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8.22 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): It is a great pleasure to be able to speak in the debate, all the more so because I think that I was the last Conservative candidate to be selected before the general election. I found myself unexpectedly transported from the northern hills, on which I had been walking, to my constituency. I was selected within 48 hours, and plunged straight into an election campaign.

As I listened to some of the speeches that have been made this evening--particularly that of the hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart)--there were moments when I suddenly wished that I could be back on the train from Euston to Corrour in order to spend a few more days out on the hills rather than being in the House. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has now left the Chamber; he spoke of fiery crosses to celebrate the arrival of a Scottish Parliament. I do not necessarily dissociate myself from his sentiments, but I hope that, if he is lighting fiery crosses on the tops of the mountains of Lochaber, he will check first to see that I am not sleeping out there in my bivvy bag.

It is my privilege to represent Beaconsfield, a constituency which, by any standards in the United Kingdom, is itself very privileged. It has high indices of wealth, although there are areas that are impoverished and in need of help. It also has an articulate community, low unemployment and other great advantages. Those advantages do not exist because of the waving of a magic wand. They are, in part, the result of the area's location to the west of London and its proximity to centres of communication, but they are due in large measure to the industry of its inhabitants and what they have made of their communities, which are set in a pleasant and gentle landscape.

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The possibilities for personal development and opportunity in Beaconsfield have meant that it is highly developed, and is often subjected to environmental pressures that need to be addressed; but it remains an extraordinarily pleasant place in which to be. During the election campaign, I found that it had a strong sense of community and participation at every level of life, not just politics.

One of the features of the campaign in Beaconsfield was the frequency with which the issues that we are now discussing came up for discussion. That was because, far from being a place of little Englanders, Beaconsfield--because of its location--has attracted people from all over the United Kingdom and, indeed, from abroad, who have settled there to lead a British way of life.

What struck me especially forcefully during the campaign was the number of people in the old people's homes that I visited who came from Wales. They had come during the depression to take the jobs that were available in the factories on the Bath road. Their experience mirrors that of my family. I need only look at the example of my forebears to see the advantages that they gained from the Union, and to realise why I am so attached to it. Four hundred years ago, they lived a life in Roxburghshire which--although it may have been romanticised by Sir Walter Scott, who included the names of his neighbours, including my forebears, in the ballads when he recreated them--was, by all accounts, not very far removed from life in Bosnia in recent years. There was political disunity; neighbour was set against neighbour because there was fear and because there were huge uncertainties.

Those problems were cured by the Union, first by the Union of the Crowns and secondly by the union of the Parliaments in the 18th century. I need only look at the way in which, by the middle of the 18th century, my family had graduated from being cattle and sheep thieves to being prosperous farmers and at the frontiers of innovation in farming methods and the agricultural revolution that underpinned the country's prosperity to know the advantages that came to them from the Union.

However, it went beyond that. When, in the following century, younger sons left the farms, they had all the opportunities offered by travelling abroad and maintaining a British identity. That enabled them to prosper--never to lose contact with their roots and their cousins north of the border, but simply to reflect the fact, as 18th-century travellers from the south of England noticed, perhaps rather to their surprise, when they crossed the border from Northumberland to Roxburghshire, that the people on each side of the border were pretty much identical.

I do not wish--especially in the light of the issues that have to be debated--to issue a panegyric on the Union. I am the first to accept that constitutions can evolve; they are not fixed. A number of ideas and innovations have been produced, not just this evening but by Ministers during discussion of the Queen's Speech, some of which I consider quite exciting.

Perhaps I might give an example of where I suspect I might be at variance with some of the views of my colleagues on the Conservative Benches, but it is a variance that I have held for a long time. The incorporation of the European convention on human rights into our national law is something that, although challenging, is nevertheless desirable if it can be done

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without diminishing the sovereignty of Parliament. I believe that it can. I hope that I apply the same sorts of criteria to the proposals put forward today.

My concern is not with the principles of devolution in the sense that people may wish for it. From my frequent visits to Scotland, I am the first to accept the strength of feeling that exists there in respect of wanting devolved government. My concern is with the practicalities, and in particular with those that emerge out of the Bill that has been placed before the House tonight for its consideration. Let me try to develop that argument a little further.

I should like to take as my example the European convention on human rights. If it is to be incorporated into United Kingdom law--I do not know how it is proposed to be done--one of the articles the Government will wish to consider is article 3 in the first protocol. It states:

Which people? Which legislature? I cannot go back to my constituents in Beaconsfield and simply tell them that, by diktat, they will be placed in a position in two or three years, or during the next Parliament, where, effectively, decisions that they take as to the choice of legislature will mean that there will be people legislating over them who are not themselves subject to the legislation that is passed. That fundamental flaw cannot be ignored. There is only one way in which it could be got round.

To pick up on what was said by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) on the West Lothian question, clearly it is possible in a democracy for any amount of anomalies to exist. Anomalies, if they are tolerated, are acceptable. Imagine that the Secretary of State for Scotland had come before the House and said that as part of his proposals for the referendum he would be suggesting that people living in England should be entitled to pronounce on whether the decisions to set up a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly--I am particularly concerned about the Scottish Parliament--would naturally lead to their wanting major constitutional reforms of their own. If he had said that they should be allowed to express a view on the effective exclusion of Scottish Members from the decision-making process on English issues solely, that would be a first step towards clarifying what the different component parts of the United Kingdom want.

The issue is being fudged. I hope that the Secretary of State will accept that those of us who believe in the Union and would, if given our choice, stand forward to say that the existing arrangements have done us well and we wish them to continue, will nevertheless also accept that as democrats and believers in the popular will there is no question of standing in the way of the people of Scotland or Wales in the decisions that they wish to take. There is a right, however, to review for ourselves in England and for the people of England if they need it, such arrangements as they want. If we do not do that, the durability which must be the desired result of any constitutional change, so that it lasts much longer than a Labour Government, will be lost. What we will end up with is endless bickering, endless difficulties and endless

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conflict, which none of us who wish to maintain the Union and who believe in it in one form or another can possibly desire. That is why I cannot support the Bill; it has been put forward without those discussions having taken place and without the arguments being offered.

If, as one may expect, the Bill goes through after tomorrow, I hope that, nevertheless, the points that I have raised will not be ignored, but will be revived again and again during discussion of the issue. If they are, it may even be possible that we will emerge with something which is the product of the endeavour of Labour Members, but nevertheless finds itself endurable by--and acceptable to--far more people. If that does not happen, we face grave difficulties.

When it comes to the debate on the incorporation of the European convention on human rights, I certainly intend to pursue how article 3 and a number of others appear to be at variance with the structures that the Government appear to want to foist on the different components of the United Kingdom. It is an interesting discussion which I look forward to pursuing.

There were a number of things that I wanted to say before I concluded. It is customary to pay tribute to one's predecessor. In my circumstances, my good fortune was the result of difficult decisions for him and great unhappiness. I am bound to say that, during all the time I campaigned in Beaconsfield, I was made aware by those from all parties, irrespective of how they voted in the election or in previous ones, how much they recognised his concern for local issues and his assiduousness as a local Member. I pay tribute to his work because over 15 years Tim Smith did a great deal.

There is one final matter that I should like to raise. Before I came to the House to make this speech I looked at what my predecessors had said in their maiden speeches. I was amused to discover that no one had made a maiden speech as Member for the area that I represent since 1945, because they had all been elected elsewhere first. When one comes to consider the state of the parties, I was greatly reassured that, in 1945, my predecessor in south Buckinghamshire, where I still enjoy a majority of 13,500, was Labour. We are not quite gone yet.

Unable to find much comfort from that, I went back to the maiden speech made by my father in 1964. It concerned a foreign affairs issue. He was concerned that the then Labour Government had imposed tariffs which the previous Government had said, according to international treaty, they would not impose. They were aimed at restricting the import of goods from the European Community. He believed passionately--and still believes passionately--in the underlying philosophical principles of co-operation among European states. The whole of that speech was laced with his objections to the creation of structures that interfered with harmony and intercourse between people.

What worries me about the Bill is that I fear that it will do exactly the same at United Kingdom level. That is why I will support the reasoned amendment tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends and why I cannot support the Government motion. However, if constructive suggestions are put forward as to how the problems associated with devolution for the totality of the United Kingdom can be

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properly debated, I for one will be delighted to participate because the Union and the individuality in it is the absolute bedrock on which our freedom has been built.

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