§ Mr. Speaker
Before calling the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) to move his motion, I should inform the House that I have not selected the amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English).
§ 11.45 a.m.
§ Mr. Tim Renton (Mid-Sussex)
I beg to move,That this House considers that the holding of national referenda to decide issues of importance runs contrary to the principle of British parliamentary democracy and will represent an abdication by Members of Parliament of the responsibilities they are elected to perform.I am glad that by virtue of winning the ballot I have the opportunity of raising the question of national referenda. If these are introduced in our country they will have a profound and lasting effect on the relationship between Members of Parliament and the electorate and on the legislative sovereignty of this House. It is right, therefore, that we should have an early opportunity in this Session to consider the implications of this new constitutional departure, and I hope that today we shall have a wide-ranging discussion.
I want to deal first with two current fallacies about referenda. The first is that if a referendum is carried on the question of membership of the EEC, for example, it will not be binding on the Government. People comfort themselves with the thought that it might be possible to have a referendum and then for Parliament to have another look at the matter. Such a concept is totally fallacious. Those who think it to be possible are trying to have their cake and eat it. It is impossible to imagine that any Government, having gone directly to the electorate with a specific question and having obtained an answer, would, if the answer was not to their liking, be able to soldier on imperturbably as if nothing had happened.
Practice has shown otherwise. In 1972 the Labour Government in Norway made it plain that, although the referendum they held on EEC membership was officially consultative only, they would accept the result as binding. It is interesting to remember that, five years earlier, in 1967, the Norwegian Parliament had debated 1688 the issue of holding a referendum on the question whether the Norwegians should follow our practice and introduce British Standard Time. The Norwegian Parliament decided against it because the issue was too complicated.
In 1972, the Norwegian referendum was held, but the result went against the Labour Government, who resigned. The Norwegian Labour Party has been in disarray ever since, with a steady decline in its support from the voters. In last year's General Election, it lost nearly one quarter of its votes. Perhaps on the basis of that experience I should encourage Her Majesty's Government to hold a referendum, but I feel so strongly on this issue that I am not prepared to compromise my principles.
Furthermore, the Prime Minister has made it abundantly clear that the Government would accept the result of a referendum as binding. The Labour Party manifesto two months ago said:A Labour Government pledges that within 12 months of this election we will give the British people the final say which will be binding on the Government on whether we accept the terms and stay in or reject the terms and come out.Presumably, this is one of those solemn and binding pledges from which the Labour Government will not run away.
§ Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)
May I make the distinction between a referendum binding on the Government, which is what my hon. Friend has been talking about, and a referendum binding on Parliament, which it certainly could not and would not be?
§ Mr. Renton
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. I shall later deal with the position of individual Members of Parliament and the difficulty that we should find in the event of such a referendum going the way the Government wanted. Finally, on the subject of its being binding on the Government; last Thursday, in what was admittedly a rather tortuous reply to the hon. Member for Warley, East (Mr. Faulds)—who, I regret to say, has left the Chamber—the Prime Minister again made it clear that he would expect his Government and all Labour Members of Parliament, whatever their individual views, to accept the result of a referendum. Those who like to think that a national referendum on an issue of importance could not be 1689 binding on the Government of the day are therefore kidding themselves.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) that individual Members of Parliament, particularly those who were not part of the Government of the day, would find themselves in very considerable difficulties as to how to proceed, particularly if the result were to be declared on a constituency-by-constituency basis and in individual cases went against what our constituents knew to be our own views.
The second fallacy that I wish to dismiss is that a national referendum, once practised, could be a once-and-for-all event. The Prime Minister expressed this as his wish again at Question Time last week, but it is a pious hope. One Parliament cannot bind its successor, and once the principle of holding a national referendum had been introduced it would be abundantly plain that pressure groups, from within Parliament and from without, would demand further referenda from successive Governments. Indeed, there are many Labour Members who feel, as I do, that the next demand for a referendum would come from the Scottish Nationals, who would seek it on the subject of independence for Scotland, followed, perhaps, by one for Wales, particularly if oil and gas are found in substantial quantities in the Celtic Sea.
§ Mr. Renton
Without question, the Liberal Party would like a referendum on the subject of electoral reform.
It is significant, and perhaps an acceptance of the inevitability of further referenda on these other subjects, that the Minister on the Front Bench who, I hope, is to speak during the debate, is not, as one might expect, a constitutional expert from the Home Office but the Minister of State attached to the Privy Council, frequently and briefly known as the Minister for Devolution.
It is because of these two facts—first, that if a referendum were once established as constitutional practice, it would be bound to be followed by others, and, secondly, that referenda must be binding on the Government of the day, that I am most concerned about the constitutional principle of introducing referenda as a new device in our decision-making process.
1690 Many people have pointed out that we have had referenda in Gibraltar, Southern Rhodesia and Northern Ireland, but in none of those countries was there a legislative sovereign Parliament operating with an unrestricted franchise and with the power and the obligation to decide the issues in question. In this country and in this Parliament we have that sovereign power.
However, others have instanced Australia, Ireland and Denmark. They held referenda for changes in their constitution and, it is said, it did not hurt them and they have survived. Surely the difference is that in each of those countries there is a written constitution precisely describing the terms and conditions under which referenda could be held.
In Australia, for example, a constitutional amendment must first be passed by an absolute majority of both Houses of Parliament and it must then be approved by a majority of electors in a majority of States and by an overall majority of the electors who voted, a complicated procedure, but laid out crystal-clear in the Australian constitution. By implication, if referenda have to be held on those issues of constitutional importance, they cannot be held on other issues. It is in this that the profound difference between those countries with a written constitution and ours lies.
It may be that if we had a written constitution and if, in addition, we had a Bill of Rights, such as Lord Hailsham has suggested, we should feel differently about it, but in our country, without any written constitution, there are limitless opportunities for further referenda and each would place more power in the hands of the Government of the day, for it is up to the Government, supported where necessary by a parliamentary majority, to decide how the question is to be framed, when it will be put, how much money is to be spent on the campaign, the length of the campaign, whether public funds will be made available to non-parliamentary pressure groups, and so on. To decide on each of those questions gives further power to the executive of the day.
It is highly significant that in all the debate that is now developing on the subject of a referendum on our continued membership of the EEC the question is 1691 not whether we should have the referendum—at least, the debate had not been on that subject until we were given the opportunity to discuss it in the House today—but on how the question should be framed in order to obtain the answer that the executive wants. It is here that the opinion pollsters and serious bodies such as the Electoral Reform Society start getting very worried, for it is a known fact that most people are conservative—with a small "c"—and prefer to vote "No" in a referendum.
Therefore, if the question is asked, "On the basis of the terms now negotiated, do you approve of Britain's staying in the Common Market?", the natural answer is likely to be "No." However, equally, the same professionals tell us that people do not like voting for the word "withdrawal". Therefore, if the question is rephrased and becomes, "On the basis of the terms now negotiated, do you favour Britain's withdrawing from the EEC?", the answer is likely to be "No", and doubly so. Thus, if the electorate is narrowly divided on this issue, and there are only a few percentage points between the pros and the antis, it could be a question just of choosing the words in the question in order to get the answer wanted.
Is Britain really to be run by experts in semantics, by a bunch of Henry Higgins's?
I should like to consider a few modern examples of referenda. The two great exponents of referenda in Europe in our day have been Hitler and de Gaulle. On the very day that Hitler announced Germany's withdrawal from the League of Nations, he said that he would subject his decision to a plebiscite, using the semblance of democracy to thwart the democratic nations. A total of 96 per cent. of the electorate went to the poll, and 95 per cent. approved Hitler's policy.
In subsequent years, Hitler regularly used the plebiscite to support acts of aggression, like the invasion of the Rhineland and the Anschluss—the absorption of Austria into Germany. On each occasion, he got a 99 per cent. poll in favour, but I wonder how the Electoral Reform Society would have approved of the way in which he conducted those polls.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
Since the elections for the Reichstag under Hitler also yielded 95 per cent. or greater majorities for the single National Socialist Party, is the hon. Member suggesting that, on the same principle, we should abolish elections as well because other people in one-party States can misue them?
§ Mr. Renton
I am surprised at that question. I should have thought that the hon. Member would know that, at the time to which he refers, Germany had become a one-party State. Let us develop his point further. Since he is apparently keen on referenda and, on the example of referenda as used by Germany in the 1930s, he should bear in mind that referenda are now illegal under the constitution of the German Federal Republic because they were so destructive of Parliament's rôle in the Weimar Republic.
De Gaulle held four national referenda. All four were criticised at the time on the grounds of political and constitutional morality, two were criticised on the grounds of breach of the constitution, and in one—the referendum of October 1962, under which he secured the direct election of the President, who was himself elected—by national suffrage rather than through an electoral college—the National Assembly passed a motion declaring that referendum unconstitutional.
None of this, of course, made any difference to de Gaulle. In effect, in all his referenda, he was asking for a personal vote of confidence on questions of policy, although, under the French constitution, those questions were the prerogative of a Government responsible to Parliament. In fact, the use of the referendum was essential to de Gaulle's constitutional policy, as it provided an alternative to parliament as a means of legitimising public policy.
In the end, as we know, the referendum proved de Gaulle's own undoing, as he went to the country on an issue of senate and local government reform. But, as always, the referendum was a vote of confidence in himself. He was by then ageing and increasingly unpopular, and Pompidou was waiting in the wings. On the parochial issue, therefore, of senate reform, he was defeated, and he promptly 1693 resigned. This again emphasises the uncertain course that referenda take and how frequently they prove to be a vote on an issue totally different from that which is contained in the question put to the electorate.
Finally, the most recent example is that of our friends across the water in Norway. There, the campaign was bitterly divisive. The anti-EEC movement—the Red-Green Front, as it was known in Norway—was led by a combination of Left-wing Socialists and Communists, joined by the ultra-Conservative farmers' organisations and militant students. The pro-Market campaign was primarily a detailed and inevitably boring analysis of the benefits which would flow from the EEC. The "antis" on the other hand put forward some absurd but highly distracting arguments.
The Low Church and Nonconformist laity fought on a "No Popery" ticket, and quoted the Bible in their support. The more extreme claims included the mass import of prostitutes under the Community rules permitting free movement of nationals and the setting up of brothels under its rules about freedom of establishments. It was even threatened that bicycles would not be permitted in Oslo. It would be terrible if we forbade bicycles, in view of the future price of petrol.
The "antis" won, but the result—this is the serious part for hon. Members opposite to think about—gave new prominence to non-parliamentary pressure groups. As Norwegians today accept, it diminished the authority of political leaders, it has led to a lack of decisiveness by their political leaders through fear of public reaction, and it has led to a growing alienation between the political parties and the public.
We all know that Norway has flourished subsequently, but that is thanks to serendipity, to the accidental discovery of oil and gas in their North Sea waters. Industrialists and trade unionists in Norway have been and are still worried about what will happen to their major exports, the products of their hydro-electric industry, which flow into the Common Market, when the industrial boom of the last two years in the EEC ends, and the Community become more restrictive.
Against this depressing background, does the British electorate wish us, who 1694 are already a member of the Common Market, in a society which, as we have heard this morning, is already in a divided mood, to go through the same rigmarole as the Norwegians—months of bitter propaganda, contradictory sets of statistics, charges that divert attention from the main issues and may lead to a totally uncertain outcome—an outcome that, as in France, is bound to be as much of a judgment on the parties and the politicians involved as on the issue of the EEC?
Do the British people really want that? The only pool figures that I have seen, taken in the middle of 1974, showed that a majority of the electorate sampled certainly wanted a referendum, although even more would have preferred the decision to be taken at a General Election. But—this shows the ambivalence of the electors' attitude—75 per cent. of the sample said that they did not feel that they were well enough informed to vote in a referendum on the EEC. Only 18 per cent. felt that they were.
Furthermore, the electors at that time showed less interest in voting in a referendum than at a General Election. Only about three in five of those polled said that they would definitely vote, as opposed to the between 68 and 78 per cent. who normally say that they will vote in a General Election.
§ Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)
What conclusion would my hon. Friend draw in the event that there was a 40 to 45 per cent. poll in which 22 per cent. voted for withdrawal and the balance of 20 per cent. voted to stay in? Would that be of any real value? Would that bind the Government? If not, would it bind the House? How does my hon. Friend foresee the outcome of such a result?
§ Mr. Renton
My hon. Friend has raised a valuable point. The Prime Minister has said—we may hear more details from the Minister today—that the result will be binding on the Government. In Norway, only about 41 per cent. of the total electorate voted in favour of not joining the Common Market, but it was a simple majority of those who voted, so Parliament had to accept it, although about two-thirds of the Members of Parliament were in 1695 favour of going into the EEC. This underlines one of the difficulties—that on a minority of the total electorate the decision could hang, and according to the Prime Minister it would be binding.
But let us accept that in Britain, at the moment, there is a state of uncertainty about referenda. They are a new toy and obviously there is a certain attraction in the slogan, "Give power back to the people". But as I have shown, what tends to happen in a referendum is a manipulation of the electorate, of the citizens, in order to obtain the answer desired by the Government of the day.
Surely in this context hon. Members who believe in the sole responsibility of the executive being to Parliament and of Parliament to the country—those words are quoted almost exactly from a speech made by the right hon. Member for Down. South (Mr. Powell) on 18th April 1972, in a debate on the European Communities Bill—should have the courage to band together to promote the belief that referenda should not become Dart of our political way of life. The larger the magnitude of the question and the greater its complexity, the more reason for its being decided by Members of Parliament who are elected to take these decisions and who, through weeks of poring over documents and studying issues, become expert on the subject, who listen and participate in debates, and who finally cast their vote. One of my constituents put it more bluntly: "If you have a dog you do not bark yourself".
There is no issue on which it seems to be more true that the decision should be taken here, in the House of Commons, than on the highly complex issue of membership of the Common Market. I am encouraged in this view by such erstwhile, notable supporters as the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Mr. George Thomson, all of whom have spoken out plainly on many occasions against the holding of a referendum, and in particular against the holding of a referendum on the issue of Common Market membership.
The Prime Minister on 28th May 1970 said in a television interview:It was necessary to take the referendum in Gibraltar. As far as the Common Market is 1696 concerned that's a very different thing. We have a Parliament in the sense that Gibraltar hasn't. We have MPs who are elected 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 national interests.Thus the Prime Minister. I could not put it better myself. What, therefore, has caused the Prime Minister in recent months to change his mind? It cannot be the canard he floats about my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition referring to the full-hearted consent of the Parliaments and peoples of the new member countries, because that comment was made on 5th May 1970 in a speech in Paris, and twice subsequently during the election campaign that immediately followed—on 27th May and on 2nd June—my right hon. Friend made it abundantly clear that the decision would be taken in Parliament. His words on the first occasion were:Parliament can judge completely as to whether it is in the interests of the country to go into the Common Market or not.On the second occasion he said:I have 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.No, it is not that that has made the Prime Minister change his mind. It is not that that has caused this foolish reference to a national referendum, or the possibility of it, to creep into the Labour Party's election manifesto. It was only by a commitment to go back to the ballot box within 12 months that it was possible to hold the Labour Party together. It was only in this way that the pro and anti EEC wings of the Labour Party could be kept together for electoral purposes.
This does not surprise me at all. As I have said, it is precisely for this sort of political reason, and political manipulation, that referenda have been used by leaders of political parties in the past. I have no doubt that if, in the EEC negotiations, the Foreign Secretary is successful—I sincerely hope that he will be—in revising the terms, the terms should then be submitted to this House. If the vote goes against them, the Government should resign and submit their renegotiated terms to the electorate at a General Election. In this I have the support of the Chancellor of the Duchy of 1697 Lancaster, who said in the House, on 18th April 1972: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…must welcome a General Election which gives the people of this country the opportunity to remove this Government."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th April 1972; Vol. 835, c. 361.]Finally, we must consider the outcome if the Labour Party insist on holding national referenda in a situation such as ours where there is no written constitution to limit their usage. I have no doubt that this will lead to the undermining of the legislative sovereignty of Parliament and of the authority of Parliament. This authority is already put at risk by the growing power of bodies not elected by universal suffrage throughout the country.
It is significant that at this moment, as we are debating this motion, the Cabinet is meeting the National Executive of the Labour Party at No. 10 Downing Street, at a meeting summoned by Mr. Ron Hayward. The purpose of the meeting—this is why so many Members of the Government Front Bench are not present in the Chamber—is to discuss Government strategy in the forthcoming Session on the implementation of the manifesto. Who are the members of the National Executive of the Labour Party who are, at this moment, at No. 10 Downing Street? There are five women members, one member nominated by co-operative or professional organisations, seven political members and 12 members nominated by trade unions and their delegates.
§ Mr. William Hamilton
I agree with much of what the hon. Gentleman says, but at this moment members of the Tory Party leadership are meeting. Can he tell us who are the members of that group who are not elected?
§ Mr. Renton
It is very much to my regret that the leaders of the Tory Party do not at the moment form the Government. It is the present Government who are meeting the National Executive of the Labour Party at No. 10 Downing Street, at a meeting summoned by the General Secretary of the Labour Party. I fear that it is in just such an executive, of whatever political complexion, not elected throughout the country but chosen 1698 by particular bodies or interests, that power is increasingly coming to reside, and not in this House of Commons.
If we accept referenda as a method of decision making this trend will be increased. The legislative authority of this Parliament, elected by all the people of Britain, will increasingly become a shadow, not the substance.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)
It will interest hon. Members to know that the number of hon. Members who have put down their names to speak on this motion is sufficient to keep us going until 10 o'clock tonight. However, upon making a rough calculation of the hon. Members who wish to speak, I am sure that they will all be called by 4 o'clock if hon. Members use the remedy that will be obvious to them.
§ 12.18 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)
I find it extraordinary that someone who objects on grounds of high constitutional principle to a referendum should be prepared to vote for the European Communities Bill which handed over a large part of the powers of this Parliament to outside bodies not elected by anyone. I find that nauseating humbug.
The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) spent rather a lot of time talking about Norway. What he did not mention was that during the referendum campaign the Norwegians were told that they would suffer economic collapse if they did not vote for EEC membership, but that they are now enjoying the most prosperous year of their history and have twice in 12 months valued their currency upwards. If the hon. Gentleman says that that is all due to oil, he must explain why it has not had the same effect in this country.
The hon. Gentleman also spoke about Hitler and Mussolini and their use of referenda. That is debasing the level of the argument. No doubt Hitler and Mussolini used telephones and toothbrushes, but that is no reason why we should abjure the use of those instruments for ever more.
I am surprised that some people, though a diminishing number, still should not understand the serious case for a referendum on EEC membership and why, in the opinion of many of us, it is quite unanswerable. The case is this. When 1699 it is proposed to alter not just the law but the constitution, the law-making power itself, and the powers of Parliament and the electorate, Parliament has not the right to do it without the full-hearted consent of the electorate. That does not apply to ordinary legislation, to the Budget or to such oft-quoted issues as capital punishment, abortion or homosexuality. They do not alter the rights of Parliament or the electorate. Those who use this argument do not understand the issue at stake.
§ Mr. Ridley
The biggest alteration to the constitution would be to adopt a system of referenda or a referendum on this particular issue. Would the right hon. Gentleman go as far as to say that the British people should be consulted before the constitution is changed to hold a referendum, and would a General Election be the way to do it?
§ Mr. Jay
This constitutional principle—that altering the constitution is quite different from ordinary legislation—is recognised in all modern democracies. In the United States, Congress cannot alter the constitution. It requires the assent of three-quarters of the State legislatures as well as two-thirds of both Houses of Congress. Norway, Denmark and Ireland required a referendum before those countries could join the EEC. They have elected legislative bodies, and none of the allegedly insuperable semantic difficulties over the form of the question prevented a result and decision which was 1700 generally acceptable to opinion in those countries. The United Kingdom has recently provided for similar referenda, not merely in Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, but in a number of other British territories.
Nor can there be any doubt that EEC membership involves a far more drastic change in the United Kingdom's constitution than the occasional and probably unique use of a referendum on this issue. EEC membership is certainly the most drastic change in our constitution since the revolution of 1689. For the first time since then the power to legislate for the British people has been transferred to bodies outside this country not elected by those whom the legislation will affect. That is not merely a constitutional revolution it is also a denial of what I have always regarded as the central democratic principle—that people should not be bound by laws unless they have had some part in electing the people who make them.
As I expect other Members have noticed, Lord Justice Scarman has recently agreed that the change due to the European Communities Act represents a revolution in our legal system. What a cynical comment his speech was —I am not attributing the cynicism to him—on the statement in that notoriously mendacious White Paper of 1971 sponsored by the present Leader of the Opposition, who said that EEC membership involvedno erosion of essential national sovereignty.According to Lord Justice Scarman—and, of course, he is right—it represents the greatest erosion of national sovereignty in modern British history. It is beyond dispute that there was and is no electoral mandate for it. We all know that the relevant words in the Conservative Party's manifesto were:Our mandate is to negotiate: no more and no less.My chief objection to the Leader of the Opposition is that he has so little respect for the truth.
In addition, on the two main precedents in British history—the great Reform Bill of 1832 and the struggle over the Parliament Bill in 1910–11, when the constitutional change was far more limited than that now proposed—everyone agreed that the electorate and not 1701 Parliament must be the final arbiter. One election was held in 1831 and two were held in 1910.
§ Mr. Jay
On those two occasions the electorate could be honestly consulted by an election because the two main parties were divided on the one great issue at stake. Today the division clearly cuts across parties, and the principle established in 1831 and 1910 can, therefore, be honoured only by a referendum.
I refer my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) to the comment of G. M. Trevelyan on the General Election of 1831—that it established theprinciple of the new constitution",that on constitutional matters "the opinion of the nation was to count more than the opinion of the legislators". That was the view of a great Liberal historian on the events of 140 years ago. I hope that we are not less liberal and democratic today.
Even in 1910 Mr. Asquith—who is probably an even greater constitutional authority than the present Leader of the Liberal Party—had referendum legislation prepared, and Mr. Winston Churchill advocated it in 1945 for the far less important objective of extending the 1935 Parliament for two years—a negligible breach of the constitution compared with the revolution of EEC membership.
For those reasons, I believe that the case for a referendum is, in these unique circumstances, unanswerable. I believe that the time has come when the Government could well say definitely that they intend to hold a referendum and not a further General Election on this issue. But, if such a referendum is to be accepted as fair and final, two essential conditions must be fulfilled. First, there must be a firm assurance similar to that accepted in General Elections of fair treatment on the broadcasting media for the different points of view. Secondly, 1702 there must be similar limits on propaganda expenditure.
On the first point—fair treatment on the media—I welcome the assurance given me by the present Prime Minister in a letter of June 1974 in response to my request that there should be fair treatment for the main points of view. The Prime Minister replied that heaccepted the principle of fair treatment".I hope that that assurance will be enshrined in any referendum legislation.
Secondly, the result is not likely to be accepted by the public as fair and final if millions are spent on one side of the argument and only thousands on the other, particularly if a portion of the millions should be derived from foreign sources. Such expenditure on a large scale of moneys coming from overseas on internal British propaganda is as improper and unacceptable an interference in internal British politics as are the unwanted speeches made in this country by Brussels officials on internal British issues.
I give one example of that attitude of overseas officials, because it is interesting evidence of the attitude to democratic practice of some of the Brussels authorities. M. Jean Rey, an ex-President of the EEC Commission—the high priest of the sacred college, so to speak—talking about the proposal to hold a referendum in this country said in a speech in this country in July:A referendum on this matter consists of consulting people who do not know the problems instead of consulting the people who know them. I would deplore a situation in which the policy of this great country"—that is usshould be decided by housewives. It should be decided by trained and informed people.That same argument could be applied to General Elections, and, no doubt, various people have done so. Those are M. Rey's words and not mine, and they illustrate the Brussels attitude to parliamentary democracy. I warmly welcome the fact that it is not shared by the Prime Minister and the Government or even—I understand now—by the Home Secretary.
§ Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)
May we take it that the right hon. Gentleman is repenting of his former view that the gentlemen in Whitehall know best?
§ Mr. Jay
The hon. Gentleman may be interested to know that I never said that. It was an invention of Tory propaganda and a red herring in the debate. The hon. Gentleman would do well to look up his sources.
I cordially welcome also the further assurance I have received from the Prime Minister in a letter of 19th November, in which he says:the possibility of a limitation on campaigning expenditure in advance of a referendum on EEC membership will be looked at in preparing any legislation for a referendum.That is a step forward, although it does not in itself amount to a firm assurance.
Contrary to what the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex said—and this is a genuine difference of opinion—I believe that nothing would do more to raise the reputation of Parliament in the eyes of the British people than if we were clearly to allow the electorate and not Parliament to decide this issue. It is the belief that, as a result of a trick by the manifesto of 1970 and the breach of the promise to get full-hearted consent, Parliament has given away the rights of the British electorate which has damaged the reputation of Parliament.
We should raise our reputation, as Parliament's reputation was raised in 1832 and 1910 when the final constitutional decision was taken by the electorate and not by Parliament. It is in the interests of all of us here and of the country as a whole that a referendum should be held as soon as possible and, above all, that it should be fairly held and be seen to be fairly held, so that the result is accepted as final. Otherwise there will be an even longer delay before this country resumes a decisive voice and a decisive policy in the world.
§ 12.35 p.m.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)
The motion which the House is debating is in form general, not to say theoretical. In its terms, it is concerned with the principle of consultation of the electorate direct upon a specific question rather than by way of the election of a Parliament, and with the precedent for the future which might be created by such a proceeding. Placed before the House in that form, it is out of date; for the 1704 principle has already been established and accepted by both sides of the House in the last Parliament and the one before. Whatever damage there is from the precedent thus created is already in the pipeline.
The Parliament of 1970 decided that the question whether Northern Ireland should be separated from the United Kingdom should be submitted to a popular vote of the electorate of that part of the United Kingdom. In case anyone should say that that was a once-for-all, I notice that in my absence, I understand without much, if any, dissent, the House voted to place upon the statute book the Northern Ireland Act 1974, of which I ask the patience of the House to hear one subsection, Section 2(3):The Secretary of State may by ordera Bill will not be required; he can do it by order—direct the holding of a poll or polls for the purpose of obtaining the views of the people of Northern Ireland on any matter contained in or arising out of a report of the Convention or otherwise concerned with the future government of Northern Ireland.So the House in the last two Parliaments accepted the principle that the direct question, "yea" or "nay", of belonging to the United Kingdom should be decided by a popular poll; and it has already broadened that principle in the Act of the last Parliament which permits the holding of polls, admittedly on constitutional questions, but on questions clearly with a potential range going far beyond the "yea" or "nay" of belonging or not belonging.
The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton), who moved the motion very skilfully, was aware of these facts and sought to distinguish the case of Northern Ireland from that of a referendum in general. He said that Northern Ireland did not have a Parliament of its own and, therefore, it had to say things by referenda. But Northern Ireland, by the declaration of Statute and by the repeated affirmation down to the most recent moments of both Government and Opposition, is an integral part of the United Kingdom. So those who object to the principle of a referendum are faced with the fact that they themselves have assented to decision by referendum in an integral part of the kingdom which is represented in this House.
1705 I do not wonder, therefore, that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex was alarmed at the prospect of its being suggested that a similar question should be put to the electorate of Scotland or the electorate of Wales. That would indeed be on all fours—constitutionally, at any rate—with what this House has already been content to accept, almost without debate and certainly with no substantial volume of disagreement.
Of course, everyone realises that we are not debating the principle or precedent of a referendum this morning. We are debating the question of a referendum, not certain but probable, upon the identical question in reference to the United Kingdom as a whole to that which has already been submitted to popular vote in respect of part of the United Kingdom: namely, to belong or not to belong to an overriding sovereign entity, to be merged or not to be merged in a larger political unit. It is whether that specific issue is to be decided or not to be decided by referendum that the House is really debating.
It is, therefore, fair to glance for a moment at the events which have brought us to be doing this. The House is indebted to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex for the fair and full way that he placed the relevant statements on record. In 1970 it was accepted, as everyone assumed it must be accepted, that so far-reaching and unprecedented an act as that by which Parliament would renounce its ultimate sovereignty and subordinate its powers to legislate and to tax to the powers of an outside body could not possibly be brought about unless it enjoyed the full-hearted consent of Parliament and people. There is no need to quibble about that. It was openly and voluntarily stated in 1970, and nobody at that time would have thought of disputing the proposition.
I go further in agreement with one of the statements of my right hon. Friend—no, I must not say that—of the right hon. Gentleman the former Member for Bexley (Mr. Heath) now Leader of the Opposition, in which he said that these matters are decided by Parliament. Indeed, they are. A change in the law of this country must be made by Parliament: it can be made in no other way. The right hon. Gentleman rightly said 1706 that this change could be made only with the full-hearted consent of Parliament backed by the full-hearted consent of the electorate.
The natural way to ascertain the full-hearted consent of the electorate, I am the first to assert, is to put it in the forefront of an election manifesto and to have an election. But at the 1970 election great care was taken by all concerned not only not to put it in the forefront of a manifesto but not to put it there at all—[Interruption.]—and anxiously to assure the public that they were not being asked to pronounce at that General Election upon the question of belonging or not belonging, but merely to pronounce on the question whether we ought to find out what would be involved—
§ Mr. Powell
The right hon. and learned Gentleman says "Yes"—and that then the decision would be taken by Parliament. But the electorate, by being denied any question but whether to negotiate or not, were denied the opportunity of indicating through the ballot box in 1970 whether adherence to the Common Market had their full-hearted consent or not. So it was without knowledge—I put it at its lowest—of the availability or otherwise of full-hearted consent that the House of Commons legislated in 1972. However, it did not even legislate by its own full-hearted consent. It carried the vote, which the then Prime Minister, sitting on the Government Front Bench, indicated was the decisive vote, by only eight—something which, by no stretch of the imagination, could be regard as the full-hearted consent of Parliament.
So we approached the election in January 1974 with an act of State of the most unprecedentedly far-reaching effect having been taken without the fulfilment of either of the conditions which everyone had assumed must obviously be necessary to validate it. At that election—indeed at both the 1974 elections—the electorate was offered by one of the parties the prospect of a very carefully and fully defined renegotiation of the terms and, following that, the opportunity to decide "Yea" or "Nay" by popular vote.
1707 In years gone by we might not have liked the notion of a popular vote; but the fact is that that is what was twice offered to the electorate, as one of the prominent, not to say decisive, issues put before it, in February and in October 1974. I am entirely with right hon. and hon. Gentlemen who say "Let us abide by the results of an election." In our constitution we elect people. We invite the electorate to give its confidence to one group of people or another—not at large, but upon the basis of what, in assumedly good faith, that group of potential Ministers, that group of candidates, are offering. It is against that background that this motion is being debated; for at both these elections this issue, like any other single issue, was wrapped up with others, as those who oppose the principle of referendum wish it should be. They had their wish in February and October.
I personally said to the electorate: "Do not be misled by the fact that at a General Election issues of different importance to you are necessarily wrapped up together, and you have to go for one package or the other. Do not be put off by that. Do not resile from your duty as electors; but, having made up your minds on what to you is decisive, use your vote accordingly." I suppose one could not have been constitutionally more pure, not to say purist, in saying that; and I see in her place the hon. Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mrs. Hayman), who received my own vote upon that principle at the February election.
The basis upon which this debate takes place is that the electorate has been consulted by the ballot box in a General Election in the manner desired by the opponents of the theory of referenda, as to whether this is how they wished the matter to be dealt with, and a majority was returned to this House accordingly. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] If that doctrine is challenged as nonsense, the whole validity of parliamentary election is being challenged. It is of the nature of Parliament that those who come here come on the faith of a programme, different parts of which have had different significance and importance to different parts of the electorate. That is of the very nature of this institution.
1708 So this House of Commons comprises a majority who are personally and individually committed to their electors—and sit here upon the faith of the proposal—that membership of the EEC shall be dealt with in the way set out in the manifestos of the Labour Party in February and October.
§ Mr. Powell
Indeed, there is no certainty that the ballot box will not turn out to be the ballot box at a General Election; but the hon. Gentleman has afforded the House the opportunity of this debate upon the hypothesis that it will be one rather than the other; and authority for either has been obtained from the electorate in the normal and proper way, by offering the alternative of a referendum as the form of consultation through the ballot box.
If we are to be practical, we must recognise that principle and precedent lie in the past. That matter has gone. We cannot revoke the precedents which we have created, and which we have created in a context, it may be thought, of much less overwhelming moment than the question of the EEC itself.
§ Mr. Lane
The right hon. Gentleman is airily sweeping away what he calls the precedents and principles of the past. I noticed earlier that, in the typically selective argument that he put to the House, he failed to remind the House of or say anything about his view in April 1972 when we were debating this very issue of a referendum. he said on that occasion:I regard a referendum as being difficult to reconcile, even on a matter of this unique character…with responsible parliamentary Government as we have it in this country."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th April, 1972; Vol. 835, c. 346.]
§ Mr. Powell
I repeat those words now. I acted upon the faith of my assertion there when no one else would do so.
§ Mr. Powell
I asked the electorate to settle these matters through the ballot box, and it is not least because I asked it to do so that the House is composed as it is at present.
§ Mr. Ridley
Will the right hon. Gentleman now tell us whether he is in 1709 favour of holding a referendum when the terms have been renegotiated—which he apparently disliked very much on 18th April 1972—or whether he is advocating that there should be a further General Election at this stage, which is what he did then?
§ Mr. Powell
I am saying that a majority of Members in this House have obtained the necessary authority in the proper way from the electorate through the ballot box at a General Election for the holding of a referendum on this subject. Whether or not that will happen, whether or not that will be invoked, we are not yet to know, but the upholders of parliamentary sovereignty are bound to accept that that authority has been asked for and given in the proper way.
I have only two points still to add, both briefly and both strictly in the context of the still hypothetical referendum on British membership of the EEC.
The first is that this referendum—or the possibility of it—was not offered to the electorate in vacuo. It was offered by the Labour Party as the outcome and consequence of a renegotiation to be conducted, succeed or fail, for specific objects which were clearly set out and upon lines which were defined as carefully as could be expected.
We shall not, therefore, if the Labour Party, as I believe it will, conforms with its undertakings to the electorate, be confronted simply with the naked question "Yea" or "Nay" of membership of the EEC. The electorate will have presented to it the outcome, succeed or fail, of a specific and defined renegotiation—a renegotiation so defined that it can be clearly ascertained whether it has been carried out in good faith or not, or whether it has been carried through successfully. It is for a referendum following a renegotiation that authority has been obtained.
My second point is one that has not been much canvassed in discussion on this topic as yet, but I believe that it will emerge into prominence.
If we are agreed—and I think that only those who are constrained to deny it by their personal situation would do so—that Britain's membership of the EEC requires the full-hearted consent of the British people, a referendum must be designed to ascertain whether there is full- 1710 hearted consent. It cannot be a referendum designed to ascertain whether there is bare majority consent, and in this right hon. and hon. Members of the Labour Party are bound by the whole tenor of their own arguments in their opposition to the European Communities Act 1972. Over and over again—and hon. Members can check this—the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister and others quoted and made their own the principle of full-hearted consent as the only validation for British membership of the EEC. It must, therefore, be a referendum to ascertain full-hearted consent if it is to correspond with the principles and professions of Labour Members.
If it is that, it will eliminate one of the technical difficulties of submitting such a question to a referendum, namely, the possibility of a narrowly-balanced result; for a narrowly-balanced result creates almost unendurable problems if one is looking for a bare majority, but if one is looking for full-hearted consent a narrowly balanced result at the outer margin creates no such difficulty. I offer that to those who are beginning, no doubt, to consider the terms in which the authority they have obtained will be exercised, as an additional bonus arising out of today's debate, for which, I repeat, we are all indebted to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex.
§ 12.58 p.m.
§ Mr. Maurice Edelman (Coventry, North-West)
The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) for having raised this vitally important matter. He has concerned himself with the principle of referenda and not with the substance of the issue of the Common Market. Nevertheless, it is so directly relevant that the House is justified in discussing the means by which eventually any decision will be implemented, whether in favour of the Common Market or against.
The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) introduced the term "full-hearted consent" as if it were a definition. The term is not a definition, but a metaphor, as the right hon. Gentleman will no doubt agree.
If one wants to try to define the nature of the value of a referendum or even of any decision by the ballot box, one has to clear the ground first and say whether 1711 a majority of the people of this country constitute an approval or whether, at a later stage—I noticed that the right hon. Gentleman carefully laid a few markers for the future a decision based on a majority would be called in question simply because there was not the qualifying majority which the right hon. Gentleman may have in mind when he talks about the outcome of a referendum.
I am strongly in favour of a referendum being held to ascertain the general will of the British people in this matter. I say that although at the same time confessing that originally I was opposed to the idea of a referendum, for the reasons which have been stated heretofore and which will, no doubt, be rehearsed again today.
A referendum in the hands of a dictatorship, or even of an unduly powerful executive, is an instrument which may be abused to the detriment of the governed. Because it is based on the formulation of a question, a referendum may be manipulated. The question itself may be presented in such a way as to obtain the result which the executive requires. As the right hon. Member for Down, South knows well, there are the two kinds of question, the num and the nonne, and it is possible in any sort of referendum to put the case in such a way as to obtain the desired result.
The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex suggested a few varieties of question to produce the desired result. I add to his suggestions by supposing that the questions were put in these terms: "Are you in favour of Britain being expelled from the EEC?" I am sure that the answer would be a resounding "No", simply because of the psychological effect of the form of presentation.
I approve the idea of a referendum to ascertain the general will of the people. All who took part in the last election know that there is a desire for this question, in one way or another, to be submitted to the assent or rejection of the people as a whole, and I believe that everyone who feels that will accept that a referendum is the technique for so doing.
It is true that in our manifesto, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, there are concealed within the term 1712 "ballot box" the alternatives of a General Election or a referendum, but no one—certainly none of us on the Government side, committed as we all are to the idea of a decision on the renegotiation through the ballot box—will have any doubt that the only acceptable alternative is the way of referendum. If the issue were put to the country by means of a General Election, it would without doubt result not only in a divided Labour Party but in a divided Tory Party as well. It would be impossible to produce such a package of policies, even with the issue of the Common Market or the renegotiated terms at the core of it, without seriously deforming the very result which one wanted to obtain, namely, the affirmation of the popular will in this country.
§ Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)
What proof has the hon. Gentleman of the overwhelming desire of the British people, as he puts it, to take part in a referendum? I met none myself. Is it not true that the dedicated anti-Marketeer sees it as the easy way out?
§ Mr. Edelman
It is the subjective experience—I agree that it is a value judgment—of most of those who took part in the election campaign that there was such a desire on the part of the people to express their view. It was not a sophisticated desire. It was not the expression of those who could define in close detail what, for example, intervention means in the common agricultural policy. It was, I think, literally a "gut" reaction of people who were concerned with the cost of living and who felt in some way that this was related to our having joined the Common Market. They wanted, therefore, an opportunity—each having had occasion to study in his own way over the past months and years what the Common Market meant for their way of life at last to give their views expression and finally draw the argument to a close.
However, having said that, I add this question: will the result of the referendum bring the argument to a close? That is the major question which we must all ask ourselves. If we are optimistic about the prospect that in nine months, or whenever it will be, there will somehow or other be a decisive answer from the British people on the questions which 1713 will be put to them, we are probably deluding ourselves in some measure.
As I see it today, the question which will be put to the people is, "Are you in favour of accepting the terms as they have been negotiated in three specific areas?"—areas which do not invoke the question of sovereignty to which the right hon. Member for Down, South very properly attaches such importance.
I differ from the right hon. Gentleman on the question of sovereignty, because I take the view that the referendum and the general debate are really about Britain's adherence to the Treaty of Rome. Every international treaty involves some degree of cession of sovereignty for a specific purpose. To that extent—here I differ from my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay)—the fact that it is a constitutional treaty does not necessarily make it different from any other treaty, in the sense that in taking part in it we are ceding for a specific purpose within a given area a certain measure of sovereignty.
§ Mr. Edelman
I do not agree with my right hon. Friend. I remind him that he was himself a supporter of and party to the treaty of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which specifically involved certain limitations of freedom of movement in certain areas, probably the most important areas of national sovereignty, namely, the right of self-defence, the means of self-defence and the general arrangements for defence.
§ Mr. Jay
If I may say so, the very fact that my hon. Friend mentions the North Atlantic Treaty, of which I am a strong supporter, shows that he has not fully appreciated the point at issue. That treaty transferred no law-making power from the British Parliament to any other body giving control over the internal affairs of the United Kingdom. That is the issue at stake.
§ Mr. Edelman
I fear that my right hon. Friend does not appreciate my point, 1714 which is simply that if one enters an international treaty for a common purpose, or a mutual purpose if it be bilateral, to that extent one limits one's sovereign powers by delegating responsibility and power to the international organisation. But what we are concerned about here, and what we shall be concerned about in offering the result of the Common Market renegotiation to the country, is saying to the country, "Are you in favour of certain economic terms, and are you in favour of the endorsement of the treaty at this stage?".
It is not my purpose today either to endorse or to reject what has been said about the content of the Common Market. That is not the issue before us now. What we are here discussing is the question whether a referendum is a suitable instrument for obtaining an expression of opinion from the British people on a fundamental issue. I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is a fundamental issue, and one on which the British people should be consulted.
I add two further points. First, the nature of the question put to the people will be of decisive and paramount importance. We all agree, I am sure, that under dictatorships the form of the question may be used to manipulate the reply. Therefore, we shall have to watch our executive when it is formulating the question through the Cabinet committee which is now seeking to arrange for the question to be put through the ballot box, in whatever form that takes. That is the first significant requirement. We have to consider most carefully what the question will be.
Second, I believe that the referendum, if and when it comes, should be preceded by a long process—I use "long" in relative terms, in relation to the other period of 12 months or so—before the question is put. There should be at least a month of consultation and of information for the people of this country, so that they will be well informed about the issues, about what has been done, and also—this point has not yet been mentioned, I think—about the possible consequences of withdrawal. I do not necessarily mean withdrawal in the sense of the economic injury which might be done to the country.
Some people believe that there will be grave economic injury. Others, like my 1715 right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North believe that there are alternative resources. There are some who were opposed to British entry but who now feel that having entered the Market it would be, under renegotiated terms, best to stay inside. There is a third and very important group who believe that at all costs we must withdraw from the Market in order to conserve what are regarded as certain economic interests and national sovereignty.
I believe that to be a perfectly respectable point of view, which has been closely argued and which is tenable, but I think the people as a whole should really be informed about the international consequences of seceding unilaterally from a treaty. Secession from a treaty is a very grave matter. I do not believe that we, in this century, at any rate, have unilaterally seceded from any international treaty. In the last century secession from a treaty was usually a prelude to military action. I am not suggesting that that is what will happen if we secede from the Treaty of Rome. but it is most important that the gravity of the matter should be explained to the electorate and that no one should feel that, somehow or other, it would be possible to retreat from a confirmed position, from a sound international treaty, without that having the gravest effects on Britain's standing in the world.
It may well be that at a certain moment, in the interests of national selfpreservation—which is, after all, the supreme law—it is desirable to withdraw from a treaty. What I am arguing for this morning is that before the referendum there should undoubtedly be a long and serious process of instruction in what the prospects are under renegotiation and also what the consequences are likely to be in the case of withdrawal.
In spite of the examples given by the right hon. Member for Down, South—indeed, they were partial examples—the principle of the referendum is an innovation in Britain's affairs. It is something which has never before been used on a national scale. It is therefore an experiment—something of which we have no past experience. It is an experiment and it may be a precedent because, again, in spite of what my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North said, I can- 1716 not believe that if any Government this time seek to establish a popular will by having a populist vote on what is regarded as a major issue there will not be times in the future when the electorate will say "No, we do not want parliamentary democracy to make the decision. We want the decision to be made by ourselves as we made it on the Common Market".
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that the referendum which is envisaged and which is likely to take place will be a once-and-for-all innovation. I cannot believe, however sincere and good his intentions, that that will happen. Once we establish the innovation of a referendum I believe that, constitutionally, it will be asked for, if not conceded, time and time again. Ultimately, the only thing which will decide our place as a civilian Power, either in conjunction with Europe or in the world, will be the acceptance of leadership and responsibility by those who are concerned with these issues. By leadership and responsibility I do not mean an élitist assumption of some of the Brussels technocrats to come here and tell us what to do.
I believe that the dialogue between the Government and the governed must continue, and that the interplay of feelings and opinions between the executive and the electorate must develop. I hope that out of that, in the future, as has happened so often in the past, a commonsense solution will emerge which will be in the interests of the British people as a whole.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)
I must remind the House that in an hour and a half we have had four speeches, and that many more hon. Members want to speak.
§ 1.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)
The last three speeches have been largely on the subject of a referendum on the Common Market, about whether or not the full-hearted consent of the people exists on the Common Market, and on all the political issues which have surrounded the last two or three years' negotiations with that organisation. However, the motion which my hon. Friend the Member for 1717 Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) has so wisely and properly put on the Order Paper is a constitutional one, about the propriety of holding referenda on any subject. I shall hardly mention the Common Market in what I say. I shall concentrate almost entirely upon the implications of having even this one referendum.
In my view the debate on 18th April 1972 on the European Communities Bill became muddled up because your predecessor, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in his wisdom, selected for debate an amendment that there should be a General Election before Britain joined the Common Market and another amendment that there should be a referendum. They were debated together. I suppose, therefore, that in the minds of the Government the idea stuck that there should either be a General Election or a referendum. These were seen as alternative ways of consulting the British people, the great consequences of which were regarded as no more than those involved in choosing, when one wants to go from one end of the Chamber to the other without going through the Chamber, whether to go through the Aye or the No Lobby. It was presented as of no greater importance than that.
This device of opposition was put forward by the Labour Party at that time and it was then carried into its manifesto that there should be either a General Election or a referendum. I want to plead with the Government to accept that of these two choices the one that they preferred was the right one and the one that they rejected in their speeches—the referendum—they were right to reject.
The disadvantages of the referendum system are known to all hon. Members. I mention but three. First, all of us here are elected on what we say at our elections. I have always said that I am in favour of the Common Market. Many Labour Members have said that they are against it. But if the electorate were to decide over their heads that we either remain in or go out, what would be their attitude to promoting the legislation which arose either from staying in or coming out? Would they be prepared, having said that they disagreed with every word of the legislation, then to vote it through the Lobbies? Are we to put ourselves in the position in which we have to follow whole courses of action 1718 that are contrary to what we stood for at the election, and what we believed in at that time?
Of course, this applies to Governments because they will find it is, in the main, part of their programme that we should or should not be members of the Common Market, or whatever the question may he, and they will find it difficult if one whole section of their policy is decided over their heads by a referendum.
A most extraordinary rumour has been put about that if there is to be a referendum the Government will not even give a lead on the question whether they want us to stay in the Market or not.
The third objection is that the referendum will bind successor Governments or even successor Parliaments. If there had been a referendum in 1972, and the full-hearted consent of the British people had been obtained, would the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and others have felt obliged to accept that for all time? Would it have meant that the House could not deny the decision arrived at in the referendum or could not change it at a later stage? How binding are the results of referenda to be? What will be the machinery by which we change the decisions of referenda?
Those are my principal objections. I agree with those hon. Members who said in the European Communities Bill debate that they were also their objections. The right hon. Member for Down, South said: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."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th April 1972; Vol. 835, c. 346.]The right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot), now Secretary of State for Employment, said in the debate on the Loyal Address the following words, which I much admired and agreed with:There is another institution, an institution which, above all others in this country, can save us. It is this Parliament, this elected House of Commons, this Chamber."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th November 1974; Vol. 880, c. 919.]I remember the two right hon. Gentlemen during the debate on the Parliament (No. 2) Bill trying to preserve with every means at their disposal, and with all their great ability, the rights of this Parliament. 1719 They were fighting a constitutional Bill on the Floor of the House. I never heard them asking for a referendum then. They never said that the people should be consulted about the reform of another place. Both right hon. Gentlemen have put a General Election as their first choice. The right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale said in the Committee stage of the European Communities Bill:It would be better to have an extra election than to take Britain into the Common Market against the people's will, which is the proposition the Government are trying to put to us."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th April 1972; Vol. 835, c. 395–396.]The circumstances in which the Government cannot arrange a General Election have gone. When the referendum was first mooted, it was as an alternative to a General Election in the event of the Conservative Government's not having one. But there have been two General Elections, and there could be another at any time the Prime Minister wanted.
The right hon. Gentlemen have both declared themselves to be in principle unhappy about a referendum but in favour of consulting the British people by means of a General Election. When I asked the right hon. Member for Down, South just now whether he would like to see a referendum, he dodged the question. He went back to talking about full-hearted consent. He knows that he is on the record as saying that it is the wrong way to reorganise our political life, and he knows that the right device is a General Election.
The Labour Party could arrange a General Election next year, and the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale could put into its manifesto a statement that the party's view is "Under these terms, we should stay in" or "We should come out". That is the right thing for it to do. It is only because it does not have the ability to do that, the unity to do it, that it is falling back on the device of a referendum, which will do us much more harm. It will destroy the constitution and be the thin end of the wedge about which my right hon. Friends have rightly talked. There will be demands for referenda on every conceivable subject.
If the referendum is held, it will still not settle the question of membership, because decision in such a matter 1720 will continue to have to be reviewed, month after month and year after year. Some Governments will want to stay in, whilst others will be doubtful. Some will want to renegotiate, some will not. The British people will be more in favour of membership at some times than at others.
A referendum is a much less flexible way of conducting parliamentary democracy. This Parliament is a unique instrument, one that cannot be tampered with. I love this Parliament, just as the right hon. Gentlemen both do. They have been very eloquent in its defence, and have done more than any other right hon. or hon. Members that I have heard in the House to preserve the rights of Parliament and the whole way in which it functions. For them now to support a referendum would be to betray the faith they have placed in this institution and the great opportunities it has given them both to achieve, in so far as they may, the objectives they have individually sought.
§ Mr. Jay
If the hon. Gentleman feels all that about the British Parliament, why did he vote for Section 2 of the European Communities Act?
§ Mr. Ridley
Because I know that I can always vote on a future occasion to repeal it. [Interruption.] I have no doubt about that. I think that the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Edelman) implied the same thing. That is why in the debate on the measure I disagreed with the right hon. Gentleman and we argued the point. I am sure that if Parliament wished to pass another Bill modifying Section 2 it could do so. What I did then would depend on what I felt then. It is wrong to say that Parliament cannot do it.
I conclude by referring to the position of the right hon. Member for Manchester, Central (Mr. Lever) now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and the Home Secretary, who abstained in the crucial Division on the referendum amendment in 1972. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster did a most curious thing. There was a double winding-up by the then Opposition, by the hon. Member for Manchester, Central and the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale. I do not know how it came about, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that your predecessor allowed 1721 two long Front Bench speeches at the end of a debate.
§ Mr. Ridley
Quite so, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I promise not to cause you similar embarrassment.
In impassioned language, and with greater eloquence than I could ever command, the right hon. Member for Manchester, Central said much the same thing as I have been trying to say. I wonder how he will find it possible to support the referendum if its enactment comes before the House. I wonder how the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection and others who have declared themselves against the constitutional device of a referendum will be able to justify remaining in the Government and voting for something which they are on record as disliking.
I strongly warn the Government that the major constitutional matter which will come before the House is not Section 2 of the European Communities Act or whether we remain in the Common Market, but whether we switch from a system of parliamentary democracy to a system of government by referendum. I will do all I can to prevent any such change, and I know that many of my hon. Friends will do the same. We will fight with the same opposition as that with which the right hon. Members for Ebbw Vale and Down, South fought last time they thought the constitution was being changed to its detriment. I beg the Government and the right hon. Member for Down, South and the Secretary of State for Employment to return to their first preference. I ask them to return to the cause for which they spoke earlier—namely, that if the British people are to be consulted they should be consulted through a General Election and not through a referendum.
§ 1.30 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)
The hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) has given a much fairer statement, as far as he knows the position, of how the Labour Party came to put forward the proposal of a referendum. He accurately pointed 1722 out that it goes back to our discussions on the European Communities Act. As I was present when, as he put it, the idea was first mooted I can add a little to what he has said. The part that he cannot know because he belongs to a different party is that the idea was first mooted at a meeting of a group of members of the Labour Party who, as is common in all parties, met together when in opposition to a Bill to discuss their immediate tactics. My right hon. Friend, who is now the Secretary of State for Employment, chaired those meetings. We made the suggestion to the then Shadow Cabinet that the idea of a General Election or a referendum should be approved.
Where I part company with the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury is with his suggestion that that was done lightly. Surely no one can say that as the idea was approved by the Shadow Cabinet in spite of the fact that one of its leading members—namely, the present Secretary of State for the Home Department—announced that if it was approved he would resign. We all know, of course, that he did resign. He subsequently changed his views and came back. No Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet can ever take a decision lightly when one of its leading members expresses opposition to the taking of a decision to the extent that he is prepared to place his resignation upon the table. That is what happened on this issue.
I do not think that it can conceivably be said that the Labour Party arrived at this decision without some realisation of the formidable consequences involved. We are changing the pattern of British constitutional government if we go in for a referendum. The question at issue is whether we should change the pattern. As has been said, the pattern was changed in the 1830s and in 1911. We now look back on those occasions and consider that they were good for British democracy, but at the time they were matters of tremendous controversy.
The currently fashionable phrase "parliamentary democracy" is part of the cause of the trouble. Many people talk about parliamentary democracy as if it was a matter of long standing. They then go on to produce arguments from parliamentary history, which, of course, is a matter of some 700 years. They produce arguments such as those put forward by 1723 Edmund Burke, and relate them to what they call parliamentary democracy. While Parliament has a history of 700 years our democracy has not. The majority of adult males were given the vote only in my father's lifetime. The majority of adult females were given the vote only in my mother's lifetime. There are many people alive today who can remember women first getting the vote.
It was no less a person than King George V who pointed out on the occasion of the 1929 election that for the first time in British history the circumstances were different in his choice of who should be Prime Minister to lead a party which had no majority in Parliament. That was the first time in British history that an election had been held in which the whole adult population had the right to vote. We were a full democracy as recently as that. It is only in my parliamentary lifetime that the vote has been extended to people of 18.
The history of our democracy is not very long. In fact, it is distinctly less than a century. The history of Parliament covers seven centuries, but if we are discussing democracy we must forget completely 600 years of parliamentary history. Edmund Burke faced a set of circumstances in which at most 4 per cent. of the community elected Members of Parliament. He rightly said that in such circumstances a Member might not represent the views of his electors because he might represent the views of the country as a whole, including the 96 per cent. who did not elect them. That is why Burke made his famous statement to the Bristol electors. The circumstances that prevailed in those days have gone, unless hon. Members say that the will of the majority of the electorate is irrelevant to what people decide in Parliament. Unless they wish to go back to the circumstance of a restricted electorate they should not use that sort of argument.
In practice it is of vital importance that a Government and their actions should depend upon the will of the majority of the people. That is what democracy is all about. The Leader of the Opposition was right when he suggested in 1970 that this country should not be taken into the EEC without the full-hearted consent of the British Parliament and people. I think that the more 1724 thoughtful pro-Marketeers agree that he was right. Presumably they wish to create a democratic union of European countries. That cannot be a democracy if it is created against the will of the majority of the people of any one of the States concerned. M. Pompidou was right when he asked the French for their consent in a referendum on British entry for the same sort of reason. If we believe in democracy we must understand that we cannot make so major a constitutional change in the structure of the State as subordinating this Parliament to another legislature without asking the electorate which elects Parliament whether it wishes its rights to be so altered.
Our powers as a Parliament are not solely our own. They are not the personal possession of the 600-odd Members of the House. They are our trust on behalf of the people who elect us. We are their trustees. We have absolute power as a legislature because we are entrusted with that power by the electors for five years. If we do something with which they disagree the normal constitutional pattern of British politics is that the electorate will make the matter an election issue at the first opportunity.
I shall use the Industrial Relations Act as an illustration. There are many people in industry of varied political views who now regard that Act as a bad measure. It has been repealed in part and it may be repealed further. The constitutional pattern of Britain has always been that a Parliament may do anything but that if it turns out to do something that the majority of the people regard as bad a subsequent Parliament, which equally has the power to do anything, may reverse what the previous Parliament has done wrongfully in the eyes of the electorate. Therefore, it becomes an election issue, as did the Industrial Relations Act; the electorate, which can choose which party should govern the State, chose the party that would repeal the Act, and the Act was in part repealed.
That is not the basis of Community law. It is no good the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury saying that Parliament can repeal the European Communities Act. He is absolutely right in English law but not in Community 1725 law. The basis of Community law is that it is a superior system of law. It is a federal system. Strictly speaking, without the consent of the other States party to the Treaty of Rome, Britain cannot in Community law or international law withdraw from the Community. We can pass an Act in English law in this Parliament, but by definition the law of the Community prevails. It is an uncertain, vague and grey area. One worthy former member of the European Commission said that if Britain chose to break Community law the Commission could do something about it before the European Court. He was right about his law but wrong about his procedure. The Treaty of Rome specifically states that one cannot bring a State to court for a breach of the treaty. That is, in a way, one of the treaty's weaknesses. There is the law, but no means of enforcing it. It is a point where practice supervenes the law. Any State can in practice come out of the EEC, whether that would be legal under Community law or not. Any nation possessing its own armed forces can do it.
Indeed, the situation in the EEC is similar to that which applied under the American Constitution in the early days. When the original 13 States drew up the United States Constitution, they all thought that any one of them could secede from the Union if they wished. But when nearly a century had passed and some of them tried to secede, they found that attitudes had changed and that the system which had once been created as an organisation which one could join or leave at will had solidified into a full federal State.
It may be that in a century's time the European Community will have solidified in that way. But, in practice, we can now withdraw from it, although in strict theory we cannot do so without the consent of our partners. That is why in the Labour Party manifesto we said that should the referendum decide that we come out of the EEC the Government would negotiate our way out—in other words, obtain the consent of our partners in the treaty to our withdrawal and all the attendant things that would go with that.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton), because this subject is the sort of issue which should 1726 be discussed in Parliament, and to use a private Member's motion on a Friday for this purpose is one of the highest uses of parliamentary time. The hon. Gentleman deserves our congratulations for giving us the opportunity.
But I thought that the hon. Gentleman was grossly selective and unobjective in his arguments about referenda. His sole examples were from Nazi Germany and from France—recent French history and relatively recent Germany history. He said, in effect, that referenda are used only by dictators and are a bad thing and do no good to the constitutional structure of the State which uses them. He should cast his mind further back.
I do not know who invented referenda, but it was probably Solon of Athens, They are certainly the invention of European civilisation, and the only civilised people in Europe then were the Greeks. They were not democratic in our sense because the city states included slaves, but they were democratic at least in covering all free citizens. I do not think that one can justifiably claim that Athens suffered from having such a system in the sense that Athens at the time produced almost all the people who have led the van of European civilisation.
These traditions were taken over by the Romans, and to turn a small collection of villages besides the Tiber into a State ruling the whole of the Mediterranean area, which is what the Roman Republic did, was no mean achievement. To creat a State which has had great influence on European civilisation ever since was no mean achievement. But the interesting thing to recall is it was not the democracies that abolished referenda. It was the imperialists, the Alexanders and the Caesars, the dictators, who abolished referenda. They did not want them.
Thus, referenda spring from democrats and are usually abolished by dictators. To my knowledge, there has never been a referendum in the Soviet Union, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would regard the Supreme Soviet as a perfect example of parliamentary democracy, even though it is elected and even though referenda are never used in Russia.
In considering the question whether referenda are good or bad, let us take the 1727 example of a modern State. I do not think that Switzerland is regarded by its citizens as particularly bad. After all, they enjoy the second highest standard of living in Europe, after Sweden. Its level of violence is below that of many States. The quality of life is high. The Swiss also have referenda. I do not think that they suffer from doing so. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to quote Nazi Germany as an example, I would put Switzerland in the balance opposite Nazi Germany because no one would regard Switzerland as undemocratic or as a State ridden by Left-wing or Right-wing dictatorship.
A referendum is only a tool, and any tool of government can be misused by a dictatorship, just as referenda were misused by Hitler. Elections can be totally misused. People in Eastern Europe claim that they have a democratic Socialist society because every single adult citizen is allowed to vote. My answer is the same as hon. Gentlemen opposite would be—that they are allowed to vote only for one choice—which is no choice at all. One can misuse an election system if one wishes to support a dictatorship, as both Hitler and Stalin did. One can misuse a referendum to support a dictatorship. But neither is a natural tool for supporting a dictatorship.
Is anyone seriously suggesting that if we introduce referenda into this country they would add to dictatorship? But the hon. Gentleman said that they increase and enhance the power of the executive. They do no such thing, as the Norwegian Government found out. In that case, because the Norwegian Government were foolish enough to pin their flag to the mast and make the referendum really an issue of confidence in themselves, the electorate said "If you are going to do that, this referendum will destroy you as well as make a decision".
But referenda are unique in that they do not need to involve the electors' confidence in a Government. I can disagree with my right hon. Friends in the Government without wishing to see them sitting opposite. I often do disagree with them. But that does not mean that I will not vote for them on a motion of confidence. There are individual members of the Government I would rather not see on the Front Bench, but as a 1728 collective body, I would prefer this Government to a Conservative Government.
The same goes for the electorate as a whole. It can be argued with justice that between 1970 and 1974 the electorate as a whole wished to have a Conservative Government but did not wish Britain to join the EEC. Had there been a referendum then they would have said "No" to the Common Market but they would still have been happy to have a Conservative Government. It was to my regret that they preferred a Conservative Government, but that was their right.
The hon. Gentleman says, in effect, "We cannot allow our people to decide things for themselves. We cannot allow them to decide the issue of the Common Market themselves." Why not? The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) quoted the precedent of Northern Ireland. There is an earlier one than that.
We ourselves have used referenda in Wales since the First World War to decide whether certain areas wished to be teetotal or not or when their pubs should open. We have in this country used referenda for all sorts of purposes since the 19th century—for example, to decide whether a local authority should proceed with a Private Bill in this House. Such referenda have not decided the final result of such a Bill, but have decided whether it should be placed before the House with a view to becoming law.
These are, admittedly, small issues, but every five years or so we allow our electorate one great choice—a choice which it was not allowed in Nazi Germany, and, indeed, would not be allowed in most of Europe or in the United States today. Our electorate is allowed to choose which party will govern the State. Its choice is not restricted to deciding which party shall represent it in the legislature as is the case with assemblies elected under proportional representation with a multiparty system. We actually allow our electorate to choose which party shall govern it as well as represent it in Parliament.
In this country people are allowed to do what people can do in America and France—choose who governs—and they can choose whether my right hon. Friend or the present Leader of the Opposition 1729 should be the Prime Minister. They can choose which party should govern the State, as well as merely which party they wish to have representing them in the legislature. That is the difference as we would regard it between democracy and dictatorship. People are allowed to choose in this country, whereas in other countries it is said that they cannot be trusted to make the choice of Government.
If we allow people to choose which party shall govern the State and to decide whether the pubs should be open, great things and small, how can we say that we will not allow them to decide whether Parliament should limit its powers by subordinating itself to another legislature that sits in Brussels? People raise such an argument not because constitutionally that would be wrong—if they believe that, they should not claim to believe in democracy at all—but because they fear the result of a referendum. They are in the situation of dictators throughout the ages who say "I will trust the people so long as they agree with me, but if the people do not agree with me, it is the people who are wrong and not me."
We want, and ought to have, a system of government in this country—this is what the people want and this is why they are disillusioned with our present system —in which people know that they can govern themselves and have what they want and not necessarily what their Government want.
§ 1.52 p.m.
§ Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)
I, too, start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) on choosing this subject, which is highly topical and very suitable for a Friday, and on the speech with which he opened the debate. He persuasively explained the doubts that are felt and the dangers that are foreseen in the holding of national referenda. He was powerfully supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley). I shall be as brief as I can, so that we may hear as many points of view as possible from hon. Members on either side of the House, including my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), who has made a special study of the subject.
I congratulate the Minister of State on his new post in the Privy Council 1730 Office. Many of us have appreciated the help that he gave on constituency cases while he was at the DES, and in a friendly way we are concerned that he should have moved to another bed of nails. When he writes his memoirs, I wonder whether he will look back on rampaging students or nationalists—none is present at the moment—as the more awkward bedfellows.
He is greatly respected in the House, and it is no reflection on him if we register some surprise that he and not a Home Office Minister is to reply to the debate. It would help hon. Members and others if he would say which Department is to take the main responsibility for the mechanics of a referendum, or General Election, if the Government decide to have one.
Holding a referendum would be a clear departure from previous constitutional practices, and I think that we should regret it. In this country we have progressively developed a system of representative democracy, with Parliament at the centre deliberating and deciding on behalf of all the people. It was put very well in an article in the Observer on 15th September by the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh)—I am sorry that he, in particular, is not able to be here today—when he said:It is to strike this balance between expertise and public acceptability that parliamentary democracy was developed, and it is this balance that will be undermined by the introduction of referenda".The people have looked to Parliament for stability and mature judgment. I acknowledge at once that as a House or a Parliament we have not always shown those qualities, but it is fair to say that over the years the record has not been bad.
As the motion says, we have been elected to undertake various responsibilities, heavy responsibilities as we all feel them to be. One of them is to consider issues in depth, from the widest national interest—naturally including the EEC issue that is in all our minds today, although the motion is in general terms. Our job, therefore, is to discover and weigh as thoroughly as we can the feelings of the public, particularly of our constituents, before coming to decisions. I 1731 think that hon. Members today are as anxious and as conscientious in this respect as any have ever been.
In saying that, I am not claiming any kind of infallibility for Parliament. I realise and admit straight away that all is not well in the relationship between Parliament and people, and I shall return to that subject. But I doubt whether any generation of parliamentarians has been less complacent than we are. That is a healthy sign for the future, not only for Parliament but for our relationship with the people. At a time when Parliament's reputation is not as high as we would wish, there is all the greater need for us to think very carefully before deliberately taking a step, such as having a referendum, that will further diminish the standing of Parliament.
I should like briefly to consider some aspects of the referendum proposal. I regard with suspicion the alleged precedents and parallels that have been quoted on either side of the argument, for the circumstances were nearly always different. On another occasion I should be glad to debate the recollection of ancient Greece and Rome that we have just had from the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English), with whom I differ.
A referendum is a blunt instrument, as we all recognise. People say say "Yes" or "No", but they cannot say "Yes, but", or "No, perhaps", and they cannot amend. The issues are not always susceptible to a straight "Yes" or "No" answer, and there are the psychological complications mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex.
Then, again, a referendum is an instrument that can be bent too easily to the changing breezes of public opinion—and I hope that I make any judgments about public opinion with suitable humility. I recall the pacifist movement that swept the country in the 1930s around the time of the East Fulham by-election. If the issue of rearmament had been put to the people in a referendum at that time, the majority would surely have been hostile to it, and the consequences for the country would have been disastrous.
§ Mr. English
Does the hon. Member remember the Peace Ballot in the League of Nations Union, which made it specific- 1732 ally clear that the majority of people were in favour of the collective enforcement, by force if necessary, of the rules of international law?
§ Mr. Lane
I remember that, too, but I stick to my example as being relevant, as are the shifts in public mood about the Common Market issue that have occurred over the past three or four years.
Again, the referendum is a fallible instrument. We cannot be sure that people will vote on the merits of the issue. We cannot be sure that they will not be swayed by other considerations, whether party political allegiances or the popularity or unpopularity of the Government, or whatever else it may be. So there is the possibility of a perverse answer.
I should like to quote the letter written by the Home Secretary when he resigned from the Shadow Cabinet in April 1972. He said:This raises the wider issue of whether a referendum on this or any other subject is intended to encourage the public to express its view purely on the merits of a question without the attempts to mobilise party loyalties. I doubt if this would ever work in practice, although if it did the result would be a very substantial undermining of the existing system of parliamentary responsibility. Governments would find it still more difficult to carry out coherent and consistent policies.That was his view at that time—
§ Mr. Lane
Various views have changed —we need not necessarily be ashamed of that—but it is an important view, particularly coming from the right hon. Gentleman.
There have been other doubts about referenda, one of which was luridly put by Mr. Attlee—often quoted with admiration by the present Prime Minister—when he was disagreeing with Sir Winston Churchill's idea of a referendum, floated in 1945:I could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions as the referendum, which has been only too often the instrument of Nazidom and Fascism. Hitler's practices in the field of referenda and plebiscites can hardly have endeared its acceptance to the British heart.We recall the views expressed on several occasions in 1972 by Mr. George Thomson, formerly a right hon. Member 1733 of this House. He was one of those in the debate in April 1972 who said that if we had a referendum on one issue, other issues would be bound to be suggested for referenda in due course. If that was true in 1972, it is surely even more true today. The Prime Minister last week said that this was a special and unique case, but we all know how, particularly under this Government, the category of special cases tends to be elastic. What about devolution, nationalisation, the death penalty, and other matters which come to the minds of hon. Members?
To let the present Prime Minister have the last word, it was in a radio interview on 6th June this year, when he was trying to explain his shifts and manoeuvres over this issue, that he said that at one time he had had doubts about a referendum.because it fundamentally changes the whole basis of our democracy and of parliamentary control among other things.[Interruption.] This is arguable, and that is what we are debating today.
Despite all these arguments, it may be said that the public want a direct say, particularly on the issue of the Common Market. I want to try to examine this for a moment as honestly as I can. I found on the doorstep in both General Elections cross-currents on this matter, some electors keen to have a say, others definitely not keen. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex has recalled the public opinion survey, which I also saw the other day, showing that about three-quarters of the electors apparently wanted a referendum but that roughly the same majority thought that they were not well enough informed to vote in it.
Looking at it from another angle, we know the feeling among many of our constituents at present—it is one of the most disturbing features—that Members of Parliament do not reflect the views of the public. But other constituents feel just as strongly that they have elected us to do a job in Parliament and that we should get on with it. So there is a certain confusion of feeling here, whichever view we take.
I wonder whether the public, or all of us here, have thoroughly thought through these problems. Many of the public, if they were pressed on the point, would share our concern about the way in which Parliament's influence has recently been 1734 eroded; for example, by the media, where many discussions are taking place which should take place in this House; for example, by various groups in industry, not just the trade unions; for example, by the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party; and, for example, above all, by the Government—the present Government in this situation and perhaps other Governments in future situations. The scope for more freedom of action by the Government outside the control of this House would be much widened if referenda became a regular habit of our constitutional practices. If these points were put to the public they would share the hesitation of many of us here about contributing further to that erosion of the influence of Parliament through the holding of referenda.
I have tried to point out some of the risks of referenda as I see them. I have tried to discuss fairly the present state of public opinion. But however all that may be, if nevertheless the Government are determined to resort to the device of a referendum, the onus is on them to propose it in the context of a considered change in the working of the constitution; a referendum would certainly transform the character of our constitution. The Government should be prepared to make a case on constitutional grounds with proper arguments, possibly, as has been suggested by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) on another occasion, through a Green Paper.
They should remember too the words of the present Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in a letter to The Times on 27th March 1972:Sir, If we are to have a referendum, surely its first use must be to determine whether the British people wish to introduce so important a departure from our constitutional practice.What are the Government advancing as the constitutional justifications for the referendum that they may wish to hold in 1975? If they are not intending to hold a referendum, would they contemplate a General Election, which many people would think preferable, as the Labour Party itself urged in 1972?
I have been arguing mainly in general terms but I want to put some more particular points in relation to the possible referendum on the EEC. This is not the place to go into any detail over the 1735 contortions of the Labour Party on this issue. The record is clear. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex has already recalled what the present Prime Minister said on this issue in May 1970:Parliament…should take that decision with a sense of full responsibility, with a sense that reflects national views and national interests.He held that view for a year or so and then he wavered, and it is no wonder that the present Home Secretary was moved to write to the Prime Minister in April 1972:This constant shifting of the ground I cannot accept."—
§ Mr. Lane
I am content to let right hon. and hon. Members opposite answer for themselves. I am asking the questions that we feel bound to put to that side. The proposal is coming from that side of the House and not from this.
The objection was most powerfully put, if I may quote him once again, on radio on 20th July this year by the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian, when he said:To take one or more decisions and say that they are too big for Parliament is to demote that institution; I believe this is the most serious blow that has been administered to the House of Commons in its history. It's curious that anti-Market MPs who make a big issue of the loss of parliamentary sovereignty to Brussels should be prepared to take a step which will do far more damage to Parliament.The least that the Government can do, as soon as possible, is to clarify their intentions in this vital matter. May I ask these brief questions, some of which I hope that the Minister can answer immediately?
First, do the Government visualise a referendum as consultative or as mandatory?
§ Mr. Lane
My hon. Friend makes the point very well, as he did in his excellent speech.
Second, how would the Government see the situation which would arise if only 40 or 50 per cent. of the electorate polled, and particularly if there were only a very narrow majority either way? Third, who will frame the question in 1736 the referendum? I presume that it will be Parliament, but can the Minister absolutely assure us now that it will be the Government and not the Labour Party conference, as some of his hon. Friends have urged, who will have the decisive say in recommending the form of question to Parliament? Fourth, how can he make sure that the public will understand the whole picture and all the complex considerations that have to be taken into account before they give their answer?
Fifth, in appealing to the people, will the Government be neutral or will they give positive advice one way or the other? Sixth, if they give positive advice, what will be the position of Ministers who disagree with the majority of the Cabinet? Will they be free to put their own views, or will they be muzzled or have to resign? Seventh, will the result be available constituency by constituency for the better guidance of Members of Parliament in whatever subsequent decision this House has to take?
I am sure that the Minister of State will have seen the critical comment in the New Statesman on 1st November:Suppose the 71 Scottish constituencies and the 36 Welsh ones voted almost unanimously to stay out while England held fast to the European cause, who could then in conscience resist the separatist secession argument? But that is not my ultimate nightmare…suppose it is Northern Ireland…that swings the balance. What an irony if Britain's future for the rest of the century were to be decided by half a million people voting not so much about Brussels and the Community as about Rome and the Pope.To these and other questions we should like answers as soon as possible.
To sum up, the past few years on this whole matter have been a sad story of twisting and turning by the Labour Party. Now that we have reached this point, the Labour Party owes it to Parliament and to the people to come clean about the implications of a referendum, if it is really set upon it, and to try to produce a considered justification for a step about which many of its own members, quite apart from those of us on this side of the House, have serious misgivings.
The Opposition believe that the need today is to re-establish, not undermine, the standing of Parliament, and that we in this place should shoulder, not shed, 1737 the responsibilities entrusted to us by the people. We believe, too, in the context of Europe that the referendum proposal by the Labour Party is a transparent attempt to preserve party unity at whatever costs, including the cost of prejudicing Britain's proper rôle in Europe through prolonged uncertainty.
On both these counts—the general constitutional one and the particular European one—if we measure their policies against the national interest this Government will bear a very heavy responsibility.
§ 2.13 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Privy Council Office (Mr. Gerald Fowler)
I am sure that I am expressing the sentiments of the whole House when I say how grateful we are to the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) for raising today an issue which we all recognise to be of great constitutional importance. As has been suggested from the Opposition side, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has recently, and rightly, stressed the constitutional importance of this issue.
We have had so far a fascinating debate. I do not intend to follow all hon. Members in all points they made. I was fascinated by the description, or misdescription, as the case may be, given by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) of the workings of ancient democracy. I noted that he said that all free citizens could vote in some ancient States. I think he may have neglected the fact that women were not then in quite the position they are in today. They did not enjoy the rights which they properly enjoy today.
To stay on the classical theme for a moment, I would point out that I must dissent from one remark made by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). It was a delight to hear again his rhetoric and rigorous logic in the House. I have always thought that his speeches were admirable, so long as one did not listen to the content of what he said. Today, I very much agreed with his sentiments, except at one point where he suggested that some of us on these benches perhaps owed our present position to his efforts. I would doubt whether that was an accurate analysis of either of the past two General Elections. I am sure that he will take the point if 1738 I say that even if it were there are many of us who would be loath to recognise it on the principle of Timeo Danaos et dona ferentes.
But there is little evidence to justify the right hon. Gentleman's claim—
§ Mr. Fowler
I shall be very happy to read the views of two academics on the contribution of another academic to the election campaign, but I doubt very much whether we shall be any nearer the truth at the end of the day.
I hope that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) will forgive me if I do not pursue all his questions, not because I wish to avoid them but because there are no answers to some of them as of this moment. I think that he would not expect there to be answers. It would be improper of any Government to take snap decisions on an issue of such constitutional importance.
However, I shall deal specifically with one of the hon. Gentleman's points. He asked whether, if a question were drafted for a referendum and the matter were laid before the House, it would be laid before the House by the Government or by the Labour Party conference. I think that he can answer that question for himself. Constitutionally, it is clear who would lay it before the House, but, equally, the Government at least try at every stage of the legislative process to take account of the will of the broad mass of the people and of the Government's own party. I do not know whether that would be the practice on the other side of the House, but it is clear to me that we should certainly wish to consider carefully, in the light of all the views expressed, the form of any question if it were posed to the people of this country in any future referendum, if there ever be one.
I wish to say a few words about the compatibility of referenda and parliamentary democracy. Many hon. Members have pointed out that there are many countries outside the United Kingdom which hold referenda in varying circumstances, on a wide variety of subjects, sometimes within a general constitutional framework which provides for 1739 referenda in certain specified circumstances, and sometimes on what we might call an ad hoc basis by specific enabling Acts as needs arise. The practice varies widely.
It is, however, generally true to say that referenda in parliamentary democracies abroad are most commonly held in the field of constitutional amendment within a constitutional framework. That has been implicit in what hon. Members have said today. For example, in Australia and the Irish Republic it is mandatory to hold referenda in this field. But a number of other countries—Denmark and Switzerland for example—provide constitutional machinery for referenda to be held over a much wider range of legislation.
Generally speaking, however, I think it is fair to say that with a few exceptions, of which Switzerland is the most marked, the number of referenda held in established parliamentary democracies is small, and there are normally constraints and limitations on their use in order to provide safeguards against abuse.
It is sad that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex concentrated so heavily on the abuses of referenda in the Nazi period in Germany. The only post-war example which he gave was the use of referenda in the France of de Gaulle.
§ Mr. Fowler
I do not wish to comment on internal French affairs, but I thought that the hon. Member's examples might have been chosen from a wider field. I noted carefully what he said about Norway. It may well be that what he said represented accurately what took place in the Norwegian referendum and that the arguments put before the people were as absurd as he said they were. It is, therefore, difficult to understand why the Norwegian people took the decision which they did—not because they swallowed those arguments hook, line and sinker.
In any event, the Norwegian situation is radically different from the situation which would obtain in this country were we to hold a referendum on the issue which has been uppermost in everyone's mind today, for the obvious reason that in Norway the decision was taken before 1740 entry. Were there to be a referendum on the issue in this country the situation would be different. We have some experience of what it means to belong to the EEC. The mass of the people of this country have that experience. Therefore, there would not be the same ignorance as the hon. Gentleman suggested—I know not with what truth—was present in the Norwegian electorate when the referendum was held there.
It would be transparently foolish for anyone to assert without qualification that referenda and a vigorous parliamentary democracy are of necessity and of logic incompatible. Although some parliamentary democracies, including Commonwealth countries, have adopted the practice of referenda, this country, with limited exceptions, never has. Reference has been made today to the exceptions. However, it is clear that, whatever those exceptions, the introduction of national referenda in the United Kingdom would represent a new development in the British democratic system.
We know about the recent referendum in Northern Ireland, and, although we have wondered whether it is an appropriate use of polls, we know about the local polls on Scottish and Welsh licensing laws. As someone with a constituency close to the Welsh border, I felt tempted to register as an elector in one of the Welsh constituencies so that I could cast my vote—and I am clear on which side I would have cast it, too. The nearest we have come to holding a national referendum was in 1910–11 with the controversy over the House of Lords, when legislation was prepared by the then Liberal Government, but the proposals were eventually dropped.
To put the proposition negatively, the practice of not holding referenda is undoubtedly a long-standing constitutional tradition in this country. In that sense, I do not dissent from what the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex said. The Government have always recognised that any departure from that tradition could be justified only in exceptional circumstances. The House is aware of the Government's view, which they have made clear in the last two General Elections and which has won the assent of the populace in the sense in which we normally use those words—in the sense that it is part of the 1741 manifesto of the party which secured the largest number of Members in the House in two successive General Elections. The Government's view is that the issue of the future relationship between this country and the EEC is, or could justifiably be, such an exception.
The Labour Party's manifesto at last month's General Election stated:The Labour Government pledges that within twelve months of this election we will give the British people the final say, which will be binding on the Government"—I stress those words—through the ballot box—on whether we accept the terms and stay in or reject the terms and come out.As the Prime Miinster reminded the House as recently as 14th November, the question of a referendum still remains hypothetical. The passage from the manifesto which I have just read stresses "through the ballot box". I reiterate the commitment in the words which I have just read that we shall regard the decision as binding on the Government. That does not mean that it will be binding on the House, but it determines the recommendation which the Government will lay before the House.
If it is eventually decided to seek the will of the British people by a referendum, we have repeatedly made it clear that we would regard this as an exception—as, to use the words of the hon. Gentleman, a very special case indeed. It would reflect, above all, the unique importance of this issue, but it would also reflect the contentious history of the circumstances of our entry to the Community. I should be unique among Members who have spoken in the debate if I were not to quote the 1970 pledge of the Leader of the Opposition that we should not enter the EEC without the full-hearted consent of the British Parliament and people—a pledge held by many, including myself, to have been flagrantly and unforgiveably cast aside when he tasted the joys of office. The Prime Minister has made it clear that it is not the Government's intention to seek to extend the principle of referenda to any other subject, but we accept the implication of what the Leader of the Opposition said in 1970.
There is a significant distinction between a referendum in the United King- 1742 dom on this issue and the position in countries where there is automatic provision for a referendum in particular circumstances. Above all, it would be necessary for any enabling legislation to have the specific authority of Parliament. A referendum on this issue could, accordingly, be held only with the agreement of the elected Members of this House. In that sense, therefore, there can be no erosion of the rights of this House.
Further, we have already given an assurance that, as this would be a major constitutional measure, all the stages of any such legislation would be taken on the Floor of the House.
§ Mr. William Hamilton
I am glad to hear my hon. Friend say that, but can he say whether there would be a free vote?
§ Mr. Fowler
Whether there would be a free vote is not a matter for me.
The Government are well aware of all the problems inherent in holding a referendum. It has been of value to the House and to the nation that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex has raised this topic so that some of those problems could be aired.
Apart from the undoubted constitutional difficulties which could be inherent in referenda if they were extended to a wide range of issues, there are obvious practical problems involved in condensing any issue and the questions appropriate to a referendum and ensuring, as far as possible, that the decision of the British people is reached on an informed basis. Clearly any referendum must seek to reflect the informed judgment of the people. We are now in a much better position to obtain an informed judgment from the people than we would have been in a few years ago.
We must recognise that the cost of and the organisation for a referendum are not inconsiderable factors. It is as well to be open about this and not to pretend that there are no liabilities and that a referendum is just an asset.
§ Mr. Fowler
I have made absolutely clear that, in my view and that of the Government, the constitutional significance of our membership of the EEC is 1743 of a quite different order from any other issue. It is not just that it is more important; it is of a different order. There is, and there can be, no issue that is on all fours with it. That is why we say that this issue is the sole exception, and there can be no other exception, to the principle that we normally operate through parliamentary democracy. On this issue we wish to have the view of the British people through the ballot box in one way or another.
We have not under-estimated the problems, nor have we under-estimated the strength of this country's historic traditions and rationale in forming our view. This is an issue of unique importance in which the consultation of the British people by way of a referendum, should the Government so decide, would be fully justified. Whether or not the Government finally decide to proceed by way of a referendum or by way of the alternative, I am sure that the decision to allow the British people to decide this matter, far from undermining Parliament, will greatly strengthen the workings of our democracy and the faith of our people in the democratic system of Parliament. That is at the heart of the matter. It is on that that we take our stand.
The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex asked me about the machinery of government. He wanted to know whether the Home Office or my own unit in the Cabinet Office would be responsible for a referendum. The Home Office will be the Department primarily concerned with the machinery of a referendum, but it does not necessarily follow that the Home Office will be responsible for the whole legislation and for the range of interlinked issues. Perhaps I should explain for the benefit of the hon. Gentleman and the House, as clearly some hon. Members found that a fuzzy answer, that, while the Home Office will be primarily responsible, the unit in the Cabinet Office which is working to me directly and through me to the Lord President is a constitutional unit and not simply a devolution unit. It is not even a devaluation unit, although one of my constituents recently congratulated me on becoming the Minister responsible for devaluation. Nor is it a Revolution Unit, which a mistype by a typist in my office suggested.
1744 We are considering all constitutional matters. Devolution is the major constitutional issue with which we shall be concerned, but there may be others from time to time. Therefore, we have a proper interest in this issue, among others, and that is why I am replying to the debate.
The debate has been a valuable one, and I hope that the House will not leave the matter here but will return to the subject more than once before next summer. My view is that nothing but good can come out of discussing how we can strengthen the workings of British democracy, which is what we are really talking about today.
§ 2.34 p.m.
§ Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)
I join the Minister of State in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) on introducing this important topic. The Minister of State did not enlighten us very much about the Government's intentions. I was gratified by the Minister's firm assurance —if it was not a firm assurance, I hope that he will intervene to correct me—that the House will have complete authority in deciding the question to be put in any referendum that is held, and that we shall not just give blanket power to the Executive to decide at some time suitable to itself the exact phraseology.
§ Mr. Gerry Fowler
The hon. Gentleman will accept that no referendum can be held without legislation passing through the House. If he dislikes the terms of that legislation, if and when it appears, it is up to him to move an amendment.
§ Mr. Goodhart
That does not carry us very much further forward. I repeat my question. Do I take it that the Minister's words convey a firm assurance that the House will decide the precise terminology of the question that is put in any referendum that is held? I thought that was what he was saying. I take it that it is a firm pledge by the Government to the House.
§ Mr. Fowler
I must make absolutely clear that I gave no firm assurance on the details or mechanics of a hypothetical referendum.
§ Mr. Goodhart
In that case, the Minister's speech was even less revealing on any point than I had imagined.
1745 Despite the Minister's speech, I remain a supporter of the concept of using the referendum in the constitutional machinery, although I deplore the timing of the proposed referendum on the question of our staying in the European Economic Community. At the time of our great debate on entry into the EEC I said that I thought that the one great economic advantage we should gain from entry was that if the terms of international trade turned markedly against us it would be very much better to have the negotiators for the Common Market arguing on our behalf rather than against us. When I said that, I did not imagine that in the course of the next few months the international trading situation would get quite so chaotic as it has done. I support the view of Sir Christopher Soames, that at this moment the country cannot afford to leave a Christmas club let alone the shelter of the EEC.
I regret that the Labour Party has tied itself quite so closely in the timing that it has put forward for a decision through the ballot box by saying that the decision must be reached within 12 months from last October. Despite that, I think that on occasion it is desirable to use the referendum and that it can and should have a place in our constitutional machinery.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex argued that referenda in the past have been used by dictators. He cited the example of Hitler. It is true that Hitler used fake referenda to help impose his will on the German people. It is also true that just at the moment when Hitler was using fake referenda to impose his will on the German people, Stalin was using a fake Parliament to impose his equally ruthless, bloodthirsty will on the Soviet people. I do not think that the example of Germany, any more than that of the Soviet Union, invalidates Parliament or parliamentary democracy.
Indeed, at the moment we are engaged in some argument on how cordial our reception of certain Czech parliamentarians ought to be in the next few days. We all recognise that the Czech Parliament is a puppet Parliament. But the fact that puppet Parliaments exist is no argument against real Parliaments existing. We can have real or fake referenda. That, to a certain extent, is an irrelevant argument.
1746 Since 1970 four of our eight partners in the European Economic Community have had referenda on important constitutional issues. They have done so without in any way weakening their parliamentary democracies.
There are not many parliamentary democracies in this world. I suppose that 40 members of the United Nations are real democracies. By "real democracies" I mean countries which have elections, and where it is possible to overthrow existing Governments. Of those 40 genuine democracies at least half use referenda either at national or state level. Switzerland has been cited. Most of the states in the United States of America frequently use referenda at state level without undermining their state legislatures. Australia is only one example that can be cited from the Commonwealth.
We have not had referenda at national level in this country, but during the past 70 years the Conservative Party has made intermittent efforts to repair that omission. Frequently—granted, it is usually when the Conservative Party is in Opposition—we have urged the adoption of referenda as a regular organ of the constitution.
In 1910, the last time we fought two General Elections in one year, the second election was fought on the issue of having a referendum. We lost two seats at that General Election. We did a great deal better in the second General Election of 1910 than in the second General Election of 1974.
After the second General Election of 1910 the official Conservative Party leadership put forward an official amendment to the Parliament Bill to the effect that there ought to be a referendum before the approval of any Bill which altered the rights to vote for the House of Commons, which altered the powers of either House of Parliament, or which set up any form of legislative assembly in Ireland, Scotland or Wales. The then Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Balfour, said that he believed that the adoption of that clause and of the principle of referenda would give us safeguards which the absence of a written constitution denied this country. I think that the Conservative Party was absolutely right in 1911 to put forward that amendment.
§ Mr. Goodhart
Mr Balfour said that he was willing to accept a referendum on that. He said that if the country was so far gone that the electorate was willing to abolish private property there was no hope for the country under any system at all. I think that Balfour met that point head on.
What we said in 1911 has some relevance to what is happening now. Devolution is very much in the air. We are assured that we shall have propositions for setting up a national assembly in Scotland and something or other in Wales as well. I see no reason for setting up these assemblies on the ground of efficiency. The only point of setting them up is to meet the wishes of local inhabitants and to make them feel happier. If they do not want these assemblies there is no point in them, but they ought to have the chance to pass a direct opinion on them. At the same time, if we are taking a major step towards breaking up the United Kingdom, or part of it, all inhabitants of the United Kingdom ought to have an opportunity, in a referendum, of saying whether they approve or not.
After the first General Election of 1974 there were discussions between the Leaders of the Conservative and Liberal Parties about the possibility of forming a coalition Government. One topic that was discussed was the possibility of electoral reform. I would not argue that our present election system is absolutely perfect and that there can be no change to advantage in it. However, I do not want to see a possible change in our voting system put together by the leaders of two parties trying to form a Government. If we are to make a major change in our voting system by adopting a form of proportional representation, all the people in this country ought to have an opportunity of saying whether they want that change. It should not be a matter merely of inter-party deals.
It is argued that referenda will weaken parliamentary democracy. Parliamentary democracy is under attack in many ways at this time. It is under attack by the terrorists who plant bombs in our cities in an attempt to stir up hatred and fear. It is under attack because some people believe that Parliament can no longer pro- 1748 tect the general public against the power of certain trades unions. It is under attack because there is growing feeling in favour of separatism in some regions of the country. Above all, it is under attack because there is a feeling that Parliament and the Government are remote from the people. That is the greatest threat to Parliament today, and the holding of a referendum would be a positive boost rather than a threat to parliamentary democracy.
I remind the House that 64 years ago Balfour campaigned in favour of a referendum with the slogan, "Trust the People". I think that today if we adopt referenda as part of our constitutional process we shall find that trusting the people will buttress parliamentary democracy rather than lead to its destruction.
§ 2.51 p.m.
§ Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)
If one goes into the House of Commons Library and looks at the documents referring to referenda one sees that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) is quoted there, and I propose to use one of the quotations that he used against my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister.
Somebody once said that a week in politics was a long time. Five years is a little longer, and it was almost exactly five years—in fact, it was on 25th November 1969—when the then Prime Minister, now the Prime Minister again, after having been out of office for four years, was answering a Question from the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) on referenda.
My right hon. Friend said:It is not a way in which we can do business.The Prime Minister went on to say:Hon. Members on either side of the House do not usually feel that referenda are a way in which to conduct our public affairs." [OFFICIAL REPORT, 25th November 1969; Vol. 792, c. 200.]The Prime Minister continued to express the view that the House of Commons—I emphasise the House of Commons—— would decide on the merits of the terms negotiated for our entry into the EEC.
That was in 1969, and I must say that my right hon. Friend was consistent right 1749 until July 1971, which was going some. At that time, on 8th July, he was then the Leader of the Opposition, and when the then Prime Minister, the present Leader of the Opposition—a temporary incumbent no doubt—was being asked a question on referenda my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Mr. Wilson) said: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.He—
that is, the then Prime Minister—said, rightly, that the decision must be taken by Members of Parliament, each of them taking responsibility for his decision in the matter."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th July 1971; Vol. 820, c. 1515.]That is one of the reasons—not the only one—why I object to referenda and to the gyrations of the leaders of my own party on this matter.
When the present Prime Minister was asked by Mr. Robin Day—I think that this quote was used by the hon. Member for Beckenham—on 28th May 1970 whether he was just trimming on this question, my right hon. Friend replied, "Trimming? I would never dream of doing such a thing". At that time the Labour Party was committed to entry into the Common Market. The briefs were already prepared for George Thomson to take to Europe. But we happened to lose the 1970 election and, my God, it was trimming, tacking, twisting and turning, for no other reason than that we lost that election.
There can be no doubt that had we won the 1970 election there would have been no talk of a referendum. We would have said that the British public had decided at the election. They knew for three years that we had been negotiating to get in. Now we are in. We consulted the British people at the 1970 election. [Interruption.] This is my version of events, and I shall not be bullied by the farmyard noises from below the Gangway. I shall say what I think on these matters, as I always do.
Last week, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister went out of his way to say, as the Minister said today, that neither of them is yet quite certain whether there will be a referendum or a 1750 General Election. It will be through a ballot box. I am not sure whether it is a ballot box, or ballot boxes. We are not sure what the nuts and bolts of the affair will be.
The Prime Minister said that the result would be binding on the Government. It may be binding on his Government, but he knows very well that it cannot be binding on any other Government. The Prime Minister went on to say that there would be no referenda on any other issues, but the same comment applies. My right hon. Friend will not always be Prime Minister—not everybody will be displeased with that prospect. Another Prime Minister may say. "The precedent has been established. We shall have a referendum on this issue of great constitutional importance."
It is ironical that the Minister replying to the debate today was the Minister specially appointed for devolution. He went out of his way to say that this was of unique importance to many people in Scotland—I disagree with that—who regard the separation of Scotland from England as unique—just as the question of the European Community is unique—because it determines the sovereignty or otherwise of Scottish people who think they have a special Scottish culture as different from the English culture as any in Europe. They may be wrong in that, but that is the view of some people.
The Scottish and Welsh situations are in the same category. Once the precedent of a referendum on a constitutional matter is decided, Wales and Scotland could ask for a referendum—and why not Durham, too? I happen to be a native of Durham and the representative of a Scottish constituency. I believe that our culture in Durham is different from that in Cornwall. Cornishmen say that they have a different culture from everybody else in the rest of Britain. Why should they not have a referendum on the question whether there should be a separate Cornish Parliament? [Interruption.] Let us have no more farmyard noises. I shall not be bullied by that kind of nonsense.
Let us have another look at some of the possibilities now opening up for us. Just a week away, we shall have a Labour Party Conference. It may well pass a resolution opposing United Kingdom membership of the EEC in principle.
§ Mr. Hamilton
There we have it confirmed. Whatever the outcome of the current negotiations, there would then be no further conference of the Labour Party, except perhaps an emergency conference, before October 1975, which is the deadline. What will Ministers do then? What will the Foreign Secretary do? Will he be allowed to go to Brussels, or will he not? What will happen to the other Ministers concerned in the negotiations—the Secretary of State for Trade and the junior Minister at the Foreign Office? Will they cease forthwith to go across to renegotiate? Will they have to accept the edict of the General Secretary of the Labour Party and be told to stay in London, cutting off the negotiations already, because the General Secretary is the holder of the conscience of the Labour Party?
We have a right to know the answers to these questions. We shall not get them here, but we have a right to ask them. I shall continue to ask them, and we shall want answers elsewhere, if not here.
Will the Prime Minister repeat now what he repeated during the 1964–70 Parliament, when the Government were defeated time after time at the Labour Party Conference, that the Government must govern? They went on governing. In the event of a resolution passed this coming week at the Labour Party Conference to the effect that we are against continued membership in principle, will the Prime Minister repeat what he said between 1964 and 1970, that the Government must govern and Ministers must continue to go to Brussels to renegotiate?
If my right hon. Friend does that, what will be the reaction of our fellow members of the EEC? What will be their response, knowing full well that in the event we may well suggest to the British people that we are, after all, getting out? Will not those Ministers in Europe now negotiating say, "Why should we waste our time on this? Let us end it now, and let them get on with their referendum in Britain"? Whatever the merits of being in the Market or out, these are practical questions which have not so far been answered.
Clearly, one cannot seriously contemplate that the issue will be decided by 1752 a General Election. The only possible alternative, the only possible way of consulting the British people through the ballot box, is a referendum. If it were a General Election, the British people would not forgive any Government for asking them to endure another election within 12 months when it was obvious that they could still carry on. Indeed, the Queen herself might be put in a most invidious position, and I want to protect her here. If she were asked for a Dissolution she might well say that the Government were in no danger and that she would send for the alternative leader.
§ Mr. Hamilton
One never knows. It might be for the better. In that event, there might well be a serious constitutional question. The Prime Minister could not argue that his Government were in danger. Moreover, even if the Queen granted a Dissolution, whatever else may be unpredictable over the next 12 months it is certain that we shall be in a dire economic situation. The British people would take it out of the Government on two counts—first, for calling an unnecessary election, and second for the serious mess in which the economy would be found. Rightly or wrongly, they would blame us for the mess we were in, so we should lose on both scores.
The Government constantly say that they have not worked out all the nuts and bolts. They damn well should have done before now. It is no use saying "We shall consult through the ballot box" unless they made a clear decision as to how they would do it before they made that promise to the people.
If there is to be a referendum, how will it be put? I have some questions to put on this, not that I expect any answers. I did not get them when I made a similar interogatory speech during the debate on the Address. There are some questions to be answered. The hon. Members for Beckenham and for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) asked some of them. The 64,000 dollar question is: what will be the question put to the British people? Who will decide that? We have never had a clear decision on how this will be done. This is very important in relation to the sovereignty of Parliament. One of the key issues on which the right hon. Member for Down, South 1753 (Mr. Powell) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) opposed entry into the Common Market was the question of Parliament's sovereignty.
We should have the right to decide the terms of the question to be put to the people. I hope that the right hon. Member for Down, South will agree with that proposition, if with no other. I hope he will declare himself upon it. Does he believe that this House should have some say about, should have the right to decide, the form of the question that is to be put to the British people on this matter? The right hon. Gentleman sits untypically silent on the matter. However, I pass from that to other questions.
If we go for the referendum what we are saying is that Parliament is not to be trusted to take the right decision, but that for some unknown and unexplained reason the British people indubitably will come to the right decision. What a proposition to make, and what a reflection on the people who elected us here in the first place.
If my hon. Friends will look at the historical precedents they will find that the referendum has been shown in the past to be an instrument of conservatism —at best a mechanism to maintain the status quo and at worst to put the clock back. Let them consider any question that comes immediately to mind which could be decided by the people. Take capital punishment, for example. There would be no doubt about the result of a referendum on capital punishment. The vast mass of the people would vote for its return.
The social progress we have made in this country has often been the result of the determination of individuals, either inside or outside this House, leading public opinion on. The anti-slavery movement, the factory legislation, the trade union legislation—these items of social progress have often been made against the wishes of the people at the time, and by determined individualist minds both inside the House and outside.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North said that the result of the referendum would be final, but I guess that it would not be final for him if it went against him. If the British people said that they wanted us to remain 1754 in, he would not accept that decision. That would be my guess. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade would not accept it. My two right hon. Friends would go on fighting against the Common Market, and they would have every right to do so—just the same as if the people came out against the Common Market I would reserve the right to fight for continued British membership.
If we reached an agreed question to put to the British people it would have to be one to which there was a simple "Yes" or "No" answer. Few, if any political questions are capable of being answered in such a simplistic way. Even in one's own domestic problems, right in one's own home, there is hardly a question which is capable of a single "Yes" or "No" answer.
This is one of the reasons why the House is in disrepute. We tend to see things in terms of black and white. We go into the Lobbies to say "Yes" or "No", but in 99 cases out of 100 we do so with reservations. Because we go into a particular Lobby it does not mean that we are 100 per cent. for or against any proposition.
§ Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)
Speaking as someone who is involved from time to time in market research of a normal, straightforward product nature, I may say that even in those circumstances, far removed from the complexities of politics or family, it is very difficult to couch a question which can be answered specifically "Yes" or "No".
§ Mr. Hamilton
The hon. Gentleman has underlined my point. There are extremely complex issues here. I echo what Mr. Gaitskell said when he was leader of my party. Debating the Common Market, he said that the issues were finely balanced. The advantages of staying in the Common Market or getting out are still finely balanced. The matter is incapable of a simple "Yes" or "No" answer.
I see an hon. Member pointing to his watch, but I have two points to make, and I will make them in about three minutes.
Let us imagine that the present Cabinet is trying to formulate the question to be put. There are known differences in the present Cabinet—fiercely maintained 1755 varieties of opinion. The collective responsibility facade could not survive such an exercise. It did not survive even during the election campaign. At least two senior Cabinet Ministers declared their firm views on the matter. Even though an attempt was made by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to gag one of them at a Press conference, she had the guts to say, "No, I shall speak out against it." That shows how strongly she felt. There are divisions in the Cabinet, and to ask it to try to formulate a question and maintain the facade of collective responsibility would be an insult to the House and country.
If the Government should recommend acceptance of continued membership, all the major parties would agree. The Liberals and Conservatives would agree, and we would agree. How would the campaign be conducted in those circumstances?
Suppose, despite the agreement of the three parties, the people voted against, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would say "I recommend that we should continue our membership, but the British people have decided otherwise. They are right and I am wrong, and so I accept that we shall get out." Who would pretend that that did not seriously erode the sovereignty of Parliament—the very issue on which the anti-Marketeers fought against our entry in the first place?
We are getting into an awful mess on the issue.
§ Mr. Hamilton
My hon. Friends should not pretend that they are not making fools of themselves as well. They are making fools of themselves and of our parliamentary democracy.
§ Mr. Hamilton
It is better to be old than ignorant.
Despite the shortcomings of our parliamentary democracy, I see nothing better in the world today, and I do not want to do anything to weaken it.
§ 3.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Richard Body (Holland with Boston)
The hon. Member for Fife, 1756 Central (Mr. Hamilton) and I at least share the distinction of being the only spokesmen for our respective minority points of view. But I hope that I shall not, as I suspect he has done, mix up my vendettas with fallacies.
The paramount fallacy that the hon. Gentleman expressed was when he touched upon the ability of the British people to judge the issue for themselves, and cast doubt upon their capacity to decide what is essentially a simple issue. As other hon. Members have made plain, it is a constitutional question. It cannot be over-emphasised that we have submitted to the Treaty of Rome, and in furtherance of that submission we have passed Section 2 of the European Communities Act. By so doing we have sought to bring to an end the sovereignty of Parliament. Article 189 of the Treaty of Rome places a supranational institution—namely, the Council of Ministers —over our own Parliament. This House is thus made a subordinate legislature and has now no power to reject or even amend the legislation that is passed by that superior legislature. Perhaps all that is banal to those who have been arguing the case against entry into the EEC.
Some hon. Members have dipped into history and I hope that I shall be forgiven for doing so as well, although only briefly. I turn to the wisest of political philosophers to whom this country has given birth—namely, John Locke. I realise that I shall be trying the tolerance of the House if I quote a political philosopher but I must run that risk because what John Locke said three centuries ago is worthy of an echo today. He argued that the legislature was the supreme power. When considering the extent of the legislative power he said:The legislature cannot transfer the power of making laws to any other hands, for, it being but a delegated power from the people, they who have it cannot pass it over to others.He then explained in sublime language how if the legislature of the day sought to hand over the powers entrusted to it to some other authority it should refer the matter to the people.
I hope that my hon. Friends who support this motion will accept that the principles of our constitution spring from an implied contract between the sovereign and the people. I must point out to the hon. Member for Fife, Central that when 1757 I say "sovereign" I mean whatever institution it may be, whether monarchy or Parliament, that exercises sovereign power in the matter of making the laws that the people of this country must obey. If that premise is valid there is something in the nature of a trust between the people and ourselves. The people have entrusted to a particular and specified institution that sovereign power over themselves. That has been their wish and their will. Those of my hon. Friends who doubt that are, in effect, declaring that we are not a democracy. We have no business to transfer part of that trust without the approval of the beneficiaries.
Finally, I refer to that wise newspaper, The Times, and what it had to say about a referendum. I quote from a leading article. Obviously a leader writer must have had thoughts of the hon. Member for Fife, Central. It read:The Referendum is profoundly distasteful to those who pretend to trust the people. They are driven…to every sort of excuse for opposing it…Their most delightful plea is that it would injure the self-respect of the gentlemen who hope to dominate a gagged and boss-driven House of Commons.Not that I would suggest that the 1970 Parliament was boss-driven. The final thrust of the leader writer was:To be controlled by the judgment of the nation they find intolerable.Sadly, those words were written by The Times many years ago at a time when the Conservative Party was committed to the principle of a referendum. I only wish that both The Times and the Conservative Party would echo those sentiments.
§ 3.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Evan Luard (Oxford)
Those of us who sit in this House must by definition regard ourselves as democrats—that is to say, we believe in the right of the ordinary people, the electors as a whole, to have some say in their own affairs, to exercise some influence over the way the country is governed. It is true that there are many and varying definitions of "democracy", but it must at least mean that as a minimum.
It is true that many people, including the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton), have held that this right of the electors can and should only be exercised 1758 in an extremely remote, circuitous and indirect form—that is to say, that the right the people enjoy is not themselves to judge on the laws passed, on the policies pursued, on the way they are governed, but that the only right they can expect is the right to be able, every four or five years, to choose a number of people who will then be entrusted to reach their own choice on these matters on the people's behalf.
Long before this issue of the Common Market arose I was opposed to this highly limited view of the meaning of the word "democracy". It is certainly not the meaning attached to the word in Athens 2,000 and more years ago. Athenian democracy meant what it said—government by the people—and the Athenians themselves had the right to make their own decisions on many of the basic issues of government which arose.
I believe that if democracy is ever to mean anything similar in our modern society, some similar kind of right must be accorded to the citizens. I believe that because our existing system does not give the ordinary people any of the genuine influence on the way they are governed we often delude ourselves that it does give it.
The reason is that, of course, the electors are not given a choice of policies but are given, in reality, a choice between two different sets of people, often all but remotely associated with two different sets of policy. The electors may like half the policies in one party manifesto and half the policies in another. They may like the leadership of one party but the policies of another. They may be overwhelmingly concerned about one particular issue on which they agree with one party while fundamentally rejecting most of the other policies it advocates.
We can take an example closer to home in recent times. I think it is true to say of many voters in the two elections this year that many of those who would ordinarily be fundamental supporters of private enterprise, and, therefore, inclined to support the Conservative Party, totally rejected current Conservative policies such as the Industrial Relations Act, the Housing Finance Act, or, perhaps more relevantly, some of the many un-Conservative things done by the last Government, such as the prices and incomes policy 1759 unbalanced Budgets and a totally irresponsible monetary policy.
Similarly, there may have been voters who would normally be inclined to support the Liberal Party but were by no means attached to the totally illiberal devotion of the Liberal Party to a statutory prices and incomes policy. Again, others normally inclined to support the Labour Party because of a belief in the extension of public ownership may have disliked our defence, foreign affairs, or budgetary policies. These voters have no way in which to make their views on individual policies known.
§ Mr. Rippon
This is an interesting argument. Would the hon. Gentleman accept that he is suggesting that we should have referenda as a regular part of our constitution, so that the Second Reading of the Bill should be by referendum rather than by the House? Does he not agree that if his argument is right it will mean a fundamental change in our concept of the sovereignty of Parliament?
§ Mr. Luard
If the right hon. and learned Gentleman had been a little more patient he would have found that I was coming to precisely that point.
For that very reason, I should very much like to see a system of referenda more widely used in our society. Referenda have been used in many other countries, and in some they are used regularly for precisely these purposes. If we mean what we say about our belief in a democratic society, we believe in the right of ordinary people to choose the way in which they are governed, and the only logical answer is to provide a system of referenda on a regular basis.
If that is true about the ordinary type of policy about which I have been speaking so far, how much more true is it on the issue of the Common Market about which we are speaking mainly in the debate today? It is particularly true on this issue for two main reasons. One is, as others have pointed out, that this is an issue of fundamental, over-riding and unique importance to the ordinary electors of this country. We are talking about the country's destiny, about whether we wish to some extent to merge some of its sovereignty, as I think we should, in a wider group.
1760 What is more, this decision is largely a once-and-for-all decision. It would be difficult for it to be fundamentally negated later in our history. Therefore, if ever there were a case for allowing ordinary people to have some say in a decision of vital importance, this is one such case.
But the second reason is of equal importance. It is simply not true, as some hon. Members, especially from the benches opposite, have suggested, that the normal system of General Elections provides the people with a similar opportunity to exercise their say without any need for a referendum. When were the electors of this country given an opportunity to exercise their choice in that way?
We know for a fact that in 1970 the majority of public opinion in this country was not in favour of British membership, yet the Conservative Government were elected, for entirely separate reasons. In 1974 the reverse was true. We now know from public opinion polls that the majority seemed at least to be moving in favour of accepting continued membership of the Common Market and yet they twice voted Labour Governments to power, again for totally separate reasons.
In our political system today it is impossible for people to vote in General Elections entirely on one specific issue. Electors are primarily concerned with one question alone—which party should be the Government of the country for the forthcoming period of up to five years. It is impossible for them at the same time to vote on a specific issue of policy, such as whether Britain should remain a member of the Common Market.
Therefore, in general I think it is important that the country should move over the years towards a system of referenda on important issues. Above all, people should be able to do so on issues of this kind, which are of such great importance and on which the electors have not yet had an opportunity to exercise their voice.
During the debate and in the country and in the Press there have been a number of objections to the notion that the people should have an opportunity to decide themselves. It is said that it is a derogation from the powers of Parliament. I do not believe that this is the, 1761 case. When Parliament legislates it should be fully and closely aware of the views of the people as a whole. That is all that is being discussed in this case. It is true that there is a difference because in this case we on this side are committed to implementing whatever is the result of the referendum, but that is not to take out of the power of Parliament the ability to make the final decision, which will be a law passed within this Parliament.
We, Parliament as a whole, will be reaching a decision on that question in the light of our knowledge of the feelings and views of the mass of the population, so we are not removing powers from Parliament, but are, on the contrary, making Parliament better equipped to reach an informed and intelligent judgment.
Second, it is frequently said that the electors do not have the judgment or knowledge to reach a decision on such a matter. No doubt there are decisions of a technical and complex kind which it would not be suitable to put to the electors on the basis of their knowledge and judgment, but a question as fundamental as this is not such an issue.
Any member of the public to whom we have all spoken during election campaigns is perfectly capable of reaching a judgment about whether he or she believes that this country should undertake a fundamentally important course and bring about an utterly unforeseen change in our destiny—that is to say, whether we should withdraw from the Community, having already signed the Treaty of Rome. Every elector is capable of reaching his own decision, based on the interests of the country or his personal interests.
Of course, they will not be doing this tomorrow, on the basis of their existing knowledge. Any such choice will be preceded by a prolonged campaign, lasting probably six months, during which nothing else will be discussed in the Press, on television and radio and in this House. The result is that the average elector will be very well informed about the implications of withdrawal and those of staying in. They will have read many arguments about the political and economic advantages and disadvantages, 1762 and I see no reason why they should not be able to make a judgment as a result.
§ Mr. Skinner
While I agree with almost everything that my hon. Friend has said—even to the extent of having referenda on other matters—has he not now reached the weakest part of his argument, inasmuch as, unless there is a dramatic change in the editorial columns of the newspapers, it is likely that the national Press almost without exception will be heavily biased in trying to brainwash the British people into staying in the Common Market? That is the one real danger.
§ Mr. Luard
It is true that most of the Press pursues such a policy. I am in favour of our staying in. But a Minister a week or two ago said that it will obviously be important during this campaign to ensure that every point of view is put forward and widely publicised. We need have little doubt that this will be done, certainly on television—and most newspapers are sufficiently responsible to ensure that every point of view is adequately presented.
Therefore, it is no more difficult for the elector to decide on this issue than to make the decision that he has been making for many years, about which party is best equipped to hold the government of the country in its hands. It is not fundamentally different and in many ways it is simpler.
A third widely-raised objection—it was raised by the hon. Member for MidSussex—is that this is totally unprecedented in our constitutional history. No doubt it is, but that is not a reason against it by any means. To say that because something has not been done before it cannot be done now is to carry conservatism to absurd extremes. If that policy had been adopted in the past none of us would be sitting here in this Chamber. We would still be living in the middle ages, at least so far as our political system was concerned.
A referendum is an innovation, but for the reasons I have given it is an important innovation, and one which I hope will be repeated on other questions in the future.
Fourthly, there have been objections on the grounds—I accept that there is some 1763 validity in these—of difficulty in formulating the question in an objective, unpartisan way. I accept that that is difficult, but it is by no means insuperable. It has been overcome many times in the past in many countries, such as in Switzerland and United States where referenda have been undertaken frequently, and in a number of other countries of Europe where referenda have been held on particular subjects during the past 10 or 20 years. Properly formulating the question is not an impossible problem to overcome.
In the final resort it should be for Parliament to decide exactly how a question of this kind is framed, and there is no reason why Parliament should not be able to reach a reasonable decision on this. Some people have already described roughly the form of words that could be employed. There would be no great objection, I am sure, to using the sort of phrases that have been suggested here today.
Those are the main objections that have been put forward to the idea of a referendum on this issue, but I believe that all these objections are, for different reasons, misconceived.
I find myself in an almost unique position in the debate, because on the whole those hon. Members who have spoken so far against the idea of a referendum have almost all been in favour of continued British membership of the Common Market, while those in favour of using a referendum are in general opposed to our remaining as members of the Common Market. I am in a different situation. I am in favour of a referendum for the general reasons I have already described, which do not relate exclusively to this particular issue, but I am very much in favour of our continued membership of the Common Market.
Perhaps one of the reasons why I am not merely welcoming the idea of a referendum in general but hoping to see it applied in this case is that I do not share a view which I know is held by many other pro-Europeans, that the result of such a referendum will be to bring a verdict of the British people that we withdraw from the Common Market. I recognise that in this my view must be different from that of anti-Europeans. They are in favour of a referendum be- 1764 cause they think that the British people are going to vote against it.
There is already some evidence that the attitude of the British people is changing. A recent public opinion poll showed that people at least believed that we should remain in the Common Market at present while negotiations are completed. That does not mean that people would necessarily reach the same verdict when the negotiations are completed.
There are four reasons why I believe that attitudes are changing. First, for the first time the British people have come to recognise that to withdraw from the Common Market would bring about an increase in food prices in this country which many people, particularly the housewives, would be unwilling to accept.
Secondly, many people now recognise that our largest and fastest growing markets in the world are within Western Europe and that it would be suicidal folly on our part to bring about a raising of tariff barriers and to cut ourselves off from this vitally important market.
Thirdly, many people have got used to and welcome the close political association of this country with Western Europe and would be reluctant to bring it to an end.
Finally, and possibly more important than any of those considerations, many people who perhaps are undecided on other aspects of the question would be reluctant to contemplate the insecurity, uncertainty and isolation which would result from our decision to withdraw.
I believe that the result of a referendum would be in favour of our continued membership of the Common Market. For that reason, I have no reservations in hoping that that device will be employed on this occasion. As I said at the beginning of my comments, I hope that this will be a precedent for its use on many other issues in future.
§ 3.41 p.m.
§ Mr. John Moore (Croydon, Central)
One rises with some trepidation to speak in a debate with the Goliaths of the subject gathered round one. The absence throughout the debate of Liberal Party members has been sad. This is too important a topic for them to have absented themselves.
Like other hon. Members, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for 1765 Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) for introducing this debate. However, I am much in doubt about the Government's motives. The Government have been in office, sadly, for 42 days. There was a clear indication in their manifesto, as has been rightly observed by many hon. Members opposite, that this was an important point of policy. As the Government went into the election with an item in their manifesto which they said they would introduce if returned to office, for the Minister of State to say that he could not answer the questions asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mr. Lane) was quite unacceptable. One cannot introduce in a manifesto a policy as important as the subject matter of this debate without presumably having made up one's mind about it. I am therefore considerably concerned about the matter.
I recognize—though I disagree with their views—the arguments of the, hon. Members for Oxford (Mr. Luard) and Nottingham, West (Mr. English), but both of them made probably the only cohesive comments about the question of a referendum. They clearly believe in the need for a basic change in our constitutional system in the introduction of a referendum. To that extent, there is a cohesion in their points of view which sadly is missing elsewhere.
At this early stage of a, hopefully, lengthy parliamentary career, I would not wish to joust with the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). However, I am concerned at the obsession of so many people, who are in essence, vehemently opposed to our membership of the Common Market, with the question of a referendum. I wish that they would pay much closer attention to the constitutional changes which would be involved if we were to endorse such a change in our system. As this is a point in the Government's policy, I wish that they had introduced this discussion.
The hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Edelman) cogently and rationally analysed his attitude to the question of a referendum. I found great difficulty in understanding why he was in support of a referendum on Common Market membership. The key came at the end of his speech. He said—and it was a subjective judgment—that during the election campaign he had come to the con- 1766 clusion that the people demanded a referendum. He said that it was a "gut" reaction. He went on to say that it was related to people's suppositions concerning food prices and the Common Market.
I should be deeply worried if we in Parliament started to make changes in our constitutional system based on what are called "gut" reactions and on facts we know to be untrue. This is not a good argument for following the emotions of the public rather than rational thoughts by which we are supposed to lead.
I reiterate one or two questions which have been asked but not answered by the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex went in some detail into the matter of what question or questions should be asked in a referendum. It is not that the question is necessarily too complex; it is that the people are too complex. We demean the people in supposing that we can devise a question which merits a "Yes" or "No" answer. The people's attitudes and views on the Common Market are far too complex to merit a simple "Yes" or "No".
We have heard nothing about how much money will be spent on the campaign. More important, we do not know what percentage will be involved. The right hon. Member for Down, South spoke of the "outer margin of full-hearted consent." What does that mean? If we have an election in which only 35 per cent. of the people take part and 18 per cent. vote in favour of remaining in the Common Market, is that the full-hearted consent of the British people? I stress the 18 per cent. in favour, because that, as the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) said, is the key. Will those who are now so vehemently supporting a referendum still do so if 18 per cent. of the population vote to keep us permanently in the Common Market?
We go on to the question of what happens to hon. Members. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), I cannot commit myself at this stage, but I cannot see myself voting against my own conscience. The historical recollections of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West were a little strange when he gave his statistical explanations of Burke's method of voting. He leaves out something that is fundamental to hon. Members on both sides 1767 of the House, their ability to understand the meaning of their conscience.
What are the implications of holding a referendum? On what other subjects are we to have referenda? My constituents, as opposed to those of the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West, were concerned about euthenasia, abortion and hanging. Are the people of my constituency to be allowed the same "subjective" rights as other constituents?
Will two kinds of law be developed, on the one hand laws that are ratified by the people and, on the other, laws that are made only by Parliament? Will an accused person say to the judge "That is not a law I can follow, because the people have not confirmed it in a referendum"? Shall we be creating two systems of law? Surely enough concern about obedience to the law is being expressed now without our creating another dichotomy.
I refer to Dicey's theories with some hesitation, surrounded as I am by hon. Members with far more experience than I have, but Dicey said that a key protection was that a Parliament can always overthrow the decision of a previous Parliament. That cannot be said if we introduce this change. After a referendum one cannot tell the people "This is a little different". We shall be creating an entirely different system, and when we have created it we shall have to leave it there. Have we thought this through thoroughly?
I am deeply concerned that most of the historical references that have been given —whether accurate or inaccurate we can debate another time—have been to the eras of the Greeks and Romans. We have not discussed in relation to referenda in Western society the entirely changed nature of the media and its involvement with Western democracy. I do not wish to refer to Hitler or Stalin, but there is no question in my mind that, given the means of control of the media in a modern Western-style democracy, one can utilise the media to get the answer one wants. That is one of the awesome realities of Western society. We should lack a sense of responsibility as democrats if we ignored that reality and did not take the course that should be taken by defenders of the constitution and our parliamentary sovereignty, the course of 1768 ensuring that we do not seek the referenda route.
§ 3.50 p.m.
§ Mr. David Weitzman (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
The motion condemns the holding of national referenda on two grounds: first, that they arecontrary to the principle of British parliamentary democracyand, secondly, that theywill represent an abdication by Members of Parliament of the responsibilities that they are elected to perform.Let us examine the first ground—contrary to the principle of British democracyHow can that be asserted by any Member of the Conservative Party when it is remembered that, as the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) said, the Conservative Government resorted to a referendum in Northern Ireland to allow the people to declare their wishes on the border question?
Moreover, as has been pointed out, in the 1930 election Stanley Baldwin, on the issue of food taxes and empire free trade, strongly argued the virtues of a referendum. The principle has been breached, as the right hon. Gentleman said. The suggestion put forward by the Conservatives in 1930 and acted upon in 1972 was that when a constitutional problem was outside the normal cut and thrust of party politics it should be resolved by a referendum.
The fact that in our history we may not have resorted to a referendum on many occasions does not mean that it is contrary to British parliamentary democracy. It means, I accept, that in legislation as a rule it is the elected representatives of the people who decide. However, it does not shut out, in an exceptional case of exceptional constitutional importance, which would affect the lives of all citizens and the very sovereignty of Parliament, the course of asking the people to decide that particular issue.
§ Mr. Weitzman
No. There is no time.
The second part of the motion is that itwill represent an abdication by Members of Parliament of the responsibilities they are elected to perform.1769 Let us ask the question seriously: will it? Let us agree that as a rule it is the responsibility of the elected representatives of the people to decide issues of legislation. But, again, as I said, the exceptional case of exceptional constitutional importance affecting citizens and Parliament itself in the way that I have indicated should be dealt with by a referendum. Why this would be an abdication by Members of Parliament of their responsibilities regarding legislation I do not know.
Let us look at the matter from a practical point of view. What are the pros and cons? It is said that Members of Parliament know a great deal more about the issues involved. Indeed, the President of the European Movement said that a referendum in this matter would consist of consulting people who do not know the problems instead of consulting people who know them. He said that he would deplore a situation in which the policy of this great country was left to the housewives rather than to the trained and informed people.
In a General Election we put to the people the manifestos of the parties, setting out their policies. We argue the merits and the demerits and invite the decision of the people, including the housewives, and the people decide which party to support. It would be an idle criticism to say that they should not be asked to decide because they are not all trained or informed people.
On the issue of the Common Market, the people will no doubt be informed of the advantages and disadvantages of entry and of the effect on the sovereignty of Parliament, and will be asked, I presume—I do not know why there has been so much discussion about the form of the question—by a simple vote "Yes" or "No" which course they prefer.
In a General Election there are many issues before the people. It is clear that although entry into the Common Market was an issue it was only one of a number of issues, and the decision of the people could not therefore be said to be a decision on that issue.
That is why, in my view, it would be futile to ask the electorate to decide the question of entry into the Common Market by a General Election. In my view we have here a clear-cut issue, 1770 "Yes" or "No", do the people want to remain in the Common Market? It seems to me that the only appropriate way is to ask the people to decide that by their answer in a referendum.
A good deal has been said about democracy, and we talk glibly about it. I note that the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex qualified the word "democracy" by calling it parliamentary democracy, but surely the decision of the people in answering "Yes" or "No" is the best example—for good or ill—of true democracy.
I repeat, although it has been said almost ad nauseam, that I do not know what the Leader of the Opposition could have meant by the wordswhole-hearted consent of the British peopleand I ask the House to mark those words. It is all very well trying to get rid of them by saying that he meant the decision of Parliament, but the right hon. Gentleman spoke about the whole-hearted consent of the British people. Surely that can mean only the decision of the people themselves and not that of their representatives, and that can be obtained only by a referendum.
§ Mr. Weitzman
I cannot give way.
Although we pride ourselves on a long history of democratic rule, we must not forget that there are other democracies, even parliamentary democracies. It is all very well to talk about these countries as though they had no parliamentary democracy, or because of the way in which they have acted, but there are examples in Norway, Denmark, the Republic of Ireland, Switzerland, Australia and many American States where referenda are resorted to without the abdication of responsibilities by elected representatives and with no ill effect on the constitutional forum of the country.
Whether or not we enter Europe—is surely the most important issue that has confronted us for many years. It is so important that I quote again the words of the Prime Minister on 14th November:I would take the view…that the question of membership of the Common Market is a very special case, particularly as the terms on which we entered were so much a matter of controversy and, indeed, have proved in certain respects so disastrous, and I should certainly not seek to extend that principle to 1771 any other subject."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th November 1974; Vol. 881, c. 589.]
§ 3.58 p.m.
§ Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)
There seems to be some conflict among hon. Members on the Labour benches about the frequency with which referenda should be held. I listened carefully to the Minister's speech. He said that a referendum on the EEC was justified because of the constitutional circumstances and it would be a very special case.
On the other hand, the Member for Oxford (Mr. Luard)—supported by an interjection from the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)—made it clear that he would like to see referenda held regularly on a wide variety of issues. That emphasises the danger referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) in his speech, namely, that once the principle of a referendum is conceded on this issue it will be impossible not to extend the principle to other issues, and the effect of that could only be to undermine the independence of this institution and of Members of Parliament.
In the half-minute that remains to me I should like to examine the argument that has been put forward by Labour Members that a referendum is a useful ingredient in the democratic cake because it enables a national consensus to be identified, and it is an aid to democracy.
There was an interesting article in the Guardian of 12th August, written by Social and Community Planning Research, which said:Our work makes us exceptionally cautious of the validity of a referendum as a method of discovering the popular will.A vote in a referendum in France has never been confined to the particular issue on which the referendum has been held. It has usually been decided on whether or not the General was dispensable.
We all know that in the mid-term of a Government's tenure of office by-elections and local authority elections are used by the electorate as an opportunity to punish the Government, and next year, should there be a General Election, or even a referendum on this issue—
§ It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.