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Column 755this afternoon: that there are differences across the parties and that one must deal with so many other issues at general elections. A referendum would be democratic and appropriate, and it would also mean that the ambivalence and hostility to the EU would have to be combated by the people who wish to promote Europe. There is no real debate about Europe, and a referendum would allow both sides to focus on the issues. That is not happening at present, and therefore I would welcome a referendum.
Speaking as a voter, I am uncertain about how I would vote in 1997 or 1998, but we should have the opportunity to vote. The issues should be thoroughly explored.
Mr. Mackinlay: No. I have listened to a lot of claptrap today, and I want to have my say. It is an important issue to me for the reasons I explained a few moments ago. I have fought five general elections--more than a lot of Members--and this is one of the things on which I campaigned on each occasion.
The right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) reiterated an argument made by other hon. Members: that these are complex issues, the implication being that the ordinary elector could not understand or comprehend them. That is a deeply insulting argument, and it is also baseless. That argument was advanced by people who resisted the Reform Act 1832, because they believed that the middle classes could not possibly understand the complex issues involved in running the UK.
The same argument was advanced by those who resisted the franchise for those who were no doubt deemed "the great unwashed", or working-class people. It was thought that they could not possibly understand the complex issues. The argument was also used by those wishing to prevent women from having the right to vote. It is nonsense, and deeply insulting to the electorate, to suggest that they cannot comprehend such matters.
Members of the House voted for a referendum in the 1970s because it suited politicians on both sides, and primarily the Labour Government. I am opposed to having referendums a la carte to get over political differences, and that is why there should be a constitutional referendum Act which provides how and when major constitutional issues should be put to the people. Those include an elected second Chamber--which I support and which I hope my right hon. and hon. Friends will be able to introduce when they form the next Government--electoral reform and fixed-term Parliaments. Those issues need to be put to the electorate after the principal Act has been passed.
We are misreading the views of the electorate. A great deal of harm may result if, when we accede to treaties or accept constitutional changes, we dragoon people without the full-hearted consent of Parliament and of the people. It is undemocratic and foolhardy in the extreme, because the dam eventually breaks. I speak as somebody who can be probably described as more of a Euro-supporter than Euro-sceptic. It seems profoundly foolish to dragoon the British people into change when there is no mandate to do so. If there was a proper debate, the matter could be settled.
Column 756The argument has been advanced that people such as my hon. Friends the Members for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and for Bow and Poplar (Ms Gordon) never accepted the last referendum. That is not fair--subsequent treaties were acceded to, so the debate was, legitimately in their view, reopened. If there was a referendum and it was decided to accept constitutional change or a surrender of sovereignty, I suspect that the hon. Members for Milton Keynes, South-West (Mr. Legg) and for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) and others would accept the voice of the people. Those hon. Members have said that they would do so. I too understand that spirit and accept it.
It is time that we in the House started to think of a referendum as being a virtue and being highly desirable in our developing democracy. I look to my hon. Friends who will form the next Government to be bold and to start saying that we will have constitutional innovations--not to get us out of political difficulties, but because it is right. If there is a Division, I shall be obliged, and will wish, to support the motion.
Mr. Walter Sweeney (Vale of Glamorgan): As so often, the Liberal Democrats' motion, on which we may vote this evening, looks both ways. Most, if not all, of the Liberals seem to believe in a united Europe, but most Liberals have enough nous to realise that they are out of step with the views of the British public who, while in favour of membership of the European Union, were against the surrender of sovereignty that resulted from the Maastricht treaty and are against any further surrender of sovereignty.
The Liberals are trying to have it both ways. They are being pro-European-- indeed, ardent federalists--but are saying to the great British public that, if things go wrong a few years down the road, do not blame us as we were the party that called for a debate in Parliament advocating a referendum.
The motion looks as though it has been cobbled together. The debate has shown the variety of opinions across the House in all three major parties. The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) referred to the inadvisability of holding a referendum because it would establish a precedent and would encourage referendums on other topics, such as the death penalty or devolution in Scotland or Wales.
The fundamental distinction between a vote on the death penalty and a vote on an issue of constitutional importance is clear. Once we had acceded to the treaty of Rome or the Maastricht treaty, we had taken an irrevocable step, limiting Parliament's sovereignty and placing ourselves in a position from which we could not turn back. If Parliament were to reintroduce the death penalty for murder--it could, because the death penalty still exists in law for treason and, I believe, for arson in the Queen's dockyards--and a future Parliament disapproved, there would be nothing to stop that later Parliament repealing or amending the legislation. However, the issue that we are discussing today is quite different.
A referendum should not be used as a cop-out to salve Liberal Democrats' consciences on the destruction of the United Kingdom or as a means of making a spurious appeal for people to vote for them. A referendum should not be used simply to stitch together, artificially, differences in the Government as occurred in 1975. A
Column 757referendum should not be used as a device to exempt the present Parliament from the responsibility of having a debate on fundamental constitutional issues, with a free vote at the end. Parliament and the Conservative Government erred in not having a referendum before implementing the Maastricht treaty. Where there is a fundamental and irrevocable change to the constitution, the Government are not only justified in presenting the issue to the public but have a duty to do so.
That duty is even more strongly held if no clear choice is offered at a general election. When the Conservatives took Britain into the European Economic Community in 1973, they did so following a general election at which the Conservatives supported entry and the Labour party opposed it. The public had a choice, as Enoch Powell so graphically illustrated when he, as a staunch Conservative, suggested that people should vote Labour to prevent Britain's entry into the EEC.
At the most recent general election, the public had no such choice. The public knew that if they were Euro-sceptically minded they had to vote Conservative, because at least the Prime Minister had attempted to negotiate certain opt-outs at Maastricht and they preferred the thought of that to the thought of Maastricht with bells on, which we would undoubtedly have received if the Labour party had won that general election.
In short, it is vital that we should recognise that a referendum may be appropriate, indeed necessary, under certain circumstances, but not under the circumstances envisaged by the Liberal Democrats-- [Interruption.] --as they say that we should have a referendum before any substantial alteration of the present constitutional settlement between the European Union and its member states. That means that if, by some miracle, the Government were able to negotiate some reversal of the ratchet effect of Maastricht, we would need a referendum to return us to the status quo prior to Maastricht. That would be ridiculous, because we were not given a referendum on ratifying the Maastricht treaty. Why should we need a referendum to throw it out of the window?
Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye): As they say, "follow that!" An extremely interesting debate took on slightly different proportions with the final two speeches from the Conservative Benches, which I will not attempt to follow. The hon. Member for the Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Sweeney) was perhaps slightly too Machiavellian in the motives that he ascribed to us for initiating the debate, and the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) perhaps came out with the quote of the day, saying that what he disliked about referendums was the fact that they tended to be unpredictable.
Mr. Kennedy: I shall have a look at the Official Report, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman used words very much to that effect. I congratulate the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) on his excellent and lucid exposition of the crux of the case in favour of extending the referendum principle generally to constitutional issues. That was our main motivation in tabling the motion.
Column 758I shall not revisit any of the parliamentary or party political controversy--especially across the Opposition side of the House--that has helped frame the context of today's debate. Throughout the debate, the eagerness to engage both sides of the argument from the Back Benches has not exactly been matched by either of the two Front Benches. Indeed, I was left with the strong impression that the Minister and the Labour shadow spokesperson, the hon. Member for Gateshead, East (Ms Quin), would far rather have been anywhere than in the Chamber, having to discuss the European dilemmas and issues that they endeavoured to explore this afternoon.
It is extraordinary, in an Opposition day debate, to find the Government of the day unable or unwilling--or both--to table an amendment of their own, and to give any sign of their position in the Division Lobby. I wonder why that might be. It is equally extraordinary that there is no formal Labour amendment to the motion. It appears that, in a different sense, we have two opt-out parties in terms of the respective leaderships of the Conservative and Labour parties towards the debate and what has been suggested.
Leaving aside the principle of consulting people about constitutional matters, which goes beyond the issue of party politics and the lifetime of any Parliament, the reason for moving towards a referendum must be the rather depressing reality of British politics, certainly since the last general election and perhaps since the Maastricht negotiations which preceded that election. The Government have failed to provide leadership on the European issue because of internal divisions and a lack of purpose in confronting those divisions effectively and coherently. I shall return to that point in a moment.
As one Conservative Member said, on the European question--not least the matter of a single currency--it seems that Labour and the Conservatives essentially occupy much the same ground. They do not appear to rule out entirely the case for a referendum, but at the same time they are being delphic about the desirability of a single currency.
It is fair to let the Leader of the Opposition use his own words to characterise Labour's position on the issue. In The Times on Saturday he wrote:
"But I am clear about the direction in which I wish to lead the Labour Party. If convergence can be achieved, and if other countries go ahead with a single currency, it would be folly not to recognise the dangers of exclusion. In principle, if there is such real convergence, then clearly there could be benefits to our participation given the increasingly global nature of the economy in which we live. My guess--and it is only that--is that a single currency among any European countries is unlikely by 1997, possible by the end of the century and probable at some point in the not- too-distant future after that".
I hope that, in the not-too-distant future between now and the next election, we will have a crystal clear idea of exactly what the Labour party proposes. We will obviously have to look at the conditions and the convergence criteria; that is the sensible thing to do. If it comes to a referendum, it behoves all political parties to give a clear idea to the public about exactly which direction the debate will move in.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I am enjoying the hon. Gentleman's speech and I agree with him about the Labour party's abdication of responsibility in not either sponsoring an amendment or joining the Opposition parties in the Lobby this evening. Is it not true that, when
Column 759we last discussed the Maastricht referendum issue in April 1993, which could have seen the Government defeated, the Labour Front-Bench spokesmen voted with the Government and half the Liberal party voted with the Government and half voted against the Government?
Mr. Kennedy: I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman may have had to attend other engagements in Scotland earlier today and he missed the discussion of that point at the outset of the debate. My right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown) placed on record--as I did when I spoke during that debate when I voted for a referendum on Maastricht--the fact that we treated that issue as a free vote. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will agree that, if there had been a free vote on some of the issues affecting the progress of the Maastricht treaty and the referendum, we would have achieved Maastricht via a referendum.
The debate on the referendum issue has drawn some very revealing comments from senior Conservative Back Benchers. Time does not permit me to refer to them all. However, I pick up the remarks of the right hon. Member for Mid- Sussex (Mr. Renton), who has apologised to the House for having to leave the debate early. He spoke of contributing to the debate in order to demonstrate his loyalty to the Government. I could not help but reflect that, in his final incarnation in government, he was Chief Whip to the previous leader of the Conservative party, and his loyalty on that occasion did not exactly guarantee her long-term success in that position. Perhaps the Government should not feel too sanguine about his expression of support this afternoon.
The right hon. Gentleman drew several different distinctions. There is a significant difference between a vote on capital punishment, euthanasia or abortion--which are conscience issues, where we must exercise individual conscience and discretion--and a constitutional issue. Even if a constitutional change cannot bind or entrench all future Parliaments, it clearly goes beyond party and influences future Parliaments in a way that decisions that can be revised do not.
The right hon. Member for Worthing (Sir T. Higgins) made the standard argument that a referendum is an alien concept, which it is not. There have been referendums on different issues in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland--and there may be another in Northern Ireland before long.
The right hon. Gentleman spoke of the importance of Members of Parliament exercising personal judgments rather than being beholden to a decision of the electorate. That would carry more force if we did not have the brutalised three-line Whip in the Government and official Opposition. When the right hon. Gentleman was pressed to say whether he would vote against a three-line Whip on the introduction of a single currency involving sterling, he did not answer. We were not to know his personal judgment, faced with that dilemma. The most unacceptable and ludicrous criticism of a referendum was, "What would you people do if you lost--if you didn't get your way?" It was suggested that would make a mockery of Members of Parliament and of politics. Norway has not come to a standstill because the people of that country reached a decision not in keeping with a large section of the political establishment. One
Column 760must accept the outcome. One must do as hon. Members on both sides of the House did in the 1970s--campaign gamely against Britain reconfirming her membership of Europe, and campaign year in, year out thereafter to change public opinion. That cannot be a serious criticism of the electoral and democratic process.
The Government are on a hook, but if there was a change of Government now, the new Administration would be impaled on exactly the same problems from its own Back Benches--as we heard and was confirmed this afternoon. The big issue is that the business of politics and the Westminster establishment is becoming more disconnected on this and too many issues from the people. On Europe, not least on Maastricht, we saw that difficulty reflected in other countries.
The political elites and chattering classes have moved too quickly ahead of their respective electorates and have forgotten the basic lesson for us all --we must carry people with us in sufficient numbers if we are to progress in a particular political direction. In a nutshell, that is the case for a referendum.
The problem is that we do not know the Government's direction. The Prime Minister said that the Maastricht criteria
"are a necessary but not a sufficient condition to justify a single currency"--
and that when those were met,
"we shall then consider whether it would be appropriate . . . to proceed".
The Chief Secretary to the Treasury said:
"I don't want to see a single currency, period, for as far as I can possible foresee. I would hesitate for an eternity before I came out and said I would vote for a single currency."
The Foreign Secretary said:
"To say either yes or no now to the option which might occur in, say, 1999, would be quixotic and unnecessary. `Never' is as foolish a word as `now' in this context."
The Secretary of State for Employment, when Chief Secretary to the Treasury, said:
"A single currency would mean giving up the government of the UK. No British Government can give up the government of the UK. That's impossible."
The President of the Board of Trade said that, if Britain did not take part in work on a single currency,
"the French and Germans will design arrangements in their interests and not ours".
The Chancellor of the Exchequer said:
"It is quite possible to have monetary union without political union. It is a mistake to believe that monetary union need be a huge step on a path to a Federal Europe."
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster provides the greatest quote of all:
"Our position on Europe is absolutely clear".
We must accept that, with the Conservatives, we are offered variety in the marketplace. There is no doubt about that. The bad news for the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, who opened the debate--he may not have had the chance to see the 6 o'clock news--is that the clip that the BBC extracted from his speech showed perhaps the most revealing exchange of all. In a devastating intervention, the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Mr. Legg) simply asked the
Column 761Minister if he agreed with the Prime Minister's statement during the Frost interview, which has become a constitutional event all on its own. The Minister was quoted as saying:
"I think that that is the case still".
A week is a long time in politics and it may not be too long before the Minister's position is being described as unassailable by the Euro- sceptics.
T. S. Eliot wrote:
"In a minute there is time for decisions and revisions which a minute can reverse."
The problem with this Administration is that there are too many minutes, too many decisions and too many reversions and revisions and we do not where the Government stand. I am afraid that Labour has been pretty delphic as well.
The quicker that we get this debate away from this place, where it is harnessed and shackled by divisions and internal politics across and within the parties, and get it outside to let the people decide on any constitutional changes, the better. All the pro-Europeans, as Conservative Members have rightly identified, who make up the majority in this House, would be free from the constraints of parliamentary nonsense and party Whips.
If we argued the case outside this Chamber, we would receive a positive response. It would be good for politics in this country and a lot better for Britain's future in Europe. I commend the motion to the House.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tony Baldry): We have had an interesting debate in which no fewer than eight of my right hon. and hon. Friends have made informed, robust and principled speeches. Although the Liberal Democrats have seemingly paraded and dressed up their principles, it has not been a principled debate. It has been a tawdry and ham-fisted attempt to score short-term party-political advantage. [Laughter.] Hon. Members may guffaw but the truth of that was given by the leader of the Liberal Democrats yesterday in The Observer . His article was not headlined in any way to suggest that we should have a principled debate about giving people power--not at all. The headline in yesterday's edition of The Observer , under the name of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), was "Bring down the Tories tomorrow".
It said nothing about the principle of giving power to the people through a referendum. The right hon. Member said about the Government:
"Tomorrow, the opposition parties could join forces to defeat them, widen their splits over Europe, and hasten their demise." Are the empty Opposition Benches a sign of what the Liberal Democrats think that they can do?
As the day unwound, we discovered more of the unprincipled nature of what all the ham-fisted charade was about.
"A vicious row has broken out within the Liberal Democrat leadership over a failed attempt to team up with Labour and defeat the Government tonight.
The party's bid to deliver a body-blow to John Major in a Commons vote on a referendum collapsed after Labour said it would not back the move."
Column 762We heard of some of the discussions which did not take place, or were alleged to have taken place, between the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party. How the attempt to set up a Lib-Lab alliance fell through is unveiled in an extraordinary memo of complaint to the leader of the Liberal Democrats--
Mr. Baldry: I shall come on to the referendum, but it is important for the hon. Gentleman to realise that Liberal Democrats, who seem to treat the matter as one of considerable amusement for the House, have used one of their supply days to propose a debate on a referendum. The House is entitled to consider their motivation for that. Their motivation has absolutely nothing to do with referendums. Their motivation was simply short-term political advantage. They thought that they could cobble together a deal with the Labour party. It is a measure of the incompetence of both parties that they are totally incapable of cobbling together any deal whatever. The House and the country are entitled to know that the Liberal Democrats' debate has nothing to do with principles and that it is all about short-term, party-political gain.
Mr. Baldry: I promise that I will talk about the referendum when the hon. Gentleman lets me make progress on this point. It is clear that a memo was sent by the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman-- [Hon. Members:-- "Oh!"] It is interesting that Liberal Members do not deny that such a memo exists. In it, the hon. and learned Member for Fife, North -East (Mr. Campbell) claimed that he had been made the scapegoat for this evening's fiasco.
Mr. Menzies Campbell rose --
"I am a little concerned that in the analysis of the events surrounding our Supply Day on Monday 13 February it seems to be accepted that I misunderstood my `instructions' in relation to what I was to advise Robin Cook."
Let us therefore have none of this charade about today's debate being a discussion of a political matter of principle. It was about the Liberal Democrats thinking that they could embarrass the Government by cobbling together a deal with the Labour party. That they have lamentably failed to do.
Coming now to my promise to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) to deal with the referendum, that point turns on a very narrow compass. From our point of view it is quite straightforward; the Prime Minister put it in a straightforward way:
"I do not believe anything is going to happen in that conference that would remotely justify a referendum, I do not think it is going to deal with constitutional matters . . . if anything that involved
Column 763significant constitutional change were raised in the 1996 Intergovernmental Conference we, the British, would not accept it, so the question of a referendum would not arise."
As we all know, the only possible reason for anyone offering a referendum on the 1996 IGC would be if the party in question were prepared to accept constitutional change in those negotiations. Such constitutional change might include ending the veto, extending qualified majority voting, giving massive new powers to the European Parliament or providing a firm commitment to a single currency. The Government's position could not be clearer. We do not think that significant constitutional matters will be discussed at the 1996 IGC. If they were discussed, we would not accept them, so the question of a referendum would not arise.
Today's debate, however, was never intended to be about a referendum. The Liberal Democrats simply thought that they might find something with which to entice the Labour party into the Lobby with them. In that, they lamentably failed.
Mr. Marlow: The IGC and the single currency have both been mentioned a great deal. The Minister who opened the debate said that the Prime Minister wanted a flexible Europe. Can my hon. Friend tell the House whether a flexible Europe is consistent with a single currency?
Mr. Baldry: My hon. Friend put that question earlier in the debate. We have made our position on a single currency very clear. It is unlikely that anyone would want to go ahead with a single currency in 1996 or 1997. If anyone did so, the United Kingdom would not be with them.
In the longer term we have been concerned to point out that a single currency, launched in the wrong conditions, could tear the European Union apart--
Mr. Baldry: There has been a danger throughout the debate of trying to deal with hypotheses. Perhaps I may make it clear beyond peradventure to you, Madam Speaker, that, for the Government, this evening's motion turns on an extremely narrow compass. It is about a referendum. We do not see that circumstances are ever going to arise in which a referendum will be needed for the 1996 IGC because, as we have made clear, no substantial constitutional issues will arise. If they do, we shall vote against them.
For the reasons I have set out, we do not consider that it is worth voting on the motion. It has been brought forward for short-term, party political gain, and I advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to abstain.