16 Sept 2003 : Column 777
Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal):
I have to advise the House that Mr. Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes):
I beg to move,
That this House believes that the draft Constitution, presented by the Convention on the Future of Europe to the Inter-Governmental Conference on 20th June at Thessalonica, constitutes a fundamental change to the relationship between the European Union and the Member States and should therefore only be implemented if the British people have freely consented to it in a referendum.
This debate is essentially about trusting the British people. It is about letting the British people decide, and Sunday's euro referendum in Sweden was a healthy and welcome example of the pitfalls facing Governments who think that they know better than the people. I regret the bullying way in which the Eurocrats in Brussels have responded to that decision.
Ian Stewart (Eccles):
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
No, I shall make a little progress first.
The Government's ruling out of a referendum on the proposed constitution displays a similar hectoring disregard for the deeply held views of the British people, and I therefore make no apology for returning to this subject today. Hon. Members on both sides of the House, as we know, support a referendum; serious commentators argue for a referendum; and the people demand a referendum. Ironically, it was the Government who created that demand. They introduced referendums to our constitutional diet and gave the British people a taste for them. Even before they took office, they were promoting referendums as a central part of new Labour's political culture. Since then, they have held 34 referendumson devolution, on mayors and now on regionalisation, not to speak of the yet again, if not permanently, postponed referendum on scrapping the pound.
In 1996, the Labour party was promoting the idea of referendums. As the then shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, now Lord Robertson, pithily put it while arguing for a referendum on devolution:
"Politicians should trust the people."
The Government trust the people on devolution. They trust the people on London. They trust the people on mayors. They trust the people on regional assemblies. They trust the peopleuntil this one, the big one, the one that really matters. The Government then suddenly stop trusting the people and say no; but the British people will not take no for an answer, and nor will we.
The case for a referendum on the proposed European constitution is overwhelming. The principle behind holding a referendum is very simple: the draft constitution sets out to transfer sovereignty, both generally and specifically, from our national Parliament to the emerging political entity, which, in the Prime Minister's words, will be a European superpower.
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston):
Those were the Prime Minister's words, not mine. The hon. Gentleman should perhaps read the
16 Sept 2003 : Column 778
speeches that the Prime Minister made in Warsaw in 2000 and in Cardiff last November, where he explicitly set out his desire to create what he called a European superpower.
Sovereignty does not belong to Parliament or to the Government. Sovereignty belongs to the people. Parliament holds sovereignty in trust. Parliament can exercise sovereignty, but it should not on its own authority alienate it. If sovereignty is to be transferred, alienated or surrendered, it should be done only with the consent of the British people, democratically and freely given, arguably in the context of a general election, but ideally in a referendum. There will be many arguments as to what constitutes such alienation in the context of the coming intergovernmental conference. I believe that anything that reduces the powers of domestic national Governments, and thereby strengthens the powers at the centre, constitutes alienation. The draft constitution before us is full of such instances.
Mike Gapes (Ilford, South):
Does the right hon. Gentleman recollect that the powers of central Government of this country were significantly reduced under the Single European Act and other measures introduced in the past, and that there was no referendum at that time? Given the logic of his position, however, would it not be more honest to talk not about a referendum on a constitution but about a referendum on allowing the Conservative party to campaign, as most of its members seem to want, to get out of the European Union completely?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman reads the brief that his party produces for him. Helpfully, I also have a copy. It reads:
"Clear dividing line between a Tory party determined to take Britain to the exit door of Europe and a Labour Government working in Europe".
I say "well done" to the hon. Gentleman. He will get brownie points from the Whips for that. This document is wonderful. It says:
"The Convention of Europe was set up to propose changes in the way the EU works with the expansion of the EU to 25 members from May 2004."
If the Convention were only doing that, it would have done it very quickly. There is a lot more in the Convention report than that. The document continues:
"No precedent for a referendum on EU treaty change".
Even the Government, in the document that they produced as a White Paper the other day, accept that it is not a treaty but a constitution. That is the basic difference. LastlyI will then finish with this document, as I would not want to steal all the lines of Labour Membersthe document says surprisingly:
"The Government believes there is a strong case for a single, coherent constitution for the EU."
What happened to the Prime Minister's comments in Warsaw, I think it was, in 2000, when he said that there was no necessity for a single constitution or a single document? This document is a piece of propaganda, and I congratulate all hon. Members who are brave enough to try to make use of it.
We were told last year that a referendum would be unjustified because the treaty would contain nothing of constitutional importance. I repeat: nothing of
16 Sept 2003 : Column 779
constitutional importance. It is only a written constitution, which for the first time explicitly enshrines the primacy of EU law. It is a constitution that sets up a European Presidency for the first time, a European diplomatic service for the first time, and a European Foreign Secretary to oversee it. If those are not constitutionally significant, heaven knows what is. Even the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), who I am pleased to see in his place today, apparently agrees. On 1 April this year, he told the Foreign Affairs Committee that he was not saying that the European constitution
"has got no substantial constitutional significance, of course it will have".
For once he was right. Can we therefore now have the referendum that we were told we could have if there was anything of constitutional significance? Apparently, we cannot, because now that the constitutional significance criterion has been met, another hurdle has been quickly slipped into its place. The truth is that those criteria are cosmetic. The Government have set their face against a referendum not because the draft constitution does not merit one but simply because they do not trust the people. As a result, their defence of their anti-referendum position becomes more and more frayed with every passing week.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham):
Is it not even worse than that? The Government will not hold a referendum on the pound and the euro because they know that they would lose it, as the British people do not want to give up that amount of power. They are therefore prepared to give up all the rest in this constitution, without a referendum, knowing that the British people do not want it. It would be the first case in history of there being a currency with no country to go with it.
My right hon. Friend makes a powerful point. He points out that this Government, who talk so much about trusting the people, when it comes to the crunch do not believe that the people trust them, and are not prepared to put that to the test. He makes his point very well.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw):
Is the point made by the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) also the right hon. Gentleman's point? Does he believe that it would be a currency without a country?
I believe that there is no country called Europe at present, and if Conservative Members have anything to do with it, there never will be a country called Europe. At the moment, we are talking about a currency that does not have a country. The Swedes, in their wisdom, decided that that was not a game in which they wished to play a part, and if the Government were brave enough to hold a referendum on the same issue here, the British people would give them the same verdict.
Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley):
The right hon. Gentleman, Malcolm Rifkind and I used to agree entirely on Europeso much so that we wrote a letter to a newspaper togetherbut he has
16 Sept 2003 : Column 780
changed while I am consistent. He has not mentioned the other referendum, which was held in Estonia on Sunday. I was planning to ask him to condemn the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), Lord Lamont and all those MEPs for interfering in the affairs of another state. However, given that there was a resounding yes vote on joining Europe, will he send them to Latvia as well?