Emlyn Hooson – 1974 Speech on the Kilbrandon Report

Below is the text of the speech made by Emlyn Hooson, the then Liberal MP for Montgomery, in the House of Commons on 20 March 1974.

As this is a debate on the Kilbrandon Report, I should like to begin by saying that I am sure I express the views of people in every part of the United Kingdom when I speak of their abhorrence of violence of the kind we have heard about tonight. It is the sincere hope of all those who are concerned with the issues in the report that never shall anyone resort to violence to achieve his aims.

It was the object of my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Mr. Wainwright) and other members of the Liberal Party to achieve a debate on the Kilbrandon Report early in this Parliament, so that we could adequately consider the great issues raised by that very important constitutional report. The whole House will appreciate the opportunity that has been given for a debate at this stage, because clearly the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Secretary of State for Wales and the Home Secretary have important matters to consider.

I think it is inevitable that there should be a great measure of devolution within this country. A great deal of discussion has taken place during my mature years in politics, and there will be a great deal of discussion in the future, on the degree of devolution appropriate for different parts of the United Kingdom. The one thing that seems to have escaped adequate attention is the question of the reasons. We are part of an evolving society in Western Europe and in this country. It is right to say that from the time that Harry Tudor went to the field of Bosworth and marched on to London the eyes of Wales, and later of Scotland, were switched towards London. They did not stop there. We became a part of a tremendously expanding country. The United Kingdom sent people all over the world. It is part of our history that we populated and developed a great part of the globe.

Whether in the glens of Scotland, in the valleys of Wales, in Westmorland ​ or in the Black Country, up to 20 or 30 years ago if there was insufficient scope for an adventurous young man in his locality he looked towards London, to the seas and beyond the seas. For the first time in modern history this country, in the past 10 years, has been driven back on to its own resources. There is nowhere left for us to expand in the world. There is nowhere left for us to populate. The result is that we have a considerable population which does not reflect the old patterns. In the old days the adventurous spirits would have gone away. Nowadays they stay in their own locality.

A great deal of talent and much adventurous spirit is left in Scotland, Wales and the regions of the United Kingdom. That is why people now want a greater say in the control of their own affairs than in the past. The evolution of our society and the change in our horizons has determined that that should take place. It is an evolutionary process which is unavoidable.

The second great consideration is that the evolvement of modern government has inevitably resulted in a consistent tendency towards centralised power. It is almost an irresistible force—this tendency towards centralised power.

The hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacCormick) referred to the fact that there is a movement all over the country and in Europe which is partly expressed by the nationalist parties, partly by the Liberal Party and partly by the Labour Party and the Conservative Party. In different ways they are all expressing a discontent with the modern state of affairs which we have inherited from the past and which suited the conditions which governed us in the past.

Today it is inevitable that we have arrived at a situation in which some form of devolution is essential. I have firmly believed all my life that Wales should have a domestic parliament with legislative powers. Reference was made by the hon. Member for Argyll to Gladstone. In Gladstone’s Newcastle programme there was not only a proposal for home rule for Ireland. I tell the hon. Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Mr. Lawson), who is not in his place, that home rule in that context did not ​ mean separation but a domestic parliament. It is to the eternal discredit of the other place that the Bill which was presented many times by Gladstone and his successors should have been obstructed and that Gladstone was frustrated in his intention to give Ireland a domestic parliament. We should have retained, if he had succeeded, what is now the Republic of Ireland within the United Kingdom.

The second measure which Gladstone intended to initiate was home rule for Scotland and the third was home rule for Wales. That would have followed the disestablishment of the Church in Wales. It was the frustration of the Irish measures under Gladstone, Asquith and Lloyd George that led to the present impasse, which has resulted in a part of Ireland breaking away from the United Kingdom and a great deal of trouble in Northern Ireland.

That is the background to the debate. We must not repeat the mistakes of the past. It is true that in Scotland and Wales the same kind of pressures do not exist which existed in Ireland in the nineteenth century or exist today. We do not have to create such unnecessary pressures in the present century if we have enlightened government.

I was interested to hear the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes). He knows that I have considerable respect for him, but he spent too much time attacking the Liberals and the nationalists and too little explaining what he would like to see implemented for Wales. Wales and Scotland are essentially different. From my many visits to Scotland and judging also by my many Scottish friends, I believe that the Scottish nationality is based more on ancient institutions than is the case in Wales.

Scotland has its own system of law. Wales had its own system of courts until 1830—the Courts of Session—which were abolished after a great speech by Edmund Burke. But apart from that, Wales has been singularly free of governmental institutions since the Tudor period. Emotionally, of course, it was a case of Wales taking over England when the Tudors moved to the throne, which had a great psychological effect in Wales. One thing which the Tudors did was to ensure that Wales was absorbed wholly into the ​ United Kingdom. Much of their policy towards the language is still much criticised in Wales today.

In Scotland, national identity has depended on the trappings of State at a much later stage of history than is the case in Wales, which enjoyed them, if at all, for only a short time. The Welsh identity is based on cultural and social considerations far more than on institutions, and there is a great deal of difference between the two countries.

I am convinced that in the modern world we have all the pressures in Europe to strive for greater unity. Although I was against going into the Common Market, I share the view that we should aim at a united Europe. But we want to create a different kind of Europe from that which was in danger of being created by the Common Market. There are undoubted pressures for a multinational unit of some kind in Europe, enjoying its own loyalty among the people it will contain. But, as a corollary, such a multinational unit will be impossible unless we have far greater protection for minorities within it. This is why it is so important to have devolution for Wales and Scotland.

Wales in this generation needs some institutions of government which the Welsh princes and the Tudors failed to give it and which we in our day must give it if Wales is to continue to hold dear its cultural and social values. I am, therefore, entirely in favour of a Parliament with legislative powers in Wales. I have always stood for this. Not every member of my party, at least in Wales, has always supported my view, but I have always held to it. I think it is the only course which makes sense.

I understand I have been criticised by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Mr. Jones). I am sorry I missed his speech, but I was unavoidably absent. He said that I was in favour of a referendum on the Kilbrandon Report. I am. I think there should be adequate debate on the report in Wales and then a referendum.

I was in favour of a referendum on the Common Market because I believe that our membership was a great constitutional change. I think that the introduction of Kilbrandon would be a great constitutional change. I supported the Bill brought in by Mr. James Davidson, who ​ sat as Liberal Member for Aberdeenshire, West in the 1966–70 Parliament, when the Labour Party was in power last. The aim of the Bill was to have a referendum on a parliament for Scotland and a parliament for Wales. Who was against it? The Labour Party. On all major constitutional changes we should have a referendum. I have never changed my view on this. It is the only subject for which referenda are suitable in this country.

On the majority recommendation in the Kilbrandon Report that there should be a legislative assembly for Scotland, two of the members of the Commission who supported that recommendation dissented on the same recommendation for Wales. The reasons are given in paragraph 1151 of the report:

“Wales, on the other hand, has no separate system of law, hardly any separate legislation and a geographically less well defined border. Two of us who favour legislative devolution for Scotland regard these and other differences between Scotland and Wales, and the strong desirability of retaining a Secretary of State for Wales, as sufficing to preclude its extension to Wales.”

I regard those reasons, which are the only reasons in the report, as completely inadequate for distinguishing between Wales and Scotland. The fact that Wales is such a conscious community and so needs a focal point, the fact that so little time is given by the House to the discussion of Welsh affairs, the fact that so many problems which appear unimportant to the House but are important to the social and economic future of Wales, absolutely negative the reasons given by the two dissentients.

I regard the Kilbrandon Report as being of the greatest value in analysing the kind of devolution that we can obtain. I do not regard as important the counting of heads—seven in favour of one solution and five in favour of another. Clearly, many members of the commission had preconceived ideas and, as the report indicates, what they finally recommended depended to a large extent on where they came from geographically.

Looking to the future and to the youth of Wales, if we are to preserve the unity of the United Kingdom we need devolution to Wales and Scotland. It is as important in the minds of those who wish to preserve the unity of the United ​ Kingdom as it is in the minds of those who want, as Welsh Nationalists, far greater power for Wales. That is why I go wholeheartedly with the majority recommendation in the Kilbrandon Report in favour of legislative devolution for Wales.

Mr. Gwynoro Jones (Carmarthen)

The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson), like his colleague the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel), referred to my right hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) and gave the impression that his speech was an all-out attack on Liberals and nationalists, thereby conveying that it was an anti-devolutionary speech. As is well known, my right hon. Friend has long held views on devolution to Wales. He has campaigned for more than 25 years for a greater voice for the Principality. I am sure that on reflection the hon. and learned Gentleman and his hon. Friend will not wish to convey the impression that my right hon. Friend is striving to hold back the natural aspirations of the Welsh people.

Mr. Hooson

I have a greater respect for the right hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. Hughes) and his views on devolution than have most of the Labour Party. If the right hon. Gentleman conveyed a wrong impression to me, that is a matter he should have put right. I accept that throughout the years he has been in favour of greater devolution for Wales.