HC Deb 06 April 1971 vol 815 cc254-8

3.57 p.m.

Mr. John D. Grant (Islington, East)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require that the United Kingdom shall not become a member of the European Economic Community unless approval for such a decision has been given by at least two-thirds of the membership of this House. This is a short and simple Ten-Minute Rule Bill which I hope will be acceptable to both sides of the House, whatever the pros and cons of the Common Market argument. Nothing could be worse for this country and for the Market countries than for Britain to slide into the Common Market on a marginal majority vote of the House, and quite possibly a minority vote, taking account of the abstentions, a vote in all probability secured only by pressure of the Government Whips and the threat of a General Election. Additionally, a bare parliamentary majority might be achieved although the feeling of the country at best might be one of reluctant acquiescence and at worst resentment.

We hear it said that in such circumstances the Government would not dare to opt for entry, but many of us on these benches have witnessed in the last nine months what we believe to be a failure of the Government to gauge the mood of the country on a large number of important issues, and many of us also feel that this Administration has behaved with considerable arrogance. We could yet be steamrollered into the Market against the wishes of at least a large minority of this House and possibly a large majority of the public.

There was little emphasis on the necessary safeguards in the speech which the Prime Minister made in Bonn yesterday. On the other hand, when he was speaking to the British Chamber of Commerce in Paris on 5th May, 1970, just before the General Election, the Prime Minister said that it would not be in the interests of the E.E.C.: that its enlargement should take place except with the fullhearted consent of the Parliaments and peoples of the new member countries". I am not happy with the Prime Minister's use of words. Some of his post-election utterances have taken on curious interpretations. For instance, the Prime Minister used the word "reduction" in terms of prices, which seems now to be translated as an upward spiral movement. It is high time he spelt out what he meant by "full-hearted consent".

The proposal in my Bill may be unique in this country, but it is not unprecedented abroad. All the other applicant countries for Common Market entry have far more stringent safeguards than we do. I refer in particular to Norway and Denmark. The Norwegian Parliament passed a law, with the Common Market very much in mind, requiring a 75 per cent. majority of the Members approving entry. In that case there would first have to be a consultative referendum of the electorate. In Denmark the constitution provides for powers to be delegated to international authorities by statute, but only if five-sixths of the Danish Members of Parliament agree. If there is no majority in Parliament of that size, then the matter must go again to the Danish electorate for a referendum vote. I am not very much impressed by arguments for referenda on special issues. But entry into the Common Market is no ordinary matter. It is an issue of momentous importance.

I would remind the House of the voting when the Treaty of Rome was ratified in 1957. The votes in the Six in favour were as follows. In Germany, in the Bundestag, the overwhelming show of hands was estimated at about 400 of the 497 Deputies present. In Italy, in the Chamber of Deputies, the voting was 311 to 144, and in the Senate by a clear show of hands. In Luxembourg, in the Chamber of Deputies, the voting was 46 to 3; in Belgium, in the Chamber of Representatives, 174 to 4, and in the Senate 134 to 2. In the Netherlands, in the Lower House of the States-General, the voting was 114 to 12 and in the Upper House 46 to 5. The voting in the French National Assembly was 341 to 235. It is fair to say that France has not been the best advertisement for Common Market unity since that time.

The question is whether it would be wise or justified to go into the Common Market if a substantial minority of this House was opposed to entry? This is a view which would certainly be reflected in the country at large. Or should we not, in fact, go in only if we can do so with enthusiasm? If the latter is the case, then Parliament should be able to demonstrate that enthusiasm in a convincing fashion in the Lobbies, giving, to quote the Prime Minister, its full-hearted consent.

There is perhaps no precise way in which to measure enthusiasm, not even by using the metric system. But I suggest that this Bill would do so in an effective way. I hope that the Government might even accept my Bill, and I am sorry that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has left the Chamber because it might even get the Government off a very difficult hook, and I am always anxious to be helpful to the Government.

4.7 p.m.

Mr. Angus Maude (Stratford-on-Avon)

In asking the House to reject the Motion, I wish to begin by saying that I am not moved by any enthusiasm for entry into the Common Market on any terms which it seems likely we shall secure. But it seems to me that, if the hon. Member presses the Motion to a Division, the House should not divide along lines dictated by individual feelings about whether we should go into the European Economic Community. This is a much more important matter than that.

I would ask the House to reject the Motion on two main grounds. First, that the Bill would be ineffective and therefore pointless. Secondly, that it will be dangerous to Parliament, wrong on constitutional grounds and would set a bad precedent. In regard to the effectiveness of the proposed Bill, if a Government either in this Parliament or a subsequent Parliament thought that they had a sufficient majority, a simple majority, to justify their recommending to the House entry into Europe, would that Government be likely to boggle at putting on the Whips to repeal the hon. Member's Bill by a simple majority—if he were lucky enough to get it through Parliament on a succession of ill-attended Friday sittings? Of course, they would not.

The only way the hon. Member could make the thing in the least effective would be by including a provision that the Bill could not be repealed except by a 66 per cent. majority of the House. That would be a proposition Parliament would never entertain, namely, that Parliament itself should be prevented from repealing in a subsequent Parliament one of its earlier Statutes, except by a given majority. If he does not do this, there is nothing to prevent a Government from simply repealing the Bill and proceeding to recommend terms of entry to the House which could then be imposed by a simple majority. That is the first and I feel almost conclusive reason for not accepting the Bill.

There are better reasons than the one I have outlined. One of them is that the Bill is unnecessary. The hon. Member is asking the House to accept a precedent to entrench certain constitutional powers, which we have never done, in respect of one particular issue. This cannot be right on any constitutional ground. I am not saying that there may not be arguments in present circumstances for entrenched powers. Indeed, I have sometimes thought that there was an argument for entrenching the powers, though not the constitution, of the Second Chamber to guard against an overwhelming majority in this House seeking to change the constitution to a significant extent. But when I have looked at the matter I have seen that the difficulties of attempting to bind subsequent Parliaments are almost overwhelming. If one is to go for entrenched powers at all, one inevitably comes to the conclusion that one must go all the way to a written constitution involving all the procedures of entrenched powers and/or referendum. One must look at the matter as a whole.

It would be intolerable to introduce a provision to entrench a particular decision of this House in respect of one issue and one issue alone. The precedent would be extremely dangerous because thereafter there would be continual pressure to do the same thing on other issues of diminishing importance until, finally, proposals would be put before us to entrench majorities in respect of every Bill or proposal brought before the House.

The last point is that the Bill, apart from being ineffective, constitutionally dangerous and wrong, is unnecessary. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said during the election campaign—and I agree with him and was delighted to hear him say it—that it would be impossible for any Government to take this country into the Common Market unless there were a significant majority of people in this country in favour of it. Any rational politician knows this to be true. It would be impossible to carry entry into the Common Market through both Houses of Parliament on a narrow majority, or even a majority of 30 or 40 votes. It was impossible for Neville Chamberlain to carry on a war with a majority of 80 in this House. Are we suggesting that it is more important for Parliament to fix the majorities by which it should approve entry into the Common Market than those by which it should carry on or cease to fight a war? The plain fact is that on political grounds alone every hon. Member knows that in a democracy we are safe because no Government could do something if the people were strongly against it.

Everyone knows that the proposal which the hon. Member is bringing before the House would be futile, pointless, and would not work. I think that every parliamentarian knows that the constitutional precedent would be dangerous.

Let us not be swayed by the argument that it would be all right to let the hon. Gentleman get a First Reading and then debate it at leisure on Second Reading, perhaps on an ill-attended Friday. This argument is sometimes valid for unimportant or minor Bills. On a matter of this kind I believe it to be essential that the House of Commons should say now by a large majority that it is not prepared to have the constitution tinkered with in a piecemeal way like this. I ask the House to reject the Bill.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of Public Business), and negatived.