HC Deb 24 April 1975 vol 890 cc1772-95

'The vote on the referendum shall be declared null and void—

  1. (1) if there is an overall vote of less than 60 per cent. of those eligible to vote, and
  2. (2)if there is not a two-thirds overall majority voting one way or the other.'—[Mr. Emery.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Emery

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I move the clause to save the Government from the possibility of the greatest constitutional fiasco that this country has ever faced. If there is a small turnout we may, because of the obduracy of the Prime Minister and the statement of the Prime Minister, find the Government committed to take action which has received support from only a small proportion of the total electorate. If that situation should arise, hon. Members on both sides of the House would accept that it would be a fiasco.

I do not wish to be drawn into the argument of estimating what the turnout will be, because there are many different views on that matter. Some people hope, believe and urge that the turnout will be high. My own view is that I doubt whether the turnout will be much greater than that at an ordinary county council election. If the turnout is only about 20 or 30 per cent. of the electorate, the House will be in a most embarrassing position.

I have discussed the possibility of the turnout with many people. I have found that many old and wise heads on both sides of the House are worried about the situation. The amendment comes into play only if those who are worried about a low turnout prove to be right. If they are wrong, nothing has been lost and the new clause will not be essential.

4.45 p.m.

Why is it important to consider the possibility of a low turnout? At a General Election with opposing party candidates, with all the party machinery geared up to the extreme, it is possible to bring out 70 per cent., 80 per cent., or even 84 per cent. of the electorate. However, at this referendum the chances of that sort of political activity seem to be fairly slight. There will not be the same sort of ward activity, with doorstep canvassing and the availability of cars. There will not be the same political drive as we find at a General Election.

There may be constituencies in which a high level of furore is created, but I believe that that will not be the general rule throughout the country. The problem will be to get as many people as possible to the poll. There will not be the usual election enthusiasm, because in many constituencies this matter cuts right across party lines. I can name several constituencies in the South-West where all three political parties are agreed about this matter. Therefore, the sort of conflict that a General Election creates in raising the temperature and stimulating activity and interest is likely to be lacking. If that is the case the possibilities of a low turnout are real.

I am propounding that the referendum shall be considered null and void, and not be binding in the context of the Prime Minister's statement, unless there has been a high level of turnout. This is not a novel suggestion. However, it is novel in this country because we have never had a referendum before. Where nations have had referenda, research shows that some countries have a minimum requirement and others do not.

I shall refer to some countries where a minimum requirement is now in existence. In Ireland, within the constitutional amendments, referenda are decided by a majority of the votes cast, provided that 30 per cent. of the possible electorate have voted. In Denmark the position is exactly the same. It might be said that I am asking for a higher minimum requirement than applies in Ireland and Denmark. That is true, but in both those countries the percentage of voters who turn out at General Elections is much lower than it is in this country. That is why I have suggested a higher minimum requirement.

The amendment provides that the vote shall be declared null and void unless 60 per cent. of the people who are eligible to vote actually do so and unless there is a two-thirds overall majority voting one way or the other. In simple terms, that means that I am urging that the referendum should not have the effect that the Prime Minister stated it will have on the Government. It will not have that effect on the Conservative Party, but I am concerned about its effect on the Labour Party. Unless 40 per cent. of the electorate vote for coming out, no action should be taken. To face the argument head-on, if the pro-Marketeers do not get 40 per cent. of the votes the status quo would remain. For the status cuo to be altered, the opponents of continued participation in Europe will have to obtain the support of 40 per cent. of the people. That does not sound such an immense task. If we are really talking about the will of the majority of the people, the Government should willingly accept that.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

The hon. Gentleman used the expression status quo. I hope he will remember that status quo is an abbeviation for he expression status quo ante—the condition previously prevailing.

Mr. Emery

I would never at any time wish to enter into a conflict with a Greats scholar as I was only a Modern Greats scholar, but I remind the right hon Gentleman that status quo ante in the context of the referendum means that the United Kingdom remains in Europe. That was why I used that expression.

The Minister of State, Privy Council Office (Mr. Gerry Fowler)

I think the hon. Gentleman will agree that ante is a preposition and that the meaning depends on the words that appear after it.

Mr. Powell

I am sorry to pursue the matter but I am invited by the Minister to do so. The word that is understood is bellum— the position before the whole debate or war arose.

Mr. Emery

The right hon. Gentleman is coming to my aid in agreeing with what I said. I shall proceed with the amendment and leave our Greats discourse to one side.

I believe that acceptance of the amendment would be of great assistance to Parliament. There are Government supporters who have always supported Britain's entry into the Common Market. I suggested in another debate that there might be a turn-out of 48 per cent. with 24.5 per cent. voting against and 23.5 voting in favour. If all Labour Party Members followed the Prime Minister's edict, even those who had voted as pro-Europeans time and again would have to vote against their conscience although only one-quarter of the people had urged us to come out of Europe. That would result in a parliamentary rather than a constitutional fiasco.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

I think the hon. Gentleman will agree that the basic idea of the referendum is to get the question of Britain's membership of the Common Market out of the way once and for all. I assume that the hon. Gentleman is a pro-Marketeer, but if the amendment is accepted and the turnout is less than the number specified in it, does not the hon. Gentleman agree that the question would still be left undecided for the people who wished to continue the fight against Britain's membership of the Common Market?

Mr. Emery

That is a fair question which I can answer in several ways. There are some anti-Marketeers who for the rest of their lives will go on campaigning against co-operation with Europe and Britain's position in Europe, whatever the outcome of the referendum. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) has outlined certain views along that line of thought. The House of Commons has voted time and again in favour of our being in Europe, the majority on the last occasion being 226. That is as positive a response to the question put to me by the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) as I can possibly give.

Those electors who do not bother to cast a vote will be saying subconsciously that they have elected Members of Parliament to make these decisions and that they wish Members of Parliament to continue to make them. I have suggested previously that the referendum undermines the position of Members of Parliament because, for the first time ever, it attempts to mandate a Member of Parliament in how he shall vote. There are some political groups who would like Members of Parliament to be mandated, but I am very much against it.

I go back to the Burke philosophy—namely, that a Member of Parliament makes his judgments and opinions on behalf of his constituents. If his constituents do not like his judgments and opinions, they can get rid of him. I do not believe that constituents have the right to mandate a Member of Parliament, but the way the Prime Minister is heading is in that direction.

5.0 p.m

Mr. John Ovenden (Gravesend)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman accepted the words of his former leader, the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), when he said that Britian should be a member of the Community only with the wholehearted consent of the people. Although that does not override parliamentary sovereignty in quite the same way as the referendum, it is an aceptance that Parliament should pay attention to the wishes of the people. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would be prepared to stay in the Common Market however few people voted in favour of doing so in the referendum, but would he really be happy if we were kept in the Common Market by the votes of 15 per cent. or 16 per cent. of the electorate? That is what could happen as a result of his clause. If there were a poll of 50 per cent. and just over one-third of the people voted to stay in the Market, we would stay in under the terms of his clause. Would he be happy about that?

Mr. Emery

I should be happy if power were then reflected back to where it should be—namely, on the Floor of the House. That is the outcome of the logic of the question. That is why I would be happy. The more that we can do to discredit the referendum and referenda in general, the greater will be the strength of the House and the greater will be the independence of Members of Parliament.

Although I have spoken on a number of occasions on this issue, I have always kept my remarks fairly short. Not for very long have I been on my feet. If anyone doubts what I have just said, there is a record of the time that they can examine.

I now come to my concluding remarks. This is a simple clause which specifically sets out to prevent a constitutional fiasco. It gives protection to Labour Members in that they could not be put into the difficult position of being mandated by a British electorate when only a small proportion of the electorate had spoken. It seems that I am doing a service to the Government. I hope that they will appreciate it and accept the clause.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

The clause looks remarkably like the one that I tabled in Committee. Therefore, I have little objection to the content of the speech of the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery)

When my party was in Opposition and the then Prime Minister took us into the Market we made great play politically of the undoubted fact that he reneged on his electoral promise in that he did not have the wholehearted consent of the British people. The right hon. Gentleman always argued that that wholehearted consent was implied in votes cast in the House. There is some validity in that view. It should not be disputed too strongly. If it were we would get into all kinds of constitutional difficulties and complexities that I would not like to visualise. The wholehearted consent of the British people has never been defined exactly and the result of the referendum will not satisfy any criterion on that score.

Let us suppose that the first condition of the clause is met and that we have an overall vote of 81 per cent. I think that the vote in the last election was much less than that. None the less, let us suppose that there is the high turnout of 81 per cent. and that 41 per cent. vote one way and 40 per cent. the other. Does anyone in the House seriously think that we would be mandated by the 41 per cent?

Mr. Bruce Grocott (Lichfield and Tamworth)


Mr. Hamilton

My hon. Friend says "Yes". It seems that my hon. Friends the Members for Gravesend (Mr. Ovenden) and Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Grocott) do not know this place. It is rather significant that they have both been here less than 12 months. I advise them to think carefully of the implications of what they are saying.

We are debating a unique introduction of a new principle in our parliamentary Government. Perhaps the word "unique" has been overused in this debate. However, we are saying that we shall consult the people on this issue. But we shall be called upon to consult them on many other issues after this one is out of the way. Do my hon. Friends say that when there is a narrow vote, or even a substantial vote, in another referendum on another matter on which the House feels strongly the other way, for example, as if did on capital punishment— we must accept the vote of the people outside? If that is what they are saying they are destroying the strongest argument that the anti-Marketeers are now pursuing—namely, the loss of sovereignty. It seems that they are using their own argument against themselves.

Mr. Geoff Edge (Aldridge-Brownhills)

Does my hon. Friend accept that he and I fought on a Labour election platform on the basis that we would hold a referendum so that the British people could decide? If we are to honour the commitment which we made in that election, does he agree that we must accept the majority result of. the British people irrespective of what it is? Does he accept that 1 per cent. is still a majority?

Mr. Hamilton

My hon. Friend had better read the manifesto. The word "referendum" is not used in it.

Mr. Ovenden

It is.

Mr. Hamilton

No. it is not. My hon. Friends had better read the manifesto. It refers to action "through the ballot box". Of course, the ballot box can be used in two different ways. I wanted to have a General Election. If we wanted the British people to believe that we were having a referendum we would have said so in specific terms in our manifesto, but we were careful not to say that. The original term was the consultative referendum" but the word "consultative has been dropped. We all know that whatever the result of the referendum it will still be consultative. Even if we have an 81 per cent. vote one way the House will decide irrespective. It will take notice of such a vote but it will not be bound by it. We shall still be free agents to decide no matter what the 81 per cent. have said We will take our own decision if we think that it is in the national interest. For good or ill we have been sent here to do just that.

Let us assume that we have a vote of 81 per cent. That would qualify under the clause as a valid referendum. But if the vote was divided between 40 per cent. one way and 41 per cent. the other there would not be a two-thirds'majority under the second part of the clause, and the result would be null and void. Of course, that would have to be spelt out in legislation. By making our own decision we would be acting not as delegates but as representatives. In fact, that is our status.

I pray in aid the other extreme. Let us assume that the referendum vote qualifies under the first part of the clause —namely, a 60 per cent. turnout. Further, let us suppose that it qualifies under the second part and that out of the 60 per cent. turnout there is a 40 per cent. vote one way and a 20 per cent. vote the other —namely, a two-thirds'majority. Such a vote would produce a majority that would be binding in the sense that the referendum can bind the House. It is a strange step to take. In other words, we are saying that if 40 per cent. of the voters say one thing, this sovereign House must be bound by that 40 per cent. even though 60 per cent. have either not voted or have voted the other way.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

Does my hon. Friend not accept that the Government have repeatedly said that the Government will be bound by the referendum, but that this House cannot be so bound?

Mr. Hamilton

The Government these days are bound by nothing. Each Government Minister is going his own way. That is part of the trouble. The Minister of State cannot speak for the Government, neither can the Prime Minister. This is one of our difficulties. It is no good the Prime Minister or anybody else saying that the Government are bound by it. That is why some Members of the Government, including Cabinet members, have been given free play. Whatever the vote, they disagree with the EEC.

I give my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) the credit of having had the guts to resign from the Government on principle. But there are still members of the Cabinet who disagree in principle with the whole idea of the Common Market. The Foreign Secretary said that if he had come back from the renegotiations with a crock of gold, certain people would still have been against the Common Market in principle. Whatever the result of the referendum, even if the terms of the new clause were accepted, they will go on fighting if the result goes against them. If there is a substantial majority in favour of staying in, as all the public opinion polls forecast, the battle will not end there among some senior Ministers in the Government. This also applies to back-bench Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

Since my hon. Friend has brought me into the discussion, perhaps I could ask him a question. If he is so worried about this House being merely morally bound by the result, why is he not worried by the House being bound by legislative decisions of the EEC Council and Commission, which we have no power to alter?

Mr. Hamilton

My right hon. Friend must not try to destroy the argument. We have debated the matter he seeks to raise ad nauseam and it will be debated in the country. If my right hon. Friend chooses to put that sort of argument to the housewife in Tesco's, he might get a more intelligent answer than he would get in this House. That is the basis on which he is now acting. But that is not the subject matter of the new clause.

Before any policy matter can get into the Labour Party's election manifesto, it must have a two-thirds'majority at a Labour Party conference for two years running. Even then it need not necessarily be included. When it has got over that hurdle, it must go to a committee composed of members of the Executive and the Parliamentary Committee.

Mr. Ovenden

An item of policy that fails to obtain a two-thirds' majority at a Labour Party conference does not become party policy: but we do not then put the minority viewpoint in the manifesto—which is what my hon. Friend is proposing. He says that if we do not get a two-thirds majority, the pro-Marketeers have won. We do not take that view at Labour Party conferences.

Mr. Hamilton

I am saying that if these conditions are not fulfilled, this House will resume its normal constitutional position—namely, the status quo, the sovereign right to decide what is good in the national interest. That is a very reasonable proposition.

I see no reason why the Government should not accept the clause. We may get a high turnout in the referendum, and I hope we do, but there must be a decisive majority. Even if there were not, I still maintain my own right in this House to vote whatever way I wish and to take the consequences in my constituency. My constituents know my position very well. I have explained it to them several times and they fully agree with it. I have lost nothing by being frank with them. They know my views on these matters, and I have never suffered electorally as a result. I shall continue to take that view.

5.15 p.m.

Sir Michael Havers (Wimbledon)

I intervene for only a few moments. As so often happens in these debates, I agree with the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton). The real difficulty in this argument arises because of the constant repetition by Labour Members that this House is bound by the result of the referendum. [HON. Members: "No." ] Yes, it is often said that the House and hon. Members are bound by it. One has only to cite the silly letter written by the Secretary of State for Industry to the Leader of the Opposition last week which sets out that mistaken fact. I was delighted when the Minister of State a few minutes ago said that no Member of the House was bound by the result.

There is no need to build into the terms of the Bill the fact that the referendum is consultative. It is consultative in any event. The new clause would never have been necessary if that fact had been made clear, instead of things being so twisted that people are led to believe that every hon. Member must be bound by the referendum result. Once that canard is exposed and the true position made clear, the clause should not be necessary.

Mr. Powell

I admire the wisdom of the Chair in selecting the new clause for discussion. The hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery), not for the first time in the proceedings on this Bill, has performed a service by tabling it, for it is right before we part with the Bill, as presumably we shall sooner or later in this Sitting, that the House should cast its mind forward beyond referendum day. We should not allow ourselves to exist under the misapprehension that after referendum day everything will be cleared up, plain sailing, packed up and put away. It is overwhelmingly probable that referendum day will merely represent the end of one phase and the beginning of another in this great matter.

I do not agree with the proposition that this new clause should be added to the Bill, and I should like to explain why; but first it is important that we should put on record the agreed background against which it will fall to us to consider the outcome of the referendum, for, as has been repeatedly said, not least by the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), it will be back on our plate after referendum day and our responsibilities in this matter will still be with us.

From the beginning, in 1970, there has been verbal agreement that British membership of the Community requires the full-hearted consent of the British Parliament and people. It is true that there is a dispute, which continues to this day, whether the word "and" is conjunctive or disjunctive—in other words, whether the two are to be read as one so that the decision of the House of Commons is the consent of Parliament and people, or whether they are disjunctive and the decision requires to be taken separately. However, which point of view one takes in this dispute is fortunately not relevant for our purpose this afternoon. Whether we like it or not, we are considering the possible outcome of an appeal from Parliament to the people. So whether "and" in the famous phrase is conjunctive or disjunctive does not matter in this context.

Mr. Tim Renton (Mid-Sussex)

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), after he had used those words in his Paris speech, made it abundantly plain in two subsequent speeches that he was referring to the consent in Parliament and that that should be respected?

Mr. Powell

There is no need for the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) to remind me of this view of the meaning of the words used by the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath). There is also little doubt about the natural sense which those words conveyed to many people. But, fortunately, since we are concerned with an appeal, through the referendum, to the judgment of the people as opposed to that of Parliament, we can conveniently for the moment put that aside

It is important to recall the reason why the condition of full-hearted consent was uniquely attached to this decision. It was that British membership of the EEC brings to an end—technically at first but in intention fully–700 years of parliamentary self-government and the underlying principle of the British constitution that the supreme legislating and taxing authority in this country is Parliament. It was, therefore, considered to be logical—and I do not see how this can be disputed —that all that could only be terminated if there were full-hearted consent to its termination. That full-hearted consent, and the necessity for it, attaches to British membership of the EEC. It attaches to the act of terminating our former constitutional status. It does not attach to retaining our constitutional status, which we did, year after year, day after day, effortlessly and automatically. Nor does it refer—and it has never been used to refer—to a return, after a brief period, to our historical and fundamental constitutional status. It is membership of the EEC which requires the full-hearted consent which is now being sought from the people.

It is better at this stage—rather than for the first time after the referendum has taken place—that it should be put firmly. on the record that what I have just said is the view of the Government. On 14th January, when the Prime Minister first spoke at length about the referendum for which this Bill is now preparing, he referred explicitly to the words of the right hon. Member for Sidcup in 1970. He said: we are committed to, and are now proposing to seek, the full-hearted consent of the British people—on which the right hon. Gentleman once made a pledge."—[Official Report, 14th January 1975; Vol. 884, c. 186.] The Prime Minister clearly saw the referendum in the context of 1970, of full-hearted consent being necessary to British membership. Moreover, the Leader of the House both in March, when the referendum was first debated at length, and subsequently, made it clear beyond doubt that that was the case. Referring to the referendum, the right hon. Gentleman said: At last the British people will have their chance to say whether or not they give their full-hearted consent to our membership of the EEC."—[Official Report, 11th March 1975; Vol. 888, c. 304.] So it is a test to see whether the necessary full-hearted consent to membership exists and is obtainable or not.

Again, speaking more recently, the Leader of the House, who chooses his words carefully and is no hasty speaker, not someone to speak off the cuff, said of the referendum: The people will have an opportunity of registering their full-hearted consent, or otherwise, to British membership."—[Official Report, 17th April 1975; Vol. 890, c. 676.] When therefore eventually, after 5th June, the responsibility reverts to us, we shall at any rate approach that interpretation of the outcome which falls to this House with agreement upon the criterion which we are applying to it. The criterion is whether membership of the EEC—not whether commencing negotiations to disengage from the EEC—enjoys or not the full-hearted consent now being sought from the people, which we all consider to be essential, whatever might be the precise organ or organs by which the full-hearted consent is to be obtained.

Mr. William Hamilton

Neither the right hon. Gentleman nor anyone else has ever defined what is meant by the words "full-hearted consent". I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is coming to that point.

Mr. Powell

I was coming to precisely that point in fulfilling my promise to explain why I did not believe it wise for a clause of this kind to be added to the Bill.

I do not believe that we can, in advance, in a numerical fashion—in the face of all the possible eventualities on 5th June—define full-hearted consent to membership of the EEC in such a way that we are presented with an automatic interpretation of the result, the desire for which—I am not attributing this to the hon. Member for Honiton—lies behind many propositions for the inclusion of this kind of clause in the Bill. It is the idea that we can provide ourselves with a mathematical formula which would free us from responsibility, so that we could apply that mathematical formula on 6th June and then walk away with our work done. No clause that we can add to the Bill will relieve us of the duty of interpreting the outcome upon our own responsibility. Equally, nothing can relieve us of the duty of interpreting that outcome in the light of the agreed background to this debate which I have put on record—an agreed background which follows logically and necessarily from the consequences for Britain of being, or remaining, a member of the Community.

5.30 p.m.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)

It is clear that some will vote for and some will vote against remaining in the Common Market. However, a large number of people will abstain from voting because they believe that it is not their concern to vote but that it is the duty of Parliament to decide what is the proper thing to do. Therefore, we enter the period of the referendum knowing there are those who are against the idea of a referendum.

There is a fourth group of people. They say that they do not feel that they are fitted or capable of exercising the proper judgment necessary to vote on this occasion. That is why I say that the essence of the matter begins with the principle that if people do not vote, we in this House cannot be expected to treat the referendum as a guide. It is for that reason that, even if we do not include a clause which in terms says that we must have more than 60 per cent. of the British people voting if the result is not to be declared null and void. I for one would certainly not feel bound subsequently. The implication would be that a mini- mum of a quarter of the nation were not prepared to bother to vote for one reason or another—they may be good or bad reasons—and we would be unable to interpret them subsequently.

If it is to be full-hearted consent, it would seem that we must begin with this country's constitutional position at this time. We have signed a treaty. According to the rule of law and what binds Parliament, we are in Europe under the terms of a treaty properly passed by the House of Commons. If we are to be taken out of Europe, it must be by the full-hearted opinion of the British people coming forward to say that they want to reverse that finding.

It is for that reason that I arrive at a contrary conclusion to that of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), who was trying to build up an entirely specious argument based on certain words expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), with whom the right hon. Gentleman frequently finds himself at variance. Frankly, there is nothing in those particular words. What matters is the constitutional position in which we find ourselves.

Having accepted the treaty and entered the Common Market, an opportunity is now being given to the British people, by the device of the referendum—which so many like myself intensely dislike—to reverse the decision that has already been taken. If the British people do not want to stay in Europe, they will express that view with a vote now. Before we in this House are in any sense guided to take a view one way or the other, we are entitled to see whether it is the majority will of the people which they are willing to express in that direction.

The clause is valuable for discussion, even though in my judgment it is not necessary to press it to a decision, because it will make one thing plain—that at least 60 per cent. of the people must exercise their vote. If they express the view that we should come out of the Market and break our treaty obligations, it is not unreasonable that a minimum of 40 per cent. of the British people, rising to perhaps more than 50 per cent. on a big vote, should make it plain that that is their intention. We would find ourselves in a very difficult position if such a clear statement were to result. I devoutly hope that it will not, and I shall certainly work in that direction.

A number of societies and organisations are presenting the view that, for one reason or another, it is not necessary to vote in this campaign. The hon. Gentleman who expressed the view that a tiny majority percentage one way or the other would be binding upon this House was quite wrong, as the Minister explained. It is unfortunate that the Government of the day, in the person of the Prime Minister should have indicated that they would be bound by the result without explaining to the people that at least a substantial vote would be expected before the Government would be so bound.

Mr. Tim Renton

Whilst my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) was moving his new clause, the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and he had a pleasant classical exchange about the status quo ante helium. I should like to remind the House of Tacitus's phrase regarding what happened after the bellum was over: Ubi Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant.

The purpose of this dreary Bill, which we have been discussing for three days, is to introduce peace into the Labour Party. It has no other purpose. But where the Government hope to achieve peace they will create a desert in our tradition of parliamentary government. That is a factor to which the right hon. Member for Down, South called attention when he said that we were now approaching the end of 700 years of parliamentary democracy. I believe that when the Bill is done, at the end of this sitting tonight, this Parliament of ours will never he the same again.

I understand the reasons for my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton moving the clause. It is galling for all who, like me, are totally opposed to the principle of a referendum to find themselves having to try to sort out the shambles in which the Government find themselves. That is the principal reason why my hon. Friend moved the clause. In doing that. he has a somewhat surprising supporter in no less a person than the Secretary of State for Industry, who, according to The Times, in a speech to the executive of the National Union of Railwaymen on 8th April, commented: If the British people can be persuaded to vote for continued British membership of that sort of European set-up, we shall, by a single vote on a single day, be throwing away Britain's national independence. Such a decision would be a tragic error. I do not agree with the conclusion reached by the Secretary of State for Industry. However, it is interesting that he picked up that by a single vote on a single day we would be making this momentous decision. It is a fact that the Prime Minister has said that the Government will be bound by a single vote on a single day. But we do not know just what that Government will be. It clearly will not be the present Government, because some right hon. and hon. Members will leave it. Some shadow of a Labour Government will presumably continue and he bound by a single vote on a single day. It is ridiculous that such a far-reaching decision for this country should be decided in that manner.

None the less, I cannot support my hon. Friend's clause, and I should like to give my reasons.

The first is that if we are to have this referendum—if it is thrust upon us by the Prime Minister for the purpose of saving his political skin—we must have simplicity. The referendum result must be conclusive for the people of this country. although it cannot be binding on individual Members of this House. When the counting is over, I hope that it will all be said and done with, that it will be conclusive for the country, and that there will be no question of another referendum in six, nine or 12 months because a certain percentage of votes had not been reached.

I fear that if such a formula as my hon. Friend has suggested were written into the Bill it would have the effect of urging the constitutionalists to campaign for abstention. They do not like the principle of the referendum. There are many people of all political parties who do not like that principle, and I fear that they would urge their friends and supporters not to vote in order that the magic percentage should not be reached. This would lead to an inconclusive result, and it is a conclusive result that we have to aim for.

Mr. Emery

Is there not a chance that if what my hon. Friend has just suggested came about, that there was a major abstention, this would ruin the future prospects of referenda in this country for ever, and surely if we can achieve that at the same time as this referendum is going through we shall have done a major service to our constitution?

Mr. Renton

I thank my hon. Friend for making that point. The trouble is that in this instance the issue of our membership of the EEC is so important that we cannot afford to play with it in the way that my hon. Friend is suggesting. If we could destroy the principle of referenda for ever, no one would be happier than I, but this is not a good issue on which to play such a game.

We already see people campaigning for abstention and urging their friends and supporters not to vote. They are saying that it is an exercise of democracy either to spoil the ballot paper or never to get to the ballot at all. Many of us will have seen the paper from the Don't Know Campaign, an amusing paper which urges people. if necessary, to spoil their vote in order to make clear their protest against the whole referendum.

The gentleman who circulated some of us with this paper wrote a letter to the Western Mail which appeared yesterday. in which he developed this further. He said: If we cannot be sure, it is our democratic duty to abstain from voting. The Don't Know Campaign has been formed to proclaim the democratic rights of those who do not know and if our number is numerically greater than those voting "Yes" or those voting "No" quite clearly the referendum will have failed and the Government must reassume its responsibilities. I can understand a democratic person like that gentleman taking that point of view, but again, in search of a conclusive result, this is not a good issue on which to campaign for abstentions.

If the House agrees to the new clause we shall, by implication, be agreeing to accept the result of the referendum, assuming that the figures mentioned by my hon. Friend are reached. In fact, we shall be saying that if less than 60 per cent. vote the referendum is invalid. But by implication we should be going on to argue that if 60 per cent do vote and the right number vote "Yes" or "No", Parliament will then be accepting the result because we shall have specifically written in to the Bill a clause accepting agreement to a qualified majority, a qualified numerical vote of the sort my hon. Friend mentioned.

Mr.John Lee (Birmingham, Handsworth)

Do I understand the hon. Member to be saying that if the result goes in a way that he does not like he will not accept it, however emphatic that result?


I do not take the hon. Member's point. What I am saying in opposing this new clause is that I am opposed to referenda. I have never made any bones about that from the time I moved a motion last November. I am urging that as a natural consequence of that I do not wish to see a qualified majority formula in the Bill. Nor do wish to see the implication that if that formula is reached and is approved by this House, Parliament will accept the result of the referendum. The Government have said repeatedly that this referendum cannot bind individual Members, and it would be disastrous if the House gave the impression that a certain percentage vote in the referendum could bind individual Members. For that reason, although I have great sympathy for the arguments advanced by my hon. Friend in moving the new clause, I cannot support it.

5.45 p.m.

Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)

I support my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) in his new clause. I had tabled a similar new clause for discussion in Committee, although I did not move it last night because I felt that the Committee wanted to make progress.

What is concerning all those of who are involved with this matter is the great nightmare that the people might speak indistinctly in this referendum. We are worried about a poll of, say, 40 per cent. in which a majority of those voting—say, 21 per cent. of the electorate—would be in a position to bind the Government.

It is important to clear up this question of what is binding. The White Paper on the referendum said: The Government have agreed to be bound by the verdict of the British people, as expressed in the referendum result. This was echoed by the Lord President on 11th March at cols. 292–3 of the Official Report. However, the Government have indicated that in being bound, and this is a particularly important point, Parliament would take into account the way the people had spoken.

Here I want to quote the Minister of State, Privy Council Office on Second Reading of the Bill, when, speaking specifically about the question of a low poll and whether it would be binding, he said: In reaching its conclusion, Parliament no doubt would take full account of all the relevant circumstances."—[Official Report. 10th April, 1975; Vol. 889. c. 1541.] and he was saying that merely in the context of a low poll. He was accepting that the Government would still be bound. Parliament no doubt would take full account of all the relevant circumstances. Some of my hon. Friends will find no problem in this matter. To them referenda are so abhorrent that nothing would induce them to implement a "No" vote by supporting legislation to get us out of the EEC. They will not, therefore, be interested in any question of minimum turnout requirements, and I do not expect to carry them with me in this discussion. However, I say to my hon. Friends, particularly my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton), that I do not think that that view can be sustained. In practice, a high turnout and a decisive result, I think, would have a very substantial influence on the majority of hon. Members.

What concerns me, therefore, is the position of those hon. Members who are prepared to accept the guidance of the electors—however reluctantly in the case of a particular result—but feel the need for some more objective criterion of what should constitute effective guidance. The attitude of the Government is in effect to ignore the problem and hope that it does not happen. After musing aloud about this in paragraph 7 of the referendum White Paper, the Government say that they are: concerned that the size of the poll should he adequate, and they are confident that it will be so. They go on: They also consider it to be of great importance that the verdict of the poll should he clear and conclusive. I do not share their confidence, which is based more on hope than experience, and we are told little or nothing about what will happen if they are wrong. The Lord President also looked at this matter in his speech on 11th March and passed by on the other side. It is because I do not believe that this matter can be left in the state outlined by he Minister of State, that Parliament would no doubt take full account of all the relevant circumstances that I support the new clause, for which there are many sound precedents overseas to which my hon. Friend the Member for Honiton referred.

It has not been easy for me to say this, because I yield to no one in my detestation of the Bill, but, unlike some of my hon. Friends, I believe that the referendum result will influence a majority of hon. Members. The nation cannot afford an unclear verdict, because of the constitutional implications. That is why, if the people seek to refuse to accept the responsibility thrust upon them, they should be able to tell us "We do not know. You sort it out." I hope that that will not be necessary, and that the people will speak loud and clear, but because the prospects are so awful if they do not, I support the clause.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

My old friend Sir Harry Legge-Bourke told the electors of the Isle of Ely before the 1970 General Election that if the Government tried to take Britain into the European Economic Community after the election he would seek their views before voting for or against that proposition. After the Government's decision to enter he inserted a number of advertisements in the newspapers circulating within his constituency, setting out a ballot paper. He invited the electors to tear it out and send it to him at the House or at his party headquarters, but at the bottom of that ballot paper he said that any elector who did not choose to give his views to him would be presumed to trust the judgment of his Member of Parliament.

That does not seem to me to be a bad idea. Sir Harry was not the first man to think of it. That well-known and widely respected Commonwealth leader, Lee Kuan Yew, in the 1960s, held a number of referenda in Singapore to decide whether Singapore should become part of the greater Malaysia. As Chief Minister, he made it plain before each referendum that any elector who did not cast his vote against the proposition would be presumed to be in favour of the idea supported by the Chief Minister. It could well be argued that any voter who does not go to the polling station on referendum day can be presumed to be in favour of the proposition to let Parliament decide.

My lion Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) pointed out that, for a number of reasons, referenda tend to attract a lower turnout of the voters that does a General Election. I suspect that there will be a substantially lower turn out on referendum day then we have been accustomed to see at General Elections.

Looking back into history we can find a number of occasions on which the fate of peoples and nations has been decided by a very low turn out. When the voters of Naples decided 115 years ago to go into the State of Italy, the turnout at that plebiscite was 19.per cent. I do not think that we shall have anything like that low turnout on referendum day, but it would be ludicrous for the Government, or the major part of the present Government, to try to take the country out of the European Economic Community if only 19.17 per cent. of the electorate took the trouble to record their point of view.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

We had a fascinating Committee stage, enlivened not least by the contributions of the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery), sometimes to the pleasure of the whole Committee, sometimes to the displeasure of the Government Front Bench, and sometimes to the displeasure of his own Front Bench, but at least he enlivened the debates We are also grateful to him for giving the House an opportunity to air this issue.

Much of the debate is based on a misunderstanding. It is not for the House to attempt to bind, through legislation, the Government's attitude to the result of the referendum. That is a matter for the individual or collective decision of my right hon. and hon. Friends. Equally, the result of the referendum, however high the turn out, cannot bind the House in a meaningful way. Like many hon. Members who have spoken in the debate. I am a Burkean, although what Burke would have thought of referenda I hesitate to think. I believe, that, as individuals, we should be wise to take full account of the verdict of the people, and I shall do that in forming my own judgment. However, the referendum result cannot bind the House as a whole in any meaningful sense, and, therefore, the amendment is unnecessary.

The new clause has certain defects. The hon. Member for Honiton may not realise it, but there appears to be at least a strong possibility that if the result were to be declared null and void it might be necessary to have a re-run. Many hon. Members have expressed fears of a low turnout. I assume that if there were a low turnout in the first run it would be lower still in the second, and lower again in the third. We might find ourselves saddled with referenda for ever and a day on the same issue.

There is a rather more substantial objection of a technical kind, which is that it would be difficult to devise any means of deciding, if the turnout were close to the borderlines of the proportions prescribed in the amendment. whether the referendum result satisfied the criteria laid down by the hon. Gentleman. There are two reasons for that. 6 p.m.

One will be obvious on the basis of the debate we had in Committee. We decided in Committee to add to the electorate those Service men who are not registered. By definition, because there is no register of those Service men, we do not know with any precision how many would be eligible to register, and, therefore, it would be impossible to calculate—more impossible than it normally is—in this referendum the electorate eligible at any moment of time to vote. In an ordinary General Election that would be difficult enough.

The words in the hon. Gentleman's clause are "eligible to vote". There are two definitions of eligibility. One is "being on the register" and the other is "being on the register and alive". We do not keep a record of those who have, unhappily, passed from this world since 10th October of the previous year. It is not at all clear that technically the hon. Gentleman's new clause would stand. I have every sympathy with his intentions, but it is related to a rather different matter.

There are countries in which a two-thirds majority in referenda is required. The normal purpose of requiring a two-thirds majority, or some similar figure, is to entrench in a constitution a provision to which a particular importance is attached. It is a device to hamper quick change, and a device to buttress the status quo ante, if I may use the phrase mentioned earlier in the debate.

The debate has shown that in the House of Commons there is some doubt as to what is the status quo ante.

Are we, as the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) would argue, debating whether to change, fundamentally, the status of the United Kingdom by ratifying, in effect, a decision made three years ago—that is what he would say was the purpose of the referendum—or are we, as the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) argues, deciding whether or not to reverse that decision? If we cannot agree here, it is highly unlikely that the electorate would accept that, to build into the provision for a referendum a requirement which rested ultimately upon one's own individual interpretation of the answer to the question, would be the sensible procedure. I hope, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw his new clause.

Mr. Richard Kelley (Don Valley)

Will the hon. Member describe how an evolutionary and democratic process could be defined within a certain prescribed character? If we have an evolutionary process of democracy we must have an evolutionary process of thought of democracy.

Mr. Emery

Before I withdraw the new clause I would point out that I put it forward to try to save the Government from the follies and the tragedy they created for themselves. If they spurn my assistance, do not think that I should go to the position of forcing the House to save the Government. Therefore, with that logic, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new clause.

Motion, and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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