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That was a fine speech. If the hon. Gentleman believes that new clause 18 is the weirdest amendment he has ever seen, he has not been here very long and he clearly does not read many Liberal amendments. Indeed, if I remember correctly, Is the moon made of green cheese? appeared in a Liberal
Focus leaflet. The supplementary question was, If not, would you wish it to be so? That is an example of a relevant second question.
Mr. Davidson: I am never entirely sure whether the Liberal Democrats are quite as silly as they pretend [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman raised a point with me; he might at least do me the courtesy of listening to my reply. My intention is to reach out to the Liberal Democrats and be helpful. It is clear that they want an in/out question. My new clause is the only way to achieve that; it is the only option on offer that gives any possibility of that question being asked [Interruption.] Let me complete the point. I am strongly in favour of a yes/no question being asked. I am prepared to concede that, if there is sufficient public pressure, we should have an in/out question as well. Only the Liberal Democrats and the UK Independence party want that, but none the less I would be prepared to vote for it, and I did.
However, the responsibility for garnering public support for the idea ought to be with the Liberal Democrats. I have left open the possibility of introducing an in/out question if the Liberal Democrats managed to persuade the Government of thatas I and others managed to persuade our dear leader on 20 April 2004 to accept a referendum on Europe. The policy had been entirely against a referendum, and huge numbers of my colleagues were against ituntil the policy changed, when huge numbers of them were in favour. Indeed, I could not find any who had ever been against it.
My new clause offers the Liberal Democrats their only opportunity. If they are genuine about wanting an opportunity to have that second question, as distinct from playing games, they will have to vote for my new clause.
Matthew Taylor: To avoid playing games, will the hon. Gentleman explain something to the Liberal Democrats? If he, as a Labour Member, cannot persuade the Government to deliver the referendum that he wantsor, indeed, an in/out referendum, which he says he also supportshow does he think the Liberal Democrats would persuade a Labour Prime Minister?
Mr. Davidson: I dare say that I will get a great deal closer than the Liberal Democrats did yesterday. I fail to understand how the Government could be frightened by the Liberal Democrats who are abstaining. If they want to start persuading the Government about anything, threatening them with an abstention is not the best way to send shivers down their backOoh! The Liberal Democrats are going to abstain! Oh my God!
Mr. Brady: As ever, the hon. Gentlemans speech is entertaining; it may also be having a remarkable impact. Is he aware that the press are now reporting outside this place that three Liberal Democrat Front Benchers have already resigned since he started speaking?
Mr. Davidson: I thank hon. Members for cheering in European. That is whatthree in 24 minutes? Sir Alan, how long have I got? I apologise to colleagues who might not be allowed to speak at all, given the circumstances.
The question is actually a serious one. If the Liberal Democrats find themselves unable to support the new clause drawn up to help them, will they guide us on something that I am sure we all want to know? If my new clause is successful, what will they do in the yes/no referendum? Will they simply sit on their hands throughout?
Chris Huhne: As we have made abundantly clear, and as the hon. Gentleman knows very well, we are very much in favour of our membership of the European Union and that is what we would argue in any yes/no referendum.
Mr. Davidson: In that case, why do the Liberal Democrats not have the courage of their convictions and vote against a referendum? Why do they not get off the fence, let voters in their constituencies know where they stand and take the results? The right hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mr. Byers) said that he was prepared to lose votes as a result of his position on this matter, which is a great deal easier for him to do, with a majority of 17 million, than it is for many of the Liberals who have very small majorities, but if people have the courage of their convictions, they should have no difficulty in doing that.
Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend is asking how the Liberal Democrats would vote if there were a referendum, but as the main tenor of his argument has been that our manifesto committed us to a referendum and to arguing for a yes vote, he should, in all honesty, be standing before this Committee saying that he would argue for a yes vote in such a referendumunless he wants his voters not to take his word at face value.
Mr. Davidson: My hon. Friend underestimates me. In a leaflet, I made it absolutely clear to my electorate where I stood on this question. I cannot remember the exact wordsI carry the little red book with me, but I do not have my election leaflets with me at all times. I would be happy to send him a signed copy, which he can put in a frame and deal with as he wishes. I made my position on the European Union clear. Let me move on, if I can, and draw my remarks to a close
My hon. Friend appears to be explaining to the House that he has a personal opt-out from the 2005 manifesto. If that is the case, does he not accept that one of the many reasons why the treaty is not a treaty providing for a constitution, on which we did indeed promise a referendum, is precisely that we have
secured opt-outs from several of its provisions, and that several of its other provisions are wholly different from the provisions in the constitutional treaty?
Mr. Davidson: I am grateful for that intervention from the Member for Boots. When I heard that a Member from Leicester was to be the next European Commissioner, I thought of the former Europe Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), rather than herself.
Let me be clear about the question of a personal opt-out. Some of the opt-outs that we have achieved are better than what was there before. Some are improvements, and I welcome them. However, I have grave doubts about the extent to which they will remain outwith the control of the European Court of Justice. Many of the opt-outs that we have achieved will not stand up to sustained attack from the Court.
Dr. Julian Lewis: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is a long tradition of Back Benchers being allowed to disagree with Front-Bench policy, and to stand in an election on a manifesto without signing up to every part of it? The Government, however, are going back on a commitment that they put in their own manifesto. Furthermore, is he not surprised that there appear to be two classes of Lib Dem Front Bencher? There are those in the Lib Dems so-called inner shadow Cabinet, who apparently have to resign from their positions if they want to keep their promise to have a referendum, but other Front-Bench Lib Dem spokesmen of a more junior variety are apparently being allowed to keep their positions even if they vote for a referendum.
The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I have been very indulgent over the length of interventions, and sometimes their content, this afternoon. We should get back on the straight and narrow, and I also suggest that the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) keep an eye on his parliamentary language. He has been going for 33 minutes now; as we have not had any other reports from outside [ Laughter. ] he should remember that many other colleagues wish to contribute.
Mr. Davidson: I was hopeful that more news would come from the front. I always thought that being a Liberal Front-Bench spokesman was somewhat akin to being a eunuch in a haremsingularly decorative, but not particularly useful.
I draw my remarks to a close by saying that the confusion on the question of whether the constitution is the same thing as the treaty is not only confined to the general public. Indeed, I am grateful to have a copy of the agenda for the most recent executive meeting of the Labour Movement for Europe, on 25 February 2008, item four of which refers to
Progress of EU Treaty on EU Constitution.
The agenda refers clearly to the constitution, while the minutes of the meeting indicate not only that the LME was instructed to use the words reform treaty not constitutionit was obviously making a mistake in that regardbut that a decision was made to
speak to David Miliband, to see what role the LME could play.
It is a help that the LME keeps sending me its material, but if even it is confused about whether the treaty and the constitution are the same thing, the general public can be forgiven for being confused.
Chris Bryant: When my hon. Friend and I were playing in the parliamentary rugby team in Paris last September, I remember that he said that he thought that 122 Labour rebels would be voting with him tonight. What is his prediction now?
This debate comes back to the question of honesty in politics. I know that a lot of people bitterly regret that we made that promise, but make it we did. If we make a promise that was so explicitit was on page 80 of the manifesto
Mr. Davidson: I thank my hon. Friend. However, the promise came after a major statement in the Commons by the then Prime Minister that totally changed party policy on a referendum and therefore had much greater significance than simply a couple of lines in the manifesto. If we want to stop the disillusionment with and cynicism about politics, we must recognise that the people out there expect us to keep our promises. That is why I believe that we on the Labour Benches are honour bound to abide by our commitment to a referendum.
Mr. Kenneth Clarke: There has only ever been one United Kingdom-wide referendum in this country. I had the pleasure of campaigning hard in that election and of finding myself on the winning side. I very much hope that we never have a second referendum, and I am rather appalled that I should be taking part in a debate so many years later in which people are pressing to have another UK-wide referendum.
The precedent was a bad one. In my opinion, Harold Wilson called that referendum for totally cynical reasons, as is widely acknowledged on all sides. He was concerned about party management, almost regardless
of which way the result would go. In the event, the pro-European side won quite easilyby a two-to-one majority, I recalland the people who had demanded the referendum immediately reneged on their undertaking to abide by the result.
A referendum was demanded in those days by the people who were the most numerous Euroscepticsthe ancestors of the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson). Benn and the left regarded the European Union as a capitalist plot, and the moment they took control of the Labour party in the early 1980s, they started campaigning for immediate withdrawal from the European Union, with no more referendums. The whole thing was a sad and cynical exercise, which fortunately did not do too much lasting damage.
Over the years, the only advocates of referendums as an addition to our constitution whom I can think ofthe landmark peoplehave been Tony Benn and Jimmy Goldsmith. Both of them represented Eurosceptic opinion, but until recently they were, comparatively speaking, voices in the wilderness.
We do not have to go back too long to find a time when people in this House who really believed in the value of referendums were hard to find. Indeed, it was quite easy for them to be swept away. I served under three Prime Ministers: Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major. I am glad to say that under each of them, we overruled demands for referendumsalmost always on Europewith the support of the mainstream of the Labour party. It was the accepted wisdom of parliamentarians that we were against them.
I am astonished to find the atmosphere so completely changed now. In fact, it worries me that members of the political ruling class of this country have now lost their self-confidence and their ability to rely on their legitimacy as parliamentarians to such an extent that no one among them dares defy the media, the hard-line Eurosceptics or any other people who demand a referendum, because they find themselves faced with a parliamentary majority that they seek to overturn.
Mike Gapes: I very much agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman. It would be helpful to the House if I could quote the words of Baroness Thatcher. As far as I can recall, she quoted Clement Attlee describing a referendum as
a device of demagogues and dictators.
Mr. Clarke: I remember it. I cannot remember the precise words, but it is actually true. The origin of referendums lies with people such as Napoleon and Mussolini. They were populist people who wished to override their parliamentary institutions and to appeal to the people on carefully chosen issues.
I do not want to get into the history of referendums with my hon. Friend. The history of our debates goes back long and far, and remains perfectly amicable, but neither of us is going to persuade the
other. I should like to make some progress. I have made my general point, and there are few original arguments to be made on either side of it. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) and I have made most of them in our time.
Unusually, I find the official position of all three political parties quite bewildering. I do not envy their Front-Bench spokesmen. They have had considerable difficulty in putting forward their near-incomprehensible positions. The Conservatives are quite unable to explain how the treaty differs from Maastricht and the Single European Act, upon which we consistently refused a referendum.
Mr. Clarke: Let me deal with the other two parties as well. The Labour party is quite unable to explain sensibly why the treaty is so different from the constitution that it should now be released from the obligation that it entered intofor pre-electoral reasons, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, South-West rightly saidto hold a referendum. I believe that those reasons were mixed up with Mr. Murdoch as much as with the electorate.
On the Liberals position, with great respect, I am sorry that I upset their spokesman, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), with whom I have usually agreed throughout these debates on the treaty. The fact is that he has drawn the short straw. He had to get up and explain why, having promised a referendum on the constitution, he thought that the treaty was so different that he was not going to vote on it at all. The position of all three parties is almost impossible to explain.
Mr. Stewart Jackson (Peterborough) (Con): I am listening with great interest to my right hon. and learned Friends compelling analysis. Does he see a causal link between the lack of self-confidence in the House and the incidental accretion of power to the European Union, which he himself has supported so strongly over the past 30 years?
Mr. Clarke: I have supported it; I believe that it has been in the British national interest. We have pooled our sovereignty with the European Union and I think that that has been overwhelmingly to our benefit. The treaty will develop the institutions of the European Union, which will make it easier to make decisions. We shall then be able to make better progress in areas that are particularly important to the United Kingdom, and get away from the tedious obsession with institutional reform, referendumsand all the rest of itthat has poisoned our politics for so long.
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