§ 3.32 p.m.
§ The Chairman
I have a short statement to make to the Committee which concerns the grouping of the Amendments which we shall be discussing today and deals with how that grouping came about.
Hon. Members may be wondering how it happens that the remaining Amendments to Clause 1 have been re-arranged. All the Amendments from No. 23 onwards come at exactly the same point in the Bill, seeking to add a new subsection (5) to the Clause.
Last Friday instructions were given for 11 consecutive Amendments from No. 40 to No. 202 inclusive to be withdrawn and subsequently for identical Amendments to be re-tabled. The effect is that the Amendment No. 23 relating to the General Election and Amendment No. 205 relating to an advisory referendum are now placed next to each other on the Notice Paper. I believe that this was the objective behind the instructions given by the hon. Members concerned to the Public Bill Office last Friday.
A further result is that the 11 Amendments have lost their original place on the Notice Paper and now appear as the last Amendments tabled to the Clause. In order to try to avoid unnecessary confusion, I gave instructions that those Amendments should retain their original numbers. I hope that this will meet the convenience of the Committee
§ Mr. Hugh Jenkins (Putney)
On a point of order, Sir Robert. Amendment No. 210 has not been called. I know that it is not your custom to give your reasons for not selecting an Amendment, but I wonder whether you could say whether the Amendment is out of order or whether 230 for some reason you have decided not to select it.
§ The Chairman
I am pleased to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that the Amendment is not out of order. It is simply that I have not selected it, and, as the Committee knows, the Chair does not discuss the reasons for non-selection.
§ Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)
On a point of order, Sir Robert. You said that certain instructions were given to the Public Bill Office about two Amendments which appear on the Notice Paper. You will appreciate that some of us are not concerned in making those representations because we are not signatories to the Amendments in question. However, some of my hon. Friends and I find ourselves in extraordinary difficulty since one of the grouped Amendments relates to a General Election. This—I do not intend to go into the merits—is a matter of procedure adopted by Oppositions from time immemorial and often with good cause. There is then an Amendment on a totally different matter; namely, on the subject of a referendum. This subject has excited some controversy not merely between parties but within parties.
It is, therefore, somewhat extraordinary that two such Amendments are to be grouped together. Some of us believe that it is right that such an important departure from constitutional practice should be given the dignity of a separate debate. Since political events have been so traumatic that they have caused the resignation of many right hon. and hon. Gentlemen from high office, albeit in a "shadow" capacity, some of us feel that this is a matter in respect of which the arguments for and against should be independently canvassed in Committee and should not be mixed up with some conventional, ordinary suggestion for a General Election. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition has referred to the suggestion of a referendum as repugnant, and something to which he would never be a party. This makes it important that we should have a separate debate on this distinct subject.
May I say—[Hon. Members: "Too long."] I am sorry if I offend those hon. Members who have always been so anxious to avoid points of order on this Bill. I hope they will realise that this 231 is an exceptional intervention in a Committee that is not accustomed to points of order on this Bill. We have before us an Amendment tabled by the official Opposition coupled with a rebel Amendment from the Tory Party. [Interruption.] With all respect to the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten), the Amendment is not what I would regard as a strictly orthodox Tory Amendment.
I respectfully suggest, finally, that the House will be interested to hear debates on both these matters. They are different, and they should be accorded separate debates.
§ Mr. Michael Foot (Ebbw Vale)
Further to that point of order, Sir Robert. While I welcome the fact that we have at last aroused the interest of the Liberal Party in this Bill—I congratulate the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) on his maiden speech and I assure him that we look forward to hearing him again—I am sure that you will confirm that these same representations have been made on behalf of my right hon. and hon. Friends. We have pressed very strongly that these two matters should be debated separately. Following these fresh representations, if it were your wish to have separate debates we should agree eagerly since that was our original proposition to you.
§ Mr. Kenneth Lewis (Rutland and Stamford)
Further to that point of order, Sir Robert. Some of us are in difficulty. Over the past weekend the Leader of the Opposition has said on the radio that he does not want a referendum in any case and that he wants a General Election.
§ Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrew, West) rose——
§ The Chairman
Order. I do not think we are serving any profitable purpose by pursuing this matter. I have the answer ready to give the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), but I will hear the hon. Member for Renfrew, West (Mr. Buchan) if he undertakes to be brief.
§ Mr. Buchan
Even though you may have the answer ready, Sir Robert, you might add the reminder that the Leader of the Liberal Party voted for a referendum in 1969.
§ The Chairman
I shall not add to that, because it has nothing to do with me. The right hon. Member for Devon, North and the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) have asked about the grouping together of these two Amendments. The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale is right; he and his colleagues have made representations to me that they would like to see two separate debates. After careful consideration, I decided that the best interests of the Committee would not be served thereby, and I exercised by authority accordingly. However, there will be a Division on each Amendment.
§ Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)
Further to that point of order, Sir Robert. I am genuinely puzzled. This is only the second occasion during my time in Parliament that I have raised a point of order. So I do not do it frivolously. It seems to me that the object of a Committee stage is to examine each distinctive issue and to have a clear and distinctive debate upon each issue. Obviously I do not ask you to justify your decision. However, I feel that the criteria upon which you have reached your judgment should be clear. It seems to me that there are three. The first is the fact that it is——
§ The Chairman
Order. I am not encouraging points of order, but I think that if the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) had raised more points of order he would have known that his present point has no substance. I have to make decisions about the grouping and selection of Amendments. It is the prerogative that the House has given freely to the Chairman of Ways and Means and to Mr. Speaker, in appropriate conditions. I am afraid that I cannot help the hon. Gentleman. All that he is doing is querying my selection, and that is out of order.
§ Mr. Russell Johnston rose——
§ Sir Derek Walker-Smith (Hertfordshire, East)
Sir Robert, will you add one point to your lucid ruling by way of deprecating the use by the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) of pejorative epithets in describing our Amendments as "rebel" and "unorthodox", especially in view of the fact that a referendum was advocated by Mr. Asquith, who combined the rôles of Leader of the Liberal Party and of Prime Minister, a combination 233 which the right hon. Gentleman seems unlikely to emulate?
§ Mr. Kenneth Lewis
Further to my point of order, Sir Robert. I was dealing with a matter of some importance. Assuming that the Amendment which proposes a General Election were carried, what would be the point of a referendum, especially since the Leader of the Opposition has said that he does not want a referendum in any case?
§ Mr. Russell Johnston
Further to my point of order, Sir Robert. While it is true that I have not raised many points of order, I have listened to a great many, which may account for my geting into bad habits. I should like your elucidation upon whether the same criteria as you deploy in selecting Amendments are deployed in deciding which Amendments shall have separate Divisions. If that is the case, as I suspect, I am deeply puzzled as to why two issues which are quite different should be lumped together.
§ The Chairman
I am afraid that it is difficult for the Committee to discover all the inscrutability of the Chairman's mind in these matters. I must ask the hon. Member for Inverness to rely upon me to do my best in the not exactly easy task which I am very happy to shoulder on behalf of the Committee.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Mr. Peter Shore (Stepney)
I beg to move Amendment No. 23, in page 2, line 23, at end add:(5) This Act shall come into force on a date to be appointed by Statutory Instrument passed by affirmative resolution of each House of Parliament, but no such date shall be appointed until a General Election has first been held and the express consent of the British people thereby obtained.
§ The Chairman
As the Committee knows, with this Amendment we shall consider Amendment No. 205, at end add:(5) This Act shall come into force on a day to be appointed by Statutory Instrument passed by affirmative resolution of each House of Parliament, but no such date shall be appointed 234 until a consultative advisory referendum, having no binding effect upon the Government, has first been held, thereby enabling the Government to assess the extent to which the Treaty of Accession has the full-hearted support of the British peopleNo. 242, at end add:(5) This Act shall come into force on a day to be appointed by Statutory Instrument passed by affirmative resolution of each House of Parliament, but no such date shall be appointed until a plebcscite has first been held, thereby enabling the Government to assess the extent to which the Treaty of Accession has the full-hearted support of the British people.No. 254, at end add:(5) This Act shall come into force on a day to be appointed by statutory instrument passed by affirmative resolution of each House of Parliament, but no such date shall be appointed until a plebiscite has been held in Northern Ireland, thereby enabling the Government to assess the extent to which the Treaty of Accession has the whole-hearted support of the people in Northern Ireland.No. 255, at end add:
(5) This Act shall come into force on a day to be appointed by statutory instrument passed by affirmative resolution of each House of Parliament, but no such date shall be appointed until a plebiscite has been held in Scotland, thereby enabling the Government to assess the extent to which the Treaty of Accession has the whole-hearted support of the people of Scotland.and No. 256, at end add:(5) This Act shall come into force on a day to be appointed by statutory instrument passed by affirmative resolution of each House of Parliament, but no such date shall be appointed until a plebiscite has been held in Wales, thereby enabling the Government to assess the extent to which the Treaty of Accession has the whole-hearted support of the people in Wales.
§ Mr. Shore
While my remarks will be directed mainly to Amendment No. 23, I shall stray a little into the territory covered by some of the other Amendments.
The issue before us today is not, on this occasion at any rate, whether we are for or against Britain's entry into the European Economic Communities; at least, that is not the main issue. We are concerned today with whether the electors, the British people, are to be allowed to express their wish at the ballot box.
We have made it clear on numerous occasions—and we have had some assistance from right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House—why we think that it would be not merely unwise but very near a disaster if we were to join 235 on anything like the terms which the Government have negotiated. For their part, the Government believe that they have brought back from Paris and Brussels arrangements which would increase the prosperity and, they say, the security of this country. But our belief is that we should now submit our respective judgments on this matter to the electors for their decision.
The case for doing it on this matter is overwhelming. There will be very few who will dispute the magnitude or the gravity of the changes that membership of the European Communities involves. This is a turning point in our national history and in the history of Parliament. We have been asked to approve treaties which are grounded in the belief that we have now, and will continue to have in the future, a more intimate and close association with the peoples of Western Europe than with any other nation or group of nations in different parts of the world. We are asked, as General de Gaulle and President Pompidou have both put it, to "moor our island" permanently to the Continent of Europe, to give preference in all our future dealings to the nations of the Community, and to treat in future as third countries all those in the Commonwealth and elsewhere with whom we have hitherto had our closest ties. In short, we are asked to envisage and accept not just a closer alliance and friendship with the Common Market countries, which most people in Britain would welcome, but arrangements which will make us part of a single European community, a single economic and monetary union, and probably a political union as well.
As part of this new destiny we are being asked to change the constitution of our country not at the margin but at the very heart and centre. We are being asked to end what we have always been led to believe was the very pillar on which our democracy was built—the doctrine of the supremacy of Parliament.
Henceforth, if we go in, agencies outside this land will have the right to make laws which are binding upon the British people without the consent or perhaps, as those who have been with us on the debates on Clause 1 so far will readily concur, without even the knowledge of this House. Those same agencies will 236 have the right to impose taxes on the people and to determine how those revenues will be spent. In all matters of law covered by the treaties, it will be the courts of Europe, not the courts of Britain, which will have the final authority. For the first time we shall have a written constitution in the texts of the Rome and other treaties, not a word of which have we even helped to write.
This is not all. As our discussions on Clause 1 have made clear, the area of transfer of sovereignty and the abrogation of parliamentary control is neither clearly denned nor even static. At the moment of entry there will be established in this country a substantial bridgehead of Community law, the result of 13 years of Common Market regulations and directives, but this bridgehead is destined and programmed to grow as the Community exercises its undoubted right to further legislation.
The Bill concedes unnecessarily and even wantonly a device to the communities: the requirement that only an affirmative Resolution is needed to sanction major new advances which could progressively bring the British economy under their control.
I hope that no one will argue about the importance of what is at stake. What is envisaged is totally unprecedented, involving a great transfer of power from this Parliament and, as a result, dimishing the rights and the power of every man, woman and child in these islands.
It is a curious coincidence that the editor of The Times, in planning his issues, manages to achieve not only today but on previous occasions when we have debated these matters a most authoritative article, which I hope every hon. Member will have read, by Professor Wade, whom I regard as being among the very leading authorities on the British Constitution and constitutional law. Anyone who has read his article today will not accuse me of exaggerating the case or the issues involved in putting my points as I have just put them.
At times I am tempted to believe that The Times is edited nowadays by what I might call the schizophrenic character of Dr. Rees and Mr. Mogg. Dr. Rees is a wise and expert person of great balance of mind, who gets for us on the 237 centre left page of The Times articles of great authority, fairness and openness. But late at night a Mr. Mogg, somewhere in Printing House Square, gets to work and produces editorials on the other side of the centre page which accuse us, and those who do no more than articulate as best they can the very arguments and concerns which were put so lucidly on the left hand page, of being demented, unbalanced, unfair or even worse. It is not for me to try to sort out that problem. However, we are grateful to Dr. Rees, even though we can only continue to deplore Mr. Mogg.
In the light of what I have said, we have to consider whether some special act of consent is necessary to legitimise these great changes, and an important, but secondary, question is the form that that act of consent should take. In the affairs of a nation, precisely what constitutes a matter of exceptional importance will always be open to dispute, particularly in a country such as our own which has not the guidance of a written constitution. But we have practices, precedents and conventions which should guide our conduct.
The first great step along the road to universal franchise was taken in 1832 with the explicit authority, given to the Government of the day, of a general Election. When the balance of the constitution was changed in 1911, with the Commons exerting its supremacy over the House of Lords, no fewer than two General Elections were thought to be necessary in order to sanction that change. Both between and after those dates there have been many other important constitutional changes, but these have either been agreed between the major parties concerned, and, therefore, were not matters of dispute—as, for example, successive extensions of the franchise in the nineteenth century—or they have been based upon a specific mandate sought and obtained at the previous General Election.
This brings me to the first and, in a sense, the most obvious reason why a General Election is now required. The Government have no mandate for this Measure. In their election manifesto—the words are familiar to us all—they wrote:Our sole commitment is to negotiate; no more, no less.238 I do not deride the Government for those words. The negotiations had not even begun in June, 1970, when the last General Election was held. It was not in their power or in the power of any other party to put the matter to the electorate for their decisison in advance of negotiations.
The situation now is very different. So far as the Government are concerned, the negotiations are over. In January this year they published the two volumes of the Treaties of Accession setting out for the first time in considerable detail, although with some curious and significant omissions, the terms which they had obtained. So now, unlike in June, 1970, the matter can be put, if not with total, then with considerable, clarity to the British electorate.
The House will recall other words which have been used in these debates by the Prime Minister. He said, not once but on several occasions, that it would be necessary to obtain the full-hearted consent of the British Parliament and people before Britain could enter the European Communities.
It will not do for the Prime Minister today to pretend that he did not really mean the people at all and that he meant only the consent of Parliament. That is not worthy of him.
I believe that there is another explanation; not the one that the Prime Minister has given. It is that contrary to the expectations which he had when he first made that pledge, the British people have not rallied to the pro-Market calls; they have shown a stubborn and consistent dislike of the proposition of membership—an opposition which has survived all the efforts of Ministers, all the expensive publicity of last summer's campaign, and the almost endless pro-Market chorus of the Press.
In May, 1970, when the right hon. Gentleman first made that speech, he must have thought that terms could be obtained in the negotiations which would command the support of all. Indeed, had he been negotiating with the Five there might have been a different outcome, but as we know—and no one better than the Prime Minister—the negotiations from the start have been a British and French affair, and President Pompidou has exacted a price which I believe no one in this 239 country other than the most fanatical Marketeer is ready to pay.
The result is that the Opposition have rejected the terms of entry, and this, of course, provides an additional and major reason why the matter should now be put to a General Election. We have said that no Parliament can bind its successor. We consider ourselves free not only to repeal this Bill but to renegotiate the terms of entry and, if that cannot be achieved, to go our own way. That has been said with authority from this side of the House.
In these circumstances I cannot believe that it is sensible or in the national interest for the Prime Minister to go charging ahead. A decision of this kind, if it is to be taken at all, should have the support of the major parties in the State. But if that cannot be obtained, and if it is to go ahead as the policy of the Government of the day and of one party, then it is surely all the more important that the Prime Minister should obtain the clear consent of the British people as he embarks on this policy.
It is not only ourselves whom we have to consider. There are other nations in EFTA and the Commonwealth which will be much influenced by what we do. There are, of course, the countries of the Common Market as well. This matter should not be left in doubt when so much is at stake and so many other peoples are involved.
There is a further and even more important reason why an Act of Assent is necessary before entry takes place. Whatever our shortcomings may be as a nation, however much we are criticised and criticise ourselves—our economic performance and in other ways—we have in this country a political system which for very manys years has served us well and is looked upon enviously by many countries.
We are a democracy. The great parties of the State are democratic parties. Extremist groups exist only at the fringe of our political system and have never won any marked public support. We have, as a result, despite many vicissitudes, enjoyed a long experience of peaceful politics and peaceful change.
Why should this be so? Why, more than most other European countries have 240 we had this good fortune? More than any other factor, it is because there is in British politics a continuing invitation to the practice and methods of peaceful political change. There is a knowledge that political power lies in Parliament and that if majorities can be won there, that power can be used to achieve the purposes that the majority wills.
Of course no party of change, and certainly no democratic Socialist Party, believes that all it must do is to win a General Election. That is only the first of the many battles that it has to fight. But because Parliament is supreme, is subject only to opinion and the shadow of the next General Election and because its powers are unfettered, Parliament is a most powerful engine for change.
The main theme in my adult political life and of post-war politics in Britain has been the extension of that political power to our economic, industrial and social affairs so that we can help to create in Britain a new and more just society.
Now we have to consider a new situation, one in which Parliament ceases to be supreme, and one in which laws that our own people may wish to change cannot be changed because the power of decision will no longer lie in Parliament. I believe that this will have a most profound and damaging effect on our political life.
We are living at a time when people are saying not that there is too much democracy in their lives but that there is too little; when they wish their voices to be heard on an ever-increasing number of matters; when they wish government to be closer and more sensitive to their needs. How, then, do we expect them to regard a transfer of power to such remote and bureaucratic agencies as the Commission in Brussels and the Council of Ministers in Paris?
Only last weekend we were lectured by the Lord Chancellor on decline in respect for the law. He said that civilisation could not exist without a legal foundation. We can probably agree with him on that, but he should have asked himself why the British have so widely earned for themselves a reputation for respect and obedience for the law.
This certainly does not depend on the power to enforce or the belief that the 241 law is wise. We have many unfair and often, one might say, unwise laws. What above all determines our attitude to the law is a respect for the process by which it is made. It is the knowledge that in our democratic and parliamentary system the citizen has the right to help make the laws which he is expected to obey. It is the knowledge that, provided he can with others win a majority in this House, objectionable laws can be repealed and new ones enacted.
There is a crucial connection between the vote and the law, a connection which has for so long given our society the stability and peace which we have enjoyed. The great damage that membership of the European Communities; will inflict is to break that connection. From the moment we go in we shall have to accept a large part of European law that no British Parliament can ever change. For the first time in our history the police will be asked to enforce, and the courts to give judgments on, laws which have no moral basis in the free consent of the British people.
These seem to be cogent reasons why the British people should not give up their powers of self-government to European agencies, and particularly to agencies which are not, and do not even claim to be, democratic agencies themselves. There is no question of transferring the democratic power of Parliament to a democratic power in Europe. It is a transfer from this House, based on democracy, to a Commission and Council in Europe. These are the effective organs of this European power.
§ Mr. Christopher Mayhew (Woolwich, East)
Whether or not my right hon. Friend's description of the constitutional consequences of our entry is correct, may I ask him whether he is aware that he is no longer attacking the terms of entry into the Community? Will he make it clear, as he has done previously, that if we renegotiate the terms of entry and they are not satisfactory we shall not go in, while if we renegotiate the terms and they are satisfactory we shall go in and accept all the consequences of membership of the EEC?
§ Mr. Shore
If my hon. Friend had been with us on earlier occasions and had followed the debates that we have 242 had so far on Clause 1 he would have discovered not merely that there is, as it were, part of Community law built into the Treaty of Rome and all that flows from it but that a substantial part of the Bill has been wantonly added on—[Interruption.]—so that the Government are giving far greater powers than any requirements in the treaty itself. [Hon. Members: "Answer."] I wanted to come to my next point, on which I would say that the power that Parliament has——
§ Mr. Shore
No. I beg your pardon, Sir Robert. I wanted to make the point that, following what I have said, whether or not I am right, or whether or not people accept my judgment about what is involved in joining the Common Market, whether they think that nevertheless, in spite of all the objections and the difficulties, this is the right course for this country to take, I believe—indeed, I cannot understand how anyone can take a different view—that this matter should be put to the people of this country for their especial and clear consent. That seems to be the most important thing of all.
Before I conclude, I must address myself briefly to the second question that I posed: how the necessary act of assent can be obtained? As we know, our country has in the past faced great constitutional issues, and where these have been in dispute between the major political parties a solution has been sought through a General Election. I have no doubt that a General Election is today the most suitable method that we can use.
Of course, there are minorities in all three political parties who take the contrary view to their official party policy. That is far from being an unprecedented situation in our political life. But what matters are the issues on which an election can be fought, and the lead issue today would clearly be entry to the European Communities on the basis of the Bill and the Treaty of Accession, with the electorate knowing which party is for and which party is against.
§ Mr. Shore
Moreover, we are not saying in the Amendment that a General Election must be held at once; that the Government must be forced to the polls at a moment of great disadvantage to themselves. On the contrary, we have left the matter open, saying that it is for the Government to propose the entry date, but insisting only that the General Election be held before that moment arrives. But if this Amendment is defeated in the Lobby tonight, I hope the House will give its support to Amendment No. 205, which has yet to be moved, which asks for a consultative referendum.
There are some who disapprove of consulting the people in this way. They fear that it could be misused, or that it could be extended in its use to other areas far from that constitutional change which is now being considered. I understand this worry, though I do not share it. I see no reason to believe that it would be extended. As the record shows, Parliament considers referenda only when constitutional matters are at stake. This was last raised at a high level by Winston Churchill, when in 1945, shortly after the defeat of Germany but before the defeat of Japan, he was reluctant to break up the war-time coalition and offered Mr. Attlee, as an alternative to a General Election, a referendum to extend the life of the existing Parliament. Clearly, that was a special situation and a special measure. The other occasion when the matter was seriously discussed was in the discussion surrounding the Parliament Act, 1911, when once again the Conservative leader, Mr. Balfour, proposed that the referendum should be introduced.
§ Mr. J. Selwyn Gummer (Lewisham, West)
Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that that suggestion to Mr. Attlee was turned down by Mr. Attlee on the basis that it was used only by those who were not democrats?
§ Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)
The right hon. Gentleman could help the House if he would say whether he was of his present opinion when he was a member of the Labour Administration which agreed to take Britain into the Common Market. Was he then in favour 244 of a General Election and referendum in respect of that decision?
§ Mr. Shore
I made a speech, which I think will be in the recollection of some hon. Members, when I was a member of the Cabinet of the previous Government, in which I said specifically that this was a matter which the politicians alone could not decide and that the people must consent. I said it as a Cabinet Minister then; I meant it, and I mean it now.
§ The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Geoffrey Rippon)
To get the record absolutely clear, I think the right hon. Gentleman was referring to a speech he made in March, 1970. When his right hon. Friend the then Prime Minister was questioned about that speech he replied:I am informed by Mr. Shore that he specifically ruled out any question of a plebiscite. That equally covers the word 'referendum'. That is not our policy.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Shore
I do not find that any trouble, for the very simple reason that what matters—I have tried to argue this point—is the consent of the British people. That is far more important on this occasion, much more important than the particular way in which that consent is obtained. Of course it matters that any referendum that may be held would have to be held in the most careful and scrupulous way, just as any other test of opinion is, normally at a General Election. But what matters is that the people of this country should have a chance of saying whether they share the vision of the Treasury Front Bench or whether they have a different view of their own future. That is what is at stake.
But on the evidence I have already quoted I cannot see that there is anything inherently un-British or dangerous about this device. When I recall that referenda are to be used by, amongst others, Norway and Denmark on precisely this issue of membership of the European Communities, I cannot accept that it has no place in a democratic system. But, above all, it is a matter of proportion. In the scale of things, there is no comparison whatever between the minor innovation of an advisory consultative referendum on this great constitutional 245 question and the major and unique change involved in our whole parliamentary and democratic system in membership of the European Communities. In terms of parliamentary sovereignty I would liken the one, the consultative referendum, to a scratch on the hand, and the other, membership of the European Communities, to the severing of an artery.
So, in this matter I shall listen, as the House and the nation will listen, with care to the views of those who, while disapproving of a consultative referendum, are strong and genuine advocates of a General Election, just as we shall listen——
§ Mr. Harold Lever (Manchester, Cheetham)
My right hon. Friend says that he regards membership of the European Communities as the equivalent of the severing of an artery. I am only trying to help him. I take it that he means that membership on these terms, in his view, would mean the equivalent of the severing of an artery.
§ Mr. Shore
To help my right hon. Friend, what I was comparing here, in terms of the constitutional propriety of what is involved to the British parliamentary system, was the difference between having a single consultative referendum and joining the European Communities on these terms and the terms of the Bill. I say that the difference is really of that order of magnitude.
I said that we would listen—I shall certainly listen—to those who are in favour of a General Election and to those who are not in favour of a referendum. One can also make the same point, that those who genuinely believe in a referendum but cannot see that the matter can be faced at a General Election are entitled to be taken seriously as well. But what I am not prepared to accept is the views of those who are really saying "Whatever kind of test one can devise, basically we do not want it, whether it is an election, a referendum or anything else, because we, the politicians, have the right to decide, and the British people should have no choice in deciding these matters themselves."
246 I hope very much, in moving Amendment No. 23—undoubtedly our first choice and great preference—that this, our normal way of dealing with constitutional matters, will be favoured by the House. But if that should fail, we should, without embarrassment, accept the Amendment which follows it, on which we shall be asked to vote.
§ Several Hon. Members rose——
§ Mr. Neil Marten (Banbury)
On a point of order, Sir Robert. Amendment No. 205 has been joined with Amendment No. 23, and I think that it would be logical if, before my right hon. and learned Friend intervened, the case for that Amendment were made. May I, therefore, ask you to reconsider your calling priorities.
§ Mr. Rippon
Further to that point of order, Sir Robert. If it would meet the convenience of the Committee, perhaps I could resume my seat now and endeavour to catch your eye after my hon. Friend has spoken.
§ Mr. Marten
Thank you, Sir Robert, and I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for being so courteous, as he always is on these occasions.
May I thank you also, Sir Robert, for selecting Amendment No. 205 for debate, because the question of a referendum has aroused public interest. From what one reads in the opinion polls the country wants a referendum of some sort on this issue, and it is right that the country's Parliament should freely, in good humour, widely and without party discrimination or knocking, debate this important matter.
I should like to apologise, if I may—and I am sure that my right hon. Friends who designed this innocent, harmless and inoffensive Amendment will agree with me on this—for the effect that the Amendment has had. It was put down two or three weeks before I knew that M. Pompidou was having a referendum, but it has had a kind of fissile effect on the benches opposite. The word "fission" 247 has two meanings. In atomic energy it means the action of splitting into pieces, but in biology it means the division of an organism into new organisms as a mode of reproduction. I hope that in the interests of parliamentary democracy—which to me is the most important thing about which we are talking—the second happens fairly quickly, and that there is a united, healthy Opposition.
It may be that in drafting the Amendment we have erred in the choice of word. We are not particular about the word "referendum", and if my right hon. and learned Friend would like to substitute "plebiscite" I do not think we would object. The definition presents a difficulty. The Economist this week——
§ Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham)
On a point of order, Sir Robert. Is it possible to have the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) join the debate now?
§ Mr. Marten
The Economist this week tried to make the point that I was trying to make a moment ago, which was to define the distinction between a referendum and a plebiscite. It called in aid a Dr. Geoffrey Roberts who has written "A Dictionary of Political Analysis". I do not know who he is, but he defines a plebiscite asA vote by an electorate on a proposed change of régime.This is difficult, because one has to go on and define the extent of the change that he means, and also to define a régime. That shows the difficulty in trying to define the difference between the two words, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), who is an expert author on these great matters of referenda, will shortly take part in the debate, when I am sure he will deal with the various definitions.
In the House the other day my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I had a minor but, as always, friendly altercation about this issue, and subsequently I wrote to him for clarification. I hope he will not mind my quoting his letter, because it was public. He said: 248I agree that dictionary definitions may say that the words 'plebiscite' and 'referendum' may be used interchangeably.That was because I quoted from the smaller Oxford Dictionary to that effect.As you indicate in your footnote, over the years they have acquired varying emotional connotations.That was my postscript in ink, and not printed, in which I said that I normally connected plebiscites with people like Hitler and referenda with people like de Gaulle, but I now withdraw that since my right hon. and learned Friend has agreed to a plebiscite for Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)
Simply as a matter of definition "plebiscite" is a wide word which means simply asking the people, while "referendum" is a narrower word which means asking the people on a particular subject. rather than on the general.
§ Mr. Marten
I am most grateful to the hon. and obviously very learned Gentleman.
My right hon. and learned Friend went on so say in his letter:The point I was trying to make in the House was that although these are flexible words, there is a clear distinction between the circumstances in which a plebiscite has been proposed in Northern Ireland and those in which certain Members have urged the holding of a referendum on the European Community issue.There I agree. It is the circumstances that are different, not the question whether it is a plebiscite or a referendum. I do not think it alters the fact whether in the Amendment we call it a plebiscite or a referendum.
It is not my case particularly to argue that it should be a referendum, a plebiscite or a complete opinion poll of the nation. It is that by one of those methods—and in essence they are all the same—the people of this country, who elected us to Parliament and gave us the powers that we have to hold in trust for them until the next General Election, should be given the chance to express their views on whether they consent wholeheartedly to the Government and Parliament signing away part of those powers—and this is a real surrender of powers—which they have entrusted to us. That is what the Bill so clearly does. In the days that we have spent in Committee so far it has become clear that we are 249 signing away a lot of the powers of this Parliament. To put it in an even simpler way, the people should be asked by a referendum what their views are, because the basic issue is the destiny of their country—no more, no less.
Some people may say that we have already voted on this issue, at the last General Election, but I hope that they will not repeat that nonsense during today's debate. To do so would only waste the time of the House, because all three parties had the same policy. With the exception of a few honourable constituencies—and Banbury was one of them—in which the electorate had the chance to vote for somebody who specifically promised that he would oppose entry into the Common market, generally the Government side followed the party line. Of course, it was then the official policy of both the Labour Party and the Liberal Party. Not for them was it ever a dead duck; it has always been a very live hen.
But if during the last General Election one of the major parties had been against the Common Market, I would have accepted that it was an issue at the election, but it was not and the electorate has never been asked. So I hope that no one today will claim that that has been so.
The Conservative manifesto for the last General Election must in the nature of our parliamentary democracy be considered an important document and taken seriously, whatever party view one may take of its contents. Some of my hon. Friends will claim that it was clear to the electorate that we would go in. Fair enough. I agree that there is room for argument on this; but what is a great pity is the inclusion—it may have slipped in as these things do, in the rush of election time—of the phrase "no more, no less". Why put that in? Would it not have been better to say "Our sole commitment is to negotiate" and just leave it out altogether?
I have skimmed through the election addresses of my hon. Friends——
§ Mr. Marten
After. It does not make any difference, but I saw them collectively 250 only after the election. Many of them repeated this expression, "no more, no less". Not many people buy these manifestos. [Laughter.] I bought the Labour Party one when I was in Opposition, and I found it very useful.
§ Mr. Laurance Reed (Bolton, East)
If one wanted to say that one was keen on going in but not at any price, would it not be reasonable to say that one's commitment was—to negotiate; no more, no less?
§ Mr. Marten
With respect, I believe that in his election address my hon. Friend said that he was in favour of a referendum.
§ Mr. Marten
My point was that I think, rightly or wrongly, that the expression crept in and was given currency during the election not only in election addresses but also in subsequent speeches by Conservative candidates on the basis of the manifesto. It is, therefore, up to us to take note of this and see that that misunderstanding is in some way honoured. I believe that the referendum, consultative as it is, is one way of doing so.
§ Mr. Rippon
I understood my hon. Friend to say that he read the Labour Party's election address before the election. I am not clear whether he read the Conservative Party's manifesto. If he did, he would have seen these words:Our sole commitment is to negotiate; no more, no less. As the negotiations proceed, we will report regularly through Parliament to the country.A Conservative Government would not be prepared to recommend to Parliament, nor would Members of Parliament approve, a settlement which was unequal or unfair. In making this judgment, Ministers and Members will listen to the views of their constituents and will have in mind, as is natural and legitimate, primarily the effect of entry upon the standard of living of the individual citizens whom they represent.It was made perfectly clear that this was a decision for Parliament to make.
§ Mr. Marten
An hon. Member opposite questions whether my right hon. and learned Friend was listening. I rather think that he could not have been. I was quoting from the same document as he has just quoted. The extension which he has just mentioned made not the slightest difference at all. If anything, it helped my case.
Second, my right hon. and learned Friend asked whether I had read the election manifesto of the Labour Party. I was referring not to the last election but to the one before. I said that it was when I was in opposition.
§ Mr. Edward Milne (Blyth)
The Chancellor of the Duchy has just intervened on the question of a referendum. Can the hon. Gentleman tell us what the result of the referendum was in the Chancellor's own constituency? Were not the people emphatically against entry? How does the right hon. and learned Gentleman consult them?
§ Mr. Marten
That is for my right hon. and learned Friend to answer when he intervenes, as I hope he will.
The guts of the thing, from the point of view of the House and the whole parliamentary system, and the last election and just before, is the speech about "full-hearted consent". I have that speech of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, then Leader of the Opposition, here. It is a hand-out from the Conservative Central Office of a speech made at the British Chamber of Commerce in Paris on Tuesday, 5th May, 1970—a carefully drafted speech. I should like to quote from it, because some parts of it are sometimes left out. In the middle of page 6 we read:It is precisely the readiness of the Six to undertake negotiations in this spirit which is questioned by many in Britain today.There, he is talking about the people of Britain questioning. He went on:For we should be clear that these are not only or even essentially transactions between Governments. Whatever the Government in power in Britain I do not myself believe that Parliament will approve a settlement which in the opinion of its members is unequal and unfair"—[Interruption.] My right hon. and learned Friend must keep his cool; it will get hotter as we go on. 252In making this judgment they will have in mind, as is natural and legitimate, primarily the effect of entry upon the standard of living of the individual citizen whom they represent. Nor would it be in the interest of the Community that its enlargement should take place except with the full-hearted consent of the Parliaments and peoples of the new member countries.If, as the Prime Minister said at Question Time the other day, and as the Chancellor said just now, it was limited to Parliament, why put in the words "and peoples"? In the same way, why on earth put in the phrase "no more, no less"? I question the necessity of the words "and peoples", but they were put in with thought and care, in a prepared speech——
§ Mr. Marten
Indeed, before the General Election.
During the General Election "Daily Notes" were produced by the Conservative Research Department. Those on Friday, 5th June, reported a Press conference held by the Prime Minister on 2nd June, 1970—during the General Election. In this we read:Mr. Heath repeated: '…I always said that you couldn't possibly take this country into the Common Market if the majority of the people were against it, but this is handled through the Parliamentary system'.So there is a change, from Paris to London: suddenly, the parliamentary system is substituted for the people, who were so clearly defined in the Paris speech. A little earlier on he said:The art of government surely must be to give leadership to a country and at the same time to take account of how far the lead you give is going to be supported by public opinion.So here we have the two statements: first, that it is handled exclusively through the parliamentary system, and it must, as we know, have the full-hearted consent of that parliamentary system; and, secondly, the question of the support of public opinion. That is the evidence.
How about the full-hearted consent of Parliament, which we all accept is one of the two things that have to happen? This is very important. They were very wise words that the Prime Minister used; it was very wise indeed to have put down that pre-condition. What does the full-hearted consent of Parliament mean? Clearly, it does not mean 50 per cent.; clearly, it does not 253 mean just 51 per cent. It means full-hearted, the full hearts of Members of Parliament. Throughout this debate in the Committee stage have hon. Members noticed the fullness of heart of those who support entry into the European Community? Nothing has made so apparent the barrenness of the people who want to go into the Common Market than their absence during this debate. There has been no parliamentary enthusiasm for it when it has been necessary to get down and do some work on the matter.
So it has got to be something more substantial than 51 per cent., and I would say that it should be in the region of two-thirds. That is what other countries are requiring. I think Norway requires three-quarters, Denmark two-thirds, and so on. In a moment I will go into why we should have two-thirds also. [Interruption.] Does my hon. Friend want to intervene or does he want to go on talking?
§ The Chairman
Order. That is a very-dangerous thing for the hon. Gentleman to say. If he does that again I shall call the next speaker.
§ Mr. Marten
I thought that one of my hon. Friends was trying to intervene, and I was being very polite and asking him whether he wished to do so, but apparently he does not.
In the vote on 28th October there was a majority of 112, but that is only 56 point something per cent. of the Members of Parliament; that is not really a very full-hearted consent. What we have to decide, and decide finally, in this House is whether that was the vote on which this matter should be judged, and whether it can honestly be claimed by any rational person that that was the right vote, that one could effectively vote on something before one knew the terms of the treaty on which one was voting?
Was that the right moment to test the full-hearted consent? It is convenient to say that it was; I agree, and I give that entirely to my hon. Friends; but it was not the right moment. The right moment, of course, was on the Second Reading on 17th February. It was in that debate that this Parliament first knew the details of the negotiations which had been completed and, second, for the first time had details of the Treaty of Accession. 254 Thirdly, it had of course the legislation, and had had it for about a fortnight, and it did not take very long to read.
For all those reasons I believe that the Second Reading vote is the key vote on which this matter should be judged, and in support of my view I quote "Erskine May", 18th edition, Chapter 21, page 485. It says:The second reading is the most important stage through which the bill is required to pass; for its whale principle is then at issue, and is affirmed or denied by a vote of the House…".Well, it was affirmed, of course, by the House, but it did not receive the full-hearted consent of this House. Therefore, with a majority of eight, it completely failed to pass the test which I believe the Prime Minister had rightly set it.
§ [MissHARVIE ANDERSONin the Chair]
§ 4.45 p.m.
So now we are thrown back on to the second test—the full-hearted consent of the people, which the Prime Minister said on 2nd June at his election conference he would require, and how far it is supported by public opinion. Perhaps I may call in aid again my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, and I hope the House will not think I am dragging up little matters in a rather legalistic way because these are major statements. On television on 27th February of this year when he was talking about the miners' strike the Prime Minister said:
The Government is just a group of people elected to do what the majority of us want to see done. That is what our way of life is about.
What do the majority of people want to see done? In relation to the Common Market the Government have said they do not want a referendum, so I do not know how they are going to find out except by opinion polls. My right hon. Friend is beginning to giggle at that, I believe. It may have been something else, but it looked like a movement of mirth.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, at Question Time on 14th March, replying to a question by the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton), I think it was, said:
…today's Gallup Poll shows that more than 50 per cent. of the people want our membership of the Communities to go ahead."—[Official Report, 14th March, 1972; Vol. 833, c. 297.]
So he has used the opinion polls to support his case. What he said was wrong, but I know how this happens; one is very busy and one gets notes for answers to supplementary questions and is not briefed very accurately. The opinion poll did not actually ask that question but something totally different. "Do you think it would be a good or bad thing for this country if the Government failed to get the support of Parliament?" That is a very different question. The second question was: "Do you think Britain's standing in the world would or would not be harmed if the Government fails to gain the support of Parliament?" Those were the questions; so it is not, as we were told in Parliament, that 50 per cent. of the people want our membership of the Communities to go ahead. I will leave that aside, however, because it was obviously the result of rather hurried briefing.
§ In March there were four opinion polls. I have averaged them out and the result is that 36 per cent. of the people favour going in and 44 per cent. are against. So, broadly speaking, I would say that the indications are that the people have not given their full-hearted consent.
§ Mr. Marten
To put it mildly, yes; and, of course, this is realised by those who wish to go in, and I believe that is basically why they oppose a referendum. It is up to them to explain it, so I will take it any further, but if they really believe that the British people are enthusiastic about going in, then I say let this be shown in a consultative referendum. What a wonderful start to this whole project of going into Europe to have the enthusiasm of, say, 75 per cent. or 80 per cent. of the people wanting to go in. How strong it would make the British Government's position if they had that! Therefore, I think the Government would be very wise to accept this Amendment tonight.
Some will say—I know this argument is coming and that it is to save time that I am taking a little longer in order to deal with all the arguments so that need not be raised ad nauseam—that this whole project of a referendum is alien to our traditional system of government. That was the broad basis of the criticism in 256 the correspondence columns of The Times when I wrote a letter and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northwich (Sir J. Foster) who unfortunately is not here, answered me. He said that this was alien to our traditional system of government; those were his words. But, then, so is this whole Bill; it is entirely alien to our system of government.
If they object to the referendum as being alien to our system of government, if they do not like things which are alien to our system of government, all those who object to the referendum ought to be opposing this Bill. But where are they? I say to my hon. Friends who want to go in that if—and it is a big "if"—we get into the Common Market and in the process of time, in two, three, four or ten years, the Council of Ministers decides to go ahead to a directly elected Parliament, which is one of the things that is on the tapis, and if the Council of Ministers then decides that this is an important constitutional innovation which should be put to a referendum of the people in the enlarged Common Market, will my hon. Friends who wish to go into the Common Market object to that? Will they use the veto and risk breaking up the whole Community, or will they accept that referendum? Perhaps we shall hear the answer to that question when they speak.
I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham will deal with the question whether it is alien, because the point he makes in his book is that five out of the last nine Conservative Prime Ministers in the last 60 years have proposed referenda. With one more Prime Minister now proposing a plebiscite on Northern Ireland, that makes six out of nine Prime Ministers. I stress that they were all Conservatives and that all the referenda were supposed to be binding, unlike the one proposed in the Amendment, which would be consultative and advisory and not binding on the Government.
The reason those referenda did not take place is that they were all overtaken by events; and if the Amendment were accepted tonight this referendum would be unnecessary, because it would be overtaken by events before we ever got into the Common Market.
§ Mr. Edward Gardner (South Fylde)
Is all this not a completely bogus argument? Is it not a fact that a referendum is nothing to do with this country and nothing to do with the spirit of the government of this country? It is associated entirely with continental thinking.
§ Mr. Marten
My kindest reply to my hon. and learned Friend is, to quote his own jargon—res ipsa loquitur—and leave it at that.
I was saying that the referendum proposed in the Amendment would not be binding but would be purely consultative. My hon. and learned Friend should recognise that our constitution is a very flexible one. It may well be that we have reached the time in the development of our society when we should try to have a little drop of a referendum which is not binding, on a very important matter. There is no reason why we should not experiment a little with our constitution. After all, we must prepare to get into the Common Market. France has a referendum in its constitution, as have Luxembourg and Italy. Fifty per cent. of the Common Market countries have referenda in their constitutions. Why do we not try a little bit of it to get used to the practice of it? Our co-applicants—Norway, Denmark, and the Republic of Ireland—are all having referenda.
To those who say, as did the hon. Member of Fife, West when repeating what Mr. Attlee said, that these are devices for demagogues and dictators, I reply that, if that is so, surely we are getting mixed up with a very odd lot of characters.
§ Mr. David Walder (Clitheroe)
I am genuinely puzzled. My hon. Friend has talked about a consultative referendum. I do not see why he does not go the whole hog. It is all very well talking about experiments. A consultative referendum implies that a Government, perhaps at their peril, can reject or accept. Why does not my hon. Friend simply say that it must be binding?
§ Mr. Marten
I thought I had made this clear. The whole object of a consultative referendum is to help my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to test whether he has the full-hearted consent of the people; that is all. Then the judgment is up to my right hon. Friend as to whether he wants to go on in.
258 Coming back to my point that we are getting mixed up with a very odd lot of people if they are demagogues and dictators because they have referenda, I remind the House that the country which has the greatest number of referenda is Switzerland. If anybody can tell me where the dictator or demagogue is in Switzerland, I shall be glad to meet him when I am next over there ski-ing. Fourteen Commonwealth countries, all of whose parliamentary traditions have grown out of this country's, have referenda.
I must give credit now to one of the Gallery correspondents to whom I would give one of my two Oscars if I had them to award—Mr. Andrew Alexander—for having asked the question: which dictators have referenda? How many referenda have been held in Russia and China? Therefore, the argument that a referendum is for demagogues and dictators is just about as absurd as it is possible to be. It is rather like the argument that if we have a referendum on this issue we shall have one on hanging. That is nonsense. [Hon. Members: "Why?"] I am going on to explain why. Hon. Members must have patience. This is in a very special constitutional character. Hon. Members should know that. If they had been here all during the Committee stage they would have been aware of it, as I am sure my right hon. and learned Friend is.
The case against an advisory referendum is very weak. I believe, to quote Mr. David Wood of The Times, that the case against an advisory referendum is absolute humbug, particularly now that we are having one in Northern Ireland and that the Pearce Commission has been in Rhodesia to find whether the proposed changes are acceptable to the Rhodesian people as a whole.
Finally on the referendum question, I remind the House of Mr. Pompidou's remarks about the referendum which is to take place in France next Sunday. I quote from the communiqué issued by the French Embassy in London:It is a new Europe that is coming into being, that is going to assert itself, and on which will depend the future of the European peoples and consequently of all French men and women in the political, economic, social and human fields.And that is why I say…that the enlargement of the Community must be ratified by every Frenchwoman and Frenchman…259It would have been easy to use the parliamentary procedure. I am convinced that the Government would have obtained without any difficulty in both Assemblies a broad majority aware both of the importance of what is at stake and of the necessary solution…I consider that it is my duty and that it is fundamentally democratic to call upon the French, who elected me directly, to decide directly on this policy in favour of Europe.Those are very democratic words. Unfortunately, President Pompidou is getting it mixed up with a rather party political campaign, but this is what happens in the Common Market countries. In independent Britain we have one great characteristic. I say this seriously, though perhaps I put it rather curiously. I refer to our ability to wear two hats. In other words, we have the ability to have a hard hitting General Election in which I attack, for instance, the right hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. Shore) and he attacks me.
However, if we were to isolate this issue, and if the Prime Minister were to give a statesmanlike lead and say "This is not a party political matter", as he has said already—let him repeat it—then I believe that the British people could take the issue out of politics and the Prime Minister could say that if the referendum went against the Government substantially the Government would not resign. That would take this issue out of party politics, as it should have been all the time.
Finally, what sort of referendum should we have? The answer is very clear, because the House has already decided what sort of referenda others should have. Therefore, we can take as read what we should have. In 1967, under the Labour Government, a Measure was passed called the West Indies Act, 1967. I sat through the proceedings on that Measure, and I believe that the right hon. Gentleman was also concerned with it. It was an Act to give associated status to a number of West Indian islands. That was semi-independence, and it was said that if they wanted to go fully independent certain things must happen. They had a lower House and an upper House and elections just like we have.
The Schedule of the Act outlines the procedure for terminating the status of association and becoming fully independent. This Act, which went through 260 the House, was fully debated without any opposition on either side, with no votes on it, although everyone was entitled to vote, including all the pro-Marketeers The Act said:In this Schedule 'referendum' means a referendum—that is interesting. It did not mean a plebiscite then—on which all persons who, at the time when the referendum is held, would be entitled to vote".In other words, it attempts to go for the national referendum. The Schedule goes on:Subject to the following provisions of this Schedule—This would be quite a good thing for us to do because it would show whether the Government had the full-hearted support of Parliament or not.
- (a) there must be an interval of not less than 90 days between the introduction of the Bill…
- (b) on the third reading of the Bill in the legislature, the Bill must be supported by the votes of not less than two-thirds of all the elected members of the legislature".(c) if approved on third reading in the legislature, the Bill must be submitted to a referendum and must not be submitted to the Governor of the state for his assent unless not less than two-thirds of the votes validly cast on that referendum are cast in support of the Bill".That Act was passed with the full-hearted consent of this Parliament. No one objected, and it had all-party support. If we can do that for others, that is what we should do for ourselves. I would like to hear my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy explain why we should not follow that pattern, because if it is good for them surely it is good for us. The question would be very simple: "Are you in favour or not in favour of joining the Common Market on the terms negotiated?" That is a clear, concise question, and I believe it will be to the great credit of the Government if they change their minds and decide to accept the Amendment. It will allow the Government to march to their confrontation with Europe knowing that the British people are right behind them, if they are.
§ Mr. George Thomson (Dundee, East)
I think the Committee will recognise that the reason why this is my maiden speech in the proceedings on this Bill is not any lack of inclination to speak in the earlier proceedings. Indeed, there were 261 many times when I would have wished to speak, and I would like to assure my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench that I have followed with intense interest, and an intense self-interest, the entire proceedings of the Committee stage so far. I have, I believe, voted in 21 of the 24 Divisions which have taken place, a record which, while not quite as good as that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins), I commend to my Whips, for whose tolerance I am unceasingly grateful. It is a great deal better than the record of many of my colleagues who are supposed to be a good deal more in opposition to the Bill than I have ever been.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Would my right hon. Friend accept that in all the Divisions in which he took part there was never any danger of defeating the Government, unlike the one we are debating today.
§ Mr. Thorpe
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I distinctly heard the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) referring to the way in which certain of my right hon. and hon. Friends voted on 17th November as having "sold out", thereby implying that we were motivated by the prospect of financial gain, and I would ask him to withdraw.
The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means
Order. I am sure the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) intended it in a metaphorical sense, and that is what the Chair heard.
§ Mr. Thomson
I am sorry if what was intended as an innocent and mild remark should provoke my hon. Friend because I was hoping to go on to explain why I have taken the course of action I have on the Bill. I do not expect to carry him with me, but I expect him to accept the sincerity of my beliefs on this matter as I accept his. I mentioned my voting record to seek to convince him and my other hon. Friends that my decision to resign from the Shadow Cabinet was not taken lightly 262 but with the deepest of reluctance. I did my best to vote with my party so long as issues of principle, particularly new issues of principle, were not raised. Resigning, as I have found for the first time in my political life, is one of the most difficult acts of politics. One does, if one is conscientious, go to the limit as I believe I and my right hon. Friends have done, to avoid creating difficulties for one's party and one's colleagues with whom one agrees on so many other issues.
I hope the Committee will forgive me these personal remarks. While the resignation, when it finally comes, inevitably reflects wider differences of view, in this case general differences with the conduct of the Bill by my party and wider differences of view about my party's general conduct of affairs, the immediate cause of my resignation was the sudden and complete change of policy by my party in regard to the Amendment of the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten). Therefore, I wish to explain why I shall vote for the Amendment standing in the name of my right hon. Friends calling for a General Election, but shall find myself unable to join in support of the Amendment moved by the hon. Member for Banbury calling for a consultative referendum.
Very few words should be sufficient to deal with the General Election issue. I shall vote for a General Election for the simple and unsophisticated reason that, given the reactionary nature of the Government's domestic policies on jobs, prices, education and rents, it is impossible not to be in favour of a General Election. It will be seen from this that I support the proposition of a General Election from a rather different and more down-to-earth point of view than that urged in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney (Mr. Shore). He dressed up his advocacy of the Amendment extremely eloquently, as he always does, in constitutional clothes. He argued, in effect, that, however much one may detest Tory policies on rents or commercial broadcasting or whatever, the Government have a mandate for such things. On the other hand, he believes that the Common Market raises great constitutional issues of the surrender of parliamentary sovereignty, and that no Government have the right to take Britain 263 in without a fresh General Election mandate. He did not produce very persuasive historical evidence for this. It is true that in 1910 and 1911 there were General Elections over the question of the powers of the House of Lords. As far as I remember, these elections were called almost over the dead bodies of the Left of the day because they were demanded by the Monarch as the necessary condition before he would appoint the required number of peers to give the Government of the day their majority.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
Apart from the history of General Elections, would my right hon. Friend answer the question that his right hon. Friend failed to answer the other day. I asked him what he and his particularly close friends on this issue would do with regard to the Labour Party's policy about the Common Market if there were a General Election and what he would do afterwards if the Labour Party won?
§ Mr. Thomson
I do not know why my hon. Friend puts this question with such force. The answer is surely perfectly straightforward. If there were a General Election on this issue I would fight it in my constituency, explaining the policy of the Labour Party on this, which is that it is in favour of entry in principle but that it objects to the present terms. I would add my own view, which I have put again and again to my constituents, that the terms which have emerged seem acceptable to me. I would be in no different position in fighting that General Election than many of my other hon. Friends, for whom I have had the greatest personal regard, explaining to their constituents the official Labour Party policy and why they have conscientious differences of view from the majority.
I return to the main burden of the argument. My right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney made great play with the House of Lords question. He seems to have forgotten that he and I were members of a Cabinet which introduced into the House—we were, unfortunately, not able to carry it to final success—a major reform of the House of Lords which would have turned it virtually into a salaried senate. I have looked at our election manifesto for 1966, and I am bound to say that I find this matter described somewhat inadequately. Yet we 264 had no doubt that we would carry through that major constitutional change, if we gained the consent of the House of Commons, without any question of a General Election.
I believe, with respect, that it would have been wiser for my party to stick to the view that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition expressed in a Panorama interview, not last night but on 8th May, 1967. He was being asked about the then Labour Government's commitment to negotiate entry, and he said:We have a mandate to go in, because we sought it last time."Last time" was the General Election of 1966.We had a mandate. We said we would go in if essential Commonwealth and British interests could be safeguarded and that is the basis on which we are now applying.Well, if we had a mandate on the basis of the 1966 election manifesto, which I have here for anyone who wishes to have it quoted, then if we had remained in power in 1970 we would certainly have claimed we had a much more clear-cut mandate for going into the Communities without a General Election, if the Labour Government of that day had brought back terms of entry which they thought were acceptable and which they felt they could commend to the House. I think that every right hon. and hon. Member on this side will recognise the truth of that. Therefore, I submit that the constitutional argument is one more example of the kind of inconsistency we get ourselves into on this issue through getting our political priorities a little wrong.
I have a very old respect for the hon. Member for Banbury who raised the question of what people did in the last General Election and what sort of choice there was. Perhaps I may add a personal parenthesis, since confession seems to be the order of the day. I was the only candidate in East Dundee who was in favour of Britain's entering the Common Market. I had against me a Conservative candidate and a Scottish National Party candidate, both of whom were against the Common Market. I was elected by a majority of people who were certainly in no doubt about whom they were electing and what he stood for.
I have said that I believe that if the Labour Government had come to power 265 in 1970 and the Cabinet of the day had felt the terms were right there would not have been any feeling that there was a constitutional requirement for a General Election. I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend that the present Bill may be briefer and a great deal more brutal than the Bill we would have introduced, but a Labour Government would have faced a much more relaxed parliamentary situation, in which they would have had a majority of the Opposition with them, which would have made the legislative process a good deal easier.
But the point is that we knew perfectly well what degree of sovereignty we were surrendering when we accepted the invitation to open negotiations in May,1970. Therefore, the case for a General Election is not constitutional but a straight forward party political one, and none the worse for that. We want to get the Tories out, because we detest their domestic policies. I will vote for a General Election tonight for the simple reason that there is a rate of about 12 per cent. male unemployment in my constituency, and a Labour Government would tackle that problem a great deal more effectively than the present Government. But I beg my right hon. and hon. Friends not to disguise the General Election argument with a lot of pretentious constitutional nonsense about Simon de Montfort and all the rest. He was, I suppose, one of the early Community men. He was born in France and then came across to England. I do not think this sort of thing carries conviction; it is the sort of thing that gets politics and politicians a bad name.
When we come to a General Election the Common Market will be a small part of it. It will be fought on jobs, pensions, prices, and all the things that General Elections are always fought on—
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Thomson
I said that the Common Market will be a small part of it, but the main part will be the domestic issues.
A General Election can be forced by an Opposition under our parliamentary system in only one of two ways—by winning sufficient by-elections or by such a 266 genuine shift of conviction within the House of Commons that the Government's majority disappears. The Common Market does not fit that second case. There was a House of Commons majority of 112 in October for entering the Common Market on the present terms, and it would have been even bigger if there had been a free vote on both sides. The majority for the principle of entry on the present terms has not grown less since. That remains the reality.
I recognise—I say this without irony—that this creates great frustrations for my right hon. Friends on the Front Bench, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney, who has his own deeply held convictions about the matter, which are certainly as deep and sincere as those I hold. They are probably about an equal distance from the official position of the party which he speaks for. The official position remains, as has been repeated a number of times by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition in the past few days, as being in principle in favour of British entry into the Common Market but against the economic terms that were negotiated by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
§ Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)
Why is my right hon. Friend trying to isolate my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney (Mr. Shore)? Should he not address himself to the official decision of the annual conference of the Labour Party, by a majority of five to one, that we are to force a General Election on the terms negotiated by the Tory Government, and the sooner the better? Does not my right hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. George Thomson) have to justify his own departure from the policy of the Labour Party?
§ Mr. Thomson
I do not think my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. John Mendelson) has been following my argument with his customary attention. I shall be happy to join him in the Lobby tonight on the General Election issue. I am simply trying to clarify why I shall be there with him. I was not trying to isolate my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney. I referred to him because he opened the debate, but what I said about him refers with equal force to myhon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale 267 (Mr. Michael Foot), who will no doubt wind up this discussion.
I wanted to go on to say that I fully recognise that they speak for the majority of my party, and that, while minorities have rights—and my right hon. and hon. Friends have been punctilious about recognising those rights—majorities are entitled to have their way. But in a matter like the Common Market, a unique issue which deeply divides all the parties in the House, above all an issue for the next generation rather than simply for the next General Election, the majority that matters is the majority of the House of Commons as a whole, after earnest and agonising debate over many days. That majority can be altered only if the Labour minority in this discussion tear up their principles while the Tory minority stick to theirs. When it is put in that way, I do not think my right hon. and hon. Friends would either expect or want their colleagues who hold different views from theirs to behave in that way.
That brings me to the referendum Amendment. As the Committee knows, I resigned from the Shadow Cabinet together with other colleagues because I could not accept collective responsibility for recommending to my party that we should vote for the Amendment of the hon. Member for Banbury. As a mem- of the previous Labour Government, I was, I think, more on record than almost any of my colleagues in putting the case against a referendum.
The referendum was passed particularly strongly in Scotland, where the Scottish National Party wanted to use it both to keep Scotland out of the Common Market and to get Scotland out of the United Kingdom. The views I put then still seem to me to be valid. I am not a stickler for consistency. One should be ready to learn from new facts and new experiences. But I have seen nothing which impels me to change my views about referenda. I believe that the case against a referendum is formidable, both on constitutional grounds of undermining parliamentary democracy, and on political grounds, which are of particular interest to this side of the House because they arrest social and economic progress.
The currently fashionable term of abuse for this position is "elitist". It is 268 not a justified description. I am against a referendum not because I believe that the men in Whitehall or Westminster know best. Parliament and Whitehall are imperfect institutions. I am against a referendum because I am a democrat who believes that, on balance, the elected Commons remains the best protector of the individual liberty of the subject, and that, although the House of Commons is imperfect, it is also the most sensitive political seismograph for registering complicated questions of public interest.
Moreover, I believe that a referendum would divide both parties, and particularly a party like the Labour Party, which is at present in Opposition, because it could not take place without compelling many members on both sides of the argument—both pro- and anti-Marketeers—to campaign against the views of their own constituency parties, and, indeed, would be bound to result in leaders in the parties campaigning against each other.
§ Mr. Thomson
My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone say "Settle it in a General Election". I have already explained that I am voting with him tonight for a General Election.
§ Mr. Mendelson
My right hon. Friend misheard me. I did not say "settle it in a General Election". I said the problem would be the same in a General Election. My right hon. Friend says that he accepts the terms as satisfactory. The Labour Party say that it does not accept the terms as satisfactory.
§ Mr. Thomson
My hon. Friend is wrong. It would not be the same in a General Election. In a General Election, one would not have the Leader and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party campaigning against each other on television; one would not have the Labour candidate for Dundee, East campaigning against his constituency Labour Party. That is a recipe for disaster and division in the party.
I fully accept that there is a problem these days about people wanting the fullest participation in political decision making. "Direct democracy" is a very fashionable term at the moment. I am all in favour of the principle of decisions 269 being taken at the lowest effective level. But let us not go in for romantic self-deception about participation. We could start by persuading people to take greater part in local elections instead of in the small numbers in which they vote at present. The fact is that "direct democracy" in the factory, in the university or ultimately in the street can often give power to unrepresentative local leaders who, when they have to submit themselves to democratic election, lose their deposits.
A referendum has been the favoured instrument of tyranny and dictatorship. It is no accident that it is written into the constitutions of many countries——
§ Mr. Thomson
I shall deal with this point if my hon. Friend will have patience. I agree that the referendum is also used by decent democracies in various part of the world. But there it has invariably been a brake on progress. The experience of Mr. Chifley's Government in Australia should interest my hon. Friends. The referendum in Australia after the war was used as a major obstacle to nationalisation and radical economic change. There, only four out of 24 have been carried. The last to be carried was nearly20 years ago. Does anyone seriously believe that Labour Governments here could have carried through their nationalisation programmes or their controversial social reforms if they had had to submit them to referenda? Despite what the hon. Member for Banbury attempted to show, does anyone seriously believe that if we allowed a referendum on such a major issue as the Common Market we could prevent its use on other issues?
§ Mr. Raymond Fletcher (Ilkeston)
Why is it, then, that every measure of social progress made in Switzerland in the last 20 years has been made as a result of a referendum, including the granting of votes to women?
§ Mr. Thomson
I think I must take my hon. Friend the Member for Ilkeston (Mr. Raymond Fletcher) with me next time I go to Switzerland. He will find that the referendum there has been an obstacle to social progress. It has taken several generations to persuade the men of 270 Switzerland through the referendum instrument to concede votes for women. When I visited there as a member of the Labour Government in connection with the Common Market, I found that a widespread view in Switzerland was that it would be much in Switzerland's economic interest to be part of a wider economic community but that there was no hope of carrying it through the referendum hoops. The fact is that those democracies that have it find that the referendum is a brake on progress.
Only three weeks ago the Opposition rejected the idea of a referendum as a carefully considered act of policy. The justification for changing that view lies in two events—President Pompidou's decision in France to hold a referendum on Britain's application to join the Common Market, and the Prime Minister's decision to have a plebiscite in Ulster. President Pompidou's decision seems to me to be the worst of all reasons for the Labour Party changing its policy, since his main political motive is to defeat and divide the French Left. The Prime Minister's plebiscite in Ulster is, I believe, a massive mistake which he will regret. In overcoming ancient fears and prejudices, whether they be about the border in Ireland or about the merging of Britain in a wider European community, there is a moment when elected representatives have to be bold and give a lead to public opinion. I believe that the Prime Minister's Ulster plebiscite will one day hang like a millstone round the necks of Ulster leaders wishing to turn their backs on the past.
Neither President Pompidou nor the Prime Minister should be regarded as persuasive advocates for a change of policy by the Labour Party. I respect the sincerity of the hon. Member for Banbury and his supporters, but they have put down this Amendment for wholly conservative reasons which ought to be completely alien to this side of the House. He mentioned that six out of nine Conservative Prime Ministers had toyed with the idea of a referendum but that none had introduced it. Of course, it was precisely because they were Conservative Prime Ministers that they thought of a referendum; they wanted to use it as a weapon of last resort against social advance. It is significant that the only Labour Prime Minister faced directly 271 with the issue until now—Earl Attlee—gave a particularly pungent reply to the suggestion of a referendum.
I believe that we yield to the temptation of short-term political advantage by making an alliance with the hon. Member for Banbury and his right hon. and hon. Friends which will be damaging to our own credibility. It is a logical non-sequitur to argue for a referendum as second best to a General Election. A referendum would give the Labour Party the worst of all worlds. If the Amendment were carried, it would embarrass the Government, which would be a good thing, but it would not bring the Government down and cause a General Election. It would not even keep Britain out of the Common Market, since it is likely that by the time the referendum was held the answer would be "Yes".
§ Mr. Thomson
I at least hoped to retain the respect of my hon. Friend in opposing something on principle which might be of political advantage to me. If the Amendment were carried, it would not mean a General Election. The last opinion polls I saw showed 45 per cent. approving entry and 39 per cent. disapproving. The age breakdown was interesting. In the age group 25 to 44, those in favour totalled 54 per cent., with 33 per cent. against. In the age group 65 and over, 51 per cent. were against and only 25 per cent. were for. That may be a posture that is agreeable to the hon. Member and his hon. Friends but it ought not to be a posture in any way congenial to any party such as the Labour Party. We are a radical party, a party of change. We stand for something utterly different from that represented by those who move this Amendment.
§ Mr. Marten
Can the right hon. Gentleman say which opinion poll this was and what were the questions?
§ 5.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Thomson
The poll was carried out by Social and Community Planning Research. The questions were:Whether you approved greatly or less greatly, whether you disapproved greatly or less greatly.272 I have lumped the two categories for the purposes of simplicity. I would be happy to give the hon. Member full details. The hon. Member has behind him the poll in the Sunday Express, the National Opinion Poll, I think, which showed that 78 per cent. of people, when asked, said that they wanted a referendum. Of course if a person is asked a leading question about whether he wants to be consulted he says "Yes". He would say exactly the same if he were asked whether he wanted to be consulted about nationalisation, capital punishment, or sending immigrants back to their countries of origin.
I have a report here of a survey carried out by the Social and Community Planning Research Organisation which was done for The Guardian by two social researchers called Roger Jowell and Gerald Hoinville. They refer to the question asked in the recent Sunday Express poll, which was:Before taking their final decision about joining the Common Market, Norway, Denmark and Ireland will each have a referendum in which all the people will be able to say whether they want to join or not. Do you think that Britain should do the same?The social researchers make the not unreasonable comment that if any question were designed to illustrate the well-known bandwagon effect this was a perfect example. They say:A comparable leading question might well have been:'When France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland decided to form the Common Market, they each left the decision entirely to their Parliaments. Do you think Britain should do the same?That question was very likely to have elicited an overwhelming "Yes". It is just as leading and unfair a question as the earlier one——
§ Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, West) rose——
§ Sir D. Walker-Smith rose—
The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means
Order. To which hon. Gentleman was the right hon. Gentleman giving way?
§ Mr. Hamilton
My right hon. Friend was giving way to the most distinguished Member for Fife, West. Does he recall 273 that an earlier National Opinion Poll asked whether people knew what a referendum was and 55 per cent. of them said "No"?
§ Mr. Thomson
My hon. Friend is basically right, but he engages in his well-known characteristic of understatement. The actual figures were that 58 per cent. did not know and 10 per cent. gave the wrong answer. My impression, leaving aside the opinion polls and sticking to the hunch of a simple politician, is that most people emerged from the great debate last autumn feeling that this was precisely the kind of complex and confusing issue, on involved questions concerning not only the economy but foreign policy and constitutional matters, which they had elected politicians to deal with.
The general public are bored with our wrangling here. They want the politicians to get on with it. I believe that they will judge us by the results, and if the results turn out to be harmful then they will demand changes in the terms that we negotiate. That attitude fits in extraordinarily well, both with the official views of the Labour Party on this side of the Committee and with its political needs, if I may put it that way. We are in favour of the principle of entry but object to the terms. It would be more appropriate for the Labour Party to face the future instead of continually joining with the hon. Member for Banbury the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Sir Robin Turton), the hon. Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell)——
§ Mr. Thomson
I am sorry my hon. Friend does not like to hear my views. I have been patient and listened to those of my hon. Friends. We should not join with these people in looking nostalgically over our shoulders to a view of the past with which we have little in common. It was for these reasons that I felt bound to come here and say what I have said, and it is for these reasons that I shall join my hon. and right hon. Friends on the General Election Amendment but shall be utterly unable to support them on the matter of the referendum.
§ Mr. Rippon
I am sure that the whole Committee has listened with great attention and appreciation to the speech of 274 the right hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. George Thomson). All of us, whatever our views, accept the sincerity of his convictions, his beliefs and his actions. It is not for me to intervene in any way in the differences of opinion which exist on the other side of the Committee. We watched the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. John Mendelson) speaking up for the views of the party conference and insisting upon conformity.
§ Mr. John Mendelson indicated assent.
§ Mr. Rippon
I am happy to see that the hon. Member nods. I am sure that he will follow the example of his right hon. Friend tonight and vote for the General Election Amendment for the reasons for which Oppositions always vote for that and will vote against the referendum Amendment in accordance with the decision of the Labour Party conference in October, 1971. Then a resolution put forward by the Union of Post Office Workers demanding a campaign for a referendum if the Government refused a General Election on the European Economic Community issue was defeated by 4,161,000 votes to 1,928,000, a majority of 2,233,000. I am sure the hon. Member will as usual follow what his party conference says. It was the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton) who said that it was the custom of his party to follow its party conference views. That is certainly right when such views are wise.
§ Mr. William Hamilton
My right hon. Friend the present Chairman of the Labour Party said at the Scottish Labour Party conference at Inverness that conference was instinctively right when perhaps Cabinets were wrong.
§ Mr. Rippon
Hon. Members must form their own judgments on how they are bound by party conferences. The hon. Member said that he had done so, and we shall look forward to seeing him with us tonight.
Judging by the speech of the right hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. Shore), this may go down as one of the most curious debates in the annals of parliamentary history. How he could ever have remained a member of the Cabinet which made the application passes all understanding. I must assume, whatever the Labour Cabinet may have said in the end about the terms, that it made its application in 275 good faith. Certainly the right hon. Gentleman was not acting in good faith if he believed then what he states today. He pays great attention to The Times, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten). My hon. Friend was a little unfair to the Political Correspondent of The Times when he said he suggested that it was humbug to be against the referendum. He said it was humbug to be for it, and that is quite different. Perhaps we should follow another piece of advice from the Political Correspondent of The Times, who said that we should be wise to ignore the sadness of it and look for the laughs.
I think everyone in the House knows that this is to a large extent a totally unreal debate. Oppositions from time to time are inclined to call for an immediate General Election. The right hon. Member for Dundee, East said that he would support that idea because he imagined a General Election would be on straight political lines and he would like the opportunity to change the Government. That is a traditional sentiment. It is a little unusual for the demand for a General Election to come as an Amendment to Clause 1 of a Bill which has already been accepted in principle by the House of Commons.
As for the sudden enthusiasm of some right hon. and hon. Members for a referendum, nobody, either inside or outside the House, believes that this enthusiasm arises from any deep or abiding conviction of the merits of such a constitutional innovation.
The two suggested Amendments have certain features in common and certain features that are distinct to each. The feature in common is that both would require a nation-wide consultation and vote of the electorate and then a further vote by both Houses of Parliament before the Act came into force. This would presumably be after the Royal Assent, since the Amendments talk of the Act coming into force. In both cases, if the Amendment were accepted we should be following the extraordinary course of approving the Bill in Parliament and securing the Royal Assent, but returning to the electorate to seek their views and then coming back to Parliament for a further vote.
276 The Amendment calling for a General Election suggests first and foremost that the House of Commons can have no confidence in its own election by the people or in its ability to pass judgment on the Bill, and that the decision should be left to a new Parliament after a General Election. That view is taken despite all the consultations and debates that have been held in the country and in Parliament on the issue of Community membership over all these many years, the decisions of previous Parliaments and, above all, the decisions of this Parliament on 28th October last year and on Second Reading of the Bill in February.
In effect, the official Opposition Amendment is proposing that this Government and this Parliament, having surmounted all the hurdles which have balked previous Governments and Parliaments on this great national course towards furthering our national security and prosperity, should now evade the final responsibility for the decision. If there were to be a General Election on this odd basis, we could all take it for granted that other issues, national and local, would be raised.
As the right hon. Member for Dundee, East said, that would be the sole purpose of such a General Election, but it might be a strange campaign. One can perhaps envisage a mass meeting in which the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) would join my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) in saying that we should not enter Europe on any terms. At half-time I suppose they would go to opposite ends of the hall and proclaim their divergent views on immigration, nationalisation, industrial relations and inflation. It could not possibly be a straight issue between the two political parties if right hon. and hon. Members were to hold to their convictions.
§ Mr. John Mendelson
Before the right hon. and learned Gentleman takes his information about the position of the Labour Party from my right hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East, let him look up the record. He will find that my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), in winding up the debate before the vote was taken, said that the Labour Party had decided to put its opposition to the 277 terms negotiated by the Conservative Government to the electorate whenever a General Election came. That is our policy.
§ Mr. Rippon
The policy is to have a General Election for the reasons explained by the right hon. Member for Dundee, East.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury suggested that a clear, simple issue could be put to the electorate in a referendum and that each party could take a clear line for or against. He suggested that the proposition should be "Are you for or against entry on the terms negotiated?" But that is not enough to get the views of the British people. The Labour Party would split three ways on this—and perhaps some of my right hon. and hon. Friends as well. There would be those who were for entry on the terms negotiated, those who were for entry after renegotiation and those who were against entry on any terms. We should have to put all these matters in detail asking "Which terms are you against?", "which terms are you for?", "Which terms do you want renegotiated?" We should have to make available copies of the Act, which by then we shall have passed, or the Treaty of Accession, to which Amendment No. 205 refers. It would be a rather difficult referendum to conduct.
§ Mr. Marten
With respect, I think my right hon. and learned Friend is exaggerating. The straight question could be put in an opinion poll: "Do you want to join the Common Market or not?" That is all we want to know.
§ Mr. Rippon
It cannot be as simple as that, because some people want to join on the terms negotiated, some want renegotiation and some do not want to join at all. It cannot be a simple "Yes" or "No" question. That is the difficulty of putting a complex issue to the public in a referendum. A change of régime or a simple issue of whether or not to have Sunday opening in part of Wales can be, and has been, the subject of a referendum in this country, but it is not easy.
§ Mr. Rippon
We had some difficulty in putting it to the House of Commons. Having regard to the length and complexity of our debates over the last 10 years, there are difficulties in having those debates repeated over the next 10 years to get a satisfactory solution.
It is true to say that a referendum would not mean suspending our national affairs and embroiling the country quite to the extent of a General Election, but it would mean nation-wide campaigns on matters of great complexity. The Act and the Treaty of Accession, or popular versions of them, would have to be distributed. It would not be an easy referendum to conduct and the framing of suitably explicit questions would be difficult.
Since the concept is novel and alien in this country, the first mammoth task would be to explain the purpose and nature of a referendum, as the right hon. Member for Dundee, East said. The one question that was not published in the Daily Express in its opinion poll was the one which asked "Do you know what a referendum is?" It was clear that about 68 per cent. of those questioned had no idea.
§ Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)
Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman apply his arguments to the plebiscite in Northern Ireland where, first, the explanation has to be given; secondly, the fact that those in Ireland take many different views about the nature of the relationships that might develop with Dublin; and thirdly, the fact that the Government have provided for periodic plebiscites? Will he explain exactly why there should be a basic difference in the handling of the Northern Irish question and the Common Market question?
§ Mr. Rippon
I was going on to say more about the practical difficulties in handling a referendum, but I do not want to make too much of it. At Question Time both the Prime Minister and I have indicated that whatever dictionary definition one prefers, whether that of the Oxford Dictionary or that which was given in the Economist, what really matters are the circumstances and not the words. The real difference in circumstances both in the case of Northern Ireland and that of 279 Gibraltar is that there was not quite the same accepted parliamentary process available to determine the issue.
Perhaps I cannot explain these matters as well as the Leader of the Opposition used to explain them. On 28th May, 1970, just before the General Election, the right hon. Gentleman dealt with the question of a referendum as follows:Robin Day: Turning to another matter completely, Mr. Wilson, the people of Gibraltar were allowed to say whether they wished to join Spain through the medium of a referendum. Why cannot the people of Britain be allowed a similar opportunity to say whether they wish to join the Common Market?Harold Wilson: It was necessary to take the referendum in Gibraltar…This referendum was necessary to prove to the world that all the Gibraltarians, bar about 40, wanted to remain with the British connection. As far as the Common Market is concerned, that's a very different thing, we have a Parliament in the sense that Gibraltar hasn't, we have M.P.s who are elected, as some are going to be elected next month, and I think it is right that it is the Parliament which should take that decision with a sense of full responsibility, with a sense that reflects national views and interests.Then another interviewer, Michael Charlton, took up the issue:Mr. Laverty from Birkenhead says 'Is it correct to assume that if Mr. Wilson sees the polls are going against him, he'll say at the last minute that he will allow a referendum on the Common Market?'Harold Wilson: The answer to that is no. I've given my answer many times. I don't change because polls go either up or down. Heavens, when the polls have been 28 points against me it hasn't made any difference with going on with policies I knew to be unpopular. I'm not going to trim to win votes on a question like that.…I shall not change my attitude on that.That sums up what has been the general view on both sides of the House for a long time.
I do not see that our way of reaching a decision on the question of a referendum should be influenced by the practices of certain other applicants or existing members. The Treaty of Accession provides that each country should ratifyin accordance with their respective constitutional requirements.As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in the House on 21st March,Other countries have their own constitutional procedures; we have ours."—[Official Report, 21st March, 1972; Vol. 833, c. 319.]280 Referenda are a feature of some constitutions but not of others.
It is rather extraordinary that those who are now pressing in this country for a referendum pray in aid the practice of the French Government and the French constitution. The fact that we can ratify in our own way underlines the fact that we retain our own constitutional position and our own constitutional rights. Therefore, the question posed as to what would happen if the Council of Ministers decided we should have direct elections is the sort of matter which we should decide in accordance with our own procedures and views.
Where referenda exist in other countries, the circumstances in which they may be used differ considerably. The constitution of Italy, for example, provides that there should be no referendum in the case of the ratification of a treaty. I do not want to go into all the details about how other countries conduct their affairs because they will ratify in their own way. But anybody who imagines that in all cases the simple motive for holding a referendum is to ascertain the popular will on a single issue is an innocent abroad. The right hon. Member for Dundee, East made some observations on the objectives of the President of France, and that is not for me to comment upon. What other countries may do in this regard has to be seen in the context of the totality of their constitutional arrangements and history.
My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said that the President of France had expressed the view that because he was directly elected he could go over the heads of the French Parliament to the people. We do not have a directly elected head of state.
§ Mr. Marten
I am praying in aid in this Amendment the case of Norway which does not have in its constitution provision for referenda. The Norwegians are having a consultative referendum of the type for which I am asking. I speak as one who a long time before the General Election pressed for a referendum on this issue, and therefore it is no new thing for me. Therefore, I wish that my right hon. and learned Friend would connect 281 me with the Norwegian type of arrangement rather than with what happens in France and elsewhere.
§ Mr. Rippon
I appreciate that my hon. Friend has been much more consistent than have some right hon. and hon. Gentlemen whose views, for various reasons, change rather more rapidly.
Each country within the Community is entitled to have its own constitutional procedures. The Norwegians and the Danes have theirs and they have developed the mover many years. They understand them and they like them. In the case of Norway it is only a consultative referendum; some others are more binding.
We do not have to have regard to these matters. Contrary to what the right hon. Member for Stepney is always saying, we retain our national identity and our own constitutional practices and procedures. Of course, we may change. It may be there are some right hon. and hon. Members who think we ought to import the referendum into the British constitution. I would only say that it would be naive for any right hon. Member to think that the purpose of support being given to the concept of a referendum at this moment is in any way due to a belief in the inherent merits of that particular constitutional practice.
§ Mr. Shore
It is true that the British constitution is not written and that we depend heavily on practice and convention, but surely the right hon. and learned Gentleman would agree that in so far as one can quote any kind of precedent in what is involved in membership of the Common Market, it is right to say that this is an overriding constitutional issue. When we have faced such matters in the past and the two sides of the House have been divided, Government have thought it right and honourable to look for a solution in a General Election. Why does the right hon. and learned Gentleman not do this now?
§ Mr. Rippon
Often when we were in opposition the two sides were equally divided about the Government's policies, on some of which the then Government had not sought a very clear mandate. When in Opposition we occasionally demanded a General Election, as an Opposition is entitled to do. I was discussing 282 the question of a referendum, and our constitution is flexible enough for the House to decide, if it wishes, to import the doctrine of the referendum. All I am saying is that it has never been imported before. It is a system that is alien to us
I agree that from time to time the idea has been wheeled out—normally as the right hon. Member for Dundee, East said, by Opposition leaders—and then speedily dropped. I will not comment too much on the fact that it is a weapon of conservatism. No doubt many examples can be given of reforms which would not have been passed in this House if a referendum had been required.
One of the essential features of our parliamentary democracy in Britain is the concept of the Government being responsible to a representative Parliament elected freely and directly by the people and taking its decisions on behalf of the people.
This principle has earned Britain respect throughout the world.
§ [SirALFRED BROUGHTONin the Chair]
§ Of all the momentous decisions taken by Governments of different political shades through the centuries none has been taken on the basis of popular referendum. Such a referendum would add nothing to the understanding of the issues involved which we have been discussing in this House for many years, but certainly it would weaken public confidence in the ability and authority of its elected representatives.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West was good enough to send me at my request a copy of a speech that he made at the Tamworth College of Further Education on Monday, 15th June, 1970, in the course of which he said:
I say at once that I am no supporter of a referendum, least of all on this sort of subject. Out of many reasons I mention only two. First, it is inconsistent with the responsibility of government to parliament and to the electorate. If, on a subject of this importance, the Government were to propose one course and a referendum chose the other, then, unless the Government promptly resigned they would be able thereafter to say, whatever happened: 'Well, don't blame us, it is no fault of ours; we wanted to do one thing,
but you decided to do the other; so, ladies and gentlemen, you have only yourselves to blame.' The result of that would be, quite literally, irresponsible government.
I think that my right hon. Friend was right in that denunciation.
I know that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends who have put down the Amendment have found some new supporters because they advocate only an advisory and not a binding referendum. Then they argue that the rôle of Parliament would be unaffected. In other words, they say that it is possible to have one's cake and to eat it. It is interesting that the Leader of the Opposition is on record even against an advisory referendum. As he said on 8th July, 1971,
The Prime Minister said that I oppose a referendum, and I agree—I have always done so, as he has. The idea of an advisory referendum was not then put forward, but I still agree with the right hon. Gentleman on this question."—[Official Report, 8th July, 1971; Vol. 820, c. 1515.]
§ It is an illusion to think that an advisory referendum avoids the difficulties in the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury suggested. Whatever it is called, a referendum held on an issue of major policy on which the Government's position at any rate is clear could scarcely be other than a vote of confidence in the Government.
Suppose that the result were negative. Could the Government realistically carry on either with the Measure in question or with their programme? As a former Home Secretary, the then Mr. Winston Churchill, said in 1911,
'After the Government had made a proposal of extreme magnitude and importance to which they had pledged their faith and their conviction, then when this proposal has been rejected, they are, we are told, to continue to administer the affairs of the country on an entirely different basis, and with an opposite purpose and opposite methods to those which they had been hoping and believing it would be right and proper for them to fulfil. Politics may be an humble profession, but I am glad to say it is not quite so humble in this country as yet."—[Official Report, 8th May, 1911; Vol. XXV, c. 929.]
Certainly it is our view that the responsibilities of Parliament and of Members of Parliament would be weakened by any form of national referendum of the kind that is proposed, whether it was binding or advisory in character.
§ Mr. James Sillars (South Ayrshire)
Can the right hon. and learned Gentle- 284 man assure the Committee that if we enter the Common Market and develop Community institutions of a common nature, a Conservative Government will always resist the entry into the British political system of referenda, advisory or otherwise?
§ Mr. Rippon
One Government cannot bind their successors. Certainly the present Government would resist such a proposal. If that proposition were to come forward and if it were to be accepted by a Labour Government, it would mean a total reversal of the proclaimed policies of the Labour Party as well as of the Conservative and Liberal Parties.
What the Leader of the Opposition has said on this subject, both in office and out of office, is all on the record. I think that the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars) can be sure that, once in government, his party would drop entirely the concept of the referendum, because it is contrary to the traditions of our country.
It is rather sad to see the way in which so many right hon. and hon. Members opposite are simply standing on their heads over this matter. The acrobatics do not impress the House of Commons very much. Certainly they appal people in the country at large and do us all grave harm.
The right hon. Member for Stepney made the point that we should have a General Election or a referendum first because the Government had no mandate for taking the country into the Communities. He said that we had not taken into account the views of people and Parliament as fully as we said we would. Then he said that the issue was unique and that it called for unique measures of consultation of the people, even at this stage.
There is no doctrine of a so-called specific mandate. The constitutional requirement for a General Election springs from the Parliament Act's provision that the length of a Parliament shall not exceed five years. Subject to that, it is the privilege of the Prime Minister to seek a Dissolution at the time he judges appropriate.
In this case, it can be claimed that there is and always has been a mandate. My right hon. Friend the Member for 285 Banbury read out in full the terms of the Conservative Party's election manifesto. What is more, the right hon. Member for Dundee, East referred to the attitude of the Labour Government. There is a clear mandate on this issue, and no one can doubt it.
We have always made it clear that if we considered the terms fair, a Conservative Government would recommend them to Parliament. As the Leader of the Liberal Party has reminded us before, there was no one—not only party leaders but anyone who is at present a Member of the House of Commons—who argued that if this issue came before Parliament it would have to be put to the country in a General Election.
§ Mr. Buchan
The right hon. and learned Gentleman speaks of the existence of a mandate. Did he and his party ever request a mandate on this issue? Their request was solely for the right to negotiate.
§ Mr. Rippon
Perhaps it is well that should be said once again, though I will do no more than ask the hon. Member for Renfrew, West (Mr. Buchan) now to read the full text of the Conservative Party's election manifesto, but not to do so today as we have already had it twice, as he would have known had he been here.
I turn to the second contention, which is that the people and Parliament were not adequately consulted in the 1950s, the 1960s and the 1970s. Quite apart from the debates in this House and the White Papers, we agreed a procedure in July of last year, which was warmly welcomed by the Leader of the Opposition, as to how we should deal with this matter. We decided to avoid taking a decision in principle in July, so that we could consult our constituents, make speeches and come back to take the decisive vote in October. That is what we have done. It is absurd now to suggest that no great debate has taken place and that hon. Members have had no opportunity on which to base their decision on whether or not we should join the Community.
§ Mr. Michael Foot
It is not the case of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that there was no debate. There was a great debate. There was a 286 great debate in the Labour Party which ended in a five-to-one majority against entry on these terms. All we ask is that the country should have the same right to reach a verdict.
§ Mr. Rippon
Before the General Election, both my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition made it clear time and time again that the decision would have to be taken by Members of Parliament weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of entry in the light of terms negotiated. That was abundantly clear then, as it is abundantly clear now. Our constitutional process is carried out through Parliament. It always has been. That was always the Conservative Party's intention, as it was the Labour Party's intention when right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite thought that they would would win the General Election. No amount of quotation or misquotation can change that.
As to the fact that it is a unique case, we have treated the whole discussion of this matter as a unique case both inside and outside Parliament by reference to the amount of time that we have devoted to every conceivable sort of discussion. We have to come back time and again to the fact that on 28th October, in accordance with the traditional procedures and the programme outlined by the Prime Minister on 17th June, 1971,welcomed by the Leader of the Opposition and everyone else, we took our historic decision of principle which found favour by the decisive majority of 112. As the right hon. Member for Dundee, East said, if it had been a free vote it would have been an even more decisive majority. If the minority have rights in this House, so have the majority. There is a majority for this policy and the Bill. While it is right that we should discuss the details of the proposals in the Measure, it is wrong that time and again the Opposition should seek to challenge the fundamental principle of the Bill.
§ Mr. Shore
It is time that the right hon. and learned Gentleman put this point more accurately. On 28th October the House voted on a 30-odd page While Paper before the negotiations were even completed. The House, and certainly the nation, has never seriously considered the two volumes of the Treaties of 287 Accession which he did not have the guts to publish until the middle of January this year.
§ Mr. Rippon
That shows the depths to which the Opposition are prepared to sink. The right hon. Member for Stepney knows that we agreed the procedures by which this matter would be handled. All he objects to is the way that the vote went.
I do not believe that many people would seriously contest that the majority of people in this country now feel the decision on Community membership has been clearly and definitely taken by Parliament in our traditional way. I believe that most people in this country want us now to do our proper job, which is to get on with the enabling legislation, to ratify the Treaty, and to become a full member of the Community on 1st January next year.
§ Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)
When the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster said that this was an unreal debate, he showed how little he understands the issues which are at stake. It seems to me a very real debate on a very real issue. He also showed how little he understands the issues when he said that if we had a referendum on this particular matter, we should therefore need to have referenda on all sorts of other issues as well. The genuine case for a referendum exists where, and only where, a major constitutional change is at stake and the decision is intended to be irrevocable, particularly where the rights of the electorate are being curtailed.
The weakness of the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. George Thomson) was that he almost totally ignored what is contained in the Bill. We now know that it proposes to hand over future power to make laws and raise taxes enforceable with the authority of the courts of this country to authorities outside the United Kingdom. Indeed, it proposes to hand them over not just to the EEC Council of Ministers, on which one can argue that the British Government are represented in a small minority, but to the official Commission, which is not elected, which is not genuinely responsible to anyone and on which this country would have no national representatives. That is a 288 sweeping curtailment not just of the rights of the House of Commons but of the rights of the electorate. Whether one is in favour of that or not, that is what is involved in the Bill. To be prepared to accept all that and to object to a referendum because it is un-British seems to be humbug, whatever else may or may not be humbug in this controversy.
The Bill involves more than that. Almost certainly the EEC is now moving—this is not in dispute—towards a directly elected Parliament and a common currency, apparently with the approval of the Prime Minister. However, a directly elected Parliament and a common currency mean, unless they are a sham, not merely a customs union but a common government. That is political federation and the extinction of a substantial measure of national independence.
The issue before us is therefore not just a major loss of sovereignty, but what is usually called self-determination—to what sort of country does one wish to belong—for which a plebiscite has always been considered a necessity in most democratic countries. It was for precisely this reason that our own Parliament agreed to take such a course with Gibraltar, Northern Ireland and other territories.
To surrender legislative power and commit the country to a loss not only of sovereignty but of independence cannot justifiably be carried out by Parliament alone without the full-hearted consent of the people. That is why Norway, Denmark and Ireland, not dictatorial but as democratic countries as one can find, are to hold referenda. That is why in almost all modern democracies with written constitutions no major constitutional change can be made by Parliament alone. In the United States the constitution cannot be changed without a special majority in both the Senate and the States. We have maintained the same tradition and spirit not in a written constitution but by the tacit moral agreement which lies at the heart of our system. It is that which the Prime Minister and the Government are now in danger of undermining.
For the past two centuries it has been agreed by all parties—indeed, by everyone—that even quite a small change in 289 our constitution requires the assent of the people. In the two major constitutional crises of 1831–32 and 1910–11, the proposed changes in the constitution were far smaller than those involved in the Bill, because no transfer of legislative power to any authority outside the country was involved. Indeed, such a transfer was not even dreamed of. In both 1910 and 1831the rights of the British electorate were extended, whereas in this Bill they are being curtailed. Yet in both those crises it was agreed by virtually everybody—the Tory Party most notably, the Liberal Party and the Sovereign—that the assent of the electorate clearly given must be obtained. Indeed in 1831, when Parliament blocked the Reform Bill, Lord Grey, as Prime Minister, appealed to the country.
It is worth quoting what G. M. Trevelyan in his British History in the Nineteenth Century and After said of that decision:Ministers by the boldness of their appeal to the country established the fundamental principle of the new constitution that in the last resort the opinion of the nation was to count for more than the opinion of the legislator.That was the judgment of a great Liberal historian on the 1831 election. It shows how ignorant of the British tradition are those people who think that Parliament alone can decide an issue of this magnitude. They are being a good deal less democratic than Lord Grey and Lord John Russell in 1831.
Similarly in 1910, when all that was at stake was a transfer of power from the House of Lords to the elected House, two successive elections were required by the King, demanded by the Tory Opposition and granted by the Liberal Government before the Parliament Bill passed the Lords. We have been told today that only Tory Prime Ministers have advocated referenda. But in that case a Referendum Bill was prepared by the Asquith Government, and at the same time a referendum was proposed as a permanent feature of the constitution by the Tory leaders of the day. There was virtually no one in the 1910 controversy who did not agree that popular assent was necessary for a change which was trivial compared with that which is now proposed.
290 As I see it, it is popular assent which is the essential principle. Whether it is given by a General Election or a referendum is a matter of circumstances. In 1831 and 1910 the fact was that the two major parties in the country were clearly divided on the major issue at stake, and obviously a General Election was the right answer. But if a General Election is to be denied to us, particularly when the division is plainly today not between the parties but, as we all know, to a considerable extent within them, a referendum is surely the only remaining method of giving the public a fair chance to choose. Indeed, if a General Election is refused, a referendum is the only practical method so far as I can see.
Referenda on one subject or another have been advocated not merely by Mr. Asquith in 1910 and by the Tory leaders of various dates but also by the greatest parliamentarian of this century, Sir Winston Churchill. It is worth looking at what Sir Winston Churchill actually said on 18th May, 1945, when he was proposing a two-year prolongation of the war-time Parliament, for which, of course, there was no electoral mandate He said:I am conscious, however, in the highest degree, of our duty to strengthen ourselves by direct expression of the people's will…Let us discuss means of taking the nation's opinion—for example, a referendum—on the issue whether in these conditions the life of this Parliament should be further prolonged.That was merely a question of prolonging the life of one Parliament for a further two years. How profoundly different that was from the attitude of the Prime Minister today, who seems to have little regard for a direct expression of the nation's will. For no honest person can seriously pretend, in spite of anything that may have been said this afternoon, that the expression in the last Tory election manifesto,Our sole commitment is to negotiate; no more, no less",conveyed any meaning other than that there was no mandate to conclude a settlement without further authority. If that is not so, why the word "sole" and why the words "no more, no less"? To pretend otherwise here is to descend to very murky depths of political deception.
§ Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)
At the last General Election, was not the trouble that neither side had the courage to put before the electorate what it really felt? Surely that is what happened. Neither side could possibly have said what it really believed. Neither side said that, and that is the trouble.
§ Mr. Jay
I believe that is true. But, whether true or not, it is quite clear that the Tory election manifesto did not give a mandate for this policy.
Nor, indeed, are Sir Winston Churchill and the Liberal and Tory leaders of 1910 the only distinguished Members of the House of Commons who have advocated a referendum when genuinely constitutional issues were at stake. To their credit, so has the present Parliamentary Liberal Party, notably the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) and the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), who both voted—I have checked this today and I do not think that the Leader of the Liberal Party will deny it—on 14th February, 1969, for a Bill to authorise referenda in the case of self-determination for parts of the United Kingdom. I do not blame the right hon. Gentleman in the least for that. I merely recall that he did so, and that so did the present Liberal Members for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) and for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson). I think I am right in saying that the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) was a Teller on that occasion. Indeed, the Scottish Liberals' election manifesto for 1970 spoke of a referendum on the Common Market as a "further democratic step" which might be taken.
Any attempt, therefore, by Parliament to take into its own hands a revolutionary decision of this kind would be to undermine the moral compact between Parliament and people that Parliament should act only with the ultimate consent of the people, which is the real basis of our constitutional and political stability. If one breaches that, one may breach not only the foundations of law and order but the respect of people for Parliament itself. Indeed, because of the unwillingness of the Prime Minister so far to honour his pledge in this matter, there is outside now, on this issue, a growing feeling of Parliament against the people, and that is very dangerous to all of us. If hon. 292 Members ignore this, they are ignoring what is happening outside.
The reputation of Parliament was enormously enhanced in 1832 and in the years around 1910 precisely because, in Sir Winston Churchill's words, it strengthened itself by a direct expression of the people's will. Some people here do not seem to realise the harm we shall do to Parliament if we ignore that lesson and try to arrogate to ourselves a right which Parliament did not claim even 140 years ago.
It does not escape the public that the Government are apparently anxious to avoid either an election or a referendum, even a consultative referendum, on this issue, because they believe they would lose, thus confessing their belief that they have not got the full-hearted consent of the people. But they may be wrong. None of us really knows what the result would be. But I should have thought we could all have been good enough democrats to accept the result, whatever it is. That is the true solution. I should accept it even if I disagreed with it.
But a great many people would not accept a constitutional outrage by which a Bill mutilating the powers of Parliament and the electorate was forced through without mandate, without proper debate or amendment, without a General Election, without a referendum and in direct breach of the Prime Minister's pledge. A Bill so imposed on the country would not have constitutional or moral validity. There would not be the normal moral obligation on the citizen to obey legislation flowing from it. Millions would take the same view if no assent was given first by the people themselves.
Fortunately, to save us from that, the electorate have another remedy available to them. The previous Leader of the House, now Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has confirmed in this case too that what one Parliament can do another can undo. If both these Amendments are rejected and the Prime Minister persists in pressing on with the Bill in contempt of the nation's wishes, that is assuredly what will happen after the next General Election. But how very much better it would be for all of us if, in Sir Winston Churchill's words, we took the nation's opinion before and not after we part with the Bill.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Colonel Sir Tufton Beamish (Lewes)
I never expected to hear the author of that arrogant remark that it is the gentleman in Whitehall who knows what is good for the people better than the people do themselves advocating a referendum, and I must tell the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) that I do not care which Prime Ministers, or which leaders in past history, considered a referendum and rejected the idea. For all I know King Canute, King Alfred or Ethelred the Unready may have done so and rejected the idea. It seems to have nothing to do with the subject that we are debating today.
I very much regret that so much parliamentary time is being wasted today on these two Amendments. I should have preferred a voluntary timetable to be agreed at the beginning between the opponents of the Bill and those who want to see it on the Statute Book. That would have ensured serious debate on all the Amendments that were selected.
Amendment No. 23, which refers to the holding of a General Election, cannot be taken seriously. Everyone in the House and outside it knows that it is not possible to seek "the express consent of the British people" on a single issue by this method. It just is not "on". For a start, the most important section of the Labour Party's manifesto would have to be framed to offer three choices. My right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster drew attention to the fact that the Opposition are, unhappily, split in three directions.
Their manifesto would have to say that it is their policy to re-negotiate the terms and if the Six refusewe would sit down amicably and discuss the situation with them".—[Official Report, 28th October, 1971; Vol. 823, c. 2103–4.]That is what the Leader of the Opposition said. Secondly, "It is our policy to take Britain into the Common Market on the present terms which we regard as being every bit as good as we ourselves could have obtained". Thirdly, "It is our policy to take Britain out of the Common Market as we are against joining, no matter what terms are obtained". All three statements would have to appear in the manifesto, and 294 hon. Gentlemen opposite could take their pick according to taste and delete those two which did not apply to them.
Incidentally, referring to the third possibility, that of taking Britain out of the Common Market, which I understand is the policy of the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot), what has happened to the argument that joining the Community would be an irrevocable decision? It is said now by some hon. Gentlemen opposite that if a Labour Government came to power they would take us out of the Community. We have heard no more about it being an irrevocable decision. It is one of those major arguments which have been dropped, and which never had anything to be said for them anyhow.
Contrary to what my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) said, the Common Market was a major issue at the last General Election. It was, at any rate, a major issue in so far as it is possible for the Common Market to be a major issue at an election. All three major parties made it clear that they were strongly in favour of Britain joining the Community if satisfactory terms could be obtained. It is as simple as that. The Liberal Party went a little further in that it did not hedge its remarks as much as the two major parties did, and I admire it for that. It was more honest than the two other parties.
The quotation out of context of the sentence from the Conservative manifestoOur sole commitment is to negotiate; no more, no lessis wicked. Anybody who understands simple English and reads that sentence in context knows that we stated flatly that we saw immense economic and political advantages in joining. Our commitment was to negotiate, no more, no less, and if we got good terms we would recommend them to Parliament. That is what it amounted to, and that is a fair paraphrase.
§ Mr. Michael Foot
If the hon. and gallant Gentleman says that it is wicked to quote the phrase "to negotiate; no more, no less" out of context, what does he say of the election address of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who said:It is quite impossible to decide whether it will be in our interest to join until we know 295 the terms. Our sole commitment is to negotiate: no more, no less.Does the hon. and gallant Gentleman call that wicked?
§ Sir T. Beamish
Not at all. It says almost the same thing. Our sole commitment was "to negotiate, no more, no less" because we did not know the terms. Everybody can understand that. I should not wish to re-write one word of our election manifesto on this subject, and the sentence to which I have referred has been taken out of context too many times.
It is a great pity that the three Front Bench spokesmen appointed by the Leader of the Opposition are all known to be against our joining the Community on any terms, and thus they do not reflect the official position of the Opposition. This has, incidentally, made great difficulties for many hon. Gentlemen opposite.
I do not think that there is a serious case for the Amendment asking for a General Election. I think that when the time comes for a General Election it will be fought, as usual, on broad issues and be won by the party which offers a coherent and acceptable set of policies, and the party which has consistent leadership. A General Election fought on the single issue of the Common Market would make sense only if the pro-Europeans were to form some sort of coalition to fight the election, and if the anti-Europeans were to form one as well, and if the latter were to win the election Cabinet-making would be a remarkably interesting exercise.
No doubt the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale would become Prime Minister and go to No. 10. I expect that he would ask my right hon. Friend for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) to be his Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Members for Stepney (Mr. Shore) and Workington (Mr. Peart) would have to be found places, as would the hon. Members for Poplar (Mr. Mikardo), Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), Mid-Ulster (Miss Devlin) and Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), and perhaps seats in another place——
§ Sir T. Beamish
I am pointing out the absurdity of holding a General Election 296 on this issue, and this is my way of doing it. That would be bound to happen. There would have to be a coalition. Perhaps seats would be found in another place for Mr. Scanlon, Mr. Jones and Mr. Clive Jenkins. I regard the proposition that there should be a General Election on this single issue as absurd, and I should like now to turn to the other Amendment which suggests a referendum.
Amendment No. 205 suggests "a consultative advisory referendum, having no binding effect upon the Government". This Amendment is rather less bizarre than Amendment No. 23, nevertheless, I think that it is opportunist and, in both senses of the word, rather intriguing. It seems to me to be a contradiction in terms, though I do not make too much of that. My understanding is that a referendum is binding. Perhaps that is why my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said that he would happily swap "plebiscite" for "referendum". I do not think that it matters very much, and I do not want to make too much of this. My understanding is that a plebiscite is generally accepted as advisory, or confirming action that has been taken, but that is a lawyer's point, and it could be argued one way or the other.
Let me turn, instead, to dismiss the other arguments which have been touched upon briefly: first that plebiscite in Northern Ireland on the nationality issue bears any relationship to a referendum in Britain, including Northern Ireland, on the Common Market; secondly, that the French referendum has anything to do with the matter.
Under the 1949 Act, Northern Ireland has been given a pledge that there will be no change in nationality as between citizenship of the United Kingdom and citizenship of the Republic of Eire, which is a foreign country, unless a plebiscite is held, and until there is a majority in favour of this change of nationality. As we all know, no change of citizenship is involved in membership of the EEC. We are required to pool our national sovereignty in certain clearly defined and limited fields with other like-minded nations, and that is an entirely different matter.
Furthermore—although one might not suspect this from listening to the debates 297 during the many days and nights that we have spent so far on the Bill—any extension of the pooling of our sovereignty beyond these limited and clearly defined fields could come about only, if it had any real importance, with the agreement of us at Westminster. That cannot be disputed.
The purpose of the French referendum, as the right hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. George Thomson) reminded us, was to divide the opposition. It has already succeeded in dividing the opposition rather neatly into three. There would not be much point in holding it for that reason here, because the Opposition, unhappily, have already obliged and done the job themselves.
If a referendum were held, how would the question be framed? It could not be, as some have suggested, a simple "for" or "against" the issue. When asked on a BBC programme whether there was a gradual slide in the Labour Party towards opposition to entry, the Leader of the Opposition said:I am standing absolutely firm on that. Our objection is to the terms. That is the issue.We all know that the right hon. Gentleman thinks that better terms could have been obtained for New Zealand dairy farmers and those Commonwealth countries which are heavily dependent on the production and export of cane sugar, and that our inshore fishermen might have got a better deal. But in all these three respects those intimately affected have expressed themselves pretty satisfied. The right hon. Gentleman also had a reservation about transitional arrangements for our contribution to the common budget. If he genuinely thinks that he could negotiate better terms, that is fine. The prospect of having any major changes made in the terms obtained is nil.
A "yes" or "no" in a referendum would have to be qualified by a remark like "I am in favour of joining, but not on the present terms" or "I am definitely in favour of joining, but on different terms." Voters would have to indicate to which terms they objected if the referendum was to make any sense. If one simply asks "Are you for or against?", many important issues are completely blurred.
§ Mr. Enoch Powell (Wolverhampton, South-West)
Does my hon. and gallant Friend know how this problem is being solved in the other countries which are holding referenda?
§ Sir T. Beamish
I do not know precisely how it is being solved, but I stick to the view that a straight question, asking whether a person was in favour of joining, would be extremely misleading and might lead to the wrong result. [Hon. Members: "Ah."] When I say "the wrong result", I mean of course that it would not be—
§ Sir T. Beamish
—a true test of public opinion. Although I do not set much store by opinion polls, a much fairer test was the question asked in November. 1971, by Opinion Research Centre:Do you think it would be in the national interest for Britain to join the EEC?The answer to that question was 51 per cent. "yes", 30 per cent. "no", and 19 per cent. "I do not know".
The question was also asked:Do you think that joining would be in your own interest?The interesting thing there was that the figures were almost exactly reversed—51 per cent, "no" and 32 per cent. "yes".
There is another snag about a referendum. The size of the poll might be derisory. I asked an organisation which calls itself the Political Freedom Movement—[Laughter.]—it is quite a laugh, if one knows who the people are—for all the information that it has been able to collect about the referendum by secret postal votes up to 19th October last year. It gave me 24 results. In only one did more than half of those consulted appear even to answer the question, and in many cases only about 10 per cent. of those who had the right to take part bothered to answer at all. This does not fill me with very much hope that there would be a particularly high poll for a referendum—rather the opposite.
To some extent, this is idle speculation. This is rather a fruitless issue and a debate which can only widen the gulf between Parliament and a sorely-tried 299 electorate. The Leader of the Opposition has described the referendum as "repugnant" to him. It should be equally repugnant to see it adopted as a popular ploy and sold to the public in cellophane and ribbons, tied up like a package of democracy—or "participation" as the Chairman of the Labour Party would probably say.
It is nothing of the kind. I have every sympathy with those who genuinely fear or dislike the concept of Britain joining the EEC, to whom the risks and problems still loom larger than the potential advantages. I understand how deeply they feel about the pooling of national sovereignty, even in the limited fields which the Treaty of Rome describes, and for reasons of enlightened self-interest. Most of us would understand that.
But those hon. Members who first exploit this fear of change and then seek to establish a precedent which would undermine the sovereignty of Parliament in this real sense are behaving irresponsibly. To suggest that a referendum would be only advisory is a bogus distinction. To be blunt, it is a deliberate attempt to deceive. But it fools no one. Either Parliament continues to shoulder the weight of political decision or Parliament abdicates its responsibilities. There cannot be any half measures. It is inconceivable that Parliament would fly in the face of a decision in a referendum, whichever way it went.
The responsibility for deciding these great matters in the national interest has been entrusted to us by the electorate. It is the job that they chose us to do and the job that they pay us to do. The electorate have a right to expect us to keep faith with them, to take these decisions honestly and to have the courage of our convictions. Hindsight shows that our decisions are by no means always right. How could they be? Parliament often makes mistakes.
Nor, for that matter, is public opinion any less fallible. If the people had been asked to chose in the 1930s between guns and butter by referendum, there is not the slightest doubt what the answer would have been. It would have been butter, and we should have lost the war. Then we should have had a European unity of a very different kind. One has only to study the numbers of people who 300 signed the Peace Ballot circulated by the Peace Pledge Union in the 1930s—11 million people—and the result of the by-election at Fulham, East to see what would have happened. That was a great national matter which Parliament must decide.
On the other hand, as the right hon. Member for Dundee, East pointed out, although from the opposite point of view, the public were wiser than the last Government on the question of nationalising the steel industry. If public opinion polls are anything to go by, they were two to one against this and against any further nationalisation of any kind.
Lastly, I absolutely reject the argument that having a referendum on this issue would not create a precedent. There would be bound to be demands for referenda on all kinds of other subjects—important and not so important. It is not the wisdom or the fallibility of Parliament or public which is on trial in this debate; it is our representative system of government. For all its faults it has served us long and well. I think it will continue to do so only as long as the Members of this House, whatever their views on this or any other issue, do their job honestly and conscientiously, putting the national interest above everything else.
This reminds me to make a remark about something my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said about the vote on the Second Reading, which he regarded as a better test of the will of Parliament than the vote in October, forgetting to mention that the Opposition, which was officially in favour of Britain going into the Community, had a three-line Whip against the Second Reading. Therefore this was a singularly unconvincing comment.
I agree, incidentally, with something the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Dundee, East said, that the majority in October would have been substantially higher, perhaps 200, had there been a free vote on both sides of the House, and I think we should bear this in mind. After all, there was an enormous majority in another place—390, or something like that.
§ Sir T. Beamish
I thought the hon. Gentleman knew that it is not an elected Chamber. On the other hand, it is a Chamber which embraces a large number of people with a great deal of experience and wisdom behind them, and it is of interest to note that it was by an overwhelming majority on the Labour side that the vote for going into the Community was carried. The majority was just as big on the Labour side as it was on the Conservative side.
I conclude by saying that it is not unpopular decisions or even errors of judgment that shake public confidence in Parliament. These are strong words, I know, but it is humbug, posturing and even deviousness, in my view, to behave in the way we are doing over these Amendments. Everything that has gone into the framing of these Amendments serves to bring this House into disrepute. I think both Amendments deserve to be roundly defeated, and I am sure they will be.
§ Mr. Benn
I ask the indulgence of the Committee to intervene briefly to convey officially the support of the Opposition for the Amendment moved by the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten). I am very conscious of the fact, and the House of Commons knows it from following the newspapers, that the majority on the Labour side in favour of that Amendment is narrow. Both in the Executive and in the Shadow Cabinet, and even in the Parliamentary Labour Party, there was a substantial body of people who thought that Amendment to be wrong, but in conveying our view and recommendation to the Committee that it should support the Amendment I want to give some reasons why that should be done. I have to be careful and moderate in my recommendations since my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition has described it as a repugnant procedure. I disagree with him, but he said it and I shall therefore have to moderate my own view.
Where I share the view of the opponents of a referendum, including many of my hon. Friends on the back benches, is that it is a pity that a major constitutional change—and to have a referendum even on this is a major constitutional change—should have come up so late in the debate and should occupy so little time in our discussions on the Bill. The 302 truth is that the question of how we decide the European matter has emerged late in the debate, not from lack of trying by some of us to get it discussed earlier. I believe, and hon. Members know it to be my view, that how we decide whether we enter the Common Market is at least as important as what that decision itself is.
Turning to a practical argument that has not found much space in the debates we have had so far today, the House of Commons is divided on Europe. Both parties are divided on Europe. Indeed I would go further and say that the House is fragmented on the European question, for I agree with the hon. and gallant Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish) that there are many different views.
To go further, I think there are many hon. Members who lack the certainty that is given to some and who find that their attitudes and anxieties extend even into their own judgment. But instead of laughing at each other, as has happened today, instead of exchanging quotations and mocking each other as we approach this issue, I think the Committee would do well to approach the matter with a greater respect for the difficulty of reaching a wise decision. It cannot have given much pleasure to my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins) or our right hon. Friends who resigned with him to have parted company with their colleagues on a matter of this kind. It cannot really give much pleasure to hon. Gentlemen opposite, including the hon. Member for Banbury, who has tabled Amendment No. 205, who like most Members of this House have tried to give devoted service to their party, to find themselves in a position in which they might prefer to see the other side in power to avoid the consequences they fear would be so serious for the country. When Members of Parliament on both sides who have a long record of service to their parties find themselves in the position in which we find ourselves put, this is not a moment to mock, to laugh, to trade quotations that may somehow help our short-term interests.
§ Mr. Thorpe
If the right hon. Gentleman is right, and I think he is, in his thesis that the House of Commons is fragmented and if he feels compassion for those in all parts of the House who 303 find themselves in disagreement, does it not make it sheer hypocrisy for him to have supported throughout the whipping system being applied to the vote in October and still more in February?
§ Mr. Benn
My concern throughout has been a free vote of the British people. The right hon. Gentleman cannot get away with that. He knows very well that the effect of the vote of 18th October and the effect of the votes tonight will be to deny to the British public the right he claims as a Member of Parliament.
§ Mr. Benn
That is no recommendation for the parliamentary system. I will deal with the right hon. Gentleman's points as they come. The British parliamentary system cannot survive if we are to have distinguished parliamentarians saying "Let us think about this place first", because if that is what Parliament is about there is no reason why anybody outside should support it.
§ Mr. Benn
Now we have it. Freedom began before the House of Commons was set up. Freedom was forced on the House by people outside it. Freedom is defended by the ballot box and not by the Division Lobby. If the Liberal Party now says that freedom rests in Parliament instead of seeing itself as the guarlian of freedom outside Parliament, no wonder it is a tiny minority. I began with a pledge to be conciliatory and it is not my wish that I should provoke the one party in the House that has consistently supported the view of entry from the beginning.
There are factors in this debate which the House of Commons must take seriously. I believe the first such factor to be that neither side will accept the verdict of the House of Commons on the European question. Those who favour entry will never give up their advocacy of entry. We have seen that from those who have separated themselves from my colleagues and myself on this question. Similarly, they must learn that those who will not support entry without consent will never support entry without consent. Even if that entry is forced through the 304 House of Commons, forced to Royal Assent, and the celebrations in Brussels take place in January, that will not be accepted.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland) rose——
§ Mr. Benn
Let me finish this point. This is the difficulty which we face. We could cope with our own disagreement if it were this place first. We could cope with our disagreement in the ordinary parliamentary way. What we cannot do is to cope ourselves, in the ordinary parliamentary way, with deep differences reflecting deep interests that have been wholly shut out from the decision we are asked to take.
§ Mr. Maclennan
My right hon. Friend has rested his argument on the inflexibility of those who are committed in favour of the Common Market and those who are against it, but some of us remember very clearly—indeed, his own example speaks loud in this matter—how flexible some politicians are able to be.
§ 7.0 p.m.
§ Mr. Benn
I take my hon. Friend's point. I am not one of those—and I have made this clear every time I have spoken in the House—who have been committed at all costs to our joining the Common Market or to our staying out. I have been consistent in saying for many years that this issue must be decided by the people, and I will accept the popular verdict, whichever way it goes. But if flexibility in response to a developing situation is an offence, there is not one man, including my hon. Friend, who will be able to claim that he came down the motorway of life without turning the steering wheel to left or to right to take account of changing circumstances.
The vote on 28th October was a majority that was not normally reached. It was reached before the treaty was published and before the Bill was published. It was reached by a coalition of people voting together who had never sought together the mandate which they claimed they had in the Lobby that day. It is a constitutional change. It is an irreversible decision. I heard the hon. and gallant Member for Lewes say on television that it was not irreversible, but that cannot easily be said by leaders on the Front Bench. If our 305 Continental partners-to-be thought that we were lighthearted about our attitude to entry, they would not have us in. So the case must be presented as being a solemn, irreversible decision.
There is a growing cynicism with politics. This argument is advanced by both sides in this controversy. We differ about what causes the cynicism. Some say that it is caused by politicians who change their minds. Others say that it is caused by Members of Parliament with a contempt for their electors, supporters and people generally.
When members of the public see Parliament trying to solve this problem in this way, they see one of two things. They may see the House of Commons united under the Whips, knowing that they are men of conscience voting against their conscience. I get no satisfaction from seeing the House trying to settle this matter in a way in which Members are unable to follow their consciences. Indeed, I have a deep sense of repugnance against it.
§ Mr. Benn
Yes—and a free vote by the British public. The right hon. and learned Gentleman missed the earlier part of the debate when we dealt with this matter. I am putting forward my view. I should like to see the British public, on a free vote, decide the matter on the basis of a recommendation which came from a free vote of the House. What I will not accept is the House, on a free vote, using that vote to deny the electors the right to say whether they wish Britain to join. That is the alternative which the right hon. and learned Gentleman proposes, and it is not acceptable. Mr. Selwyn Gummer: The right hon. Gentleman says that we have already dealt with this matter. He has been asked a specific question, namely, given that we have a party system and a whipping system, why did the right hon. Gentleman deny Members of Parliament the right to make their own decision on the merits of the matter?
§ Mr. Benn
That is a very fair point to make if we couple it with a decision that the result of a Commons vote would be our advice to the people when they voted themselves. The point of sub- 306 stance is that either members of the public see men of conscience voting against their consciences, which shakes their confidence in Parliament, or they see both parties divided, which also shakes their confidence in Parliament, because both parties being divided and carrying through a major constitutional change without a mandate is destructive of the basis upon which our system works.
§ [Sir ROBERT GRANT-FERRIS in the Chair]
§ Sir Alfred—[Interruption.] I beg your pardon, Sir Robert. The chairmanship of the Committee changes as rapidly as the views, so I am told, of some of our colleagues.
§ There are various choices open to the House of Commons. We can go on with the Bill as we have been doing and continue to exclude members of the public from the decision. They do not reply to postal votes sent out by Members. They know that nobody will take the slightest notice of them. If we exclude members of the public, they will have only one thing to be interested in—the personal squabbles, as they see it, of Members of Parliament; and do not be surprised when confidence in Parliament diminishes if people are confined to understanding those aspects of the parliamentary scene which they are allowed to understand, namely, the arguments we have between ourselves.
§ One day the people will wake up to find that the powers they lent to their Members are no longer available to take back to themselves. The House may think that not many people are interested in this matter, but when the electors discover that the laws which have been made and are enforced in the courts cannot be changed by any man they elect—Labour, Liberal, Conservative or Communist—the explosion of rage should not take us by surprise. Do we imagine that Scotland and Wales will be unaffected when this happens? There are already stresses and strains among people in Scotland and Wales about their being governed by an English majority from London. Why should they accept being governed from Brussels and represented by Englishmen from London? The demand either to secede altogether or to join independently will develop if we are carried in without consent.307
§ Mr. Nicholas Edwards (Pembroke)
Some Members on both sides of the House will resent the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion that Scotland and Wales are represented by English Members from London. Some of us like to think that Welsh constituencies, and no doubt Scottish constituencies, are represented by Welshmen, and Scotsmen, from those constituencies.
§ Mr. Benn
The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood me. I said that Welsh and Scottish interests will be represented in Brussels by a predominantly English Parliament. The feeling of remoteness among Scottish and Welsh people will become greater. If I put the point wrongly, I apologise.
Another respect in which public anger will be caused is this. If there is further development of the Community, if we have an economic and monetary union, if we have a defence community and political reunification, and if every time the French proceed by referenda we are hogtied by Clause 2, the public will not understand it. People will not accept that the Government, without consent, have put a statutory straitjacket on parliamentary debate in advancing the Community, whereas France is allowed to proceed by popular vote.
Although referenda in France have been the agents of presidents, they have also destroyed presidents. President de Gaulle disappeared, hoist on his own petard. There are safeguards in a referendum for the French which are utterly denied us—not just now, but in any development of the Community.
I do not want to sound alarmist, but we should be very foolish if we supposed that there were not people in this country who cared as much about being subordinated to Brussels without consent as so-called loyalist Protestants in Northern Ireland care about being subordinated to Dublin without consent. They may be a small minority, as minorities are everywhere when violence errupts, but if the feeling that the independent right of the electors, through the ballot box, to decide constitutional questions is as deeply entrenched as the feeling of Ulster loyalists, as I believe it is, there could well be trouble following a decision to enter. No doubt the Government, with their police and perhaps a little advice from 308 the French police in Calais, could put it down. It is better to say it now than wait until it happens and then wonder why it has happened. [Hon. Members: "Stir it up."] I am not stirring it up.
I say this to the Government. The capacity to put down that sort of thing, if it arises, depends upon one's being able to say to the man whom one is putting down "Change your Member of Parliament, change the law, and you can have your way by peaceful means". However, if some power, some law—the power to tax, for example—is put outside the control of the British electorate, one destroys at any rate a part of the moral authority that allows one to deal with those who struggle against what has been done.
The Government cannot, on the one hand, stand on the issue of law and order and, on the other hand, themselves deliberately fracture the delicate social fabric of the social contract upon which our system of government has been founded.
How does the House of Commons settle the issue? A General Election is the traditional way, if it is to be that way. I personally would accept unhesitatingly, as I think that the whole House of Commons would, a Conservative re-election at any election that occurred now on this basis, as settling the European question. Of course it would settle it, because the country knows the Bill, it knows the terms and it knows the treaty. If the Government were to be re-elected, we would accept that.
However, the Government would not be re-elected. An hon. Member can gel a round of cheers by mocking his constituents in the Chamber. Today I have heard many hon. Members laughing at the ignorance of their constituents. Hon Members have asked "Who knows what a referendum is?" By God, the miners won the right to strike and their battle in the recent dispute on a referendum. The British people know the meaning of the right to choose through the ballot box. Hon. Members can mock their electors with impunity from the safety of the Chamber, but when the battle is taken to a General Election the Government would be utterly defeated if they were to deny the British public the right to decide the matter. I warn hon. Members not to be surprised if the British 309 public laughs at the British Parliament if hon. Members are so quick to laugh at the British public when debating its rights.
If there is an election, I believe that the Labour Party will come out for a referendum in its manifesto. I will say why—because it is the only way to put this issue to the public. If we were to say "Vote Labour and we will never enter Europe", we should be just as guilty as the right hon. and learned Gentleman. We should be denying those in Britain who want to join Europe the right to do so. If we were to say that we would renegotiate and go in without consent, we should be guilty of the same offence, because we would be saying "You must take our word instead of that of the present Prime Minister".
I therefore believe that a referendum must and will be offered in a General Election. After all, if the Labour Party is to offer a referendum in its manifesto, why wait? We can do it tonight. We have a parliamentary majority tonight if the Opposition support their colleagues for a referendum tonight. If the Government will not accept a referendum, we get an election, which is what all my hon. Friends want. Therefore, the issue of a General Election and that of a referendum are inextricably bound up together.
I will now deal shortly with the arguments which have been advanced against a referendum. The first was that it would split political parties. Does anybody seriously think that the division in our parties is not well enough understood for a short referendum campaign to worsen it? Indeed, it would settle it, because both factions in both parties would accept the public's verdict.
Second, would it defeat entry? The hon. and gallant Member for Lewes said that it might given the wrong result, and then he corrected himself. There are those who oppose a referendum because they think that the British public would not accept entry. There are those who say that it would somehow magically reproduce Nazi Germany, Gaullist France or the stodgy Swiss. But a referendum is only a ballot box. It reflects the people and the values that go to the ballot box. A Danish referendum gives a Danish result. A Nazi referendum gives a Nazi result. A Swiss referendum gives a Swiss result.
310 Are we so far from our own electorate that we are frightened that they might vote in the ballot box in such a way as suddenly to transform Britain from a parliamentary democracy into a tyranny at the mercy of the Executive or the electorate, albeit any more Conservative in a referendum than they are in far too many General Elections? Are we to be told that we are to be frieghtened of our own electorate?
I think that the real reasons why this is rejected are worth studying. If the Committee will bear with me for a minute or two I will try to analyse the real reasons against the referendum. First, it is contrary to our traditions and the whole basis of representative parliamentary democracy. Second, it establishes a precedent which, if followed, would lead to serious consequences. Third, the public are not really equipped to reach decisions of this kind. Fourth, Britain is different from other countries. Fifth, the advocates are insincere, they have changed their minds and are motivated by expediency or, as The Times parliamentary correspondent put it today with marvellous economy of words, are "humbugs". Those are the reasons which have been argued against the referendum.
§ Mr. Rippon
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that every one of those arguments except the last has been reiterated over and over and over again by the leader of his own party?
§ 7.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Benn
Let the right hon. and learned Gentleman wait, if he has the time, to hear what Lord Salisbury said about Disraeli in 1867, which is the most marvellous quotation of them all.
If the arguments that I have summarised are valid, the case against the referendum is overwhelming. I cannot hope in one speech to deal with all of these arguments. What I can do is to show the Committee the historical origins of these arguments.
Sir Robert Peel, in opposing the Reform Bill, said this in 1831:I am convinced that it is not founded on the acknowledged principles of the constitution—because it does not give security to the prerogative of the Crown—because it does not guarantee the legitimate rights, influences and privileges of both Houses of Parliament.311 Peel said this first when he opposed the Reform Bill. This argument about its being contrary to our parliamentary traditions has been used in opposition to any extension of the people's rights which has been proposed over the past 140 years.
The second argument is that it establishes a precedent. I invite hon. Members to listen to this quotation from Asquith on votes for women in 1910:In the long run, if you grant the franchise to women, you will have to grant it on the widest possible basis, and with all the consequences to which I have referred…"—[Official Report, 12th July, 1910; Vol. 19, c. 250.]Asquith was against votes for women because it would open the way to votes for everyone. That is exactly the argument that we have had in the course of this debate.
Lord Cranborne, later Lord Salisbury, attacked Disraeli's Reform Bill in 1867 on the same grounds.
The third argument is that the public are not equipped to reach decisions. Bagehot is the man to listen to here. He said this in 1872:In plain English, what I fear is that both our political authorities will bid for the support of the working man; that both of them will promise to do as he likes if he will only tell them what it is, that, as he now holds the casting vote in our affairs, both parties will beg and pray him to give that vote to them. I can conceive of nothing more corrupting or worse for a set of poor ignorant people than that two combinations of well-taught and rich men should constantly offer to defer to their decision, and compete for the office of executing it. Vox populi will be Vox diaboli if it is worked in that manner.That is the case against the referendum. If it is looked at in one way, of course it is the case against the referendum. If it is looked at in another way, this having happened, it is our traditional parliamentary way of life that we are being asked to defend.
Britain is different. Asquith explained why votes for women in Australia were all right because Australia had such a sparse population, but Britain was different.
The fifth argument is that the advocates are not sincere. One cannot do better than David Wood's attack on humbug. The arguments against the referendum are 312 the very same arguments as have been used against every extension of the people's rights for 140 years. It follows the same pattern. First, the argument is ignored. It is described as a fringe issue. It is then described as trendy. Then it is mocked. Then it is laughed at. Then hon. Members who do not support the referendum laugh at their own constituents and laugh at those who advocate the referendum. Then they warn against the referendum and against its dangers. Then they denounce it. Then they capitulate. Then they forget and hope that everyone else forgets too. It is always the same process—ignore, mock, laugh, warn, denounce, capitulate, then forget and then hope that everybody else forgets that one has gone through the process.
That was how the British Empire be came decolonised and there were just as many humbugs, according to The Times, voting for freedom in the colonies as there will be voting for the referendum tonight because there were many people who wished that the public, the people, would go away. But when they did not go away, they found it more advisable to accommodate themselves to what the public wanted. The arguments are always the same. They are always wrong and when they are brought up again they are always supported by certain minorities.
They are supported by the rich because, of course, the rich are afraid that the public, if they had a vote, might be interested in the redistribution of wealth. They are opposed by racial minorities because all racial minorities are a bit nervous and that is why we hear about immigrants. They are opposed by a particular section of the Left who are afraid that if they had to convince the public that Socialism was right they would never succeed. Therefore they would rather sneak into Parliament to do it before the public discover.
We heard that argument a little tonight, that one would never convince the public on nationalisation. Why not? It is a very powerful case. I am not interested in the sort of democratic Socialism that is so little democratic that one does not try to convert the public but slips in at the back door and does it when they do not notice.
§ Mr. Harold Lever rose——
§ Mr. Lever
There is a mutual response although we are both able to dissimulate our affection. My right hon. Friend calls voting nationalisation through the House and the abolition of hanging sneaking it through the House. Does that mean that he has now reached the position in his thinking that he will regard any such future actions by any Government as sneaking things through the House?
§ Mr. Benn
The right hon. Gentleman, who is a dear friend—and I seriously mean that—is a member of a European minority too and is reflecting some anxiety about minorities. As to the argument about hanging, may I put it to him like this. If the abolition of capital punishment is the case for parliamentary democracy it emerged on the scene 900 years too late and no one would have dreamed of advocating parliamentary democracy on the grounds that it abolished capital punishment, because the House of Commons was very slow to abolish capital punishment.
I would not like to base my case for parliamentary democracy on the ground that we succeed in defying public opinion over a prolonged period for such successes would be temporary and have no merit. In the end parliamentary democracy must mean that the people have their way. We can—for a time—dampen their passions, dilute their aspirations and defy their wishes, but in the end a democracy can only mean that the people have their way. The parliamentary tradition which I uphold is not in rigid rules. It is not frozen at particular times and is not tied to any one balance of power struck between Government and governed. It has always evolved by enlarging the public rô1e.
Tonight will not settle this matter. Even if the Amendment fails by the vote of the Government and by some abstentions from my hon. Friends, the clamour of those outside the House of Commons will continue to grow until it is heard on this and, if I might add, on other issues in which they believe that Parliament pays too little attention to their needs.
314 I would venture to prophesy that hon. Members who vote against or abstain will later live to hide today's HANSARD from their grandchildren, particularly its Division List, because they will want to avoid the embarrassment of explaining why they voted as they did I believe they will be ashamed at their blindness in failing to see that what they opposed in the name of parliamentary democracy was the floodtide of popular consent without which parliamentary democracy cannot survive. Trust between Parliament and the people must be a mutual trust. If we do not trust them, then not for long will they trust us.
§ Sir D. Walker-Smith
The right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) has made a most impressive speech. [Interruption.] It concurs with my conclusion, and what could be more impressive than that!It was characterised, too, with great dialectical skill and vigour and exhibited a catholicity of affection which apparently included the right hon. Member for Manchester, Cheetham (Mr. Harold Lever). His speech was the more impressive in what he said about the referendum because he is known to have given great study to the matter. I would like to thank him also for what he said at the beginning of his speech in the context of his right hon. Friends who have just left the Front Bench and of my right hon. and hon. Friends who constitute the respective minorities on the two sides of the House.
I can speak with some feeling on this, having been in a minority ever since I became in a minority on the subject almost overnight, when the Conservative Party changed its view in 1961. Of course, it is wrong to make a fetish of consistency, but it would be still more wrong for any right hon. or hon. Member to pretend to a conversion which he has not sustained and to yield his principles and convictions to patronage, power, pressure or pusillanimity. That would bring parliamentary and public life into contempt and degradation more quickly than any honest differences of opinion, whether they cut across party lines or not.
I have approached both these Amendments from the point of view of a constitutional study of them, and as a result I do not find that Amendment No. 23 is 315 suited to the requirements of the situation. Of course, there is a good deal to be said for the underlying proposition that on a great and unique issue such as this a decision should be spread over two Parliaments. That would go some way to ensure the full-hearted consent of the people. But the Amendment contains the reference to express consent on this particular issue, and that is of very doubtful constitutional and practical validity. Anyone who doubted it before would have had his doubts set at rest in listening to the speech by the right hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. George Thomson), who explained that, although he was a full-hearted advocate of entry on the terms as they exist, nevertheless he welcomed a General Election precisely because it would not be fought on this single issue but would be fought on the wide conspectus of matters on which he wished to register a view.
It is difficult in our system ever to identify any single issue at a General Election on which the verdict of the nation is being passed, more difficult in this modern and complex world than it was in the restricted franchise, for example, operating at the time of the Reform Bill in the last century. I would think it is particularly difficult in this issue of entry into the Common Market because of the lack of clarity and precision which has obtained, at any rate hitherto, in the election manifestos of the parties. The imprecisions of the 1970 manifestos are notorious. But the previous record was even worse in a way. Mr. Macmillan made his decision to apply for entry in 1961 without a single reference to the matter in the election manifesto of 1959. I speak subject to correction, but I believe the Labour Party manifesto of the same General Election contained no reference either.
Of course, elections in modern times are a general contest between parties on general and varied issues. Fortunately, electors still have some regard to personal considerations—witness the great triumph of our late and respected friend Stephen Davies over the party machine at the last Election. But the practicality is that unless one of the great parties comes out officially and unequivocally against entry there will be no sufficient opportunity for the people at a General Elec- 316 tion to express a view against entry. This is not likely to be the position, at any rate so far as we can judge from the present evidence of the intentions of the Leader of the Opposition, though I hasten to say that he is perhaps capable of changing and adapting them in due course.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ [MR. JOHN BREWIS in the Chair]
§ Because of these difficulties, and the importance of not denying a suitable expression to public opinion, we must consider the referendum unusual, as it is certainly but not impossible or constitutionally undesirable.
§ I believe we have three questions to answer in this debate. First, would a referendum be constitutionally appropriate? Secondly, if so, is it desirable in the circumstances of this case? Thirdly, if so, would it be practical; is there any mechanical obstacle to it? I propose to deal primarily with the first two of those questions. On the third, I say merely that I do not believe there are any mechanical difficulties in regard to a referendum. Norway and Denmark, much smaller countries than ours, seem to expect no difficulty in applying this machinery, and we would not either if we had the will to do it.
§ I come then to the question of its constitutional propriety. The case against the referendum is generally put on the basis that it involves a derogation from parliamentary sovereignty——
§ Sir D. Walker-Smith
It is only beyond argument if the right hon. Gentleman insists on clinging to the shibboleths and does not look at the evidence, at what is proposed in the referendum and how it fits into the constitutional pattern of this country. The sort of comment that he makes is based on a misconception of the kind of referendum required. It is clear from the terms of the Amendment that the referendum is a consultative advisory referendum, which of its nature cannot usurp the jurisdiction of Parliament. There cannot be anything unconstitutional or derogating from the 317 sovereignty of Parliament in providing means whereby Parliament can exercise that sovereignty with a fuller and clearer knowledge of what is the mind of the people. That, I say with great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, is what is clear beyond argument to anybody who approaches the matter in an objective way.
A consultative referendum is not a substitute for Parliament but a supplement to it, a reinforcement of it; and there is no constitutional impropriety in that. That is amply supported by precedent. It is clear from the practice and precedents that a referendum, though not usual, is neither inadmissible nor improper. We do not have to prove that it is part of the normal usage. All we have to prove is that in this particular case, on this unique and irrevocable issue, it would not be wrong to apply it. Of course it is not usual, but, then, it is not usual to propose a measure which, without limitation of time, will subordinate the rights and powers of this Parliament to an outside body.
If we view this as a one-off case, as it is, a case arising from the unique and irrevocable character of the issue, there is ample support in the practice and precedents of this country without looking at any experience elsewhere. The record is clear. Parliament has put a referendum on the Statute Book for the United Kingdom and also for overseas. Politicians of unimpeachable constitutional propriety and unquestioned eminence have strongly advocated its use. Mr. Bruce Campbell in 1969, when he introduced a Ten-Minute Rule Bill on the matter, cited a precedent from the Statute Book for this country, in the Licensing Act, 1964.On that occasion he won considerable support in the Division Lobby, and not entirely from those who are opposed to entry into the Common Market. It will be interesting to see how many of those hon. Members accompany us into the Lobby on this matter tonight.
There is a great weight of statutory precedent for a referendum, falling mainly into two categories. First, there is the legislation provided by the old Imperial Parliament. Secondly, there is legislation providing for referenda as a basic, required and continuing ingredient of the constitutions of new Commonwealth 318 countries. Can it be said that it was right for the British Parliament to prescribe the medicine for other countries for which it was legislating, which were adopting parliamentary institutions on the Westminster model, and wrong in any circumstances to take that medicine ourselves?
In fact, British political history shows that it is not considered wrong. The precedents have been amply collected and clearly exhibited in the admirable and authoritative book of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart). I will cite only one or two to save the time of the Committee. For example, Arthur Balfour advocated a referendum on tariff reform in 1910, which was not surprising, as the Salisbury Government of which he was a member had legislated referenda into the Australian constitution in 1899.
The Liberals, for good measure, had followed suit in doing exactly the same thing in respect of Natal in 1909, and in a General Election of that year the Conservative Party broadened the constitutional conspectus of the referendum. It graduated from the particular to the general, incorporating referenda in its election manifesto as an appropriate means of providing the opportunity for expressing the nation's will on measures passed by the House of Commons but rejected by the House of Lords. It was not alone in looking to the referendum as a legitimate and useful parliamentary device. I commend to the Leader of the Liberal Party, that the then Liberal Government prepared legislation to give effect to the referendum in the Parliament Bill.
Those were not mere political flirtations of doubtful constitutional propriety. They were supported by the great authority of Dicey and Sir William Anson. In the consideration of the Parliament Bill in 1911 the Conservatives moved a new Clause to give effect to a referendum, and on that Mr. Balfour said, as recorded in my hon. Friend's book,But still in the referendum lies our one hope of getting the sort of constitutional security which every other country but our own enjoys.That has a rather topical ring when we see that the other three of our co-applicant countries are likely to enjoy exactly that safeguard.
319 Balfour and Asquith were not exactly credited with a revolutionary outlook on constitutional affairs, nor was Stanley Baldwin, who advocated the referendum in 1930 on Empire Free Trade. Nor was Winston Churchill, who made the characteristically Churchillian suggestion of a referendum of women on the question of votes for women. Perhaps he recalled that earlier suggestion when he made the suggestion to Mr. Attlee in 1945. When the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins) recalls Lord Attlee's comment, he should in fairness recall who made the suggestion which evoked the comment, for he was surely as good a constitutionalist as Lord Attlee.
It is significant, when one looks at the history of the matter, that, although there was much discussion of tactics, methods and the desirability of holding a referendum, there was never any suggestion that it was an unconstitutional device. In considering who its proponents were, their parliamentary stature and their immaculate constitutional principles, could it possibly have been thought to have been so? If it was suitable for tariff reform, for women's suffrage, for the Parliament Bill and for the prolongation of Parliament, for licensing and the Commonwealth, why is it not suitable on this subject of entry into the Common Market, a subject so vast in scope and so irrevocable in effect?
This is a continuing history, with referenda taken in ten Commonwealth countries in the last quarter of a century. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) who spoke in such impressive terms, referred to the WestIndies Act, 1967, an Act to associate six Caribbean States together. A referendum was provided for in the Bill. At that time my right hon. Friend the present Minister for Overseas Development said:We seem to be dealing with a number of Sixes' in different parts of the world…I can assure the hon. Lady that my hon. Friends and I will certainly give our support to the new arrangements for which the Bill provides."—[Official Report, 31st January, 1967; Vol. 740, c. 345–6.]The new arrangements were for referenda. Surely the Government can give our Amendment that support which they so generously and unequivocally conveyed across the Floor of the House on that occasion.
320 The most recent instance is topical indeed—the Northern Ireland plebiscite. The questions of sovereignty for Northern Ireland are to be put to the test of public opinion in the form of a plebiscite. There is no difference between a plebiscite and a referendum. A plebiscite is referendum writ small. It is not right to say, as I think my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish) suggested, that the difference is whether there is any binding force. The Oxford Dictionary defines a plebiscite as apublic expression of community's opinion with or without binding forceand continues "See Referendum". Again I say, if it is right for Northern Ireland, why is it not right for us on this issue?
I have not prayed in aid the French referendum. Why should we? Our Amendment was on the Order Paper before President Pompidou announced the French referendum. So if anyone was influenced by anybody, presumably he was influenced by us. At least we can ask: if it is appropriate for Frenchmen to be asked whether they are prepared to receive large sums of money under the common agricultural policy from Britain, surely it should be appropriate for the British people to be asked whether they are prepared to pay those large sums for the French? I am not praying in aid President Pompidou's referendum as a precedent for this. It would appear, sadly, that his motives are somewhat suspect in the matter, but, be that as it may, it is no criticism of a referendum as such.
The referendum that we are suggesting has nothing to do with votes of confidence in political parties or party leaders. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition could well serve the interests of the country by accepting a referendum on this matter and making it clear that no issue of personal or party confidence is involved and that it is a straight question demanding a straight answer on a straight issue. I therefore submit that it cannot be properly or plausibly argued that the concept of a referendum offends British constitutional practice. Clearly, it does not.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Mr. William Small (Glasgow, Scotstoun)
Would the right hon. and learned 321 Gentleman take the principle of the referendum and the plebiscite as it applies in Scotland in terms of Bearsden and Bishopbriggs-Stevenston changing their status and the use of the veto poll in the community?
§ Sir D. Walker-Smith
I had the inestimable privilege of being born in Scotland and having some early education there, but they quickly exported me and I am a little rusty. The hon. Gentleman therefore must forgive me on that point.
It is quite wrong to seek to dismiss a referendum as an alien device. It is in truth far less alien than many of the practices in which entry to the Community would inevitably and inextricably involve us. Countless repetition of that groundless charge does not advance the matter. The proposition does not become any more true by general repetition. Parrot cries of "alien device" and the term "anti-European" to describe those who are conscientiously opposed to entry to the Common Market but desire good relations with Europe—such pejorative phrases are an attempt to cloud the issue by the use of misleading terms and are to be deprecated if we want to keep this dialogue on a high level.
The referendum is not an alien device. It contains nothing repugnant to British parliamentary practice and doctrine. The most that can be said against it is that it is not often necessary to use it. That does not mean that it is not right to use it when occasion demands. That this is such an occasion cannot possibly be doubted. We are told that 78 per cent. of the British people think so, and many of those who do not think so are superior persons, èlitists, who do not trust the judgment or the instinct of the British people. The British people want a referendum, and, in my view, they are right to want it. They see it as their sole practical opportunity for having a say in this matter.
If it is denied to them, if they see that the country is taken into the Common Market without their having a say, I believe that it will leave a dangerous legacy of bitterness and disillusion. It will breed cynicism and indifference, weaken faith in our democratic and parliamentary institutions and stimulate the politics of protest and of direct action. For 322 these reasons, I urge support for the Amendment to give the British people that say in their own destiny and that voice in their own fate which is justly and properly theirs.
§ Mr. Thorpe
The right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) has always been consistent both on the issue of Europe and on the issue of a referendum. He also showed, in his muted response to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Scotstoun (Mr. Small) how advisable it is sometimes for leading counsel to have their juniors with them to take over points later on in the argument.
I agree that there are precedents for a referendum. To save the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot), who is well briefed on the matter, the necessity, I concede at once that I have supported referenda myself. It is a dangerous argument for a referendum that because we have exported parliamentary devices that gives respectability to them in this House also. I would point out to him that there are many colonies and territories which we have refused to saddle with the electoral system from which we suffer. The nearest example is Northern Ireland, which had proportional representation and which will inevitably need to have that system reintroduced. The issue is not whether there are precedents, but whether a referendum is the appropriate vehicle for deciding the issue of the Common Market. I believe that it is not.
I hope that the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) will at least take one piece of advice which he gave to us and will not give to his grand children the HANSARD of today's proceedings. As I see it, his argument was that there was a risk, no higher than that, of civil disorder; no doubt the police could deal with it. Then gratuitously there was thrown in a reference to the French police who might be asked to come and help. It was his view that unless we had a General Election or a referendum we stood the risk of civil disorder and total cynicism with our political system. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman will be quick to comment on whether I have put his speech accurately without assistance from any of his hon. Friends.
323 This came from the right hon. Gentleman who is the chairman of the executive of the party which at the last General Election made no reference in its manifesto to the necessity for a General Election before going into Europe. This was the right hon. Gentleman who got up to pledge support to the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) for a vitally important Amendment which Members of the Labour Party themselves have not seen fit to table during any stage of these proceedings—a very strange style. What the right hon. Gentleman has forgotten, and this is an arrogant attitude to adopt towards the electorate, is what happens at General Elections. Is he aware that the electorate has the duty and right to cross-examine candidates on the views that they have on any issue under the sun? Is he in any doubt that the electors of Thirsk and Malton, Hertfordshire East, Banbury, Birmingham, Stechford or Manchester, Cheetham, knew precisely where their Members stood on this issue, and what were their inclinations?
It was open to any candidate to make his views abundantly plain. The electorate of Banbury knew that the hon. Member was going back as an anti-Marketeer; my electors knew that I was going back as a pro-Marketeer, having been so for the last five elections. Therefore, this idea that Members go back and there is no freedom for the electorate is wrong.
Surely the way in which the electorate in those constituencies would be best represented would be for the votes of their Members of Parliament to be in accordance with the views which they expressed under cross-examination to the electorate at the last election. That is why it was right for the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins) to vote as he did in the 28th October vote and why it was right for the hon. Member for Banbury to vote as he did and why I have always pressed for a free vote on this issue on all sides.
The right hon. Gentleman claims to be in favour of a free vote, yet my small and silent voice was heard a great deal more loudly than his on this. Can he honestly say he assisted the freedom of the electors of Stechford by the way in which the right hon. Member for Stech- 324 ford was compelled to vote on the Second Reading on 17th February? Was that a proud day for parliamentary democracy when he was told that his first loyalty was to the Whips as opposed to his constituents? Does he have any doubt that the right hon. Gentleman would have wished to follow his conscience and vote on 17th February in precisely the same way as he did on 28th October? And then he says that we must have freedom for the electorate!
The first freedom that we can give the electorate is the freedom to allow their Members of Parliament to vote according to their consciences and according to the way in which they had said they would vote.
§ Mr. Thorpe
Certainly. The Government must fight for their legislation; they must convince their supporters. Obviously, there are major issues on which a Government supporter is committed, such as the nationalisation or denationalisation of some basic industry. The electorate has the right to expect that a Member will vote according to his convictions. No one had any doubt at all how the most prominent anti-Marketeers in the Tory Party and the most prominent pro-Marketeers in the Labour Party were likely to vote. In my view, it has been a travesty of parliamentary democracy to compel them, to twist their arms, to vote against their consciences.
§ Sir David Renton (Huntingdonshire)
Would the right hon. Gentleman carry his argument one stage further and point out that it was common ground between all three parties contesting the last General Election which returned Members to the House that we would enter the Common Market as a matter of principle and that it was just a question of each Member deciding for himself whether the terms were right?
§ Mr. Thorpe
I am grateful to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. I hope in a moment to quote from the Labour manifesto, which seems to have been strangely silent on the need for a referendum or a General Election.
§ Mr. Eric Deakins (Walthamstow, West)
The right hon. Gentleman is really 325 missing the point of my right hon. Friend's speech. What was the choice for an elector at the last election in a constituency where all the three candidates were in favour of their official party policy on the Common Market? What could the anti-Market electorate do?
§ Mr. Thorpe
The anti-Marketeer had a variety of things which he could have done. First, he could have done what certain selection committees have done and decided what type of candidate his party needed. [Interruption.] Certainly; it could have been an issue. Secondly, an anti-Common Market candidate could have been put up. It would be refreshing if hon. Members who complain about a lack of choice for the electorate between candidates of the same party in a constituency did not go on to defend the present electoral system which makes such a choice impossible.
In my view, a General Election on this issue under our present electoral system is a total impossibility. It is not possible to have a meaningful result unless every Labour candidate is told that he must follow the party line and be against entry.
§ Mr. Thorpe
I will come to that in a moment. I am dealing now with an election.
How would the right hon. Gentleman advise us if we wanted a meaningful General Election, the object of which was to find out what the people thought about Europe? How would a Labour voter, opposed to the present terms, vote in Stechford if he had to choose between the right hon. Member for Stechford and a Tory candidate who was bitterly opposed to it? How would he vote if he was a Labour man who was in favour of entry but lived in Stepney? Would he vote for the issue or for the label?
§ Mr. Benn
If the right hon. Gentleman had listened to the speech which I made he would know that the Labour Party in my judgment—I can only give that as my view now, but I believe it to be the case—will put in its manifesto that a Labour Government would not enter Europe without a referendum. Therefore, in the election the voters would have a choice to vote Conservative or Liberal and to enter without further 326 ado or to vote Labour and to have reserved to them in a referendum the freedom to decide the matter for themselves. That is a total answer to the right hon. Gentleman.
§ Mr. Thorpe
I am not certain whether this came up on 29th March in the Shadow Cabinet. If so, it is a new one. It is the newest departure we have seen yet. To change the view on a referendum within seven days is one thing but this one has been dreamed up—it almost spilled out of his speech as if it had come to the right hon. Gentleman in the bath this morning!
§ Mr. Benn
The right hon. Gentleman may know that I have advocated this view consistently. He will find that out by reading The Observer of November, 1970, when I made it clear that it was only in this way that the electorate could have a choice. Otherwise what he says in pouring contempt on a General Election would be absolutely valid. The right hon. Gentleman should do his homework.
§ Mr. Thorpe
This is a new and refined constitutional doctrine: "Have an election first on the Common Market, not to decide the Common Market but to decide whether the electorate wants us back, and then have a referendum to decide whether we are to enter." It would be a most interesting election campaign. I wonder what would happen to those Labour candidates who are against going into Europe and do not want a referendum, those who are in favour of going into Europe and do not want a referendum and those who do want a referendum and do not want to go into Europe? How does the unfortunate elector have a choice there? This is a continental-type system which even the Continent has not yet tried.
In some parties there is a second ballot on the election of a deputy leader——
§ Mr. Thorpe
I would not say that, nor is it necessarily easy for six men to represent 2 million people, as we have to do under the present system.
The Labour Party has made a civilised move towards greater freedom of choice in the election of a deputy leader of the 327 party by introducing the second ballot system so that a maverick candidate is declared defeated and if there is no clear majority the votes are redistributed in the same way as is done with the alternative vote in Australia. The Labour Party thinks that that system is too good for the electorate and is only for use among the èlite in Labour Party circles.
With a system like that we could have a meaningful General Election between Labour pro- and anti-Marketeers and Tory pro- and anti-Marketeers. The electorate could decide not only the volume of Conservative and Labour votes but whether their preference was for the pro-or anti-Marketeer candidates.
The right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Sir Robin Turton) said that he would resign to fight an election as the unofficial anti-Market candidate against an official pro-Marketeer, but only on condition that all the other parties stood down, otherwise it would not be meaningful. Unless all the Labour candidates were put into the straitjacket of taking the same line and saying "No" to Europe on Tory terms, it would be impossible to have a meaningful election. Therefore, this is a totally irrelevant argument, and that is why the Labour Party in its manifesto made no reference to the need for a General Election. I ask the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale to tell me where such a reference appears, and I think he will confirm that it does not. The manifesto said:We have applied for membership of the European Economic Community and negotiations are due to start in a few weeks' time. These will be pressed with determination with the purpose of joining an enlarged Community provided the British and essential Commonwealth interests can be safeguarded. This year, unlike 1961–63, Britain will be negotiating from a position of strength".The manifesto goes on to say that, unlike the Conservatives, the Labour Government will not pay too high a price. There is no reference to the need for a General Election before a Labour Government could judge that the terms were right. It was always implicit that a Labour Government would decide whether the package was right, and. if it was, they would go in.
There were two legislative proposals in 1969 which involved referenda. The first was a Scottish Home Rule Bill of 328 14th February, 1969, moved by two of my colleagues. It provided for referenda in Scotland and Wales to decide the form of the constitutional arrangements. I voted in favour of that Bill. The right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East and the right hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. Shore) voted against it. The arguments of the hon. Member for Renfrew, West (Mr. Buchan) about the difficulty of posing the right questions were powerful, but they did not undermine my support for the referendum, and I have in a local government context suggested a referendum for part of my constituency. On 10th December, 1969, there was another reference to the need for a referendum on joining the Common Market. I voted against that, as did the right hon. Member for Stepney and the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale.
The case for a referendum in Scotland and Wales was a clear one, and I distinguish between that and the European issue. The question of Scottish and Welsh home rule has been largely ignored. That is one reason for the springing up of the nationalist movement. Home rule had not been in the forefront of politics and it was not a subject of public debate. A call for a referendum, rather like the Covenant earlier on in Scotland, was a way to compel attention to the question of Scottish home rule. The issue of Europe is not in the same category because it has been before the electorate. There was no controversy about it at the last General Election because the anti-Marketeers were a small minority of the House of Commons, or, if they were not, they were a very ineffective minority. They had every opportunity to make it an election issue.
Europe was made an election issue by the Leader of the Opposition in 1966 in his Bristol speech. It was perfectly open for the Leader of the Opposition, had he so wished, to have made it a major constitutional issue that, because the Tories had been prepared to accept value-added tax without necessarily getting into Europe, therefore a Labour Government must first have either a referendum or a General Election. But this never happened.
So the Labour Party falls back on a referendum. The Leader of the Opposition still finds it repugnant. For a long time he said that he would refuse to 329 trim. The Labour Party conference on Europe turned it down, and the Shadow Cabinet turned it down as recently as 22nd March and changed its mind on 29th March. Why have they changed their minds? First, because Mr. Pompidou is to have a referendum, and, secondly, because there is to be a plebiscite in Northern Ireland. It comes very strange from those who are first to defend the sovereignty of the House of Commons and who have a dislike of everything continental, particularly the French, to turn themselves into Mr. Pompidou's poodles.
The reason why a plebiscite is necessary in Northern Ireland is that the Unionists turn every election in Northern Ireland into a plebiscite on the border. They say to the electors, "If you do not want to end the border you must vote Unionist because any other party will end it." Therefore, there is no intelligent, political debate. A plebiscite in Northern Ireland is one way in which this matter can be deliberately taken out of politics, and I believe it is right.
I ask the Labour Opposition: why ask for a consultative referendum now? Why not ask for it before the vote on the terms, or, if not then, before the Second Reading debate? Why ask for it now after Parliament has voted on the principle and for the Second Reading of the Bill?
§ Mr. Thorpe
No, the Labour Party has gone overboard for the referendum. The hon. Member for Salford, West (Mr. Orme) must not detract from the enthusiasm that his right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East showed for the hon. Member for Banbury and all his works. The truth is that the Labour Party will do everything possible, with whatever allies it can find, to defeat the Government on the European issue, no matter how much the consciences of some of its members are battered and assaulted. I believe the right hon. Member for Stepney would link up with Beelzebub to get enough followers into the Lobby on this issue. That is why the Labour Party, which less than a month ago was opposed to a 330 referendum, now believes that unless we have one we shall see civil riots and disturbances in the streets. What hypocricy!What could do more to undermine the respect for this Parliament and its sovereignty about which members of the Labour Party talk so much?
§ Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)
It so happens that my release from office provides me with the first opportunity I have had to speak on the subject of Europe in 12 years in the House of Commons. It is well known that I am a lifelong supporter of our joining the Common Market, but it is a great pleasure for me to be able to say so publicly in the House for the first time.
The right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) made a most devastating speech in destroying the speech of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South East (Mr. Benn). That right hon. Member's extraordinary speech was not to be expected when, to begin with, he warned us that he would be making a mild and unpretentious contribution to our debate. In view of the fact that the Labour Party is split almost exactly in two on the question of a referendum, the passion and novelty of his proposals astonished the Committee.
I could not help thinking that the right hon. Gentleman would be likely to believe that the will of Parliament should be allowed to prevail when he happened to agree with it, but that when the will of Parliament seemed to be contrary to what he would like he would call over the heads of Parliament for a referendum. He is not alone in his attitude in the House, because those who are now calling for a referendum are doing so because they are opposed to joining the Common Market and would certainly not be doing so if they were in favour.
There are strong reasons for saying that the whole concept of a referendum is false—reasons which have not been mentioned so far today. Whether the referendum is advisory or binding does not seem to be a major issue. If it is only advisory, presumably it will still have the effect of making the Government appreciate that they are unpopular only if there is an adverse reaction, and it should be calculated to steer the Government off that course.
331 What is important is whether there is a majority in the House that is prepared to govern. We cannot take one issue out of the whole range of policies, an issue like joining the Common Market, and say "We shall change the course of the Government on this issue, but for the rest we shall carry on." Our economic, industrial, trading, agricultural, social and monetary policies are all integrated into the Government's European policies. We cannot take out the centre-piece of a policy and say "Carry on with the rest, but do not join the European Communities."
I ask the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), who is at the moment representing the Opposition on the Front Bench, whether the Labour Party, having won a General Election—if they ever do so—would then hold a referendum. I wonder whether they would then say "We do not know whether we want to join the Common Market; our policies are not fitted to joining the Common Market. We shall carry on with our economic policies whether or not we join, we shall wait for a year and then in a referendum we can take the verdict of the people on whether they want to join." Is this serious Labour Party policy? If it is, then it is absolute rubbish and nonsense and the whole country will see it as such.
Other extraneous items would no doubt be brought into that later referendum. It would include prices and incomes policy and industrial policy, and no doubt it would also bring in the question whether the unemployment figure was acceptable. All these issues are bound to come up in any referendum whenever it is held.
The only time when it is right to hold a referendum is the occasion on which the result does not matter in terms of the main policy of a Government whether they win or lose, whether the answer is for or against the proposition, whatever it may be. These are the serious issues that are usually left to a free vote in the House. The question of Sunday opening in Wales, capital punishment, or even vasectomy are reasonable matters to be decided on a referendum because they do not change the cornerstone of a Government's policy. But to put the most important and central plank of the Gov- 332 ernment's policy to a referendum and then to lose would have only one effect: it would mean that the majority could not continue to govern.
I would not continue to support a Government if it accepted an adverse verdict on Europe. My right hon. and hon. Friends in the Government have all said that they would resign if they were unable to carry the Bill. The only possible consequence, if there were an adverse verdict on a referendum on Europe, would be the resignation of the Government and a General Election would follow.
We should dismiss the idea of a referendum and concentrate on much the better of the two Amendments, the Amendment calling for a General Election.
§ 8.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Ridley
My hon. Friend must speak for himself, but in the four elections I have fought and won I made it clear that I would vote for entry into Europe, and on every occasion I was given the opportunity to do so.
There is another answer I should like to give my hon. Friend. Hon. Members have complained in this debate that all three parties were apparently in favour of our joining Europe although the voters who were against it had no opportunity to express their views. If that is the case, we must surely have a mandate. If all three parties were it favour it cannot be said that there was any doubt about the intention of the Conservative Party. If it were thought that the people should be consulted, it should be done by a General Election since this is the only true way to approach the matter.
I am surprised that the call for a General Election should arise on an Amendment to Clause 1 in the names of three Opposition Members not excluding the Leader of the Opposition. The right hon. Gentleman has become rather like the junior officer on whom his commanding officer wrote a confidential report containing the following sentence: "I 333 believe troops follow this officer only out of curiousity". The right hon. Gentleman expresses no view as to whether there should be a General Election at this time.
I wonder whether the Opposition would welcome a General Election at this time on the subject of Europe and with Europe playing a central part in it. How would they present the view of their party in terms of what they would do after a General Election? Are we to accept the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East that their policy would be to hold a referendum a year after they were returned to office to see whether we should go into Europe? Is this the decisive leadership we are to expect from the Opposition? What an extraordinary position the Labour Party has got itself into on this subject.
It is not possible to solve these problems in terms of giving each voter an opportunity to vote for all the many combinations of different views about Europe. No candidate who stood either for or against Europe at the last election received more than a handful of votes. It was party that predominated over the European or other views of the candidates. To test the argument properly a General Election needs to be fought with a pro-Common Market Tory candidate, an anti-Market Tory candidate, a pro-Common Market Labour candidate and an anti-Common Market candidate. But these parties do not exist. I may malign the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins). There may soon come to be a pro-Common Market Labour Party. But there is not an anti-Common Market Tory Party. Anyone can stand in the ensuing General Election under any colours, but it is a curious fact that candidates do not stand against established party candidates very often. When they do, they do not succeed.
I believe that there are plenty of democratic safeguards. What is important is that whenever the General Election comes, whether it is in response to this Amendment or three or four years hence, it will be fought again between the two major parties and it will be the interests of local, economic and industrial matters which will dominate, and not the Common Market.
334 It would be impossible to isolate the Common Market as an issue in any General Election. The voters would not be confined to that issue alone. A voter would say "I am not against joining the Market. But what about the taxes? What about the prices?" It is impossible to separate these matters. So we are back where we started. The last General Election was fought in exactly similar circumstances to those that the Opposition suggest should be fought now. It would be the same at any future General Election. There would be the same positions over Europe and the same positions between the parties about domestic and economic policies. I would take the same view. I would continue to vote for Europe whoever formed the Government in the future.
The whole suggestion is rubbish. There is no need for a General Election. I do not believe that the Opposition want one. A referendum would lead automatically to a General Election if it was lost. If it was won it would have no point. Therefore I suggest that both Amendments are mere devices to help once more to hold up progress on the Bill and to frustrate the will of those who have been elected to the House of Commons to proceed to join the European Communities.
§ Mr. David Clark (Colne Valley)
I hope the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) will forgive me if I do not take up his points immediately, although I shall deal with one or two of them later in my speech.
I have listened to most of the debate, and I have found it a rather strange and uneasy one. I feel that the opponents of the Amendment proposing a referendum have not attempted to answer the case which has been made in favour of it. In view of the pressure of time, I shall confine my remarks solely to this Amendment.
Those hon. Members who have tried to argue why there should not be a referendum have adopted a process of banter and comment. We have had very little hard factual information from them. We have had quotations dating back almost to time immemorial from hon. Members on both sides of the Committee, and they have not been very apposite to this discussion.
335 What has concerned me most has been that the opponents of the proposed referendum have tried to defeat the idea by scorning and scoffing. Yet behind their remarks I have detected something of a hollow ring. I feel that the idea of a referendum has probably caused more worry to hon. Members than any other issue. I realise that the Chamber is not over-full at the moment. Even so, I suggest that there are more hon. Members present tonight than is normal at 8.30 in the evening.
I suggest that many hon. Members oppose the idea of a referendum not because of the phoney ideas and bogeys that they have put forward but because they are afraid that a referendum would be a direct challenge to their own prestige and rôle.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) summarised the arguments in favour and brought into the open the worries of many hon. Members who are against the proposal. Before answering some of their arguments, perhaps I might remark that I was surprised to hear what the Leader of the Liberal Party said—and I am sorry to have to say it when neither he nor any of his colleagues is present—
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Liberals have been absent during the whole of the debates on this Bill? Their usual custom has been to come into the Chamber and to arrange to be called. As soon as they have spoken, out they have walked, and hon. Members have not seen them any more. That may be thought to be a reflection on the Chair. If it is, the point should be made.
§ Mr. Clark
I shall not take up my hon. Friend's point, because my time is limited and I want to comment on what the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) said. I thought he was more concerned about what happened in the course of a free vote in this House than what might happen in a free vote in the country. This partly explains the demise of the Liberal Party. It has become extremely inward-looking. It is concerned about the trappings and workings of this House to the extent that it has forgotten what is happening to the people in the country.
336 I was surprised to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that he supported a Motion calling for a referendum in Scotland but that he would not support the idea of one in relation to the EEC I suggest that many of his followers who are aware of his opposition would very much like to express their own views on the Common Market.
In this debate, those in favour of a referendum are really fighting the Establishment. The Establishment likes a situation where there is an unwritten constitution. Its supporters are those who can break the conventions with impunity. They do so. In this case, they are again breaking the conventions of our unwritten constitution.
The accusation has been thrown at us that we are opportunists. However, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East has long argued that there should be a referendum on this issue. I have done so myself on many occasions stretching back over a number of months. Indeed, I tabled an Amendment to the Bill as soon as it was introduced. It is Amendment No. 166, and I tabled that long before the Amendment that we are discussing today was framed. There are many hon. Members who oppose the Market and who have been loyal to their principles.
I want to deal with the central part of the opposition to the ideas of a referendum. It was summarised very well by the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury, who argued that because the Bill embodies in spirit so much of the Government's industrial, economic and social policies it would be wrong to have a referendum on this issue since to vote against going into Europe would be to defeat so many of the Government's activities. However, I suggest that the hon. Gentleman has not quite understood why we are arguing for a referendum on this issue.
We are arguing not because of all the multifarious activities of the Government in connection with the EEC, but for a referendum because entry into the EEC changes the basic structure and affects the basic sovereignty of the House of Commons. People have said "We have lost sovereignty time and again. Whenever we make a treaty we lose sovereignty." That is quite right. We do on many occasions, but never before 337 have we given the power to another body to make regulations and laws and to tax the people of this country. This is a unique occasion. We are completely altering the nature of our parliamentary system of democracy. This is absolutely vital.
We are here today because we represent the people in our constituencies. We are here with the knowledge that we can do or undo whatever has been done before in relation to the laws of this country, and our constituents know it. But how many of them know that when we enter the Common Market there will be regulations or decrees emanating from Brussels and that we shall have to say to them, "There is nothing we can do about this. Although we were your sovereign power, we have passed over some of that power to the people in Brussels and they can make laws, for example, relating to heavy goods vehicles. Although you elected us, we cannot do anything about it."
§ [Miss HARVIE ANDERSON in the Chair]
§ 8.30 p.m.
§ That point has been made clearly and emphatically in the country. I can think of arguments why this Parliament should give up its power, but it seems basically immoral to take away the power from the people of this country without first asking their consent. That is the most crucial argument why there should be a referendum.
§ I hear it argued that this would be an occasion of parliamentary democracy. It is essential to our system of parliamentary democracy. I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East was so right when he said that the Bill and the passing of power from this Parliament will cause further disenchantment in the country regarding politicians.
§ I will now deal with some of the arguments put forward by the opponents of a referendum. It is said that referenda are the instruments of demagogues and dictators. If so—the Prime Minister acknowledged that he subscribed to this particular view in Question Time last week—why does he want to join a society where almost all the countries use this means of consulting the people? It is just not logical.338
§ We hear that if we introduce a referendum it will be applied to hanging and will hold back social advances. There have been referenda in Denmark and Norway. Those two countries have had the social advances which we have had.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
Will my hon. Friend go one step further and point out that if we go into the Common Market and it is agreed that the referendum shall be held in the various countries of the then Ten, then, whether Parliament likes it or not and whether the people like it or not, we shall have to carry it out?
§ Mr. Clark
My hon. Friend is quite right. The idea of the Common Market is that eventually there will be harmonisation of the various instruments of social services and, one contemplates, of Government.
The other objections are technical. It is often said that one cannot frame a referendum if one cannot frame the question. The same people then talk about opinion polls. I put this point to them. If we can frame the questions for opinion polls—we all use opinion polls to supplement our own particular arguments—surely we can do so for referenda. Are they saying that we cannot frame the question which can be framed by countries such as Italy, France, the various Parliaments of Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Denmark, Ireland and Norway, countries which will be part of the big Ten, all of which use the referendum? Is there something in the English language which does not make it suitable for referenda? I think that this is sheer poppycock and nothing else.
The three other applicant countries—Ireland under Article 46, Norway and Denmark—are all having referenda. Denmark does not need to have a mandatory referendum, but is having one. Norway is having an advisory referendum.
Is there not something wrong when the people of Ireland, Norway and Denmark have a right to determine their future and yet the leaders of this country are so arrogant that, while paying lip service to democracy, they are not prepared to put it to the test when it affects the vital interests of our people? It seems that if we have a referendum it might lead to a demand for it to be extended to other spheres. That should 339 be resisted. I have never made any bones about that. I spoke very clearly in my constituency on this matter. I believe in a referendum because this is a major constitutional issue.
Bagehot and all the constitutional lawyers say that before there is a basic change in the constitution there should be some form of convention, some form of consulting the people. This has happened as we have heard tonight, on previous occasions in 1910, when at two General Elections the proposal was made to limit the power of the other place. But since then the convention has disappeared, as so many other conventions have disappeared in relation to ministerial responsibility and a horde of other things. It is only natural that there should now come a time when we should seriously think about having a written constitution, in which constitution there should be a point relating to referenda when basic constitutional issues are affected.
But the most important point in our case for a referendum is that the Bill affects the basic rights of the British people. It affects their rights especially through the House of Commons. I wonder how many of them realise that they will be taxed from Brussels and will be subject to laws made in Brussels. I suspect that not very many of them realise that. If a referendum were held, this would be brought out very clearly. Then the British people could make their own decision about their future.
§ Mr. Powell
In this debate we have certainly fulfilled the injunction of the political correspondent of The Times that we should have a good laugh. But, as so often, the hilarity in which both sides of the House of Commons indulge has not been a sign that the subject under discussion was of light importance. Indeed, it is quite common that the House of Commons is most hilarious when it is conscious of discussing the most serious issues. I do not believe today has been an exception.
Those who first learned that these two Amendments were to be debated together——
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
The right hon. Gentleman, innocently, of course, has made a mistake. He said "these two 340 Amendments". In fact, the Chairman selected six Amendments and promised to call the other four, but has not done so—although I have been present the whole time waiting to be called—for some unknown reason. I do not know why the Chairman has not called them
§ Mr. Powell
I apologise to the hon. Member. I am sorry if I offended his susceptibilities inadvertently. As the evening is still young, I am sure that the Committee will have the pleasure of hearing him speak on the Amendments in his name, which are being discussed together. I correct myself: I refer to the two Amendments which the Chair has selected for Division.
At first one was inclined to question that which may not be questioned, the wisdom of the Chair; for, after all, a referendum and a General Election as methods of ascertaining public opinion are not merely different but, in many respects, opposite. Yet upon reflection one realised that there is one subject which forms the basis of the debate and not two.
This debate is about consent. Consent is not simply one of the major questions touching upon Britain and the Community, and the passage of the European Communities Bill; it is the central question. Many, if not most, hon. Members—I noticed that the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) said this very frankly—if convinced that the people of this country were whole heartedly, firmly and soberly determined upon the course embodied in the Bill, would be duty bound to regard the question as decided, subject, of course, to the details of legislative enactment.
Now, the question of consent is not merely still an open one. It is a question which, in the view of many hon. Members, is an insuperable objection to the passage of the Bill and to the entry of Britain into the Community in the circumstances at present envisaged.
On this subject of the degree of consent which is requisite, of the degree of popular consent which is necessary, to authorise the House of Commons to do what it is doing, there is agreement, at any rate in the abstract; and in a debate of this sort one should regard points of agreement as being as precious as rare, and should seize hold of them. I repeat: 341 there has been no serious dispute about the nature of the consent which is necessary to validate this act. It is familiar to the House in the famous, oft-quoted and no doubt carefully considered words of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that such an act required the full-hearted consent of the Parliaments and the peoples of the new entrant countries. In negative form, he put it in similar terms when he said—this was actually during the General Election—thatno Government could take the country into the Common Market if the majority of people were against it.One might summarise that in the terms which the Conservative Party organisation used when it distributed my right hon. Friend's Paris speech in the first week of May, 1970. It said:Mr. Heath made it clear that entry would be impossible unless it was supported by the British Parliament and people.I shall come to the way in which that consent is to be ascertained; but may I for a moment dwell upon the reasons why the stipulation which was laid down by my right hon. Friend, and which has never been withdrawn, modified, denied or disputed, was self-evidently right? The reasons have been mentioned, or touched upon, many times already this afternoon, most recently by the hon. Member for Colne Valley (Mr. David Clark). They derive from the unique nature, the unique characteristics, of the Act which is before Parliament.
First, it is in intention, if not technically, irreversible. It is intended by those who advocate it, by those who wish this country to accede to the European Community, not merely to be permanent in its present form, but to lead on, in an ever-expanding manner, to an ever-increasing absorption of this country into the European Community so that a reversal would be increasingly impracticable and, indeed, unthinkable. In all the other actions which Parliament can take, in all the other measures which it can pass, there is the possibility, so far as legislation has any power at all, for a subsequent Parliament, at the behest of the electorate, as a result of the decision which the electorate takes at a General Election, to reverse, to wipe out what the preceding Parliament did—to wipe it out so far as it is a matter of law, of legislation and of Government policy at all. But when this House takes a 342 decision which, by its nature, is not subsequently capable of being reversed by the electorate, then the responsibility of this House to the electorate is of a special and, indeed, of a unique kind. That was one of the things which my right hon. Friend frankly recognised by the exceptional preconditions which he laid down.
The other thing, of course, is not merely the irrevocability but the fundamental nature of the Bill. One of the gains which we have made during the proceedings so far upon this Bill is that no one is under any misapprehension as to the reality of the transfer of sovereignty which is involved. It has been repeated over and over again today that the House ceases to be the sole source or the supreme source of legislation or taxation, and that the ultimate instance of judgment over the citizens of this country ceases to be in all cases within this realm.
This House is entrusted by the electorate with sovereignty for the life of a Parliament; but, unless the opposite is expressly understood, stated and accepted, it is not entrusted with that sovereignty in order to transfer it. It is entrusted with it in order to use it, but to restore it intact to the electorate when a new House of Commons has to be brought into existence.
Those are the two reasons—the irrevocability and the fundamental nature of the Bill, the transfer of what belongs not to us but to the electorate—which justified, and indeed necessitated, those conditions of consent upon which, so far as I know, we are all agreed, but to which at any rate my right hon. Friends are irrevocably committed.
There is nothing else in our election programme of which we said this. Of none of the many other statements which we made, the other policies which we announced, the other commitments which we entered into, did we say that it would be impossible unless a majority of the people supported it. On nothing else did we say "This would be impossible without the full-hearted consent of Parliament and people".
Indeed, we would have been addled in our administration, we would have been in breach of the responsibility of Government, if we had said such a thing. A Government are elected to govern. There 343 are many circumstances in which, in the course of governing, they do, and openly do, things which are contrary to the wishes of the majority of the electorate. Only about this Bill did we solemnly assert that it presupposed the full-hearted consent of Parliament and people.
I will not be jealous with my right hon. Friend over that conjunction "and"—Parliament "and" people. Nor would I for a moment disagree with him when he went on to say in both those speeches—but I will quote what he said during the General Election on 2nd June—in his very next sentence, that this was a matterto be handled through the parliamentary system.Of course, that goes without saying. That is why there is a Bill before the House. In these matters, effect can be given to the will of the people—they can be "handled", to use one of my right hon. Friend's favourite words—only through Parliament. But that does not mean that Parliament is a substitution for the people and that a majority in Parliament can replace the full-hearted consent of the people.
§ Mr. John Hunt (Bromley) rose——
§ Mr. Powell
May I finish the sentence? Then I will gladly give way to my hon. Friend.
What was meant, and whatever now is meant, by the "full-hearted consent of Parliament and people" is that in this matter, though Parliament will act and only Parliament can act, Parliament cannot do so without the consciousness and the evidence of the full-hearted consent of those who sent us here.
§ Mr. Powell
If my hon. Friend will kindly accompany me in my argument he will find that I do not come to that conclusion at all. So perhaps he will bear with me while I invite the House to consider whether it can seriously be claimed that there is either—and now I substitute the disjunctive for the conjunctive—the full-hearted consent of Parliament or the full-hearted consent of the people.
344 Taking Parliament first and this House of Commons first [Interruption.] Of course I do not need someone to mention the 112 votes; so I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Louth (Mr. Jeffrey Archer) and anyone else who mentions the magic figure 112: "On what other subject is a majority of 112 regarded as the full-hearted consent of Parliament—forget the people for the moment—which justifies a unique and irrevocable act?" There have been a great many measures carried in this House by a lot more than 112 votes. Nationalisation measures were carried by the Labour Party. Measures have been carried by Conservative Administrations. But in neither case has the House, let alone the Opposition, wiped its hands of the matter and said "There it is: the full-hearted consent of Parliament has been given." We all of us know what would be meant by the kind of consent of this House which would be regarded as full-hearted; and it is about as near as possible opposite to the scene which we have witnessed not only this afternoon but from the first time that this matter was brought to the floor of the House of Commons.
Of course, there is not so far a majority at all. We do not yet know whether there will be any consent of Parliament at all. The consent of Parliament will only be known if and when there is Royal Assent to this Bill. But nothing has so far happened, whether on 28th October or on any subsequent date, which can, except in terms of irony, be described as the full-hearted consent of this House. This House is deeply and passionately divided. It is the opposite of a House which is in full-hearted consent, and it is a House which in that respect, although not, I am sure, mathematically——
§ Mr. Jeffrey Archer (Louth)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I wonder whether, before he goes on to his next point, he would tell us exactly what would be full-hearted consent.
§ Mr. Powell
I have on a previous occasion said that I believe that there was full-hearted consent to the commencement or the resumption of negotiations in 1967. If my hon. Friend likes to use that as a sort of yardstick of an overwhelming majority, then I offer 345 it to him; but there is a very great contrast indeed between that position and that scene and the one which has been occupying us on the floor of this House on and off for the last nine months.
So I address myself next to the question of those out of doors who sent us here. Here and there those who are anxious to make a case that there is consent out of doors can find a figure in opinion polls or somewhere else which looks like some kind of majority; but what nobody has ever produced yet in any form, and what nobody has ever alleged, is that there is evidence of full-hearted consent out of doors; that there is that sober, sustained and deliberate will on the part of the people to surrender the sovereignty of the House of Commons and of the electorate, which is the condition precedent to the House having the right and authority to do so—and that upon the view of my right hon. Friends themselves.
That is what all these Amendments are about, and it is what the two Divisions which will take place are about. They both register in emphatic terms the absence of the necessary consent—the fact that the conditions laid down by the Government and the Prime Minister for the validity of the act have not been, and are not yet, fulfilled. They both do so in similar form by saying "This act must not be completed unless and until something happens". It is the "unlesses" and "untils" which differ and which, in some respects, are in contrast. One is "unless and until a referendum has been held"; the other is "unless and until a General Election has been held." But let us bear in mind, as we consider the Amendments and those two pieces of mechanics—they are barely even that—that the essential purpose of the Divisions and of this debate is to determine whether those conditions precedent, on which there is general, and indeed official, agreement, are fulfilled at all.
I take the Amendments in the reverse order and consider first the Amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) and other of my right hon. and hon. Friends. It has perhaps not escaped notice that, closely and cordially though I agree and co-operate with them in this great parliamentary struggle, my name is not attached to the Amendment. I am no 346 friend of a referendum, and my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster did me no injustice—I am sure he would never wittingly do me an injustice—when he quoted from a speech I made on the Common Market issue during the General Election in which I set out the reasons why I am no friend to the principle of a referendum. Would that he had given the same close study to the other parts of the little book in which that speech has been reprinted. He might otherwise have taken the better part in this whole question. But let that pass.
I regard a referendum as being difficult to reconcile, even on a matter of this unique character—there is a respect in which all questions can be regarded by somebody as unique—with responsible parliamentary government as we have it in this country. In saying that I place myself in no sort of antagonism or contradiction with those who have shown that good and worthy democracies, as good and worthy as our own, have the referendum either as an exceptional or as a usual part of their procedure. But the essence of our own responsible parliamentary democracy is that the Government are held totally responsible to the House of Commons, and the House is held totally responsible to the electorate.
If a referendum is held upon a matter of minor importance, that principle may not be seriously interfered with or breached. But if a referendum is held upon a subject in which otherwise the responsibility of government would be engaged, that responsibility is short-circuited. As I said in my speech at Tamworth, the Administration would then be entitled to confront a complaining electorate and say "It is no fault of ours. We would have acted differently, but the question was submitted to you and you decided it otherwise. So it is you, not we, who are responsible." That is the reverse route to the true flow of responsibility in our parliamentary system.
I do not seriously think that this is helped greatly, though I appreciate the object of it, by my right hon. and hon. Friends designating a proposed referendum as consultative. I think that this would be difficult. Everybody would 347 want to know whether, although in form consultative, it was in reality binding. Indeed, I find a certain contradiction in saying, as we all do, I thought, that the general will of the people on this subject must be decisive and then, if we can ascertain it by way of a referendum, saying nevertheless that that is only consultative and that the Government are at liberty to disregard it.
So even on this uniquely important matter I would not myself, if it were a practical issue, favour the holding of a referendum. But the Committee understands these matters very well. The Committee understands what would be the consequence if Amendment No. 205 were carried. The Amendment says:This Act shall come into force on a day to be appointed…but no such date shall be appointed until a consultative advisory referendum…has first been held…".If—no!when—there are so many of my hon. Friends who either at the General Election or on 10th December, 1969, committed themselves to the principle of a referendum on this subject that I can say "when"—Amendment No. 205 is carried later tonight, nobody, not even the newest of hon. Members, supposes that on the following day the Government will scamper off to institute the machinery for a referendum to be taken, in order that in due course the Bill as an Act may be brought into effect.
Every hon. Member understands perfectly well what would be the result of the House of Commons marking by this Amendment the fact that there is not sufficient authority or consent in evidence at this moment. It would begin—it would have to begin—the process of bringing together what sooner or later must be brought together; for this thing cannot go through with a House of Commons and a nation torn apart. It would begin the process—a slow process, a gradual process—of bringing together ingredients which, to satisfy all of us and to bring about full-hearted consent, would have to be fed into any arrangement for Britain to co-operate with the nations of the adjacent Continent of Europe, with the European Community itself. That is what would happen.
Those who vote for the Amendment, as I shall tonight, are saying, whatever their views on a referendum may be, 348 "There is not here or in the country the necessary consent to the Bill passing in this form. Therefore, let something be done to ensure that in due course the forms, the arrangements, the negotiations are so altered that, if possible, full-hearted consent may be forthcoming."
§ Mr. Powell
If it is impossible, so be it; but we cannot do it without full-hearted consent. We have said that we will not; and we register by our vote that the necessary consent is not present and not available.
I come now to what I believe is the much more proper constitutional form in which to envisage the consent of the electorate, Amendment No. 23. Many hon. Members have dilated upon the difficulty—it has sometimes been described as the impossibility—of using a General Election to give, in the words of the Amendment,the express consent of the British peopleWe all think that we can draft other people's Amendments better than they can themselves, and I am tempted to think that I could have made perhaps a better shot at Amendment No. 23 than that which is on the Notice Paper. But there is not that absurdity or that difficulty which has been often asserted in this debate about obtaining the consent of the British people by way of a General Election. Without going into history, I summon a recent witness, the most important of all possible witnesses in this case—my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. It is only a few weeks ago, within the recollection of every hon. and right hon. Member, when, in winding up the debate upon the Second Reading of the Bill my right hon. Friend told the House what would be the result, in the view of himself and his Cabinet colleagues, if the Second Reading were not carried.
Admittedly, when my right hon. Friend said that, he had good reason to suppose that it would be carried—but that is part of another story. I ask the House to attend to what my right hon. Friend said:…if this House will not agree to the Second Reading of the Bill tonight…my colleagues and I are unanimous that in these circumstances this Parliament cannot sensibly continue".—[Official Report, 17th February, 1972; Vol. 831, c. 752.]349 Why was my right hon. Friend going to advise Her Majesty to dissolve Parliament if the Second Reading were not carried? What did he suppose the General Election which would follow would be about? What were we intended to suppose the General Election would be about? What sort of House of Commons was intended to be sent back after the General Election? Everyone knows that the object was to secure, if possible, the consent of the people to this Bill and to the form of adherence to the treaty which is enshrined in the Bill. It cannot be disputed—my right hon. Friend the First Lord of the Treasury said it himself—that one can indeed test the consent of the British people by General Election.
Of course, my right hon. Friend was in the mainstream of British political history. He was doing—no, he was threatening to do—what Earl Grey did in almost precisely those circumstances in 1831. The election which then followed was as much about the Reform Bill—although in that election there only voted the electors and the constituencies of the unreformed House of Commons—as the election-which-never-was last month, the election which would have followed the defeat of the Second Reading of the Bill, would have been about entry into the Common Market.
§ Mr. Kenneth Lewis
Would my right hon. Friend suppose I might be equally right if I thought that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, when he used those words, was saying to this party in particular that if it voted against entry into the Common Market there would be a General Election which could mean another Government which would also go into the Common Market but which would bring other things with it—in fact, a Socialist Government?
§ Mr. Powell
I recommend my hon. Friend to study very closely what my right hon. Friend, did, in fact, say, and to recognise that my right hon. Friend was acting in a manner entirely constitutional in saying that if the House refused consent the Government would not resign but would try to get a House of Commons which would give consent. That was what my right hon. Friend said, and that was what I believe he meant.
But I take up a point not very far removed from that which my hon. 350 Friend has put to me; for it is often said "Oh, yes, but then the outcome of a General Election would be confused by the ambiguous and in part conflicting positions of the respective parties". I do not believe that this is realistic either. I do not believe that anyone would have been in any doubt. If that election had happened, in order to see whether we could get a House of Commons that would pass the Bill, I do not believe that that problem would have arisen for the electorate. For had a labour majority been returned at an election fought in those circumstances on that issue, then I say that it would have been impossible for that party—I do not say, ever to make an arrangement with the European Economic Community—but I do say to carry through the House and the country entry upon these terms and upon these conditions.
That brings me to my last point, which is to establish that it cannot be claimed that at the last election, in 1970, the consent which would have been sought in an election fought in February or March of this year was asked for, or therefore was obtained. My hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley)—he warned me that he might not be here, but in his absence I say how much we on the back benches welcome his coming back to reinforce us and greet his return to a wider scope of debate—described membership of the Community as "a most important and central plank of the Government's policy". But that is not what we told the electorate. That is an ex post facto. What we told the electorate in the manifesto was:…we can negotiate with the European Community, confident in the knowledge that we can stand on our own if the price is too high.One can hardly describe as a most important and central plank of a policy presented to the electorate at a General Election something which is so disposable that one can do equally well, be just as well off, if by some mischance or some difficulty in the negotiations it does not happen at all.
§ Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury) indicated dissent.
§ Mr. Powell
I know that there are some, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch), who do 351 not agree with what we said in our manifesto, and my hon. Friend has told me so. In this, as in so many things, individual hon. Members have put a personal as well as a party point of view. But as a party that is what we said to the electorate. Therefore, it cannot be claimed that we presented to the electorate a policy of which, expressly and evidently, membership of the Community was a most important and central plank.
§ 9.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Marten
Does not my right hon. Friend also agree that this has been confirmed time and again since the General Election, when we have said to the country that we would not go in unless we got the right terms for New Zealand and for Commonwealth sugar? Did we not say that if we did get such terms for any one of these things we would not go in? Did not the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as recently as the Conservative Party conference at Brighton last October, state the same thing about fishing? Have we not said, on all these three things, that if we did not get the right terms we would not go in? How central has this been since October?
§ Mr. Powell
My hon. Friend is filling in the details of the words in our manifesto, where we said that "if the price is too high"—meaning those things which he has mentioned—we could equally "stand on our own". How could the electorate suppose in these circumstances that it was giving its mandate, its consent, to a Government who were saying "This is central to our policy; take it or leave it as a whole, but the centre of it is membership of the Community"? That was not what we said. On the contrary, despite all the can dour about our intention to negotiate and our desire to succeed, we also inserted that all-important sentence, that oft quoted sentence:Our sole commitment is to negotiate; no more, no less.The sole purpose and meaning of that was to say "We are not asking you at this General Election for your agreement. We are not asking you, because you vote Conservative, to commit yourself to the Common Market, because we are not committing ourselves to more than that there will be negotiations." Some 352 individual candidates said "The party is not committed, but I am in favour." Others, like myself, said "The party is not committed, but I am opposed." But, whatever individual candidates said, it is undeniable that no mandate was sought and, therefore, no mandate was given.
The effect of this Amendment is not to cause a General Election tomorrow; it does not even say so, any more than Amendment No. 205 causes a referendum to be instituted tomorrow. The effect of Amendment No. 23, for which I shall vote for the same reason, is that it recalls the fact that there is not sufficient authority, there is not sufficient consent, there is not that kind of consent which officially has been said to be indispensable for the passage of the Bill. We owe it to our constituents, we owe it to the House of Commons itself, to place on record to night that that consent, that authority, is not in our hands. Each of the Amendments does it in its own way; and for each, for that reason, I shall record my vote.
§ Mr. Arthur Lewis
We have heard the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) explain that no member of the Government or of the Opposition Front Bench, whether for or against entry into the Common Market, can say that these Amendments could be supported by any hon. Member whatever his view might be on the question of the EEC. He has explained that the Conservative and Labour Parties have at all times said that it was not their intention to go into the Common Market on any terms. I except the Liberal Party because I think that it would sell anyone at any time on any terms. We know what happened to it in the General Election and we know how many Liberals were returned, although they are absent at present.
Neither the Labour Party nor the Conservative Party, nor any Member of either party to my knowledge or belief, said that they would go into the Common Market on any terms whatever. We know that the Tory Party said that it would go in if it had the full-hearted consent of Parliament and the people. The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West has shown that the Government have not got the full-hearted consent of 353 Parliament. When the Government signed the Treaty of Accession, Parliament did not know what it was because it had not seen it. One hon. Member spoke of a majority of 112, but he should have pointed out that the majority on the Bill was not 112 because hon. Members then knew what they were voting about. The majority of 112 was when they did not know what the prospectus was, when they had not seen the rules and regulations, the laws and edicts.
It took over 12 months of Parliamentary Questions to get the rules, regulations and orders published and presented to Members. They did not come then until after we had been asked to take the crucial vote. When I got this big pile of documents, almost three feet high, I saw a prominent member of the Cabinet and I said, "Mr. X, tell me, have you read these?" In non-parliamentary language he said "Have I hell. I have not seen any of them." Yet he and his Cabinet were dragooning the troops into voting for these 2,000 rules and regulations which neither he nor any Member of the House of Commons had seen.
Not only had the people not been made aware of the truth but hon. Members never knew at the crucial time what this meant. Even today rules and regulations are coming out from Brussels and there is no hon. Member who can see them. I read of a new directive stating that car insurance was to be harmonised. I do not know whether our motorists, who are experiencing such great difficulties at present, know about this. I do not know whether they are aware that in the Common Market the cost of insurance can be as much as 400 per cent. higher than here. Has the Prime Minister told his Bexley constituents that if we enter the Common Market their car insurance premiums will go up 400 per cent. and that no Member of Parliament can do anything about it? Has any hon. Member explained to his electorate about the 2,000 laws which we must pass without alteration? If he has, can he say that he has the full-hearted consent of the electorate? Of course he cannot.
The Prime Minister has said that we should have the full-hearted consent of the people, but how are we to get it if he cannot agree to a referendum or a General Election? The hon, and gallant 354 Member for Lewes (Sir T. Beamish) said that he was not in favour of a referendum but that a plebiscite would be different. I agree with the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith). Having looked at the dictionary I cannot see any difference between a referendum and a plebiscite. Evidently the Prime Minister can because he has agreed to have periodical plebiscites in Northern Ireland. The Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister are at one on this. Both sides of the House agreed that there should be a plebiscite in Gibraltar. I cannot see why the Prime Minister should not agree to obtain the full-hearted consent of the people by a plebiscite.
My Amendment No. 254 is helpful to the Government. The Government say that a national referendum would be difficult and unusual, but I suggest that a plebiscite on the Common Market should be held in Northern Ireland. The Border question could be included as one question and the Common Market as another.
§ [Sir ROBERT GRANT-FERRIS in the Chair]
§ 9.30 p.m.
§ My Amendments Nos. 255 and 256 provide for plebiscites to be held in Wales and Scotland. Both parties have supported plebiscites on less important issues, such as the opening of licensed premises in Wales. Scotland has regular plebiscites of this sort, and I do not see why it cannot be asked to have a plebiscite so that we may see how far it goes.
I am interested to see the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) since he has performed yeoman service by publishing a very good book on the whole subject of referenda. If hon. Members have not read this volume, I recommend them to purchase it. In fact, I shall give the hon. Member a little free publicity by quoting a passage from page 187:
The political penalties for any Government which forces Great Britain into marriage with Europe against the wishes of a majority of the electorate will be severe. It would be understandable if the Government sought to avoid a genuine test of public opinion, but a policy of evading public opinion could easily lead to destruction at the next general election. A referendum then is not only the best test of public opinion. It also provides the best protection against political retribution.
The hon. Gentleman is quite right.
§ We hear from hon. Gentlemen on the Government side clamour for a referendum or vote among trade unionists, particularly this week in regard to the rail dispute. But since they have discovered that the railway workers might vote against what the Conservative Party feel to be right, they do not now want a referendum. Similarly, they do not want a referendum on the Common Market because they know what the result would be. This is why they do not want to have a General Election on this subject.
§ The real terms of entry to the Common Market were never put to the electorate by any political party or by any individual Member of Parliament. The terms of entry could not be put because they were not known. They have become known only in recent weeks and months. It is only as these matters have been debated that we are beginning to find what entry really means. The only way to resolve the issue is to seek the will of the people.
§ Let the Government beware on this issue. My local authority and many of my constituents say that they will refuse to carry out the provisions of the Housing Finance Bill, but they have been advised that that would be wrong because it will eventually be in the form of an Act of Parliament democratically passed by the House of Commons. They must wait until a Labour Government is returned to power so that it can then be repealed. In the meantime they must carry out its provisions.
§ I must tell the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, however, that if these proposals are forced through Parliament against the will of the people he should not think that the Government will get away with it. There could be strikes. There could be upheaval. I for one would tell my constituents that as these proposals have never been discussed and as we have been forced to accept 2,500 rules and regulations which we have not seen, they should not take notice, they should ignore this legislation because it is the antithesis of democracy. I would support them in every way, if need be to smash it by strikes and industrial unrest. Now I will give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, West (Mr. Deakins).
§ Mr. Deakins
My hon. Friend has passed the point at which I wanted to 356 interrupt. He spoke about local authorities not carrying out the provisions of the Housing Finance Bill. Surely that would not be undemocratic. Indeed the Government have foreseen that it may happen, and they have taken power to appoint housing commissioners where local authorities refuse to observe the provisions of the legislation.
§ Mr. Lewis
I take my hon. Friend's point. However, that Measure has been debated democratically. We knew what it was about and we had an opportunity to amend it. But we have had no chance to amend the 2,000-odd rules and regulations associated with Britain's entry into the Common Market. If and when we go into the Market we shall have no opportunity to alter any of these rules and regulations that the bureaucrats in Brussels have agreed.
According to rumours in the Press, it may be that my right hon. Friend the Member for Dundee, East (Mr. George Thomson) will be one of the commissioners and that my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham. Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins) will be our Ambassador in Paris. If that happens, they will have an opportunity to put their points of view. But neither Members of Parliament nor the British electorate will have any opportunity to amend regulations which have been agreed by the Commission and the Council of Ministers.
§ Mr. Rippon
I was a little interested in what the hon. Gentleman said just now. Parliament having passed legislation, does he think that strikes, industrial upheaval and violence are a form of parliamentary democracy?
§ Mr. Lewis
No, I do not. That is my point. I shall throw it back to the right hon. and learned Gentleman: does he think it is democratic of him to dish up 2,000 rules and regulations none of which any Member for Parliament has seen? Is it democratic to tell the people that they must accept them and that they cannot be amended? If he thinks that, and if he tells me and my constituents that we shall send a commissioner to Brussels where, with his colleagues, he will come to decisions which will be reported to Parliament but which Parliament will not be able to alter or reject, yes, I shall then tell my constituents that 357 this is not normal parliamentary procedure and that therefore I shall be prepared to lead them in industrial upheaval, if only to reassert the democratic decisions of the House of Commons.
§ Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)
I was grateful to the hon. Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) for his free publicity for my book and for the praise that he lavished upon it. For a while, I thought I should find myself in general agreement with his remarks. I parted company with him, however, when he called for civil disturbance and upheaval. The hon. Gentleman is larger though not as pretty as the hon. Member for Mid-Ulster (Miss Devlin), but for a moment I thought he was going to outbid her revolutionary fervour.
At the same time I find it difficult to appreciate the point made by the hon. Gentleman on 28th October, that Members of Parliament did not really understand what they were voting on and that it was not until we saw the Bill and had some idea of the large numbers of orders coming from Brussels that we could form a picture of the constitutional restraints that entry into the Common Market will inevitably bring.
I think that on 28th October hon. Members had a very clear picture of what was involved in entry into the Common Market. It was plain then, as it is now, that a major change was going to come about in the constitutional framework in which Parliament and the electorate works. This is recognised by the other three applicant States. The Republic of Ireland, Denmark and Norway have decided to hold referenda. The Republic of Ireland and Denmark will hold referenda because their written constitutions force them to do so. That does not apply to Norway. We do not yet have a written constitution. However, we have a party political system which normally ensures that an alternative approach to all the great issues of the day is put before the electorate at a General Election.
It is curious that the Common Market issue has defeated the normal cut and thrust of party politics in this country. Let us look at the last four General Elections since the Common Market came into being. In 1959 the Liberals were alone in believing we should go 358 into the Common Market. The two principal parties believed that we should not. At the 1964 General Election, all parties believed that the French veto still lay on the table and that it was not a party political issue at all. At the 1966 General Election, it could have become an issue between the parties. When the Leader of the Opposition made his Bristol speech it seemed that it might become an issue, but again it did not.
In 1970 again it could not be an issue between the parties, because all three parties were agreed that if the terms were right we should go in. In Beckenham, apart from my heresy in believing that we ought to hold a referendum on this issue, I loyally supported the party line that we ought to enter if the terms were right. My Labour and Liberal opponents took exactly the same view.
Therefore, we have an issue of critical importance. It is a cliché to say that this was the most important single issue in British politics for a decade. Yet in my constituency and in hundreds of constituencies throughout the country it was not possible for a voter who believed this was the most important issue before the electorate to cast a meaningful vote upon it.
In the party political system there is normally a fail-safe mechanism to deal with any issue which is not thoroughly discussed at a General Election. That fail-safe mechanism is the fact that any decision taken by a Government can be reversed, if need be, by another Government following a General Election. We had a good example of that in the case of selective employment tax. The Labour Government did not choose to tell the electorate in the April, 1966, General Election that they had dreamed up that tax. It was launched on the electorate in the May, 1966, Budget. But the Conservative Opposition said that they were firmly opposed to the tax. The Labour Government had to justify it at a subsequent General Election. They did not succeed in doing so, and a Conservative Government have made a start in dismantling the tax.
But that does not apply to the Common Market. Here again, this issue escapes the fail-safe mechanism. It is 359 technically possible for any Government, elected at a General Election following British entry, to take Britain out. But I do not believe that in practice that will occur. It would be possible to do a Bangladesh on the Common Market. But that would leave our allies and trading partners in a state of total confusion. Therefore, inevitably this is a decision which will be taken before one has a General Election in the normal course of events.
Some people argue that there should be an immediate General Election. The Leader of the Liberal Party dealt very effectively with that Amendment. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Cheetham (Mr. Harold Lever) and the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins) have taken courageous and strong action in support of their beliefs on the European issue. But the fact is that they voted against Second Reading of the Bill to take us into the European Communities. Would the Conservative Party put up pro-Marketeers or anti-Marketeers to ensure a fair test of opinion in the constituencies of those right hon. Gentlemen? Would the Labour Party guarantee to put up a pro-Marketeer in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell)?
I do not believe that it is possible, in practice, to have a General Election on a single issue. Even the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) would feel bound to mention unemployment and the cost of living in the course of an election campaign. I dare say I would feel bound to mention the dimensions of the Labour Party's internal divisions and its attitude to industrial unrest at present. So, in practice, a General Election is not a possible solution to our difficulties.
However, I take seriously the argument put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West about a referendum not being an integral part of our parliamentary system of democracy. I take that argument seriously, even when it is advanced by those passionate advocates of entry into the Common Market who would bring about a far greater change in our system of parliamentary democracy than anything 360 contemplated in the Amendment concerning a referendum. I am encouraged by my researches which show that the referendum principle was supported by Mr. Arthur Balfour, Stanley Baldwin and Mr. Winston Churchill, all at a time when they were leaders of the Conservative Party. But all that is in the past.
I take even greater heart from the fact that the present leader of the Conservative Party, the Prime Minister, has said that there should be a plebiscite, or a referendum, call it what one will, in Northern Ireland. Here we have the most inflammable, the most explosive issue in politics, a constitutional issue of the first magnitude, and it is thought right to have a referendum of all the inhabitants of Northern Ireland on this issue; not just one referendum, but a continuing referendum so that they can clearly show their views on this all-important issue.
We have tramped through the Division Lobby in support of introducing referenda on the industrial scene. Indeed, for the last 48 hours the Government have devoted a substantial effort towards trying to persuade the trade unions to have a referendum on the railways dispute. If it is right to have areferendum on Northern Ireland, and if it is right for the railwaymen to have a referendum on the industrial dispute in their industry, it seems only right that the people should have an opportunity of giving their views direct on this most important of all issues.
I hope that the Government will change their mind this evening and accept the Amendment, because I do not want to vote against them on this issue. If they do not accept it, holding the view that I have held for the last two or three years I shall have no alternative but to go into the Lobby in support of the Amendment.
§ Mr. Harold Lever
This has been an exceedingly interesting debate, and a dangerous one in many ways, because with the divisions on both sides of the House there must be a strong temptation on each side to stir it up between members of the divided party opposite. But in this House we tend to find, as I did when I was having my own dispute with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn), that 361 one does not profit by seeking to intervene in the family quarrels on the other side, so I shall not stir up this matter.
I am not going to pose—because I should be absolutely dishonest if I did so—as being of the view that politics permit us, as Members of the House, to be justly divided into simon-pure sheep on the one hand and black and suspect goats on the other. I do not believe that the practice of politics permits that direct simplicity which is so much admired by everybody who has not practised politics. The truth of the matter is that if one does not want to be placed in the position of having two passionate convictions which conflict, two purposes which cannot be reconciled, one is better off out of politics. I am glad to say that this debate has not been marred as badly as some of these debates by a recitation of what A, B or C said on another day, and asking how he reconciles that with what he is saying tonight. A little light party fun may be derived from this, but little or no instruction.
If I quote what anyone has said, as I shall be bound to, it is not in any sense to reproach him for inconsistency, still less to cast doubt upon the sincerity with which he has come to his final judgment on how he should vote and how he should judge the great issue before us. I will quote only to the extent that it is directly relevant to questions which I propose to discuss with the House; namely—is this House competent to come to a decision, do we need a special Act, is there a mandate in this House to act upon this matter, or must we inevitably have a General Election or a referendum?
I declare at once, which will be no surprise to anyone, that I am opposed to the concept of a referendum, but that I favour a General Election. I will not go on too lengthily on this point, because it seems obvious to me that those who reject, as I do, the principle of the referendum and believe that it is hostile to the purposes of our parliamentary democracy, and not to be reconciled with the long-practised concepts of parliamentary sovereignty, that, in so far as it amends them, it amends them in a reactionary and retrogressive sense, must welcome a General Election which gives the people of this country the opportunity to remove this Government.
362 It has been said that such a General Election will not be a judgment upon the Common Market. Maybe it will not, but, as I am defending the parliamentary system in which I believe, I believe that no General Election picks out specific issues of fundamental importance. The whole essence of our parliamentary democracy, unaffected by referenda, is that the General Election expresses the will of the people upon all the issues which are then entrusted to the successful majority-supported Government in the House.
If the Government will not be able to pronounce on this subject, they will not be able to pronounce on another. That is not to say that the Government are necessarily compelled to oblige me by giving me a General Election, but, having the view I have, I will certainly do my best to bring one about by removing this Government.
Since we have been stating our points of view on this question, so far as the Market issue is concerned, if there is a General Election I shall make my position clear to my electorate. If my electorate choose to elect me, that will not alter the fact that the majority of my party will have gone into that election pledged to a very different position. I should have to accept and respect that, if the people elected a Labour Government, which had openly campaigned for a position different from my own, I would have to accept the verdict of the people because, however eccentric it may seem, I am a democrat, and a parliamentary democrat at that: I hope to die one as I have always lived one.
So I shall not be at all put out if the people of this country have a different opinion from mine. I am not all that put out that the majority of the members of my party have a difference of opinion with me. I regret it, because I would not be arguing in favour of my opinion if I were not myself convinced that it would be to the advantage of my party and to the public interest generally.
If, therefore, I have a criticism to make of my hon. Friend's arguments it is purely on the merits, and they will understand that it is not by any means a rejection of our general support for and agreement on all the great issues of the day. I was a little troubled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol. 363 South-East because he was guilty of what I call a Galileo fallacy. I have invented this——
§ It being Ten o'clock, The Chairman left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.
§ Committee report Progress.