Orders of the Day — Malta Independence Bill
Mr Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)
The Secretary of State has no right to imagine that the House concludes the discussion of the Bill in a spirit of good will, because he has not acted in a manner which can enable the House to express its views in that sense. He admitted that he was asking the House to do something which was certainly something out of the ordinary and certainly inconvenient, and he has thanked the House for co-operating with the Government in exceptional circumstances.
I am extremely dubious whether it was right for this House, in the interests of the people of Malta, to give the Government as much co-operation as they have received I am all the more persuaded to take that view by the reply which the right hon. Gentleman gave to the proposals made by my hon. Friends in the Amendment to postpone the introduction of independence until fresh elections had been held.
When the right hon. Gentleman decided to rush this through he did not take proper account of a number of circumstances. First, he did not take account of the circumstances in Malta and what would be the almost inevitable response of a large proportion of the population there. I wish to read to the House afresh what was the comment made by Dr. Muscat which is quoted in The Times today, because he speaks for a large number of people in Malta who have the right to be heard in this House of Commons on a matter affecting them so acutely. This is the first opinion which, when he introduced his Bill in this fashion, the right hon. Gentleman so deliberately sought to disregard. Dr. Muscat said:
The constitution, as now proposed, will lead only to a clerical dictatorship against which the Malta Labour Party and our people will defend themselves. We have exhausted all peaceful ways and means of achieving a democratic form of Government. We went to the socialist international; we went to the United Nations; we came here to discuss the constitution. All this was to no avail. It did not serve as a warning to the British Government, which pretends to be the champion of democracy.
Now we shall have to see, in the months and years ahead, whether the warning from Dr. Muscat and those on whose behalf he speaks was wiser than the guidance which the right hon. Gentleman has given to the House. When he decided to rush through this matter in this way the right hon. Gentleman disregarded the opinion of those in Malta who certainly
had the right to have their opinion—not to determine the outcome—but to have their opinion taken much more fully into account than the right hon. Gentleman was prepared to do.
Then it was the duty of the right hon. Gentleman—which he disregarded—to consider the position of this House of Commons. I am not making any boasts or claims about what is to happen after a General Election in this country. Very often too many boasts are made from this side of the House and too many claims from the other side of the House. I think that a responsible Government dealing with the future of a territory for which we are accountable must take into reckoning the situation in the British House of Commons. What a Government have the right to do, and could do wisely in the first, second, third or even fourth year of their existence they are not equally entitled to do in the fifth year in circumstances, let the right hon. Gentleman remember, which are unique in this country and designed to extend the life of a Government so near to the end of the legal period.
It was the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill) who, when these matters were being discussed in the war-time Parliament, said that it would be quite improper in normal circumstances for a British Government to extend the period in which they held office to the very ultimate legal limit to which they were entitled. That was his view, with which people may agree or disagree. The right hon. Gentleman is a Member of a Government who, for their own convenience, presumably—or what they thought to be their own convenience—have extended the life of the British Parliament to a greater degree than any Government in British history; and in that time which the Government have allowed themselves by that process the right hon. Gentleman decided that it was right for him to press through this Measure. That was the second thing which the right hon. Gentleman disregarded when he went ahead in this fashion.
The third thing he did—I do not say that this is unique or that there are no precedents, but he should have taken it into account before acting in this fashion—was to make an agreement with the present Prime Minister of Malta about the terms of the Constitution and the proposals which were to be presented to the House of Commons. I understand, of course, that when a Government negotiates with another Government of that kind it is bound to enter into general agreements with them, but it must always be insisted that the British Parliament has the final authority. The right hon. Gentleman nods his head, and when I raised this matter earlier he said that it was made quite clear that the British Parliament is the final authority. That was very kind, very nice and very courteous of him, but of course he is bound to do that and that is a different question.
I want to know whether the right hon. Gentleman gave an undertaking to Prime Minister of Malta that the Bill and the Constitution would go through in exactly the form to which he had agreed. If he said that it was quite improper. If he was to protect the authority of the British House of Commons he should have said, "This is what I should like to recommend to the House of Commons, but it may well be that the House of Commons will wish to change something in the Bill. It may well be that those circumstances will exist, particularly because I am the spokesman of a Government whose authority is almost exhausted." If he said that—