful things—at least he made them sound dreadful. I did not entirely recognise my general cautious, relative approach in the terms with which he played around. I was struck by the Burke quotation of my noble friend Lord Russell and I believe that the danger is that, "a state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation".
The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, took his stand on an absolute defence of the status quo on every point. I should love him to explain clearly to us at some time what he meant by his attack on elective dictatorship in 1978. I do not believe that he meant anything other than that for the time being the Labour Party was doing things, whereas he approved of them only when the Conservative Party were doing them. At some time I should like him to expound on exactly what he had in mind.
The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, made, I thought, a slightly intemperate speech. But then I remembered how greatly I enjoyed his intemperate speeches against the Government on educational matters and thought that one must take the rough with the smooth in these affairs. I therefore acquit him of any unreasonable intemperance. However, I thought he could hardly have been more wrong than when he said that these subjects are appropriate for a dying Parliament for they are dying subjects. Believe me, they are not. They are subjects about which we shall hear a great deal more in the future. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.
Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.