Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Sir Patrick Cormack: What about Members of Parliament?

Mr. Cook: Of course, our work is a pure delight.

Sir Peter Tapsell (East Lindsey): If that report is accurate, is it not extraordinary that the righthon. Gentleman is not addressing an empty Chamber?

Mr. Cook: It is not a frivolous matter. The House of Commons has quite a record of coronary heart disease--so much so that, in 1978, when we were sitting longer hours than we do now, we specifically commissioned a study that documented that high incidence of coronary heart disease. This is not a laughing matter, but the point that the hon. Gentleman must answer is: if he is so robust in defending that proposition, why did the Department of Health go to the length of spending £1,500 on printing 5,000 such leaflets and then a further sum of public

12 Dec 1996 : Column 449

money on pulping every one of them to get rid of that single sentence? I will tell him why. It was because the Department and the Government do not want the public to know what they know--that excessive working hours are a health and safety matter.

Thanks to the changes in the labour laws under the Government, Britain has more people working more than 48 hours than the rest of Europe put together. Since the last general election, 500,000 more people in Britain are working more than 48 hours. Conservative Members keep telling us that they support "sovereignty". Real sovereignty is about giving people control over their own lives and the right to say no to excessive hours.

The fact is that 78 per cent. of the public agree with the proposition that people should not be forced to work more than 40 hours if they do not wish to do so, and90 per cent. agree that there should as an entitlement be a minimum of three weeks' paid holiday. I cannot believe that Conservative Members would be so foolish as to fight the next general election insisting on longer hours and shorter paid holidays--although I go down on my knees every night and pray that they will.

Sir Timothy Sainsbury (Hove): Did the right hon. Gentleman's survey of public opinion cover the percentage of the British people who wish Brussels to have the right to legislate against British laws on any health or social matter or on any matter affecting the workplace?

Mr. Cook: The right hon. Gentleman exemplifies the problem in the Tory party on this debate. It is not Brussels legislating on that matter, it is the Council of Ministers--in which the Government have played a full part. Ministers have subsequently come to the Dispatch Box to take pride in the fact that all their amendments to the directive were passed. In resisting the final outcome, the Government are representing not the wishes of the British people but the prejudices of Tory backwoodsmen.

The Government do not even represent the views of British personnel directors, one of whom recently wrote a letter to The Times stating that his company had used the directive as a framework for working practices, and that, consequently, it had improved output, achieved greater flexibility and reduced costs.

In all our history, the economic security and diplomatic future of Britain has never been more bound up in Europe, yet we are saddled with a Government whose Back Benchers seem to live in daily hope of more fog in the channel, cutting off the continent.

When commentators come to write about this Government's decline and fall, they will identify the Chancellor's speech yesterday to the House as the moment of truth. There was a revealing moment in his speech, when he mentioned the fact that 70 per cent. of the public support the Government's line on a single currency, and that comment was greeted with loud jeering on the Conservative Benches. How can any Government survive when their own Back Benchers think laughable the idea that the public support the Government line?

Sir Patrick Cormack: I seem to remember that, many years ago, when I was strongly in favour of Europe,

12 Dec 1996 : Column 450

the right hon. Gentleman took rather a different line. When was he converted to this passionate advocacy of the European cause?

Mr. Cook: I shall happily answer the hon. Gentleman: in 1984, when I was the Labour party's spokesman on Europe. I changed my position because, by then, we had had more than 10 years' membership of the European Union. We have now been a member for well over20 years. I do not believe that there can be a future for Britain remaining as a member of a union that plays an increasingly larger role in our trade, our jobs and our economic future while we are constantly and simultaneously sulking, as if we wish that we were not a member. That provides us with the worst of all possible worlds.

In his speech yesterday, the Chancellor was jeered by his own side. It is no wonder that he has observed:

In case anyone was in any about which party he was talking about, up popped the hon. Member for Reigate(Sir G. Gardiner), who greeted Sunday's appeal for order by the Prime Minister with the characteristically generous response: "The strife goes on." That calls to mind the slogan of the Militant Tendency:

    "Today the struggle, tomorrow the revolution."

Only one year from now, Britain will hold the presidency of the European Union. How will a Conservative party that is constantly wishing to pick fights with Europe--with all the enthusiasm and venom with which they pick fights among themselves--possibly pose as the president of an institution that ever more of its members regard with fear and loathing? The Euro-sceptics would be as embarrassed as the rest us to find that they were the president of Europe. Their entire approach to Europe is to block agreements, to seek confrontation and to go out on a limb. If one is president of the European Union, one must try to achieve agreement, build consensus and find the pivotal point in a debate. Having to fulfil that role in Europe would appal Conservative Members.

I offer them comfort, because we intend to relieve them of that embarrassment. Before the next debate on a European summit, there will be a general election. Something will have gone sadly wrong with our constitution if that does not turn out to be true. I am aware that there is a widespread delusion among Conservative Members that they can escape the fate that awaits them in that election if they fight it not as the party standing against the Labour party but as the party standing against Europe, and that, if they spend the campaign talking solely about Europe, the electorate will forget that they are paying higher taxes for worse public services.

Perhaps I should leave them labouring under that delusion, but I want a fair fight at the general election. I want to tell them that they really should look at the opinion polls, which, for a year, have consistently shown that Labour has a 19-point lead in answer to the question:

The reason for that belief is that people want a Government who will do business with Europe and who will get a constructive deal for Britain out of Europe. They know that the Conservative Government have amply

12 Dec 1996 : Column 451

proved that they cannot do business in Europe, and that the Conservative party no longer even wants to cut a deal in Europe.

The Government's record on Europe of confrontation, failure and isolation will not provide the lifebelt that so many Tory Members imagine. It will be another deadweight, dragging them down in public opinion. When the electorate have the opportunity to express their verdict, the Conservatives' record on Europe will be another reason why they will conclude that the Conservative party cannot provide a competent Government for Britain and is not fit to represent Britain in Europe.

6.5 pm

Mr. Peter Brooke (City of London and Westminster, South): It is always a pleasure to participate in a great debate with the shadow Foreign Secretary, whom I have never followed previously in a debate. One of the best things in life is surprises, and one of the pleasures of listening to the shadow Foreign Secretary is that one never knows quite what he will say, which is rather a change from many of my other colleagues in the House.

By chance, my family have been afforded a seriesof leper's squints at European evolution. My great-grandfather was chaplain to "Dear Vicky"--Queen Victoria's eldest daughter--who was married to Crown Prince Friedrich of Prussia. Family legend has it that, as his tour of duty came towards an end, she told my great grandfather that the Crown Prince and she were exercised about their son, Wilhelm, felt that he stood in need of a strong dose of English liberalism, and asked my great-grandfather if he would stay on to be his tutor.

My great-grandfather was determined, however, to return to London and declined the offer. But because the Almighty's powers include a sense of irony, my great-grandfather lived until 1916, and, in his declining years, he had to wonder whether the entire course of European history might have been different had the Kaiser passed through his hands. His brother-in-law--who was also the Liberal Member of Parliament for Wakefield, until he decided that he preferred Mr. Disraeli toMr. Gladstone--was invited by the Hapsburgs, via the Bank of England, to save a bank in Vienna.

In my own--more modest--way, I was Financial Times correspondent in Switzerland, both when, in 1961, the Germans and the Dutch revalued upwards, and when my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) and the late Reginald Maudling broke the news to the European Free Trade Association that we would seek entry to the European Community. A decade later, when that ambition was consummated, I was living in Brussels. In a manner that echoed the Duchess of Richmond's ball before Waterloo, the Anglo-Belgian chamber of commerce, coincidentally, dined in tails the night before the European Communities Act 1972 passed the House by eight votes. In the 1980s, I served longer on the Community's Budget Council than any British Minister has done, continuously, since 1972.

Although Sicily was responsible for the only good joke about the single European market, no kinsman of mine, or myself, was present at Messina in 1955. That episode has a precise relation to this debate. In 1954, in an act that would reverse centuries of British policy, we committed four divisions to the continent, until 1998, as a powerful gesture to help lubricate the passage of the Brussels treaty.

12 Dec 1996 : Column 452

The inability of Mendes-France to get the Brussels treaty through the French Assembly rendered that gesture nugatory, but it also affected our attitude at Messina the following year. When Spaak, who was, I think, in the chair, made it clear that only those who were serious about European development should remain at the table, we British--affected by our experience the year before and believing that further investment in the project would likewise be nugatory--chose to leave the table, thus condemning ourselves two decades later to a common agricultural policy over whose conception we had had no influence.

Not only do I have no difficulty in supporting the Government's policy over the single currency, I would find any alternative to the wait and see policy an offence against a central tenet of Conservative philosophy--that we should learn from the past. There was one further lesson from Messina. The Dutch, our principal allies among the original six nations that signed the treaty of Rome, sought to delay the treaty and their participation in it to bring us back on board. It was Suez that convinced the Dutch that the era of individual European nations enjoying true independence of action was over. That caused them to sign the treaty and, a fortiori, has a resonance today.

I have spoken of the past. I am more hesitant about speaking of the future. That hesitancy is born of that episode in the life of Anthony Eden's somewhat irascible father, who came down to breakfast one morning when it was sheeting with rain outside, tapped the barometer which was set at very fair and threw it through the french windows with the words, "Go out and see for your something self." My hesitation about the future is shared by many in the Union.

I have ventilated before in the House, in a European context, the metaphor of a cathedral. Cathedrals take varying times to build. Prague took 1,000 years: Durham took 40. Par for the course might be a century. We have so far had 38, with eight years in preparation. Within the century, as with cathedrals, building will sometimes go quickly, sometimes tardily. What is critical, as with cathedrals, is that the foundations are secure, and that includes the consent of the peoples of Europe. The problem, as with most cathedrals that take longer than Durham's 40 years, is that the ordinary people of Europe have never been given a clear and constant blueprint of what the eventual building is intended to look like. Philosophically, that should not concern a nation as pragmatic as the British, but changes of gear among our colleagues can alarm us, as the past few years have demonstrated.

We should be true to ourselves and recover our national self-confidence, as our current economic performance would justify. We are demonstrating--in a way, incidentally, that a Labour Government would jeopardise--that the welfare policies in the rest of the Union are inconsistent with global competition. If we believe in ourselves, we should be confident that our colleagues will be obliged to modify their policies to meet global competition, but we would be truer to ourselves, and incidentally to the interests of the cathedral, if--in Pitt's phrase at Guildhall in my constituency--we save Europe by our example. That line of argument carries over into the single currency. Of course I acknowledge, though the right hon. Member for Dunfermline, East (Mr. Brown)

12 Dec 1996 : Column 453

appeared not to do so on the "Today" programme earlier this week or in the House yesterday, that there is a major political dimension to that decision.

I have my own views on the decision that we shall eventually take, but at this juncture we need to shape our minds on the economic implications. In the City of London, which I have the privilege to represent, those implications are argued both ways. The Governor of the Bank of England has indicated the ability of the City to continue to prosper outside the single currency. For myself, the City's success, not just in the contemporary era but over the centuries, has lain in the way that it has capitalised on freedom and flexibility and the willingness to offer a price on any risk.

Thus the City's future depends on a continuation of that freedom and flexibility. The present continental instincts--which are misguided in other respects, as I have suggested--militate against freedom and flexibility. It is likely that our example will be needed in that regard too, which is an added reason for remaining in the negotiations.

The way in which global competition is increasing London's role is profoundly encouraging. When I lived in Brussels, a disproportionate number of multinational companies had set up their European headquarters there. My college at Oxford sent one in six of its graduates to India between 1878 and 1914. I felt in Brussels a quarter of century ago that the late 20th century equivalent of the empire, as an international destination for Britons, was the multinational company. Despite the reputation of perfidious Albion, we are trusted as individuals internationally, and our maritime past gives us a flexibility that is the hallmark I mentioned of the City's success. The shadow Foreign Secretary's speech reminded me of when I was on the Budget Council and we held the presidency of the Community. A German Social Democratic economic spokesman confided to me that he would be happy if the British held the presidency on a permanent basis.

As the world shrinks and the Japanese philosophy of treating the whole world as their economic oyster gains ground, we are seeing an increasing number of foreign companies, in finance as well as in industries as diverse as contracting and pharmaceuticals, putting not just their European headquarters but their world headquarters in London. A profound benefit to the building of the European cathedral will occur as European companies report back from the City that our emphasis on freedom and flexibility is superior to the continental preference. That freedom and flexibility is the more important because, in so many existing financial markets, electronics has taken over from human judgment, which makes those markets potentially much more mobile.

As a believer in the cathedral, not least for future generations, I hope that we shall not need at any stage to dismantle and rebuild. Our best contribution must be to remain true to ourselves and offer our experience and our current economic success as an example and a guide. Otherwise, we will run the risk of finding ourselves at what anyone who has ever sung "Abide with me" in French will recall is le dernier rendezvous.

Next Section

IndexHome Page