Orders of the Day — Malta Independence Bill
Mr Duncan Sandys (Wandsworth Streatham)
I beg to move. That the Bill be now read the Third time.
I should like to thank the House for its co-operation in carrying through this Measure all in one day. Once again, may I say how much I regret that it was necessary to proceed at this pace, but I am grateful to all hon. Members on both sides of the House for having helped us as they have.
The people of Malta are old and trusted friends, and they have fought with us for the cause of freedom in two world wars. Their steadfastness and courage in times of danger have won our admiration, and over the years there has grown up a very real affection between Britain and Malta. I am sure, therefore, that both countries are glad to know that after independence the close connections between us will be maintained.
We congratulate the people of Malta on the resumption of their sovereignty which they voluntarily entrusted to us a century and half ago. We wish to assure them of our continued friendship and we wish them well as an independent nation.
Mr Arthur Bottomley (Middlesbrough East)
It would have been much happier if today's debate had followed the usual lines of a unanimous expression of our desire that a country should proceed to independence without any of the recriminations that have been expressed today. But that was hardly likely in the circumstances.
The Secretary of State asked why there should be a different approach on this occasion from what has happened in connection with other independence Bills. I would have thought that it was quite obvious. The constitutions of other independent nations have been prepared by the Colonial Office or an independent body. In this case it was a Government which did not carry the majority of the electorate with it which drafted the Constitution, and it was presented to the people of Malta in such a way that they learnt about it through the Press.
It was only because of its appearance in the Press that the major opposition party proceeded to London to learn more about it—not from Her Majesty's Government, but from the Opposition, to the extent that it was possible for the Opposition to give them information. It was therefore inevitable that we could not have the usual harmony on this occasion.
However, I am sure that we can conclude in a spirit of harmony. The Secretary of State thought that the criticism of him was a little harsh. He said that his Bible was the report of the Constitutional Conference held last year. If so, why have we had all these other deliberations? Why the referendum? If, as a result of considered thought, the right hon. Gentleman believed this to be the document upon which independence could be given, why was not it presented to the House long ago, so that we could have considered it reasonably and come to a decision not in haste, as we have had to today, but in a manner suitable to this honourable House and in a way which would have been a credit to a Bill of this kind?
We wish the people of Malta well. We say that the Government of Malta have a heavy responsibility to see that independence is carried out in the traditions of democracy and freedom, as practised by this Government so long as they were the protectors of the Maltese people. If this is done the Maltese Government will earn the good will of their people—serving as a Government for a short time, I hope, so that after another election, like the one that we are shortly to have in this country, a Government of the liking to the people of Malta will be in power. I would prefer that to have been done before independence, but I hope that soon after independence there will be a General Election in Malta.
On behalf of my party, I wish godspeed to Malta.
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—
Mr Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)
Of course he did not say it, because he took his responsibilities much too lightly. It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to say, "I am not required to make statements of that nature". He could have phrased it more elegantly, but the substantial point remains. He knows perfectly well that it is possible in a few months for there to be a change of Government in this country and that when negotiating on matters of this kind he should take that into account. The authority of a Government dealing with such matters as this is not so great in the last week or two of a Parliament as it is at the beginning of a Parliament. If he does not understand that, he does not understand democratic processes.
The right hon. Gentleman should have made clear to the Prime Minister of Malta that when he introduced this Bill and the Constitution in the House of Commons it would be open to us to make Amendments. He did not do that but made a bargain outside. He pretty well admitted that to me. It was a quite improper thing for him not to have made clear that especially in these circumstances, the House of Commons might wish to make Amendments.
Mr Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)
It does not involve that at all, but the right hon. Gentleman says that he made a bargain. He said that he made an agreement with the Prime Minister of Malta that the whole thing would go through in the way he agreed. [Interruption.] If he looks up the Report of the debate he will see that he said that. He had no right to make such an agreement. In these circumstances, if he had acted responsibly, he should have warned the Prime Minister of Malta, particularly in view of the whole background of the matter and the position in the House of Commons, and particularly in view of his own flimsy flimsy authority—although I do not expect him to have expressed it in those terms—that when he submitted the matter to the House of Commons, the House would have the right to make Amendments. [Laughter.]
Hon. Members opposite laugh about these matters and treat them as trivial, but we have this major Measure affecting the whole future of Malta in circumstances in which hardly an hon. Member opposite has read the documents.
Mr Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)
I have not had time to read them all. [Laughter.] That is one of my complaints. Hon. Members may laugh, but the British House of Commons, which is supposed to be the exemplar of democracy, thanks to the time-table laid down by the right hon. Gentleman, is passing through this Measure when hardly an hon. Member has read the Constitution. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that that is a good procedure?
Even more important, the parties in Malta, as has been shown—not merely the Malta Labour Party, but those who speak for other parties, who have a right to speak, even though they are not in favour of independence—have not been able to study the matter. The right hon. Gentleman has forced through the Measure in a manner calculated to cause the most distress and opposition in Malta. Is that what he wanted? Does he think that it is a clever thing to have done? Does he think that it is a brilliant piece of diplomacy or Parliamentary skill to push through a Measure in a way which will make it least effective in being carried out in Malta?
The right hon. Gentleman said that his judgment was that he had to press it through now because in his view no improvement was possible in the next few months. That is his main case. There are not many hon. Members opposite who were present at the time, and I will therefore repeat for their benefit what he said. He said that the reason why he must conclude the whole matter now was that in his judgment no purpose would be served by any further negotiations and any further discussions. He said that it was much better to ring down the curtain because he had gone through the whole matter so extensively in the past weeks and months that in his judgment nothing further of advantage could be procured.
We are asked to rush through the Measure largely on our estimate of the correctness of the right hon. Gentleman's judgment. Some of his hon. Friends may have faith in his judgment, but I have no great faith in it. It is not only a question of what has happened in Malta. There have been other places in which the right hon. Gentleman has had a lot of influence. This is not concerned with the question of his judgment on the Bill, but it affects our consideration of his judgment. I remind the House of Cyprus, British Guiana and Southern Rhodesia. The right hon. Gentleman has had a lot to do with all those places. There always seems to be some fresh china shop where he can apply his special bovine touch.
The right hon. Gentleman need not think that the House of Commons has great faith in his judgment. There is hardly a place where his influence has been brought to bear where it has not resulted in riots and rebellion afterwards. He is very complacent about these matters. He hurried off to Cyprus. He was the man to go there and solve it all. It was a good deal worse after he had been there than before he went. There is British Guiana. Is it a coincidence that it always seems to turn out this way? He knows about Aden, too. He visited Aden. I had forgotten that one on the list. I am a very theoretical kind of a fellow, but he is one of those who says that the proof of the pudding is in the eating. On that basis, what about these places?
The right hon. Gentleman has an extremely dismal record of success. Hon. Member opposite may say that it is not his fault. It may be that it is not his fault, but it so happens that his judgment on what was to happen in all those countries proved wrong. He gets into a frame of mind after a while that he determines to push through Measures exactly as on this occasion. He reaches a point at which his well-known patience, like Hitler's, is exhausted. He gets into a state—I am not quite sure whether this is a Parliamentary expression—in which he suffers at the end of his pursuits from what I call bloody-mindedness. In the case of British Guiana he said, "I am fed up with more discussions and I am determined to push this through."
The fact of the matter is that the right hon. Gentleman, as I have said, has forced through this Measure primarily on the claim that we should accept his judgment about the prospects in Malta. I fear that, with the best will in the world, there is very little evidence for supposing that the right hon. Gentleman's judgment is correct. The difficult question arises as to how the people in Malta, who have been so shabbily and shamefully treated by the right hon. Gentleman, should deal with the question. I do not mean the Prime Minister of Malta, who has got what he wanted from the right hon. Gentleman. I do not mean the Archbishop of Malta, who also has got what he wanted from the right hon. Gentleman. I mean those who have been trying to establish democracy in Malta, not merely for the past few months, but for many years. Their chief opponents in trying to establish democracy in Malta have been those who are most satisfied with the Bill. These are the facts about what has gone on in Malta.
The question arises: as a result of the Bill to which we are now asked to give a Third Reading, what should those in Malta who have been struggling to establish democracy, with so little assistance from the right hon. Gentleman and some of his predecessors, do about it? I very much hope that they will not resort to any form of violence. I hope that they will restrain themselves to the very maximum. It would be appalling if the bitterness which is in Malta were to express itself in the same way as the bitterness in British Guiana, and if violence were to occur. It would be shocking. I appeal to the Malta Labour Party, despite its justified complaints against the right hon. Gentleman and Her Majesty's Government, to do everything in its power to make independence successful.
I hope that the Malta Labour Party will do all it can, despite all its legitimate grievances, despite the fact that the British House of Commons has behaved in the most monstrous manner in the way in which independence has been given to Malta. I still hope that the Malta Labour Party will try to make independence successful. If it is unable to make it successful, and if events of the kind which have occurred in some other territories for which the right hon. Gentleman has been responsible do occur in Malta, his will be the responsibility.
Mr Patrick Wall (Haltemprice)
I suspect that some of the rather synthetic sounds and fury to which we have just listened from the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot) were probably aroused because the House is to adjourn next week and probably will not meet again until after the General Election.
As I understood it, the basis of the hon. Gentleman's case was that we have not had time to study the constitutional documents. Those who take a real interest in Malta will know, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, that this constitution is based on the draft constitution, which was considered some weeks ago by the Malta Parliament. I have in my hands the Malta Labour Party's amendments to that constitution. I am sure that the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale could have obtained these amendments to the draft Constitution in exactly the same way as I have. As was said on Second Reading, there have been only a certain number of changes in the constitution which, though they are important, do not alter very many of the pages in the Bill.
I rise for only two minutes to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, first, for the fair and masterly way he has piloted the Bill through the House, and, secondly, for the very great patience and skill in negotiation he has shown over 18 months, negotiating with all political parties in Malta, particularly with the Prime Minister of Malta, Dr. Borg Olivier. I hope that the Prime Minister of Malta thinks that the many weeks he spent in London away from his own country, negotiating for the independence of his country, have, now that we are to pass the Bill, been well worth while.
I want, finally, to dissociate myself entirely from the violent attack delivered by the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Duffy) on the Archbishop of Malta. It was both one-sided and unfair. I pay tribute to Archbishop Gonzi, who has only fulfilled his pastoral duty in guiding and advising his flock. The hon. Members for Barking (Mr. Driberg) and Eton and Slough (Mr. Brockway) tried to set off the Archbishop against the Vatican.
Whatever the Roman Catholic Church may be, I think all hon. Members will agree that it is a pretty well disciplined body. Some may think that it is too well disciplined. It is inconceivable that an archbishop could express views contrary to those of the Vatican over the long period that this quarrel has endured in Malta.
In spite of the violent attack by some hon. Members I echo the hope of hon. Members on both sides of the House that independence for Malta may bring a new spirit of conciliation and co-operation between the political parties there and bring a great future to the George Cross island which has twice saved Christendom.
Mr Tom Driberg (Barking)
It is very extraordinary that the hon. Member for Haltemprice (Mr. Wall), of all people, should try to pretend at this late date that the Roman Catholic Church is a monolithic body. If there is one thing that the Vatican Council has shown, rather to the surprise of people outside the Catholic Church, it is that there are many different strands and emphases and many different points of opinion—indeed, quite fundamental differences—on many issues. So it is not the least surprising that anyone who knows anything about the world or the Church knows perfectly well that some national hierarchies are much more liberal than others and some much more retrograde than others. I suppose that the Maltese hierarchy is about the most retrograde in the world, even more so than the Irish, and that is saying a lot. So do not let us have any more of that humbug from the hon. Gentleman.
The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State and hon. Members opposite will not be in the least surprised that we on this side of the House shall continue to debate the Third Reading for a little while longer in view of what my hon. Friend called the bloody-mindedness with which he and the Government have treated the House. Admittedly, the right hon. Gentleman has repeatedly expressed regret for that, but it was quite unnecessary, as he knows very well. However, we shall not keep the House more than two or three hours more, so hon. Members opposite need not be too worried.
My hon. Friend referred to British Guiana, where the right hon. Gentleman has reintroduced flogging recently, a hallmark of civilisation in that part of the world. He flogs the Guianese, but merely has to "whip" hon. Members opposite, and, of course, he automatically gets his majority, and gets his Bill and his constitution through absolutely automatically.
Actually, I am a little surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot) seemed at all surprised at one point in his speech at the conduct of the Government. They treat Parliament with the same contempt with which they treat the Maltese people. I thought that one argument that the right hon. Gentleman has used from time to time in the course of the discussions on the Bill was a little surprising. I could not follow it.
The right hon. Gentleman seemed surprised that we were picking on particular paragraphs and clauses in the Constitution which, he said, are all common form. Parliament has repeatedly passed without comment similar paragraphs and sections in other independence Measures. Of course we treat this one differently, because, as he said in another context, Malta is very different from other Colonial Territories. It is a unique island. It is an island which all of us, however much we may differ about the constitution, love.
We like very much the Maltese people. We admire their record, their courage, their gallantry. In all that, of course, we agree with hon. Members opposite. But because they are different, and because there is this uniquely horrible and uniquely backward hierarchy sitting on their backs, we have to treat them differently and we have to view with acute suspicion paragraphs and clauses in a Constitution or a Bill, which in relation to other Colonies which are free from that particular menace would probably pass unopposed and uncondemned.
Also, as the right hon. Gentleman will realise when he reads HANSARD tomorrow, he gave a totally inaccurate and irrelevant answer to my question about a particular section in the constitution about discrimination in jobs in the public services. I hope that he will take an opportunity in the future to correct that answer, although I have no doubt that it will make no difference to the unfortunate people in Malta who are discriminated against as a result of his inclusion of that section in the Constitution.
Of course, we all share in the expressions of good will which have gone out. [Laughter.] That laughter shows how sincere those expressions were from the benches opposite; they were largely humbug. We share in the good will expressed to the people of Malta and we wish that it could have been expressed by the Government, including the right hon. Gentleman, in a more tangible form—in the form of giving them a choice in the conduct of their own affairs, giving them some freedom to choose the sort of Government that they might want. But, of course, the right hon. Gentleman refuses that. He hands them over to this clerical autocracy.
So we send them our good will, without much hope for a particularly happy life for them in the immediate future, at any rate, until Mr. Dom Mintoff becomes their Prime Minister again, as the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) said that undoubtedly he would some day. I am sorry, it was not the hon. Member for Wokingham; it was Count Michael de la Bedoyère, but the hon. Member for Wokingham paid tribute to Mr. Mintoff's ability.
We send our good will to him in the great distress and anguish of mind that he must be suffering as a result of the right hon. Gentleman's bloody-minded-ness, the Archbishop's cunning and Mr. Borg Olivier's general complaisance. We send no good will at all to the hierarchy of Malta, to those prelates who are inflicting this spiritual terror on so many of the unfortunate people of that island, and we hope most earnestly that they will soon be translated to places where they can do less harm, either by the Vatican or by some higher power still.
Mr William Yates (The Wrekin)
Many of us like to hear speeches from the hon. Member for Barking (Mr. Driberg), but I feel that he has excelled himself tonight in his efforts to suggest the maximum ill will from this House and the country. For that, as a Member of a Parliament which is giving a country independence, he should be thoroughly ashamed. I appreciate his point of view. I know Mr. Mintoff personally. But everything that the hon. Gentleman has said will make Mr. Mintoff's task doubly more difficult. Therefore, he should be ashamed twice over. I am sorry, but I feel very strongly about this, and I hope that the hon. Member will forgive me.
The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot) made a very nice speech and we liked it. We all like to hear what he has to say on these matters. At the end of his speech he reduced the House of Commons to a sort of Labour Party reductio ad absurdum. We know what the problem is for the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale and the Opposition. If they really felt strongly about this matter, and were really interested in it, why are they not standing up to support the Labour Party of Malta? Eighty-five votes in the Lobby tonight! If they really feel deeply about a matter concerning the whole of the House of Commons and the country, then that Division was another shame on their party.
I have dealt with the hon. Member, and with the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale.
Mr William Yates (The Wrekin)
I am now going to deal with my right hon. Friend. I appreciate the great difficulties which my right hon. Friend had had to deal with in Malta, and I know now that he desires that, Malta having been given independence, it will make the very best of independence and of the constitution which we have given it. I am sorry to say that in certain respects I do not think the Constitution is all we could have done, had we had a little more time. But I remember this, that once we have given sovereignty to a country there is nothing to stop its people, and there is nothing to stop the Maltese people, from altering the Constitution as they think fit when the time comes.
What I would say, in conclusion, is that I hope that what we have given to the people of Malta in this Constitution will be a good start to the future of the Island of Malta; and if it is not all they desire, they will become free and independent, and may they model their Constitution and their ways in the ways of free discussion—and not in those ways which hon. Members opposite have alleged and because of which I started by attacking hon. Members opposite.
I remind those hon. Members on the other side, and some of my hon. Friends, too, that that way, the way of free discussion, is the true basis of democracy—
Mr William Yates (The Wrekin)
Oh, yes, but he knows a thing or two, and Mr. Mintoff himself has denied that any section of the Labour Party has been excommunicated, and the Labour Party is quite capable of looking after the independence of Malta and he is looking and seeing what changes can be made in the Constitution capable of putting him and his party in power for the benefit of the people of Malta.
As for the attacks on the Church by the hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse), I do not think that he could ever have given an instance of a personal excommunication for being a member of the Labour Party in Malta.
Mr Tom Driberg (Barking)
The hon. Member asks for one case. Has he not heard of the interdict? There was a personal interdict passed on all the members of the executive of the Labour Party—an interdict, one of the strongest forms of excommunication—and they were barred from the Sacraments.
Mr John Mendelson (Penistone)
My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. G. M. Thomson), in his contribution earlier this evening, said, rightly, that although this is the final debate in this House on Malta before the independence of Malta, after independence there will be a good number of occasions on which Malta or our relations with Malta, will be debated. Therefore, this is an occasion on which one must assess the responsibilities, before the debate is concluded.
The Minister, although in a sitting position, denied some of the allegations made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. M. Foot), particularly those relating to his dealing with the House. I would remind the Secretary of State that, if he reads HANSARD tomorrow, he will find that on the important point whether or not he could accept our Amendment he raised his arms at one stage and said, "No. I could not possibly go back on all this." That was the statement he made, as nearly verbatim as possible. That truly gives point to what my hon. Friend had been underlining, that the Secretary of State had adopted a position in which he obviously had entered into arrangements with another Government regardless of what the House might finally do about the arrangements which he had proposed. If he had not, what was the meaning of, "I could not possibly go back on all this"? Till the House had passed this Bill, and sent it on its way to becoming an Act, no arrangement could be finalised. By using a phrase like "I could not possibly go back on all that" the right hon. Gentleman clearly stated that he had entered into binding agreements. Note that the right hon. Gentleman is not contradicting the quotation I am giving. Hon. Members will see in to-morrow's OFFICIAL REPORT exactly what the Secretary of State said.
Mr John Mendelson (Penistone)
It has not been argued by an hon. Member opposite that the position is any different from that outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale. It was a careless phrase by which the right hon. Gentleman gave away his attitude. He has no right to treat the House of Commons in this manner.
This brings me to another point of even greater importance. There is tonight among the Maltese electorate no real way of assessing how hon. Members of this House might have looked on this Measure had they been given proper time to consider it. This is not a question of provoking hon. Members on either side; asking whether or not they have read all the documents carefully. What is at stake is something far more important. It was well known to the Secretary of State—and I am making this charge deliberately—that not only during the last two days, but for many weeks, there were considerable sectors of the electorate in Malta who suspected that he was going to rush the Bill through in the last few days of a dying Parliament.
Although the right hon. Gentleman will not wish me to quote detailed evidence, he is better aware than any other hon. Member that representations were made to him within the last eight weeks to this effect; and he cannot deny this. Those representations came to him through various sources from representative sections of the Maltese electorate and he was urged, not only from this but other quarters, not to rush this through in the last days of this Parliament and not to spring it on the House of Commons in such a manner.
I am selecting my words carefully because this is an important occasion. The Secretary of State disregarded all those representations. He knew the method by which this Measure would have to be rushed through the House; and I add to these remarks that it is very doubtful whether, by concluding the Measure in this fashion, he has not done a grave disservice to the best future, from the political and friendship towards this country points of view, of the people of Malta.
I say this because we are at one in. desiring a continuation of the closest possible connection between this country and Malta. My hon. Friends, as much as hon. Members opposite, believe that it is a good thing for us to be giving economic aid to Malta in future. I hope that there will be a majority of people in Malta who will wish to be on friendly relations with us and have arrangements with us, defence and otherwise. It is because I have these future relations at heart that I say again to the Secretary of State and the House that in matters of constitutional government, where a Constitution is being offered for acceptance, this is the wrong way to begin—and a simple, bare majority is not enough.
It has always been accepted constitutional doctrine in this House that when the Government want to pass a taxation law or Health Service legislation, a bare majority is sufficient, but that, when they want to pass a Constitution, the Government must get the broad agreement of more than three-quarters of the electorate. One must try to get a Constitution that is accept able and satisfactory to others—
Commander Sir Peter Agnew (Worcestershire South)
I should like to take the hon. Member up on the point of the Constitution. The Labour Government forced through the Parliament Bill without having anything like three-quarters of the House behind them. They had the whole Opposition solidly against them.
Mr John Mendelson (Penistone)
It has been proved time and again that the feeling was in favour of the abolition of the university seats. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Sir W. Churchill), when asked later to consider that matter, agreed that there was then a broad feeling in the country that these seats should not be restored. That is quite the wrong example for the hon. Gentleman to use against me. It is generally agreed, however, that, particularly where a Constitution is being worked out jointly by a British statesman and a representative of the Government in Malta, any suggestion that we do not care whether there is broad agreement in Malta itself on the constitution is a dangerous way to start that country on a new political career.
It is quite clear that there is every possibility that because of this false start considerable sections of the Maltese electorate will not regard this new Constitution as their charter for future self-government, but something that has been imposed on them. There is no denying that, and it does not depend on what we say here. We read in The Times today quotations showing the first reactions of newspapers representing significant sections of the Maltese electorate, which prove conclusively that it is not in the best interests of either of the major political parties in Malta that the leader of one of them has to go back with an agreement that has not had the consultative approval, or any approval, of any other major political party.
The basis of constitutional democratic government is the broad approval of the basic constitutional arrangements by the major parties in the State, particularly the two major parties—the Government and the potential Government. In acting in this way the right hon. Gentleman has acted like a Minister with a majority behind him, but that majority is no more significant in the context of this debate than is the one-sided agreement he has concluded with one partner in the political set-up in Malta in recent weeks.
Further, the right hon. Gentleman has not advanced any convincing argument for not accepting our idea of allowing opinion about the Constitution to crystallise. In defence, the right hon. Gentleman offered only one argument. He said, "If I were to be convinced that more agreement could be achieved during the next 16 or 20 weeks, I would be prepared to consider the proposition." Of course, a few minutes later he said that he could not possibly go back on all this, which rather spoilt that earlier point. But, ignoring that—this is not the time for debating points—and taking the argument quite seriously, he cannot say that the fact that there might be further agreement cannot be decisive in rushing through this new Constitution and the Bill like this.
The Maltese people, all of them, have a right to a period in which to show their reactions to this new Constitution. It is irrelevant whether the right hon. Gentleman in his wisdom is right or wrong in thinking that no further agreement will be reached. He is not the decisive party in this. What is far more important is that the people of Malta should be given an opportunity to show their reactions to the new proposals. That opportunity has never been given.
It is no good telling the House of Commons that many of the proposals contained in this new Constitution have already been discussed throughout Malta, and in London, and by various commissions round the table. That is an irrelevant argument. For the first time we have a new political fact, namely, that from this evening onwards this Bill will have been passed by the House of Commons, and will be on its way. The Maltese people are entitled to show their reaction to this new political fact, but by the method which he has deliberately adopted the right hon. Gentleman has denied them that opportunity.
As my hon. Friends have shown, there are many deeply worrying things about this Constitution, but in view of the relations between this country and Malta over a long period, the heroic past of the people of the island and the close connections between us, we can look into the future only in the hope that somehow, out of the discussions now going on in Malta, policies might develop which will allow free and democratic government in that country.
However much we may worry about the wrong way in which we have gone about this business, in rushing the Bill and in denying to the Maltese people the opportunity to react to it, we can only say to the people of Malta that we hope that they will conduct their political discussions and arguments in such a way as to allow us in this House to say, "There are many people over there who do not agree with what is being done, but they are showing that they themselves are very much concerned to produce a peaceful democratic future for their country."
I can well understand how many of them must feel and how hon. Members here would feel if anybody had suggested imposing a constitution on them. It is all very well for the right hon. Gentleman to say that he cannot see any possibility of agreement. It may sound convincing to him, but the leaders of the political parties in Malta will not look at the problem in the same way. His conviction that no political agreement can be reached will sound hollow in their ears. The warning given by my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale is realistic. There may be grave dangers ahead. The responsibility for them will rest on the shoulders of the right hon. Gentleman and the Cabinet who supported him and his way of going about this matter. I hope that the dangers will not materialise and that ways will be found to give expression to the feelings of the people of Malta.
There will be many grave difficulties under this Constitution in finding those ways without many bitter struggles among the Maltese people. It would have been a right and proper task of the House of Commons to find ways and means of making the Constitution a basis for the future development of Malta which would have made the struggle less bitter and would have created a proper atmosphere at the start. The failure to do this is the gravamen of my charge against the right hon. Gentleman. This is the responsibility which he will have to bear and of which we shall remind him in due time.