Orders of the Day — Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:12 pm on 22nd May 1997.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Ieuan Wyn Jones Mr Ieuan Wyn Jones Plaid Cymru, Ynys Môn 5:12 pm, 22nd May 1997

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir R. Smith). I am always slightly nervous of hon. Members who address the House without a note. It is a remarkable achievement and I am sure that he will make many similar contributions to the House. There was a tinge of controversy in his contribution in that he made the case for a referendum in Wales but not in Scotland, but I think that we can leave it at that.

I congratulate the Secretary of State for Wales on his appointment and I wish him well in his duties. I also congratulate the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), on assuming his new responsibilities. It was a refreshing change to hear them say on their appointments and subsequently that they want to move away from the kind of tribal politics that has dominated the House for 18 years and towards a progressive, inclusive and more co-operative style of politics.

I want to make my remarks in that spirit and to reciprocate. I hope that the Secretary of State and his colleagues will accept that listening to other points of view is one thing but, on occasion, I hope and expect that they will see the merit of arguments coming from different directions. Listening is one thing, but I am sure that occasionally they will see that not only is there merit in what other people say but that it might well be acted upon.

The Government have been elected on a decisive and clear mandate, part of which is to secure constitutional change not only in Wales and Scotland but in the other place. Not only is their majority decisive, but their mandate on constitutional change is decisive. The Leader of the Opposition is as responsible for that decisive mandate as anyone else, because he made it clear during the election campaign that the constitution was at the heart of the Conservative party's manifesto. He stood on a no change manifesto, a status quo manifesto, and he was so successful that his party was wiped out in Wales and Scotland.

There is no representative of the Conservative party from Wales or Scotland in the Chamber. We shall hear from the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), but the people of Wales will recognise that his constituency today will be not the people of Wales, but the Benches behind him. We will understand the context of his remarks.

The mood for change in Wales and elsewhere is obvious. it is all around us. We have had 18 years of a Conservative Government who have centralised power on a scale that we have not seen before. The Government constantly told us about the nanny state; the interfering state. But we now have the Thatcher state. Baroness Thatcher was as responsible as anybody for the centralisation of power in this place. This is now a powerful and dominating personality.

Currently, many people feel alienated from the democratic institutions which serve them. That was illustrated at its worst during the general election when the proportion of young voters between the ages of 18 and 24 was lower than at any other time in recent history. There is a message there. If people feel that they do not have a voice; if they feel alienated; if they feel that they have no influence over events, there is a real danger that they will channel their resources and energies in a different way. We allow that to happen at our peril.

Modern, mature and forward-looking democracies have recognised the dangers of over-centralisation and have acted decisively to check it. Different modern states in Europe have chosen different routes to achieve that. No one model is appropriate everywhere, but we in Wales are now mature enough to take this important step forward.

The Labour party believes that the setting up of the Assembly is the way forward. Others of us will argue that that body should be enhanced and its powers improved. Let me outline not only some of the reasons why we are ready to move forward but why the choice in the referendum should reflect the fact that there are different views in Wales about how we should move forward.

The first reason, often given in the Chamber and outside, is the growth of the quango state. The people of Wales find it distasteful and a negation of democracy that for 18 years a Government appointed their own to run Wales although they were decisively rejected time after time by the electorate. On no occasion did the Secretary of State, who appointed people to run our health service, our education funding councils and our training agencies, appoint people who were in tune with the aspirations of the people of Wales. He appointed people whom he knew would toe the Government line.

Secondly, we need to develop our relationship with Europe. Most people know that my party has a positive vision of that relationship. We respect the cultural and national diversity of Europe. The key to protecting cultural and national diversity within a system that is becoming more global by the minute is to ensure that decisions that affect people's lives are taken at the lowest possible level. There is a Welsh dimension and a national dimension, and we should grasp the opportunity to ensure accountable government at that Welsh level.

By strengthening our democracy at home, we strengthen our links with Europe. We need to strengthen those links at a time when regional policy is being considered in Europe and important decisions that affect our farmers are being made. An elected body in Wales should have strong links with important European institutions.

Any elected body should be robust enough to protect us from significant policy changes made in Westminster with which we profoundly disagree. The hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman) made an eloquent speech about what had been foisted on the people of Scotland during 18 years of Conservative rule. The problem that some of us have with the current plans for the Assembly is that if it does not have at least limited legislative powers, and if the framework for legislation remains in Westminster, it will not be robust enough to protect Wales from what happens here.

It is also important to show to the people of Wales that the Government's proposal is different from that offered in 1979. It is crucial that we understand the lessons of 1979. That was a fateful year for Wales. We have a rerun of 1979 at our peril. The Government must show that what they have on offer now is different from what was on offer in 1979.

Given that there is common ground between those of us in progressive politics who believe that the way forward is constitutional change, we should make it clear that the no vote in the referendum is for those people who want the status quo. The danger in allowing only one question in the referendum in Wales is that some of us who want the Assembly to have greater powers may be tempted to register our preference by voting no, and that would be disastrous. If that happened, the vote would be meaningless, because the no vote would hide the votes of those who want to go that little bit further.