HC Deb 21 February 1968 vol 759 cc432-5

3.32 p.m.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to establish Parliaments for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland; to amend the Government of Ireland Act; and for purposes connected thereto. I do this at a time when the electorate is increasingly disenchanted with politicians as a race and when some have questioned the value of Parliamentary democracy itself. I suggest that much of this springs from a feeling that people are powerless to influence events. Indeed, power today is increasingly concentrated in Whitehall, which is in turn increasingly remote from argument and control. We need to change the power structure in Britain, and this Bill will attempt to take a first step in that direction.

The Bill has two objectives—first, to involve the maximum number of people in the country in decision-taking—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is a background of conversation which makes it very difficult for the right hon. Gentleman to be heard.

Mr. Thorpe

I repeat, Sir, that the Bill has two objectives. The first is to involve the maximum number of people in the country in decision-taking, which would go far to restore faith in democracy. The second is to relieve the pressure on Parliament so that we may have more full debates and control over the wider issues.

The policy of my party is long-standing and consistent and I think that the House would be disappointed if I were not in this context to quote Mr. Gladstone, who as long ago as 1879, at the opening of the Midlothian campaign, said this: I propose that a measure of home rule should be conferred upon different portions of the United Kingdom in order to relieve Parliament of overwhelming business … If arrangements could be made under which Ireland, Scotland, Wales and portions of England could deal with questions of local and special interest to themselves, that would be the attainment of a great national good. If those words were true then, I suggest that they are even truer now. Unfortunately, for half a century those efforts were frustrated by the entrenched reactionaries, particularly in another place, who bitterly opposed Irish home rule. In retrospect, we know how ill-advised they were, for the Irish people, denied home rule, resorted to open-rebellion. rejected home rule, and ended with partition and republican status for Eire.

Numerous attempts have been made by Liberal colleagues over the years—most recently by my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston), who two years ago introduced a Measure to provide home rule for Scotland, by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) who introduced a similar measure designed to do the same for Wales, and by my noble Friend Lord Ogmore in another place a few weeks ago.

In proposing Parliaments for Scotland and Wales, I would ask the Government: why, like their Conservative predecessors, are they afraid to give elected representatives of the Scottish and Welsh nations control over their own home affairs? Do they think that they are incapable? Do they think that they will run amok if they are given this power? Is a nominated Council for Wales, a formula usually reserved for backward colonies, appropriate to the Principality? I would ask, too: since the process of administrative devolution has at least produced what is virtually a Scottish Civil Service, is it not logical to provide a Scottish Parliament to control it?

Time and again in our constitutional history we have belatedly conceded in bitterness what could and should have been granted in logic. The demand for Parliaments in Scotland and Wales is cleat, logical and unassailable.

Turning to Northern Ireland, I accept that the only existing precedent is not entirely a happy one, but this is not a criticism of devolution as such, but of the tensions that remain in Northern Ireland. But just as we must aspire to maintain the same living standards throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, so, in practice, there must be the same guarantees of human rights, wherever the citizen may live. When one considers the rejection of a Parliamentary Commissioner in Ulster, the exist- ence of the Special Powers Act, and plural voting in local government elections in Ireland, it is clear that this cannot be said of Northern Ireland today. My Bill would seek to effect the necessary Amendments.

If the House concedes that there is a strong case for Parliaments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, it is logical to ask: what provision should be made in England? It is true that much of England—I am thinking of regions such as the North-East and, indeed, my own area, the South-West—feel as remote from London as do Scotland and Wales. If Wales and Scotland are to have their own Parliaments, it follows that there will remain issues of exclusively English significance. There is clearly a need for a wide measure of devolution. The regions of England are not in the same way the homes of nations, and it is not therefore surprising that there has not yet been great pressure for an English Parliament. Certainly, to take the two Commonwealth examples of Australia and Canada, provincial Legislatures are not unknown.

My Bill suggests that a Commission should examine the purely English problem and that in the meantime English problems should be dealt with in this House by English Members sitting alone, possibly as a Committee of the whole House.

In short, I propose that a Federal Parliament would continue to deal with matters such as Foreign Affairs and Defence for the United Kingdom as a whole, and that Parliaments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would have sole control over their own domestic affairs, that the Government of Northern Ireland Act should be amended to provide adequate safeguards for religious, political and cultural minorities, and that Members from all parts of the United Kingdom would continue to sit in a Federal Parliament whose total membership could probably be halved.

I believe that all parts of the United Kingdom benefit greatly from the unity of the Kingdom. We are able to help each other and to make distinctive contributions in the political, social and cultural and economic life of the United Kingdom. No one should lightly disregard these advantages. At the same time I am convinced that to promote distinctive national life, to involve people in their own future, to restore vigour to our democratic system, devolution is a matter for urgent action.

In conclusion, I ask of the House that we should not repeat the mistakes of Ireland. We should, as a mature democracy, recognise that our system of government and our Parliamentary institutions are capable of improvement. I invite the House to accept this Bill as presenting an opportunity to do the right thing at the right time.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Thorpe, Mr. James Davidson, Mr. Grimond, Mr. Hooson, Mr. Russell Johnston, Mr. Lubbock, Mr. Alasdair Mackenzie, and Mr. David Steel.