Previous Section Index Home Page

5 Mar 2008 : Column 1844

The most honest Member in the House today—I am not saying that everyone else has not been honest, Mrs. Heal, because I know that we are all honest here—was the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke). He said clearly and specifically as a pro-European that in his view there is no difference between the constitution and the treaty. He happens to be my constituent when he is in London, so I do not want to disagree with him when he says something like that. For me, he has summed the whole thing up.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman may be in a different party from me, but he has been so pro-European and so committed in principle to his opposition to a referendum—he has not shifted back and forth depending on whether his party leadership changed its view—that I am with him on that point. No matter what is said here today, no matter how many fine words are uttered and no matter how great the detail, the vast majority of the public know that what we are voting for in the treaty is exactly the same, and has the same intent, as the constitution on which the Prime Minister promised a referendum—a promise that was included in our manifesto.

For me, this is about honesty in politics. It is about saying what you mean and then doing what you mean. We all have a responsibility to what we said in that manifesto, and we all have a responsibility to recognise the consequences if we do not support a referendum tonight. I hope that some of my colleagues have been influenced by the many good speeches today in favour of a referendum, but the matter is not over yet, because if we do not secure a vote tonight, it will go to the House of Lords. Do we really want to run the risk of the unelected House of Lords sending back measures that we have refused to agree to because we, as elected politicians, do not want to go along with our manifesto commitments? That would be ridiculous, and it would show what a farce the whole situation has become.

We have an opportunity tonight to put a little faith and trust back in politics and politicians. The public are so cynical about us as individuals, although not necessarily in all constituencies, and the overall political system. The big gap that now exists between Parliament and the people out in the country will be made even bigger if we all troop into the Lobby and vote against a referendum—I hope that will not happen. I will certainly stick to my manifesto commitment and to my personal commitment—I specifically said in my election address that I supported a referendum. I hope that many of my colleagues will join me tonight.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): It is never comfortable to vote with another party in this House, especially when Labour has made such a pig’s ear of the arguments that it seeks to defend, but I shall do so. At least I can say that none of us will have the distasteful task of having to go through the Lobby with the Liberal Democrats, so I shall be limited to a single disagreeable experience rather than a double one.

In Prime Minister’s questions a few hours ago, the Prime Minister challenged the Conservatives to put a positive case for Europe. Given his behaviour, it struck me that he had either a short memory or an entirely unexpected sense of humour.

5 Mar 2008 : Column 1845

I explained the action that I shall take to my Whips when this series of debates started, and no pressure has been put on me to change my mind. There has been entirely honourable and civilised respect for the views that I have held for a long time, and if newspaper reports and Tea Room gossip are right, that contrasts with the amateur theatricals and hysterics that have been reported from the office of the Labour Chief Whip.

I must make a confession: I stood for election on a manifesto that promised a referendum on this treaty, but we all do things like that. When we stand for election on a party manifesto, we are basically saying that we support that party to form the next Government. It does not mean—it has never been understood to mean this—that we subscribe to every iota of that manifesto. Indeed, I am slightly surprised that a number of my party colleagues appear to have given their own manifesto such minute examination, as I usually give other parties’ manifestos more examination than my own party’s.

In making this point, I appeal to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). If he regarded the manifesto as some sort of Biblical truth, he would find it difficult to be here in this House, as would I, and I suspect that an examination of the websites of some of my Conservative colleagues would reveal a declared intention to leave the European Union, which I doubt will appear in the next Conservative manifesto, but as far as I am concerned that should not disqualify them from standing as Conservatives or sustaining the next Conservative Government.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) (Con): Was my right hon. Friend a member of the Government in, say, the 1992 period? On being held to manifesto pledges, the truth is that hardly anyone in the country reads manifestos. The intimate connection between individual Members and their constituencies is in their election address, which is where they explain why they will not support any major manifesto themes or issues. I take it that my right hon. Friend did that.

Mr. Curry: I reassure my hon. Friend that I always set out my own election address. The party tends to offer a format, which I have never adopted because I wish to express my personal views to my constituents. One thing that nobody in my constituency can complain about is that they are not aware of my views on or commitment to engagement in Europe. Of course, a great many people have made representations to me, and I hope that each of them believes that they received a substantive response to their points. I respect their arguments, as much as I ask them to respect my long-standing arguments. If I wished to be epigrammatic about it, I would say that I am a representative, not a delegate. If I wished to be a delegate, I would stand for the Congress of the Chinese Communist party in what is wittily called the Great Hall of the People.

5.30 pm

The argument whether this constitution is the same as the old one, or whether this treaty is the same as the old one, is totally barren. As it happens, I voted for the
5 Mar 2008 : Column 1846
old constitution, so for me this matters rather less than it might do to most. One can quote Valéry Giscard d’Estaing till the cows come home, but the fact is that if one approved the old constitution, one will say that it is pretty well the same thing; if one did not, one will claim that it is something different. That is the simplest ABC of political technology, which we find in every single democratic country. For my money, of course it is the same document; for most countries, it is the same document.

The argument in this Chamber has been to what extent the red lines and opt-outs have changed the nature of the obligations and commitment that Britain accepted. The United Kingdom’s relationship to the treaty is different from the one we had to the old constitution, but I accept that there is bound to be a huge amount of argument about the extent to which that is bankable.

I have a fundamental objection to referendums. Of course I accept that there are occasions when a once-in-a-lifetime issue arises that we ought to refer to the country at large, but if one looks at the history of referendums, one finds that they are usually used to override democratic scrutiny and debate. That is the 19th-century history of referendums. They often seek a simplistic response to an often simplistic question, in which the consequences of the answer are never explored, and they usually take the form of a surrogate verdict on the Government themselves. The question and the answer are sometimes widely removed from each other.

Mr. Gummer: Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problem with referendums is that they often transfer the decision not from the representatives of the people to the people, but from the representatives of the people to the unelected press?

Mr. Curry: It is certainly true that a strong body of the press articulates vitriolic hostility to the European Union and to this treaty, and such comment is not always as informed as it might be. The comfort that I find is that I wonder how many people buy the red tops for the political comment, rather than for the coverage of media personalities, the world of sport and footballers’ wives. That is quite legitimate, and occasionally all of us enjoy a surreptitious glance to relieve some of the rigours— [ Interruption. ] I invite colleagues in Portcullis House to look in the corner room where the newspapers are stacked and observe how rapidly they disappear through the course of the day. It is not always the coffee machine that people are in pursuit of.

We constantly wring our hands about the decline of Parliament and its impotence in the face of the Executive. The real issue is the balance of power not between us and the European Union or between Parliament and the people outside, but between the Executive, whom we send into government, and elected representatives in Parliament itself. My party is devoting a huge amount of energy to looking at how we might redress the balance in the way in which our democratic processes work in the Westminster village. That is a far more urgent task than dealing with some of the fears that we are expressing at the moment.

5 Mar 2008 : Column 1847

In the last debate in which I spoke, I said that the Eurosceptic motto might be:

I apologise for attributing that to Milton; if I were better read, I would have realised that it comes from Macbeth.

If we have a referendum on this treaty, how should I argue to my constituents about other things on which we might hold a referendum? What about detention without trial? That fundamental issue of civil liberties has far greater implications for our liberties than anything contained in this treaty. I am an old-fashioned liberal—I am sorry about that—who, in a sense, echoes Roy Jenkins’s view that there were many merits to the permissive society. If we move from representative government to government by plebiscite, how much of the architecture of the liberal and tolerant society would be demolished?

I do not disagree with the thesis that there will be once-in-a-lifetime occasions when referendums are necessary. Our joining the European Union and the subsequent endorsement of that was a key point. I accept that if we were to join the single currency, it would be a sufficiently dramatic change as to require the endorsement of the people and the legitimacy that that would confer. I note that one of the biggest changes that has affected this House is devolution. Indeed, we constantly complain about the way in which the balance of power in this Chamber has been shifted by devolution, the creation of a Parliament in Scotland and an Assembly in Wales and the process in Northern Ireland. Some 85 per cent. of the British people were not consulted on the transfer of power that that brought about.

This treaty is not a great breaking point or a hinge of our contemporary history; it is, broadly speaking, tidying up. It contains a lot of common sense, and five years down the road people will wonder whether all the terrible things that were supposed to flow from it actually happened—I suspect that they will not have happened.

If we say no to the treaty, the European Union will not collapse and Britain will not be expelled. Europe is jolly good at muddling through. As soon as one negotiation is completed, Europe is condemned to begin the next negotiation. The one thing that cannot be done sensibly is to walk away from the negotiations, because the process is ongoing and grinding. The extent to which it works and what comes out of it at the end is amazing.

We should not assume that we are in the same position as three or four years ago at the point of the French and the Dutch referendums, because things have moved on and a renegotiation has taken place. It would be seriously dislocating for the UK to find itself demanding that process again, and it would also be seriously dislocating for my party. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) will be the next Prime Minister, and when we look at this directionless and purposeless Government, that becomes increasingly plausible and desirable.

It would not be in my right hon. Friend’s interests to inherit an intractable time and energy-sapping dispute
5 Mar 2008 : Column 1848
with the European Union and to have it hanging over his head, so it is in my party’s interests that this business is dispatched and that we move on to new business. If we do not move on, he would have to deal with nagging voices on the Conservative Benches and in the party seeking to question the whole issue of Britain’s membership of the European Union. He would need three hands to deal with not only the issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe in the short term and the treaty, but a bigger issue that would begin to emerge and that would threaten the success of his first term as Prime Minister. I want him to have his hands free to deal with the hugely important and urgent things that a Conservative Government would need to address.

Equally, I think that the European Union needs no more treaty making within the foreseeable future, because there are other pressing agendas such as climate change, migration and asylum, which will flow largely from climate change, terrorism, competition and the protection of the role of developing countries in a global economy. Nothing assures us that the European Union will deal with such agendas, but the treaty gives it a better chance of doing so, if the political will exists.

We should start by dispatching the Lisbon treaty in this House, where the decision making belongs, for ratification across the European Union. We would then be able to move on to the agendas pressing on us—how the UK governs itself and how Europe can better represent the interests of all the citizens of Europe, which it increasingly encompasses.

Mike Gapes: I shall try to be brief. I put a message to all Europhobes on my website, saying that I intended to vote for the Lisbon treaty. I did so because I wanted to provoke a reaction from my constituents. Many words have been spoken about the great interest in the subject outside the House, but I have had only one e-mail and one letter from my constituents— [ Interruption. ] I am waiting for more to come.

The e-mail said that the treaty was “introducing communism by stealth” into this country, and the letter said that because of my views, I deserved a long, lingering and painful death. That indicates the level of interest of some people. However, I have had letters from non-constituents, both before I put the message on my website and subsequently. They spoke of the German plot to take over Europe, the Pope and many other examples of the fantasies that some obsessives have about the European Union.

Someone spoke of the need for honesty in politics, and I agree. We need to be honest about this treaty and about the basis of the debate that we are having. I will be honest: I have always opposed referendums. I was extremely disappointed and shocked in 2004 when our party leader bounced the party into that position. I cast no aspersions on the reasons for that move. I simply believe that it was a mistake then and has had some very serious and unfortunate consequences for the political debate. It has meant that there has been no open public debate on these European issues. For two years after the rejection of the constitutional treaty in France and the Netherlands, we did not really have a proper debate and discussion during the period of reflection.

5 Mar 2008 : Column 1849

I had hoped that this debate, over the 11 interminable days, would have raised the quality of the public debate, and that our newspapers and television media would have given it detailed consideration, but sadly they are interested only in process, personalities and splits. Indeed, some of the earlier debate in Committee today reflected that. The media are not interested in the detail of why the Lisbon treaty is in Britain’s interests and how it will reform the European Union to ensure a more efficient and effective way of working after enlargement to 27 countries.

I do not wish to repeat the arguments, and I also referred to the issues in the debate on the foreign policy aspects of the treaty and on Second Reading. However, it is not helpful to have a statement from the shadow Foreign Secretary that the Foreign Affairs Committee said that the Lisbon treaty was exactly the same as the constitutional treaty. That is not what it said, and I tried to intervene again, but the right hon. Gentleman would not take the intervention. I wish to place it on the record that the Committee did not say that. It pointed out that the Union Minister for Foreign Affairs had been replaced with a high representative for foreign and security policy. It also pointed out that there were two UK-inspired but non-legally binding declarations on common foreign and security policy in the text, neither of which were in the constitution. It is therefore not true to say that the treaty is exactly the same.

5.45 pm

The people who are against the Lisbon treaty are trying to argue that there is no change or significant difference. As other Committees have commented, however, there are differences in some aspects of the treaty, such as the justice and home affairs issues referred to by the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne). As has been mentioned, there are the UK Government’s red lines, which mean that the treaty is different for the UK than it is for the other 26 member states—or the other 25, because Poland has some association with the UK on some issues. That is how the debate should have been conducted.

Mr. Clappison: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mike Gapes: Just a moment—

Hon. Members: Give way!

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. It is entirely up to the hon. Member on his or her feet to decide whether to give way. We are now running short of time.

Mike Gapes: I want to conclude. The debate in our media has not helped to clarify the issues or people’s understanding of them. The debate in some parts of the House has not helped to get that clarity either. I understand the frustrations of the Liberal Democrats, which were referred to by the Chairman of the Select Committee on International Development, the right hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce). They feel that their position has not been put forward. However, if they think it through, they will see that their model
5 Mar 2008 : Column 1850
of some cathartic “big bang” referendum will not solve the problem. The obsessive anti-Europeans will never accept the result. They will come back again and again, and keep demanding.

The situation will be like the referendum in Palau. I do not know whether hon. Members are aware of that case. There was an issue about whether the US could station some military facilities there, and those involved voted seven times until they got the right result. The Eurosceptics will never accept the outcome, and so they will keep coming back. That undermines democracy and parliamentary sovereignty, and I do not believe that it is in the interests of the House or the British people to move to a referendum culture. We need to strengthen the power of the Select Committees and this House to scrutinise the Executive— [ Interruption. ] We need a more democratic second Chamber or to abolish the one that we have completely. We need greater media understanding. Where are the media? They do not report these debates and so the public are not made aware of them. [ Interruption. ] For that reason, I shall vote against a referendum and support the Lisbon treaty. [ Interruption. ]

The First Deputy Chairman: Order. I ask the Committee to come to order. Hon. Members know that this is no way in which to conduct a debate in this Chamber.

Mr. Cash: Conservatives believe in “trust the people”. The bottom line for the purposes of the debate is that we as a Parliament will decide whether a referendum will be granted, and I disagree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) when he says that we should not have referendums.

There are 27 million voters. That is what we should be concentrating on. Since 1975, 27 million voters have not had the opportunity to express their view on the extension and accumulation of all the European legislation and treaties. It does not necessarily follow that we cannot come to some accommodation in the process of renegotiation as to what it is that we would end up with if we produced a no vote, but it is absolutely right that the voters of this country—for whom we hold our positions on trust—must be allowed to have their say.

The Foreign Secretary rightly remarked mostly on the content of the treaty, but I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) that promises have been broken. It is a complete fraud for people to suggest that that is not the case. My right hon. and learned Friend, for whom I have the greatest respect, was rightly able to make his case, as was my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). I say that without prejudice to the reality at the heart of the process, which is that a vast amount of power is draining away from the House.

We are elected by the voters, who have the right to have the final say. Why do I say that? It is simple. As the Foreign Secretary rightly said, the debate is about the content of the treaty, but it is also about what he called the constitutional balance of power. The structure of the relationship between the UK and the EU is being altered by the treaty, and that is the issue on which I shall concentrate and on which the debate should turn.

Next Section Index Home Page