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Orders of the Day — Malta Independence Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 23rd July 1964.

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Photo of Mr John Mendelson Mr John Mendelson , Penistone 12:00 am, 23rd July 1964

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.