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The hon. Gentleman is arguing that even if we in Britain feel that the Europe we are in is wrong, or getting worse, unless other people in Europe are with us we have no choice but to continue down the road to a European state. I do not accept that argument and I do not think the British people will either. If we cannot find partners and secure renegotiation, we have to look seriously at asking to renegotiate our status within the European Union because the European Union will have left us with no option. If Europe still rejects that, we may have to ask ourselves seriously what we are doing in a Europe that is grinding inexorably towards something that we know our country would not live with. I hope that we never reach that point, but the inexorable advance of an ever-closer Unionwithout the British peoples
consent, as given in a referendumhas driven me and many others to recognise the possibility. The Government should make no mistake: it is their arrogant refusal to give the British people their promised referendum on the treaty that opens up that scenario.
The Bill treats the British people with contempt. The amendment would at least allow the British people to say what they want to say about what the Bill is trying to do. If the amendment fails tonight, the Government, paradoxically, will have unleashed political energies that could eventually lead to the unbundling of the European Union.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Many of the questions associated with the treaty are immensely complicated, but at their core is the simple issue of whether we keep the promise that we made at the general election to hold a referendum.
I remember the timing of the decision to have a referendum well, because I regarded it as a great success at the time. It is worth while reminding the House that the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, announced a referendum in the House of Commons on 20 April, before a decision had been reached on what the constitutional treaty was to be. It is not the case that once the constitutional treaty had been produced and examined, the Prime Minister said, This is so important that we need to have a referendum. The referendum was announced before the constitutional treaty had been produced in its final form. As was suggested earlier, that clearly indicates that the decision was taken in order to clear the air. The decision to have a referendum did not depend on the detail of the wording, but on the general principles that were being advanced.
Chris Huhne: On the referendum on the constitution, it is material that the constitutional form was already determined. The details might have been up for negotiation, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, but the constitutional form of the treaty was already clear.
Mr. Davidson: Ah, yes; the consolidation argument, which states that if a variety of treaties are brought together in one document, it is entirely different from making amendments to existing documents, even though the two processes achieve exactly the same objective. My view is that the new treaty contains essentially the same substance as the original constitution, and that the commitment that we made ought still to be honoured.
Mr. Clappison: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) seems to know more about what is going on in Europe than the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Derby, South (Margaret Beckett) did, because she came before the European Scrutiny Committee at the beginning of June and said that there had been no negotiations or discussionsnothing at alland that there was no point in coming before the Committee as nothing had been decided.
Mr. Duncan Smith: May I take the hon. Gentleman back to a point that I made to the Foreign Secretary, who gave an evasive answer? It concerned a letter from Angela Merkel to the Heads of State of all the principal negotiators. Having discussed with them, in negotiations, what they wanted, she asked them, in her question 1:
How do you assess the proposal made by some Member States not to repeal the existing treaties but to return to the classical method of treaty changes while preserving the single legal personality and overcoming the pillar structure of the EU?
Mr. Davidson: Let me take a step back to what I was saying. Tony Blair, the then dear leader, made the announcement on 20 April. Why did we make the announcement then? The answer is simple and straightforward: because we wanted to park the issue out of the way in the run-up to the general election. We wanted to have the referendum after the general election, so that the forces of darkness on the other side of the Chamber would not have that weapon to beat us with during the general election. I welcomed that; I saw it as a great advantage to us, as it prevented us from giving the forces of darkness a weapon that they would have used against us. I was also strongly in favour of a referendum.
Let us be absolutely clear that it was not the case that the Prime Minister agreed to have a referendum on the basis of detailed knowledge of the exact wording of the constitution. It was an evasive tactic, which I am glad to say was successful, and we went on to win the general election. From that arose the commitment in our manifesto. I am glad to say that I have my copy of that little red book with me today. Unlike some hon. Friends on the Labour Benches, I was never a Maoist or a Trotskyist, so it is the only little red book that I have. People can usually spot the former Maoists and Trotskyists, because they become the most extreme exponents of new Labour.
Mr. Byers: As someone who had a part to play in drawing up the little red book for the 2005 election, I hope that my hon. Friend will refer to the clear commitment given in May 2005, before the general election, about the new constitutional treaty. At that stage, we knew exactly what the new constitutional treaty was. He is right to say that in April 2004 that was not so, but by the time of the manifesto, we knew precisely what the new constitutional treaty was, and that is what we referred to in the 2005 manifesto.
I am grateful to Comrade Zhou for raising that point, but it is important to accept the context in which the exact wording was written. Let us remember why we did what we did. The Prime Minister made a statement indicating that there would be a referendum on whatever appeared in the document, in order to park the issue before the general election. When the document appeared, of course the party said, This is the document on which we will have a referendum. The Prime Minister could hardly say Well have a referendum on 20 April, and then say, once he saw the document, No, we will not have a
referendum. Of course the one followed on from the other. He would have said that there would be a referendum, and the manifesto would have reflected that we were going to have a referendum on the document, whatever was in the document. It is not fair or true to say that a referendum would have been ruled out, had the current document been produced at the time.
Mike Gapes: The hon. Member said that he was in favour of a referendum. [Hon. Members: Hon. Friend.] Yes, he is my long-standing friend, and we fought Trotskyists together 30 years ago. Given what he said about his support for a referendum, can he tell us whether he has always been in favour of having a referendum on European treaties, including in 1992, when he was first elected, and on the Nice and Amsterdam treaties?
Mr. Davidson: I cannot remember whether I have been in favour of a referendum on every European treaty, but I was certainly in favour of one on the Maastricht treaty. On that occasion, I was in a minority in my party, as I am now, but the difference then was that the Government, not having made a commitment to a referendum, were not obliged and honour-bound to have one, unlike us; we are so obliged. I voted for a referendum on Maastricht, and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for allowing me to bring that up, but the situation then was different, because that Government did not make a commitment to having a referendum. We did.
I have heard many arguments against referendums, and many people regret the commitment that we made at that time, but regretting the commitment is not the same thing as saying that we did not make it. I understand the point about repenting at leisure, and I believe many people are doing so, but let us remember why we entered into the commitment in the first place. It was for base electoral reasons, and I am glad we did so. None the less, we must honour the commitment that we made.
Sir Gerald Kaufman: If my hon. Friend says that he was bound by the manifesto commitment in the 2005 manifesto, will he clarify that he was bound by the whole of the manifesto commitment, which stated that the Labour party would
campaign whole-heartedly for a Yes vote
in that referendum? Is not the only Member of the House of Commons who was elected on the Labour ticket but not bound by the Labour manifesto the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Clare Short), once our right hon. Friend, who said that she was elected to the House on her own personal manifesto, and who suffered the biggest anti-Labour swing in the whole general election?
I confess that although I had a substantial personal vote, it did not single-handedly elect me to the House. There is a commitment in a manifesto from a Government on how they will take matters forward. Clearly, as the document is always a compromise between competing interests, some will be less than totally enthusiastic about elements of it. I
forget which ones I was less than totally enthusiastic about. [Interruption.] The referendum may well have been one of them.
I return to the question whether the treaty is the same document as the constitution. Much of the discussion about that is a little like the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. I take the view that we gave a commitment to hold a referendum only on that constitutional form. As I indicated, I believe that we made a clear commitment to have a referendum on what was produced at the end of the day.
We should ask ourselves whether promises matter to people. In my constituency I suffer, as I am sure many other hon. Members do, from a pervasive cynicism about politicians in generalnot about me, because most constituents think their own MP is okay; it is the other lot that they do not like. There is an assumption that politicians and parties cannot be trusted and that we will say anything to get elected. That is not constructive or helpful, particularly to those of us on the left, because we depend on popular support to put forward a programme that seizes some of the instruments of power and changes society in the way that we want. It is necessary for us to command popular support in a way that is not quite so necessary for others.
Abandoning our proposal for a referendum because of nuanced differences and because somebody is prepared to argue that this does not mean exactly the same as that, gives out entirely the wrong message and confirms the view that we collectively, as a political class, cannot be trusted. Let us be truthful. One of the real reasons why we are not having a referendum in Britain and why the elites of Europe are not having referendums in their own countries is that they do not have confidence in the people producing the right result.
If there was, for a moment, a feeling among those on the Government Benches that if they went for a referendum, they would win it, they would be off to a referendum like a shot. Let us not forget, for example, that Portugal wanted to hold a referendum on the treaty to demonstrate how committed it was to the European ideal, but Portugal was persuaded out of that view by the French and the British, in particular, leaning on them, saying, If you do that, it would set a precedent that would cause us enormous difficulties because we cant carry our people with us in a referendum. Therefore you should not allow your people to have a vote on the question. That changes somewhat the implication that the treaty is so trivial that nobody in their right mind in Europe would want a referendum. The situation has been rigged to some extent by the pressure put on smaller countries not to have referendums that would be inconvenient to their colleagues.
Let me deal with what happened when the constitution was discussed and debated in France and Holland. I am happy to say that I played my part in those defeats. I was across in France speaking at French Socialist party rallies and meetings on the constitution. I spoke partly in French, but I was applauded entirely in English in order that I could understand what was being said. It was an international gathering where speaker after speaker from other countries stood up and said to the French,
Do not believe that you who are against the constitution in France are alone in Europe.
Throughout Europe, in every country where doubts were expressedthis tended to happen more in the smaller countries, such as Holland, Denmark and Irelandthe people expressing those doubts were told, Youre the only ones who object to the constitution. If you go against it, you will be isolated. You might very well be expelled. It will be the end of civilisation as we know it. The money will cease to come from the European Union. All of that was untrue. Members will remember what happened when France and Holland rejected the proposals. They did not get expelled, and nor would we. There was not an enormous crisis in the European Union which brought the payments, the fraud and so on to an end. It carried on pretty much as before, with a period of discussion, then a period of reflection.
A period of reflection would be expected to allow the elites to think about where they had gone wrong, whether they ought to choose a different path and what that path should be. Indeed, some of that happened. They thought about where they had gone wrong, but they identified that as a problem of presentation. They came back with exactly the same thing in a slightly different form, but the valuable lesson that they had learned was not to make the mistake of asking their peoples what they thought of it this time round. That is where we are. Whenever there has been the opportunity to do so, the elites of Europe have managed to avoid giving the peoples of Europe any opportunity to discuss whether they should accept the treaty.
Let me turn to the Liberals, more in sorrow, if I may say so, than anything else. How does it happen that such a once proud party is reduced to this? One thinks back to the great principles that they stood for on occasion, and how they contributed to debates, even though sometimes they were a pain in the neck and other parts of the anatomy. Nevertheless, they are now in a position whereby, on the great issue of the day, they walk out or abstain. I can understand how they were bullied into it by the threat of Shirley Williams and others leaving them if they were prepared to countenance a referendum.
Let us be clear: some Liberal lords are prepared to fight to the last drop of Liberal blood to maintain their position. Greater love hath no MP than this, that he lay down his seat for their lordships. The Liberals in the House of Commons are prepared to lose parliamentary seats simply to keep Shirley Williams happy. I have not come across a single Liberal who believes that the policy is popular or that much of it is understood by the electorate.
It is not, but I was listening with great interest to the hon. Gentlemans pick-and-mix attitude to the Labour party manifesto. Perhaps he missed my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) pointing out that polling evidence shows that our policy is more popular than any other on referendums. Indeed, it is twice as popular, not only with Liberal Democrats but with the whole of the
public. If the hon. Gentleman wants a popular referendum, he should go for the in/out referendum, not his half-baked one.
Mr. Davidson: If I remember correctly, the Liberals poll posed the question, Would you prefer this referendum to that one? My proposal allows them the possibility, albeit a narrow one, of posing both questions
I believe that the Liberal Democrats are being deliberately evasive about not reaching a decision on a yes/no referendum, and wanting to pose the question in terms of in or out. It is a bit like answering the question, Are you a man or a mouse? with, I am a hamster. It is a deliberate distortion of the options available. Where does the Liberal party stand on yes/no? If we agree to hold a referendum, what will the Liberals do in the country? Will they advise their supporters simply to abstain?
Many of us know that the Liberals have a policyit is almost a principleof saying one thing in one part of the country and a different thing in another. Will they say one thing in one part of this building and another in the other part? Will the Liberal lords be whipped into abstaining, too, or will they have a free hand? If the latter, proceedings in the Lords will be interesting.
David Howarth: I thank the hon. Gentleman for at last getting on to new clause 18, which is oddperhaps the most bizarre amendment ever tabled. It would allow the Government to change the question in a referendum to almost anything. How does he suggest that the Government might change it? The new clause would allow them to ask, Is the moon made of green cheese? Secondly, it would provide for a supplementary question. What chance is there of a Government, who yesterday led their troops through the Lobby to deny the House even the possibility of discussing an in/out referendum, ordering an in/out referendum subsequent to new clause 18 being accepted? Surely new clause 18 is either pointless or useless.
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