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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:17 pm on 22nd May 1997.

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Photo of Mr Donald Anderson Mr Donald Anderson Labour, Swansea East 6:17 pm, 22nd May 1997

I stand amazed and delighted at the eloquence of those hon. Members who have made their maiden speeches today. I recall how frozen I was when I made mine. Today there has been a promise of even greater to come.

I also stand amazed at the reactionary speech of the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), who seemed to be ready to fight against any reform until it becomes a tradition. I remind him that his paean of praise for the constitution is ill placed because the genius of our constitution is that it is not static, but evolves in accordance with the wishes of the people at the time. There has been a bar on constitutional advance for 18 years. That is why there is a need to get on speedily with constitutional change.

I was delighted by the speech of the hon. Member for Ynys Mon (Mr. Jones). He warned me in advance that there would be a change of rhetoric. I am pleased that Plaid Cymru has recognised that this is a chance in a generation. The giant step is to have an Assembly. Once it is there, it will move as far and as fast as the people of Wales want. That is the key step. It is why the forces of progress will be on one side in the referendum, working together, while the Conservative forces—who have been chased from Wales—will be on the other side. That will be the real decision.

I believe that I am the only remaining member of the gang of six Welsh Labour Members who argued against the Labour Government's devolution proposals in the 1970s. I shall support the present Government's proposals; I shall support them in the referendum and do what I can to persuade people to accept them. I shall not go into the reasons for my change—[Interruption.] I shall give the headlines. Part of the reason is Thatcherite centralisation; part of the reason involves Europe; part of the reason involves my wish to have the identities of Wales and Scotland recognised. I can expand on those reasons, but not tonight.

I am in favour of devolution. I am wary of referendums in principle, because they have a rather dubious history. Mitterrand said that the French always answer the wrong question, which is certainly true. The relevance of that is that, in 1979, the referendum in Wales was lost, partly because the Government who proposed it were unpopular at the time; we are now in a different context. The outcome of a referendum depends, in part, on who poses the question and the nature of the question. I concede that we are now in a honeymoon period and the situation is set fairer than before.

Another of my objections to referendums is that they are, by their very nature, inflexible. One cannot negotiate with the people—as the Danes found out when they had to put the question on Maastricht twice when they did not like the answer to the first question. Having said that, I believe that we must have a referendum on the Government's proposals now, for two reasons.

First, the precedent was set in 1979 and it would be absurd for us to overturn that decisive position. Secondly, in my judgment, although the people cannot pronounce on every detail of a Bill, they can express a mood. I believe that the current mood in Wales and, I am informed, in Scotland, is decisively in favour of change. A referendum will assist in the legislative process because, if hon. Members try to wreck the Bill, they can be reminded that it has been broadly endorsed by the people, which should clear any doubt.

I end, partly because I promised that I would end soon, with just two caveats—this Labour Member, like a Labour Government, keeps promises. First, from my own knowledge of Wales, I know that the outcome of the referendum in Wales is by no means a foregone conclusion. I shall certainly do what I can on the platform to ensure that there is a positive vote. Secondly, I concede that there are enormous problems of principle in having decentralisation—devolution—in a unitary state. We are travelling uncharted waters and many areas of principle should be rigorously tested.

Let no one imagine that this is a final station; it is no more than an interim solution. It may be that, rationally, we shall be persuaded to go further along a federal path—that is a debate for another day. For this day. this argument is enough. If people want to adopt the proposal, let us debate it rigorously and properly. I shall stand with the Government on the platform for the referendum and for devolution.