Previous Section Home Page

Mr. Heald: There is nothing wrong with Norwich, but we in Hertfordshire do not want to be governed from there, thank you very much. Is the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) thinking of a national referendum or a referendum in the east of England, so that those of us in Hertfordshire who do not want to be run from Norwich can say what we want?

Mr. Mackinlay: If the hon. Gentleman will pay attention after asking a daft question, I shall tell him that, regrettably, he is wrong in his premise. There is no Labour

Column 626

party policy for a regional assembly for eastern England. I believe in substantial devolution throughout the United Kingdom. If that measure came before the House and subsequently received Royal Assent, I would want it to be endorsed by a referendum.

I do not want to be like a long-playing record on that point, but I must repeat that, when we have constitutional change, and after the appropriate Act has received Royal Assent, it should then be put to the people in a referendum.

Mr. Streeter: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Mackinlay: For the last time.

Mr. Streeter: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is making an interesting point on referendums. Does he believe that, if a future Labour Government tried to devolve more powers to a Scottish Parliament, there should be a referendum? If so, who would decide--just the Scottish people, or the United Kingdom population? Would Scottish Members of Parliament be able to come to an English Parliament and have powers over English domain?

Mr. Mackinlay: I think that we are digressing, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. It may be as well for me to point out again that we are discussing a referendum on the European Union. That is what the Bill is about, and what the debate must be about.

Mr. Mackinlay: I am much obliged, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall sort out the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) afterwards on that matter.

The propositions that the hon. Member for Billericay suggests should be put to the British people are ill conceived. The Bill refers to pursuing

"full integration with the European Union under a constitution which is federal in character",

but who decides what is "federal"? Surely, one of the things that we have discovered during past months and years is that one man's "federal" is not another's. It is an ill-defined word, full of misconstruction, and it leaves great potential for mischief and for misleading the people.

We should put to the British people the option of endorsing any decisions that flow from the IGC, following an Act of Parliament in this place. That is what I want. If I had been in this place earlier and been able to persuade the House that my thesis--which is being rubbished by implication by Conservative Members--that we should have a referendum on major constitutional issues was correct, we could then have had a referendum after the Single European Act and Maastricht, but the foolish and feckless electorate did not send me here in time. Now that I am here, I am saying that we should have referendums after Acts of Parliament have endorsed any treaty changes.

Mr. Streeter: On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for an hon. Member to call his constituents fools?

Mr. Deputy Speaker: I am not aware of anything in the Standing Orders or in past practice on that subject. Nevertheless, I must repeat that the courtesies that certainly used to take place in my early days in the House

Column 627

do not tend to be in evidence these days, which is not a good thing for the House. I hope that we can get back to those old ways. I am not saying that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) has been discourteous, but the practice of insulting one another does no service to this House.

Mr. Mackinlay: I certainly have not insulted anyone. My constituents were very prudent to send me here; it was other electors in other constituencies who did not do so. That was the point that I was making. The good people of Thurrock were prudent to give me their trust, and I shall try to exercise that without further interruption.

The second option in the Bill is that we should

"remain in the European Union, but only as a member of an association of states trading freely with one another".

That is complete nonsense. One cannot be part of the European Union, but opt out of everything else. Moreover, it would be retrograde. The vast majority of people would find it inconceivable that we should give up our present relationship with the European Union lock, stock and barrel.

A third option is the most likely to emerge after the forthcoming IGC. We may find that, broadly, our relationship with the European Union will not change. I sense that both the electorate in this country and the electorates of other countries in the European Union will need, for some time to come, time to digest the changes brought about by the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty. I suspect that the IGC will tidy up the edges of those matters without further substantially integrating European Union member states. If I am wrong, once subsequent legislation has been put before the British people, that matter could be put before the British people, but we cannot do that in advance.

Monetary union has been mentioned. I have an open mind on that and acknowledge that, if we enter a single currency, we shall inevitably surrender some sovereignty. I do not particularly like surrendering sovereignty, but we have done so in the past, and that must be balanced against possible disadvantages of not proceeding in that way. I cannot see how we can make that intelligent decision this side of the IGC without knowing the ground rules for controlling a single currency and whether all member states will participate in it. At the back of my mind is the thought that it would be extremely difficult for us to maintain and promote our economic interests if all other members of the European Union signed up to a single currency. But, as an elector, I do not want to make that decision until I have seen the ground rules that emerge from the IGC. The whole issue may be fraught with such difficulties that there will be no monetary union or single currency after the IGC.

The current scaremongering is therefore inappropriate. It does not allow for intelligent and informed debate either on the concept of referendums as part of our democratic machinery or on our relationship with other members of the European Union.

After the IGC, the British people should be asked to ratify an Act of Parliament on the matter. The beauty of that would be that those who supported what emerged from the IGC would have to go out and sell it and there would be a proper and informed debate, rather than the one-sided debate currently coming from a minority, primarily from Conservative Members. Understandably, the Government and the Opposition Front Bench are

Column 628

trying to kick the issue into touch. I have some sympathy with that, because we are some time away from the IGC and now is not the time to pursue the matter. Once we reach 1996 and have had the conclusions of the IGC, it will then be appropriate for Parliament and the people to consider the matter.

12.2 pm

Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): I have great pleasure in participating in the debate, and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) on introducing the Bill and thereby raising the issue. Although I cannot support the Bill, this is a timely and useful opportunity to run through the arguments for and against referendums, particularly a referendum on this issue. For many years, I was firmly set against the notion of referendums, even on restoring the death penalty, which I happen to favour. All hon. Members will recognise, even if they do not condone or agree with it, that the overwhelming majority of the population would favour restoration of the death penalty, whereas a significant majority in the House is consistently against it. As a matter of principle, I do not believe that referendums have a place in our constitution except in exceptional circumstances. Even on an issue on which a referendum would support my position, like the death penalty, I would not argue for one.

I am against referendums for three common reasons, to which hon. Members have already referred. First, we are a representative parliamentary democracy. What are hon. Members doing in coming to this place--even the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who seemed to take issue with the electorates of several constituencies who did not have the good judgment to send him here earlier--I am sure that we all missed his contributions to debates until the last election--

Mr. Baldry: My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) is president of the Thurrock Conservatives and I am vice-president, so we shall ensure that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) does not make those speeches for much longer.

Mr. Waterson: I am delighted to hear that Thurrock Conservatives have the benefit of such a wide range of experience and views on this issue at their disposal. Although I have a great personal affection for the hon. Member for Thurrock, I hope that he will not take it unkindly when I say that I hope that he will be doing something equally productive but different after the next election.

Mr. Tony Banks: He will be a Minister.

Mr. Waterson: The hon. Member for Thurrock knows that I wish him no ill will, and look forward to his rapid promotion to the Opposition Front Bench.

No hon. Member can convincingly argue that referendums do not, to an extent, undermine Parliament's sovereignty. That must be part of the trade- off if we are to have a referendum, which is why they should be only extraordinarily rare events.

The second reason why I do not believe in referendums is that it is so difficult to ask the right question. With all

Column 629

due respect to my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay, I am not sure that she asks the right question, or that it will be clear what the right question will be until much further down the line, up to and including the IGC. This is a trite point, but I do not apologise for repeating it, because it is the fundamental issue in considering any referendum. One needs to ask a question that is sufficiently complex to deal with the issue but sufficiently simple to evince a straight yes or no answer from the electorate and be easily comprehensible.

I have talked about asking the right question; the next argument is about getting the wrong answer, or rather the answer to a different question. I have the honour and pleasure to represent Eastbourne-- [Hon. Members:-- "Hear, hear!"] It does not get quite as big a cheer as Basildon, but I do what I can. One thing that we in Eastbourne know about is the phenomenon of the protest vote. By-elections are a perfect example of the protest vote, when the electorate tries to send the Government a message. Deciphering that message is not always straightforward, particularly when the electorate in Eastbourne had the good sense to return to the Conservative fold at the subsequent general election.

That argument operates in spades when applied to referendums. We need look no further than the French referendum to see how a referendum campaign can become hopelessly entangled with other current issues or with the temporary unpopularity of the Government of the day. The people who turned out to vote did not answer the question on the referendum paper, but answered a different question or set of questions. It would be wrong if I did not say that I still have some reservations about the wisdom of holding a referendum. I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay to ask about the timing of a referendum and the attitude of Her Majesty's Government. It would be inherent in such a referendum campaign for Members of the House, of whatever party, to be free to go out and campaign for a yes or no result. There is nothing wrong with that, but to pose the question in the run-up to the IGC--by 31 December--even before the IGC has got started, would severely undermine the ability of Ministers and the Government to present a united and resolute face to our partners in the IGC negotiations. It might happen that Ministers campaigned for a different result, so it would be difficult for the Government to present a united front at the IGC negotiations.

After a great deal of thought, I have come round to the view that there is a role--albeit a rare one--for a referendum on this issue. If a proposal were made further to reduce significantly our sovereignty, it would be appropriate to have a referendum, with all its imperfections. In January 1975, when Lord Wilson was Prime Minister, he recognised the seriousness of proposing a referendum. A White Paper published then stated:

"The referendum is to be held because of the unique nature of the issue, which has fundamental implications for the future of this country, for the political relationship between the United Kingdom and the other Member Governments of the Community, and for the constitutional position of Parliament."

There may have been other reasons why the then Mr. Wilson wanted a referendum at that time, most notably

Column 630

the divisions within his party, which are just as serious, but rather less apparent, today than they were then. He set out clearly the sort of circumstances in which a referendum might be appropriate.

We cannot know for some time whether a referendum will be necessary or appropriate. As has already been said today, the Prime Minister has made his position clear, particularly in recent weeks. For example, during an interview with David Frost on 8 January, he said:

"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 involves significant constitutional change were raised in the 1996 Inter-Governmental Conference, we the British would not accept it, so the question of a referendum would not arise."

Mr. Streeter: Does my hon. Friend agree that, were we to have a referendum this year on what might come out of the IGC next year, that might imply to our European partners that we would be prepared to accept constitutional change, whereas my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that we would veto any significant constitutional change that came out of the IGC?

Mr. Waterson: As usual, my hon. Friend has made the point better than I could. Although I do not blame my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay and her sponsors, there is a danger that by calling a premature referendum--premature in terms of the IGC--one would encourage the notion among our European partners that our negotiating position was somehow weak.

The Prime Minister has made it clear that he would not expect such constitutional issues to come up at the IGC in 1996. Opinions about that vary, quite reasonably so, and some people describe the IGC of 1996 as a tidying-up operation. Others have far more sinister notions as to what might be proposed. Although work has already begun in the foothills of the summit by the sherpas, we have a long way to go until a proper agenda for the IGC is hammered out and agreed.

Mr. Heald: If a referendum was held and the option in clause 1(2)(a), which I believe reflects the Labour party's view, to pursue

"full integration with the European Union under a constitution which is federal in character, with a single currency and a common sovereignty",

was put to the people, is there not a danger that in mid-term, with the Labour party enjoying a certain popularity at the moment, which we know will end by the time of the next general election, it would put its weight behind that option? We might get a result that embarrassed the Prime Minister as he fought for British interests in those negotiations.

Mr. Waterson: That is a danger, and my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to it. Heaven alone knows how the Labour party might approach a referendum. We shall hear about that from the Opposition Front-Bench spokeswoman. It would not go into a referendum campaign united, in stark contrast with the Liberal Democrats. Although that party has had differences of emphasis about the appropriateness of a referendum and on some aspects of the European question, it is pretty well sold hook, line and sinker on the notion of a federal

Column 631

super-state in Europe and on giving up the right of veto on some important matters of policy. It will not surprise hon. Members to learn that I shall examine the policy of that party later in my speech.

Sir Teddy Taylor: As the hon. Gentleman knows so much more about these things than we all do, could he tell us what the danger is? I keep on hearing Conservatives saying that they want to fight the federal state. What is so bad about such a state? Would it not be better than what we have got, because at least with a federal state some things belong to Britain, just as some things belong to France? I should have thought that a federal Europe was a huge advance on the current position, where effectively nothing belongs to us.

Mr. Waterson: That is a surprising intervention, and it may take me the rest of my speech to take in its full implications. I am sure that, if my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) has an application form on his person for the European Movement, he might want to pass it back to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor).

Mr. Duncan rose --

Mr. Waterson: I want to make some progress.

We do not know what will be on the IGC agenda. We have had some clear assurances from the Prime Minister, which I hope have reassured at least most of the sponsors of the Bill, that if any constitutional changes were proposed, which he doubts, they would be vetoed by Britain.

In the same Frost interview, the Prime Minister said:

"If in some fashion I cannot fathom something emerges from that conference that I was not able to block, I do not believe that can be the case, but if that were to be the case then I certainly would keep open the option of a referendum".

We have the prospect of a triple lock--

Mr. Carttiss: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Waterson: No.

Sir Teddy Taylor: Why will the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson) not answer my question?

Mr. Carttiss: As he did not answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor), my hon. Friend probably could not answer mine.

Mr. Waterson: We have the safety of a triple lock, to coin a phrase. First, we must agree what is to be on the agenda. That is far from being cut and dried. Secondly, we have had assurances from the Prime Minister that he would use our veto--some Opposition Members would like to dispose of it--to ensure that anything that we found objectionable would not end up in the IGC agreement. Thirdly, if by some mischance anything got through those safety nets, we still have the possibility of holding a referendum. Those things that the Prime Minister has said are important, and we must bear them in mind as we discuss the issue today.

The issue of a single currency has arisen more than once today. It is a feature of the second Bill on the Order Paper and it is one of the issues surrounding this Bill. It

Column 632

is now clearly accepted by everyone on the Conservative side of the House that a single currency would be a constitutional issue, every bit as much as a political one.

Mr. Budgen: I know that my hon. Friend speaks with the authority and encouragement of the Government, so perhaps he can explain to the House how the Chancellor of the Exchequer puts that point.

Mr. Waterson: No; I am not sure that I accept that piece of, if I may say so, characteristic snidery about my reasons for participating in the debate. [Interruption.] I really do think that hon. Members should take a leaf out of the book of the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane), who spoke so eloquently about the right of all Members of the House to express their point of view. The continual barracking from other Members here is really not designed to ensure a proper debate on the issue, which is a serious one.

On the nub of my hon. Friend's question, although I would accept that at one time there appeared to be a certain amount of confusion about the position, I think that my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor has made his position absolutely clear. He does now accept that it is not simply an economic issue, but that there is a constitutional and legal dimension. That, of course, is the position of all Members on the Conservative side of the House.

I do not want to dwell too long on the single currency. I shall move on to the issue of further political union.

There needs to be gradual recognition of the fact that different members of the European Union have joined for different reasons, and that the one reason why this country did not join the European Community, now the European Union, was in some way to bolster or enhance our parliamentary democracy. We have had centuries of parliamentary representation.

We joined principally, in my opinion--it has always been my opinion--for reasons of free trade and an open and single market. Other countries, legitimately--I make no complaint about it--have joined for different reasons, such as to bolster democracy, to ensure economic improvements and so on, and perhaps because one or two have less of a sense of nationhood, of tradition, than we have. That is fine if it works for them, but I return to my argument that the main reason why we joined was economic and to do with trade.

It is important that we do not debate the subject of a referendum in a vacuum. We need at the same time to lay out a much more positive agenda for the IGC, which is part and parcel of the Bill that we are debating. We need to ensure that several issues appear on that agenda.

First, it must include border controls, which has become more topical in recent weeks. Secondly, it must include the powers of the European Commission. Even Mr. Santer has said that the Commission should do less but that what it does it should do better. Thirdly, it must include the powers of the European Court. Many of us--the lawyers in the House, at least--find some of the decisions that it takes worrying.

Fourthly, it must include subsidiarity, and the continuation of that process. We heard something about subsidiarity earlier. Fifthly, it must include the reversal of the drive towards political integration, and that is

Column 633

connected with the argument that I made earlier about the different reasons why countries may have joined in the first place.

Mr. Tony Banks: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his percipience, because a little while ago he said that he hoped that my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) would receive promotion to the Labour Front Bench and, lo and behold, he has.

Mr. Waterson: I fear that it is more of an occupation than a promotion. "Squatting" might be the appropriate word.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow): Will the hon. Gentleman give way on a more serious note? How would he, as a lawyer, seek to constrain the formidable powers of that supreme court, the European Court of Justice?

Mr. Waterson: I am willing to be corrected by other hon. Members, but my understanding is that that court's authority derives from the consent of the nations that are part of the European Union. There are concerns about that court having an overweening amount of power in some of the decisions that it makes. I mean no disrespect to the European Court, but some of its decisions and the reasons behind them are unfamiliar to those of us brought up in the common law tradition. There is a political dimension to some of its decisions with which we in this country are unfamiliar.

Mr. Maclennan: The hon. Gentleman is making an interesting speech. Does he not agree that the powers of the court do not derive from an abstraction called popular consent, but from documents drafted by, among others, the British Governments? Those are the constituent rules being applied by the courts. Even in this country, with the common law with which the hon. Gentleman is familiar, our judges, in their use of judicial review --which has been greatly developed in the past decade--exercise a decision- making power which, although not set out in constitutions such as the European Court applies, is a proper exercise of their role. It is becoming much more familiar, even for common lawyers, to hear judges pronouncing on so-called political matters.

Mr. Waterson: To an extent, the hon. Gentleman is right. There has been a change--whether it would have happened anyway, independently of the European Union and the European Court, is a debate for another occasion. I think that it was Lord Denning who talked about European law as an incoming tide, washing up the rivers and tributaries in this country, and there was nothing that the judges could do to resist it. I think that there is something that we can do. Uncharacteristically, the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) misunderstood the point. I hope that I said that the court had been set up with the consent of the nations, not necessarily the peoples of those nations. It seems that documents that can be negotiated, drafted and agreed by nations and should in theory be open to redrafting and improvement.

Sixthly, the reform of the common agricultural policy is bound to happen as a result of further enlargement. There is no way that the CAP can carry on its present

Column 634

economically suicidal course if we enlarge the Community further to the east. Bringing in massive agrarian economies will make the rickety structure collapse unless it is thoroughly reformed.

Mr. Mackinlay: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Waterson: No.

Part of the same issue is rooting out waste and corruption in the European Union.

Mr. Mackinlay rose --

Mr. Waterson: I must make progress, because I know that many hon. Members want to speak, and I do not wish to be accused of taking too long.

Seventhly, the subject of further enlargement has to be coupled with an enhancement of the power of the larger states, in which I include ourselves.

Finally, I return to the practical question of running a referendum. In my intervention during the speech of the hon. Member for Billericay, I referred to the problem of timing. The timing is crucial, and I think that the referendum which the hon. Lady proposes will be premature for the reasons that I have mentioned already. There are other practical problems relating to how the referendum would be organised and to how the question would be framed. The House of Commons Library background briefing on the issue is particularly useful in that respect. It makes the good point that, if a referendum is to have any meaning, it must be

"acceptable, in the sense of being `democratic' and


Everyone must accept that it is a valid and legitimate way of reaching a decision. The briefing document states:

"A referendum can be said to be acceptable if it is genuinely recognised by the winners and the losers alike as being decisive of the particular issue at stake, at least in the medium term". That brings us naturally to the issue of what question or questions to put in the referendum. The briefing paper says that there must be

"a balance between brevity, clarity and simplicity on the one hand, and full and accurate descriptions of the issue(s)".

I have already said--it bears repeating--that we do not know what the issues will be. My hon. Friend makes the massive assumption that the wording in clause 2(a) of her Bill represents the choice that will face us following the intergovernmental conference. The briefing document wisely makes the point that

"a referendum should (a) allow individual choice to be reflected accurately --`micro fairness', and (b) produce a final result which translates . . . the aggregation of individual choices or `macro fairness'".

There will be continuing debate about the sorts of questions that the proposed referendum should ask. The document makes a distinction between what it calls a "static" question--for example, to remain within the European Union or to unite the two parts of Ireland, or whatever it may be- -and what it calls a "dynamic" or "process" question which reflects the stages of the process towards more integrated political union. There may be valid arguments for a multi-option referendum, a preference vote system or whatever. The hon. Lady did not dwell in her speech--perhaps she may wish to reflect upon it later--upon whether a minimum voter turnout is essential for the success of the referendum. Should we specify a necessary voter majority, as occurred on a previous occasion involving

Next Section

  Home Page