HL Deb 24 October 1961 vol 234 cc672-85

3.20 p.m.

EARL. WINTERTON rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether any consultations have taken place between it and the leaders of the political Parties in Malta over the proposed new Constitution. The noble Earl said: My Lords, it is as well when one gets old to recognise one's faults, and I realise that I am often aggressive and tactless. I might often be said to be offensive. I am very anxious on what is a delicate subject, as I shall show in a moment—namely, the situation in Malta—to avoid being aggressive or tactless. But I am bound to have to refer—which makes my position a somewhat delicate one, as the noble Earl who is going to reply is a devout Catholic—to the position of the Catholic Church. I hope I shall not say anything which could offend any of my very many Catholic friends. But the position of the Church, as your Lordships will be aware, is inextricably intertwined at the moment with the political situation in Malta.

I do not know whether your Lordships are aware that attention has been called to this matter on more than one occasion by a right reverend Prelate—that in 1828, I think, the British Government conferred certain rights upon the Catholic Church in Malta. Among those rights was the power to prohibit in the streets any religious procession except a Catholic procession, and any service except a Catholic service. In fact, the latter power was put into operation, so we were informed at the time, when Her Majesty the Queen—I am not sure whether she was then Queen or was Princess Elizabeth—was going to unveil a memorial to the R.A.F. and it was intended that there should be a Church of England service, conducted I think by the Bishop of Gibraltar. As they were entitled to do, the Catholic Church objected to this. In consequence, the service was not held on Malta but instead on a ship in the harbour to which of course the power of the Church did not extend.

Before I continue this story I should like to say that I want to put factually the position between the Church and one of the principal, if not the biggest, political Parties in Malta. I should like to pay a tribute to the Catholic Church for the work it has done in many directions. I think it is due to the influence of that Church that Malta is a most law-abiding community. There is little violent crime; there is a high state of sexual morality. The Church is entitled to be congratulated on that. Some people think that there is something new about the most acrimonious controversy which has arisen between Mr. Mintoff and Archbishop Gonzi. But that is not so.

Some of your Lordships, especially those on the Front Bench opposite, who have, like myself, spent a long time in another place, will remember the late Lord Strickland before he became a Peer, and when he was a Member of another place. Lord Strickland, in 1930, objected to the action of the then Archbishop in trying to prevent a priest from leaving Malta, apparently on the ground that he was going to say something inimical to the administration of the Church in Malta. Lord Strickland most strongly objected, with the result—I think this will be a surprise to your Lordships who may have forgotten the incident—that he was excommunicated. In consequence, the Constitution had to be suspended, and the kind of direct Colonial Office rule which now exists was brought into operation. Eventually, a new Constitution was given to Malta and, as everybody is aware, the last Prime Minister was my friend Dom Mintoff. I say "my friend". I differ greatly with many things that he has said lately, which I think have been foolish and indeed uncomplimentary to this country. But I have a great regard, as I said on the last occasion, for the work which he did when he was Prime Minister. Friends of mine in Malta have said that he was the first Prime Minister of that country who had really tried to carry out social reform, which he did quite successfully.

I want to go into parenthesis and say that I think that I owe an apology to my noble friend the Minister over a dispute which we had on the last occasion when I spoke on Malta, in regard to integration. I said that the Church had opposed integration. My noble friend denied that that was so. My noble friend was quite correct, in this respect, that there was no open statement by the Church opposing integration. The Archbishop did not issue any statement, but in fact—here I make myself responsible for this statement because I got it from more than one source, from the Maltese—the priesthood were told not in any way to advocate integration, and if they could see their way to do so, to oppose it.

Now we come to the deplorable story of events that have recently occurred over the controversy between the Archbishop and Dom Mintoff. I think it would be most improper for me to say who is in the right and who is in the wrong. The probable answer is that both of them have made great mistakes. Mr. Mintoff accuses the Archbishop of trying in every way to interfere with his Party, of carrying out various ecclesiastical sanctions against it. Only the other day I was told that when some Maltese soldiers, who I think had been to Libya or somewhere like that, were killed in an air crash, it was discovered that one of them was a prominent member of the Maltese Labour Party, and in consequence the Maltese priest refused to give him the last rites which are customarily given to a Catholic when he is buried. Fortunately, an English Catholic chaplain stepped into the breach and the man in question received the proper rites.

Mr. Mintoff accuses the Archbishop of interfering with his meetings in every possible way. He says that when he has been holding open air meetings the church bells have been loudly rung in order to drown what he is saying, and things of that kind. That is his statement. Two letters have appeared in The Times newspaper defending the action of the Archbishop—one of them from a Father Bernard and the other from the indomitable Miss Strickland. I must make this criticism of these letters, or at any rate comment on them, that they both appeared to show, or to propagate the opinion, that the Church had a right to interfere in temporal and political matters to a degree that I certainly think would not be considered right by any Church in this country, the Established Church, the Free Churches or anybody else. I do not think that either of those letters helped the cause which Miss Strickland and Father Bernard were trying to support; in fact, I should imagine that they had a contrary effect. I do not want to speak long. I am glad that the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, with whose speech on the last occasion I agreed almost entirely, is going to follow me and will no doubt largely support the views which I am about to put forward.

The proposition which I wish to put forward is this. I greatly hope, despite the immense burden of responsibility upon his shoulders, that the new Secretary of State for the Colonies will himself go to Malta. I hope that my noble friend the Minister, for whom I have the highest admiration, and his Under-Secretary, will not think me offensive if I say that it would be much better that he should go rather than that they went, because, in view of this religious controversy, some people would say that the two Ministers were affected by their religious views. If they did go it would be necessary to have a talk not only with Mr. Mintoff but with Dr. Olivera, and any of the other Parties, though they are mostly splinter Parties, which exist in Malta, to try to see whether it would be possible to devise a new Constitution.

Now I come to a controversial point, though I think I shall have the support of noble Lords opposite in what I am about to say. I do not see how Her Majesty's Government can say to some African people, whose grandfathers were more or less savages and who have only a very short experience of civilisation, when their leader (who may have been in prison for sedition and who may not be a person of any great substance) asks for self-government, that they will grant it at once, or give a promise of it, and, at the same time, not give the same assurances to such a highly-cultured people as the Maltese, with their great history behind them, with their immense courage during the war, and with over a hundred years of help in various ways to the British forces as stewards and seamen on British ships and as members of the British military forces. I do not see how they can give these assurances to African peoples and their leaders and not give them to a European community of the type and character of the Maltese. Somehow or other, Her Majesty's Government must give the Maltese an understanding of what they intend their ultimate future to be.

It may well be that the Government, the Committee on Imperial Defence, say that it is essential that we should retain Malta as a base. But that should not present any greater difficulties than did the situation in Cyprus. It could still be a base, even if Malta were given the power of independence and the power, if necessary, to leave the Commonwealth. I believe that, if that were done, it would make the situation very much easier.

I end on a rather personal note. I worked with and under Colonel T. E. Lawrence, and he was once good enough to say in a book which he wrote (I think it was The Seven Pillars of Wisdom), that I should always be in support of the weaker side except when I was hunting the fox. In this controversy I am certainly on the side of the weaker entity, which is Malta. Compared with this country, of course, she is weak. She has no political power here, and the average person here does not take much interest in her affairs.

As I have said in previous debates, there is a strong Negrophile element in this country, and it is only self-government for Africans or the wellbeing of African States which appears to interest a number of newspapers. If Mr. Mintoff came to this country, I do not think he would be given half the attention by the B.B.C., by the Press, or even by the Prime Minister, that has been given to some of the African leaders: and yet he is the leader of a Party which would probably obtain a majority if there were an election. I would therefore make a very strong plea to my noble friend this afternoon to try—and this little debate is very important from the point of view of Malta—first to assure us that immediate steps will be taken to try to get the Maltese political leaders around a table; and, secondly, to give them some assurance as to the future. I think that Mr. Mintoff and other Maltese leaders have been rather unfair to the Government about the financial aid which has been given to Malta. It has been very considerable; but I think that it is money well spent. As the noble Earl the Minister, in his very interesting speech, told us last time, there are hopeful signs that the money which has been spent there, and which is going to be spent there, will fructify, in increasing both the tourist trade and also those lesser industrial undertakings which are so necessary for the wellbeing of the island.

There is one very small subsidiary point that I want to make before I sit down. I have read, and I know, that the Government, the War Office, are attempting to recruit people for the British Army in various parts of the world. There was a statement that they were to be mostly coloured people. I hope that they will attempt to recruit the Maltese, and will do everything possible to make the two Malta regiments (I think there is one of infantry and one of artillery, though I am not quite sure) feel that they are part of the British Army. From what I know from an officer friend of mine in one of them, I believe that they would very much appreciate being asked to serve overseas, perhaps in Libya, or even in this country. I know from what I have seen that they are very highly disciplined.

So, in thanking so many of your Lordships for being good enough to stay here to hear what I have to say, I end as I began: by saying that I very much hope that Malta will have the sympathy of your Lordships' House, of another place and of the Government, and that the very serious difficulties and differences which have existed between us and some of the Maltese during the last few years —differences which never ought to have existed, since until a few years ago there could not have been a more loyal community than that of Malta—will be resolved, and that this George Cross Island will once again be a happy part of the British Commonwealth.

3.37 p.m.


My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Earl for the Question he has put on the Order Paper this afternoon—for two reasons. In the first place, it raises an extremely important issue, that of Government policy towards the Colony of Malta, a Colony which is particularly close to all our hearts because of the great part it played during the war. Then, in the second place, I welcome the Question because it is so well-timed. It comes at a moment before the new Constitution has been imposed on the people of Malta and while the Government have time to reconsider the imposition of this Constitution and the method of obtaining co-operation with the people of Malta in their own political future.


My Lords, I do not know whether I should interrupt the noble Earl, but perhaps he would like to know that I had intended to say, in reply to this Question, which includes the words, "proposed new Constitution", that, in fact, this morning, Her Majesty in Council was pleased to make a new Constitution for Malta, the text of which will be available in the Library of the House this afternoon for your Lordships. I thought I ought to make that point, because here is something which has happened. At the same time, the Question clearly raises various points which I shall be very ready to try and deal with, including anything the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, may want to say. But I thought it would be a pity if I allowed him to continue speaking without this piece of information.


I am extremely grateful to the noble Earl, because I had completely misunderstood the situation. I had no information that the Constitution had already been promulgated by Order in Council. It is, therefore, a fait accompli; and nothing we say this afternoon can have the slightest effect on the policy of the Government in relation to what the noble Earl, Lord Winterton, then thought (though he was no doubt correct when he put the Question down) was the proposed Constitution of Malta.

My Lords, another comment I wanted to make on the noble Earl's remarks was that I do not propose to follow him in expressing any view about the controversy between the Labour Party and the Roman Catholic Church in Malta. With the greatest respect to the noble Earl, I do not think it is strictly relevant to the Question he has on the Paper. I am sure that we all share the hope that this conflict will be resolved by good will and tolerance on both sides. What I propose to say (and the substance of what I say has not been altered by what the noble Earl opposite has just told us) is this. As I understand it, from what the noble Earl has just said, the Blood Constitution, as I have no doubt it will be called, the Constitution proposed in the Report of the Blood Commission, has now been decided upon by the Government and will be imposed on Malta at an appropriate moment, which I imagine will be in the early part of next year. No doubt the noble Earl will give us the exact timing of the introduction of the new Constitution in his reply to the noble Earl's Question. It is therefore far too late to ask the Government to invite, as the noble Earl, Lord Winterton, has asked the Government to do in his Question, the political Parties to co-operate in the framing of this Constitution and to express views about what form this Constitution should take.

But, my Lords, I very much regret that the political Parties in Malta were not associated with this new Constitution. I think it is partly their fault, and I will go into that point in a moment; but I think it is also partly the fault of the Government, and the most appropriate thing I can do in what I am going to say is to refer to their part. I think it is the fault of the Government because the reason why the political Parties in Malta would not co-operate or be associated in any discussion of this Constitution was that the Government would not treat the Blood Constitution as an interim Constitution pending the working out of a Constitution for an independent State of Malta.

I believe—and here I agree entirely with the noble Earl opposite—that the Government is gravely at fault in treating Malta differently from British territories in Africa. British West Africa (the three great British territories in West Africa) are already independent. They are already self-governing countries in the Commonwealth. Our territories in East and Central Africa have all been promised independence, and their Constitutions are at different stages in the advance to full self-government. We have just heard—well, we heard it a few months ago, but it was fairly recently—that Tanganyika would become independent towards the end of this year. We have heard even more recently, during the last few weeks, that Uganda will become independent next year. My Lords, how can the Government expect a politically sophisticated people like the people of Malta to accept treatment as political children, while they are treating African peoples as adults? How can they expect a Mediterranean people like the people of Malta to accept treatment as politically immature individuals, when the peoples of Africa are being treated as politically fully mature?

I do not know what is the real reason for this aspect of Government colonial policy, so different from the general tenor of the Government's colonial policy. I have not any access to State papers or Cabinet documents, and of course I do not know what goes on in Cabinet Meetings, but my guess is this: I cannot help thinking that the real reason for treating Malta in this way is a strategic rather than political reason. It is the fear that if Malta were no longer British, we could not then deny it as a base to any foreign power, even to the Soviet Union. I do not believe that our strategic experts are so naïve that they think Malta of any great strategic value to us; I certainly do not believe that; but I can see an argument for the view that Malta might be of value to a foreign power. However, my own view about this is that it is in fact of no greater value to a foreign power than it would be to us under conditions of modern warfare. I think it is a complete misunderstanding of the attitude of the Maltese people to Communist countries if the Government here imagine for one moment that the Maltese would ever be willing to put themselves under the thumb of the Soviet Union or of any Communist power.

In looking to the future, I hope that when Malta becomes independent, as it must do one day like every other British Colony, it will belong to the N.A.T.O. camp and will join the West. But if the worst happens and Malta were to become neutral, like most of its neighbours in North Africa, even that would not be a great blow to us. I think it is a risk that has to be taken. Every important political decision involves a risk, and a decision to give a country independence involves enormous risk. This is just one of the risks which has to he taken in connection with Malta. I am very much afraid that the decision we have heard about this afternoon from the noble Earl, to impose this Constitution, may lead to violence and bloodshed in Malta. At best—and we all hope that "at best" is what will happen—it will start a Parliamentary system which will be so unrepresentative and so unpopular in Malta that it is very likely to be replaced again by direct rule. And this has happened again and again in the history of Malta since the First World War. Again and again we have devised Constitutions which have not worked, and Malta has come back to direct rule.

I hope very much that, as the Government have decided to proceed in this way, the Maltese will refrain from violence and bloodshed, and I am sure that that is the appeal that everyone in your Lordships' House will make to Malta. I also hope that the Maltese and the big Maltese political Parties may be willing to change their minds, even at the last moment, to take part in the elections, and to try to work a Parliamentary system which is constitutionally devised and which is, at any rate, better than the present system of direct rule.

My Lords, this is at best what one can hope for if our friends in Malta behave in an extraordinary forbearing, reasonable way. I think we should give them more help from the United Kingdom. We could give them a lead, and we have a major share in the responsibility for the future of Malta. If only the Government, before the elections take place, could give some sort of undertaking that they were prepared to discuss the question of independence, full self-government for Malta, and that this Constitution was preparatory to another Constitution under which the Government of Malta would have full sovereignty, I think it would launch this Constitution in an atmosphere that was likely to make it workable in Malta.

I know that the noble Earl will not be in a position this afternoon to say that the Government have changed their attitude in this respect; but we have a new Secretary of State for the Colonies, Mr. Maudling, and we all hope that he may be able to go to Malta, as the noble Earl suggested, although it would be difficult for him with his responsibilities. However, I think we are entitled to ask him to reconsider British policy towards Malta and particularly to reconsider the possibility of asking Malta to work with us in the implementation of the Constitution, which is only a step towards full sovereignty, full self-government and complete independence for the people of Malta.

3.51 p.m.


My Lords, I think that it might be useful if I started by reading out the question which the noble Earl, Lord Winterton, put down on the Order Paper. It is as follows: To ask Her Majesty's Government whether any consultations have taken place between it and the leaders of the political Parties in Malta over the proposed new Constitution. Frankly, I am well briefed to answer that Question, and perhaps some of your Lordships want to know the Answer, but your Lordships will not expect me to deal with all the points over which the noble Earl ranged. So far as I am concerned, the question of age has nothing to do with it. I always enjoy any contribution which the noble Earl may make, and we all know his real love for Malta and what prompts him to take this particular interest in the island. I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to touch on, for example, the question of the religious controversy which the noble Earl elaborated.

It is a curious and, in a sense, unfortunate coincidence that the Constitution was announced after the Privy Council meeting this morning, but I do not think that any noble Lord should really be surprised about this when he considers the history of the matter. We had a debate in your Lordships' House just before the House rose for the Recess, so that it is not as if we had not had the benefit of the views of the noble Earl who raised the Question and of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, before we came to the final elaboration of the Constitution. As your Lordships know, the Constitution is based entirely—I do not say literally, word for word—on the Blood Report, which was published earlier in the year.

The answer to the Question whether we had consultations with the leaders of the political Parties in Malta over the proposed Constitution would be that since the Blood Commission went out we have had very limited consultations, and with the two leading political Parties none at all. I regret as much as I am sure many noble Lords regret that there was no consultation with the leading Parties, but from that I do not wish your Lordships to deduce that this Constitution has been formed in a vacuum, that we have just written down what we have thought would be good for Malta and did not have the benefit of knowing what the Maltese think. Far from it.

Over the last year all the political Parties, either officially or unofficially, by publications, promulgations and speeches have made known their views on certain aspects. Two years ago we tried to have just such a conference as the noble Earl asked for, but that was abortive because we could not get people round the table. We also have had the advantage of the work of the Blood Commission, which consisted of Sir Hilary Blood, two eminent trade unionists, one replacing the other, Sir Alfred Roberts and then Mr. Hayday and a representative from the Commonwealth, Mr. St. John from Australia. Their Report, which we adopted earlier in the year, was the basis on which we formed the Constitution. They did not have talks officially with Mr. Mintoff, for example, but they obtained a considerable amount of information from various sources, and were able, I think, to their own complete satisfaction to draw up a Constitution which they thought was both forward in relation to the last Constitution and appropriate for the present situation in Malta. If your Lordships would care to look at paragraphs 119 and 120 of the Blood Report your Lordships will see that what I am saying is supported by what the Commission have actually written.

I am deliberately not going into great detail because I know that there is another Question and that we have not much time. That is the background to the question as to whether we have drawn up this Constitution in a vacuum or after getting the best advice we could from the people of Malta and from those experts who went out there. When the Blood Report was published the Secretary of State once again invited those in Malta to make known their views and comments. We have a certain number, a rather limited number, of suggestions from one or two of the lesser—"smaller" is perhaps the right word to use—political Parties, which were of value to us, but we did not get the sort of help we should have liked. What were we to do? We thought that the right course was to go forward. As the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, said, the Maltese are not only a gallant people but politically mature, and in our judgment the right course was to have elections as soon as it was appropriate, so that we could have representative government back again, because this is clearly the right form of government for the people of Malta.

The noble Earl asked me when the new Constitution will come into effect. The answer is that the part which allows for elections will come into effect on November 1, and the rest on a date to be proclaimed later by the Governor, a date which it is thought should be after the elections and when there is a Maltese Prime Minister. I shall not go into the details of the Constitution. Malta is to become a State with all that that stands for. No longer will it be the island, or even the George Cross Island, of Malta —though we shall always remember it as the George Cross Island—but the State of Malta. It will be able to deal with all matters which affect it, except defence and foreign affairs, in which we shall have concurrent powers. If anything were to be done which was repugnant to our Parliament, our rule would prevail. The Constitution is a tremendous step forward in relation to any previous Constitution.

We have tried to get consultations with the Maltese political Parties, but the Leaders would not play. So, because we think that elections are all important for the island, we shall introduce this Constitution; and I express the hope that whoever are elected will play their part in running the island on the basis of the Constitution. I would, in that respect, quote the last thing said by the Blood Commission in paragraph 121 of their Report, where they say: We know very well that no Constitution can work if the will to make it work is not present. We cannot create that will, but we believe that if it were forthcoming the Maltese State could grow, and flourish, in the constitutional framework which we have devised. That I think is right. But the noble Earl, Lord Winterton, and the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, both pressed for some statement about the future.

We have again and again given our position in regard to that, and I think I can do no better than to end up by quoting what was said by the then Colonial Secretary on March 8 in another place, which was certainly something that I echoed in this House. He said [OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, Vol. 636, col. 474]: I made it clear that the Blood Commission had as its concern the immediate future. I did not then suggest, and I do not now suggest, that the Constitution which I have just announced will be the final stage of Malta's constitutional development. I do not think it is appropriate for me to go further. This makes it extremely clear, and I would just repeat the words: … and I do not now suggest that the Constitution which I have just announced will be the final stage of Malta's constitutional development.