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Some of the analogies used to justify the measure are bizarre. The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) knows as little about genetics as he does about politics. Just because there is only a 1 per cent. difference between our DNA and that of a chimpanzee or a bonobo does not mean that there is a 3 or 4 per cent. change between the constitutional treaty and the Lisbon treaty and thus a difference between the two measures. The difference is that bonobos do not write
treaties or compose music. The fact is that what is left in the Lisbon treaty does almost exactly what the original constitutional treaty would have done.
Jo Swinson: I appreciate the hon. Gentlemans generosity in giving wayunlike the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell). Does he not accept that as far as there is debate about Europe in our constituenciesin the pubs of Britainit is much more on the substantive issue of whether we should be in or out of Europe than on the intricacies of the Lisbon treaty?
Graham Stringer: I agree that there is dissatisfaction about Europe, and I agree with the former leader of the hon. Ladys party that some time or other there will have to be a real debate with the public, when such issues are voted on. I would be happy to vote on both the treaty and the in-or-out issue, at any time.
The second reason given is that the House does not do referendums. That was the position 30 or 40 years ago. I have not added up how many referendums there have been in this country in the past 10 years, but we are well into double figures; they are now a well recognised part of the constitution.
The third reason given for going along with the treaty is that it does not change very much, and without it the European Union would not work very well, so we need it because it will help make the EU more effective. As a member of the Transport Committee, I have looked seriously at how the EU has bulldozed through the Galileo project. It seems to me that the EU works very effectively at the moment, and that if it is looking for priorities, it should put the common agricultural policy right before dealing with the details of the Lisbon treaty.
I have listed the arguments that have been put publicly. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) is right to say that the private discussions are along these lines: We cant have a referendum; it would damage the Government, because they, and the Labour party, would lose it. I say to members of my own party who hold that point of view that the electorate might well reject the Lisbon treatybut if that is true, what are we doing putting it through anyway? It is much more damaging to the integrity of politics if we promise people something at election time and do not carry it through later.
Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends agonise about why turnout is going down at local and general elections. All sorts of gimmicks are considered; they look to electronic voting and changing voting days from Thursday to Sunday, for example. The most important factor, however, is whether when we get elected we carry out the commitments we made when talking to the electorate at election time. The commitment to a referendum was given by more or less all the parties in the House, and the electorate can reasonably expect it to be carried through.
Another reason given is even more shameful: People dont care. How many letters have you had on this issue? I have not had many, but when I talk to people, when they stop me in supermarkets, they show that they do care about the issue. It is not at the front of their minds, as it is of ours, all the time, but they know that a commitment will not be carried through.
Another reason is whispered in the Tea Room and elsewhere. It is that people do not understand; the issue is too complicated for electors to grasp, and they are not up to it. Apparently, they are up to electing hon. Members, but not to understanding the Lisbon treaty. I ask all right hon. and hon. Members who really believe that to use their communications allowance to write to their electors to tell them that they are not up to understanding the Lisbon treaty. I believe that my electors understand what the treaty is about, and would welcome a vote both on the Lisbon treaty and on whether to stay in or leave the European Union.
Yet another reason givensometimes publicly, sometimes privatelyis that the real issue is about whether to stay in or out. That has some credence. There is an appetite for debate among the electorate as to whether we should be in or out of the EU; I would want to stay in, as it happens.
One would not get through a first-year undergraduate course in philosophy by being asked one question and then moving on to a completely different question. We promised people a vote on what was then the constitutional treaty and is now the Lisbon treaty. It is healthy in a democracy for the electorate to be sceptical about their politicians and to question and wonder about what they are doing. When that scepticism turns to cynicism because they no longer believe their politicians, there is a real danger of damage to the democracy that we all support.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, may I say that as an awful lot of hon. Members are still seeking to catch my eye, and some are clearly going to be disappointed, it would be helpful if Members could try to take a little less than the eight minutes that are allowed.
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): I shall vote for the Bill and the treaty tonight. It is always a difficult matter to find oneself in a very small minority on an issue that engages ones party with a great deal of passion. I suppose that if I look back on what has really animated my political life, it has been the desire to see the United Kingdom engage thoroughly with Europe. It has been a fairly stony path, and I have to say that I see no positive conclusion yet. I shall vote for the treaty very much despite the Government, not because of themparticularly given that, of the two very amusing Front-Bench speeches, at least the one by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) was intentionally so.
Too often, the treaty is treated as a religion. The European Union is not a religious issue but a political one. It is not the Book of Revelations, nor is it the Book of Job. Different Members treat it as if it is either a wonderful document with biblical certainty, or nothing but a long chapter of lamentationsbut it is neither of those.
I am not very interested in the extent to which the treaty resembles the old constitution. Of course, countries that voted for the old constitution will think that it is the same thing, while those that were against it have every interest in showing that it is something
different. What matters, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind) said, is how bankable the various red line opt-ins and opt-outs are, because what is different, if they hold, is Britains range of obligations under the treaty. It is the same treaty, in stark terms, but Britains obligations are not the same as they were under the original constitution.
We should judge the treaty on the very practical ground of which we have been proud in British politics: does it work? It may not be impeccable, but will it make things better, and does it contain hidden bear traps? The whole argument in this debate has really been about not whether it is intrinsically good or bad but whether there is something hidden in it that will push us inexorably towards a different sort of Europe. Since this is the 400th anniversary of Miltons birth, perhaps I can quote a line from Paradise Lost
The treaty flows from enlargement, which was a huge political victory. It is worth remembering that the enlargement of the European Union was the biggest and most dramatic peaceful shift of population and power in Europe since the decline of the western Roman empire 1,600 years ago. The changes give us a better chance of dealing with the new agendas that are pressing upon us, which have constantly been repeated in the debateclimate change, population movement, competitiveness and terrorism. They do not guarantee itthat is a question of political willbut institutionally, they make us better able to respond positively if member states can summon up the will.
Most aspects are commonsensical. The so-called permanent president of the Council is perfectly sensible; rotation is a pretty daft idea. The foreign policy high representative will certainly improve co-operation. The fact that President Putin has just signed a gas deal with Bulgaria illustrates the extent to which the European Union needs to get its act together faced with the Russian state. As for qualified majority voting, it is worth remembering that it delivered one of the greatest British triumphs in the European Unionthe single market. Mrs. Thatcher would never have delivered the single market without qualified majority voting; it was the instrument that delivered that huge British success story. I simply do not believe that some covert agenda will overwhelm either Britains ability to state her interests or, for that matter, her identity.
I would probably christen the opt-outs or red lines the Wellington clauses, because they always remind me of the Duke of Wellingtons thin red lines at Torres Vedras during the Peninsula war, where, very conveniently, the enemy was the Frenchan attitude that has rather endured, I have to say. When the impact of things such as population movement, which flows from climate change, hits the United Kingdom, I wonder whether we will eventually see the case for greater policy co-ordination and integration. The treaty is a pretty modest one. It does not compare with the Single European Act or Maastricht, but the consequences of failure would be huge. We are four years on from the French referendum
veto and the Dutch veto. It is a huge matter for the United Kingdom, and huge for Europe.
I am not persuaded by the case for a referendum. We are rightly concerned with the decline of Parliament and its subservience to the Executive. That is the subject of almost eternal debate. Frankly, I can think of no greater way of accelerating Parliaments decline than to move to voting by plebiscite, for three reasons. First, the liberal and tolerant society in which I believe would be put at risk if we moved to government by plebiscite. Secondly, plebiscite is almost invariably an instrument against change. Thirdly, it is a lethal weapon in the hands of the Executive. As a parliamentarian, I do not believe in any of those three things. There may be once-in-a-lifetime changesthe single currency would be onethat are appropriate matters for a referendum, but not this relatively modest treaty.
We do need a pretty long respite from institutional change, but equally, there is a huge opportunity for Britain if it can overcome its habitual and, if I may say so, consensual response of baffled equivocation to any initiative that comes from Europe. That is why I said earlier that my political life had been in many ways animated by the desire to see Britain engage with Europe. Political and personal reasons lie behind that concern and preoccupation. I said that I had travelled on fairly stony ground; I hope that I may yet see, once this treaty is out of the way, the United Kingdom deciding that we should actuallyin the old-fashioned Yorkshire expressionget stuck in to our relationship with Europe, because there are huge benefits to be gained from a Europe that is in many ways more sympathetic to the UKs world view than it has been for many years.
I shall vote for this treaty. I shall not, when the opportunity comes, vote for a referendum. It will be with great sadness, because of the position of my party, but with the understanding that tolerance of views that are privately, personally and passionately held has always been understood in this House, and it is in that spirit I shall vote in the way that I feel I must.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Obviously, I rise with some disappointment about the fact that my amendment was not put before the House, but it is interesting that that amendment, which had so many people behind ita rainbow coalition that united a variety of parties and individuals, far more so than the average Italian coalitionrepresented a widespread current of opinion that should not go unnoticed. Hopefully, that coalition will continue and build.
There are a number of sensible changes, which I support, in the treaty. I regret in many ways that we have had debates, as we usually do on Europe, that are so polarised between black and white: the question is posed as absolutely for or absolutely against. The Government have deliberately sought to paint so many European debates as being between themselvesmoderate, sensible and wanting to get on with businessand those who want to withdraw, who are seen as the equivalent of flat-earthers, some of whom I saw the other day were compared with those who believe in
Nazi conspiracy theories. I do not think that that sort of political discussion is sensible or illuminating, and we should not continue with it.
Daniel Kawczynski: The person to whom the hon. Gentleman refers is the Minister for Europe, who, in interviews with the media, made rather obscure references to that posing the same danger to us as Nazi Germany, and to letters that he had received. It was scaremongering from the Minister for Europe.
On balance, I find myself against the treaty. One of the most significant speeches, for me, was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty). His speech showed why he supported the treaty, but he said that he saw it as a tipping point. To a great extent, I see it as a tipping point, too. I object to the centralisation that it will bring into effect.
I regret that the Liberals in particular have chosen to hang themselves on the hook of saying, Here is a question. We want to answer a completely different one. It is noticeable that hardly any of them are in the Chamber at the moment. They seem to take the view that they can simply avoid the question and hope it goes away, and that if they ask other questions, such as, Are you for or against cracked pavements?, people will overlook the fact that they appear to have no observations on the matter. It is fair to say that only 20 per cent. of Liberals have a clear view on cracked pavements; the others regard the subject as too political and would rather discuss whether buses should run on time. Even on that, as I understand it, the party is split.
There are questions about whether we should have a referendum that have not been answered. I am not necessarily obsessed by the question of referendums in all circumstances, but we promised to hold one. It was in our manifesto. It is unequivocally clear that we promised a referendum on these questions. The sole reason that we are not having a referendum in Britain is that the European political elite have learned from the lessons of France and Holland. They have learned that if they do not want people to give them the wrong answer, they should not ask them the question. Let us not forget that the Portuguese wanted a referendum, confident that there would be a yes vote. However, they were leaned on by Britain, France and some other European leaders not to have a referendum because it would cause embarrassment to this country in particular and would enhance the pressure for a referendum. For Britain to have pressed another country not to have a referendum because it might be embarrassing somewhat undermines the case that a referendum is not necessary.
I remember when those in my party had that long conversation with themselves and refused to listen to the public, and when many of those who are now ardent Blairites were ardent Bennites. I disagreed with the same people then as I do now. We had that conversation while ignoring the electorate. We are ignoring the electorate on this matter, to our grave danger. The circumstances are significant.
Let me return to the Liberals; I always enjoy doing so in these circumstances. Does anybody remember Nick Clegg? He used to be the Liberal spokesman on foreign affairs and moved a motion at the Liberal Democrat party conference in 2005 that said:
Any proposals which involve significant change in the relationship between the Union, the member states and its citizens should be approved in Britain through a referendum.
Mr. Davidson: I am sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I was not sure whether he was the same person. I should refer to him as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg). In an article in The Guardian, the hon. Gentleman referred to the Government being afraid to hold a referendum. He wrote:
The real reason, of course, why the government does not want to hold a referendum is the fear that it may lose... It is the same fear that led Peter Hain to camouflage the constitution with comic inaccuracy as nothing more than a tidying up exercise... Nothing will do more damage to the pro-European movement than giving room to the suspicion that we have something to hide, that we do not have the cojones to carry our argument to the people.
The Government clearly promised a referendum. The second element of our debate is whether the constitution and the treaty are the same. At 11 oclock this morning, we were issued with the consolidated text of the EU treaties, as amended by the treaty of Lisbon. If it looks like a constitution, smells like a constitution and has the weight of a constitution, it is a constitution. The last line of the document states:
Printed on paper containing 75 per cent. recycled content.
In my view, a greater percentage is recycled. Government efforts to present the treaty as entirely new are akin to fitting a new set of tyres on a car and claiming that it is a new car. We all know that it is the same thing all over again. The public know that, too, and denying it undermines my party and our credibility as elected politicians.
Although I find a lot to support in the treatyI am especially happy about multi-speed Europe, asymmetrical progression and so onI am not convinced that the Governments red lines will hold. The Government must prove that they will hold, because I fear that they will be undermined by an activist European Court of Justice.
Oxfam has no stance on whether or not the EU treaty is adopted or whether or not there should be a referendumthese issues are outside our competence and mandate.
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