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Address In Reply To Her Majesty's Most Gracious Speech

Volume 387: debated on Wednesday 9 November 1977

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3.13 p.m.

Debate resumed.

My Lords, as we enter the third day of the new Session of Parliament one cannot help reflecting that one of the raisons d'être of politics is change, and trying to discover what is wrong with our society and how we can make it right or at least better. The sad thing is that inevitably this makes us critical and sometimes even unthankful of what we have. We live in frightening times; but I doubt whether any generation found their time anything other than frightening—fear of the unknown sees to that. We see economic problems bristling from every bush, despite the charms of North Sea oil. We see respect for the law ridiculed and up-ended. We see people crying out for a better Health Service, yet doctors and nurses are frustrated by overwork and the near collapse of the very thing that they and we want to see made better. We see people longing for a better education, yet the standards of education declining.

We see union leaders unable to control their members and, paradoxically, union members unable to control their leaders. We see people in public life, whether captains of industry or politicians, sometimes saying and sometimes doing unwise things, and others who use the techniques of the police state and power of the media—whether right or wrong—to "bust" them. We see the criticism and the fact that Parliament is increasingly becoming out of touch with the feelings of ordinary people. In short, we are living in a condition where man is becoming increasingly distrustful of his fellow man, yet where all are yearning to be led away from the disaster which we all fear, which individually nobody wants, yet it is one which we may corporately unwillingly obtain.

As I see it, that is the state of our home affairs. If that depicts a gloomy picture of life, there is another side. Hardly anyone in this country can have experienced what we have experienced in the past nine months without being eternally grateful that we have our institution of monarchy and in it the person of our Queen. She stands in that happy and humble way with superb dignity over and above all of us and our problems. As we pull ourselves and each other to pieces in trying to resolve our problems, at the same time we share common contentment in being her subjects. Never was this more vividly seen than in this year in celebration of her Jubilee. Whether it was in the service at St. Paul's Cathedral, the fireworks, street parties or visits to towns and regions, the spirit of rejoicing was there—rejoicing for her, with her and with each other. And what a hugely unifying process that was! Gone momentarily were all the divisions and the factions, the discontents and frustrations, and in came happiness, joy and unity, which is the foundation for any successful family, business or nation. How lucky we are, and how the world envies us!

I do not believe that was a peculiar Jubilee manifestation; that was the true spirit of the country that was displayed then, and I do not believe it to be beyond hope that that spirit can continue to be harnessed for the benefit of the nation as a whole. One could not ignore the startling contrast between those happy police controlling those happy crowds in the Mall on Jubilee day and those unhappy police being reviled and maltreated by the mobs outside the Grunwick factory and elsewhere. Yet in both cases the people were the same; the police were men, dressed in uniform and doing a job, who had wives, families and children. The people outside Grunwick were the same; they had families, homes and children just like those in the Mall. Many of them, I dare say, would have been in the Mall or in the street parties and rejoicing.

My Lords, why do we have this contrast? The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor said that everyone throughout the world was worried about this, including the United States. I venture with modesty to suggest my idea of what might be the cause: I believe that it might be because, whether in our own homes, in our schools or on the television, we may have bred a generation to believe that each individual is as good as the next man. Of course this is absolutely untrue. No one is as good as the next person. Most people excel in something, but the brute fact is that one is usually incompetent in more things than that in which one is competent. If we have encouraged a generation to be deaf to reason, we may have encouraged a generation to lack humility. Lack of humility can easily give way to arrogance, and arrogance en masse nationally can be almost uncontrollable.

My Lords, make no mistake, it is we who are responsible, whether as politicians, as parents or as teachers, in our efforts to give to a postwar generation the freedoms which their parents never had, however commendable in itself that may be. We have in turn feared to support the disciplines and guidelines to which any family, school or nation must be prepared to subjugate itself if its members are to have true respect for their fellow men and, ultimately, for themselves. This increasingly common manifestation of unrest comes about in the main by human beings who individually would never behave like that but who collectively become motivated by forces outside the control of themselves and their leaders. Then there is literally no control.

We sometimes forget that, as individuals, what we say often has an effect far greater than the actual deed or word and frequently far different from what we anticipate or intend. People, even Cabinet Ministers who, for instance, join a picket line to emphasise a legitimately held view, cannot absolve themselves totally from responsibility when the future takes on an unexpected shape, for the future is only moulded by a whole host of influences, of which theirs may be one, into the final result—and the final result may be one which no one individually anticipated, intended or wanted. A single note played on a piano has little effect on the listener. It is only when that note is joined by others and the combination by which they join it that the character of the final composition, of which that note is an integral part, is revealed.

The fear over law and order is one of the most fundamental problems facing the nation at present, and I was glad that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor referred to it. We call ourselves a compassionate, tolerant and understanding society. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, last night said just that. She said that we are
"…a society that is compassionate and believes in the quality of life".—[Official Report, 8/11/77; col. 147.]
With the greatest respect to the noble Baroness, that is nonsense. Maybe it is what we are trying to be and maybe it is what we ought to be, but the fact is that we are a selfish and self-orientated and indeed, I suggest, a frightened society. I believe it is time that we stopped congratulating ourselves on being that which we manifestly are not.

When 200 million people throughout the world are denied the pleasure of watching the Opening of Parliament on television, can anyone deny, however good the case may be, that that was anything other than a selfish act—particularly when many of those who would have watched it were the elderly, the homebound and those of infinitely lesser means than those who were involved? When we see towns and streets plunged into darkness and businesses both big and small forced to a halt, where people are literally terrified to walk home without, as a young hairdresser did the other day, taking a pair of scissors from her salon for protection before she set out into the darkness, where patients have to be sewn up by torchlight with their operations unfinished, can anyone deny, however good the case may be, that that is anything other than a selfish act?

The reaction is—and this is the danger—that attitudes take a smart move to the right and the public are no longer interested in the facts which cause a strike. They are fed up with being mucked about and they are even more fed up with those who say, "Of course, we do not want to hurt the public", when everyone knows full well that that is precisely whom they do want to hurt, because the impact is thereby greater. And when the gracious Speech mentions bringing in legislation concerning greater safety and discipline at sea, I cannot help thinking: Why do the Government want to go to sea for it? What everyone wants is greater safety and discipline at home; and if the Government are so proud of their close ties with the unions, which I readily acknowledge, what action are they taking to persuade their union friends to address their minds more to the public's case than to the interests of self? And if the Liberal Party are so proud of keeping the present Government in Office and of the impact which they thereby have on national affairs, what action have they taken to demand of the Government, as part of the deal, that stricter measures should be taken for public security?

I realise this is no easy task, but Governments are responsible, if not for the cause, at least for a vigorous attempt at a solution. Lip-service there is in plenty, but the spine is not there, and in a sophisticated society such as ours any fool can throw a spanner in the works and wreck it for everyone else. If abuse of the freedoms which our society has given to the individual are going to permit a return to the era of the footpad, then we may find ourselves, in the interests of the whole, having to curtail some of the freedoms; and the public would support that.

It is not surprising, therefore, that one hears increasing demands from some quarters for a return of capital punishment and even corporal punishment, not just for retribution but in order to protect society; and, whatever our views on those subjects may be, we are hollow if we do not recognise the reasons. The tolerance of society is being stretched to its extremes; yet the one controlling factor is the police force, and what they are subjected to and the lack of support in general which they receive is making severe inroads into their morale. I frequently put the question to myself, and I put it to your Lordships this afternoon: What happens when the police force cannot stick it any more? It is not just a simple mathematical question of pay and pensions, important though that is, or of supplying equipment. It is far more personal than that: it hinges on the lengths to which a policeman is prepared to go in acting as an Aunt Sally, in being punched up and cut with milk bottles, or having to emerge from among his fellow men covered with spittle, before he says, "I've had enough." The public in the vicinity understandably, like tortoises, retract into their shells, and say, "This is not for me." The policeman is left on his own, feeling that nobody really cares. Lip-service there is in plenty but the spine is not there. That is when morale is vulnerable and, if that goes, along with it overnight go the dignity, the authority and the excellence of the police force which, like tap water, we have all taken for granted and on which our society depends for its very existence.

While I would not wish to be an alarmist, I think that point could well be nearer than we expect, and no effort should be spared by Governments or individuals to prevent that from happening. It is not just a question of Government, though of course they have a lead part to play. It is for society as a whole, and we would do well to ease back a little from that sanctimonious attitude taken up by the media in wallowing in every indiscretion, bad though that may be, deliberately provoked (as it often is), and giving the impression that that is characteristic of the whole.

If all this gives cause for people to be apprehensive, so also does the prospect of devolution. I admire—

My Lords, with great respect to the noble Earl, whose speech I have followed with great interest, he has described a very apocalyptic situation in terms of the general law-and-order situation in this country, What are his remedies?

My Lords, the noble Lord is perfectly entitled to make his own speech in his own time. I have tried. I said that this is not an easy problem. I have tried with reason to give my diagnosis of it. If the noble Lord does not like it he is perfectly entitled to say so, and I shall listen to him with interest a little later on. But if all this gives cause for people to be apprehensive, so, I venture to suggest, does devolution. I admire, but I confess I do not applaud, the Government's resilience in having another go at the subject. They emerged battered after the last round and my guess is that they will emerge battered after the next round. It seemed to me that the only substantial advantage of the last Bill—and it was a considerable one—was that so much Parliamentary time was allocated to it that when it was dropped there was nothing else to take its place and the result was that we had a Session with very little new legislation. Curiously enough, that is exactly what the public wants and I commend the practice to the Government.

One thing is crystal clear: any new legislation on this subject will be electorally unpopular and highly controversial between Parties and within Parties and between peoples and within peoples. I would be the first to concede that there is a strong feeling among many of the Scots and, to a lesser extent, among the Welsh that they wish to have more control over their own destinies and that they do not wish to have their lives ruled by a remote bureaucracy which is insensitive to local feelings. No one can complain of that, and no one can deny its existence. But you do not have to be a Scotsman or a Welshman to feel that. Even the English can feel that.

I am by no means convinced that at least a substantial part of the momentum which masquerades under "nationalism"—which in this context, let us remember, is a divisive, not a unifying word—is not due to the disenchantment with bureaucracy; its ever-growing size, its overgrowing impersonality and its ever-growing distance, both physically and emotionally, from the contact point of the individual. Lubricate that with the lure of North Sea oil and a formidable driving force is born. How often do we hear the criticism of large local authorities that they do not know what is going on; they are too big; they are too far away; they do not care. Dab that argument with a little nationalistic paint, and you have something very different on your hands. You are releasing the forces not of smallism, but of separatism. Pride in one's family, in one's clan, in one's history, in one's country is, in any person, a commendable virtue, provided that it is used constructively. Used avariciously or offensively, it can be a destructive and a dangerous weapon.

If we are to alter the Constitution so fundamentally, as any of these proposals are pretty well bound to do, surely it must be in the national interest to have as much common agreement across the board as possible, and I wonder why the Government have consistently refused to have a constitutional conference at which all people and all Parties can give their views before legislation is brought forward. Why are the Government determined to go it alone on a highly speculative and, I venture to suggest, constitutionally dangerous path? Is it in order to assuage the undoubted, but as yet unmeasured, present feelings of discontent? Is it because the Government feel that once devolution has taken place—whatever that may mean—the United Kingdom as a whole will be better administered, more united and its people more happy? Or, is it because of the acknowledged political fact that, if the Government do nothing, many Scottish and Welsh seats at present held by Labour MPs will be lost to Nationalists?

In so far as the last argument carries any weight—I think a noble Lord said "No", but I fancy it carries quite a bit of weight—I would express the opinion that it is an understandable political reaction, but it is a bad constitutional reason. We in Parliament are nothing more than the custodians of our heritage. If, in the short time that we are here, we have any influence over our national life or our Constitution, that influence mast surely he directed not so much to meeting present-day demands which tomorrow will be different, as to trying to ensure that, despite the proliferation of present-day demands, the next generation will have a reasonable country in which to live. The English, the Scots, the Welsh and the Northern Irish have, over the years, shared each other's problems, each other's expertise and each other's friendship and it would be tragic if any action of our day were to result in them finding themselves on a course which might ultimately lead, in some form or other, to division between them.

Many would say that that is not the purpose of the Bill. Many would say that that it is not the objective of the current demands. But might it not again be like the note on the piano which, when accompanied by other, as yet unknown, notes, will nevertheless have a significant effect on the final composition? And if so, will future generations thank us? If these Bills proceed far, I fear that we shall once again provide the spectacle of this nation unhappily tearing its sinews apart in argument, accentuating the differences instead of cultivating the harmony, and complaining, as is characteristic of our time, of those things which appear inequitable and unjust, instead of rejoicing in those benefits of association which have gone right and which, because they have gone right, we have taken for granted.

My Lords, I am listening very carefully to the noble Earl's interesting speech, though I am not sure whether he is for devolution or is anti-devolution. Would he be specific?

My Lords, if the noble Lord will be kind enough to contain himself, maybe he will find the result in the remainder of my speech, because I am trying to develop what I feel is a reasonable philosophy and I am not prepared to answer that kind of question with a Yes or No. But, if he listens, I think it will emerge. If this devolutionary process were to bring with it less bureaucracy, less expense and greater contentment, then at least its aims would be excellent. But I do not believe that there is one person who is prepared to put his hand on his heart and say, "Yes, I believe that that will be the result." For what it is worth, my own guess is that it will bring more bureaucracy and not less, more expense and not less and, in the ultimate, more discontent and not less.

And if, on Bills with such far-reaching effects as these are bound to have, the Government impose a guillotine in another place—and the noble Lord might like to direct his attention to that thought—where will that place us? Almost certainly, vast acreages of highly contentious legislation will emerge from another place completely undiscussed, and it will be left to your Lordships once again to try to improve them. And even the most arrogant of Governments—and I entirely acquit the noble Lord's Government of that—would not say that they would get it plumb right at the start. Not only will it be left to your Lordships to improve the Bills, but it will be left to your Lordships, as the only forum left in Parliament, to express the feelings of those of Her Majesty's subjects who feel concerned about these fundamental proposals for the future of their country, which another place will not have discussed. Faced with that, if nothing else, could anyone really say that we can afford to dispense with a Second Chamber?

Once again, your Lordships will be pitched into the cockpit of high controversy and can we not see the conflicting advice which will be given? By some we will be told, "On this constitutional issue, of all issues, do the job that you are supposed to do—advise, amend, improve. That is what you are there for." From others of more restricted approach will come the rebuke, "Interfere with what has come from an elected Chamber and we will do away with you." Faced with that situation, I have no doubt that your Lordships will, as we have done in the past, do the best we can, secure in the happy knowledge that we can satisfy nobody and infuriate everybody. But that is life. However, I really believe that we have a right to ask of the Government that, if Amendments are made here, the Government will not do as they frequently did in the Session before last, subject your Lordships' Amendments as well as the original Bill to the guillotine, because in that case we might as well all go home and let the Constitution be rewritten by the civil servants.

In all respects, I believe that these Bills will give us constitutional hell. If we try to ride this devolution horse—and I frankly feel that it is a long-term fiend—then let us think who it is that we are trying to benefit and who it is that we ought to be trying to benefit. It is not the Scottish Nationalists, it is not the Welsh Nationalists, it is not the people of Scotland, it is not just the people of Wales. It must be—or it is nothing—for the ultimate benefit of the United Kingdom as a whole; the Englishmen, the Scotsmen, the Welshmen and, indeed, the Northern Irishmen, whether they live in England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or abroad. And it is not, and it must not be, with the interests solely of the present generation in mind, but those of the next generation and beyond.

We have in the United Kingdom a unity which is precious beyond measure. In a turbulent world, let us ensure that anything which we do builds on and onto that unity, and does not, for what may appear reasonable motives, result in its being weakened. As we meet the holocaust of arguments on devolution head-on, we can do worse than remember the remarkable words of Archbishop Fisher when he said,
"There is no unreasonable argument that cannot be proved reasonable by reason".
The problems, the context and the solution may be different, but as we at present look across the seas to Canada and see the great strains of separation which are dissecting that proud country and its peoples, do we say " Yes, that country will be the better for it "? My fear is that other nations and other peoples will be looking across the seas at us and will be asking the same question of us and coming to the same conclusion.