HC Deb 11 March 1975 vol 888 cc291-408

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Pendry.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

Before we embark on the Adjournment debate, I have a statement to read from Mr. Speaker stating that it may help the House if I remind hon. Members of the ruling on 3rd February when devolution was similarly discussed on an Adjournment motion.

Standing Order No. 16 gives Mr. Speaker discretion in an Adjournment debate to disregard to some extent the practice which prohibits reference to matters requiring legislative remedy if he feels that the enforcement of the rule would unduly restrict discussion.

As Mr. Speaker reminded the House, his predecessors and he himself have considered the prohibition to apply principally to half-hour Adojurnment debates. It would scarcely be possible to exclude from discussion the fact that legislation on the subject of our debate today will ultimately be necessary to implement the proposals. Mr. Speaker therefore states that the occupant of the Chair will intervene only if an hon. Member makes direct reference to the detailed provisions of any future Bill, but it will be in order to discuss alternative methods of conducting the referendum and the manner in which any question is to be put. Mr. Speaker thinks that this arrangement worked to the general satisfaction of the House on the previous occasion and hopes that the House will agree that it is the only sensible course to obtain today.

4.35 p.m.

The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Edward Short)

Whatever view we may take on Britain's membership of the European Community, I hope that we would all agree that this is much the most important issue that has faced this country for many years. Whether we decide to stay in or to come out, the effects on our economy, on our political and parliamentary systems, on our influence in the world and, indeed, perhaps eventually on our whole way of life will be profound not just for ourselves, but for future generations.

How should a decision of this importance have been taken? The right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) had it right when he said that such a decision should be taken only with the full-hearted consent of Parliament and the British people. In our system we accept decisions with which we do not agree, but only if we are satisfied that they have been arived at fairly and democratically.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South-West)

In Parliament.

Mr. Short

Unfortunately, the last Government's handling of the European issue did not match their previous promises. They had no mandate to take us in, merely to negotiate— "nothing more, nothing less ". The result is that the consent of the British people has not, in fact, been secured. The issue continues to divide the country. The decision to go in has not yet been accepted.

That is the essence of the case for having a referendum. Only by means of a referendum can we find out whether the British people do or do not consent to our continued membership. A General Election could not give us this answer, because this is an issue within the parties, not between them.

How, for example, would a Conservative supporter opposed to our membership have recorded his view in the last two elections? [An HON. MEMBER: "Vote Labour."] That is quite right. One former Conservative recorded his view most appropriately, but a number of hon. Gentlemen opposite who took his view did not, I believe, follow his example.

The country has not yet had an opportunity to say whether we wish to be in or out. For an issue of this unique magnitude, that is simply not good enough.

I understand and respect the view of those devoted to this House and to the sovereignty of Parliament who argue that a referendum is alien to the principles and practices of parliamentary democracy. I respect their view, but I do not agree with it. I will tell the House why.

This referendum is wholly consistent with parliamentary sovereignty. The Government will be bound by its result, but Parliament, of course, cannot be bound by it. Although one would not expect hon. Members to go against the wishes of the people, they will remain free to do so.

One of the characteristics of this Parliament is that it can never divest itself of its sovereignty. The referendum itself cannot be held without parliamentary approval of the necessary legislation. Nor, if the decision is to come out of the Community, could that decision be made effective without further legislation. I do not, therefore, accept that the sovereignty of Parliament is affected in any way by the referendum. Some argue that decisions on national issues should be taken wholly and exclusively by Members of the two Houses of Parliament. In general, we would all agree with that. But Governments are elected on their whole programme and it would be neither appropriate nor practicable to have referenda on individual parts of the package. Moreover, if Parliament's decisions are found to be wrong, a subsequent Parliament can reverse them, as we have been doing since February last year. But that surely does not apply to this matter.

Our membership of the European Community is a unique issue because it profoundly affects our relationships with other countries as well as our whole standing and status in the world. It is unique because in time it could become almost irreversible, not for legal reasons but because, as we are already finding, the longer we stay in the harder it will be to come out, and the harder it will be to find any adequate design for living outside.

In preparing the White Paper we have taken note of the views of those who have been consulted informally. I have had discussions with representatives of all the parties represented in the House, with Members representing a variety of different points of view, with the three major parties outside Parliament and with representatives of what are likely to be the two main campaigning groups. Having discussed the referendum with so many people of differing points of view, it is not surprising to me that the White Paper is not likely to satisfy everyone. But some of the proposals are still tentative. As the Prime Minister has said, it is a White Paper with very green edges.

This debate is not about renegotiation, but, of course, the progress of renegotiation, as well as the passage of the Bill, will determine the timing of the referendum. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary are today in Dublin on what I hope will be the final stage of renegotiation. Our aim is to introduce the Referendum Bill before the Easter Recess with a view to obtaining the Royal Assent by the third week in May. This would enable the referendum to be held in the second half of June.

The basic approach of the Government in making their proposals has been to stick as closely as possible to existing electoral machinery, evolved and tested over many years. To do so offers the best guarantee of efficiency, fairness and public acceptability. Familiarity and confidence in efficiency and fairness are more likely to ensure a good turnout and, what is tremendously important, to secure the widest acceptance of the result by the British people. We have, therefore, been prepared to depart from normal electoral practice only where there is good reason for doing so.

I turn now to the proposals in detail.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher (Edinburgh, North)

In view of the last remark made by the Lord President and as we, as a Parliament, will have to decide this issue, will he tell us why, in using the normal electoral machinery, we should not know precisely, each and every one of us, what are our constituents' views on this matter?

Mr. Short

The hon. Gentleman interrupted me after I had said, "I turn now to the proposals in detail." I shall deal with that point when I come to it, if the hon. Gentleman will allow me.

It has been suggested that the verdict of the electorate can hardly be regarded as decisive if there is a very low turnout or if those who do vote in favour of one course or the other do so by only a very narrow margin. There have been suggestions that we should stipulate a minimum poll or a minimum majority for the result to be decisive. Some of the groups I have consulted have been worried by the fact that the result of the poll could, I suppose, in the extreme case, be decided by one vote in many millions. But this would be the case if there were a requirement for a minimum majority.

If there were a minimum majority, there would also be the problem that a clear majority which was less than the minimum would not decide the issue. I am quite sure that the British electorate would find that extremely hard to accept. Also, the idea of stipulating a minimum poll is just as difficult, and could lead to widespread abstention. If we are to have a referendum, I hope that all would agree that we want a high poll, particularly as it is in the national interest to secure the greatest possible degree of acceptance of the result.

Mr. Keith Speed (Ashford)

In view of the right hon. Gentleman's last statement, and accepting the referendum as important, may I ask why, therefore, cannot British citizens working in Europe and people on holiday have the vote?

Mr. Short

I have said that I shall be discussing all the details. If hon. Members will contain themselves, perhaps at the end of my speech, if I have not covered specific points, they will then ask me about them.

The question on the ballot paper has attracted a good deal of attention. The Government are not firmly committed to the proposal in the White Paper, but we believe that the question should be as clear and simple as possible and should require a "Yes" or "No" answer. There have been suggestions that even with the simplest possible question the precise wording on the ballot paper may have an effect on the way people vote. But there is no reliable evidence to support that view. In responding to any opinion poll, people may reply differently to the same question raised in a different way, but there is a world of difference between how people respond to an unexpected question from a pollster stopping them in the street or knocking at the door and how they respond to a question the text of which they have known about and been able to think about for several weeks, on a subject which has been a matter of controversy for some years.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts (Cannock)

I accept that there is some truth in what my right hon. Friend is saying— [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—some truth. However, is there not considerable statistical evidence in terms of the recent poll on divorce in Italy, where there was a very long and nationwide campaign, that the result was eventually confused by the fact that people did not understand what the "Yes" or "No" stood for in the question and answer? In this case, it seems to me that the simple answer— without wishing to make a point that is too statistical— is that the two simple, understandable words here about which there are no doubts at all are the words "in" and out ".

Mr. Short

I am glad that my hon. Friend has seen one gleam of truth in what I am saying. However, I am coming to the question of the terminology. There is a world of difference between the pollster putting that kind of question and the question put in a referendum at the end of a long campaign with a great deal of national publicity.

However, the wording will not be decided lightly. The British are a mature electorate and would respond very unfavourably to any suspicion that they were being pushed by the wording of the question into giving the answer that the Government wanted. There are problems of terminology in drafting the question. The word "we" is open to misinterpretation—

Mr. Cormack

Like the French.

Mr. Short

—but it does personalise the issue. The words "Great Britain" leave out Northern Ireland. "United Kingdom" is, of course, the correct term, but it may be an unfamiliar term to some voters. Or again, "Common Market" is a familiar term; "EEC" is less so. But neither is correct. There seems little likelihood of "European Community" being misunderstood. Again, should the word be "think" or "shall ", or should the word be "want" or "agree "? The latter word, "agree ", would certainly appear to be loaded. Finally, and perhaps most difficult of all, should the words be "stay in" "be in "? "Stay in" is consistent with the wording of the Labour Party's October Manifesto and it represents the present state of affairs.—[Interruption.] We try to carry out our promises. "Be in" is superficially more neutral but gives the misleading impression that we have a choice whether to join the Community or not. The issue is whether we stay in or come out.

There is also the problem whether or not the question should be preceded by a preamble, as we have suggested. The Government have promised to consult people in the light of the renegotiated terms of membership. Renegotiation has led or will lead to the referendum. It seems right to us that people should be reminded of this by the preamble, but there is no attempt to influence by reference to a Government recommendation. It would be possible to make the preamble longer by adding, for example, "The United Kingdom has been a member of the European Community since January 1973 ". But clearly we want to avoid overburdening the ballot paper, which must be as simple as possible. However, some reference to the renegotiated terms seems to us to be appropriate.

I turn now to—

Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)

Before the Leader of the House leaves the question of renegotiation — he passed over that very quickly earlier — as he says, the word is used on the proposed ballot paper. However, how will it be explained to the public that renegotiation does not stop at any magic point after Dublin and that the Government themselves have indicated that they wish further to discuss the question of the steel terms?

Mr. Short

The Government embarked on a programme of points to be renegotiated. The Prime Minister will be reporting to Parliament on the result of the renegotiation.

I turn now to the register. There have been proposals that the normal parliamentary election register should be extended in a number of ways beyond the inclusion of peers as proposed in the White Paper. For example, it has been proposed that Service voters who are not on the current register should be included. Of course, they have a chance to register. It has also been proposed that those working in other countries should have a postal vote if they apply for it. I recognise the arguments—

Mr. Speed rose

Mr. Short

I shall give way in a moment.

I recognise the arguments. No firm decisions have yet been taken on such proposals. There are issues of principle, which apply equally to General Elections, and there are many practical difficulties in trying to establish at short notice some form of supplementary register. Sticking to the current parliamentary register and to our normal electoral practice would make it possible to hold the referendum before the summer holidays. There is a case for proceeding quickly and getting the matter settled one way or the other.

There is a case for sticking as closely as possible to existing electoral procedures. That would mean no postal votes for holidaymakers. As it is our intention to hold the referendum in June, very few people will be on holiday.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne) rose

Mr. Short

To allow postal voting would certainly have implications in General Elections. Our normal practice when we make such changes is to refer them to Mr. Speaker's Conference for study in depth.

Mr. Mark Carlisle (Runcorn)

Am I not right in saying that when the issue of votes for those on holiday has been considered in the past, the only argument which has been put against it is that the period between the calling of a General Election and the date by which a postal vote has to be submitted is too short to allow them to have a vote? Presumably that argument cannot apply when we shall know many weeks in advance the date on which the referendum will take place? What is the argument against allowing those on holiday to vote?

Mr. Short

I hope that the House will look at this matter dispassionately. I have said that we have not taken a decision. We are willing to listen to the views of hon. Members. It does not help to shout about it. Let us discuss the matter objectively and sensibly. In reply to the hon. and learned Gentleman, we shall have to proceed on an informal basis until the Bill receives Royal Assent. That is one of the problems. The period would be relatively short—namely, about three weeks. We are prepared to consider the matter.

Sir Geoffrey Howe (Surrey, East)

Since the capital transfer tax has been proceeding on an informal basis since 26th March last year and has not yet received Royal Assent, does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that the arrangements for the referendum could proceed in the same manner?

Mr. Short

The right hon. and learned Gentleman is getting obsessive about the capital transfer tax.

Mr. John Lee (Birmingham, Handsworth)

As speed is of the essence, and bearing in mind that the Government put forward the peculiar proposal that peers may be included in the electoral roll for the purposes of the referendum, will my right hon. Friend say what the Government propose to do if the referendum legislation is obstructed in another place?

Mr. Short

I never bid the Devil, "Good morning ". Let us deal with such difficulties when we reach them.

We hope to help electors by arranging for poll cards to be produced in time. That will help the electors. There are many electors who imagine that they cannot vote unless they have a poll card. The advice of hon. Members will he welcome on possible solutions to the problems of independent scrutiny particularly at the count. There are a number of possibilities and I should like to know the views of hon. Members.

I turn now to the question of how the votes should be counted and how the results should be declared. The choice broadly is between different methods of counting locally by constituencies, counties or regions, with local or central announcement of the results, and, on the other hand, a central count. As I have already said, we want the referendum to unite the country behind a decision one way or the other. We want that decision to be reached democratically. We do not want it to be used for their own purposes by those who wish to divide the United Kingdom. There are some who wish to do that and who look forward to using the referendum for that purpose.

Mr. Douglas Henderson (Aberdeenshire, East)

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way and for coming clean on the real reason for the extraordinary decision being made to insist upon a central count. I take it as a great compliment to my hon. Friends and myself that the right hon. Gentleman has found it necessary to proceed in that way. Bearing in mind his desire that familiar and tested electoral procedures should be followed, it will seem strange to people in Scotland, Wales and elsewhere that the votes will have to be trundled down to London. They will find it strange that there will not be adequate facilities for scrutineers to come from the areas that I have mentioned to ensure that the votes are correctly counted and to ask for a recount should there be a necessity for that course to be taken. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it would reassure people, and avoid the feeling that there might be a fiddling of the votes, if instead of being brought to London to be counted the votes were counted in the areas where the voting takes place?

Mr. Short

I am sure that if the hon. Gentleman catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, he will be able to put forward his point of view.

Confidentiality of results at local counts could never be guaranteed. It is a national poll and a national issue. The purpose of the referendum is to find out what the people of the United Kingdom think and not what any area or region thinks. The constituency is the whole of the United Kingdom. The Government propose that the ballot boxes shall be brought to London and the votes counted centrally. That would be a major task, but by no means impossible. It would take five days, including polling day, to count the votes. Details of the organisation are now being urgently investigated by a senior official who has been appointed to take responsibility for the arrangements until a national returning officer can be appointed.

I cannot yet say where it is proposed to hold the count, but the range of centres available in London for an operation of this size and duration is limited. Of course, Earls Court would be the natural choice because London is at the centre of our national communications. The date of the referendum—

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

The right hon. Gentleman observed a short while ago that the confidentiality of local results could not be guaranteed. Undoubtedly that is the case. Undoubtedly there will be a great deal of information, more or less accurate, of how the vote has gone in different localities. Is that not an argument which carries strongly in the opposite direction to the right hon. Gentleman's present tendency, since, if that is to be so, it would be far better if the truth were properly known and ascertained in the right way?

Mr. Short

That is a point of view. We want to know what the United Kingdom thinks as a whole. We are not concerned solely with Northern Ireland or Scotland or solely with anywhere else. The issue is whether the United Kingdom wishes to stay in or to come out.

Mr. Edward Gardner (South Fylde)

I have a short point to put to the right hon. Gentleman which I hope the House will consider important. How on earth— or for that matter anywhere else— are the Government to make the administrative arrangements that will be able to cope with an enlarged register bringing in possibly 25 million to 30 million votes and to count those votes within five days?

Mr. Short

We have carried out a feasibility study into this question and we believe that it can be done in five days. The date of the referendum must depend upon the progress of renegotiation. Polling day is traditionally on a Thursday in General Elections, and all but a handful of results are available in less than 24 hours. If the count is to take five days, Thursday would present difficulties, but there would be an advantage in using the traditional polling day, and the earliest practicable day would probably be 19th June. If, on the other hand, a five-day operation is inevitable, the need to secure the speediest possible result indicates a poll earlier in the week than Thursday. A Sunday poll would be unacceptable to a great many people and a Monday would therefore obviously be the best. However, I would welcome views on this matter. The earliest practicable Monday woul probably be 23rd June. Wakes weeks begin in the second half of June, and on 23rd June I believe only two towns will be on holiday. On 30th June, however, they would be joined by a dozen other Lancashire towns.

I turn now to the question of information. There is a good deal of evidence that voters need a great deal more information about the Market. The media and the campaigning organisations can be expected to provide plenty of general information. The Government's job is to supply objective information on the EEC generally and on the renegotiated terms and on the Government's recommendations. We feel that the special nature of the referendum justifies the delivery to every household of a popular version of the White Paper on the renegotiated terms and on the Government's recommendation. I am glad to tell the House that the Post Office and the Post Office workers are prepared to take on this substantial task—[Interruption.] I would have thought that the Opposition would have been pleased about that.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

My right hon. Friend said that the Government would provide objective information and a White Paper, but would it not be more confusing if, in the words of the White Paper, they answered requests for…interpretation of the renegotiated terms and the like "? If they did that, who could tell what was interpretation and what was objective fact?

Mr. Short

Government Departments will be asked for information. Government Departments are telephoned every day for all kinds of information, and I am sure that there would be a flood of information about this.

Although procedures for the conduct of the referendum will resemble as closely as possible those for a General Election, the Government will have to ensure that the voters understand the mechanics of the operation and have a proper advance notice of the question on the ballot paper.

We have also considered the campaigns likely to be mounted by the two umbrella organisations, and we have come to the view that, in the interests of a fair contest, there is something to be said for a modest degree of support for the two organisations— particularly as there is likely to be disparity in the funds available to them. A lot will depend on how far the bodies on each side coalesce into a reasonably united umbrella grouping. The Government could not offer to fund every separate body that proposes to campaign. Any money made available would, of course, have to be accounted for by the organisations after polling day.

However, whatever is decided on a direct cash subvention, the Government's major contribution is likely to be paying for the production and distribution, at the same time as the Government's own documents—which I have described—of the brief statement of both sides of the case which the White Paper describes as similiar to an election address.

There are precedents in other countries for the production of a document of this kind. I hope that hon. Members will agree that it is a reasonable proposal. It will allow each side to have a statement of its case sent to every household in the country.

Mr. Cormack

If the renegotiated terms are achieved in Dublin today, and if the Prime Minister, as he has indicated, commends these to the country, will he sign the election address?

Mr. Short

This will be a statement of the case written by the umbrella organisation concerned. It will prepare its own part of the case. Discussions are proceeding with the two campaigning bodies on this matter.

It will be very difficult, and probably impossible to legislate to control expenditure as happens in the case of a General Election, especially as such control could only relate to the very short period between the Royal Assent and the referendum. We take the view that it is probably better to ensure that there are all the normal electoral safeguards against undue pressure on individuals than to try to construct a restrictive framework of control on total expenditure.

The voters' main source of information will be television— even more so than at an election because there are no candidates. Provided television presentation is balanced it would take a very great deal to upset the balance of the campaign as a whole. I am confident that the BBC and IBA will ensure the correct balance both in their current affairs programmes and in the referendum broadcasts.

Mr. Churchill (Stretford)

On the question of television time and on the funding of the campaigns on each side of the case, will the Leader of the House and his colleagues bear in mind what appears likely at the moment, that the three major national democratic parties in this country — the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and the Liberal Party— will be on one side on this issue and the National Front and the Communist Party will be on the other side? Will he beware giving undue publicity to extremists of these parties?

Mr. Short

I do not accept that proposition at all.

I turn now to the Bill itself. It will be a relatively simple measure, which will authorise the holding of the referendum and will specify the wording of the ballot paper. It will provide for the appointment of someone to be responsible for the count and the certification of the result. It will make appropriate financial provisions and include power to adapt existing electoral machinery by order, and if the proposal is generally acceptable it will provide for assistance to the two campaigning bodies. A draft of the order setting out the electoral provisions will be available when the Bill is debated. The order will be made as soon as possible after Royal Assent. It will be subject to the affirmative resolution procedure and we believe it will be for the advantage of the House for a draft of the order to be available at the same time as the debate on Second Reading.

This Government came to power on a pledge that within 12 months of the election the people of Britain would be given the final say on whether to accept the terms that were in process of renegotiation or to reject them and come out. That promise we shall now fulfil. In doing so we shall be fulfilling also, two years late, the promise made by the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath). For 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.

5.9 p.m.

Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)

From the way in which the Leader of the House began his speech, one would have thought that a referendum had been an inherent part of the Labour Party's doctrine for a very long time. The right hon. Gentleman knows full well that that is not true. In July 1971 the present Prime Minister, then Leader of the Opposition, said from this Dispatch Box, when the question was being discussed at Question Time: I oppose a referendum, and I agree— I have always done so, as he has. The idea of an advisory referendum was not then put forward, but I still agree with the right hon. Gentleman on this question. But since he said, rightly, that the decision must be taken by Members of Parliament, each of them taking responsibility for his decision in the matter, will he look again at the White Paper which he published yesterday."— [Official Report, 8th July 1971; Vol. 820, c. 1515.] It is clear from that that the present Prime Minister was wholly against referenda and thought that the decision should be made by Members of Parliament. I was a little concerned that in the closing parts of his speech the Lord President said that the British people must have the final say. I cannot quote his exact words, but I think that that was the expression he used. That is inconsistent with his earlier remark that the referendum did not derogate from parliamentary sovereignty. If it does not derogate from parliamentary sovereignty, it is Parliament which has the final say. He said that his pledge was that the British people should have the final say. That shows our constitutional difficulty in discussing this subject and in taking decisions before we have thought about them properly and considered all the consequences

The Lord President made great play on the question of the full-hearted consent of the people. Yesterday, when I was having the compulsory cold collation which we have to have these days, I was interested to see this letter in the Evening Standard: How tired one gets of the well-worn clichç ' the full-hearted consent of the people '. What exactly is meant by this? Referenda for every important piece of legislation? If this was the case, we would have no Race Relations Act, immigration would have been stopped, abortions would still be illegal and hanging still be in force. All these laws were passed not only without this full-hearted consent nonsense, but, if the polls are to be believed, in the face of a determined 70 to 80 per cent. of the electors' wishes to the contrary. I expect that that is what we shall move to if we have the first referendum without considering the consequences that every piece of legislation will require full-hearted consent, which normally means consent exercised through the House, consent which my right hon. Friends and I have been concerned to exercise through the House but which the Lord President is now saying is consent exercised through the new device of a referendum. That used not to be part of the Labour Party's doctrine.

This referendum, if it is held, will be the first in United Kingdom history to affect the whole of the United Kingdom, but the White Paper makes no attempt to consider this constitutional decision.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, Central)

Does the right hon. Lady think that the referendum on whether the Six Counties should remain part of the United Kingdom did or did not affect the rest of the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Thatcher

The referendum was not taken over the whole of the United Kingdom, as the hon. Gentleman knows.

The White Paper makes no attempt to consider the constitutional decision of a referendum. It does not discuss its long-term effect and it does not indicate the status of the referendum result at law. Indeed, the White Paper avoids all the fundamental arguments and treats the whole question as merely one of tactics and organisation— and to that I would add semantics.

The speech made by the Lord President shows how difficult it will be to frame a question which suits everyone and is regarded as fair by everyone, let alone how difficult will be the framing of the 1,000-word statements by umbrella groupings. That will be even worse.

Used by the Labour Government in the form proposed, the referendum is a tactical device to get over a split in their own party, and any constitutional consequences are, therefore, of only secondary importance in the Government's eyes.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West)

Is the right hon. Lady aware that the Labour Party picked up the idea of a referendum during the passage of the European Communities Bill from an amendment tabled by the hon. Member who represents the faction in the Conservative Party that is anti-market?

Mrs. Thatcher

On that occasion the referendum was rejected. Speeches were made on the subject from both sides of the House, to which I shall refer. The hon. Gentleman's interruption does not alter the fact that the White Paper makes no attempt to discuss the constitutional position once we have had the first referendum, although members of the Government accept that once we have a first referendum things will be different and will never be the same again.

I quote from a letter which appeared in The Times of 11th April 1972 from the Home Secretary: It may be argued…that the EEC referendum would be a once-for-all operation. The device would never be used again. Who can possibly say that? Once the principle of the referendum has been introduced into British politics, it will not rest with any one party to put a convenient limit to its use. And most history shows, as Clem Attlee pointed out with terse force in 1945, that it is a splendid weapon for demagogues and dictators. Those who resigned with the Home Secretary on the occasion when the Labour Party later adopted the referendum— I understand after two meetings of the Shadow Cabinet within the space of a fortnight— took a similar view.

Mr. Roderick MacFarquhar (Belper)

I remind the right hon. Lady that the gentleman who proposed a referendum in 1945 was the then Leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister— Sir Winston Churchill.

Mrs. Thatcher

Indeed, yes. If I may go on with my own speech I shall come to that.

Referenda have been discussed before, in the House and elsewhere. There are some names that can be quoted in support of both sides of the argument. There will be even more names that can be quoted on both sides of the argument before we have finished the debate, if certain members of the Government vote in a way contrary to the way in which they resigned some time ago.

First, Dicey will be quoted on both sides of the argument, first by looking at the main edition of his book, which states that parliamentary sovereignty is supreme and, secondly, by looking at his views as a political activist who hated the party system and thought that what he called the absolutism of a party possessed of parliamentary majority needed to be curbed. I confess that when I look at the Government benches I am inclined to agree with him that there are times when the absolutism of a majority party needs to be curbed, particularly in the period when curbs have been stopped after the reduction in powers of the House of Lords.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

Is the right hon. Lady aware that Dicey is a work on English constitutional law which is not acceptable in Scotland? Is she also aware that the Prime Minister promised the Lord Advocate consultation on the question of the constitution of Scotland?

Mrs. Thatcher

Do read him. Both the eighth and tenth editions are full of good stuff. The last one which he wrote was the eighth edition.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)


Mrs. Thatcher

I would prefer to get on, otherwise I shall take such a long time. I have only just started.

Mr. Michael Stewart

I only wished to say that I hope that the right hon. Lady will not pray Dicey in aid too much. If she reads another of the appendices to his great work, she will find that he argued that it was against the order of nature that women should elect Members of Parliament.

Mrs. Thatcher

It is interesting that in these days it is much easier for women to get on in the Conservative Party than in the Labour Party. Women who are politically interested therefore know which party to join to pursue their political activities. The reference to Dicey which I have made came in the introduction to the eighth edition, and it was used as an argument against a referendum. Dicey was on both sides, and will be prayed in aid by both sides.

Churchill proposed a referendum at a time when there had not been a General Election for a long period, when the normal constitutional procedures were in suspense. Previously, as Home Secretary — Home Secretaries seem to get into trouble on the referenda issue— Churchill resisted an amendment to have a referendum in 1911.

Churchill also can be prayed in aid on both sides— against the referendum when in Government, and for a referendum at the end of the wartime period. Therefore, one can pray in aid well-known parliamentarians or constitutional lawyers on both sides.

It is frequently the case that those who are against a change in the law put up the proposition of a referendum when they think that, by having one, they can defeat the change in the substantive law. That is the usual reason for such a suggestion. The answer given by the Government of the day is to consider all constitutional consequences. There have been a number of cases of that kind. There was a conference on the reform of the second Chamber which looked at the question of referenda and came to the following conclusion: The majority of the conference did not approve this plan on the ground, among others, that the use of the referendum, once introduced, could not be confined to cases for which it was in this instance proposed and that it might tend to lower the authority and dignity of Parliament. Whoever tends to be against a Bill proposes a referendum. Normally the answer is, Let us consider its constitutional effects before agreeing to it "

The White Paper takes the view "Other democratic countries have had a referendum—why should not we? "That is to take far too simplistic a view of the referendum and to attempt to divorce one constitutional feature of a country from its whole context and refuse to look at the matter against a proper background.

If one is considering a referendum— I would he prepared to consider it, but not against this background— it would have to be considered against whether one should have a written constitution, under what circumstances one should have referenda, and how one would require to limit the power and curb the use of it by the Government of the day.

Mr. Lee

Rightly or wrongly— I would say wrongly— have we not already got a written constitution by virtue of our affiliation to the Common Market? It is full of written provisions which purport to apply to this country.

Mrs. Thatcher

The answer is "No." On occasion, those who have proposed a referendum naturally have subordinated whatever they might have thought of the constitutional circumstances of a referendum to what they thought of the provision which it was meant to be against. We recognise that this may happen again. But before embarking on a referendum we, as a House, should consider its far-reaching consequences. We should attempt to do so under four heads. First, parliamentary sovereignty; secondly, collective responsibility; thirdly, representative Parliament; and, fourthly, the consequences for treaty obligations which have already been assumed.

Let me deal first with parliamentary sovereignty. There is no power under which the British constitution can come into rivalry with the legislative sovereignty of Parliament. That is the tenth edition of Dicey. To subject laws retrospectively to a popular vote suggests a serious breach of this principle. To subject laws prospectively before the final assent of the popular vote suggests we are using a different rule to validate laws. To have several referenda would create a new rule. We should be saying that some proposals require popular ratification and others do not. Without a written constitution one might ask: which proposals and what kind of measures?

The Government seek to avoid that question by claiming that the case is unique. That is unconvincing, and masks the fact that they see the matter purely in terms of political expediency and party need. To use the referendum device at all is to ask the question: to what category of measure should referenda apply? Presumably the answer would be: in cases of constitutional change. But it is hard to define such a change in the British tradition because so much depends on convention and precedent. A referendum may, however, become acceptable if given a proper constitutional foundation— that is to say, if the conditions under which it could be used were defined. But that would mean, like many other democratic countries, going as far as a written constitution or at least part of the way. The implications for parliamentary sovereignty are profound. But if our sense of constitutional rules and conventions is weakening, there may come a time when some such course should be considered.

Secondly, I turn to the principle of collective responsibility. The statement in the annex to the White Paper makes it clear that the doctrine of collective responsibility will be suspended prior to the poll. I believe that it is suspended not on the terms of entry but on the whole principle of entry. That is the only consistent interpretation of what would happen. But the whole relationship of government with Parliament depends on that principle. No Government can be properly accountable to Parliament unless they acknowledge a collective responsibility with regard to main matters of policy. The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House described this as the most important issue that has faced the country for many years. What he is saying is that the people must make a decision, Parliament must make a decision, but the Government are incapable of making a decision. On all major matters the essential task of government is decision. That does not mean absence of argument or absence of some differences. It means the capacity to reach a decision after argument and consideration, and sticking to it or resigning.

We now face the new system. If the Government cannot agree, gone is the discipline of resignation, gone is the principle of accountability to Parliament. The new doctrine is to pass the buck to the people. Let the people arbitrate is the view. Normally if people are to arbitrate, one would usually ask whether they consent to arbitrate in that way. That was the view taken by the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and who wrote a letter to The Times on 27th March 1972 in the following terms: If we are to have a referendum, surely its first use must be to see whether the British people wish to introduce so important a departure from constitutional practice. The Leader of the House said that the present referendum proposal was in his manifesto, but the Labour Government were returned to power on the basis of about 38 per cent. of votes cast or on the basis of about 28 per cent. of those eligible to vote. In fact there is no mandate for a referendum.

Mr. Edward Short

Will the right hon. Lady tell the House what her percentage was in the election?

Mrs. Thatcher

The right hon. Gentleman is not really attempting to understand the argument. The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster would do very much better. It was that right hon. Gentleman I was quoting. There is no evidence that the vast majority of our people wish to have a referendum on this issue.

If we wish to make certain, the logical and reasonable thing to do is to ask, in the first question—it could be done within the framework of the local elections— "Do you wish to leave this question to Parliament to decide in the normal way? ", in the way in which every single one of the original six Common Market countries decided. Although many of those countries have provision for referenda in their constitutions, they did not use it.

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

I have been trying to follow with great care the right hon. Lady's argument about mandates. Will she accept that, if the present Government have no mandate for a referendum, the Conservative Government had no mandate to take us into the Common Market in the first place?

Mrs. Thatcher

The hon. Gentleman cannot be much of a believer in parliamentary sovereignty to have made that intervention.

If Parliament is still sovereign—

Mr. Spearing

No taxation without representation.

Mrs. Thatcher

We could not be considering taking the country out of the Community unless Parliament were still sovereign, as the hon. Gentleman knows. If he believes in parliamentary sovereignty, yes, we had a mandate for going into Europe, and he knows it.

What I am saying is that if one wishes to ask whether the people want to leave the decision to Parliament— and I believe that many of them would like to do so— the proper procedure would be to put that question to them and find out. Why does not the right hon. Gentleman provide for that question to be put first? It might avoid all the other problems of having a referendum, of getting the umbrella organisations to draft statements, and so on.

Mr. Philip Whitehead (Derby, North)

I am extremely grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way. Does she not accept that parliamentary sovereignty for the referendum is explicit in the vote taken by the House tonight? Once the House has decided upon a referendum we can have sovereignty precisely as she said for entry into the Common Market. That is parliamentary sovereignty.

Mrs. Thatcher

Not by the vote taken tonight—

Mr. Whitehead


Mrs. Thatcher

Only after the passage of the Bill through all its stages. Parliamentary sovereignty is not changed by declaration of the House, but only after the passage of a Bill through the House of Commons and the House of Lords, and after the giving of the Royal Assent, exactly the same passage as the European Communities Bill followed fully, after which we became a signatory to the treaty.

If we had a Government with enough courage to make a decision and give a clear lead, they would resign if they were defeated by the decision of the people. But, if I understand him correctly, the right hon. Gentleman has said elsewhere that the Government would not resign if the referendum went against their recommendation. Contrast Norway, which is used as an example for a referendum, where the Government resigned. But we understand that some members of the Government would resign. [An HON. MEMBER: "Stupid."] It is not very stupid, if one believes in collective responsibility. What the right hon. Gentleman is doing is to demolish collective responsibility for Labour Party convenience. He has a device so that the Government may stay, even if they are held in no confidence by the people. The people may say "We object to your main point of policy ", but nevertheless they have a device to stay in power, divided though they may be.

The third point I wish to make is the effect of a referendum on representative Government. The point was put forcibly in a debate on a Reference to the People Bill introduced in another place on 2nd March 1911. The Lord Chancellor then pointed out that our system, which has been copied all over the world, is one of representative Government under which those who have not time to look into every detail of this or that Bill choose people who are honourable and with whose opinions they are in harmony to discuss these matters. That has been our system of Government for many years, representative Government in which the representatives consider and discusss all the points in detail. In a popular vote, the voter expresses an individual opinion. In a representative institution, the representative would be expected to consider the interests of minorities and see how the separate measure fitted into the whole. I believe that if we have a referendum system, minorities would not receive anything like such a fair deal as they have under the existing system. I think that that is what the correspondent to the Evening Standard was also trying to say.

The fourth point concerns respect for treaty obligations. The obligations which we assumed by signing and ratifying the treaty were validly, correctly and constitutionally assumed under the full sovereignty and competence of Parliament. The treaty has been in operation for over two years.

The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. David Ennals)

Without the support of the people.

Mrs. Thatcher

Would the right hon. Gentleman wish to put capital punishment to the test of a referendum? Of course he would not, because he is prepared to choose the cases on which he consults the people, according to the convenience of the Government. Perhaps the late Lord Attlee was right when he said that the referendum was a device of dictators and demagogues.

The treaty has been in operation for over two years. I know of no country in the Western World in which a referendum has been used to override a treaty obligation which had been through all its parliamentary stages and had been in operation for two years. Such a step would have a damaging effect on Britain's standing in the world.

We do not even know what the status of the referendum decision is. The right hon. Gentleman's speech did not exactly clarify the position. It is said that the referendum is advisory or consultative. I believe that if there is a high poll and a clear majority, the result will in fact be binding on Parliament, whatever one may say in law about parliamentary sovereignty. I cannot envisage that a Parliament, whatever individual Members might have thought, if there were a clear vote against— [Interruption.] It is not advisory or consultative in the event of a clear result. It would be binding on everyone. [HON. MEMBERS: "No. "] It would bind and fetter parliamentary sovereignty in practice.

But if there were a low poll, and an indecisive result, the question would arise whether the British people had genuinely given their verdict by their vote. The Government might regard themselves as bound, but the result could not fetter the decision of Parliament. The uncertainty would be likely to be increased and not ended. If the decision were taken to come out on a low poll, it would be possible to argue that a further referendum should be taken when the revised terms of a free trade area were considered and had been through the House. I am sure that one side or the other would find a method to argue for a second referendum in the event of a low poll, and for not accepting the result. We could get into a difficult position by having embarked upon this first referendum without fully considering the consequences.

I turn to the sequence of events which led to this proposal.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

The right hon. Lady has enunciated a constitutional principle which some of us found a little difficult to understand. She said that in practice, if there were a large turn-out and a majority one way or the other, Parliament as a whole would be bound. Is she saying that that would over-ride the obligations that Members of Parliament entered into with their constituents at the previous election, which might be entirely different?

Mrs. Thatcher

I thought that I had made the position clear. I am sorry if I have not done so. In law, the result could not fetter Parliament, but I believe that in practice it would. That is all that I said. If there were an overwhelming decision one way or the other, I believe that in practice the, decision in Parliament would follow the referendum result. That could in no way fetter the way in which Members not fetter them. I was talking only about what I believed would happen in practice what I believed would happen in practice.

We know the sequence of events which led up to this proposal. In 1971, the present Prime Minister was firmly against a referendum. But problems and divisions were arising in his own party, and one group of dissenters campaigned for a referendum. We accept that any hon. Member who holds strong views on the legislation itself is entitled to propose any method which he chooses to defeat it. But when Cabinets and Shadow Cabinets come to deliberate, they should bear in mind all the constitutional consequences of the course of action proposed to be slow to undermine cherished principles which have served liberty well for a long time.

It is quite possible to put a democratic case for having referendum provisions. If a referendum is put forward seriously as a constitutional instrument, we should need to consider the different kinds of referenda involved and what they implied for the present rules and conventions of our political order.

Assuming that we wanted the referendum provisions to apply only to constitutional questions, we should try to define what that means in a British context— an extraordinarily difficult exercise. If we wanted to avoid leaving the decision on whether to have a referendum to the whim of future Governments, we should have to think of some means of limiting its powers.

The White Paper does none of this. It is a practical expedient. It will have far-reaching consequences. The immediate point may be to register a popular view towards staying in the EEC. The longer-term result will be to create a new method of validating laws. What one Minister has used as a tactical advantage on one issue today, others will use for different issues tomorrow. This will lead to a major constitutional change, a change which should only be made if, after full deliberation, it was seriously thought to be a lasting improvement on present practice.

No such deliberation occurs in the White Paper which has been described in the Sunday Times of 2nd March as reeking fittingly of shame There is nothing here of the sovereign people, the higher democracy, the deeper search for a fuller-hearted consent…The Paper is written, unmistakably, by people who have lost all conviction in what they are saying. The referendum's true genesis, as a piece of thoughtless short-term brokerage in the Labour Party, is aptly reflected in the White Paper's dominant tone, which is one of helpless bewilderment at what is about to happen. We saw that in the speech of the Leader of the House today.

This White Paper has come about because of the Government's concern for internal party interests. It is a licence for Ministers to disagree on central issues but still stay in power. I believe that the right course would be to reject it and to consider the wider constitutional issues properly and at length.

5.43 p.m.

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

I am delighted to be called immediately after the Leader of the Opposition in what I believe was her maiden speech in that rôle. I agree with much of what she said, save for the constitutional matter which I raised with her in my intervention and with which I should like to deal in a moment.

The only matter which is unique in this whole discussion is that the Government wish to hold a referendum. I should say straight away that many right hon. and hon. Members in all parts of the House, including some of my own colleagues on the Liberal bench, have on different occasions for different reasons put forward the idea in principle of holding referenda for different purposes. I myself have not. I have always been opposed to them.

Mr. Norman Buchan (Renfrewshire, West) rose

Mr. Thorpe

I should like at least to start my speech. I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman later. What is unique — Mr. Buchan rose

Mr. Thorpe

If the hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) wishes to refer to the Feu Duties Bill or to the Ten-Minute Bill about devolution which include a referendum, certainly I voted for them if that makes him happy.

Mr.Buchan rose

Mr. Thorpe

I am sorry. I am entitled at least to start my speech. If the hon. Gentleman still feels that he wishes to raise a point with me later, I will give way to him, but not now. I wish to start my speech.

What is unique is that the Government of the day are recommending that we should have a referendum. Since this has not always been the view of the Labour Party, we are entitled to examine the Government's motives for this change just as much as we are the machinery which they are recommending.

On 25th November 1969, at column 199, of the Official Report, when the present Prime Minister was then Prime Minister, he was asked by the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) whether legislation might be introduced for a national referendum on entry into the Common Market once the terms were known. The Prime Minister's reply, which was unusually short and incredibly decisive, was "No, Sir." I know the modesty of the hon. Member for Banbury, and I am sure that he will forgive me if I do not quote his supplementary question because it was not highly relevant or germane to my present argument. But he has at least been consistent in these matters. The Prime Minister went on to say: It is contrary to our traditions in this country…Hon. Members on either side of the House do not usually feel that referenda are a way in which to conduct our public affairs. I am sure that a referendum would give 100 per cent. support for increasing expenditure on every item. It would give 100 per cent. support for abolishing income tax. At that point, Sir Gerald Nabarro intervened to say: What a splendid idea! The Prime Minister went on: That was what I hoped to imply. It is not a way in which we can do business. These are matters on which hon. Members are elected to the House and they have been free to express their opinions, as they were in the debates in the House, and as they will he again when we are offered terms for joining the Common Market."— [Official Report, 25th November 1969; Vol. 792, c. 199–200.] Then again, when the Labour Party was in power and the Government published their White Paper (Cmnd. Paper 4289) in February 1970 they said: Once the outcome of negotiations is clear, it will then be for Parliament to decide. If we look at the Labour Party Manifesto of 1970, under the heading, Now Britain is strong. Let's make it great to live in.", there are two references to Europe. The first underlines the desire of the Labour Party …to play a full part in the future political and economic development of our continent. The second says: …we have applied for membership of the EEC and negotiations are due to start in a few weeks' time. These will be pressed with determination with the purpose of joining an enlarged Community provided that British and essential Commonwealth interests can be safeguarded. Shortly after, in the debates in this House, when there was a majority of 112 on the terms negotiated, I remember asking the present Secretary of State for Employment, who at the time was in an unaccustomed position on the Opposition Front Bench, when at any stage in the 1970 General Election the Labour Party, either in its manifesto or in any speech or broadcast, ever said that before Britain went into the Common Market there would either be a General Election or a referendum and that either one or the other would be a condition precedent. The right hon. Gentleman could not give me that answer, because there was no answer which he could give me. It had never been a condition precedent.

The Leader of the Opposition referred to the speed with which the present Prime Minister sprang to the Dispatch Box on 8th July 1971 to assure the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), the then Prime Minister, that it was true that he had always been totally consistent in opposing the concept of a referendum. The conversion came in April 1972 as a result of which the Home Secretary, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Mr. George Thomson all resigned from the Shadow Cabinet and the Home Secretary wrote that he could not accept this constant shifting of ground. If I may give the right hon. Gentleman a piece of friendly advice, he should accept the dictum of the old Clydesider, "If you can't ride two horses at once, you shouldn't be in the ruddy circus at all."

Therefore, we are entitled to ask why the Labour Government have changed their mind. There has not been a sudden democratic rush of blood to the head. If there was any lingering doubt about that, certainly the Leader of the House did not give that impression.

I believe that it would be profoundly unfair to put forward any explanation other than from the lips of the Labour Party itself.

The right hon. Lady the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, speaking on the Thames Television programme "People and Politics "on 20th February 1975. reported in The Times on the following day, said: The Government would have broken up if it had not been decided to hold a referendum ". She said that although the referendum was bound to cause wounds within the party, she thought it would survive. I think Harold is very good at healing wounds she added. No one has greater experience, and needs to have greater experience, of doing that, than the right hon. Gentleman.

I think we have to accept, when we are looking at the merits of the matter, that when the electors ask, as many of them do, "Why cannot you make up your own minds? We elected you to do the job ", the short answer is, "Because the Labour Government cannot agree, and therefore the nation at public expense is asked to resolve their difficulties ". That is the reason, and it is no good beating around the bush.

We know that the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary will say "Yes ", and that the Secretary of State for Industry, the Secretary of State for Employment, the Minister of Overseas Development and the Secretary of State for Trade will say "No ". They will say respectively "Yes" or "No ", whatever the arguments are, and it will be surprising if the Prime Minister does not announce next week that he has scored a massive triumph in Dublin and he thinks we should all support the idea of staying in Europe.

What is unique is that this is the only occasion on which the Government have had to propose what is a device to paper over their own cracks. But if I do the Labour Party and the Labour Government an injustice and we are having this referendum because it is a matter of great constitutional significance, it is a matter which, as the right hon. Gentleman said in the preface, is unique, if I am charitable and suggest that that is why the Government have changed their minds, is not the question whether Scotland and Wales wish, or do not wish, to secede from the United Kingdom, whatever views we may have, not a pretty profound constitutional decision? If there are many people who disagree with the whole electoral system under which Members are elected, whatever views people have on other questions, is not that a matter of great constitutional importance? Where do we draw the line? Why is it right for one and not for the other?

If we believe that, why do not we have Sunday opening, where there is a matter of local option?

Mr. Buchan rose

Mr. Thorpe

If the hon. Gentleman has in mind the Ten-Minute Rule Bill on which I voted I shall give way in a moment and put him out of his agony. Why not have a referendum on whether we should drive on the right hand side of the road? Why should we not have had one on decimalisation? That would have guaranteed it would never have happened. If we could have had one on decimalisation the answer would have been "No ", and if we were to have a referendum now on whether we should go back to the old system of currency the answer would also be "No ". The Government, unless they are going to be charged with introducing a cynical device, have to show why it is the uniqueness of this constitutional issue which calls for a referendum for all time but on no other issues.

Mr. Buchan

The right hon. Gentleman referred to a referendum on this issue for all time, but on no others, and mentioned the question of devolution in Scotland. That was all to buttress the fact that, among other things, he and the Liberal Party opposed the question of a referendum on that matter, as they did on other issues.

In the Session 1968–69, a Private Member's Bill was debated at length on a Friday. I replied to the debate and pointed out that the Bill should not be passed until the constitutional commission had reported. It was a Liberal Bill, introduced by Mr. James Davidson, then the Member for Aberdeenshire, West. It was the Scotland and Wales (Referenda) Bill, the sponsors of which were Mr. James Davidson, Mr. Jo Grimond—

Mr. Sneaker


Mr. Buchan

—Mr. Emlyn Hooson, Mr. Russell Johnson and Mr. David Steel.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member must resume his seat when I rise. I think that this is an abuse of an intervention. The hon. Member is making a speech. He can put a point to the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) if he gives way, but he must not read out a list of names.

Mr. Thorpe

The hon. Member for Renfrewshire, West may not have been here at the beginning of my speech. I said that many right hon. and hon. Members, including Members of the Liberal Party, had voted for the concept of a referendum, and voted for the Bill introduced by Mr. Davidson, then the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman exerted so much time and effort on bringing out that point. I readily concede it. We are entitled to ask why the Government, who have consistently as a party and as the Government opposed a referendum on the issue of Europe, have now come round and changed their view, and the short answer is that no one has deflected us from that—

Mr. Buchan

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I remind the hon. Member that there are many hon. Members who wish to take part in the debate.

Mr. Buchan

With respect, Mr. Speaker, this is an important point. I challenged the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) on a matter of truth, which was rejected. I am prepared to take the right hon. Gentleman's last few remarks as an apology for his previous statement which denied the truth of what I was saying.

Mr. Thorpe

The next point that is important is the view of the Government—

Mr. Gwilym Roberts rose

Mr. Thorpe

I am sorry, but I must get on.

The Government have indicated in paragraph 7 that even if there is only a one vote majority out of 30 million or 40 million they will be bound by it. This is a totally new constitutional concept. They are strictly entitled to say that they will accept the result, however low the poll, but they have indicated that if they make a firm recommendation that they wish, for example, to remain in Europe, and there is a majority, however small, against remaining in Europe, they will stay in office. That is because they believe it is not a sufficiently important issue upon which they should resign, but in the next breath they say it is a sufficiently important issue on which to have a referendum. They cannot have it both ways.

In other words, this is as important as the Reform Bill, as the problems of Ireland in 1886 and tariff questions. It is as important as all those, hence a referendum. Yet when it comes to the decision staying in power is more important than listening to that view. Alternatively, the Government are saying in their recommendations, "These are our principles, but if you do not like them we should try to find others later on ".

Then we move on to the question of the count. Presumably we shall see special trains travelling through the night and British Road Services' lorries trundling through country lanes bringing 40 million ballot papers to a place which has not been discovered, but which we think will be Earls Court.

I want to make it plain that I am opposed to an inter-nation count. I hope that Government Members will listen They may not agree with me, but I hope they will do me the courtesy of listening to what I have to say. I am opposed to a special count for Wales, for Scotland, for Northern Ireland and for England because if, as could well happen, there is a different decision in those different nations, the logic should be that those individual nations should have the right to secede from the Common Market, and therefore from the United Kingdom.

The Scottish and Welsh National Parties are in favour of separation from the United Kingdom, but I believe that if that decision is to be taken it must not be taken by the back door of a referendum on something else. It must be taken by a General Election which shows that in Scotland and Wales a majority of Members and a majority of voters are in favour of separation. We have a constitutional issue of great magnitude, but it should be resolved though the ballot box and not by a referendum.

Mr. Henderson

Does the right hon. Gentleman consider that in Scottish eyes the United Kingdom Parliament is not entirely sovereign, but that it is bound by the terms of a bargain into which the Scottish nation and the other nations of these islands joined in 1707 and that the Scottish people are entitled to decide whether the sovereignty of Scotland, which at present resides in this House, should be transferred to any third party?

Mr. Thorpe

I do not know whether it helps at this stage if Scotland is technically at war with France or whether the Act of Union was or was not a handout for gold. If there is to be a change in the relationship between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom it should be the result of a democratic election at which the electors of the United Kingdom have a say— not by a referendum but by a parliamentary election.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts rose

Mr. Thorpe

I cannot answer more than one intervention at a time, and some hon. Members may feel that there have been too many already.

It would be much more frustrating to the Nationalist Parties to have a decision taken which was then totally ignored, rather than to have the problem of secession or non-separation decided by the normal constitutional means of the ballot paper. That is how I would contest it.

The more I look at the idea of a national count, the more I believe that it has grave disadvantages. First, it will take five days. What that period of uncertainty will do to investments and to the pound is something on which, no doubt, the Chancellor of the Exchequer will have views.

Paragraph 13 of the White Paper states that we shall be using the existing returning officers. Therefore, I see no reason why the count cannot either be at constituency level or at county level. There are those who say that to have it at constituency level would mean that a Member of Parliament would be pressurised and mandated to carry out the views of his electorate which might be different from the views he expressed at his election. It ill becomes hon. Members to put forward that argument when they are taking away certain of the decision-making powers of Members of Parliament by having a referendum. They cannot have it both ways.

I am in favour of a count, preferably at constituency level. If that cannot be arranged— and I see no reason why it cannot— it must be at county level. It is not sufficient, in paragraph 21, to say that a national count is the "most appropriate ". That is not giving us the benefit of the Government's profound thinking.

On the question of postal votes, I am afraid that the Leader of the House, with great respect, is not entirely seized of the matter. Unless a person was resident on the qualifying date, for example, October, he would not be on the register. Many thousands of people working abroad are not on the register. Some of them are closely involved in the outcome of this referendum. They represent this country in the Community.

The guide we should follow and at which I invite the Leader of the House to look is the referendum in Northern Ireland. There the facilities given for postal votes were extremely generous and, while there was the usual initial hostility from civil servants, who said it could not be done, people who were on holiday abroad, and who had difficulties did receive a postal vote. I see the right hon. Member for Penrith and the Border (Mr. Whitelaw) present. I am sure he will agree that there was a high turn-out.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

The right hon. Member will recollect that that was consistent with the form of the franchise in Northern Ireland for local elections, both to the Assembly and for local government. That does not apply to the rest of the Kingdom.

Mr. Thorpe

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I think he will also agree that never before at an election had it been easier to get a postal vote than during that campaign. For the first time, people on holiday were able to have postal votes. For once Northern Ireland has pointed the way in democracy. It may be an unusual experience but that is the position and I should like to see it followed here.

If the British people are free to vote we should like to be certain that the House of Commons will also be free to vote. It would be rather strange if we were whipped here and the British electorate had a free vote.

The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) mentioned the Government's information unit, referred to in paragraph 31 of the White Paper. This will be a fascinating outfit. It will give not only factual information but an interpretation of the renegotiated terms. Presumably both Government points of view will have to be represented at all times. Individuals will decide their fancy and then decide which of the two doors to enter— the one marked "In" or the one marked "Out ". If an hon. Member goes in the door marked "In ", he will probably find a representative of the Home Secretary, but if he goes in the door marked "Out" there will probably be a representative of the Secretaries of State for Trade, Industry or Employment. It will be interesting to know how this is to be worked out.

I am not all that happy about the so-called "umbrella organisations ". It is true that many hon. Members will be closely associated with both umbrellas. We are shovelling money and a considerable amount of political power to the umbrella organisations, one of which is headed by a retired diplomat and the other by an obscure lawyer.

Mr. Neil Marten (Banbury) rose

Mr. Thorpe

I am not referring to the hon. Gentleman. I am talking about the apparatchik who will be in charge.

Mr. Marten

I think I know to whom the right hon. Gentleman is referring. That gentleman is merely the head of one of the organisations affiliated to the National Referendum Campaign which is the umbrella organisation of which I happen to be the chairman.

Mr. Thorpe

I will gladly withdraw. I shall merely refer to the lawyer as an obscure spoke in the umbrella. The hon. Gentleman is the spring of the umbrella. We have to look carefully at these umbrella organisations which will be given a great deal of taxpayers' money and political power.

We are being asked to introduce a referendum, not because, after long and mature reflection, we believe that this is a way in which we can improve the political life of this country, but to help the Prime Minister unify his party. The taxpayer will be asked to pay for the expensive business of trying to unify the Labour Party. This has been described as a White Paper with green edges. In my view those edges are rather brown.

Unless we are given a firm undertaking people will regard the referendum as symptomatic of the withdrawal symptoms which the Government have been showing in the past few years after their keen Europeanism at the time of "never taking no for an answer ". It is a cynical way to introduce this constitutional practice. I shall vote against it.

6.9 p.m.

Mr. Roy Hughes (Newport)

I am grateful for being allowed to take part in this debate on the proposal to hold a referendum.

There are people who say that the electorate cannot be trusted in this matter and that they do not understand the issues. I refer to the words of the late Hugh Gaitskell when, in 1962, he said that this was the message of the tyrants throughout the centuries. Nevertheless, it is a fact that many people, especially Conservative Members, quite needlessly work themselves up into a lather about this issue.

The principle of a referendum has been built into the constitutions of many countries. They were held efficiently and without much bother. Over many years leading figures in the Conservative Party have advocated a referendum. Before the First World War it was the official policy of the Tory Party on the vexed question, then as now, of Home Rule for Ireland. In 1930 Mr. Stanley Baldwin advocated a referendum on Empire Free Trade. The late Sir Winston Churchill in 1945 proposed one in a letter to the party leaders to decide whether the life of that Parliament should be extended. Since the Conservative Party is the party of tradition, it ill behoves it to react in this way. In passing I might add that we have referenda on Sunday opening in Wales from time to time. They are held efficiently, and are quite progressive.

The whole Common Market business was simply steam-rollered through the House. We are reminded of the majority of 112, but we are not reminded of the fact that on the issue of principle, in the Second Reading debate, the majority was only eight. That measure was certainly put through without the "full-hearted consent of the British people "which the then Prime Minister promised us.

There is concern now that ordinary people should have a say about this great issue and that they might even vote against the Establishment in the form of the Foreign Office, big business and so on. The Labour Party won two elections last year on this issue. It was clearly a point of principle then and I am glad that the Government have decided to honour their promise. This referendum means more than paying lip-service to the subject. It is essential that it should be fair. The dice must not be loaded. The Government have a heavy responsibility here. We know that for a long time every national newspaper has been greatly in favour of the Common Market. They have exercised all manner of distortions and censorship to point out the merits of the Common Market. The BBC has even digressed from its usual high standards.

We had the serious speech by the Economic Commissioner, Mr. Haferkamp, on 19th February at the Common Market Parliament in Strasbourg. He said that it was time the people were told the truth and that the days of fast increases in prosperity were gone for ever. He forecast virtual stagnation of the economies of the Nine. People will have to make sacrifices, he said. This is a rather different picture from that painted for the people of Britain.

Private enterprise in this country is, I am afraid, practising a form of arm-twisting. We have had the case of the Hoover company at Merthyr which has told its employees that if Britain does not remain in the Common Market it does not intend to go ahead with its expansion plans. Paragraph 39 of the White Paper expresses the hope that the campaign will not interfere with industrial relations. If companies act in this way, that will be the effect.

Mr. Carlisle

Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that a company does not have a responsibility to point out to its work force the serious danger to their employment if we should withdraw from Europe?

Mr. Hughes

It will be appreciated that the trade unions should have the opportunity to put the contrary viewpoint. A representative of the Brussels bureaucracy was allowed to tour those works last week but no similar facility was given to those who wish to put the opposite case. This is an example of the prejudice being practised.

The Government have a difficult job in ensuring that there is fair play on both sides. I am not at all happy about some of the proposals in the White Paper. There is the question posed on page 4 which speaks of the "European Community ". That is a very cosy term. We know that the ordinary people of Britain have always known this organisation as the Common Market. Again, the question talks about staying in the European Community. It would be more neutral if we asked "Should we be in the Common Market? "At the very least the words "Common Market "should be included in parenthesis after "European Community ".

Paragraph 10 of the White Paper talks about consultations with various bodies and organisations. I understand that the National Executive of the Labour Party took a point on this. It felt that the words "Common Market" should he included in the question.

Likewise, the organisation of which the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) said he was chairman wants "Common Market" to be included in the question. It is notable that since the White Paper has been published it is the pro-Marketeers who are highly satisfied with the document rather than those who are opposed to Britain's membership of the Common Market.

There is also the issue of the count. The proposal is that it should be on a national basis. This is quite alien to British tradition. We all know our parliamentary counts on a constituency basis. People understand the arrangements. This suggestion of a national count is nothing short of a gift to the Nationalists. Serious consideration should be given to the count being organised on a constituency basis so as to make it more meaningful. There are some pro-Marketeers who are a bit shy, or coy, about this. I would have thought that they want to know what they their constituents feel about this. If they are sincere in their beliefs they have nothing to fear.

This is particularly relevant because, as the Leader of the House said this afternoon, hon. Members will be expected to adhere to the decision. That is all the more reason for them to know what their constituencies think about it. The Government recommendations contained in paragraphs 25 to 31 of the White Paper talk about collective responsibility. We are not in a collective situation. It is an open secret that various leading members of the Government— and leading members of the Opposition, too— are ready to speak out against the renegotiated terms. If any document is to be sent out it should contain not only a majority viewpoint but a minority viewpoint. It might be better if there were no recommendation at all.

Next, there is the question of the setting up of an information unit. This can only have the effect of bringing the Civil Service into politics. We criticised the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) when he used the services of the Post Office a few years ago, and the present suggestion could be an even worse transgression.

Paragraphs 35 to 39 of the document refer to expenditure limitation. We know on which side the money bags are on this issue It has always been a case of big business versus the people of Britain. What we can say is that the people of Britain have been remarkably resilient, despite all the millions of pounds that have been spent on propaganda over the years. I ask whether it is too late even at this stage for some sort of parity to be introduced into this campaign.

In the matter of advertising in the Press and on hoardings, there are two alternatives. One is to ban it altogether, apart from the actual notices of meetings, or if one side is to be offered these facilities, similar facilities ought to be offered to the other side as well. In the referendum in Denmark— and we know what the people of Denmark think about the Common Market— the people were swamped in the last week of the campaign with propaganda in the newspapers. Some very costly advertisements were inserted, and the people, so it seems in retrospect, were swayed against their better judgments. The Government must at least provide the necessary finance to ensure that both sides get a fair crack of the whip.

This referendum is essentially a victory for the anti-marketeers. Despite all the mass indoctrination over the years, it is obvious that the people of Britain have no enthusiasm at all for the Common Market. If the pro-Marketeers say that this is the issue of the age, this transformation cannot take place without the wholehearted consent of the people. That is why I support the referendum.

6.23 p.m.

Mr. Richard Wood (Bridlington)

For a number of years I have found myself walking through one Lobby or the other at the end of our debates with a variable sense of enthusiasm, and, no doubt, hon. Members have shared that feeling. The vote that I cast tonight against this White Paper will be one of the most enthusiastic that I have ever cast during my membership of the House of Commons.

This White Paper is said to be a consultative document. Most of those who have so far spoken have talked about its green edges. The Lord President of the Council is said to be waiting for helpful and constructive ideas. If I were convinced that the purpose of the suggested referendum was purely, or even mainly, to discover the will of the British people, I should like to respond to the invitation of the Lord President of the Council. I always like to do my best to be helpful. In fact, I can gather no impetus to support a manoeuvre which seems to me to be clearly designed less to test public opinion than to preserve the unity of the Labour Party, and to preserve it, as the Leader of the Liberal Party has made clear, at a very considerable cost to the taxpayer. This is, therefore, my first reason for opposing this White Paper.

My second reason is, no doubt, shared by many hon. Members. I really am appalled at the naĩvety of the authors of this White Paper who say in the second sentence of the preface: The referendum is to be held because of the unique nature of the issue…". I think this is a terribly dangerous argument. In a real sense every political issue and, indeed, every individual member of our society is unique. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition is clearly unique. The right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister, for very different reasons, can also probably be considered unique; and so with all kinds of political issues.

I do not go along entirely with the suggestion, which has been attributed to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Sir M. Havers), that the referendum, if it is held, should include a question on capital punishment, but that is indeed an issue that certainly has a claim to uniqueness. So have a great many others.

I do not believe that a referendum on the membership of the European Community would be unconstitutional. That, I think, would be quite a wrong doctrine. But a referendum in the United Kingdom would certainly be unique, and there is a great deal to be said for the suggestion, repeated this afternoon by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, that before making this new departure from our normal practice, it might be appropriate first to hold a referendum on the wisdom and desirability of doing so.

Is this European issue unique because the sovereignty of Parliament is going to be substantially reduced? Is the sovereignty of Parliament substantially reduced if, in fact, Parliament retains the power to reverse previous decisions? We are now members of the European Community. Can we, if we were so disposed, now extract ourselves from it? Presumably the answer is yes. Otherwise the referendum proposal is an even greater nonsense than I thought. But if we can still get out of the European Community, it seems to me that the limitations on our freedom of action imposed by signing the Treaty of Rome have been greatly exaggerated.

Therefore, the European issue is neither so unique, nor does it involve such an exceptional or irrevocable surrender of sovereignty as to satisfy the Government's own criteria for this singular appeal to the British people.

Mr. Bryan Gould (Southampton, Test)

Would the right hon. Gentleman not accept that the whole object and purpose of those who took us into Europe and who passed the European Communities Act is to subject this House and the country to a superior legal system which would in the end make the repeal of the Act impossible?

Mr. Wood

There will, no doubt, be opportunities later to argue this whole question of the diminution of sovereignty. What I have said is that our sovereignty has not been so diminished as to make it a unique issue demanding a referendum to decide whether the decision that has been taken continues or whether it is changed. That is my second reason for opposing it.

My other reasons for doing so can, I am glad to assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, be put rather more briefly. I have so far no evidence to convince me that our constituents are falling over themselves to pronounce on this issue of Europe. I suspect that a very large number of them would be only too willing to ask Parliament to take this decision on their behalf— not because they think that hon. Members are wiser than they are. I think any examination of the letters which we receive from our constituents— when they happen to reach us — would quickly shatter any illusion that any sense of our superior wisdom, which we may sometimes be tempted to believe we possess, is shared by anyone outside the Palace of Westminster.

There are, however, many people outside Parliament, who may be unimpressed by our superior wisdom, but who none-the-less recognise that this is an issue with which Parliament has lived for getting on for two decades; which is an advantage—or a disadvantage— shared by relatively few people outside. I believe that many of the others will take the view that this is, therefore, a decision for Parliament if only because of our constantly growing familiarity with most of the questions and the arguments.

My last reason for believing that this is a decision for Parliament, following a strong Government lead, is that this is patently not a decision which affects us alone—neither our generation only, nor exclusively the British people.

It is true that vision and imagination, like wisdom, are not the peculiar possession of hon. Members. But Governments have the advantage of information, which is not available to others, about the likely effect of their actions on others, both at home and abroad. The function of Governments is to lead, and I hope that we shall be given a clear lead at the conclusion of the Dublin Summit. The function of Governments is also to decide, and while no sensible Government goes ahead blindly with no regard to public opinion, it is for the Government to reach decisions. I hope and pray that the Government will ultimately face their responsibility to do so, because the Government, more clearly than any of us, can see the effect of the decision that will be taken this year on millions of people in Europe, Asia, Africa, America and the end of the world, and on millions of people who have not yet been born.

The effect of our decision on Britain is important, but the opportunity which that decision can give Britain among the other nations of the world, for the rest of this century and beyond, will help to shape the kind of world our children and grandchildren will live in. The Government are, or ought to be, better equipped than the most eminent individuals outside to look across the horizons which limit the vision of most of us. Yet they shiver on the brink of great decisions and aim to unload their great responsibility on shoulders which appear very reluctant to bear the burden.

Therefore, even at this late hour, I beg the Government to forget this farce of a referendum and to be worthy of this historic opportunity, or else give way to people who are.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

There are over 50 hon. Members who wish to participate in the debate. If others will follow the example of the right hon. Gentleman, who is one of our most senior Members, but who took only 10 minutes, it will help us all.

6.32 p.m.

Mr. Paul B. Rose (Manchester, Blackley)

At a time of historic opportunity to which the right hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Ward) has referred, I must confess that I am somewhat disappointed with the arid legalism of the speech of the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition.

I understand the difficulties encountered by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, acting within the terms of reference that are given to him, in producing a White Paper on a referendum which is supposed to be fair to both sides, because this constitutional instrument, within the context of a Parliament which is supposed to be supreme, cannot be fair. Further, the way in which we pose the questions and the questions which we ask must to some extent determine the answers that are given. It has been said by many Opposition Members that this is a compromise. Of course it is a compromise, and we should be taking the electorate for fools if we were not to accept that it is a compromise.

As a committed European I should regard it as a far greater evil for the Labour Party—the greatest party in the country—and the Labour movement, which was spawned in Western Europe from Western European ideas, to turn its back on democratic socialism in Europe than to have to go through the rather shoddy business of a referendum. The turning of our backs on Europe is a greater evil and this is a lesser evil, which I am afraid we have to accept.

It has been suggested that we have a precedent for a referendum because some time ago we debated—and I participated in the debate—the question of the Northern Ireland referendum. What on earth did the Northern Ireland referendum decide? Did it decide anything? The result of the referendum in Northern Ireland was to decide nothing. The way in which the question was posed was one which many of my right hon. and hon. Friends found unacceptable, because there were many other questions that might have been posed in that referendum. Condominium was one that was canvassed very widely by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt). Therefore, the way in which a question is posed inevitably must affect the referendum.

Many of us would like a third question in this referendum—a question which has been referred to already, namely, whether the elected representative of a constituency should abdicate his responsibilities. Despite what my hon. Friend the Member for Newport (Mr. Hughes) said, there are some of us who have the courage to face our constituents and to vote in the way we believe is right and to answer for our vote. If we are prepared to do that, we are prepared to vote in the House and to offer ourselves for re-election.

It is right to say that there is a third alternative, namely, a conscious decision by an elector to decide that his elected representative, having considered the matter, should vote. In the only survey or referendum that I have conducted in my constituency I found that two-thirds of my constituents took the view, when the alternatives were posed, that an elected representative must take the decision. One-third came out broadly in favour of doing what the majority of constituents wanted—whatever that might be at any given time—and 4 per cent. said that the Member should vote according to what his local party thought.

The referendum, as an instrument, is open to manipulation as regards timing and the way in which the question is posed. I welcomed the assurance that I understand my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House gave, that we shall be given the opportunity of declaring our views in debate prior to a final decision under the terms of the referendum. It is we who should ultimately decide this issue and whether the boundaries of Europe are to be drawn from Derry to Dundalk, and perhaps with 20 miles of sea out from Dover to separate us from the rest of Europe. It is we who have to decide whether those 20 miles of sea and perhaps an RUC patrol at Crossmaglen will keep the tide of Europe out of Britain.

There is no precedent in this country, or indeed any other country, for this kind of referendum. What has been universally acknowledged to be uncharted territory is a referendum in the context of a system of the supremacy of Parliament. Whereas in other systems the question may be posed by a president or some other body we in this Parliament are the ones who decide the question.

One could draw up a very impresive list of divergencies from precedents in the form of a General Election. This is not a General Election. This is new. My hon. Friend the Member for Newport missed the whole point when he said "Let us vote by constituency ", because the whole purpose of a referendum is to overcome the constituency boundaries and to declare the view of the nation as a whole.

Mr. Gould

Would my hon. Friend agree that referenda have been held in New Zealand where there is a unitary and unwritten constitution virtually identical to our own and where the doctrine of supremacy of Parliament also prevails?

Mr. Rose

That may be so, and I do not doubt that my hon. Friend has a great deal more knowledge than I have of New Zealand. However, there is no precedent, as far as I know, for a referendum in New Zealand which will assist us in coming to this decision. All I know is that in both New Zealand and Australia it has been declared by those in office that it would be no advantage to them if we were to leave the European Community.

We are concerned today with a referendum and not a General Election. In regard to the preamble, the form of the question and the way in which the votes are counted, it would be entirely wrong to base our assumptions on what has occurred in the past in General Elections.

I am concerned about the umbrella organisations mentioned in the White Paper. Who elected the umbrella organisations? To whom are they responsible? I do not want to coalesce with the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition. I want to work for a Socialist Europe with my social democratic friends in Europe and through the Labour Committee for Europe. I do not want an umbrella organisation.

I should like to know what is to happen to the funds that go to the other organisation. given that there are 23 anti-Common Market bodies affiliated to a committee which shares the same address as the National Front used during the last General Election and which are used as a front for that organisation. Is the money that is allocated by the House to find its way into the pockets of King Street, for example, or into the pockets of the National Front?

Who elected the umbrella organisations? To whom are they responsible? Or are we the people who are responsible to the electorate?

Mr. Marten

Will the hon. Gentleman say to which address he was referring? The National Referendum Campaign, which is the umbrella organisation, has an address which I do not think has any connection at all with the party to which the hon. Gentleman has referred.

Mr. Rose

Of course not. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right with regard to that umbrella organisation. There is the Federation of Anti-Common Market Organisations with, I think, 23 bodies affiliated to it. I absolve the hon. Gentleman's organisation entirely from that and no slur should be cast upon it. I suggest that it is very difficult to keep certain elements out of an organisation. This applies equally to the other side, whether it be the Union Movement, which is another Fascist organisation—

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)


Mr. Rose

It is not a smear. I hope that my right hon. Friend will listen to the argument. He regards it as a smear. It is no more a smear than the fact that the Union Movement and other Fascist organisations take the European point of view.

Mr. Jay

Give the names.

Mr. Rose

The point I seek to make is that this money will go to extremist bodies—

Mr. Jay

Give the names.

Mr. Rose

—on both sides of the fence which are not elected, which did not seek election at the last General Election, and which have no mandate.

Mr. Jay

Give the names.

Mr. Rose

I do not seek to attack one side or the other in respect of this. It applies to both equally.

Mr. Jay

What is a smear, and I do not think that my hon. Friend can have intended it, is to mention a body and not to give the name and not to give its address.

Mr. Rose

I did give the name.

Mr. Jay

My hon. Friend did not. He also hinted that the body concerned is associated with the National Front.

Mr. Rose

If only my right hon. Friend would listen. I gave the name, but he was so busy saying "Give the name" that he did not listen to the name. It was the Federation of Anti-Common Market Organisations. If my right hon. Friend is unaware of it, I will supply him with full details all of which have been published and I am prepared to supply him with all of them.

Mr. Jay

There are no such bodies. Mr. Rose: There are.

I was saying that money allocated by the House should not be allowed to go to unrepresentative organisations on either side. It is that point alone—it is not intended as a slur, as I am sure my right hon. Friend will accept—that I wish to make.

I find it distinctly curious today that the murmurs of disapproval in relation to the White Paper presented by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House seem to come from the very people who were most enthusiastic about the holding of a referendum and who obviously failed to appreciate the implications of so doing. The dangers of it were shown by the hon. and learned Member for Wimbledon (Sir M. Havers), who only this weekend suggested that a further question relating to capital punishment should be tagged on.

The problem about such a course is that everyone has his own priorities. I am being asked, and I am sure this applies to many of my hon. Friends, "Why can we not have a referendum on capital punishment, on abortion, on immigration? "and on a host of other subjects about which people feel passionately. Although that can be countered by the constitutional argument, we all know that this can be the thin end of the wedge.

Above all, the referendum does not avoid division. It avoids a decision being taken by those who are responsible. The divisions are apparent even in this debate and they have not been avoided by this mechanism being used. Indeed, the divisions became very bitter indeed during the referenda in Norway and Denmark.

So having appealed to the referee, having got this decision in the form of the White Paper, we now have shouts of disapproval from those who most wanted the White Paper in the first place. The problem we now face is that we shall have to go into a referendum in a situation where those who most wanted it will no longer feel entirely bound by the results, because they will say that the question is unfair to start with. This was the very matter about which some of us uttered warnings when we embarked on the uncharted territory of a referendum in the first place. It is because of that that these people are already showing signs of disapproval.

I want to deal with one matter which was raised by the Leader of the Liberal Party. I should like the votes to be counted on a national basis. There are hon. Members opposite who, for very understandable reasons, would also like the vote to be based on the historic nations of Wales and Scotland. I should not like to see a vote cast in Wales or in Scotland which is not a vote upon the question of membership of the European Economic Community, in which I would hope that the regions will play an even greater part than they now do as the national States begin to lose some of their control. I should like the vote to be a vote upon the question of Europe and not upon the question of their status.

Further, if it turned out that we were within 100,000 votes one way or the other, I should like to know whether the votes of, say, Ulster decided the fate of my constituents. Many of us may be concerned about this.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts

On the question of separate counts for Wales and Scotland in particular, and in regard to the possibility of this being associated with devolution, may I refer back to the point my hon. Friend made about additional questions and the weird suggestion that non-constitutional issues might be included? Does he not agree, however, that there is a constitutional issue as well involved for those two areas, namely, the question of new legislatures in Wales and Scotland? Would it not be useful, when having a separate count, to put in an additional question in Wales and in Scotland asking whether the people there want legislatures, because in Wales at any rate it seems very unlikely that they do?

Mr. Rose

My hon. Friend has illustrated my point about the thin edge of the wedge, namely, that once we start on this slippery slope there is no end to the questions which could be appended to the paper.

I believe that in a great political party like our own a decision should be taken, and it should be a Cabinet decision. When we were in Opposition we voted as a party on a three-line Whip against the principle of entry in Europe. I was one of those who defied that Whip. I make no apology for that. I take responsibility for my action I think that every Member of the House should take responsibility for his action.

How much more so in Government should a party with a Cabinet accept responsibility for its decision? I find it abhorrent that our party, having placed upon its members a three-line Whip in Opposition, should now in Government say that there should be one law for one side and one for the other.

It is the first and perhaps the most grave indictment of the referendum that one thing has been destroyed in this country, and that is the principle of collective responsibility of the Cabinet. That is the indictment of the referendum which above all should make my right hon. Friends think again. We are to have this referendum, but I sincerely hope that this is the first and the last time we shall play around with that sort of fire.

6.49 p.m.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

I am not quite sure whether the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose) dissociated himself at the last General Election from his party's manifesto.

At an earlier stage the hon. Gentleman cast some doubt on the value of referenda. He said that very little notice was taken of the overwhelming decision and verdict of the Ulster people when they were asked to say whether they wished to remain within the United Kingdom. I am inclined to agree with the hon. Gentleman that little notice was taken. I am only sorry that so few people in the House were then prepared to accept and are still unwilling to accept that decision as settling the matter for the foreseeable future.

There is much truth in what has been said against the idea of a referendum. I suppose that many hon. Members would agree that such a device is alien to our British constitution and incompatible with our system of parliamentary democracy. All that would have been true until the early part of 1972. Until that time those arguments were valid. But in 1972, which was a very bad year for British parliamentary democracy, they suffered two severe blows, not unrelated, delivered by the same hand.

The first blow was when the Prime Minister of the day, mandated to negotiate— nothing more, nothing less— drove his Government and party into this European entanglement in the face of fierce opposition in Parliament. It might be claimed that on Second Reading a majority of eight was adequate. But if we discount the 100 or so who were not exactly free agents, we cannot help feeling that that so-called endorsement, such as it was, was very far removed from the full-hearted consent of the British people. That being so, it is hardly surprising that there has been a demand that the people's opinion should no longer be suppressed and that alternative means ought to be found to give expression to that opinion.

The second blow to our parliamentary democracy was dealt when the freely elected Parliament of Northern Ireland was abolished "at a stroke ". No satisfactory reason was ever given. Indeed, when pressed, the then Prime Minister, in Pilate-like fashion, said that he could find no fault therein. It was just that the elected Ulster Parliament had to go. Let us not fool ourselves. It had to go because it committed the crime of accurately reflecting the views of the electorate.

The destruction of the Northern Ireland Parliament made the slide to a referendum inevitable. That was unconsciously conceded by the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) when lie said: This Government, and their predecessors, have given solemn and repeated assurances that the position of Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom will not be changed without the consent of the people of Northern Ireland."— [Official Report, 24th March 1972; Vol. 833, c. 1862.] The old reference to the Parliament of Northern Ireland had been deleted. We had the consent of the people of Northern Ireland. There was therefore nothing left but a referendum. Unfortunately, many hon. Members supported its imposition on the people of Northern Ireland.

I submit that that was the primary cause for having this White Paper before us today. It was that primary cause, not the so-called differences of opinion within the Labour Party, that brought us to this position.

I turn now to the layout of the ballot paper. We have taken the view that the preamble, which we regard as prejudicial, should be omitted. If it is not there to influence, as the Leader of the House said, what is the purpose of having it?

We object to the word "stay" for reasons that have already been given by other speakers. It may acknowledge that we are in the EEC, but the whole basis on which the referendum is being considered is that the original decision to enter was taken without the authority of the British people. We submit that the word "be "should be substituted for "stay ".

As for the term "European Community ", we wonder why "Economic" has been omitted. We find that somewhat ambiguous. On those grounds we are a little suspicious. Indeed, there is a great deal to be said for the suggestion that the more familiar term "Common Market" might be used.

On publicity, it is not clear at this stage whether there are to be two sets of views from two umbrella organisations in addition to the Government's recommendation. If the Government's recommendation is to be the third element in this bit of light reading, surely it would be fair to give this in the form of a majority recommendation and a minority view.

I turn now to the count, on which Ulster Unionists have strong views. On the legislation providing for the Northern Ireland Border poll we took the view that, as the first question posed was, Do you want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom? ", the test of opinion applied to Northern Ireland as a unit. We therefore thought that it might be logical that in this referendum the count should be conducted centrally and the result announced as one total. If on that occasion it was to be a Northern Ireland question, it followed that it should be a Northern Ireland answer. If we are to be consistent with this referendum, we must say that, in theory at least, as the question of membership of the EEC relates to the future of the United Kingdom as a whole, it follows that a central count and a central announcement of the total result would be most appropriate.

However, we appreciate that what may be logical may not be practical. If it is found impossible to conduct a central count, we feel that the only alternative is a count at constituency level as in a General Election. In a General Election we in Northern Ireland participate in the same way, under the same Act of Parliament, as any other part of the United Kingdom. In that event, the individual constituency verdicts make their collective contribution to the national outcome with all its consequences.

It should hardly be necessary for me to remind the House that Ulster Unionists are not separatists. Indeed, it would be a contradiction in terms if we were. We are therefore of the opinion that no advantage would be gained by obtaining a separate Ulster result as distinct from a United Kingdom verdict.

6.58 p.m.

Mr. Michael English (Nottingham. West)

I was very puzzled at the beginning of the debate. The two opening speeches seemed strange indeed in that they were totally different not merely in political views, but in aim. I rather felt, until I realised the inaptness of the analogy, that they were like mediaeval knights who set their lances in rest, charged across the field at each other, totally missed, and ended up in the bushes on the other side.

For example, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, rightly in my view, went into some degree of detail on the way in which this referendum would be conducted, which is somewhat essential if we are to have a referendum.

On the other hand, the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) went a great deal into high principle on whether we should have referenda or not without mentioning whether she wanted this particular referendum to be fair or unfair in any respect. The two speakers did not seem to be even on the same wavelength.

I felt that the wording of the speech of the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition was a little inapt. There is another analogy. I would have said that her brief was showing— but again the terminology is not perhaps appropriate in the particular case. She made statements such as "Our system of government, which has been copied all over the world, representative government, does not use referenda." My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould) pointed out that New Zealand, the country with a system of government most like our own, does use referenda, just as it had an Ombudsman before we did. That is something which we copied from it as well. Of all the countries in the world, New Zealand is the most like us. One can hardly say that our system of government has been copied all over the world when presidential systems are rather more common than parliamentary systems.

In any case I was not quite clear what the right hon. Lady meant when at one point she said— this was the essence of her case— that it was a bad thing that the Labour Government would not resign if their recommendation were defeated by the electorate. That is simply to put two questions instead of one. It is to say "Do you want to be in or out of the Common Market? "and" Do you like the Labour Government? "— if one were to make it an issue of confidence.

At another point the right hon. Lady said that one decision should "not be taken "— I think I quote her correctly—by the back door of a referendum on something else." Yet she wanted us, by the back door of a referendum on the Common Market, to allow the people to decide whether they like a Labour Government. That is not consistent.

Finally, the right hon. Lady said that she was prepared to consider referenda in some respects— in relation, for example, to a written constitution or something of that character— but did not like this particular referendum. That is what her speech boils down to and I take it that some of her hon. Friends will vote with her upon this consideration.

I turn to the speech of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. This is of great importance. The main issue is of fairness in the conduct of this campaign, because whether we like or dislike referenda, to have a biased referendum will do our political system even more damage than those who dislike referenda think that a referendum will do in itself. There is no doubt that adopting referenda will change the basic system of British politics. I do not see any particular reason for assuming that we would suddenly go mad and have referenda on anything, but I agree with those who say that they cannot necessarily be limited. I would imagine that we should be at least as sensible as the Norwegians, who, in the last 70 years, have had four or five referenda, almost invariably on constitutional subjects. The common sense of this House would lead to that. But if we have referenda it is desirable that they should be fair, and as fairly conducted as we conduct General Elections.

That is where I disagree with paragraph 31 of the White Paper, because that paragraph raises a great constitutional issue. It does not talk, as my right hon. Friend said, about departmental information officers answering questions of the Press, as they do daily. It talks about the setting up of "a special information unit ", presumably of civil servants, to give on behalf of the Government to "the Press "…" factual information "and, above all, interpretation of the renegotiated terms and the like. Whatever the like "is, I would not know.

This is disgraceful. It is dragging civil servants into politics. The equivalent in a General Election campaign would be to set up a unit of civil servants to give factual information and interpretations of the manifesto of one side, the manifesto of the governing side— the manifesto of the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), presumably, early in 1974 and that of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Member for Huyton (Mr. Wilson), a little later in the same year. This is a disgraceful proposal, which would disgracefully change our political system. Whether one is a pro-Marketeer or an anti-Marketeer, I think that one agrees that we should not involve civil servants in controversial electoral politics.

There is another point of importance which has been mentioned by many people. Before coming to that, perhaps I might say that I do not regard the count of the ballot papers as particularly important. I know that it is a matter of sensitivity to some of the Scottish and Welsh and others, but it is not the widest issue. The most important issues are the total of votes on each side, the majority and what influences those votes. Once they are cast, counting them is not as important as the way in which they are influenced before they are counted. This question is in itself of some importance.

The White Paper says, in the proposed question, "the European Community." Here my right hon. Friend and I disagree. He says that I am wrong, and I think that he is wrong. In the Act which took us into the European Communitiesplural— they were described as "the European Communities "— plural. This is as it should be. I have asked the Library of the House to check. I think that I had better read the letter that I have received because I asked the Library, having got the staff's first opinion, to check again and to produce a second opinion, which they have done in writing. The relevant paragraph of the letter is as follows: There is an aspiration to continue the process of the merger initiated by the treaty establishing a single Council and Commission to create a single Community in all respects. For practical purposes the interdependence of the three Communities in many fields and the existence of the three common institutions of Council, Commission and Assembly make the concept of ' the European Community ' a realistic one. It has become quite accepted usage in ordinary discussion. However, whatever developments there may be in future it does seem to me that legally the three Communities remain distinct and should, in strict technical correctness, be referred to as such. The precise point that has been made by my right hon. Friend about the United Kingdom is that it should be called the United Kingdom because that is legally its title. The "European Communities "is the legal title of all the Communities to which we belong in the treaty which established a single Council and a single Commission.

Mr. Douglas Hurd (Mid-Oxon)

Whether or not the description "European Community" or "European Communities" is more accurate, does the hon. Gentleman not agree that either would be an improvement on "Common Market ", which is simply a piece of inaccurate journalese?

Mr. English

I would certainly wish to see the legal title. This is neither fish, flesh nor fowl. It is neither a common title nor a legal one. It is a usage that does not legally exist.

This is rather like the situation of calling the European Assembly— its correct title in the treaties— the European Parliament. The European Parliament has decided to call itself that, even though it had no power to do so. But we need not go into that matter further

I have also consulted two or three Law Officers of the Crown on this issue. They do not understand it either. I should like to know where my right hon. Friend got his information from. He has said to me in public and in private that I am wrong. Fair enough. Will he please justify it and explain in detail, so that lawyers can understand it, where he gets his belief that "European Community "—singular—is the legal title of the institution to which we belong?

I understand that one of my colleagues — the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing)— has tabled a series of Questions today asking where my right hon. Friend got his information from that this particular question was not biased, as other hon. Members say it is biased when it says "stay in ". If I say that the words should be "be in ", my pro-Market friends say that that is biased, too— it implies that we are not in. Perhaps the unbiased way is" hould we be in or out? "Then, if there were two boxes, saying "In" and "Out" instead of "Yes" and "No ", we would have completely catered for the issue. One either votes to be in or votes to be out.

One of the greatest difficulties in making a speech in a limited time is that I do not wish to seem totally critical of my right hon. Friend and the White Paper. The points that I am mentioning are points in respect of which I think there is bias, but I hope it is clear to my right hon. Friend and to the Minister of State, Privy Council Office that the points that I am not mentioning I do not regard as biased. Indeed, I regard them as very reasonable, particularly the comparison of the normal electoral procedure with the procedure on the referendum.

The paragraph in the White Paper on television and radio broadcasting is obscure, in that it does not really say anything. It does not say how many broadcasts there will be, and it does not mention ministerial broadcasts. However, we gather that there has been a considerable argument between the broadcasting organisations and the Government about ministerial broadcasts. The Government reject the view that a ministerial broadcast by the Prime Minister followed by a reply from the Leader of the Opposition should be put in the balance of the total pro-Market broadcasts. They do not like that view. Are they saying that they should be additional to the pro-Market total? I believe that it would be better, if we are to have ministerial broadcasts, to have two pro and anti broadcasts from Ministers and two pro and anti broadcasts by members of the Opposition.

The same issue arises with the White Paper on the terms. Throughout the debate nobody has mentioned the use of the shorthand word "Government" that is used throughout the White Paper. "Government" is a useful word. It is a collective word for a collective situation. However, in this instance, as has been pointed out, Ministers are not collective. I do not know exactly how many Ministers are in the Government. I think that there are nearly 114 Ministers and that there could be 185 if only 95 of them sat in this House. I believe that the number is between 100 and 114 in both Houses.

What we normally mean when we say that the "Government have decided" is that a Minister, or a few, or a sub-committee, or a committee of Ministers, or possibly a majority of the Cabinet, has taken a decision which all of them will collectively follow. We use the short- hand word "Government" for whatever Minister is advising the Crown on what action must be taken. In this instance that will not arise, because the Government, in the sense of over 100 Ministers, will be saying opposite things.

" The Government ", as a majority, is a collective term, but I agree with the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) that if we have a White Paper from the Government it should present the majority and minority points of view. After all, it will cost a lot of money. According to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, there will be a 16-page full-colour document, which will cost a little over £1 million. That is a little more than he is proposing to give by way of grant to both umbrella organisations put together. It is an addition to the weight of propaganda. If it is unbiased, fair enough. If it represents both the minority and majority views of the Government, fair enough. However, if it is biased it will completely bias the referendum in favour of one particular view. That is a matter of considerable importance.

Next, I turn to the challenge of the Leader of the Opposition when she said that we should discuss at some stage the principle of referenda. I wholeheartedly believe in democracy. That term to me means a majority of the citizens of a country in some way or another—[Interruption] There is no such thing as a perfect democracy. No voting system is perfect. The right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), the Leader of the Liberal Party, spent most of his time arguing about the count, the least important matter. I suspect that he would disagree with me on the voting system that I happen to like. I would disagree with him on the voting system that he happens to like. Imperfection is a fact of humanity, but when hon. Members laugh at democracy they cannot claim that the Common Market is democratic. They cannot claim that a legislature which is a Council of Ministers sitting in secret is democratic. They cannot claim that a Commission whose two British representatives were appointed by a man who has since lost the confidence of both the country and his party is democratic in any way.

That is my principal objection. I am not an anti-European in the sense that I dislike all things European. On the contrary, I like the referendum, and that is a European idea. I also like democracy. That side of European history I am prepared to accept. I do not accept the dark side of European history, which believes in a legislature that meets in secret, as happens in Brussels. It is a side that believes in the autocracy and bureaucracy rather than democracy. That is the side that I do not like. At the moment the Common Market's institutions are constructed in that way and not in democratic way.

I know that hon. Members who believe in the Common Market will say that they believe that the Common Market's institutions will become democratic. All I can say to them is that that has been the plea of dictators throughout the ages. General Papadopoulos was always going to introduce a democratic constitution but he never did. That did not happen until somebody got rid of him. However, I am straying from the subject.

In answer to the challenge of the Leader of the Opposition, I believe that the Government are absolutely right to have carried out a promise that was put twice to the electorate. What are those saying who intend to vote against the motion? Are they saying that we should break a promise that we made twice to the electorate in one year, namely, a promise to allow the electorate to decide for itself— a promise to which the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) almost sacrificed a career and sacrificed his seat in the House for a time. [Interruption.] That may be his fault— Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton): Where in the Labour manifesto for the October election is the word "referendum" used?

Mr. English

We said that we would put the issue to the British people. We made it clear that that would be done through a General Election or a referendum. I was present at a speech in Nottingham when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said that in all probability it would be a referendum. That was made clear and the British people knew that. If the hon. Gentleman did not know, it is a wonder that he was elected for the Opposition.

The main issue is that we made our promise to the electorate on two occasions. It is a promise that the people believe we will carry out. They believe that they will have the chance to vote. It is their decision whether they wish decisions to be taken here or across the road, or far away in Brussels. We are giving them that chance. That is what the issue is about, and the matter must be carried out fairly.

7.18 p.m.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) painted with a broad brush and discussed the great issues that underlie the debate. Frankly, I believe that they have been dealt with pretty fairly by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, and notably by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood).

I direct my remarks to one issue that is on the surface a procedural matter although it has deep political and constitutional implications. It may be that the Minister of State, Privy Council Office, who has listened so patiently throughout our debate— and I pay tribute to his patience— can deal with it. If he cannot, there is time before the end of the debate for him to enter into the necessary consultations and to give us the appropriate answer.

In the Prime Minister's statement of 23rd January he told us: When the outcome of renegotiation is known, the Government will decide upon their own recommendation to the country. He said that they— the Government— are going to tell us whether they are in favour of staying in or withdrawing. The right hon. Gentleman said that the announcement would provide an opportunity for the House to debate the question of substance ". Presumably that means the question whether we should stay in or go out, as the Government may advise.

Now we know that there are different kinds of debate in the House. There are debates on the Adjournment and there are debates to take note. It has not yet been made clear to my knowledge by the Prime Minister or by the Lord President, or by any other Government spokesman, whether the Government will seek the approval of the House by putting a motion before it asking the House to endorse the recommendation which they—the Government— recommend. That is to say, before the machinery for setting the referendum into operation and before the Order in Council, as presumably it will be, is moved to start the referendum procedure, the Government will have invited the House to endorse the recommendation that they will make to stay in or go out.

I hope that it is the Government's intention to do this already, and I hope that my remarks are unnecessary. If the Minister can say at once that there is no doubt that this is the Government's intention, I can bring my remarks to a conclusion in a minute or two. I have made one or two inquiries privately, however, and I have not been able to get a clear answer on this issue. I therefore thought it would probably be better to raise it in the House.

It seems an important point politically and constitutionally— politically for two reasons. My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. James) has put down a motion which is supported by a number of extremely distinguished right hon. and hon. Members, including a former Foreign Secretary, suggesting that there should be a third question— that the country should be asked whether it would prefer the House of Commons to decide the issue. I am inclined to think that to have a third question could promote difficulties could confuse the issue.

But all our people want to know and have a right to know the opinion of their own Members of Parliament and of others in politics, apart from members of the Government, to whom they may from time time look for a lead. I do not see how this can be done unless the Government put a clear motion to the House on which all of us would have to stand up and be counted here. What we say in our constituencies and in the referendum campaign is another matter. It is essential if the country is to be given a true lead and guidance that the Government must not only recommend but must secure endorsement by Parliament of their recommendation.

It is only if there is a clear lead, not only by the Government, and this is particularly true of a divided Government, but backed up by a clear majority of Parliament, that the country can be asked to form a judgment on what is an immensely complicated issue.

It is also an important point for constitutional reasons. I am against holding a referendum for reasons which have been developed by my right hon. and hon. Friends, but there are degrees of evil in a referendum. If a referendum were to be introduced without the issue in question having previously been endorsed by Parliament, that would be going over the head of Parliament, by-passing Parliament, and that would be the executive appealing to the country in the plebiscitary form which we have seen adopted by dictators in the past. That would be completely wrong.

How do we limit the damage a referendum can do? It seems to me that if the Government not only make their recommendation but get Parliament to endorse it and then put the issue to the country, they will be seeking the country's ratification of a measure of which they and Parliament approve and on which they could argue, albeit speciously, that they have not got a mandate. This would be a much less damaging approach to the problem than if Parliament were bypassed and the appeal were made over the head of Parliament. If the country supports the recommendation of Government and Parliament there is no great problem and no very damaging precedent would have been set. If it rejects our common view I see no alternative but a dissolution of Parliament. Personally I believe the country would accept a clear lead from the Government endorsed by Parliament.

I believe that we should oppose— and I hope that many Labour Members will feel the same— the principle of the referendum. But I would fight not only the principle but the detail of the referendum Bill all the way and by every means possible if it were going to be undertaken over the head of Parliament, by-passing Parliament. But to me it would be a quite different situation if we could have an assurance from the Government that their recommendation would be followed by the moving of a motion seeking the endorsement of Parliament for that recommendation. Therefore, I ask the Minister, if he cannot reply immediately, to ensure that we may be told quite categorically in the wind-up tonight that it is the Government's intention not only to recommend, not only to allow time for a debate, but to move a motion seeking the approval of Parliament for whatever recommendation they make.

7.25 p.m.

Mr. A. E. P. Duffy (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

In spite of the criticism that has been directed towards the White Paper in the debate I believe it to be balanced and reasonable. I recognise that pressure will be applied for it to be modified, and I understand that it may not be the last word on how public opinion shall be tested, yet I hope that there will be no change. I think, first, that the Government are right to insist on a national count and upon a single declaration of result. Secondly, I think that the vote concerns the interests of the United Kingdom as a whole and that we should pause before lending ourselves to a divisive operation that would threaten the unity of the United Kingdom. I must say to those who arc protesting otherwise that I believe they are merely pursuing narrow and sectional interests, though I understand those interests.

Mr. D. E. Thomas (Merioneth)

Does the hon. Member believe that because Denmark declared its referendum results according to polling stations its unity was threatened?

Mr. Duffy

If the hon. Member had permitted me to proceed, I might have met that point. I am reminded at this stage of a question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport (Mr. Hughes) who said that a central count was alien to our traditions. In the Ballot Act 1872 it was provided that all votes cast in an electoral unit— a constituency for parliamentary election, a ward for local elections or a Welsh county for the Welsh referendum on Sunday drinking— were collected at one central point and mixed up before counting. That is where it all started. I acknowledge that the practice was originally intended to preserve secrecy. It is in sharp contrast to Continental procedure. I hope that meets the point raised by the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas).

Since the referendum will decide for the United Kingdom as a whole, as one unit, it must surely be logical to require all the votes to be gathered together and mixed at one count, no matter how enormous.

Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English), I believe that the question which the Government propose to print on the ballot paper is of crucial importance. Here again, I believe the right decision has been made.

As Britain is already a member of the EEC, the issue is surely the plain one of whether we should remain in or come out. Britain's membership is a fact that should properly be reflected in the referendum question. Britain went into Europe on a vote of a democratically elected Parliament. No one can gainsay that. No matter what the objections, that is how it happened.

Some of us were held to account afterwards. We all know of the notorious cases, but we do not know of the many other Members of Parliament who were in conflict with their constituency parties, sometimes in severe conflict, and were faced not merely with censure motions or motions of no confidence but with straight sacking motions. They had to argue their way out of that confrontation with their parties. They had not merely to get out of trouble but to mend fences, restore confidence and get back into a reasonable working relationship with their parties. Some of us know what that is all about, and are in no doubt that the decision was taken by a democratically elected Parliament. I do not know of one hon Member who, having eventually found himself in that position with his party, had not made his position plain to his party well in advance and had not repeated it and, in some cases, having been reselected because of the boundary changes, still made it plain.

Mr. McNamara

I am certain that no one disputes that the decision was taken by a democratically elected Parliament. The question is whether the issue was put before the people who elected that Parliament.

Mr. Duffy

I assure my hon. Friend that for my part— I suspect it is true of all those to whom I have been alluding, necessarily vaguely— I have argued about this since the beginning of the 1960s, and I cannot believe that there is a subject that has been discussed longer and more thoroughly. That does not necessarily mean that it has been put over, or that it can be put over, but I believe that democracy has done its best in this matter.

When the decision was made in the House it was made properly. No one can now cry "Foul ", because that will not convince the contemporaries and it certainly will not convince the historians. The referendum's onus on the wisdom of that decision should be on those who want to take us out, because those who took us in explained it and in some cases made a stand for which they were held severely to account, and the majority was plain enough.

How easy the referendum must sound thus far, yet how difficult it may prove to be in reality. The arrangements that are being made for all-party umbrella organisations for both pro- and anti-marketeers suggest such a difficulty. Who will be recognised as their national leaders? My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose) said that they may not even be elected. Whom, therefore, do they represent? What is their claim on public money? What is their claim on public time and on television and radio time?

If the major Labour and Conservative Parties do not campaign officially against membership— it seems unlikely that they will do so— the door will be wide open for the Scottish National Party to take the lead in Scotland. In England, the largest party against membership of the EEC looks like being the National Front. What of the composition of the various platforms, not merely the major umbrella organisations? What of the composition of the "Get Britain Out" platform, and what of the place of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell)? It is clear that much hard work, political finesse and plain luck will be required to adapt successfully such a vast constitutional innovation as a referendum in the present state of British politics.

I suggest, first, that there must be no delay in holding the referendum. Secondly, this is not an issue which any Member of Parliament can evade, however tempting it may be for him to scuttle for cover. Thirdly, there must be no dogfight over the constitutional place of a referendum in Britain's unwritten constitution. Fourthly, the campaign must be fairly fought. There must be no rabble-rousing.

Here I come back to the various platforms that may be composed over the next few weeks. Members of the Labour Party would be well advised to pay strict regard to the content of their campaign, as well as to the style. The only question that need properly and prudently concern them is: have negotiations been successful; has party policy been fulfilled? If the answer is "Yes ", is there a higher call, a greater duty, on them than to say so and to campaign accordingly? It Members of Parliament do that—I appeal to my colleagues to do it in a low key within their own constituencies— neither feeling nor money need necessarily intrude.

The referendum threatens to throw an intolerable strain on our political system of parliamentary government, on its underlying principle of responsible Government, and on the mechanisms that chiefly relate it to the people— the political parties of which we are all a part.

The Government made a pledge, which I will quote briefly from the Labour Party's February Manifesto: The Labour Government pledges that within 12 months…we will give the British people the final say, which will be binding on the Government— through the ballot box— on whether we accept the terms and stay in or reject the terms and come out. I sympathise with those of my colleagues who still uphold the supremacy of Parliament. Some will still insist that Parliament, in any event, has no obligation to accept the result of the referendum, nor indeed the constitutional duty to accept any view outside Parliament. I take the view that the Government have preempted my rights in this matter because I campaigned on the basis of that manifesto, and so, I assume, did most hon. Members. I can understand, therefore, why the Government may feel able to suspend the rights of parliamentarians, but I do not see how any Government can abrogate their responsibility for their own conduct and record. Collective responsibility may become a casualty in this campaign. Our system of Government may survive, but not the obligation of Government to be responsible for their own actions. Nor do I see how the Government can avoid a recommendation following the closure tonight of the renegotiations They must report and pronounce upon their actions. The Government can hardly avoid entering into a value judgment. At that point there will be a recommendation, no matter how it is presented—formally or otherwise.

I do not see how the Government can avoid resigning if the referendum goes against the Government's recommendation. I hope that I am wrong, but I am trying to proceed logically and I am proceeding in a way that is not tasteful to me. However, I repeat that I do not see how the Government can avoid resigning if the country goes against their recommendation. Indeed, I do not see how any of their supporters can duck the obligation. There is a duty on Government supporters at all times to preserve the Government in office, and that would require an underwriting of the recommendation. That means going out and campaigning for it.

Finally, I turn to the question of responsible government and collective responsibility, and the vehicles by which that responsibility is to be devolved. That function will result in motley alliances. Can members of the various parties join such alliances without risking their public image and their parties' credibility? Can rank-and-file Labour Members mingle with others on "Get Britain Out "public platforms? Can they mingle with Liberals, Conservatives, Communists— not to mention less orthodox political groupings— and not risk bringing their parties into disrepute? Can the situation be taken for granted and, when it is all over, will everything revert to normal, and will the authority of parties be restored to them?

What does the referendum really mean? I suspect that many of us are only now beginning to face the full implications of our commitment to a referendum, just as I suspect the Cabinet became aware of the implications only a few weeks ago.

I conclude by inviting the House to ponder on such questions as the following: does not the Government commitment to the electorate, despite the statement by the Leader of the House, impose on party followers the duty to divest themselves of parliamentary sovereignty, however briefly? Will that commitment have any validity, and will it make any sense? Will the sovereign people accept the responsibility of their sovereign power and continue to face the consequences? Can the Government abrogate no matter how briefly, their responsibility to govern, and maintain credibility? Will the political parties— all major political parties— maintain their unity under the pressure which will arise in the next few weeks?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

Since taking over the Chair, I have made a quick calculation which shows that if each hon. Member limits his contribution to 10 minutes, every hon. Member who is anxious to take part in this important debate could be accommodated. I hope Members will try to confine themselves to that space of time.

7.45 p.m.

Mr. Neil Marten (Banbury)

I thought I understood the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) to say that he did not approve of his colleagues appearing on platforms with members of different parties. That is a most extraordinary thing to say, especially when one looks at the European Movement and sees that its joint Presidents are the Leaders of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Parties, and that they attend the same banquet, and speak together from the same table, let alone on the same platform.

I take exception to the fact that both the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe and the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Rose) imported into the debate what I thought was a slight smear. They mentioned the National Front. If the debate on the Common Market is to be reduced to that level— and incidentally my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford (Mr. Churchill) does the same thing when he constantly shouts "Marxist "— it brings to my mind a recent headline in The Times, "Mao Tse-tung lauds Mr. Heath's policy on Europe ". Are the Maoists one's allies? After all, one of the greatest pro-Marketeers is Sir Oswald Mosley. Is he to be an ally? Surely we can forget that kind of argument and lift the debate to a higher plane.

Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)

The hon. Gentleman is an old campaigner, but is he saying that because leaders of the major political parties sit at the same table at the Guildhall with the Lord Mayor on a social occasion that compares with the bitter fighting which will ensue on whether we go into the Common Market or come out of it?

Mr. Marten

I gave way to the hon. Gentleman, but certainly in view of the shortness of time available for further debate, I shall not give way again. That occasion was a highly political one. The function at Guildhall was to promote Britain's going into Europe.

Mr. Duffy

The hon. Gentleman made a charge which should have a reply. There are no grounds for the hon. Gentleman's fears, as he will see when he reads my speech. I referred to the National Front in a certain context as being the largest single party in England which will come out against the Common Market.

Mr. Marten

I realise that the hon. Gentleman wants to rub in that point, and he took the opportunity of his intervention to do so. Looking at the situation of the political parties, some 30 per cent, of Conservatives in the country are against, over 50 per cent, of Liberals are against, and an even higher percentage of people in the Labour Party are against the Common Market. Those are debate-able figures. I also understand that a very large majority of people in the trade union movement are against the Common Market.

I have never regarded the Common Market as a party issue. I have ignored the Whip on the subject, and I believe that it should not be a party issue. Therefore, if I now deal with the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), I hope that she will take my points as debating points and treat my remarks in the usual way in which she treats my remarks.

My right hon. Friend said that the Labour Party had no mandate for the referendum because it received only 38 per cent, of the votes at the last election. On that basis we had no mandate to take the country into the Common Market because we did not obtain 50 per cent, of the votes in the 1970 election. I think that point should be made.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend said that we should not regard this debate as decisive on whether we should have a referendum, but pointed out that the vote was a vote on the White Paper. The only time Parliament ever gave its full-hearted consent to going into the Common Market was in the debate on a White Paper. That has been claimed by pro-Marketeers. But tonight is a quite different occasion. We return to the old question of full-hearted consent.

When the then Leader of the Opposition, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), said that it would be wrong for us to be members of the Common Market without the full-hearted consent of Parliament and the people, if he meant "Parliament" why did he mention people "? It is one of those obscure things. I have never understood it, and I have never heard an explanation. [An HON. MEMBER: "My hon. Friend has never tried."] I tried many times in Parliament to get the answer. If it is said that the full-hearted consent of Parliament was given, the reply is that in that White Paper vote, which we are not allowed to consider tonight, although there was a majority of 112, only 56 per cent. of the Members voted to go in. That is consent, but it is not full-hearted consent. In the major vote, which was on Second Reading of the European Communities Bill, not even 50 per cent. of the Members were in favour. There was a majority of only eight. I hope that we can forget that sort of argument and get down to the point which I wanted to make concerning the referendum.

To whom does sovereignty belong? I believe that it belongs to the people, who give it to Members of Parliament at election time. Members give it back to the people when their Parliament ends and there is another election. The same applies under the French constitution. Annex B to the White Paper shows that under Article 3 of that constitution the position is exactly the same. Sovereignty in France belongs to the people. They give it to Parliament, which gives it back to them for a referendum. That is what we are doing.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup did precisely the same thing on Northern Ireland and again in February last year. Our party had a year and a half to run in office. My right hon. Friend said We are in difficulties. We have a three-day week, and there is a confrontation with the miners." Therefore, he handed back his sovereignty to the people in what was in effect a referendum, asking "Do you want us to carry on with our policy? "That election was a referendum, though it was called a General Election.

The Labour Government were handed sovereignty by the electorate last October on the clear pledge that the Common Market issue would be put to the test at the ballot box in a referendum or a General Election. The Labour Party made a contract with the electors that if it were returned to office it would hold a referendum or an election. It is holding a referendum, and it cannot be blamed for that, because it is honouring a pledge. I hope that it is not the Conservative Party's case that the Labour Party should not honour a pledge which it gave at the election. I often wonder whether we should be the Government now if we had also pledged at the last election to have a referendum.

When Parliament agrees to a referendum it is handing back its sovereignty to the people. After the referendum, the people hand the sovoreignty back to Parliament, which always retains sovereignty over what shall be put to a referendum.

It is no good my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Sir M. Havers) on the Opposition Front Bench making his jokey speeches about the death penalty, because I do not think that Parliament would agree to have a referendum on the death penalty.

Sir Michael Havers (Wimbledon)

Why not?

Mr. Marten

Because it can always be reversed in the subsequent Parliament.

Sir Michael Havers

So can this.

Mr. Marten

I shall come to that argument, if I have time after all the interruptions.

Under Section 2 of the European Communities Act the electors found that their sovereignty in Parliament had been handed over to the European Community. Few people seem to realise that when we debate draft European legislation the Opposition can no longer move amendments to it. We can seek to reject it, but we cannot amend it, nor can any back bencher seek to move an amendment, which is our right in our domestic law. To that extent, the electors right to use his Member to move an amendment to legislation has already been taken away.

More than that, we all know that the Common Market will have a directly-elected Parliament. I think that 1978 is the target date. It will one day be a legislative Parliament. That may not happen immediately, but no Parliament will simply twiddle its thumbs. It will move to become the legislative body for the Community. All right. It will be democraticaly elected. But suppose it has a Left-wing Socialist majority— a Labour Member would give the example of a Right wing majority— and it passes legislation affecting this country, which we should have to accept; and then this country elects a Conservative Government to put Conservative policies into practice here. That Government could do nothing to change the legislation passed by the Left-wing dominated European Parliament. That is the ultimate extent to which sovereignty will be surrendered if we stay in the Common Market.

I wish to end now because, with injury time, I have had nearly my 10 minutes. I wish to put some points on the White Paper. First, will the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man have a referendum, too? It is an important question, because they were taken into the Community.

I accept, with regard to the broadcasting, that the BBC and the IBA have an extremely difficult job. I have seen them both, and I believe that they will use their best endeavours to achieve a fair balance. Neither side in the House will regard it as fair, but the media will do their best.

I agree with the comments about the information centre. It will be a treat pity if the civil servants become involved in a deep emotional argument about the Common Market. If they are there, they will be interpreting both sides of the arguments. People will say that their interpretation is wrong. There will be pickets outside with banners saying "No" and "Yes ". It is fundamentally wrong that civil servants should be in such a situation.

I come to the question of the count, opinions on which are a personal matter. I should like to know how my constituents felt about the Common Market, and I should welcome counting by constituencies. It would be a mistake to hide the details from the public, because tellers outside the polling booth would give the result, though perhaps marginally less accurately.

I am against the proposal to have a question—and— answer section in the information document, a sort of Civil Service catechism. It is a silly idea, and I hope that it will not be followed up.

I assume that if we do not have the question-and-answer section we shall be allowed more than 2,000 words— probably 3,000. I hope that we shall not be pressed into writing them too early. I know the difficulties, but if we have to write them too early they may be off target by the time of the referendum.

As an anti-Marketeer, I obviously object to sending round a popular version of the White Paper, because if the Government support entry, as they may, it will make two documents for and one against. That could afterwards be regarded as unfair, if the referendum goes a certain way.

I agree with much that has been said about the question itself. The first half about the Government having announced the results of the renegotiations is redundant. It will be known that the renegotiations have taken place, so why put that in? The question is badly worded. It should be merely, Should the United Kingdom be a member of the European Community (Common Market)? That is totally unbiased— [Laughter.] I ask for your protection, Mr. Deputy Speaker, against the mirth which that serious statement has occasioned. However. perhaps my hon. Friends will discuss it with me over a drink afterwards.

I think that the Government should consider seriously setting up a Referendum Commission of, say, three wise men — possibly three judges— who are acceptable to everyone, to which complaints about unfairness could be referred. People would feel much happier if they knew that anyone with an immediate complaint, say, against the BBC, could take it up with such a commission and the next day have the matter put right without the need to go through a vast machinery.

The last matter to which I refer concerns the Norwegian referendum, which I attended. I did not take part in it, in spite of the result. I was merely an observer. The Norwegians had a tremendous programme of education on television and so on. Whereas, at the beginning of the referendum campaign, people said that they did not know what it was about, at the end they did know.

The one matter on which the Norwegian people voted was the one matter on which we shall vote when it comes to it. It is not a question of economics, of agriculture or of alternatives. It is the one matter which the Norwegians decided: did they want the power of their Parliament passing ultimately from Oslo to Brussels. They said "No ". That will be the issue in this referendum: do we want the power, independence and self-government of this country ultimately passed over to Brussels. I hope that the country will say "No ".

8.2 p.m.

Mr. Roderick MacFarquhar (Belper)

The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten), with whom I have participated in many late night debates on European secondary legislation, will be suprised to learn that, in principle on this issue, I am in a measure of agreement with him.

My starting point is somewhat different from that of most hon. Members since I have long been a supporter of British participation in the European Community, but I have also been in favour of a referendum on the issue ever since it was first raised by the Macmillan Government in the early 1960s.

I have always favoured a referendum because I believe that the issue of entry into Europe is different in kind from the wide range of issues normally considered by Parliament. What is at stake is the issue of sovereignty, and the failure of Governments of both parties until 1974 to bring this out into the open has only harmed and not helped the cause of Europe.

All hon. Members will agree that Parliament is the supreme power in the land. Historically, its supremacy derives from its twin powers as the supreme judicial court and its right to authorise taxation.

According to Sir Edward Coke, …the power and jurisdiction of Parliament is so transcendent and absolute that it cannot be confined either for causes or persons, within any bounds. In the words of a more modern author, Berriedale Keith, … the sovereignty or omnipotence of Parliament means that Parliament is the supreme power in the State, in the sense that it can make or unmake any law; that the courts will obey its legislation; nor is there any power in the State capable of overriding, curtailing or proscribing its authority. Let me isolate in the first of those three points the ability of Parliament to unmake any laws. It means that no Parliament can curtail the powers of subsequent Parliaments— an attribute of Parliament that was demonstrated at least as early as the sixteenth century.

This is one of the crucial issues of the whole debate on Britain's entry into Europe.

Already it is being argued— it was argued by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House today, correctly, in my opinion— that for Britain to withdraw from the Community would involve prohibitive economic costs. The right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith), long noted for his opposition to British entry into the EEC, has now decided that Britain has no option but to stay in for that reason. If this is the case after only two years of membership, how much more will it be the case after a decade?

In theory, it may still be possible to withdraw. In practice, the process is virtually irreversible.

Mr. Marten

In defence of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith), who has been a member of the European Assembly for one and a half or two years, the reason for his change of heart has nothing to do with the economy or with the alternatives. It is merely the constitutional matter which concerns him. He takes the view that we should not come out, because if we did we should break a treaty. It is the treaty argument and not the economic argument on which my right hon. and learned Friend sticks.

Mr. MacFarquhar

I accept that, but there are many reasons why people are coming to the conclusion that we should not withdraw— constitutional, costs— and the longer we stay in the more cogent the arguments will be.

The action of going into the EEC, in practice, has bound and therefore limited the powers of future Parliaments, and the right hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood) would have been more frank if he had admitted that.

Moreover, the likelihood is that this process wil take place in the future not merely in practice but also in law. The hon. Member for Banbury spoke about the prospective development of a European Parliament, which I personally support. It seems inevitable— it is only honest to ask hon. Members to face this — that the present European Assembly will be transformed into such a Parliament and that at that point it will take over the supreme powers of the British Parliament.

At the moment, it is still possible for the British Parliament to reject any of the myriad draft instruments which we discuss late at night. But at that stage, if there were a European Parliament, it is most unlikely that this House would be able to reject this most important legislation. Parliament, therefore, would no longer be the supreme body.

It is the central thesis of my argument that because Parliament is to be put into a position where it will no longer be able to unmake laws, where it will no longer be the supreme body controlling the destinies of the people of this nation, it is essential that the British people be consulted before this constitutional transformation becomes irreversible. While the people elect their representatives to exercise supreme powers on their behalf, they do not elect them to concede some of those powers in perpetuity to a superior outside body. Therefore, if those powers are to be diminished by entry into the Common Market, the British people must give their consent, and that consent can be given only in a referendum, because only through a referendum can the issue be isolated.

I am well aware that it is historically true that in a few cases Parliaments have, on their own say-so, given up their supreme powers. The Bare Bones Parliament in the seventeenth century conceded powers to Cromwell. However, that is not an example which is likely to commend itself to hon. Members. Moreover, all the examples are prior to the modern period when the struggle between the Sovereign, the Lords and the House of Commons had not been settled in favour of the House of Commons. It is my contention that, once that struggle was settled in favour of a House of Commons which owed its mandate to the people, it was not legally possible for the House of Commons to give away any of its powers without consulting the people.

I am also aware of the other counter-argument, that hon. Members are elected as representatives to exercise the supreme power of Parliament on behalf of their constituents. In putting forward the case of the Opposition, the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) referred to the speech of Mr. Winston Churchill, as he then was, in the debates of 1910 and 1911. I am sorry that the right hon. Lady did not quote him in full when he put forward the classic argument and rejected the argument for a referendum on 22nd February 1911. He said then that the people … should choose their representatives and then trust them and give them a fair chance within the limits of their commission for a period which should not be unreasonably prolonged."— [Official Report, 22nd February 1911; Vol. XXI, c. 2035.] It is precisely my case that the limits of our commission as Members of Parliament is that we can exercise the supreme powers of Parliament but not concede them irreversibly to any other body without prior and specific consultation. A referendum is the unique, final instrument of modern democracy for achieving such consultation. This was clearly recognised by a noble Lord who participated in those debates on the referendum in 1910 and 1911, and it is not good enough for the Leader of the Opposition to attempt to shut up all the skeletons in the cupboard.

Whatever the motives of the speakers who proposed referenda in those early days, there is no question but that they were aware of the constitutional implications and dealt with them fully. The noble Lord stated that the referendum is essentially democratic in its character. Its basis is the belief, to which we all, on both sides of the House, give expression in our public utterances, that in the last resort we accept the will of the people, and I am at a loss to understand why, when it is put forward in this proposal, it should be greeted with so much doubt and, apparently, with so much dismay by those who profess to be the teal representatives of the democracy in this country."— [Official Report, House of Lords 24th November 1910; Vol. VI, c. 946–7.] That was not a Labour life peer— they did not exist then— nor a Liberal peer, but a member of the Pantheon of the main opposition party today, Lord Curzon.

Why do not hon. Members opposite heed him now? Perhaps he is too flamboyant for this day and age. In that case, I quote a more sober statesman, Mr. Balfour, an ex-leader and Prime Minister of the Conservative Party. He said, in the same debates: The referendum, at all events, has this enormous advantage that it does isolate one problem from the complex questions connected with keeping a Government in office, and with other measures which it wants to carry out and with other questions of foreign and domestic policy. It asks "— and this is the important part— the country not ' do you say that this or that body of men should hold the reins of office? ' but, ' do you approve of this or that way of dealing with a great question in which you are interested?'."— [Official Report, 21st February 1911; Vol. 21, c. 1758.] I should particularly like to draw the attention of the right hon. Lady the Member for Finchley to that final section of the quotation, because she attacked the Government on that point.

Mrs. Thatcher

I read all these speeches in all the debates. As I said, there are arguments on both sides. The fact is that until now we have never had a referendum throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, and after this things will never be the same again.

Mr. MacFarquhar

I was not doubting that the right hon. Lady did her own research, but I think that when she does it she ought to bring the important fruits of it to the attention of the House.

Mr. Tim Renton (Mid-Sussex) rose

Mr. MacFarquhar


I want to draw the attention of the House to Mr. Balfour's correct prescription that whatever the result of a referendum it should not be taken as a vote of confidence. That is why I interjected No "when my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) suggested that the Government might resign on this issue.

I should like to suggest further to the right hon. Lady that even the leading speakers against the referendum 65 years ago were not consistent. I raised the example of Churchill earlier. Mr. Asquith, the Prime Minister of the day, indicated that he was against regular referenda, but not against a referendum to solve a major constitutional problem. He said: I say quite distinctly that I reserve the question of the appropriateness and the practicability of what is called the referendum as possibly the least objectionable means of untying the knot in some extreme and exceptional constitutional entanglement."— [Official Report, 29th March 1910; Vol. 15, c. 1173.] Entry into Europe is precisely an "extreme and exceptional constitutional entanglement ", and that is why it demands a referendum. Those who argue that the people are not competent to decide on this issue are arguing not against referenda, but against democracy itself.

8.14 p.m.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing (Moray and Nairn)

It was on 22nd January of this year that in answer to a Question that I had put down, the Prime Minister announced, to the great pieasure of my party, his intention to hold a referendum. We are pleased to have the opportunity to give our views to the Government who have asked for them on the various aspects of the White Paper.

We have always believed in the weapon of a referendum. Long before the EEC was even on anyone's agenda we regarded it as the most democratic of tools, and we do not regard it as a fearsome weapon. We do not believe that a normal Parliament will become referendum trigger-happy. There is no evidence to suggest this. Democracies as well respected as Australia, Denmark, Italy, France, Norway, the Republic of Ireland, Switzerland and others have not become trigger-happy. They have limited the use of this ultimate weapon to a few important and outstanding issues.

I am not saying that they have all taken the same definition of the issue. In the same way, this Parliament and the Scottish Parliament may take different definitions, but I do not think we have to fear that there will be a referendum every month, every year or even every decade.

I have little sympathy with those who say that the public will not understand. After all, the issues at a General Election are much more complex to any conscientious elector. There are many aspects to be taken into account at a General Election, and if electors can that, and if we trust them with taking a big decision then, surely we can trust them when we narrow the issue to one matter only.

To those who have raised the red herring of a referendum on Scottish self-government, I say that my party has always wanted one and would welcome it at any time, on this referendum or on any other occasion. However, as we know that that is not what the House is discussing, I do not propose to say any more about it except that we would welcome a referendum or a General Election on the issue next week or at any time. As the Minister said, we have recently had t General Election. We were only 5 per cent. behind the Labour Party, but we were 5 per cent. ahead of the Conservative Party, so we want another election soon.

My party strongly holds the view that the count should be taken constituency by constituency, and this view appears to be held right across the board in all political parties. The first person to sign my motion on the subject was the hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) who asked whether he could sign it. I did not have to pressurise him into doing so. Many people in many parties agree with this view, and I should like to show why it is logical.

There are two basic views of the rôle of a Member of Parliament. He is either a man chosen to make the decisions, and having been chosen for that period he makes them, or, if one believes that a referendum is a sensible and ultimate tool, while he is geographically responsible, in this instance, though not in all, he must consider the views of his constituents who vote on the matter. It is illogical to take the second rôle and to say that it is for the constituent to decide the matter and then to tell the Member of Parliament that he cannot be allowed to know what his constituents say about it.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) referred to this. My party means to find out how people vote. If we are cheated out of the truth about the facts, we shall find out by democratic methods. We shall take sample polls. In some constituencies we shall take total polls. We shall have tellers at the gates. We shall adopt all manner of methods to find out how people voted.

I had a public meeting attended by 2,300 people. I did not share the platform with any other party. The meeting was under the auspices of my party. If we are to find out, how much better it would be if the answers given to us were authoritative. If the votes go against us, we shall have to accept that.

Mr. James Sillars (South Ayrshire)

Is the hon. Lady aware that she might be treading a dangerous path on the constituency count basis and that it is possible to get an overall answer which differs from that, constituency by constituency, in the House?

Mrs. Ewing

I understand the pitfalls and I have given them careful thought. I have a geographical responsibility for my electorate and I would like to think I knew their wishes. If we are to give them the vote it seems pointless if I do not know their wishes. I will take what is coming to me after that by way of any pitfalls or difficulties.

The White Paper seems to be totally illogical. It cannot have been framed by a member of the legal profession. It says in the pre face … advantage be taken of procedures and safeguards which long experience has shown to be effective and which are familiar to the voters. That is normal United Kingdom thinking for elections. Then it refers to a central count. A central count is not in accordance with the precedents of other countries, listed at the back of the White Paper. In Australia it was each State, in Italy it was by way of each commune, in New Zealand it was each electoral district, in Switzerland it was at canton level, in the United States of America it was by counties and cities, in Denmark it was each polling station, in France, each département, in Norway and the Republic of Ireland by constituencies.

All the countries which are accustomed to referenda have found that this is the practical way to do it. The White Paper says that it is widely accepted that it should be done by a central count. It certainly will not have "the widest acceptance "in Scotland where if the truth is kept from the people they will be resentful. Whatever their views on the issues they will feel that a smokescreen has been put up. The Secretary of State for Industry has publicly agreed with this view. He is on record as saying that if we try to hoodwink the people of Scotland they will be angry and turn against us. The Government would find themselves a laughing stock. I think it is ill-advised to persist with a central count. I ask the Government to think again.

I refer to an article in The Scotsman which says that there could only be one reason why the Government should want to count votes on a United Kingdom basis, because it fears that the results tabulated constituency by constituency or by county would give ammunition to the Nationalists. If members of my party were political Machiavellis we would say, "This is a marvellous grievance, let us continue with the central count."

If Scotland were against and England were for, that would be good ammunition. I am speaking against the interests of my party.

In 1972 a majority of Scottish Members of Parliament voted against entry to the Common Market. Scotland was included with the rest. That has caused resentment, in Scotland, rightly or wrongly. To try to conceal the results in a central count would cause similar resentment. We would be removing democratic rights if we were to do that.

I greatly value my right of scrutiny in the present electoral system. I am sure that all hon. Members do. They send every available scrutineer to every count. They watch the sealing, the counting and the opening of the boxes. When the results are announced everyone is fairly sure that it is as accurate as possible. However, even then mistakes are made. I have a vulnerable majority of 367. It was found that 1,000 of my votes were in a file with my opponent's name on the top paper. However, we were able to clear that up, and I am here today.

We must take the right of scrutiny seriously. These rules and regulations were hammered out over a long period to make certain that, when the result is declared, it is correct. If there is to be a central count I shall sit on top of my boxes in the guard's van until they reach the counting centre, whether it be Westminster Hall or Earls Court. We cannot have a situation where Members of Parliament cannot scrutinise. How could we afford five days to do the count? Think of the delay. The worst result is that from the Outer Isles, the Shetland Islands, because of the distance. Even those results are announced before the Sabbath day. They are announced on a Saturday. Imagine having to wait five days when we could virtually have the result the next day. It does not seem to be sensible.

Mr. Harry Ewing (Stirling, Falkirk and Grangemouth)

Leaving aside the rather glorious picture of the hon. Lady in the guard's van, the hon. Lady has said that she wanted a separate Scottish count because she believes that Scotland could stay out of the Common Market if England decided to stay in. Is this not contrary to the view that the hon. Lady expressed earlier in her political career, when she is on record as saying that England in the Market meant Scotland in the Market? Has the hon. Lady changed her views?

Mrs. Ewing

This is going back many years, to 1967. I said that with such a high percentage of our exports going to England, obviously if England were in then Scotland should be. I hope that people in England will vote against it. Since I said that in 1967 a certain black gold has been discovered in the Scottish sector of the North Sea off the Shetland coast—[Interruption.] That is still part of Scotland. That slightly alters the situation. Scotland has a total option irrespective of England's choice. That is my belief shared by the speakers in many recent television discussions and by no less an august personage than Sir Christopher Soames. Scotland's position is entirely different from England's because of our self-sufficiency in so many spheres.

Who are the independent advisers? I have had an answer to one of my questions about the Post Office counters. How many ballot boxes would have to go missing before it could be said that the count was invalid? In what circumstances would a recount be granted? What is the margin of error? This is not a dead issue, because there will be opinion polls between now and the date of the referendum, which I hope will be an early one. Samples will be taken. I urge the Government to think again about a central count. I identify myself with the questions posed by the hon. Member for Banbury and his remarks on the framing of the question. The use of the word "stay" suggests status quo, which gives an unfair advantage to one side. The preamble certainly gives an unfair advantage to one side. My simple suggestion for a question would be: Common Market: In or out? The NOP recently conducted a poll which proved that the question can be varied in such a way as to bring about a difference of 8.6 per cent. Thus, unless there is an overwhelming result the framing of the question is of importance.

I believe that it is wrong for the Government to issue two documents to the electors. There should be separate Scottish information in so far as it is different, as it is in regard to exports and where those exports are increasing— which is not in the EEC. The Scottish situation is different as it affects energy, fishing and agriculture. Will there be any additional and separate information about Scotland?

I am concerned about the fact that the European Movement is to give money to the Conservative Party in this campaign. Will that come under the financial limits? A referendum could properly have been held on the EEC issue quite irrespective of whether the Government were renegotiating. The wording at the beginning of the White Paper seems to suggest that the information to be given should not be limited to renegotiation. In this connection I align myself with the remarks of the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher). The White Paper says: a referendum would be held on whether the United Kingdom should continue as a member of the European Community or should withdraw. The White Paper is not framed in a way which asks whether we should approve the renegotiated terms. If information is to be sent out in documentary form it will be necessary for it to include not only what has been accomplished in the renegotiation but also information about the merits and demerits of the Market. I have in mind such things as what it has cost us up to now and how we have benefited. What promises were made about the balance of payments and what is the sordid situation now? What was promised about the free movement of labour and how has it worked out, for example, in Germany where all those guest workers are living in rather dubious circumstances.

We should know what was promised about growth rates and what the facts are now. We should be told the same about jobs and wages. Shall we be told about the 40 per cent. increase in unemployment in the EEC? While it is said that prices are rising everywhere, will it be pointed out that they did not go up by the same amount in Norway?

If there is to be a document, and there may be something to be said for no document, is it to be about the renegotiation or will it include merits and demerits? Will it say that renegotiation did not cover the vital area of fishing? If so, will it say why not? The sovereignty of Parliament is not the law of Scotland. The sovereignty of the people is above the sovereignty of Parliament according to the Scots constitutional law.

On 23rd January the Prime Minister promised that he would consult the Lord Advocate about this and advise me. Has he done so yet? If the Lord Advocate is not present, perhaps he can write me a note. This is a different situation and it is worth thinking about how it fits into the referendum situation.

In case anyone is interested in how my party will vote tonight, I can tell the House that we so strongly support the idea of a referendum that we shall go into the Lobby to support the Government. That is a basic plank in our policy, and it always will be. We feel very strongly about the count, however, and if an attempt is made to prevent the people of Scotland from getting access to all the information available within a democratic framework, we shall have to review our position when the necessary legislation comes before the House.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

I shall not follow the remarks of the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mrs. Ewing) too closely. I do not mind very much whether the count is taken on a constituency basis, a county, or a district basis. I shall take what comes. My constituents at the last election and at every election during the last 10 years knew exactly where I stood on Europe, and nothing has happened during that decade to persuade me to change my mind.

What we are discussing tonight was, if I may say so without doing too much damage to her reputation, put admirably by the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition. We are using this instrument to keep my party united— that and nothing else. That is the only reason for it. That is the only reason for putting this proposition in our election manifesto. I said so at the last election. I made it very clear that I was against the referendum in principle. I think it is a constitutional outrage. I think parliamentary democracy will never be the same again.

It was very idle and almost irresponsible for the Prime Minister to say, a few weeks ago, that it would be used only in connection with this kind of matter. It is not for him to say that. Once the principle has been accepted, other Governments will eventually take over, and other Prime Ministers and other administrations will decide, if it is to their advantage, to use a referendum on this, that or the other issue.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, when he opened the debate, talked about the nuts and bolts of this issue. I wonder whether there have not been rather more nuts than bolts. Paragraph 31 of the document states: It is to be expected that there will be a substantial additional flow of requests to the Government for factual information… But the Government will not be the Government. There will be two sets, if not three sets, of Government advisers in this matter. Will someone be able to telephone and say "May I please have the interpretation of the Secretary of State for Industry or the Secretary of State for the Home Department?" There will be at least two interpretations from the Government and, irrespective of what the civil servants say, the interpretation of the facts by the civil servants will be different, as there have been different interpretations in this House during the last few months. Different interpretations have been put on the same figures by the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and the Secretary of State for Industry. The public will be subject to different interpretations of the same facts by different Ministers. The public will not be sure of the facts, and still less sure of their interpretation when they ring up this mysterious office.

The right hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery) asked whether, after the renegotiations that are to be completed— one hopes tonight— in Dublin by the Prime Minister, a part of the Government— I do not know which part — will come forward with a recommendation on the question whether or not the people should accept that we have reached a satisfactory renegotiation posture.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the Government recommendation would be put before the House for debate. My recollection may be wrong, but I think I am right in saying— I hope I am not giving away party secrets— that the Prime Minister, at one of our party meetings, gave a specific undertaking that a recommendation would be put before the House on the results of the renegotiated terms and the House would have a vote. I presume that it would be a free vote, because the Prime Minister has already said that Ministers would have a free vote. Therefore, I shall claim no less rights than any Minister.

The Government will make a recommendation, and let us assume that that recommendation is approved by the House and that the question then framed is "Your sovereign Parliament, elected at the last election, has decided that the Government, who were elected last October, have reached a satisfactory renegotiated position. We therefore recommend to you that we should stay in the Common Market." People will be asked to answer "Yes" or "No".

If the people were to say "No ", there is no shadow of doubt but that the Government could not possibly survive, or, if they did, they would lose all credibility. This institution, too, would lose credibility, because the people would rightly say "What is the use of engaging in this kind of charade and then, when we reject their advice, they still stay put? "

The House can never be the same again after such an exercise, which is to be done for the sake of preserving a facade of unity in a political party. I speak for my party only— in fact, I do not even speak for my party. I speak for myself. It is well known throughout the country and in my party that this is a device for trying to keep us together. It may well be laudable. There is nothing wrong with that. But let us not pretend it is otherwise. Let us not pretend to the people that it is to protect their sovereignty.

" Sovereignty "is a meaningless word. Nobody ever defined it. When my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary went to Brussels and asked "What do you mean by political union?" nobody could answer. Nobody has yet defined for me what "sovereignty" means.

To pretend that this country, in or out of the Market— especially out— could continue on its own is nonsense. My right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) knows better than anybody that for us to pretend that we have anywhere else to go, if we get out. is blatant nonsense and a deception of the people.

We are not discussing the merits of the question whether we stay in or get out. We are discussing the merits of this constitutional device, this constitutional piece of opportunism.

I greatly regret that this debate is taking place at all. I greatly regret the White Paper. It bears all the evidence of a hotchpotch of ideas flung together, flung at us and flung at the people.

At my constituency Labour Party meeting last Sunday I argued that there should be another question on the paper. This proposition has been made more than once in the House. People should have the right to say "We prefer to leave this issue to the judgment of those whom we elected last October." That is what we are elected for. We are elected not for where we stand on a particular issue but on a whole range of principles and a philosophy. We are judged on that periodically in a General Election.

None of the other countries that have referenda has a Government superior to ours. I have travelled a good deal since I became a Member of the House and I have not seen a better form of Government anywhere than we have.

Mr. Whitehead

I agree with much of what my hon. Friend says. However, does he not agree that at the last General Election we were returned to power on the basis that we would have a referendum— not that we would have a referendum about having a referendum?

Mr. Hamilton

We did not say any such thing.

Mr. Whitehead

We did.

Mr. Hamilton

We never mentioned a referendum. The word "referendum" was never used. We said that we would consult the people through the ballot box. If we were now going to the country at a General Election I should not be making the kind of speech I am now making. I agree that the people should be consulted in a General Election but not in a referendum. I said at the last election that I did not believe— and I do not believe— in referenda. I believe in the sovereignty of Parliament. This is a negation of that principle.

8.42 p.m.

Mr. D. E. Thomas (Merioneth)

I will not follow the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) in all his arguments on constitutional theory. Suffice it to say that I accept the Scottish principle of the sovereignty of the people. Our position about a referendum is that we as elected Members are handing back a decision to the electors on a specific constitutional issue.

It is possible to distinguish between a referendum in relation to amending the constitution and other types of possible referendum issues. We are in the unfortunate position of not having a written constitution. The sooner that is put right the better in terms of the devolution of power within the United Kingdom. When we have a written constitution, it will be possible to distinguish between issues which will amend the constitution and issues of general domestic and public policy.

This distinction is made in most Western European democracies which have the referendum as part of their consultation process with the electorate. This is a view which my party upholds very strongly.

As has already been said today, we are to have a major second referendum in Wales this year on the question of the opening or closing of public houses on Sundays. It has been suggested that a saving in public money might result if both were held on the same day— not on a Sunday, of course— with the added stipulation that those who voted "Yes" in one would have to vote "No "in the other.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Would the hon. Gentleman agree with a referendum on devolution?

Mr. Thomas

Yes. I am coming to that very point. The Government have argued that the referendum principle is appropriate only to constitutional changes in the external relations of the United Kingdom. I argue strongly in favour of having a referendum on the internal constitutional relations of the United Kingdom. In these days, on the issues of EEC membership and devolution we have an incredible crossing of party divisions. An EEC Commissioner who is a member of the Conservative Party— I believe that he is still a member— came to Wales and advocated devolution only the day after the party's spokesman in the House on Welsh affairs condemned it in a speech at Kingston-upon-Thames— an ideal location for a speech on the question of devolution, one would have thought.

Clearly the devolution issue is an obvious candidate for a referendum. I believe strongly that there should have been a referendum on the question of internal constitutional changes in the United Kingdom following the publication of the Kilbrandon Report. I put it to the Government— not in this context, but in a future context— that if they have the faith that they say they have in their constitutional proposals and their acceptability they should seek to put those proposals to a popular test.

I turn now to the details of the EEC White Paper. I have tried to read it as an objective document— I always try to read White Papers objectively— but I conclude that this document has been ghost written by the Government on behalf of the European Movement. The arguments in this document are incredibly similar to an article which appeared in New Europe recently on the lessons for Britain of the Irish, Norwegian and Danish referenda. Section 4 of the White Paper on Government information activities is a toned down version of the proposals put forward in that article for a fully blown Government propaganda machine— what it calls an educational exercise. But the toning down has not been done well enough. The proposal in paragraph 31 for a special information unit of civil servants to be concerned with so-called "interpretation "of the renegotiation terms is a smaller scale model of what the European movement has proposed.

The phrasing of the question on the ballot paper coincides incredibly with the European Movement's authorised version of the question, which is: Do you approve the terms now negotiated (or recommended) by the Government (or Parliament) for continued British membership of the European Community? The White Paper has split up the sentence and given us a short preamble, but it has given a far more heavily loaded verb.

Mr. Hurd

I assure the hon. Gentleman that those of us who are thinking of campaigning on the opposite side from himself are disappointed with the White Paper in this respect. We think it is wrong that the information unit should wait for questions to come to it. Such is the appetite for objective information on the part of the public, we think that the Government ought to take the initiative in circulating the facts as opposed to the arguments put forward by the two sides.

Mr. Thomas

The hon. Gentleman confirms my view entirely. I am not surprised that he is disappointed that the whole of the Government's propaganda machine is not geared up for this exercise.

The Irish, Norwegian and Danish questions were more neutral in the way that they were structured.

Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)

Is it not the case that in the other countries the form of the question depended upon alterations to their constitutions, which does not apply in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Thomas

That is the point. The great advantage of having a written constitution is that one can tie up amendments to the constitution in a neutral way, not the emotive way in which it will be phrased in this question. I still believe that, despite the fact that it is not convenient to link it to a constitutional amendment, it is possible to make the question far more objective. I believe that that must be done.

It is on the question of the control of expenditure that the European Movement's arguments have most obviously been accepted by the Government. The European Movement has argued that there should be no limitation on spending by campaigning groups and that at the same time there should be no Government financing of those groups. That was clearly aimed to give the multinational companies, which are pouring money into the European Movement, a free hand. These sources of funds enabled them to appoint an anti-Socialist former Labour Member of Parliament as their Welsh organiser— a part-time job for which he is getting a fat salary.

At the same time the European Movement wants to ensure that there will be no public funds available for a balanced projection of the arguments. It wants to have the same walk-over in terms of financial resources in the campaign as it had in Ireland where the pro-Market funding outpaced the anti Market funding by 10 to one.

In my view, there must be control of spending exercised in the same way as at parliamentary elections with a register kept of all campaigning organisations and returns made for the amount spent by each organisation in each constituency. There should be a similar limitation on central funds for a United Kingdom-wide campaign. I believe that such a limitation is long overdue at general elections. It is high time that Aims of Industry had to make election returns, or, for that matter, my own union.

The devising of effective regulations for limiting spending is more important than subventions from public funds for campaigning. I believe that we must have both. In Norway, for example, the equivalent of £10 million was allocated both to political parties according to parliamentary strength and to pro- and anti-campaign organisations without specific conditions. This is an example which the Government ought to follow.

Controls similar to these on funding for campaigning must also be extended to broadcasting. The balance of current affairs programming is, of course, a matter for the broadcasting authorities, but the BBC and the IBA can, I hope, be relied upon to be fairer in their treatment of reporters and participants in programmes than the Financial Times.

However, I am concerned about the way in which political broadcasts, the referendum equivalent of General Election party-politicals, are to be organised. Paragraph 33 of the White Paper is silent about control of these. The European Movement wants these broadcasts done as party-political broadcasts for a General Election, saying that It would be left to each political party to determine whether and how much weight they would give in their political party broadcasts "—

Mr. Roper

As an officer of the European Movement. I am most interested in the hon. Gentleman's remarks. If he is referring to an article written in a personal capacity by the director of the European Movement, the hon. Gentleman is referring to the director's views, which are not necessarily those of the movement.

Mr. Thomas

I am grateful for that intervention. Does the hon. Gentleman, therefore, take the view that what appears in the official journal of this movement is not the official policy of the movement, even when it appears under the director's name?

Mr. Roper

Articles in New Europe are written under the authority of the author, and that is made clear.

Mr. Thomas

That was clearly not specified in the article concerned.

However, perhaps I may continue to quote from this enlightening article which is obviously creating much interest. It continues: It would be left to each political party to determine whether and how much weight they would give in their political party broadcasts to the minority views within their own parties. That is yet another attempt by the director of the European Movement, who represents no one or nothing but his personal capacity, but in that capacity he is clearly suggesting that there should be a limitation to the official party points of view. This is another attempt to load the dice, based as it is on what I hope will be a mistaken assumption about the Labour Party— that each British party will campaign for a "Yes" vote.

It is important that broadcasting time should be allocated not to political parties but to pro-Market and anti-Market organisations. Plaid Cymru has had bitter experience of the carve up of time in relation to political broadcasts by the self-styled all-party committee. My party recently had to take on the broadcasting authorities in the High Court to get a broadcast out at the time scheduled. I do not consider the so-called all-party committee competent or fair to allocate the campaign time. I press the Government to set up a representative ad hoccommittee of the campaigning groups and broadcasting authorities to supervise referendum broadcasts. Nothing is said in the White Paper on that matter, but I hope that something can be stated clearly upon it.

Finally, I turn briefly to the question, of the counting of the votes and the announcement of the result. I find what is not stated in paragraphs 18 to 23 more. interesting than the logic of a so-called "national count ". The United Kingdom, as we have heard, is the only European democracy which proposes to count referendum votes centrally. We have heard references to Denmark, Norway and Ireland, and even centralised France which declares results by départment.

Only the United Kingdom Government have developed the perverted logic that because it is a United Kingdom poll, the constituency is the whole of the United Kingdom. I do not accept the analogy of the Lord President when talking of the whole of the United Kingdom as a constituency. The White Paper says that to announce the result in this way will secure its widest acceptance by the British people. I again quote the director of the European Movement, in his personal capacity: Such a procedure would avoid placing an onus upon most individual Members of Parliament to abide by their own constituency result. I find this view a negation of representative Government. Most of us, as Members of Parliament, spend most of our time trying to find out what our constituents are thinking on a broad range of issues, and yet on a major issue of this kind the Government are deliberately trying to prevent those views from becoming known. If the Government are so keen to get pro-Market Labour Members off the hook, if that is their intention, what is wrong with a county count? Or does the acceptance of the British people imply that the views of the individual constituent countries of the union should not be known?

Does the argument run like this? It the vote were close, as it was in Norway where there was a relatively small "No" majority, would the South-East of England be up in arms because Scotland, Wales and Northern England had saved them from themselves and kept them out of the Common Market? We in Wales have had to put up with Tory Governments inflicted upon us against out political views by the South-East for many years. To go through the mammoth, marathon exercise of a United Kingdom count in an effort:to mask genuine social and political differences between various regions and countries cannot be justified on the standard of argument that we have heard so far from the Leader of the House.

It is a matter of sadness that the right hon. Gentleman, in his other capacity, is responsible for devolution. If it is that kind of commitment that we have from the Government for devolution, if the deliberate masking of the views of Scotland, Wales and the English regions is to be carried out by the same Minister, I have the gravest doubts about the Government's real commitment to devolution.

Devolution is not an issue, it is a dimension of policy. If on major policy issues of this kind we are not to have real devolution and real representation of the views in Scotland and Wales, and the regions of England, the whole exercise must be severely in doubt. If it were done on a localised count and a United Kingdom tally we would have the results by midday the following day. Instead of that, we are to go through the charade of transporting ballot boxes through the night, no doubt in Securicor vans. I expect that they will be watched over by Alsatian guard dogs. They will be transported to an unknown destination in central London where for five days and five nights 5,000 counters and scrutineers will be engaged in the count.

Mr. Lee

What about the recount?

Mr. Thomas

If there is a recount, it will be 10 days and 10 nights. Clearly, the referendum will have to be held on Monday so that nobody will have to be paid overtime. At the end of the five days there will be puffs of white smoke, unless we have a recount. However, we shall still know the Welsh result because the ballot papers from Wales will be bilingual. Our independent scrutineers will be able to tally them. If we do not have official results from constituencies and from the regions, and from Wales and Scotland, there will be unofficial results and alternative forms of referenda by canvassing or putting in tellers. Let the Government come clean.

I suppose that I am arguing against myself in that I want to see this great centralised count take place as the last great absurdity of the over-centralisation of United Kingdom Government. Perhaps I should be urging the Government to carry on with their plans.

Finally, the Referendum Bill must be shown to be a substantial improvement on the White Paper. It must contain safeguards on the major issues that I have tried to indicate before we as a party can commit our support to it. Although we believe in the principle of the referendum, unless the referendum secures a clear statement on the views of the people of Wales we shall not be able to support it.

8.58 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Brown (Hackney, South and Shoreditch)

I do not wish to take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas). His remarks about Southern England always organising things for him did not ring a bell with me. We in London have been carrying a lot of the burden for a very long time.

Having heard most of the contributions in this debate, I am bound to say that I am not persuaded one bit that the Government's decision to go ahead with this referendum device will add to our parliamentary system or will be of any great value to the British people. It is true that the word "referendum" never passed officially from Labour Party spokesmen until 23rd January. Even the Queen's Speech did not contain the word "referendum ". It was only as recently as 23rd January that the word "referendum" was used as a commitment for the Labour Party.

Like many of my hon. Friends, I made a commitment in October that if such a pledge were made in our manifesto we should proceed by way of the ballot box. I assumed that we were pledged to a General Election. That is what we always understood the use of the ballot box to mean in this country. I used that term then and I use it today. If we want to know the views of the people we should have a General Election so that we can hear what they have to say.

It is extremely dangerous to try to transplant or superimpose on one's own system a more attractive feature from someone else's system. My mind goes back to the Industrial Relations Act. I heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) talking in those days about the absurdity of taking certain things from other people's ideas. The Industrial Relations Act was exactly the sort of thing in which various persons compiled what they regarded as attractive items from various systems into one measure, and it turned out to be a disaster. If, with the referendum, we try to weld to our parliamentary system ideas based on an entirely different philosophy, we shall end in complete disaster.

My argument is reinforced by Annex B of the White Paper, in which the Government have picked out various countries that use a form of referendum. As has been pointed out, these countries have written constitutions and have accepted referenda as part of those constitutions. With them it is an on-going process, not an isolated use of the system, to be disposed of after being used once. The people of those countries understand referenda to be part of their systems. It is therefore irrelevant to quote the practice of these other countries in support of the use of a referendum in Britain. In Australia, for example, people are compelled to vote, and that makes comparison very difficult.

I believe that Annex B shows just how fundamental is the difference between the White Paper proposals for Britain and the practice in foreign countries. The Government are not proposing to retain the referendum for any further use after this issue has been decided. I am interested to know why. If it is a valuable device, surely it should be retained. I am open to being persuaded that it is valuable, and I do not understand how the Government, having decided that they want to use it once, should then want to get rid of it as fast as possible. The Government, as I understand it, are saying that they want to hear the voice of the people and they want to be bound by that voice. If that is so, why not use this machinery for other issues? The public have many ideas about which issues are important, and it is something of an intellectual arrogance to say that we in Parliament should decide that there is only one subject on which we want to hear people's views and be bound by them, and that this situation should not apply to other matters that they, the people. regard as of paramount importance.

Tortuous arguments have been adduced in favour of limiting consultation to this one issue, and that issue has been chosen by the Government. The people outside Parliament, however, have issues that they regard as important, and they have been demanding referenda for years. They have as much right to have their favourite issues put to a referendum as has anybody else. It is an odd form of democracy that dismisses the views of large sections of the population who wish to test opinions on subjects they regard as of paramount importance but which insists that they should answer only the question that we think should be put to them.

Paragraph 26 of the White Paper presents an interesting situation. First, the Government will issue, along with all the other advertising material for Omo, and so forth, a "pop" version of the document. In addition, they will issue an explanatory memorandum to describe how the "pop" version of the document is to be read. Having done that, they will send out another document of 4,000 words—2,000 from one side and 2,000 from the other. Then there will be some questions, and two sets of answers. The people will then have to sit down and study all the paper work.

Mr. Jay

That is exactly what is done in elections.

Mr. Brown

I am glad that my right hon. Friend intervened. I have here an article written by him which will illustrate how difficult it is to interpret what is written. Under the headline "Common Market: Why should we come out, by the right hon. Douglas Jay M.P." is written: It is now clear that no substantial concessions are going to be made by the Common Market countries in the ' renegotiation ' which the Labour Government has rightly launched.". I suppose one could call that an extension of the truth, but I would call it an utter untruth. It has no relevance to the facts. Yet that article has gone out under the name of my right hon. Friend. People are reading it and saying that it is written by the right hon. Douglas Jay, not by Mr. Douglas Jay, that friendly man— and they believe that what he says is right. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister comes back from Dublin he will tell us what he thinks about it. I do not believe that he will come back with that story. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend hopes, by writing another article, to give an informed version of what he did not know before. Perhaps that is one way of making a living.

I shall quote one more piece from my right hon. Friend. He said that The only tolerable solution for Britain and the Labour movement now is to return to sanity and rejoin the EFTA group of Social Democratic countries. I looked to see what Governments were in power in the EFTA countries. In Portugal there is an armed forces Government of the Left in a state of flux. The troops have been out tonight. In Switzerland there is a four-party coalition, including Radical Democrats, Christian Democrats, the Swiss People's Party and Social Democrats. Finland is an associate member and it has a Government consisting of four political parties. Of the seven EFTA nations there are three with Social Democratic Governments.

My right hon. Friend wrote something that is patently not true. There is not a Social Democratic EFTA, and there never has been. I am not taking issue with my right hon. Friend on it. He is entitled to write what he likes. All I am saying is how difficult it is for someone reading all the papers to try to decide what is fact and what is fiction. I am not challenging my right hon. Friend's right to print what he likes, but it is difficult for people to understand the written word in these terms. I should like to be satisfied that the voters will be able to clarify their minds on these issues.

We shall have to undergo this procedure in a hurry. Everything will be rushed. From the time that the Prime Minister arrives home from the summit everything will go into top gear. People will have to clear their minds by June, and then they will have to take a decision. It is almost impossible to expect those people to take such a momentous decision within such a short space of time. I appreciate that in the time scale that is set the decision must be taken quickly, but one cannot set up an Aunty Sally just to knock it down.

I do not believe that the people of Great Britain are being given a fair chance even if they are in favour of the system. It would have been better if we could have taken the decision in a much more leasurely fashion, so that people could have arrived at an understanding of the issues.

Much fun has been made about the idea of an information centre, but no alternative was advanced by the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. Thomas). Many hon. Gentleman have jeered at the idea, but nobody has come up with any other suggestion. We should be told what is the right way to inform the population within so short a time.

Mr. D. E. Thomas

I proposed a subvention from public funds, so that information could be distributed by the parties, whether pro or anti, indirectly rather than directly from a Government agency.

Mr. Brown

But how are people to assess the information which will come to them within so short a space of time? They have only until June.

I find it impossible to accept the arguments for attaching a referendum system to our parliamentary system. If we want to discover what people are thinking, we should go through the time-honoured procedure of going to the people via a General Election and letting the people have their say. We must consider whether this new concept within the system of government will be to the nation's benefit. I have come to the conclusion that if we agree to the referendum proposal it will not add much to our democracy.

9.13 p.m.

Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)

I am sure that many hon. Members will agree with the conclusion reached by the hon. Member for Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown). Many hon. Members, particularly Labour Members, have obviously concluded that at present it is wrong to hold a referendum. I am against a referendum in principle, and I am against a referendum on this particular issue. It is possible to run a democracy and also to have a system of referenda — examples have been given in the White Paper— but we do not have such a system in this country.

I agree with the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) that once we have gone down the referenda road it will not be the end of the idea. It will have a profound effect on our system of parliamentary government. Are we saying that there are some issues so important that even when Parliament has decided by a majority to support that issue, nevertheless Parliament cannot be trusted to come to the right decision? If that is what we are saying, it is the greatest breach of the traditions and practices in the House of Commons— far greater than the issue of the Common Market.

I also object to the view that it is important that we should have a referendum on this special issue. There have been other crucial issues on which the House has decided in this century. We decided to go into the last war. That was an issue of life and death for this country. No one could have said that it was not as crucial as the Common Market issue.

Mr. David Lambie (Central Ayrshire)

There should have been a referendum then.

Mr. Channon

One can imagine how we should have been stifled by inability to come to a decision. It would have been a ridiculous situation.

What will be the practical result of the referendum? Will it be binding? The Leader of the House says, rightly in law, that it is not binding, but he says on behalf of the Government that they will accept the result of the referendum. If the decision is made by one vote, it will bind their future conduct.

What are individual hon. Members expected to do? I believe that it is crucial to this country to remain a member of the European Communities, though other views are passionately and sincerely held in the House. Is it seriously suggested that, against all my convictions and all that I have argued in favour of membership at General Election after General Election ever since I have been a Member, I should solemnly vote to take us out after the referendum? The proposition is ridiculous.

Hon. Members are asked to surrender what has been our prime responsibility and duty, which is to vote for what we believe is in the interests of the country.

Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

I have listened carefully to the hon. Gentleman and to many other hon. Members making this point. Is he suggesting that our system is perfect, and that we cannot have any other form of attempting to get the people to express their democratic voice?

Mr. Channon

Every system can be improved, but I still believe that compared with the parliamentary and other systems in other countries ours is the best available. I do not wish to tinker with it in a way that I believe will be damaging to our parliamentary democracy.

I come to the second main point, raised by the hon. Member for Fife, Central, and, I think, by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy), of the Government's position when the referendum is over. If they recommend that we should stay in the Common Market and that recommendation is overturned in a referendum, how can anyone believe that it would be credible for them to remain in office? How could it be, when the main plank of their foreign policy, on which a great deal of their economic policy will depend, has been taken away? They would then have to introduce crucial legislation which they had said they did not believe in. That would be a constitutional outrage, and there is a danger of its happening.

Secondly, even if the Government resigned, what is the alternative? My right hon. Friends are also pledged to stay in the Common Market. Therefore, we should have the situation described by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell), a few years ago, of having irresponsible government. No major political party would be able to form the Government and carry out the policies which it genuinely believed to be in the national interest.

I am violently opposed to the referendum on those grounds, and on the grounds of collective responsibility. On an issue of crucial importance to the country it cannot be right for Ministers, whichever party is in power, to have to parade their differences, for them genuinely to disagree, with half campaigning for one side and half campaigning for the other. That is the negation of the Cabinet system of government which we have had for a considerable time, and it is a damaging precedent.

Apart from dealing with those major constitutional matters, I have three things to say on minor issues. The more I have listened to the debate, the more I have become convinced that hon. Members will be rushing to take part in the campaign. The Leader of the House asked for views, and I give him my view that the House has a duty to have a Recess, so that we may take an active part in the campaign, for whichever side we wish.

My second point concerns holiday makers, those who are abroad, those who could not have known when the registers were compiled last October that there might be a referendum the following June. I ask the Minister to bear in mind that many people will be disfranchised. The Leader of the House said that in June not many people would be on holiday. But my experience in my own constituency in the June 1970 General Election was that very large numbers of people felt very aggrieved about their inability to vote. They were not confined to my own political party. They existed in large numbers. If this is such a unique occasion, the Government have a duty to enfranchise such people for this purpose.

I come, then, to the last of my minor but reasonably important points. I take the view that if we are to have a referendum it is right to have a national count in the way that the Government have outlined. I should not wish that to go by default and for the Government to feel that only those against the idea had taken part in this debate. If we have a referendum for the United Kingdom, we have a United Kingdom count. If we have a referendum for Northern Ireland, we have a Northern Ireland count. If a referendum is held in Wales about Welsh Sunday opening county by county, there is a county count. It seems to me that the analogy is exact.

Those are peripheral matters. The crucial issue which this House will be asked when the Bill comes before it is whether we are to throw away that in which we all believe, which is the idea of a responsible House of Commons deciding on the evidence before it whether to agree to certain legislative or other action in the interests of the country. If that principle is to be breached, this will not be the last occasion. We have heard Scottish and Welsh Members say that it should apply to devolution. Other hon. Members have said that the principle should be extended further. If that happens, the unique forum which this House has been for a great many years will have been thrown away for no substantial gain.

Therefore, I hope that when we come to the Second Reading of the Bill we shall decide to reject the referendum proposal. I believe that if we do that it will be in the interests of the House of Commons.

9.22 p.m.

Mr. David Lambie (Central Ayrshire)

Unlike the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Chanson). I am in favour of a referendum. I am not so arrogant as to think that the collective wisdom of the 635 Members of this House is of greater value than the collective wisdom of the electorate. Anyone who believes in democracy at the end of the day must believe that the collective voice of the people is of greater value than that of the 635 Members of this House.

I was not sent here as a Labour Member representing a Scottish constituency to protect the traditions and practices of this House. I have no great love for the traditions and practices of this House. As one who believes passionately in devolution and, further, in self-government for Scotland and Wales, I am here to support the break-up of the traditions and practices of this House. In a future debate, I hope that we shall see the Scots and Welsh people— and, for that matter, anyone living in one of the English regions who wants self-government and more power going to the regions — achieving self government.

I listened carefully to the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mrs. Ewing) and by my hon. Friends the Members for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) and Hackney, South and Shoreditch (Mr. Brown).

I support the hon. Lady's argument that it is a mockery of democracy to have a central count. Those who are against referenda and afraid of democracy are the same people who are in favour of a central count. That is why I was disappointed to hear my right hon. Friend the Lord President say that the only reason for the central count was his wish to unite the country. I put it to him that in Scotland he will cause disunity, especially amongst Labour voters, if he persists with his central count.

Mr. David Walder (Clitheroe)

If the hon. Gentleman is in favour of a referendum and a national count, why does he wish to relate the results of that to constituencies which, as I understand his argument, are irrelevant.

Mr. Lambie

Because I believe in the general democratic principle that the more one devolves the system of government or the system of election the better the result and the more interest there is in it.

A fortnight ago, my constituency Labour Party took a decision with which I wholeheartedly agree. We shall campaign as a constituency Labour Party to try to get Britain out of the EEC. If we want a high poll, and I am sure we do, we must involve local interests, and we shall do that only if we run the campaign locally.

It is nonsense to bring every ballot paper from Scotland to some central point in London and do the count over five days, with perhaps 5,000 or 55,000 counters. I do not know the exact figure, but we shall have to put up with all these people being at Earls Court for five days counting the votes of the people of Scotland, among others. This is nonsense, and it is nonsense to try to carry it out on the principle that we want to unite the people of this country.

Mr. Gerry Fowler

If I may take up my hon. Friend's local interest point, can he explain how it is that we always get very much lower polls at district and county elections than at General Elections? Surely at the former the local interest must be at its highest.

Mr. Lambie

My hon. Friend should compare the London constituency results at the last General Election with the local government constituency results in Scotland at the recent election. He will find that there was a greater interest in the local Scottish election, as shown by the percentage poll, than there was in the London constituencies at the General Election, when certain important Members were elected with less than 50 per cent. of the people voting. I hope that my hon. Friend will not put that argument forward as a reason against decentralising the vote.

The people of Scotland know how they will vote. They will vote against remaining in the EEC. There is no doubt about that. The Glasgow Herald is carrying out a series of polls. Every poll is conducted by independent investigators, and they show clearly that the Scottish people, by an overwhelming majority, are voting against entry. I put it to the Government that they will put Labour Members of Parliament at a disadvantage in Scotland if they persist with this central poll. This is being done not in the interests of efficiency or on the issue of democracy, but because the Government are afraid to learn how the people of Scotland and England vote. If they persist in this, they will create problems for Labour Members from Scottish constituencies.

I now propose to deal with the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central. I fought the last election on the basis of the Labour Party manifesto which stated clearly that we were in favour of consulting the people either by way of a General Election or by way of a referendum. I put it to the Government that Willie Hamilton standing as Willie Hamilton for Fife, Central would get 10 votes, but Willie Hamilton standing as the Labour candidate for Fife, Central would win.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. George Thomas)

Order. The hon. Member will be naming me next.

Mr. Lambie

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I thought that my method of referring to the hon. Member in that impersonal way was allowed. If it is not, I withdraw what I said. I say to my hon. Friends that the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), standing as Willie Hamilton, would get 10 votes, but the hon. Member for Fife, Central standing as Willie Hamilton the Labour candidate in a Left-wing, almost Communist, constituency would win.

The TUC, the Labour Party annual conference and the manifesto of the Labour Party on which we fought the last election stated clearly that we would consult the people on this issue either by way of a General Election or a referendum. I put it to my right hon. and hon. Friends that we are putting in difficulties Labour Members who fought the election on our party manifesto and who are prepared to stand by that manifesto.

We fought the election on this issue and we should stand by it. We are not arguing about the pros and cons of entry or withdrawal. We are arguing the principle of whether we should consult the people of this country. I know where I am going. As the Labour Member of Parliament for Central Ayrshire, I am campaigning locally for a "No" vote. At the end of the campaign I shall want to know whether I have been successful, how the people of Central Ayrshire, the people of Scotland and the people of the United Kingdom voted. Unlike most hon. Members, I am not afraid of democracy and I am prepared to stand by the majority opinion of the people I represent.

9.32 p.m.

Mr. John Davies (Knutsford)

I, too, would be fascinated to hear how the electors of Central Ayrshire voted, but I shall not follow the hon. Member's argument.

I should like to return to the central question of the advisability and appropriateness of referring this obviously vital matter to the British people in a referendum. Although hon. Members may not be totally satisfied with it I have a good word to say for the referendum. If, as I suspect may be the truth, it is a way of resolving, relatively quickly, the issues surrounding British membership of the Community, let us have it quickly— and affirmatively. I shall greatly welcome an abandonment of the humiliating role which this country has played in its external relations in the past 12 months.

From any reasonable European standpoint Britain is seen as a petulant and petty-minded Kingdom, rigorously seeking some narrow interests of its own without regard to wider considerations. I find that distressing beyond words and I should like to see us absolved from it.

Two years ago, when we became a member of the Community, there was a great feeling of relief and satisfaction among the eight other Members— a feeling that Britain was a country with great traditions, with a great belief in democracy and a country able to contribute something vital and necessary, perhaps hitherto absent, to the whole formulation of the Community. When it came to the question of how best to deal with the election of a proper Parliament in Europe. Britain was expected to contribute something substantial.

Mr. Russell Kerr (Feltham and Heston)

When was this?

Mr. Davies

As recently as two years ago. Look where we are now. At that time in many areas which were considered to be of vital importance to the future of Europe and its ability to play an effective part in the world we were seen as the people bringing new thought, a new line and a new dimension to the whole concept of European unity. We have sadly abandoned that. If a referendum is necessary to reinstate us to a position where we can once again take up our proper position in these matters a referendum there must be— but with the greatest regret.

For all I have said, I cannot vote for this referendum on any score. It seems objectionable from the point of view of its constitutional content, in terms of it ability to pose a valid question with clarity and in terms of the complexity of the issues surrounding the answering of any valid question. Last, but not least, it seems objectionable because it is an unworthy thing for this House to have on the whole, agreed that it should refer back to the people the question of the negation and renunciation of a treaty into which we entered as recently as two-and-a-half years ago. On all these scores, I feel deeply resentful of the thought that it should necessarily be by this means that we return to a rightful stance within the European Community and are able to make our proper contribution to it.

I do not have a great deal to say about the constitutional issues, which have been dealt with most effectively by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) in an admirable speech. I look back with some personal satisfaction to the fact that my maiden speech in this House was on the subject of the validity of a referendum for determining our membership of the Community. I am glad to say that I at least can claim some consistency. I have not changed my stance one iota.

I felt only satisfaction at being able to add my name to those of my right hon. and hon. Friends who had signed the motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, North (Mr. James) dealing with the extension of the referendum principle to include whether people thought that Parliament should decide. I still think that that is a valid question which should be answered. I have little doubt, on the constitutional issue, that what we are at present conniving at is wrong.

It is certainly one of the most complex issues, in any reasonable sense, to understand the full spectrum of the Community in all its activities. I imagine that other hon. Members must have been approached as I have, by hundreds of constituents from every walk of life saying, "We are faced with an impossible dilemma. We do not understand what we are being asked to make a decision on." The fact that we as a House should be prepared to do that, knowing the immense difficulties we are casting on our constituents, is unworthy of us.

The hon. Member for Belper (Mr. Mac-Farquhar) made a most interesting speech. If the question of the direct election to a European Parliament were an issue to be put to the people now, it would be more suitable, although I am against referenda, as an issue for a referendum than the complex and widespread question concerning the Community as a whole. It would be possible to frame a question which people could answer with clarity, understanding what they were doing. This is an enormous, juggernaut problem, quite incapable of being appraised in 2,000 or 20,000 words— even if anyone reads them.

Mr. MacFarquhar

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. I accept the point that the question of direct elections to a European Parliament would be a more suitable subject for a referendum. However, my feeling is that when that stage is reached the process will already be irreversible.

Mr. Davies

We do retain the absolute right to say "Yes" or "No" to what we wish in the Community and we must continue to exercise that right.

An interesting point raised by the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) illustrated exactly the kind of difficulty facing us in terms of clarity. He was niggling about whether we are talking of a European Community or European Communities. Is it not appropriate to ask whether we would wish to remain a member of the European Coal and Steel Community but not of the European Economic Community? That poses real problems. There are many sound arguments, if we are to go into that niggling area of discussion on detail, on positive and separate questions. The framing of a question with clarity is itself of immense difficulty, as we have seen today, not least because the very thing of which we are speaking is unclear to those to whom we are addressing our question.

Parliament, with all its sovereignty and with the support which the British method of government gives it, has reached a conclusion embodied in a treaty with many other countries. How bad a moment it is when Parliament regards it as necessary to throw back that right to the people. How great a doubt it must pose in the minds of so many other people. Can anybody doubt that the Atlantic Alliance is a matter of the most fundamental importance to us? How great a risk is there that this, too, might in its turn be thrown into the jaws of a referendum.

Mr. Lee

The right hon. Gentleman quotes the Atlantic Alliance. Is it not a fact that one can give six months' notice and leave that organisation? That distinguishes it from the Common Market, for the ultimate article in the treaty, if it is read in its literal sense, states that we can never leave it.

Mr. Davies

The hon. Gentleman is making my point for me. It is Parliament that should decide. It should not be decided by a reference back without any concern for Parliament's view. I consider that on all counts we are tonight unfortunately likely to reach a conclusion on a proposal which is essentially unworthy of us, which is unjustified and which is done for petty and mean reasons which I deplore. I am prepared regretfully to see it happen because it is only by that means that we can reach a conclusion.

9.42 p.m.

Mr. Alf Bates (Bebington and Ellesmere Port)

I welcome the Government's decision to hold a referendum as outlined in the White Paper. My constituents will welcome this decision as an election pledge which is now being fulfilled.

I accept what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton). Our manifesto said that we would consult the British people through the ballot box, and throughout the last General Election campaign I said that of the options open through the ballot box, I thought the referendum was by far the wisest course.

The situation that we are facing is quite different from any other decision which we have to take, as was very well outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar). People delegate to Parliament power over all matter, but, having done so it is surely right that over one matter Parliament should not have supreme power, and that is the matter of giving away a power which has been delegated to it. For that reason I consider that we are in an entirely unique position.

However, I do not want to deal with many of the constitutional matters. I want to speak almost entirely about the nature of the count and the way in which the result is to be declared. I start from the premise that the purpose of holding a referendum is to ensure that the will of the people is carried out in the end by Parliament. There are many ways in which the referendum count could take place and the result could be declared. Some of them are outlined in the White Paper. There could be a count on a constituency basis, on a county basis, or on a regional basis, or in many other ways. Whether in the end we come out of the Common Market or stay in, we shall do so as one nation. We shall not come out on a regional basis. We shall not come out on a constituency basis.

That leads me to support the conclusion that the Government come to and the arrangements for a single national count. We have to ask ourselves: what is the purpose of, for example, a regional count? Why should we declare a result on a regional basis? Would it help Parliament to carry through the will of the people, as I initially described? I think not. If we believe that it is our duty simply to carry through the will of the people as nationally expressed, I do not see how a separate count could possibly help. Alternatively, is it an attempt to use the referendum for entirely different purposes, namely, promoting false nationalism, as many of us suspect?

People say that there will be opinion polls, anyway. I thought that in these days nobody took much notice of opinion polls. A declaration of those results in that way would only make official, even if the polls were accurate, what is a myth. Regional counts cannot add anything to our knowledge or to the way in which we conduct our business after the count has taken place.

Let us examine a few possibilities, because there are a number of inherent dangers. Let us suppose that the nation as a whole voted to stay in. Let us suppose that England voted to stay in while Scotland and Wales voted to come out. It is perfectly possible that could happen.

Mr. Lambie

What is wrong with that?

Mr. Bates

There is nothing especially wrong about it. I want to ask the House what it would do afterwards. Would Scottish Members believe, on that basis, that Scotland should leave the Common Market whilst England remained in? Is that really a viable proposition? I have not heard anybody suggest that, and I have heard members of the Scottish National Party suggest that they could not possibly do it.

Mr. Percy Grieve (Solihull)

Has the hon. Gentleman considered the possibility that, although it is not a viable proposition, there are still a great number of people who would be foolish enough to believe it?

Mr. Bates

I am sure that people will believe it, but whether they do or do not and whether or not it is declared in that way, we all know that as a whole we should stay in, because such is the nature of this place and the nature of people's feelings in this case.

I am drawn to the conclusion that the desire of, for example, the Scottish National Party to have the vote counted on this basis is simply a desire to be able to say, in those circumstances, "It was the English who kept you in against your will ", knowing very well that that is the only possible outcome. In other words, it is simply a desire to use the referendum for the entirely different purpose of promoting nationalism.

Let us suppose that we have a situation in which the overall result was that we should come out— that England voted to stay in whilst Scotland and Wales voted to come out. What would be the position of English Labour Members? In those circumstances, would they feel bound by the English result, or would they be bound by the national result?

It is important to remember that, in the main, the Tories will in any event vote to stay in. It is strongly possible that there would be a sufficient number of English Labour Members who would accept the English vote rather than the overall national vote and who would vote with the Tories and keep the whole nation in the Common Market against the national will. If that happened, where would be the confidence of the people in this place after this very massive and very pointless exercise?

There are eight possible combinations if Scotland and Wales are considered separately. I shall not bore the House with any more of them. Only two of them would produce a unifying and, therefore, satisfactory result. The rest would be unnecessarily divisive, because we all know that the only result to be carried into practice is the overall national one and that there is, therefore, only one way in which the result should be declared— that is, singly and nationally.

There is the possibility of declaring the result on a constituency basis. Many of my hon. Friends who are opposed to our staying in the Common Market favour a constituency-type count. They should think seriously about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Lambie) said that he supported the Labour Party's manifesto but his constituency party had decided to campaign against. I am not sure what that means.

I ask any members of my party who seriously wish Britain to come out of the Common Market, and have made up their minds on that basis, to think about the suggestion that there should be a constituency count. There is only one way in which Britain will leave the Common Market, and that is if the Labour Party remains united. We must remain united on a single agreement. Some of my hon. Friends may not want that, but I want it. I want the Labour Party to remain united on a single agreement that after the referendum we shall vote in favour of what the referendum says.

Mr. Russell Kerr

My hon. Friend is asking for the moon.

Mr. Bates

If my hon. Friend wishes, as I believe he does, to get Britain out of the Common Market, he should join me in at least striving for the somewhat distant objective of which I have spoken. I shall not be put off by the fact that some members of my party may attempt to split it. I start from the premise that there is only one way to get Britain out of the Common Market, and that is to unite the Labour Party over the single objective of agreeing to abide by the result of the referendum.

Mr. Stan Thorne (Preston, South)

Does my hon. Friend recall that it was 69 members of the Labour Party who split it when they voted for Britain's entry into the Common Market?

Mr. Bates

I recall that. It is one strong reason why I advocate what I am now advocating. The only way to ensure that the vast majority of members of the Labour Party vote according to the result of the referendum is by our having a single national count.

If the Tory Party, as I believe, votes in the main, after the result, to stay in the Common Market, and if we have a constituency count, there will be a sufficient number of Members on this side who will find constituency excuses to vote with the Tories. Such constituency excuses will not be present if there is a single national count. That is why I want a single national count.

It would be fine if every Member voted as his constituency voted, but hon. Members will not do that. For one thing, the Tories will not do that. The only way to carry through a decision to leave the Common Market is for the Labour Party to agree to abide by a single national result.

Mr. A. P. Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)

If the Prime Minister recommends this country to stay in the Common Market, will the hon. Gentleman feel no obligation to support him?

Mr. Bates

I am talking of the posisition after the referendum has taken place. I want to ensure that this House abides by the national decision.

Mr. D. E. Thomas rose

Mr. Bates

I had better not give way. It would not be so bad if the Tories would abide by the referendum result, but they will not. They will use the referendum. They will campaign in the referendum process and seek to influence people, but they will not abide by the result. For that reason, those who will abide by the result of the referendum must act as one and, after the result, must have the one clear objective of putting into effect the declared wish of the people. Otherwise, the whole exercise is pointless and, indeed, harmful. In my view, many of the dangers inherent in this exercise are best eliminated by the arrangement that the Government have proposed.

9.57 p.m.

Mr. Julian Critchley (Aldershot)

If life is one humiliation after another, this debate and the referendum will be a humiliation for the House of Commons.

The referendum is a device that can only accelerate the decline in the standing and influence of Members of Parliament and of the House of Commons. The question, "Explain the decline in the influence and standing of the MP ", was in the O-level papers last year. I think that all of us could attempt an answer. It begins by starting to draw attention to the increase in the power of the executive extracted from the legislature. The second part is to look at the Civil Service, the bureaucracy, and the power that has arisen there. The third part is to look outside the House of Commons at all the new institutions that have arisen— the CBI, the TUC, the BBC and the IBA. While this has been going on Members of Parliament have been left underpaid, underfed and, rumour has it, undersexed.

Mr. Lambie

The hon. Gentleman should speak for himself.

Mr. Critchley

And, if this referendum has its way, utterly unimportant to boot.

Some hon. Members have suggested that there should be a recess for the duration of the referendum campaign so that we might electioneer. Yet this would be an election in which we, as Members of Parliament, had no more standing or status than any other elector. Frankly, we would do far better to stay behind and let the people get on with it.

The referendum smacks of an odious cynicism. It is an attempt to try to keep one of our institutions— the Labour Party— more or less intact at the price of seriously weakening a second institution— this House itself. We cannot begin to understand or discuss the referendum without understanding and motive that lies behind its advocacy, and its motive has been explained by more than one hon. Member from all parts of the House today. Be under no illusion. Were the answer to the referendum to be "Yes" in June, the "antis" in the Labour Party, to say nothing of the "antis" elsewhere, would not cease from strife, and that would not be the end of that particular great debate. It might have been more sensible—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.