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The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, it is less certain in a Green Paper, if I pick up correctly what comes from my left. But surely White Papers are not necessarily the will of Parliament; and it is surely taking Parliament for granted to suppose that what a government appear to set out in a White Paper will necessarily be the answer that Parliament will return in legislation.
I believe that any change--and change and development are part of the genius of our constitution--must conserve the evident and hard won benefits which have accrued over time to all parties to our Union. Nothing could more clearly demonstrate our commitment to practical, pragmatic improvement than the recent strengthening of the role of the Scottish Grand Committee in another place. Issues relevant to the people of Scotland are now being debated on Scottish soil, in every part of Scotland, with members of the public present, enabling them to see their Government at work.
My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer went to the meeting in Aberdeen. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Social Security took part in the meeting in Dunfermline. My right honourable friend the Prime Minster will be going to Dumfries on Friday to discuss matters connected with the Government of the United Kingdom. Other Cabinet colleagues will undoubtedly have the privilege of attending such meetings in the future. These innovations are self-evidently working, making government more effective. We will look at the scope for further changes, provided that they pass the same test.
There is one other very important change which I should like to announce to your Lordships this afternoon. I think that it is an illustration of the deeply engraved sense of belonging to a Union that I know this whole House feels. Exactly 700 years ago, in 1296, King Edward I of England brought from
I am now glad to be able to let your Lordships know, as the Prime Minister is doing in another place at this time, that on the advice of Her Majesty's Government Her Majesty has agreed that the Stone should be returned to Scotland. I think that this is only justice to the Scottish people, and I am very proud to be a Member of a Government who have been able to do this. Of course, the Stone will return to Westminster Abbey to play its traditional role in the Coronation ceremonies of future sovereigns of the United Kingdom as the very base of the chair on which that great Union rests.
I am sure that the whole House would wish to be assured that the Stone will be placed in an appropriate setting in Scotland. The Government will be consulting Scottish and Church opinion about this. The Stone might be housed in Edinburgh Castle alongside the Honours of Scotland, Europe's oldest Crown Jewels. Alternatively, it might be appropriate to place it in St. Margaret's Chapel inside the Castle or in St. Giles' Cathedral. There may be other options. Once these consultations have been completed, the necessary arrangements will be made and the Stone will be installed with due dignity in its new home in Scotland; and certainly I for one will be extremely pleased to see that happen.
The approach of the Government to our constitutional arrangements is an evolutionary one: that change should be made only where it is needed. Rapid change in many areas, especially in social and economic fields, underlines the need to preserve stability where existing arrangements have stood us in good stead. In opening this debate I have touched only upon some of the areas which your Lordships will wish to consider. I do not pretend to have dealt with them in any kind of detail.
In opening I said that the question of the constitution is an issue of fundamental importance for our country, and of great interest politically, legally and indeed academically. I look forward to a fascinating debate; and I renew my Motion.
Baroness White: My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, will he tell the House whether he has considered how desirable it is that on political matters the Lord Chancellor behaves in the same way as the Speaker of the House of Commons, and not go too far into the subject that he has been discussing in this House?
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, it has long been the tradition of this House that when the Lord Chancellor is acting as Speaker of the House he stands in the middle. When he makes observations as a Member of the Government, for some reason which history I am sure will explain to me, he moves to the left and finds himself very near to the Liberal Benches.
Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, before the noble and learned Lord sits down, on a more amiable note, with regard to the Stone, does he agree that the people of Scotland asked for bread and they were lent a Stone?
The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I happened to be at a debating society shortly after the Stone was moved on an earlier occasion. A debate was signalled with the subject: "That Stones are borne, but Scones are bread".
As a more serious answer to the noble Lord's question, I believe that symbolism is important in our constitution. The Stone is an important symbol and we believe that it is a symbol of justice that the Stone of Destiny, taken away in circumstances with which the noble Lord is familiar, should now be returned with dignity to a proper home in Scotland.
Lord Irvine of Lairg: My Lords, we look forward shortly to the maiden speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill. He is a jurist of the highest distinction; today he must be non-controversial, but he is bound to inform.
Last Wednesday in London, the Prime Minister delivered a wide-ranging speech on the constitution. It was the first salvo in the "New Labour: New Danger Campaign", the last gasp slogan of the party opposite, after all its inconsistent predecessors failed to convince. The Prime Minister's speech was in a way a classic in the genre of negative campaigning. It scaled new heights of complacency about the present state of our constitutional arrangements. It was as if our constitution was a jewel so beyond improvement that we have reached the end of history.
Two days later, in Edinburgh, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Blair, was renewing the Labour Party's commitment to legislate for a Scottish parliament and a Welsh assembly. On every great development in our country's constitution there have been those who, like the Prime Minister, have resisted change because the time is not ripe, because the time is never now. But they have so often been swept aside by the tide of change.
In the same speech, the Prime Minister's satisfaction with our current arrangements was on fine display, with his outright dismissal of the case for the incorporation into our domestic law of the European Convention on
The contrast with Mr. Blair is sharp. He has reaffirmed Labour's commitment to incorporate the convention so that our citizens can secure their human rights guaranteed under the convention, not from a court in Strasbourg but from our own judges. Our judges should be allowed to make a distinctive British contribution to the development of human rights in Europe. Labour's position is that we should be leading in the development of human rights in Europe, not grudgingly driven to swallow the medicine prescribed for us by the court in Strasbourg, as time and again we are found in breach of the convention.
But the Prime Minister's considered position is that the British conception of freedom is quite good enough for us, although, if a law exists that affects human rights in a way that clearly breaches the convention, it will be that law, not the requirements of the convention, which our courts have to enforce. Mr. Blair said of Mr. Major:
I return to devolution for Scotland and Wales. Labour believes that government of the United Kingdom is over-centralised, that the institutions of democracy and government should be brought closer to the people whom they represent. There is a contradiction at the core of the thinking of the party opposite: "yes" to subsidiarity in Europe; "no" to subsidiarity in the UK.
Denunciation after denunciation of devolution comes from the party opposite. Their protestations can be kept in proportion if we remind ourselves that in the 1970s they were proposing a Scottish assembly, to be elected by PR, with revenue raising and taxation powers in addition to the block grant, to be controlled by the Assembly, and with no reduction in the number of Scottish MPs at Westminster. Let me remind the House what the Scottish Tory manifesto of 1974 actually said:
Members of a party whose principled position once was to regard a directly elected assembly as entirely consistent with the political and economic integrity of the United Kingdom are, of course, well entitled to change their minds. But we could be forgiven for thinking that so dramatic a change of mind might inspire a certain reticence in their condemnation of what they once proposed.
The Government's opposition to devolution for Scotland and Wales does not begin to square with their advocacy of devolution for Northern Ireland as part of a settlement there. Let me remind the party opposite what its proposals for a settlement there are. They are for a legislative assembly of about 90 members, elected for four or five years by a form of PR, with legislative and executive responsibility over as wide a range of subjects as in 1973 and with no proposal to reduce the number of Northern Irish MPs in the United Kingdom Parliament.
The problems afflicting Northern Ireland are of course unique. But the point I make is that the Government's proposal for Northern Ireland is an acknowledgement that the stability of the Union does not depend on precisely symmetrical arrangements for each part of the Union.
In his Edinburgh speech last Friday, Mr. Blair made it plain that shortly after the election detailed White Papers on devolution in Scotland and Wales would be published, to be followed by referenda in which Labour would be campaigning for a massive "Yes" vote.
Labour would have been well entitled, after a general election victory on a manifesto pledging Welsh and Scottish devolution, to bring legislation before Parliament. But members of the party opposite cannot deny that if that happened their position in Parliament would be to oppose on the basis that demand for devolution was not demonstrated.
The question that Mr. Forsyth and the party opposite have to answer is: if the Scottish people say "Yes" in the referendum, will they accept the will of the Scottish people or will they go on opposing the principle of devolution? That is the question to which Scotland expects an answer in this debate. If the party opposite cannot say that it will accept the will in principle of the Scottish people, then the Scottish people will draw their own conclusions. The batteries of the Tory Party in Scotland will then not just be low. They will be exhausted.
The referendum decision is right in principle. It signals no weakening of commitment. On the contrary, the purpose of a referendum is to demonstrate demand for devolution. The achievement of our objective--devolution--will be driven forward by the huge "Yes" votes we predict. Parliament would surely not deny the will of the people. The "Yes" vote will give great impetus to the passage of the legislation through Parliament. It will be a popular endorsement of devolution--not entrenchment in law, but popular entrenchment in fact.