Previous Section Index Home Page

13 Oct 2008 : Column 611

We have to go upwards, to European and other international levels, to control those forces, but the more we go upwards, the more people feel removed from the sources of power that affect their lives. To be real, democracy usually has to be near and accessible. The paradox is that for democracy to be what it has to be—the mechanism that disciplines power for us—we have to go upwards ever more. That makes it difficult for people, small people in a big world, to understand how they can get democratic leverage and control.

That is why those who say that we do not have to be effectively engaged at the European level, or have institutions and treaties that enable us to do that, are wrong. They are right, however, to reflect anxieties about how we control such mechanisms. We have not yet begun to do that in any effective way. That is the challenge.

Simon Hughes rose—

Dr. Wright: Does the hon. Gentleman want to intervene?

Simon Hughes indicated assent.

Dr. Wright: Of course I give way.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman was getting so carried away with his important point that the danger was that none of us could be spotted.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman absolutely. Some of us have supported the European Union because we realised that economic powers were international, money moved around and companies relocated, but that there was no political control so we needed a regional, continental level to exercise that. Is not the answer to the hon. Gentleman’s paradox that one can do both? One can transfer upwards—give up power and share sovereignty at the continental, regional and international levels—and downwards, to the four countries of the United Kingdom and, within England, to the regions, and then down to the parish and community levels. Both transfers are possible, and both need urgently to happen.

Dr. Wright: The hon. Gentleman has taken my concluding peroration; I shall have to do a bogus one now. He has given the answer to the paradox: that democracy has to operate at many different levels and we have to get the democratic forms appropriate to those levels. People could then understand that democracy is near to them and in a form that they can control, but that, for some issues, it will require different forms of control.

If we want democracy to do what is necessary—discipline power—we need mechanisms that link the local neighbourhood council to the new international regulatory mechanisms. We have not begun to explain how the paradox works. When we debate Europe some people call for a referendum because they say that Europe is not very democratic and the people must be allowed to speak. My response is that although people might say that, a referendum on the European issue would be the worst thing to do, because we would not know what people were voting for and against. We would not know which bits of the Lisbon treaty people liked and which they did not like, nor what the consequences would be. We need, instead, to argue for the democratisation of different levels of power.

13 Oct 2008 : Column 612

Daniel Kawczynski: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Wright: I am just ending; I shall not give way again.

Robin Cook, the late, great Labour Foreign Secretary, was right to enter Government saying that we wanted an ethical foreign policy, but along the way such foreign policies always hit realpolitik. The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea was the authentic voice of realpolitik: “Things always go wrong. Ambitions are always vain. Don’t give me all this ethical foreign policy stuff.”

Sir Malcolm Rifkind indicated dissent.

Dr. Wright: The right hon. and learned Gentleman did not actually say that; I withdraw the last bit, because he did not mean that.

I would argue for ethical realpolitik. Yes, of course we have to be sensible and know that sometimes things go wrong. Of course we must not be reckless. However, we should not give up on the ethics, either. We have unfinished democratic business at home—and unfinished democratic business internationally, too.

7.47 pm

John Mason (Glasgow, East) (SNP): I should start by saying that I wholeheartedly agree with a lot of what the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) has just said in favour of democracy, so I shall delete that part from my speech.

It is a tremendous privilege to stand before the House today and have the opportunity to speak. I am only too well aware of the history of this place and of the number of highly respected Members who have represented my own beloved city of Glasgow and constituencies round about: some of them are here today. I thank the many Members who have warmly welcomed me to the House, and particularly Mr. Speaker for his help during the two months before I was sworn in; it is good to have a neighbouring Glasgow Member in such a key position. I was particularly keen to take part in this debate on democracy and human rights, but first I would like to make some opening remarks, as I believe is the custom.

The people of Glasgow, East elected me to send a message to the Prime Minister and now I am here to deliver it. That message is clear and simple: it is time for action to help hard-pressed households who, given soaring food and fuel bills, are struggling to make ends meet. During the by-election, Scottish National party pressure forced a U-turn on the 2p rise in road fuel duty. People are struggling to make ends meet, and an SNP success in Glenrothes would force more action over soaring household bills.

The swing that elected me to what was Labour’s third safest seat shows that Labour’s days of taking Scotland for granted are over. It is clear that people have had enough of the party’s broken promises, and want a change for the better.

Less than four short months ago, I was happily taking part in debates in Glasgow city chambers, with the outlook of a quiet July and a holiday in prospect. However, as has been said,

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men

Gang aft agley.”

13 Oct 2008 : Column 613

We think that we have the future of ourselves, our economy and our country safely planned out, but events take a turn and we find ourselves not where we expected to be.

As I reflect on the past in this place, I particularly wish to mention my immediate predecessor, David Marshall. Although I had been a councillor in Glasgow for some 10 years, it was only when he became the Member for the newly created constituency of Glasgow, East in 2005 that our paths began to cross. I must say that in all my dealings with David Marshall I always found him to be helpful and courteous to me and to others, and I know that that was the experience of many who met him. Since my election, a number of constituents have approached me about a problem that David Marshall had been dealing with and asked me to take it up as well. I am more than happy to do that, particularly in the case of several asylum seekers whom David Marshall was helping and I seek to help as well.

Despite what is reputed to be the robust nature of Glasgow politics, many of the concerns of the two main parties there—the Scottish National party and Labour—are shared concerns. For example, in his maiden speech in June 1979, David Marshall referred to the poor state of many school buildings in the city. Twenty-nine years later, I am very much at one with him on that. He clearly believed that all children everywhere deserve a decent education in decent buildings, and I want to follow his example on that point. Just the other day, I received a letter from David Marshall wishing me well. That says a lot about him as a man. I am sure that the House would want to join me in wishing him a swift recovery from illness and a long and fulfilling retirement.

I understand that it is also customary on these occasions to mention one’s constituency, and I would like to make a few points. I assume that a number of Members visited Glasgow, East in July—although I realise that some could not make it—and were able to see for themselves the success and the problems. It is certainly not an area of uniform devastation, as some have had us believe—in fact, it is a very mixed area, like so many others. Old heavy industry has largely gone, with some new manufacturing and service industries in its place, but still one sees the wide open spaces where the factories used to stand. We have to do something about that.

Much of the ’50s and ’60s housing has been refurbished or demolished, with new and better housing in its place. The Scottish Government are providing grant for new house building, which is very welcome, as are restrictions on the right to buy. However, our Government’s powers are limited. We need to do something about that.

Some old schools have been combined and replaced with excellent modern facilities. However, there are still many popular schools with good educational attainment, despite the fact that inspector’s report says that the buildings themselves are very poor. All that I hear from head teachers and their staff is that a modern building is a huge morale booster for teachers and pupils. Labour-controlled Glasgow city council has let the schools down for decades. We need to do something about that.

We look forward to the Commonwealth games coming to Glasgow, particularly to the east end, in 2014. Glasgow has done well in having many of the facilities in place already. It is encouraging that the Scottish Government
13 Oct 2008 : Column 614
and the city council, despite being of different political persuasions, are willing to work so closely together in having everything in place for the games. It would be even better if lottery funding could be released to fund a lasting legacy, as has happened with many similar events in England. However, I constantly hear complaints from youngsters about the lack of local affordable facilities, which they feel are too far away or too expensive. We need to do something about that.

In preparing this speech, I was encouraged to read some of those made by Members in the past. I was struck that in at least two I found concern about one of the main issues that concerns me today—the widening gap in our society between the rich and the poor. As I listened to Prime Minister’s Questions last week, I noted the suggestion that things started to go seriously wrong in 1979. I will leave it to others to judge whether that is the case, but it seems to me that since that date some in our society have done incredibly well and some have done extremely badly, and that that trend has continued almost seamlessly no matter which party has been in power.

One maiden speech that I read referred to

That was from David Marshall in 1979. This is from another maiden speech:

That was from the then Member for Dunfermline, East in 1983. Both statements are criticisms with which I wholeheartedly agree. When a new measure is brought to this house by whatever Government in the coming years, that is the measure against which I will judge them. I will ask myself, “Does this measure narrow or widen the gap between rich and poor?” We are clearly in difficult economic times in this country and throughout the world. Yes, there may be a need for belt tightening by many of us, but if that does happen, it must be those who have least who tighten their belts least and those who have most who tighten their belts most.

Let me turn to the subject of the debate: democracy and human rights. I am the most recently elected member of this House, so I have been most recently subjected to the democratic process. I would not go so far as to say that that gives me the strongest mandate of any politician in Scotland, but it does say something about how people in Scotland are thinking at this time. A growing number of voters in Glasgow, East support independence, and, despite scaremongering in some quarters, they are not afraid to vote for the party of independence. For too long, Unionist parties have sought to instil fear in the people of Scotland if they dared even to think of independence, but those scare tactics work only for so long because people eventually see through them. In this by-election, many people broke with family tradition when they voted. No longer are the people of Glasgow, East looking backwards—rather, they are looking forward in hope.

The two countries where I have lived most to date have been Scotland and Nepal; whether England will overtake Nepal remains to be seen. In the 1980s, Nepal
13 Oct 2008 : Column 615
had a ruling monarch with elected representatives, but the latter had little power. Political parties were not even allowed, so every candidate was an independent—allegedly. However, party tensions still lay below the surface. I remember sitting in my flat in Kathmandu during an election when a random stone came flying through the window. Human rights there were clearly limited, not least in the religious field. It was against the law to change one’s religion, and baptisms of new believers were generally carried out secretly at night. The most open I was able to be about my faith was at Christmas, when outdoor carol singing was allowed. However, I was still nervous that every time we went round a corner the police would be standing there. Clearly, other countries around the world have even less democracy and fewer human rights than Nepal. I am glad to say that the situation in Nepal has greatly improved over recent years, although that country still has its fair share of problems.

In Scotland we have a variety of voting systems for each of the four main levels of representation: Europe, Westminster, the national Government and local councils. While most of that will be familiar to Members here, it is the relatively new local council system that I want to bring to their attention and commend to them. It is a system of proportional representation by single transferable vote. It has been relatively well understood by the electorate, with very few spoiled papers. It is already used by some trade unions and pensions funds. It combines an emphasis on the individual candidate and on the political party—a balance that no other system is able to achieve. I want to commend the two parties in the previous Scottish coalition for combining to introduce that excellent system in my country. I hope that it can be extended elsewhere.

In conclusion, I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for your forbearance and Members of all parties for their warm welcome.

7.58 pm

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): I welcome the hon. Member for Glasgow, East (John Mason) to this House. He has made an accomplished maiden speech, and I know that we will be hearing a great deal from him over the weeks and months to come. I wish him well during his time in this House. Many hon. Members on both sides of the House will appreciate what he said about his predecessor, David Marshall. I was on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK branch executive committee when David Marshall was its chairman, and I saw the passion and diligence with which he pursued Commonwealth interests and foreign policy concerns through the association.

I can tell the hon. Gentleman that, like many Members of my party, I paid a visit to Glasgow, East in July. I travelled by the National Express east coast rail service. National Express is an English company, with headquarters in my constituency, the City of York, and its services benefit both the Scottish economy and the English economy. In fact, it is one of those institutions that shows the interdependence of Scotland and England, and the benefits that links between those two parts of the United Kingdom bring to people in Scotland and in England.

13 Oct 2008 : Column 616

In Glasgow, East I knocked on doors, I spoke to many constituents and I did all that I could legally, decently and honestly to prevent the hon. Gentleman from being elected, and I failed—but he should not think that I fail in every political challenge that I take on. I warmly congratulate him on his victory. Perhaps the fact that his party can mount a challenge and capture a Labour seat that was seen as so safe before the election is a compelling illustration of the vibrancy and the fundamental strength of democracy in this country. There cannot be a multi-party democracy without opposition parties. Opposition parties can be a big headache for a ruling party, but it would be a far bigger headache if we did not have viable opposition parties in this country.

The right hon. and learned Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) has now slipped out of the Chamber, but his speech raised the tone of the debate. I know that at this time of night, gastric pressures make people flee from the Chamber—they are affecting me, too. I wish that the right hon. and learned Gentleman were still in his place, but I hope that he will see how Members have responded to what he said. It is difficult to disagree with his conclusion on Iraq—that military intervention has done more harm than good. However, I would say to him something that the Select Committee on International Development said to the Government before the war, which was that at least as much attention ought to be paid to the task of post-war reconstruction as was paid to the task of the military campaign. The real catastrophe in Iraq has been a catastrophe of political mistakes being made in the post-war situation.

The convincing case that the right hon. and learned Gentleman made on Iraq does not, however, ring true when we go from the particular to the general. The arguments that he made on the Balkans ignore the harm that was caused by non-intervention. When he was Secretary of State for Defence, I remember going with a cross-party group of Members to NATO headquarters in Brussels to talk to people about whether there was a military response that could be made to the genocide—and I use that word, which he used in his speech—in Srebrenica and elsewhere in Bosnia. A string of ambassadors, directors and officials told us that it was difficult to intervene militarily, that the Serbs were tough fighters who held down eight German divisions in the second world war, that it was difficult mountainous country and that there was not much we could do in military terms.

Next Section Index Home Page