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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:34 pm on 22nd May 1997.

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Photo of Bernard Jenkin Bernard Jenkin Conservative, North Essex 5:34 pm, 22nd May 1997

I fail to understand why I am of the least concern to the hon. Gentleman. I am one of a thin number of Conservative Members. All we have are arguments, and if I can excite the hon. Gentleman to such an extent, I can only conclude that my arguments cause him some anxiety.

In Scotland, as in Wales, the real reason for the devolution policy is that Labour despaired of being elected with a majority in Westminster. Now that there is a Labour Government, the need for a Labour-dominated Parliament in Edinburgh has passed. Only the nightmare of the commitment to proceed remains. What exactly are the decisions that will be delegated to the proposed Scottish Parliament that cannot be delegated to the Scottish Grand Committee, except the power to raise the tartan tax? It is that and the greater permanence of Labour domination that has hooked the Administration on the commitment, and all this came as a dawning realisation on the new Labour leadership.

The questions are unanswerable, the scheme is illogical, the resulting mess will be unstable, and the tartan tax is the only feature that distinguishes this mess from the mess that helped to scupper the last Labour Government. That is why we are here now. New Labour's answer to all that was to present the Bill for two-question referendums in Scotland and in Wales to try to draw the sting out of the illogicality of it all. There can be little doubt that new Labour, Islington Labour, would like to drop devolution—it is a hangover from the old Labour party, and the tartan tax runs counter to all the messages on tax that new Labour transmits—but they could not, because new Labour and Scottish Labour are deeply divided.

Scottish Labour hates nothing more than the smiling face of the Minister without Portfolio, and it seethes against the spending caps imposed by London new Labour. Scottish Labour is old Labour and chafes against its new master in Downing street. That is what drives the devolution policy—Scottish Labour versus new Labour. Ironically, the sticking plaster of the referendum policy that was conceived by new Labour in London to heal the breach was the final insult to Scottish Labour. One minute the Secretary of State for Defence was arguing passionately for Scottish self-government and against a referendum, and the next he was submissively accepting the diktat from London that his policy had been changed. That was followed shortly afterwards by the resignation of the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. McAllion) from his shadow post.

A Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly are but two of Labour's seven major proposed constitutional changes. It also wants regional English assemblies, including a new Greater London council and a Bill to incorporate the rulings of the European Commission of Human Rights directly into United Kingdom law, giving power to another set of European judges to tell us what to do. Those are political questions that should be decided democratically in this Parliament. Labour proposes a Bill to reform the House of Lords, a commission on proportional representation for Westminster and, of course, a new European Communities (Amendment) Bill to transfer yet more decisions from Westminster to Brussels.

Those are the seven pillars of unwisdom, the seven veils to cover the true nakedness of Labour's programme for government. They are the seven deadly sins that the Government intend wilfully to commit against our present political stability and prosperity. Most of the damage that a majority party can do to the economy, to public services, to business and commerce and even to foreign policy is reversible, or at least repairable. However, the guardianship of our constitution is an inalienable trust which a Government should never betray. It is like the quality of our environment and the preservation of our natural heritage. Any damage done there is irreversible. Once destroyed, institutions and relationships are irretnevable. That is why the decisions on these issues are so absolutely crucial.

Therefore, I plead that we take the two great measures that will follow this one on the Floor of the House in a Committee of the whole House so that we can consider them fully and absolutely, as all constitutional measures should be considered. The House should take note of how the Secretary of State prevaricated on that question. Why will he not give the same assurance for the Scotland and Wales Bills as he has given for this Bill? Does he think that they are somehow less important or less constitutional, or does he have some tortuous new logic that he feels will entitle the Government to manoeuvre its huge majority like tanks on Salisbury plain? Is he suggesting that a referendum—held in only parts of the United Kingdom and, moreover, held in the heady honeymoon of a new Government and before the final, amended terms of the proposals are known—is a substitute for proper parliamentary scrutiny?

The Secretary of State speaks of the need for a broadly based consensus for change."—[Official Report, 21 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 720.] The Bill invites the Scots and Welsh to lunge at an unconsidered, ill-thought-out false panacea that will lead to the disillusion and dissolution which I know that he sincerely wishes to avoid. So why the rush? The Secretary of State opines: The measure is a deceptively simple one."—[Official Report, 21 May 1997; Vol. 294, c. 715.] Its simplicity is indeed the method of its deception. The Government's business managers have seen the dangers. Genuine extended debate on these great issues would be the Government's Maastricht. The facade of party unity would quickly fracture. The Government are like fugitives scuttling across the strand at low water in the twilight, anxious to reach the far shore before the tide of reality comes in.

In 1945, the Select Committee on Procedure gave the House clear protection. The Committee contained such luminaries as Sidney Silverman, Dick Crossman, Hugh Gaitskell and Maurice Webb. At least we can say that old Labour recognised the constitutional and parliamentary proprieties. The Committee recorded the then Government's commitment never to prevent any Bill of first-class constitutional importance from being taken in Committee on the Floor of the House. It even gave examples: for instance of the Bill for the Parliament Act 1911, or the Statute of Westminster 1931. The new Labour Government appear ready to set about our constitution with all the subtlety of a General Pinochet, who achieved a great deal by referendum. For a Conservative, at least our constitution is the basic foundation of our nation, of our prosperity and of our society—