Orders of the Day — Hong Kong

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:03 am on 10th March 1988.

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Photo of Mr George Robertson Mr George Robertson , Hamilton 2:03 am, 10th March 1988

An air of unanimity has characterised this brief debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) is, of course, the Opposition spokesman who normally deals with these matters, but owing to the coincidence of this debate with the annual conference of the Scottish council of the Labour party, on whose executive committee he sits—I was once its chairman, but I have now been elevated to higher things—I have replaced him at short notice. But, of course, it is a nostalgic trip back for me, because for a very long time I was the Opposition spokesman on Hong Kong matters. Indeed, I was around at the time the joint declaration was signed.

I believe that that period was a model of bipartisanship. There was a common objective, which was that the steady negotiation towards the joint declaration should take place in secrecy and without party political points interfering with the process, and that occurred. When the joint declaration came forward, we quite rightly recognised the success that it represented for both China and the United Kingdom. I believe that the people of Hong Kong appreciated what happened. Those of us in this Parliament charged with responsibility for their future took that responsibility very seriously indeed.

It is therefore all the sadder that that bipartisanship has to some extent broken down, because I do not believe that it was necessary. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek), who obtained this debate in the lottery that goes along with the Consolidated Fund, has returned recently from Hong Kong and he underlines the concern at the delay in progress towards direct elections which was all too apparent in speeches in the debate on 20 January when we were predicting the contents of the White Paper, and indeed in the exchanges that took place in the Chamber on 10 February when the Foreign Secretary brought the White Paper to the House. Therefore, there is this breakdown in the bipartisanship between the Government, who move forward at a snail's pace, and many other people in the House, who believe that a bolder movement towards direct elections is more appropriate.

I recall only too well, at the time of the joint declaration, commenting on and endorsing the idea of a legislature that would be "constituted by elections". At that time, of course, a deliberate vagueness built into that: expression because the people in Hong Kong, Beijing and London did not know precisely where the evolution of that discussion would take us. However, we all knew that eventually we would see a system of representative government in Hong Kong that reflected the intrinsic desire for democratic institutions that lies beneath the surface of all the debates that take place on stability and prosperity.

I believe very strongly that since then the timid approach adopted by the Hong Kong Government, as reflected in the White Paper, has not done much to revitalise Hong Kong or to underline the inherent self-confidence that has been the key to its success in the past. Perhaps that lack of boldness, that timidity, has been one of the reasons why the so-called brain drain, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham referred, has become a phenomenon.

After years of studying and visiting Hong Kong, I have concluded that this is not a permanent brain drain. People are hedging their bets. They are, rightly, taking out an insurance policy, as it were, against what will inevitably be an uncertain future. Because their talents are marketable and they are mobile in a way that many other people in the world are not, they are able to exploit the opportunities available of alternative citizenship in countries as visionary as Canada and Australia. But it is possible, indeed probable, that they will return and remain in Hong Kong so long as that insurance policy is available to them.

The trouble is that a lack of confidence can be infectious and can arise from simple issues, including fears about the way matters are being handled. That is why these debates, at whatever bizarre time of the day they take place, are important. We may not be large in number. Indeed, the Minister is the only Conservative in the Chamber—