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Mr. Menzies Campbell: I, too, followed with great interest the thoughtful speech of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), but I regret to say that I disagreed with almost all of it. I feel buttressed in the correctness of that conclusion by the fact that we have just fought a general election campaign in which one of the main political parties offered a referendum to the people of the United Kingdom on the treaty of Nice, and that party was comprehensively defeated.
Mr. Frank Field: May I suggest to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that the Conservative party could not win the election and, therefore, whatever the party in government was proposing would have been approved? It would be dangerous for Labour Members to assume that voters were not interested in lower taxation or in the euro. They did not think that those issues should feature in the general election because they did not think that the group of people masquerading as Her Majesty's Opposition was fit to be elected.
Mr. Campbell: As a result of that intervention, the right hon. Gentleman may find it more difficult to persuade the official Opposition to abandon their new clause and vote in support of his. In reaching my conclusions on this matter, I have started from a quite different place from the right hon. Gentleman, and we shall have to accept that.
I am sure that there is amazement on the banks of the Liffey, astonishment in Galway and surprise in Sligo that the decision taken by the Irish people should have been elevated to such an extraordinary level of importance by a party that still, in some parts of the United Kingdom, describes itself as the Unionist party. Irish politicians will be astonished that they have now achieved the status of prophetsin this debate, if not in their own landbecause of observations that they have made about the consequences of what happened in Ireland as a result of a referendum that arose out of an entirely different constitutional settlement from the one that obtains here in the United Kingdom.
I do not believe that the decision of the people of Ireland should be allowed to intrude on the decision- making processes of the people of the United Kingdom. The fact that the people of Ireland decided that they did not want the treaty of Nice to be ratified in their constitutional arrangements may be a matter of some procedural consequence to the ultimate ratification and acceptance of the treaty by all the members of the European Union. However, it should not form any part of an argument in this Parliament, or in this country, about whether the treaty requires the endorsement of the British people through a referendum before it can be ratified.
I go back to the recent general election campaign. It seems like a long time ago; in fact, it was only about eight weeks. The position of Conservative Members, who have tabled the new clause, was that their party would have refused to sign the treaty of Nice and it would have gone to Gothenburg immediately after the general election in the confident expectation that it could renegotiate the terms of the treaty.
No great constitutional issues are raised by the treaty of Nice. Taxation, social security and defence remain firmly in the intergovernmental sphere, and firmly subject to unanimity. There will be a great constitutional step for this country to take if the Government of the day ever recommend that we join the single European currency. That will be a decision not only of economic management but of political and constitutional significance. That is why the former leader of my party, whom we must now learn to call Lord Ashdown, was the first to say that it was an issue of such importance that it ought to be the subject of a referendum, and that we should not join without the endorsement of the people of the United Kingdom. That will be a decision of a quite different degree and different substance from those on the procedural issuesthe housekeeping issues, as I have previously described themthat are embraced by the treaty of Nice.
The claim for the need for a referendum was a catch-allquite legitimately, one might argue, in the context of a general election campaign. It was something behind which all the Conservative candidates could cluster. It was a form of protection and of defence. However, one of those who was a prominent participant in the leadership contest and who is now to seek the verdict of the Conservative membership in the country holds a view of the treaty that is entirely consistent with the view that I have just expressed.
A referendum should not be used as an act of party politics. It should be employed sparingly in circumstances in which there are principled issues of constitutional consequence. There are no such circumstances in this case. I return to a point that I made on Second Reading. Where are the people besieging the House of Commons saying, "You should not be allowed to pass the legislation on the ratification of the treaty of Nice unless you ensure that we, the people, have a referendum on the matter"? As I said before, people have been breaking into Menwith Hill and protesting against national missile defence. Our postbags are filled with arguments about that, about health and about education. The notion that there is an unsatisfied popular demand out there for a referendum on the treaty of Nice is certainly not supported by my experience. Furthermore, I have not yet heard convincing arguments from others who have spoken in this debate or on previous occasions that their own experience mirrors an unsatisfied demand that this legislation should not pass into law unless it contains the provision for a referendum.
I have to tell the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) that, in my judgment, one of the consequences of the indiscriminate use of the referendum in a representative parliamentary democracy is an undermining of the very principle of parliamentary democracy, unless we can point to an issue that is of such fundamental constitutional importance that it requires Parliament to go to the people to seek their endorsement. The treaty justifies neither euphoria nor hysteria. It provides a framework for enlargement, which Members on both sides of the House support.
Mr. Cash: Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman accept that it has been made clear as a result of discussions and altercations with Romano Prodi when he was in Ireland that the decision taken by the Irish people has nothing to do with enlargement and that the Nice treaty itself has nothing to do with enlargement? Enlargement could take place under the Amsterdam treaty.
Mr. Campbell: That issue was fully canvassed on Second Reading and during the speech of the Foreign Secretary. Yes, the EU could be enlarged without the Nice treaty, but what sort of enlarged EU would it be? We would create a monster in which every country would be entitled to two Commissioners and the veto would be available to even the smallest country with the smallest population and the smallest gross domestic product.
If we are to have an enlarged Union, we must have a Union whose procedures allow for the effective management of that Union, subject, of course, to qualifications for the protection of countries such as ours and the smaller countries. An enlarged EU could be achieved without the treaty, but I venture to suggest that were there to be such an enlarged EU, the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) would be the first to declare it unmanageable, far too large and having reached a point at which it served no further purpose. Let me conclude
Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): I want to make my own arguments in favour of a referendum on the treaty by drawing mainly on comments made by my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe in his article in The Independent at the beginning of the week. He is absolutely right to say
Each time a period of office runs out, a Government have to present themselves to the public in another form of referendumone on their competence to form a Government who govern in the public's name. The presumption was always that Governments who made a mess by introducing unpopular policies could be thrown out by an electorate who were fed up with them. Throwing out the Government of the day was a channel whereby people could reject the policies of the day that they found so objectionable. The important point about the succession of European treaties that we have been presented with is how many of them have stripped from Governments the ability to offer the electorate any such choice.
There are genuine dangers for the democratic process if we are saying to people, "Why vote when you can replace a Government, but not the policies that they will inflict on you? The same policies, acceptable or otherwise, will be pushed down your throat whoever is in power." The credibility of the House, the institution of Parliament and the democratic basis on which Parliament gets a conditional mandate is seriously undermined as we strip from ourselves the rights of the public to make those choices.