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Like the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, I shall address my remarks to Wales for two reasons. I am the 13th of 27 noble Lords who remain Members of this House, as opposed to another House, who took part in the Wales Bill of 1978. Like the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft, I am a mongrel Welshman, having English, Scots, Irish and, for all I know, lots of other blood about. The important point is that I live, work, farm and derive my living in Wales. I suspect therefore that, as a result, the Chief Whip suggested that I speak in this debate. Of course, any wish or desire of any Chief Whip is always my command. So I suspect that my few remarks will not be much welcomed.
My objections to a Welsh assembly and devolution have not changed since the 1978 Act. That dislike, as your Lordships have been reminded, was supported by 84 per cent. of the Welsh population. Many of my reasons for my horror at a Welsh assembly concern the ability to work and farm efficiently in Wales. The noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, whose speech I much enjoyed although I did not agree with it, said that my Welshness has left me for being so mercenary and so pragmatic. The Welsh are not pragmatic and they are not mercenary.
Inward investment would be discouraged and the outward movement of young Welsh talent would be encouraged. Productive talent always flourishes better in large ponds and Wales has a population of only some 2.8 million, which I believe is smaller than the Birmingham conurbation. Wales is a geographic horror to travel through. It is twice as easy to get from Holyhead to London than from Holyhead to Cardiff. I asked this question of Lord Elwyn-Jones in 1978, but he could not give me an answer.
The grants of the United Kingdom Government to Wales are far larger per head than to England. In fact, we are subsidised by the English. I am delighted by that. I love subsidies: I live on them. But does anyone believe that the English will go on being so stupid as to tolerate
Like my noble friend Lord Nickson, I accept that there may be a similar distrust of the English in Wales. I believe that that has arisen because the Labour Party has listened to a vocal minority, and perhaps because of the historical suspicion of the English absentee landlord. My family could be accused of exploiting the Welsh, having married a very beautiful and rich Miss Owen two-and-a-half centuries ago--a century earlier than the time when the miners of Lord Elis-Thomas were having problems in the south of Wales. They then made themselves unpopular by enclosing land, but it was of long-term benefit to efficient farming. Surely, Miss Owen must bear some responsibility for being so unwise as to marry an English mongrel. All of that is history, and I thought that the Labour Party had no time for history.
Any assembly will cost money. It will be given powers. Quite what those powers will be we know not, but we can be sure that, having been given some, it will want more. These costs and powers will be a further cross to be borne by industry, farming and the people of Wales. The assembly will want planning powers, status and the ability to raise money. Heaven knows what else it will want. But, to be sure, when two or three councillors are gathered together they will want to interfere in my life and the lives of everybody else. It will cause great uncertainty.
I conclude by being a little more radical than the noble Lord, Lord Bancroft. I suggest to your Lordships that the great majority of ordinary people have little time for Members of Parliament, including your Lordships and me in particular. They have even less time for councillors. Why in the name of heaven does anyone believe that there is a need for another set chattering away in Cardiff?
Lord Sempill: My Lords, my throat, the 36 previous speakers and the midnight sleeper will keep my contribution very brief. One of the reasons why I was keen to speak in this debate was my family's link to the question. In 1707 the then tenth Lord Sempill voted against the Union and everything that it stood for.
Lord Sempill: My Lords, perhaps I should sit down now! His reason for being so vehemently against the Union was that he could see that his powers and influence over his countrymen would be seriously diminished. At that stage he retired to the country. I speak from a slightly more humble position, albeit I feel that there are certain similarities in the situation.
I make brief mention of the nationalists, whom I believe to be the fear factor that has been mentioned in some of the speeches today. Their cause has been given a substantial boost by a film--a film that many of us have seen--called "Braveheart". Combine that raw emotion and the rhetoric of devolution and one creates a recipe for independence. It is therefore imperative that the proposal to decentralise power is debated with a full and clear understanding of the downsides of devolution. Is it not, for instance, feasible that more power could be devolved to our local government, which already has fiscal responsibility in running our towns and cities?
Surely with modern technology and speed of communication we should be evolving government to have fewer politicians and not more. Could not our current MPs and local councillors convene at different times of the year to discuss issues pertinent to the affairs of Scotland? I, like my noble friend Lady Saltoun of Abernethy, sense that we have missed the boat, and that the mood for independence is real. Is it possible, though, to reverse that trend? I am not certain.
To do so, we need to re-establish the value of the Union, and to preach the benefits of belonging to the Union. That is not, I may add, dissimilar to the efforts being made by the pro-Europeans. To date, the Union has been a tremendous commercial success. It has been responsible for forging a powerful British identity which allows us to command substantial--many would say, disproportionate--influence on world affairs. Even the language of international commerce is English.
It is my observation that we have allowed the concept of the Union to become belittled--a point underlined by the noble Lord, Lord Cocks--and to place too much emphasis on national differences which create the more unattractive elements of nationalism. Why, for example, was the highly successful Euro '96 hosted only by England? How long before the British teams representing us in the forthcoming Olympics will be broken down into individual nation states? Is it not obvious to all that we have greater strength as a Union--a Union which I believe has the full support of the House?
Lord Hamilton of Dalzell: My Lords, there can be no part of our constitution that has not been the subject of a distinguished speech or two this evening, but I feel that a shadow hangs over the debate. It might be more appropriate to call it Banquo's ghost. It is my belief that we stand at a crossroads in the history of this great nation of ours. It is that we still have to decide whether our relationship with Europe will be federal or one of a union of independent states.
If the decision is that we should become part of a federal Europe, many elements of our constitution will have to be looked at and perhaps changed, but until we have made that big decision, the question of constitutional change is premature.
There is only one aspect of government policy over which the Executive has total control, and that is the policy it adopts towards the currency. The First Lord of the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have the sovereign duty to set the budget and the rate of interest for sterling. Although there has been a long history since the war when governments have not been very successful in carrying out that task, the people have the sovereign right to vote them out of power at elections. In a democracy, we get the governments that we deserve.
I believe that it is arguable that that is the only area where the Executive is truly sovereign, because although Parliament has a sovereign right to make laws, there is a history, going from the peasants' revolt to the poll tax, when the people have, from time to time, refused to obey the will of their rulers. I take as my prime modern example the defeat of successive attempts to impose a prices and incomes policy as an alternative means of controlling the economy through statute.
Our becoming a de facto member of a federal state could come upon us unawares. The assumption of powers by Europe creeps and should we have the misfortune to have a Labour Government after the next election the pace will dramatically increase.
What guarantee is there that, should a Government decide that the single currency is in the interest of the country and that we should join it in 1999 or after, the people will not be persuaded to vote for it in a referendum? The principal duty of government to safeguard the currency will have been transferred away at a stroke. The overriding financial powers of the Government will be transferred to the European Central Bank, along with the country's gold and foreign exchange reserves, the wealth of the British people.
The control of wage rates, social benefits, pensions, safety at work, and regulations for employment will be transferred to the Commission and the European Parliament under the social chapter. The rate of VAT and what it is charged on, the main source of government revenue, is on the way to becoming standard throughout the Union. What of significance is there left for the elected representatives of the British Parliament to do?
At the start of the debate on the Maastricht Treaty the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wilberforce, said that there was no constitutional issue in the treaty because when we signed the Treaty of Rome the European Court of Justice became the superior court and that anybody who had read the treaty would be aware of it. That came as a blow to me because I knew then that the debate against the Maastricht Treaty was, for the time being, lost in your Lordships' House.
We see opposite parties which are determined that we should accept all the federal implications of the treaty. If I had the same ambitions as they have I would agree with them. There is little point in preserving all the trappings of a nation state, with a Parliament of two Chambers, to decide the parochial issues of a country which has lost the control of its own money and the financial policies which govern it. How is it possible to have a national foreign policy if we have to ask our European bankers for the funds to finance it?
I can understand why a Scotsman or a Welshman might fancy the chances of receiving more from the cohesion and convergence funds than he does from the British Government. There is the example of Ireland to persuade him. My noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, on the subject of European citizenship, explained at some length how he considered himself to be a citizen of Scotland and the European Union but a subject of the United Kingdom. A citizen of the European Union has rights but no duties. In addition to the prospect of subsidy, one of the rights that he has is to look to the European Court of Justice, which is superior to the House of Lords. Is it possible to receive legal rights and money from one master and to owe allegiance to another?
The question we have to ask ourselves is: what do we want Great Britain to be? Do we want it to be a vassal state of Europe or an independent nation state? Until that question has been answered there can be no point in interfering with our present constitution, and we should resist any attempt to do so.
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