Scotland and Wales Bill

Part of Clause 3 – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 2nd February 1977.

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Photo of Mr Eldon Griffiths Mr Eldon Griffiths , Bury St Edmunds 12:00 am, 2nd February 1977

I was saying that I understood it to be common ground between the Government and most of my right hon. and hon. Friends that we all wish to maintain the undoubted supremacy of the United Kingdom Parliament. Experience in election campaigns, whether by-elections or General Elections, will have led many hon. Members on both sides to note that many British people do not pay as much attention to their elections as we do, understandably so. In the case of local elections, they frequently pay so little attention as not to bother to turn out at all. In the case of General Elections, in spite of all the coverage in the Press, on television and all the speeches made, it is within all our experiences that we find many ordinary people who could not care less.

At the end of the day, I believe that the British people regard the decision about this House as the most fundamental political decision that they ever take. They regard it as different from any other decision made by them. It is indispensable that we preserve that unique separate supreme decision as something that our people value and treasure.

Nevertheless, as I have seen from living many years in the United States, if there are too many elections or if the supreme election takes place on the same day as a large number of other elections, there is no doubt that the proliferation of such occasions, whether in time or in number, devalues the whole process. It may be a perverse thing to say that a democracy requires a sparing use of elections, but if there are too many elections the process can be devalued. I am concerned that the proliferation of elections that this Bill will engender could devalue the process.

Whether it is devalued or not, it is crucial that the supreme choice, that is, of the United Kingdom Parliament, should be set apart very clearly in the psychology, in the minds of our people, as well as in the process. That is why I think it would be wholly wrong if, as Amendment No. 109 suggests, an Assembly election in Scotland were to take place while this House was not in Session.

Let us consider a few practical possibilities. Let us suppose that during the period that this House is dissolved there were to be some major economic crisis. No Government would seek an election in these circumstances. But it might be said that in the early part of 1974 there was something not far short of a national crisis during the period of the election. The sterling moved down by about 10 per cent. in a matter of six days. In the words of the late Prime Minister, economic crises can blow up suddenly and push many a Government off course. There could be a sudden event in the international arena. such as an invasion of Korea, intimately involving the United Kingdom.

What is to happen in such circumstances if the whole country is involved not in one election but in three or four? The conduct of affairs would temporarily be in the hands of Ministers, who remain in office irrespective of the fact that a General Election is taking place. They would be required to deal with whatever problem of international, economic or social significance arose. At the same time, they would have an overriding responsibility for ensuring that the Scottish or Welsh election, going on at the same time, was conducted properly.

I realise that in the Bill the responsibilities for the conduct of Assembly elections are clearly set out, but there is the overriding responsibility of Ministers—specifically the Secretary of State—to see that the powers in the Bill are properly used. When a General Election was called, Ministers would be partly in their office but most of the time would be popping out to their constituencies, hoping to preserve their majorities, which may be a difficult task from time to time, often more difficult for Ministers than for any other hon. Member. They would be rushing back and forth, dealing with an international economic crisis and facing demands on television and from whatever opposition existed to deal with the problem differently. At the same time, the Secretaries of State would be responsible for overseeing the conduct of the Assembly elections.

I cannot think of a more caterwauling hullabaloo. It would confuse and—even worse—irritate the British people very much. Therefore, it must be right as a matter of principle to ensure that there is a clear separation in time and in approach between the supreme election of this House and any other elections. In that Amendment No. 109 seeks to achieve that, I believe that it should have support.

I come now to Amendment No. 111. I should possibly be out of order if I took exception to some of the things the right hon. Member for Downside said—[Interruption.] I meant the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). I beg the right hon. Gentleman's pardon. I understand that that is rather a long way from his proclivities. I was about to say that I disagreed with what he said about the European Parliament, but perhaps I should stick strictly to the amendment.

For some of the reasons I have just given, it cannot be right that there should be an election first for a Scottish or Welsh Assembly, subsequently for the House of Commons and then for the European Parliament, in a matter of six or eight weeks. It would be totally confusing. Unless such an amendment is passed, one possibility would be to have all the elections on the same day, as happens in the United States, where one pulls a single lever and it clicks all the way across when one votes the straight ticket. In the United States, that means electing everybody from the local dog-catcher up through the Assemblyman, Congressman, Senator, Vice-President and President.

It would be possible for these elections to be held on the same date, but it would devalue in the minds of the British people the supreme election, which is the election to this House. I cannot accept that there should be simultaneous elections. If they are not to be simultaneous, it follows that they must be separated by fairly long periods of time so that the campaigns do not get mixed one with the other. We must consider the advertising that is involved, television spots and arguments on the various issues. It is essential that they should be separated if people are to understand the choices.