Previous Section Home Page

Column 694

in England would only involve English councillors sitting on regional bodies--they would not be elected. That would simply create another discussion body like the European Parliament. It would be seen as a fudge and as a means of getting the Labour party off the hook in terms of Scottish devolution.

Mr. Mackinlay: That has nothing to do with the issue.

Mr. Renton: Indeed it has. It is about constitutional change--from a United Kingdom as a unitary state to a United Kingdom that is split into three, four or more regions. The logical conclusion is that the introduction of English regional authorities with powers equal to the Scottish Assembly would constitute a constitutional change that must, under the terms of the Liberal Democrat motion, be subject to a national referendum. I trust that that will be Liberal Democrat policy.

Mr. Charles Kennedy: The right hon. Gentleman seems to be talking about what he wishes the Labour party's policy was rather than what the Liberal Democrat policy is--but that is a different matter. I shall pursue the logic of what he is saying about holding a UK-wide referendum for constitutional change affecting any of the constituent parts of the existing United Kingdom--the obvious one being Scotland and devolution.

The right hon. Gentleman must surely recognise that Scotland has a distinct legal system that creates a different state of affairs. Is he saying that, if the peace process in Northern Ireland leads to a referendum--as the Prime Minister has indicated--such a referendum would have to be balloted in Wales, Scotland and England to decide whether the settlement, if reached --we all hope that it will be--is acceptable? That is the logic of the right hon. Gentleman's argument.

Mr. Renton: The hon. Gentleman is deeply ignorant of the politics of Northern Ireland. Before Stormont was abolished, Northern Ireland had its own legislature and its own Prime Minister. We know perfectly well that it did, and to make a comparison between what is currently being discussed in Northern Ireland--where Stormont has not sat for 22 years--and the situation in Scotland--where two Parliaments were bound together between Scotland and England under the Act of Union of 1707--is to show an astonishing lack of knowledge of the history of the United Kingdom.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford): Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Renton: No, I cannot give way. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be able to make his own speech later.

The other issue that I shall touch on relates to a referendum on what I can only refer to as the Cabinet's friend: single currency. Obviously, there is already a European Monetary Institute, to which the United Kingdom makes financial contributions. That will probably lead to a European central bank --that is all in hand under the provisions of the Maastricht treaty. We may regret that, although the early stages of the Maastricht treaty passed through the House with a large majority. Those are not key issues of constitutional change--they will happen in any event.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Minister of State on dancing so elegantly on the point of a pin when addressing the House earlier. I congratulate him on his wisdom in

Column 695

frequently repeating the words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that the issue revolves around our option to join the single currency some time after 1997. As hon. Members have said that is not a matter for today, but for three years' time.

I understand that, were the motion to be agreed, we could be having a discussion on that subject and a consequential referendum in about 1998. I do not think that we should be too horrified at that prospect; the details of the effects of a single currency are not yet known. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has repeatedly said, it would be foolish to take decisions about that until we have seen the shape of the decisions taken as the European Monetary Institute gets to work in the years and months ahead.

One or two of the probable consequences of an inner core of European countries joining the single currency are that long-term interest rates for those who join will fall by at least 1 per cent. [Interruption.] I expected that remark to be popular with some hon. Members. The German long bond rate--

Sir Teddy Taylor: Remember all the promises given when we joined the Common Market.

Mr. Renton: If my hon. Friend will be quiet for a moment, I shall explain to him and he will, hopefully, understand.

The German long bond rate is currently 1.5 per cent. lower than the British long-term gilt rate because there is thought to be no fear of the German mark devaluing. If, and when, a long ecu bond is established, there will be no risk of devaluation to it, and therefore, it is thought--of course it is only a hypothesis at the moment--the long-term interest rate for people who use that ecu bond will be at least 1 per cent. less than the rate of a sterling bond-- Mr. Marlow rose --

Mr. Renton: I will not give way. I told my hon. Friend that I would not.

Mr. Legg: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Renton: My hon. Friend also has plenty of time to make his own speech.

Once an independent European central bank is established, that is also likely to lead to lower inflation for its members.

My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade said in the House last Wednesday that he reckoned that, in the last year for which figures were available, almost 100,000 jobs had been created or saved in this country by the flow of inward investment into this country. If we were to join a single currency--it is only a hypothesis--that inward investment would continue.

As for the ordinary tourists, they at least would be aware that, when they went abroad on holiday, if they had ecus in their pockets they would not have to change their money into foreign currencies, and change it back again; they would avoid Thomas Cook or American Express's commission and the difference between the buying and selling rate. [Interruption.] I was expecting those remarks to be well received behind me. That could save them 4 or 5 per cent. on the cost of their holidays.

Column 696

So when the question is asked in the referendum--if that ever happens--if the question were summarised, "Would you like to join a single currency in which interest rates are 1 per cent. lower, inflation is lower, there are 100,000 new jobs in this country every year and you will save 5 per cent. on the cost of your European holiday each year?" it is quite possible that the majority would vote in favour. Certainly that would be a possibility.

I leave hon. Members with the following thought. That would be a particular possibility at a time when Westminster--as we read in the newspapers--is held in very low esteem and it is quite feasible that the electorate would not worry too much about power passing from this Chamber over such issues as money supply to an independent central bank, on which we were represented, of course, but which would be well outside the daily reach and control of politicians.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Renton: I am sure that my hon. Friend will have plenty of time to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

In conclusion, I remain opposed to referendums, as I said at the beginning of my remarks, but when we are able to put all the facts, in two or three or four years' time, about single currencies before the British people, I believe that the arguments of lower inflation, lower interest rates, higher employment due to inward investment and the value of an independent central bank may well win the day. 5.22 pm

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): One of the reasons why the House is held in low public regard is that, during a debate of this type, which is of major importance, the place is empty. One of the reasons why the place is empty is that we have not told the public the truth about the issue in Parliament. The truth is that all the party leaders agree about it.

The Liberal party has always been enthusiastic for a federal Europe; the Labour party, as far as I can make out from the latest lunchtime broadcasts, is also very much in favour of a federal Europe; the Government are pretending not to be, in order to deal with certain difficulties that they have, but does anyone really doubt that, if a Conservative Government were in power when the question of a common currency came along, a Conservative Government would go along with it? Therefore, let us not pretend that there is any difference.

On the other hand, there are wide differences of opinion in all parties. We should discuss those seriously because, when we discuss the future of Europe, we are also discussing the way in which Britain is governed. If we change the relationship between the electors, Parliament and the Community- -or the Union, as it now is--we alter the rights of the electors, and that is what this debate should be about.

I am deeply disappointed that the Labour party has decided to abstain on the matter. In 1972--23 years ago--I moved, on behalf of the Opposition, an amendment to the European Communities Bill calling for a referendum. Actually, I go back to 1968, when I first mentioned the electronic possibilities for representation that were mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin).

Column 697

The Liberal party was opposed to a referendum then, but I do not make a point about that, because the truth is that people are moving now to a different opinion about the rights of the electors in respect of their Government, and I welcome that; but I am disappointed that the Labour party has decided to abstain tonight, because the Labour party introduced the referendum.

Fifty members of the Labour party who were in Parliament when I moved the amendment in 1972 remain in Parliament. I went through that Division Lobby. The deputy leader of the Labour party and the previous deputy leader of the Labour party, my right hon. Friends the Members for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) and for Derby, South (Mrs. Beckett), voted for a referendum--and so, I might add, did Roy Jenkins and one or two others, because they were then members of a Government that had come out in favour of it.

I wish to say something else about the disgraceful way in which this debate is reported in the press, and commented on in the House, as though there were Europhobes and Europhiles. I was born a European; I shall die a European; I lost relatives and friends in both world wars and I want to see peace in Europe as much as anybody else, and I bitterly resent the idea that, if one objects to the Maastricht treaty and the way in which it transforms the government of Britain, that makes one a Euro-sceptic, any more than hostility to the present Government makes one an Anglo-sceptic. Is it not possible to have a different opinion of the way in which Europe should be governed? I shall discuss that in a moment.

The truth is that a common currency and a central bank would fundamentally alter the constitution of Britain. Why do we call the Prime Minister the First Lord of the Treasury if the Treasury is not at the core of Government? The Chancellor of the Exchequer is only No. 2; he is a Minister of State in the Treasury. If there is to be a central bank, the First Lord of the Treasury will be in Frankfurt. For anyone to suggest that having the First Lord of the Treasury in Frankfurt would not alter the constitution of the country would be deliberately to mislead the public.

Of course, as a result of that, there will be rate capping from Frankfurt, because people in Frankfurt will determine the interest rates, the amount of borrowing and the levels of taxation. I am not working hard for a Labour Government so that the leader of the Labour party, instead of being First Lord of the Treasury, will be the chairman of the British municipal corporation, pleading with Frankfurt to obtain permission to do something about unemployment. We should consider the matter not only in theoretical terms. The right hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) said that, if one goes on holiday to Spain, one will not have to change one's currency. There are 4 million unemployed people in Britain who cannot contemplate going to Spain. The reality is that, if we lose control of tax rates, borrowing and interest rates, we cannot tackle unemployment.

The single currency in Britain has not solved the problem of unemployment in Britain. I might just say to those who think that the single currency is a miracle that we have always had a single currency since the United Kingdom came into being. We have had terrible areas of mass unemployment-- what used to be called the "depressed areas", which we changed to the "development

Column 698

areas"--all with a single currency, all with a central bank. So let no one think that a mechanism for handling a currency automatically solves the social problem.

Finley Peter Dunne was right when he said:

"One of the strangest things about life is that the poor, who need money the most, are the very ones that never have it." It is a question of distribution of wealth; that is how to tackle unemployment.

I know that this is not primarily an economic debate, but it is a very important debate bearing on economics. Unemployment is the discipline of a capitalist system. It is different in other countries. In Islam, for example, if one breaks the law, one's hand may be cut off; in Russia, one was sent to the Lubyanka or Siberia; but unemployment performs an essential function in a capitalist society. It lowers wages, undermines the unions, boosts profits, limits imports and prevents unemployed people from going abroad to spend foreign currency. Unemployment is the instrument.

We are told that a common currency will somehow bring about full employment. Unemployment benefit in this country costs the electors £26 billion a year in tax. No Government would spend £26 billion a year on unemployment benefit if unemployment was not absolutely central to their policy. A former Chancellor once said that it is a "price worth paying". He meant that it was worth paying £26 billion to the unemployed if it would frighten other people into doing what they were told.

I am from a generation--I make no apology for it--which remembers hearing the voice of Hitler on the radio. When I was a young man I heard him speaking from Nuremberg; I saw Mosley march in the streets of London one Sunday in 1935. Unemployment is the seed bed of fascism. If there is mass unemployment, people will turn on Jews--we have seen the Auschwitz tragedy- -and they will turn on trade unions, socialists, communists and gays. Governments try to divert people's attention from the fact that unemployment means that the system is wrong.

We are told that there are 20 million unemployed people in the European Union today. In 1975 I said that, if Britain joined the European Community, there would be higher unemployment, and Roy Jenkins said that it was not possible to take me seriously as an economic Minister. There are now 20 million people unemployed in the European Union. Anyone who thinks that that problem can be solved by taking power away from Mr. George and the Chancellor and sending it to Frankfurt needs his or her head examined.

How will we secure jobs for everyone? We have had full employment--I return to my recollections of the 1930s and of the war. How did we achieve full employment when so many people were unemployed in the 1930s? We did not achieve it through market forces. The Government took unemployed people off the dole and put them into factories to produce guns, tanks and ships. Instead of receiving the dole, people earned a wage and paid their taxes and, along with a little borrowing, that paid for the war. Market forces were not involved: my granny never bought a tank, my dad never owned a Spitfire and my aunt never owned a Sten gun. The Government spent money to achieve full employment.

Think of the things that need to be done in Britain today--homes need to be built, school books need to be printed and teachers, nurses and doctors need to be

Column 699

recruited. Why can we not use untapped human resources to meet unmet need? But that is not profitable, and if it is not profitable it is not done. That is why the word "customer" is used so widely. People who have no money cannot be customers. The people who live on the Embankment in cardboard boxes need houses more than anyone else, but they are not "customers" because "customers" must have the cash to turn their human need into economic demand.

Unemployment was also dealt with in a very interesting way during the war. When I was nearly 17 I received a letter from the Government--I probably have it among my papers--which said, "Dear Mr. Benn, will you please turn up on your 17th birthday and we'll give you free food, free clothes, free training and free accommodation if you will learn to kill Germans." The Germans had a similar youth training scheme: "If you turn up on your birthday, Herr Braun, we'll give you free clothes, free food, free accommodation and free training if you will learn to kill the British". If we can use planning mechanisms for the purpose of killing, why, in God's name, can we not use them to meet need in our country? We cannot do it unless we drop the philosophy of putting capitalist profit before people.

I turn to a serious political question. If the Labour party comes to power and adopts a common currency and a central bank--as I deeply believe that it intends to do--how will I explain it to my electors in Chesterfield? I have just been reselected as the Labour candidate for Chesterfield; I am only a prospective candidate, but I hope to live to complete my 50 years in Parliament in the year 2000.

What will I say to the people of Chesterfield before polling day? I am bound to say, "Whoever you vote for, you cannot change our trading policy, our agricultural policy, industrial policy, environmental policy--or, if my party has its way, our foreign or defence policies either". What will the electors of Chesterfield do? The principle of parliamentary democracy is that, by voting, people can change the policies of the incoming Government.

The right hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) made a very entertaining and inconsequential speech, as is his wont, but I ask him to address that question. As a Conservative candidate, he must tell his electors that, whoever they vote for, they cannot change the policy of an incoming Government. As a consequence, many people will not bother to vote. Why should they, if the members of all three Front Benches agree and their vote will not change anything? Alternatively, as Lord Tebbit said the other day, the people may riot. Rioting is the historic way in which the disfranchised drew injustices to the attention of Governments who were not responsible to the people through the ballot box. We are striking a deadly blow at this Parliament and everything that it stands for--all the things about which we boast when we show children around this place. A common currency and a central bank is the ultimate privatisation. Government is privatised because it is handed over to bankers who are not responsible to the people in their power. I believe that a new political class is taking over Europe which does not have confidence in the public and which believes that Commissioners, bankers, civil servants, Foreign Office officials and, dare

Column 700

I say, Members of Parliament know better than the public. The arrogance of that assumption will ultimately lead to real trouble. The Council of Ministers is the real European Parliament. I served on the Energy Council for five years and I was its president during the British presidency in 1977. It is the only Parliament in the world which meets in secret and which makes laws in secret. I think that, like the Privileges Committee, it should meet in public; but I will not go into that now. Ministers are reduced to petitioners when they go to Brussels because everything has been sewn up by the Committee of Permanent Representatives.

I hope that hon. Members will not misunderstand me when I say that they could not run communism from Moscow and they cannot run capitalism from Brussels. Both systems will break down. If that happens, I fear that we will return to the sort of nationalism that I do not want to see. It will not solve the problems of nationalism. One has only to look at the cover of The Sun and its headline "Up yours, Delors" to see what I mean. I know Jacques Delors; I met him about 20 years ago at the British embassy in Paris when he was out in the cold and I was a Minister. We had a friendly talk. I fully understand his current position. Why should we blame Delors when we assented to a structure that gave him more power than our Prime Minister?

We see that in the Spanish fishermen issue and in the export of live animals: we are blaming the foreigners instead of blaming the loss of democracy which we conceded. It is not as if the Union comprises a democratic united states of Europe. If the Union was like the United States of America, the first thing that we would do is abolish the Commission. Would the Americans agree to be governed by 15 Commissioners instead of by a President, a Senate and a House of Representatives? Would this country agree to be governed by commissioners representing Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland rather than a Cabinet? Of course we would not. But I suppose that if we preferred to be governed by our own Parliament, we would be called Anglo-sceptics.

The Union does not even comprise the whole of Europe. There are about 50 countries in Europe and the little gang of 15 which is trying to catch them one by one does not constitute Europe. The idea of a convergence between the Albanian economy and the British economy is absolutely mad--although if the Government continue their present policies it may eventuate. Can we imagine a European Parliament where the balance of power is held by the Hungarian greens? Would we accept that? The whole idea is absolutely ridiculous.

Europe needs a new structure. We must harmonise by consent, taking account of the different cultures, histories and religions of Europe. A European assembly should produce conventions to which member states adhere. My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench--crowded as it is during this great debate--must think very carefully about what will happen when a Labour Government are elected. The assumption that the Labour party is united on this issue is totally false. The

Column 701

Labour party and the trade unions look favourably upon Brussels because they now receive better treatment from Brussels than from Downing street.

Mrs. Dunwoody: They think they do.

Mr. Benn: They do. But when we are there, imagine how trade unions and the Labour party will react when Labour Ministers say, "We're not allowed to do that. We don't have the power. We've been prevented." There will be major opposition, because it will not be acceptable to the Labour party for a Labour Government to make the sort of excuses made by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food over the export of live animals.

In Opposition, the Conservative party will become what is fashionably known as Eurosceptic. The Conservatives have the funny idea that Europe is a socialist conspiracy. If it were, I would not favour it--and it is not anyway. Released from the responsibilities of office and the hopes of patronage, many more Conservative Members in Opposition will see difficulties in a federal Europe, as steered through by my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin). The leader of the Liberal party made a speech about the rights of the electorate. I do not need to repeat it because I said the same myself when I moved an amendment in 1972, and I was denounced by Jeremy Thorpe.

Powers are only lent to us. If I am chosen as the Labour candidate for Chesterfield, I will have to tell people there that I will not vote for a common currency or central bank. Whatever my view might be, I cannot do so because I have no moral authority to come to the House and hand over the powers of the electorate. I have said in the past and say again: that would be a theft of public rights. I want the electorate to know how things stand before a general election. For all I know, after tonight's Division there might be an early election. One never knows--I always live in hope that the Labour party might come to power in the House to which it has been elected. If there is an early election, every right hon. and hon. Member must ask, "Do you regard a general election as a substitute for a referendum, when all the party leaders agree?" How could that argument possibly be made? If the parties disagree, it might be an arguable proposition. It is important to make that clear. We talk so much about democracy but never discuss it. One principle of democracy is that no Parliament can bind its successor. A new Parliament once could repeal all the laws passed before--but not now. If an outgoing Government assented in Brussels to a law, either against their veto or by voting for it, an incoming Government could not change that law. Tom Paine said that the dead have no right to control the living.

Mr. Renton: What about Edmund Burke?

Mr. Benn: Do not give me Edmund Burke. He was my predecessor as a Member of Parliament for Bristol for six years and visited it four times. His great contribution to democracy was to call the public "the swinish multitude", and that remark prompted Tom Paine to write "The Rights

Column 702

of Man." If the hon. Gentleman wants to make an historical allusion, he should go away and read the national curriculum, and then he might know more.

Mr. Marlow rose --

Mr. Benn: I shall not give way, because I do not want to detain the House--and I have reached the last passage of my speech, which I hope will be better even than the earlier ones.

When I was born in 1925, 20 per cent. of the world was governed from this Chamber. I supported all the anti-colonial movements that were nationalist movements, not because I believed in nationalism as a form of xenophobia but because the upside of nationalism is democracy--you govern yourself, which I favour. I will not sit and watch the House, out of a crisis of self -confidence, hand over its functions to others.

We are told that we are a nation of tradition, and traditionally we have always been governed by foreigners. In 55 BC, we were governed by a Roman-- Julius Caesar. He had a common currency in the £sd--libri, solidi and denarii. My hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Enright) is a Latin scholar and will correct me if I am wrong. The Romans stayed for 665 years and then we got rid of them.

We then had William the Conqueror, who was a Frenchman.

Mr. Giles Radice (Durham, North): He was a Norman.

Mr. Benn: Norman, but a Frenchman in modern parlance. After that, we had William of Orange, who was a Dutchman, and the Hanoverians from Germany. Recently, we have had Jacques Delors, who is also a Frenchman. Is there something about this country that denies us the confidence that we can build a society and work with others in Europe?

The only future for Europe is a recovery of self-confidence in Britain, France, Germany and everywhere else. The lack of self-confidence as well as lack of employment led to fascism. Until we rediscover enough self- confidence to govern ourselves and to work co-operatively, constructively and willingly with other European countries, what we are doing today and will do at the

intergovernmental conference will be to dig a great grave and put Parliament in it--so that tourists can come to see it and still be told what it once did, although we shall know in our hearts that it is not doing it any more.

5.44 pm

Sir Terence Higgins (Worthing): That was a vintage Chesterfield speech. Unlike wine, the more recent one of the right hon. Gentleman's speeches, the more vintage it seems to be.

The motion before the House is as premature as it is cynical. It could not be more premature, because my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it absolutely clear that there is no question of anything of a constitutional nature being decided at the intergovernmental conference. In any case, that is some time away. It is not a matter on which we need to decide tonight. None the less, points of principle should be clearly stated.

Even the leader of the Liberal Democrats seemed uncomfortable on realising that he might secure allies from this side of the House or the other who might reasonably be described as Euro-sceptics. I will say more

Column 703

about that later. What is the touchstone of the right hon. Gentleman's sincerity? He appealed in a populist way to consult the people, but he did not make it clear, despite his profound enthusiasm for and commitment to Europe, what he would do if the referendum result was not one that he liked.

Mr. Charles Kennedy: As democrats, we would accept the decision of the people. That is included in the whole exercise. We would be disappointed, but we and the House would have to work within the parameters that then existed.

Sir Terence Higgins: That is an extraordinary view. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that a Member of Parliament, having analysed the right answer, consulted his constituents, weighed up the arguments and become profoundly convinced of a particular view, should than accept a referendum that goes the wrong way? That would totally undermine the approach that we as elected representatives should take, which is why I believe that a referendum is fundamentally wrong.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Terence Higgins: No, I want to deploy more arguments first. Some people are passionately anti-European and are in favour of a referendum because they believe that the result would go their way. Having lost the argument on the analysis, they see a referendum as their best hope of effecting a policy change. The Liberal Democrats are fundamentally undermining the basis of the House.

The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) referred to Edmund Burke. We are right to take his view that we come to the House as representatives, not delegates. If a referendum goes a particular way, it is not for us to say, "I've been delegated to vote that way." It is our role to analyse the issues and to take into account our constituents' views. Then, we have a duty to make up our minds. Incidentally, Edmund Burke made his famous statement after he was elected to Parliament, not before--which perhaps undermines it. We are not here to function as a surrogate calculating machine, to vote the way that our constituents would if they could all press a button. We have a much greater responsibility--to consult our constituents and listen to their arguments, but it is the strength of the argument and not the number of people who make it that is important. Then, we must weigh up the arguments and vote as our constituents would if they had the advantage that we do of listening to debates and analysing the issues.

In introducing the motion, the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) effectively read an article which he published in a Sunday paper yesterday, in which he said:

"We could, at the same time, win a right for the British people to have a part in determining our country's future in Europe." That is what I do all the time. I have a massive mail bag, I consult my constituents, I have interview nights, I attend innumerable constituency functions, and my constituents have an opportunity to express their view. That is a far more sophisticated way in which to assess public opinion

Column 704

and weigh up arguments than an over- simplified referendum, requiring a simple yes or no response, in which the question is always debateable.

Indeed, it is likely that people would not vote about a single currency, for example, in a referendum on the subject. They would vote a straight yes or no on whether we should be in Europe. That is another reason why some of my hon. Friends favour a referendum. The single currency is a highly complex issue, but, nevertheless, it is suggested that one of the issues on which we should have a referendum should be a single currency.

A point that I was going to make has been a little undermined by the speech of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield. I was going to say that, if one went outside and asked people whether they could tell the difference between a single currency and a common currency, I doubt that one in 10 or one in 50 could do so, even though the difference is crucial. I am little unnerved because the right hon. Gentleman, clearly by a slip of the tongue- -although he said it two or three times--does not know the difference between a single currency and a common currency. There is a vast difference. It is crucial to realise that the idea that a referendum is a sensible way in which to achieve a real view on such an issue is quite wrong.

In the article yesterday, the right hon. Member for Yeovil said: "Other opponents claim the question is too complicated for British people to understand."

Of course, one would sound very elitist if one were to take that view. But we are sent here to do that job; to take into account such complicated issues, to take a view and to vote in the House. That is what is meant by representative parliamentary democracy.

Mr. Legg: I refer my right hon. Friend to the views that he propagated in the House on 30 October 1990, when he referred to the single currency. He said:

"The imposition of a single currency . . . would rule out for all time the most effective means of adjusting for national differences in costs and prices . . . that in turn would cause widespread unemployment, which would probably exist on a perpetual basis, and very serious financial imbalances."--[ Official Report , 30 October 1990; Vol. 178, c. 878.]

By any standard, those seem to be the words of a Euro-sceptic and someone opposed to a single currency. If a Conservative Government sought to impose a single currency through a three-line Whip in the House, would my right hon. Friend defy the Whip?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Before the right hon. Gentleman replies, may I remind the House that I have already drawn lengthy interventions to its attention. Many hon. Members want to catch the Speaker's eye. Interventions of that nature will mean that some hon. Members will be unsuccessful.

Sir Terence Higgins: My hon. Friend quotes my previous remarks, on which I do not renege for one moment. I agree entirely with what I said. However, I think that I made the qualification at the time that it must depend on the degree of convergence. It is absolutely true, as I said then, that we would be giving up for all time the major means of adjusting for differential movements of costs and prices. There is nothing in what I said then inconsistent with the point made by the Governor of the Bank of England the other day, nor--I believe--does it differ from the position of the Prime Minister.

Column 705

If one goes for a single currency without an adequate degree of convergence, to which I shall refer in a moment, one of three things is likely to happen. We shall have either endemic unemployment on a greater scale in certain parts of the Community, or substantial subventions from one part of the Community to another, or migration from one part of the Community to another.

I am not reneging on the sentiments of the words that my hon. Friend quoted, but all that would follow if one went ahead before adequate convergence. However, it will be a long time before there is such adequate convergence. A referendum in which we asked the first 50 or 100 people in the street what they thought about the convergence criteria would produce some pretty funny answers.

Mr. Spearing: Irrespective of the merits of a referendum, surely the right hon. Gentleman would agree that, even if convergence were statistically achieved, subsequent divergence could occur, creating the very problems that the hon. Gentleman mentioned? So we would be legislating now for people who come after us. I do not believe, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman does not believe, that we have the right to do that.

Sir Terence Higgins: That is why it would be no good if the criteria happened to converge at a particular time and we were to say "snap" and go for a single currency. We must be clear that convergence is likely to be sustained. If, in fact, it could not be sustained, we would, of course, experience the three consequences which I enumerated earlier. So convergence would have to be maintained for a considerable period. At what stage Opposition Members suppose that we should have a referendum, I am not at all clear.

If one took the plunge and went ahead with a single currency at some point when all the convergence criteria and, perhaps, some others, had been met for a reasonable period of time, as my hon. Friend so helpfully reminded us, as I said in 1990, it would be irreversible. How one gets out of a single currency is not the least bit clear. I presume that we would suddenly start printing pound notes again, which would be rather inflationary and a little uncomfortable.

We must recognise that we are considering a very serious issue which should be dealt with in the House. Whatever the referendum is on, the decision will be taken in the House. I was somewhat horrified by the intervention of the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy), who said that, if the result of the referendum went contrary to all their profound beliefs, they would none the less go the way of that referendum, even though a referendum, as an instrument of ascertaining public opinion, is fundamentally flawed in the way that I have just described.

The point of timing was raised by the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). I have already said that we are discussing matters of the future. We may achieve sufficient convergence in a comparatively small number of countries, which may or may not include this country. It is inconceivable that in the next 15 years or less--probably many more--we shall achieve a degree of convergence throughout the entire enlarged Community, which would enable that Community to have a single currency. The problem depends on how large an area

Next Section

  Home Page