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Mr. Favell : Almost invariably replies to Foreign Office questions begin "Having consulted our European partners" or "Having spoken to our European partners". We no longer have an independent foreign policy.
Foreign policy is one of the matters that distinguish a state. If we have now joined a union which claims an international personality and interests which must be defended by a common security and foreign policy, clearly it is claiming to be a new state. It is a quasi-state, if not an entirely established one. The direction is quite clear. As if to make it certain that it is not misunderstood, the treaty states at the end that there shall be a further intergovernmental conference in 1996 to push further the purposes of the union. We know very well that the pressures that were partly resisted in the recent negotiations in Maastricht will be resumed with ever-greater force in the years ahead.
Foreign and defence policy is one of the characteristics of sovereignty. If one is not in charge of one's external relations and of defence, that is an enormous transfer of power and an enormous surrender of sovereignty.
Column 593Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton) : Although my right hon. Friend and I have parted company on a number of issues related to the European Community in recent years, during the earlier years of my parliamentary career he and I stood side by side in the great defence debate which once troubled our party. On our defence of NATO, we were of identical mind.
The North Atlantic treaty, which is to do with the defence of the nations that have subscribed to that treaty, applies in the case of an attack on any one member of the treaty organisation. In that case, all the forces of all the countries will be committed to a central military command. Is not that conceding the absolute sovereignty that goes along with defence? If that is the basis on which my right hon. Friend is arguing now, surely we conceded such sovereignty in 1949 when we signed the North Atlantic treaty.
Mr. Shore : The North Atlantic treaty was a treaty of enormous importance and I agree with my hon. Friend that we should play our full part in it. It laid on those nations who signed it the obligation to come to the aid of each other if they were attacked or under threat of attack. However, my hon. Friend has failed to see the distinction between conventional treaties, of which NATO is one, and treaties of a very special kind such as those on the European Community. To me, the essence of the argument is this. After 40 years of NATO we are utterly free, without any difficulties, to withdraw from it or to amend it. For example, when de Gaulle came to power, the French fundamentally changed their view about the unified command. They expelled the headquarters of NATO from Fontainebleau, so that it moved to Brussels, and withdrew their armed forces from the combined command without any sanction being brought against them.
I add one further point, which goes to the heart of the matter. Our obligations under the NATO treaty have not led to the imposition of a single piece of legislation on the British people, whereas through the treaties with Europe--my hon. Friend must recognise this--for the first time in our history, we have handed over to others the right to make the laws of England. We did not do that with NATO and we have not done it with any other treaty.
Mr. Richard Shepherd : To add power to what the right hon. Gentleman is saying, may I point out that NATO does not contend that it is irrevocable and irreversible? These key phrases should stick in our gullets. The EC document is trying to bind future generations as well as this generation. There is a fundamental difference between irrevocable and irreversible treaties and the ordinary treaties that we have entered. The treaty needs reading, and it would have helped if the Labour Front Bench team had read it before committing the party so vehemently to it.
Mr. Shore The hon. Gentleman has made clear the uniqueness of the European Community treaty and what it means for Parliament. I am grateful to him for reinforcing my point.
Column 594the policies that we adopt towards immigration and asylum. Those difficult questions are the subject of considerable debate and must be decided by the elected representatives of the people of the United Kingdom and not by any European authority. The new provisions in the part of the treaty dealing with home affairs policy threaten transfer of such powers, and that is not acceptable. It is one of the essential features of national sovereignty, independence and self- government that the Government, of Britain in this case, should have the right to decide who should come into this country, to live and to work here, and to settle here. We should not hand over that power to the European Community.
The third feature that is crucial to the reality of sovereignty is that the country has a currency of its own and a central bank responsive to the elected Government. The Maastricht treaty, which is on economic and monetary union, is deliberately and openly designed to bring about the unification of the currencies of Europe into one single currency. I doubt whether any hon. Member does not recognise that if that happens, we shall be abandoning all possibility of regulating the British economy within our own country. We shall have lost exchange rate policy, interest rate policy and control over our national bank. Through the limitations on the public sector borrowing requirement and other policies, we shall be subject to external government in respect of how much we are able to borrow. It is one of the signs of a state that it possesses a central bank and a currency of its own, and it is impossible to govern without them. That power will be transferred from Britain to the European Community. I want finally to emphasise the point about the creation of a union and the citizenship of that union. We do not know what that means. It has never been explained--it was hardly mentioned in the debates that we had on the Maastricht treaty-- but I assume that it means something and I assume that it means that, as citizens, we have not only rights but obligations, or that those obligations would follow rapidly from the acceptance of such a citizenship of the union. Do British citizens realise that they are becoming citizens of a European union? Do they realise, that, as a result, great privileges are being given to the population of the European Community in respect of entry to this country? I do not think that they have woken up to that fact. These are the features of a sovereign state and these features are being acquired by the European Community. Having, I hope, established the nature of the process which Maastricht carries so far forward, and having shown that it would
"diminish the Authority of the Queen in Parliament"
and of the House of Commons, I hope that we can move quickly to agree that, in such circumstances, there must be direct consultation with the British people and that we must have, directly, their authority to proceed in this way.
It would be an outrage if the British people, who have defended their liberties and independence--after all, self-government is the first freedom --were to find themselves deprived of these great rights by a process of signing a treaty and obtaining a simple majority in the House of Commons. It would have the most deplorable effects not only on Parliament but on the people's view of the House of Commons and their elected representatives and it would undermine the rule of law, because law would no longer be based on a legitimate process of government
Column 595and legislation by the representatives of the people. I warmly endorse the Bill and I hope that we shall give it our approval this afternoon.
Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester) : One of the most difficult challenges for a Member of Parliament is to try to refute the eloquence and persuasion of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), especially when added to that is a passionate and thoughtful speech by the right hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore). However, I shall seek to do so because I think that the Bill is misguided and that it would be an error for the House to give it a Second Reading. In favour as I am, generally, of guillotines and the timetabling of Bills, I think that this Bill is an exception and I hope that it will be considered at great length today, and in Committee if it gets that far. It is important that all its provisions should be analysed in great detail.
It is disappointing, to say the least, that my hon. Friend should ask for a referendum on this issue. Following the Maastricht negotiations, the Government delivered a result that was in the best interests of Britain and sought to take account of people's real fears about the growth of a federal state in Europe and about too much power being conceded to the European Communities.
The agreement was forged following a considerable amount of public debate and after the House had debated the issues on many occasions. It is fallacious to suggest that the public and the House did not know what was going on. In the six months preceding the Maastricht agreement, we talked of little else. The House and the public had plenty of opportunities to understand what was involved.
A paradox is inherent in the constitutional purism of which we have heard today. Wherein lies sovereignty? Are we really kidding ourselves that we shall achieve something by being isolationist? I imagine that many of those who support the Bill hope that, if the matter were put to a referendum, the British public would say a firm no. Do they really believe that by going it alone and not taking part in the economic and political development of the European Community we shall enhance our sovereignty? What sort of world are we living in? Do those who support the Bill really believe that we shall be able to influence our exchange rate, interest rate, rate of inflation, public expenditure and prosperity if we do not take part in the European Community?
It is because I believe passionately that Britain's membership of the European Community will deliver a better standard of living to the people whom I represent that I support our membership of it. I am no starry-eyed European--nor am I a constitutional adventurist. I want those whom I represent to have a higher standard of living. The bottom line must be the prosperity that Europe can deliver. That is why I generally support movements towards greater economic and monetary union.
Mr. Nelson : That is true of all referendums, and I do not rule out referendums on all subjects, but we have every right--indeed, we have a responsibility--to be selective about the issues that we put to a referendum.
Column 596Throughout history, rederendums have been called for and not held. There are plenty of examples. At the end of the last century, the Liberal Unionists wanted a referendum on home rule for Ireland. Like Stanley Baldwin, Joseph Chamberlain wanted one on tariff reform. Even Winston Churchill called for a referendum on whether the coalition Government should be kept going until the Japanese were defeated. We have had calls for referendums on numerous issues, but most have been rejected. It was not until the mid-1970s that referendums started to be held : on whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom, on devolution in Scotland and Wales, and--the only real example of a nationwide referendum--on the subject of our remaining in the European Community. If one starts holding referendums, where does one stop? The more referendums we have, the greater the demand for them will be. People will want them held on more and more subjects. Why not have a referendum on the bomb, on hanging and on numerous other issues, and not merely on constitutional issues?
Referendums are not part of the evolution of our parliamentary democracy. It is no part of our tradition and system of government that, on every issue on which there is contention in the House, we give the people an opportunity, through a referendum, to express their views. We are charged by our electorate with the responsibility to try to divine the common good. The electorate has opportunities--as it will have within a matter of months --to pass judgment on whether we are right or wrong.
Mr. Spearing : The hon. Gentleman will be surprised to learn that I understand and agree with much that he is saying. He represents a particular area, and the alternative method to a referendum would surely be for him to obtain from his electorate a mandate on certain serious matters. Can he tell us what mandate he or his predecessor obtained for the approval of the Single European Act and, presumably, the endorsement of both the application and the agreement that the Prime Minister obtained at Maastricht? Can he tell us that chapter and verse?
Mr. Nelson : I have spelt out clearly to my electors in Chichester exactly where I stand and what I want. If the hon. Gentleman doubts it, I remind him that, in 1978, I tabled the first early-day motion calling for rapid progress towards economic and monetary union, which was signed by numerous hon. Members, many of them now Ministers. Twelve years elapsed before what I called for then was achieved and that may seem rather slow progress, but no one can accuse me of not stating my position clearly to my electors and not seeking a mandate, and I predict that I shall get a reasonable mandate from my constituents on this issue when I put it to them shortly. What are my objections to a referendum in this context? First, referendums are often defective because they are snapshots of public opinion and public opinion moves on. I believe that, on the EC and its development, opinions have changed not just among the public but in the House. As the arguments have been heard and as negotiations have proceeded, and as my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have reassured the public and explained more clearly why it is in the public interest to forge such an agreement, public opinion has
Column 597changed. Many people who were understandably hostile to everything connected with the Common Market now realise that it is in our interests.
The ordinary man in the street, who had many of the reservations that I still have about the European Community, now has a much more favourable opinion of it. He shared my concern about the common agricultural policy, about wasted expenditure within the European Commission and about every aspect of life being controlled from Brussels. I still have those concerns, but I know that it is better to be in there, preventing things from happening, than to stay out. The ordinary man in the street has moved on. Let us take the man in Thanet--Thanet man. Thanet man has moved on. He was very concerned about the European Community having federal powers that were too great, but Thanet man realised once the agreement was forged that it was far better to support the Government, to come onside and to work within the European Community and give greater credibility to the structures provided to represent him than he had in the past. Thanet man is now on the Government's side, and it would be a great disappointment if a referendum on this issue, or the opening up of divisions on this question, should once more lead Thanet man into a period of uncertainty and fear, given the great opportunity that we have to go forward to greater prosperity and representation in Europe.
Mr. Jonathan Aitken (Thanet, South) : I am dazzled by my hon. Friend's concentration on Thanet man. As the only representative of the species present today, I want to make two points. First, although I accept the part of my hon. Friend's argument that says that the caravan is moving on, one of the reasons why it is moving on is that we had a referendum on the Common Market, as it then was, in 1976, which clarified many people's views. Secondly, bearing in mind that referendum and those on Scottish and Welsh devolution, I do not see why my hon. Friend should be so alarmed as to think that the evolution of referendums should suddenly halt in the 1990s and why he should be so afraid to test the complexities of Maastricht against the views of ordinary people in this country. I support the Bill because I believe that those ordinary people should be asked to express their opinions through the only mechanism available.
Mr. Nelson : My hon. Friend makes his position clear in his usual persuasive way. I remain concerned about referendums because they are a snapshot of public opinion. Moreover, my hon. Friend would be on stronger ground if he said that there was a case for holding a referendum before the introduction of the legislation that gave effect to the Single European Act rather than on this issue. Other right hon. Members, including right hon. Ladies, who have been present in this debate to support the Bill did not at that time propose a referendum on the Single European Act. It ill behoves them to support today's Bill.
I believe that the more we have referendums, the more it brings into question the sovereignty of this House. It undermines the repute, standing and influence of this House if we consistently put to the public issues about which we are elected to decide. What question will be asked? We all know that a particular result can often be
Column 598achieved by the way in which the question is put. There is no certainty that, in respect of this Bill, the question could be phrased in such a way as to divine a fair test of public opinion. However, I have not yet made the most persuasive argument against referendums generally. I believe that the most persuasive argument is that they are, and can be, a cruel hoax and confidence trick on the public because they often extricate a particular issue from their consequences and from the totality of Government policy. By putting a particular issue to a plebiscite, one can deliver a result which may be disastrous in terms of overall policy. That is very important because, on issues such as that contained in the Bill, we must consider the issue in terms of management of the economy, future influence over our own affairs and our own influence in the world. We cannot consider the issue simply in isolationist terms as a referendum would necessarily regard it.
Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) : My hon. Friend is making a brilliant and very persuasive case about the dangers of referendums because, as he said, they can be snapshots of public opinion ; they can concentrate wrongly on particular issues and people can be misled. Does my hon. Friend believe that it is wise for us to continue the practice of having general elections, because the same arguments can be made about them? In view of my hon. Friend's valid criticisms, should we not stop having general elections?
Mr. Nelson : I would not go as far as that. Perhaps my hon. Friend fails to understand the point that I was making before he intervened. In a general election, people have an opportunity to consider all Government policies, while in a referendum people have an opportunity to consider only one, but one that might have implications for the rest of the Government policy. That is why there should generally be a self-denying ordinance exercised in respect of referendums. What was achieved at Maastricht offers enormous opportunities for this country, both politically and economically. It is crazy to suggest that somehow we could go it alone, be better off and have magical self determination politically, economically and in international affairs. It is not right to leap enthusiastically into a constitutional federal structure. It is not right to proceed without some suspicion or cynicism about the ethics and practical objectives of the European Community. Unless we are prepared to play our part in Europe and to be, in the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, at the heart of Europe, we will not be able to deliver to the people we represent the standard of living that they deserve or meet their aspirations and provide for them the influence in world events and forums for which they had elected us to this place.
I am in favour of our having that influence. I am in favour of moves beyond what has been agreed. I hope that within a matter of weeks, after the next general election, we will move to the narrow rate band of the exchange rate mechanism because there is a strong economic case for that. We have to keep up with the timetable leading to the possibility in 1997 of our voluntarily, with other countries, signing up to a single currency. As a result of the criteria set down by the agreement, we will have had to have been in the narrow rate band for two years. That means that we will have had to have been within that band by 1995. In
Column 599effect, whatever party is in government will have about 18 months to take that decision. It would be better to take that decision sooner rather than later because there will be a mass inflow of capital and a more immediate and sharper decline in interest rates and inflation.
Mr. Gill : My hon. Friend has emphasised the importance of being at the top table to argue the case for Britain and to persuade the other nations to adopt more of our methods. He referred to the common agricultural policy. Is he aware that on 1 January the last vestige of the way in which this country manages its agricultural affairs disappeared with the ending of the sheepmeat variable premium scheme ? Over 15 years we have influenced the way in which the CAP is conducted only in a minuscule way.
Mr. Nelson : There is a good deal in what my hon. Friend has said. I represent a large agricultural constituency. My farmers may not like what I have to say, but I am deeply concerned about the operation of the CAP and the amount of money that we provide for its various schemes. However, it is not enough simply to withdraw from the CAP, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) would agree. We must have an alternative system.
If the public were asked in a referendum, "Should we come out of the CAP?" the majority might well say yes. However, if we also asked, "Are you in favour of paying more to farmers through a national subsidy deficiency scheme?", they would probably say no to that, because that would cost more money.
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay) : Does my hon. Friend believe that the British public would say no to having their grocery bills reduced by £18 a week if we did away with the CAP? That is what it costs ordinary people.
Mr. Nelson : I understand what my hon. Friend has said, but I am sure that she is not suggesting that if we were to pull out of the CAP we would not, in some way, support our own farming industry. Is she suggesting that we should do away with any form of deficiency payments? If she is prepared to preside over the consequences for British farming of supplying our own food, she must take responsibility for that. However, bearing in mind the kind of constituency that I represent, she will understand that I cannot agree with that.
Mr. Favell : My hon. Friend has a long history of supporting the European Community cause. Therefore, I found it particularly interesting to hear him say that he felt that the CAP was little short of a disaster. If he did not use those words, that was the impression that he gave. If he is right, why should a common industrial policy, common social policy or common currency work any better?
Mr. Nelson : Many aspects of the European Community have worked extremely well. My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Mr. Favell) might agree that there are benefits from customs union and the Single European Act and the single market. I do not know whether he would go as far as to accept that there are benefits from regional aid, but I believe that there have been benefits. I believe that the economic success of the exchange rate mechanism for this country and for other European countries, which has provided more stability and certainty, has been a real economic advantage.
Column 600My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport may not agree, but there are areas about which I believe, as passionately as my opponents disagree, that it is in our self-interest and in our financial interest to be in there at the head of the discussions and to exercise influence over the issues which, at the end of the day, will affect the standard of living of our constituents.
For those reasons, it would be an error of judgment to give the Bill a Second Reading today. This is not an issue upon which to have a referendum. Referendums have their problems. If we were to grant the Bill a Second Reading today, it would be a slap in the face for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and his ministerial colleagues who have achieved so much in balancing the fears and aspirations in respect of the Maastricht agreement, in extending British influence within the Community and in opening up the economic and political opportunities that the agreement presents. All that would be brought into question. In view of our commitment to the European Community, having already had a referendum on the issue, if we were to have yet another on every aspect of progress in Europe, it would be widely misunderstood in the Community and greatly resented in this country in particular.
For all those reasons, I have misgivings about the eloquent and sincere views of my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills. I hope that the House will put the matter behind it and, instead, will place greater emphasis on playing our part in Europe rather than adopting the scorched- earth policy of thinking again and trying to prevent progress towards fulfilling the aspirations that many of us still share.
Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) is to be congratulated at the very least on giving us a chance to debate a constitutional issue. We have far too few opportunities to do so. I thought that it was a shame that the hon. Gentleman, in his eloquent speech, did not dwell on the constitutional implications of his Bill, but used it as a vehicle to bash Europe.
That there are two issues is demonstrated by the fact that, so far, we have had anti-Europe, pro-referendum speeches. We have just listened to a pro- Europe, anti-referendum speech, and right hon. and hon. Members are about to hear a pro-Europe, pro-referendum speech. I have little doubt that, later, we will hear an anti-Europe, anti-referendum speech. Perhaps that analysis illustrates that there are two issues for consideration--not just the European one. I start by offering an opinion that is shared by a great many people in this country. I cannot claim that it represents the majority view, because I do not know that--perhaps because we have not had a referendum on the issue.
What has wounded Europe most in the 20th century at any rate has been nationalism. What has killed the most people in Europe in the 20th century has been nationalism. The worst expression of nationalism has been totalitarianism. There are no important examples in which co-operation between democratic nation states has led to anything other than eventual peace, good sense, and joint developments in not only economic and military terms but cultural terms.
Column 601I was born just after the last war, and my generation has seen opportunities that were not available to my parents' generation. My father, now sadly deceased, was born in central Europe in 1904. He told me fascinating but frightening stories of the first world war. My mother, who fought in the Warsaw uprising, has told me horrific stories of the second world war. Those stories--they are not made-up, but factual--are founded upon the divisions that occurred in Europe because of narrow, nationalistic feelings.
The greatest threat to the peace and stability of Europe today, and perhaps of the world, exists in that part of central and eastern Europe where there have been welcome moves to democratisation. I hope that those countries will become successful democracies and that they will be welcomed into--or at least come under the umbrella of--the European Community. I applaud the initiative of the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) in creating the know-how fund, which has done much to help, for example, the people of Poland--a country in which I take a particular interest. However, if we fail to help the countries of the Baltic, and the Balkans in particular, to democratise, there will be an outbreak of nationalism that will cause great debility in Europe.
Nothing but good can come of intergovernmental co-operation, and the more co-operation the better. We heard an outburst of, if not anti-German feeling, caution about Germany. I share with many in this country--I say this frankly, and it should be said in the House from time to time-- misgivings about the collective temperament of the Germans. However, we will not ensure that Germany remains our partner if we become isolated from that country. Germany is the most powerful nation in Europe in economic terms and it will probably become the most powerful in political terms. Insulating ourselves from Germany is more likely to lead to a repetition of the horrors of the earlier part of the century than the avoidance of them. If we are members of the same economic, political, and defence union as Germany--I do not use the word "union", which appears in the Maastricht treaty, with any reluctance--we will ensure the future peace of western Europe. Some hon. Members do less than justice to the people--even to the Governments--of such countries as France and the Netherlands. No country has a more noble European history than the Netherlands. No country has greater determination not to be part of Germany than the Netherlands. We do ill service to our view of France and the Netherlands, for example, if we pretend that they are in some way less interested in their own sovereignty and security than we are in ours. I venture to suggest that the 11 other members of the Community have, if anything, better reasons for protecting their own sovereignty and national interest than we have, because they suffered even more in the last war at least than the United Kingdom.
Mr. Cash : Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that it is not just nationalism that is the problem, but nationalism without democracy? I was glad that the hon. and learned Gentleman suggested that we should encourage eastern European countries to move toward greater democracy, but does he agree that they are concerned about the direction that the European
Column 602federation is taking? That would cut at the roots of the freedom and democracy that those countries sought and want to sustain.
Mr. Carlile : I do not understand the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question. As to the first part, we would have a greater problem if there were nationalism without democracy--but we would still have a problem if there were nationalism even with a measure of democracy. I remind the hon. Gentleman and others who hold a strongly anti-European Community opinion--and of course I respect their right to that view, but disagree with it--that paragraph 1 of article F of the Maastricht treaty states unequivocally that
"The Union shall respect the national identities of its Member States"--
every one of those words counts ; "Member States" count as much as "national identities"--
"whose systems of government are founded on the principles of democracy."
The implication seems to have crept into the debate that, in some way, the European Community might tolerate one of its member states abandoning democracy, for whatever reason. I do not believe that is the case. It is entrenched in the treaty that one of the prerequisites for belonging to the European Community is to be democratic. That is of itself the highest demonstration of its values and virtues.
The Community is an organisation of member states in union, each with its own sovereignty intact. It creates, too, a different type of constitutional structure. We may have to look for a word different from "sovereignty" to describe that structure. I do not, however, believe for one moment that we have abandoned our sovereignty or that constitutional theorists seriously have a case for thinking so either.
The European Community therefore presents an overwhelming political and economic case. It does ill to the debate if, as we heard earlier, it is turned into a discussion about whether we should have a single currency. We will have a single currency. The luddites on both sides of the House might as well recognise that fact once and for all. There is hardly a respected business person in the country who does not want a single currency and-- despite the braying of their backwoodsmen--the Government appear close to recognising that.
Mr. Spearing : I agree with much of the tone of the hon. and learned Gentleman's remarks, but surely he is guilty of introducing a major non- sequitur in talking about the entrenchment of democracy. In Britain it is the House and our freedoms that defend our constitution and guarantee our democracy. If legislation is to be Communitywide, as indeed it is under the single market, and if there is to be a single currency--which the hon. Gentleman just espoused--a single economic policy and a single commercial policy towards third countries, does that system need something which is centrally democratic in order to entrench democracy in it? In effect, the union would then become a new democratic nation that transcended existing nationalities and the existing democratic institutions of this and other countries.
Mr. Carlile : With great respect, the hon. Gentleman is guilty of muddled thinking. The entrenchment of democracy is an internal matter. Each member state has its democracy entrenched in its own constitution, except in the case of the United Kingdom. I believe that we should
Column 603have a constitution in which democracy is entrenched. Our democracy is entrenched in the conventions of the House and --
The Maastricht treaty reinforces our determination to retain democracy in Britain by telling us that if we abandon democracy, we will no longer be members of the European Community. That is good for Britain, which--it will come as no surprise to the House to hear me say this, as a Liberal Democrat --has the greatest democratic deficit in Europe. [Interruption.] I will resist the temptation that presents itself to Liberal Democrats on Fridays, to talk about proportional representation.
I support the Bill because it is right that when great constitutional issues are debated, the public should be consulted. The Bill is a consultative measure only. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills is wrong in his view of what the British public would be likely to say. However pro- European one is--even if one is a federalist--there is nothing to fear from consulting the British public about the European Community. There is plenty of evidence from opinion polls and elsewhere that they would support the Community.
Mr. Richard Shepherd : I did not say what would be the outcome of the referendum. I am assiduous in saying that that is a judgment for the people. My conclusions are perhaps self-evident, but I have reached no conclusion about what decision the public would make. That is the essence of the Bill. It gives authority and, therefore, confidence to the movement forward in Europe. If we do not hold a referendum, we shall be for ever stymied in the present arrangement, in which there is no clear affirmation from the people that we have followed the correct process.
Mr. Carlile : Perhaps my comment was more appropriate to Conservative Members generally than to the hon. Gentleman. I turn to the important principle underlying the Bill. The House need never fear the public of Britain, unless it ignores them. The Bill does not insist that Parliament should follow the advice of the public in a referendum. Such advice would of course be given following a lengthy and fair campaign on the issue, but there is no doubt that that could be achieved.
There are plenty of countries around the world where referendums take place and we even have a little experience of them in Britain. We can trust the public to give honest advice after the issues have been explained to them.
There is currently far too much speculation about public opinion. It happens on an almost daily basis, sometimes even twice a day. We now have not only polls but polls of polls. They are perhaps a result of our failure to consult the public properly on many different matters.
The Government of the time were right to consult the people of Scotland and of Wales about proposed constitutional changes affecting those parts of the United Kingdom, and it is a great pity that those precedents have not been followed more often. There should be another referendum on decentralisation in Wales, where my
Column 604constituency lies. I believe that if such a referendum were held today, there would be a different result from that of 1976. It would not be right to hold a referendum on matters that concern merely controversial Government policy. But it is essential, if the House is to command anything like public respect--there is little enough of it for us at present--that we consult the public on matters that are judged, preferably independently, to be of constitutional significance. The Bill is only one in a large bag of constitutional tools that we ought to entrench in a written constitution. We should have a Bill of Rights, proportional representation and an elected second chamber. We should have independent appointment of judges, and a constitutional court having responsibility for deciding whether a matter affects our constitutional arrangements in such a way that the public should be consulted in a referendum.
I hope that in what remains of the debate, there will be more discussion not only of the European issue, which is of course vitally important for Britain, but of the wider principles that the hon. Gentleman has included in his Bill, which are worthy of much greater discussion.
Mr. Cran : No, you need not apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am delighted because at least it allows me to speak on the subject, which I have been unable to do until now, despite the fact that there have been two debates on the Maastricht summit on which the Bill is centred. That illustrates the fact that important issues facing the United Kingdom are not given enough time for debate in the House, or at least not for people like me.
I genuinely congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) on introducing the Bill, which, I say from the outset, I support, and on the manner in which he did it. I am also immensely impressed with the manner in which the House has reacted. There has been far too much yah-boo politics, especially in the past few weeks. There are far too many irritating practices--to put it mildly and gently--on and between these Benches. It is refreshing that for once everyone has sat back and listened to the arguments. We all undoubtedly listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, but I for one was perfectly prepared to listen to the counter-arguments ; thereby one learns a little more about the issue, and I have.
The Bill is centred on the Maastricht agreement. The memory dims and I suspect that that is exactly what the two Front Benches want to happen. We will come back after the general election--whenever it is--and say to ourselves that the Maastricht agreement was not so bad after all.
Column 605is what they are thinking. A number of us are not prepared to allow the Government or the Opposition Front Bench to take that view. What was decided at Maastricht was as clear as crystal and I shall not forget it for a long time. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills put it succinctly when introducing the Bill. He said that the matter is of some constitutional importance and I agree. It is not like this, that or the next Bill which comes before the House. Although Bills are extremely important to the interests that they affect, the important point is that I and other hon. Members can affect them. I can speak either for or against them. However, that may not be the case with the range of legislation, proposals and whatever else that may come out of the European Community--proposals which will, I fear, come at even greater speed and quantity if the Maastricht summit is eventually agreed in the House.
The agreement is definitely a question of the governance of the United Kingdom and is no less than that. That is why my hon. Friend for Aldridge- Brownhills was correct to introduce the Bill. I start from the same premise as my hon. Friend. I was sent here by no other device than the people of Beverley, who decided that I should come to the House. I represent them for the term of this Parliament and, at the end of that term, they will decide whether I stay. I think that they will probably decide that I should stay at the next general election--[ Hon. Members :-- "Hear, hear."]--and I am grateful for that show of confidence from my colleagues, which is not less than I deserve. Obviously, that is going to happen, but it should not be taken for granted and I do not take it for granted. Nor should any of us.
The electorate sent me here to exercise their sovereignty. It is not for me to hand that away without even having the courtesy of asking them what they think about it.
As with the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson), my electorate know in crystal-clear terms where I stand on this issue. I venture to suggest that my electorate do not wish the agreement to be quietly decided by the Government's majority vote and the whipping vote, when it is eventually debated in the House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester correctly spoke at some length about referendums, their advantages and disadvantages. It would be wrong for me to suggest that there are only advantages--there are both and we all know perfectly well what they are. However, I agree with the view of the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Carlile). Whatever else I have discovered throughout my life, I know that I have infinite faith in the British people quietly to imbibe all the information given to them in their living rooms, by whatever means, and to come to a conclusion. It is insulting for any hon. Member to suggest that the British people are not intelligent enough to take in all the information and to come to a conclusion. They may come to what is, in my view, the wrong conclusion, but, none the less they are entitled to be given the right to do so.
Column 606In saying that, I again agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester who mentioned the question whether referendums should be used widely. Of course not. There are well-defined areas where many of us could agree that they should be used. Of course I am not in favour of referendums--of the sort they have in Switzerland--on whether we should have new doors on the town hall. Of course we will not go in for that. However, this issue is rather bigger than new doors for the town hall. It is rather more significant. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said, it concerns the governance of this country.
I respectfully suggest to my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester that the order of importance shows which issues should be subject to referendums. I am confident that the Maastricht agreement should by this measure be subject to one organised for the purpose. Until now, I have not been allowed to speak on the agreement. I am told--especially by the Government- -that the treaty is self-contained, that all the caveats on it have been achieved, and that there are opt-out clauses and separate protocols, in particular the protocol on the social dimension. By those devices it is alleged we protect our sovereignty because the Government know perfectly well that there is a certain feeling about the subject in the House and in the country. They have tried to protect our interests by those devices. The question is whether they have succeeded. In my humble opinion, the Government have not. One must consider the intentions of all those people sitting round the table at the summit. I am perfectly clear about the intentions of some of the major players in that discussion. I do not think that they were round the table to get an agreement to the Maastricht summit merely to have a Europe made up of a confederation of sovereign states in the old 19th century view of sovereign states.
Alas, I am old enough to remember the debate when we first entered the Common Market. We debated the matter for several years, culminating in a referendum. Those in favour said--in retrospect it was a lot of soft soap-- that we were not drifing into federalism, there would not be a European super-state, all decision making would remain in Parliament, and our electorates would decide. If those of us who are fairminded, which means all of us, look back at those statements--I remember the hon. Members who made them--and compare them with what has happened, we shall see chalk and cheese. I repeat that we were dealt a load of soft soap. We were on a slippery slope then and we are on one now. We are at the Rubicon, which means that there is no going back if the treaty is agreed by the House. That is why I believe that my electorate should have the right to say what they think about crossing the Rubicon.