Orders of the Day — Hong Kong

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:51 am on 10th March 1988.

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Photo of Mr Russell Johnston Mr Russell Johnston , Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber 1:51 am, 10th March 1988

Like the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray), I congratulate the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek) on raising this debate, which we can view as an extension of that on 20 January. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) was in Hong Kong at the same time as the hon. Member for Wrexham, but, unfortunately, because of a long-standing previous constituency engagement he cannot be present tonight. Were it not for that appointment, I am sure that he would have been here, as is his natural wont, at 1·50 am, if only for the pleasure of observing how bright and bushy-tailed the Minister is. This is a natural hour at which to discuss anything.

My hon. Friend told me about his visit, and what he said confirmed me in the views that I expressed in the debate on 20 January. First, there is concern about the delay in securing an elected element in the legislature, as the hon. Member for Wrexham said. The Government have let the people of Hong Kong down in that respect. The shortness of the half-day debate on 20 January prevented a full exchange of views on the many issues involved, but some hon. Members on both sides of the House found the statement that the Foreign Secretary made at the end of the debate unsatisfactory and not entirely accurate. He said:


by that he meant hon. Members on both sides— agree upon the proposition that in due course we need an element of direct elections — a modest proportion, but certainly not going all the way. That would certainly not be the view of the hon. Member for Wrexham. Thus far there is agreement on both sides of the House." —[Official Report, 20 January 1988; Vol. 125, c. 1017.] That is not quite accurate.

The hon. Member for Motherwell, South spoke of the need for the Government to work and be efficient, and of course that is true, but it might be read into the hon. Gentleman's remarks that he was, in a sophisticated way, further putting off the idea of elections. He said that it was absolutely right—an expression I always hesitate to use in any aspect of politics—that China should have a complete say in the Basic Law, but it is not absolutely right. This House and people in Hong Kong have a valid democratic entitlement to express views. I do not accept that because a power is great and powerful it is always absolutely right.

Secondly, there was always worry about the ambiguity that it is possible to derive from the word "elected". The hon. Member for Wrexham made this very clear. When I spoke in the debate on 20 January I quoted the Foreign Secretary's response to me on 25 October 1984 in an exchange on the draft Basic Law, when he said: The agreement provides for the Legislature of Hong Kong in the future to be on an elective basis and for the Executive to be accountable to that legislature."—[Official Report, 20 January 1988; Vol. 125, c. 991.] There is little doubt that the use by the Foreign Secretary of the phrase in the future to be on an elective basis was presumed to mean, and was intended to convey, that it would be on a different basis from the present one; in other words, that there would be direct rather than functional elections on the corporate state basis—sort of Mussolini lines—that already exists. There was no real suggestion of the related device of an electoral college.

Thirdly, I think that we are impeded, naturally enough, in this debate because we do not know what the Basic Law will contain. The production by the hon. Member for Wrexham, calmly as if out of a hat, of the draft copy of the Basic Law was something of a coup. I thought that it was under wraps until May, but the hon. Gentleman produced it with a sort of casual, ingenuous amiability, virtually expressing puzzlement that it was not available in the Vote Office.