HL Deb 13 January 2000 vol 608 cc752-4

3.29 p.m.

Baroness Young

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that the English are a violent nation.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, no! We do not believe that the English are a violent nation. We believe that in the new millennium we have the opportunity to promote a different sense of Englishness which focuses on the virtues of tolerance and ethnic and cultural diversity and continues to celebrate the nation's powerful contribution to the world of artistic, industrial, commercial and cultural endeavour. Let us in the new millennium collectively promote a new, more confident vision of our eclectic nation.

Baroness Young

My Lords, will the Minister accept that his Answer bears absolutely no relation to the remarks made by the Home Secretary, which were racist, untrue and a complete insult to all the English men and women who fought in two world wars entirely so that people such as the Home Secretary and other Members of the Government might enjoy the free speech that we all enjoy today? Is he proud of the fact that the Home Secretary has now been reported twice to the Commission for Racial Equality for his racist remarks?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I do not accept that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is in any way a racist. He has an excellent track record on that question. It is entirely a matter for individuals whether they decide to report the Home Secretary to the Commission for Racial Equality. The noble Baroness has taken his comments from an extensive programme on the question of "The Brits" on Radio Four entirely out of context. If she studies the transcript she will realise that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary was talking about the historical development of the United Kingdom.

Lord Baker of Dorking

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Home Secretary said that in their history the English began by coshing the Welsh, then they coshed the Scots, then they coshed the rest of the world through the British Empire? Will the Minister remind his friend the Home Secretary that the British Empire was largely established, sustained and expanded by Scots? They really should not be denied their role in the hall-of-coshing fame.

Does not the whole episode reveal that, as a result of their constitutional changes, the Government have released an English backlash? Having created a voice for Scotland, a voice for Wales and a voice for Northern Ireland, and having done nothing about England—which is democratically and constitutionally unjust—they will not actually resolve that problem until they bring forward proposals to ensure that England's democratic deficit is reversed. Until they do that, their constitutional changes will be inherently unstable.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, there seemed to be many questions in the noble Lord's contribution to the discussion—

A noble Lord

Answer one of them!

Lord Bassam of Brighton

I shall endeavour to do so. As to the question of whether there should or should not be an English parliament, as the noble Lord is well aware that is not the policy of Her Majesty's Government. We continue to have confidence in the Parliament here at Westminster. It is worth reminding ourselves that some 80 per cent of the Members of the House of Commons are English MPs. The House of Commons is entirely competent to deal with all those matters for the United Kingdom which fall to it.

Lord Lipsey

My Lords, will the Minister agree with me that, although nowadays the English are of course a most peaceable people, they can nevertheless be provoked to violence by insensitive, poor, unthinking, unlistening government, such as the kind of government that provoked the Poll Tax riots in 1989, a tax of which—as I remember—the noble Lord, Lord Baker, was such a fervent advocate?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, my noble friend makes a powerful political point. In our new millennium we must encourage tolerance and diversity. Those values are ones which I want to see promoted throughout the United Kingdom.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, I should perhaps first declare an interest as a vice-president of the Royal Society of St George. The Minister says that the Home Secretary's remarks were taken out of context. Will he therefore tell us how it came about that there was so much leaking in advance of the particular opinion of the Home Secretary that the English are extremely aggressive and violent? Was that leaking perhaps done by Mr Alastair Campbell?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I have absolutely no knowledge as to who did what leaking where, when and how. As I said, I believe that the comments were taken out of context, but there is the beginning of an important and valuable debate about what "Englishness" actually is.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, before this all becomes too serious, is the Minister aware that my experience on the rugby field leads me to believe that the English are not an especially violent race? When I was playing in a match at Twickenham many, many years ago, an English forward was lying on the field after an especially untidy scrum when a Welsh wing forward came up and kicked him vigorously in the head. The Englishman's response was simply to look up and say, "Did you wish to speak to me?"

Does the Minister agree that whatever may be the failings of the English—and they are many—violence is not one of them?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, many strange things happen in scrums.