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8.38 pm

Mr. Rhodri Morgan (Cardiff, West): I congratulate the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve)--I believe that that was a maiden speech. I have lost count of the number of maiden speeches that there have been--I think that there must have been seven or eight, mostly from Scottish Members. It made me think of my maiden speech 10 years ago. When I made it, the words "zero-zero option" had only one meaning: the way in which the super-powers tried to bargain away different categories of nuclear missiles. The words zero-zero option have a new meaning: the pickle that the Tory party has got itself into in Scotland and Wales.

One of the purposes of the debate has perhaps been to help the Tory party to work out why it has got into this zero-zero option problem in Scotland and Wales. By and large, it is because the Tory party is resistant to change and simply refuses to re-examine itself and to find out whether it should--we see it again in the amendment that it has tabled tonight--still be resisting change. It reminds me of the little signs that I see on buses sometimes when I try to pay for a ticket, or of signs in vending machine arcades saying, "This machine gives no change." That is not a bad description of the Tory party's attitude on constitutional matters.

I think that the hon. Member for Beaconsfield mentioned what had happened with the Union of the Crown in 1603 and with the Act of Union in 1707 with Scotland. At the Welsh Conservative party conference only a few brief months ago--it seems a long time ago now--the former Prime Minister referred to 1,000 years of British history, revealing that perhaps he had not got much further than the O-level stage in history, because there is no such thing. The hon. Member for Beaconsfield referred indirectly to the fact that the use of the term "Britain" and the use of the term "United Kingdom" do not go back more than 400 years. They go back in fact to the Union of the Crown with Scotland.

We in Wales would obviously tend to want to take our version of parliamentary history back another 60 or 70 years to the two Welsh Acts of Union of 1535 and 1542, but I do not want to get into 1,000 years or even 400 years of history. It is fair to say, however, that it has been interesting to see how, in most of the past 400 years, the relationship between England, given its overwhelming size within today's United Kingdom, and the three Celtic fringe countries or nations--whatever we want to call them--of Scotland, Wales and Ireland has continuously been redefined. It was originally done by way of expansion through the incorporation of Wales, the Union with Scotland and the Act of Union (Ireland) Act 1800, but since then it has tended the other way. That meant the granting of additional rights to Ireland, Scotland and Wales in different forms.

Since 1800, each of those additional rights has always been resisted by the Conservative party. It always gave out the same message and we are hearing it time and again tonight--any change to our constitution is a threat to the very existence of the Union. We have heard that such a change weakens and undermines the Union. "I am a passionate supporter of the Union," say Conservative

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Members, as though it were a monopoly of the Conservative party. All they are saying is that they do not like this change.

The same arguments were used against the extension of the franchise in the 19th century and in the early part of this century. Why does the Conservative party resist constitutional change? One can understand its opposition to the extension of the franchise in the 19th century because the Tories did extremely well under the previous system. To some extent, in this century, they have done extremely well through being the party of no change. It has helped them. They would have had great difficulties getting majority democratic support in Wales and Scotland, so they thought, "The way to run it is not to grant any democratic extension of rights to Wales and Scotland."

I am afraid that the great Rubicon is upon the Conservative party, and it is beginning to divide on that issue. Certainly in Wales, we have seen at least the grandees of the Conservative party, some in the other place, some in the debate on the Queen's Speech only a few days ago, referring to the fact that a big rethink is now required by the Conservative party, and asking whether it should be resisting change and whether it was about time that it started to support the campaign through the referendum campaign and the subsequent legislation.

The official position of the Conservative party as a collective body, although that seems a bit of a misnomer at the moment, is still to resist all change. Clearly, however, there are forces splitting the Tory party into the anti-devolution, "We are still the machine that gives no change" faction and the other faction which, as we approach the beginning of the third millennium, asks what is wrong with allowing democratic devolution. Why are members of the latter faction saying that? Because they know, as we know, that, having given administrative devolution to Scotland in, I think, 1885 and to Wales in 1964 in the form of separate Secretaries and Departments of State, a crunch point is inevitably reached.

There has been administrative devolution in Scotland for more than 110 years and in Wales for 33 years. Administrative devolution poses certain problems because it means that something like the equivalent of vice-regal powers are gradually acquired. When the office of the Secretary of State for Wales was set up in 1964 under the incoming Labour Government of Harold Wilson, it was a great achievement for the Government. It started as quite a modest Ministry with some 250 civil servants and did not have a wide range of duties to perform.

Of course, almost every four or five years--or whatever the length of the Parliaments--in the 33 years since then, most of which have been under Conservative rule, at least one major issue of Government competence has been transferred from the classic British unitary state model, according to which everything is run by Departments which are held responsible at the Dispatch Box, to the alternative hybrid, the territorial mechanism according to which Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales are by and large run. Thus, all the Home Ministries have gradually been transferred to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

We are now left with this curious unitary state--yes, it is a unitary state, but one with strong elements of quasi-federal practice within it. It is still eventually responsible to this sovereign Parliament, but it is an odd system. It is not a terribly healthy one and certainly not

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one that we should say is immutable because of its sheer beauty as drawn up by the brilliant Olympian minds of some constitutional lawyers. No one could say that about the hybrid system that we have now, under which England is run entirely by Departments while Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland are run on a territorial basis but with some functions such as social security and some forms of transport--air and rail--still run on a UK-wide basis.

There are slightly varying degrees of devolution in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Most notably, in Wales there has been no devolution of the Lord Chancellor's functions, Home Office functions or most transport functions.

There is thus an element of difficulty with the hybrid system, so I am very pleased that we now have a Bill that will enable the people of Wales either to veto the principles of the White Paper if they do not like them or give them the direct democratic mandate if they do. I hope that the Tory party realises that it has a choice as to whether to participate constructively or carry on as the entirely negative force that it is and has been for the past 20 years or so.

Of course, there was a faction within the Tory party whose members, some of whom are still fairly prominent but some of whom got knocked out at the election, were devolutionists in the mid-1970s vis-a-vis Scotland. However, they changed their minds when Margaret Thatcher took over the leadership of the party in the late 1970s. That was the price of preferment in the Tory party. Those who, like Malcolm Rifkind and the former Chancellor, had been devolutionists had to change their mind and become anti-devolutionists if they wanted a job in Margaret Thatcher's Administration.

At that stage, there was not a pro-devolution faction in Wales, but it would have followed as inevitably as the Secretary of State for Wales's job followed on from the original establishment of the office of Secretary of State for Scotland.

I accept what the hon. Member for Beaconsfield said about tolerating anomalies within a system so long as there is the good will to make them workable. All parties have a duty to create that good will and the atmosphere for constructive debate and interchange because we shall never get rid of those anomalies. We will never establish a perfect unitary state or attain a federal system devised by teams of constitutional lawyers--as primarily British constitutional lawyers did for the Federal Republic of Germany in the period leading up to its establishment in 1949. That will not happen, because it is not the British way. The British way is to move bit by bit, after the argy-bargy and knockabout of a general election, and after even more argy-bargy and knockabout across the Floors of this House and the other place--which, probably in the history of the world, is the greatest constitutional anomaly of all. Until now the other place has been accepted, although some changes to it may be made. Today, however, we are not debating that issue.

If we are to talk about anomalies, we must keep a sense of proportion about the different types of anomaly in the British constitution. We want--with a long, hot summer ahead of us--genuine, democratic campaigning, and we want the Tory parties to participate in it. We want them to do so, however, in a way in which they do not try to be the hold-outs, trying to claim that they are the last people who love and feel passion for the Union.

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The right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) said earlier in the debate that Conservatives are the patriots and that, collectively, they are the ones who distinguish between patriotism and parochialism. He comes from Llanelli and I come from Cardiff, and we Taffs have to stick together, but I should tell him that the implication of his statement--that Labour Members are not patriotic, because we believe in introducing democratic devolution in areas that, so far, have been only administratively devolved--will be deeply resented. He needs to rethink that attitude.

I know that the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe, because of his long period in Folkestone, has been affected more deeply than me by English folk culture. Indeed, I have been told that his favourite folk-song is, "As I was going to Widdecombe fair".

If the right hon. and learned Gentleman and other Conservative Members really love the Union, love waving the Union flag and believe that our governmental system is the strongest in the world, why do they treat the Union as a flower so fragile that even the slightest change to it will smash it--like the finest Dresden china--to smithereens? Those two beliefs cannot be held simultaneously. If one is a patriot and thinks that the British constitution is strong, the British constitution should easily be able to withstand devolution and referendums--for which today's debate is paving the way.

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