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Mr. Ancram: I am very grateful to the Foreign Secretary for giving way. I have two brief questions. First, did he stand in 1983 on a manifesto that committed him to withdrawal from Europe, and what has happened to his view, which I am sure that he held sincerely at the time?

Secondly, in relation to his comments about our current position, he will have heard today and during the past few months that we have a consistent view: it is right for the people of this country to have a chance to say whether they want to go into a fundamentally different Europe or to stay where they are at present. I am surprised that the Foreign Secretary is using this opportunity to launch a smokescreen political attack, which is part of an agenda that has been running for some weeks, trying to pretend that the argument is about staying in or getting out of Europe. When will he understand that this is a serious debate about the democratic rights of the people of this country and that he should concentrate on that?

Mr. Straw: The manifesto that I stood on in 1983, along with many other loyal members of the diminishing band of Labour MPs from that era is a matter of record. It proposed that we should leave the European Union. To respond to the right hon. Gentleman, I reinforce an excellent point made yesterday by my hon. Friend the Minister for Europe: in every election since 1970, the party that stood on a rabid anti-European platform was rightly defeated. We were defeated in 1983 and the Conservatives were defeated in 1997 and again in 2001. We learned the lesson; the sad fact is that, far from learning the lesson, the Conservatives have been reinforced in their ignorance and their blind conviction that the policy that led them to defeat in 2001 was right rather than wrong.

The one person who at least has the merit of consistency is the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) who was the lieutenant-general of the Maastricht wreckers. It is a real delight to see him in his current position, directing the policy of the rest of the

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Conservative Front Bench. What a humiliation for the right hon. Member for Devizes. We know his real views, yet he is forced—squeezed between the hon. Member for Stone and the leader of the Conservative party—into an excruciating position, in which he palpably does not believe.

It is hard to reconcile the views of the Tory party with continued United Kingdom membership of the European Union.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills): That is ridiculous.

Mr. Straw: Well, three weeks ago, an interesting interview was published in the Financial Times about

In other words, that we should get rid of the central requirement of our membership of the EU—that EU laws, if we agree with them in our system, should override United Kingdom law. The article continued:

the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)—

The "let's say something positive about Europe" tendency has not been markedly in operation today, or during the past six months.

Mr. Cash : Every word that the Foreign Secretary utters demonstrates that he does not understand the treaty that he is supposed to be negotiating. The fact is that under our present arrangements, if this treaty went through we would need to change the European Communities Act 1972 in order to guarantee the sovereignty of this Parliament; because otherwise, the constitution would be like a cuckoo in the nest and would take us over.

Mr. Straw rose—

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps, before the Foreign Secretary replies, I might remind all hon. Members that some reference to the word "referendum" would be helpful.

Mr. Straw: I simply say, Madam Deputy Speaker—arguing the case against a referendum—that the shadow Attorney-General is yet again drifting into the realm of fantasy. There is no substantive difference between the draft provisions in the draft convention, which yet could still be improved—we will look to that—and what is in section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Straw: I must make progress; this is a short debate.

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Given that the tendency that now wishes to see the United Kingdom gradually forced out of the European Union is now in control of the Tory party, the British people are presented with a clear choice: a choice between a party that seeks to play a patriotic role in the European Union to boost British jobs, British prosperity and British influence; and a party that seeks—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order.

Mr. McLoughlin rose—

Mr. Straw: I will not give way for the moment because I want to make progress.

Now, Madam Deputy Speaker, I come to the issue that you asked me to address directly. In the United Kingdom there is no hard and fast rule about which issues should go to a referendum and which should not, and the weight of an issue—its gravity—cannot be the sole test. We have routinely held referendums on second-order issues such as Sunday drinking in Wales. We have never held referendums, nor has any other country of which I am aware, on the most critical question that can ever come before any Government, but particularly a democracy: whether to go to war. Nor have we held referendums, nor would I ever suggest that we should, on crucial issues of taxation or public spending.

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

Mr. Straw: I promise to give way in a second.

Although there is no iron rule on the holding of referendums in the UK, in practice we have held referendums to determine whether to change our constitutional arrangements dramatically. Contrary to the implication of what the shadow Foreign Secretary said, there has been only one United Kingdom-wide referendum in our history. That was 28 years ago—the 1975 poll on whether to stay in or leave the European Union. In our judgment—I do not think that it is a matter of argument across the Chamber—whether Britain should adopt the single currency or not belongs in the same category of constitutional importance. However, all the other referendums have taken place in separate parts of the United Kingdom. Thus in the late 1990s we held referendums about whether to have a Scottish Parliament, a Welsh Assembly or a London Mayor.

In each of those examples, the choices have been very stark and the alternative consequences have been clear. You stay in the Common Market or you leave. You have a Scottish Parliament or you do not. You have the euro or you have sterling. What successive Governments have not done is to hold a referendum on whether to approve changes to the existing institutions to which we belong. Back in 1993, the anti-European zealots, led by the hon. Member for Stone and the present Leader of the Opposition, used the referendum device as a tool to disrupt and delay the Maastricht treaty, and for that reason a majority of Conservative MPs would have nothing to do with it. I am glad that the deputy leader of the Conservative party says that he has changed his mind on that in the past six months. I

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cannot imagine the significance of six months ago—December 2002—given that the Convention has been in operation for the past year.

Mr. Ancram: The least that the Foreign Secretary could do is to listen to the debate, even if he is not going to answer it. I said that we formulated this policy in relation to the Convention six months ago, when we understood the direction that the Convention was going in. Had we done so a lot earlier, we would have been in exactly the position that he is in, saying that he will not hold a referendum whatever comes out of it.

Mr. Straw: It is lucky that the Tory party does not have a freedom of information Act; otherwise, we would discover the real reasons for this extraordinary change of policy by the right hon. Gentleman, when he not only voted against a referendum on Maastricht, with 11 other members of the now shadow Cabinet, but actively argued against it on strong grounds. He has turned on his head and changed his mind.

Mr. Allen: I thank my right hon. Friend for his generosity in giving way yet again and for making it clear today that Parliament will have a role in this matter prior to the IGC. First, will he let us know when he can come to the House or in some other way let hon. Members know the format of such debates? Secondly, obviously the IGC is in the hands of the Executive, but in order that Parliament's decision is not in the hands of the Executive, will he make it clear that he will press for a free vote among all hon. Members, as we go through the steady discussions on these matters? Otherwise, we shall merely be rubber stamping what he is saying at the IGC.

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