HC Deb 24 April 1996 vol 276 cc439-42 3.36 pm
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Mid-Staffordshire)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to strengthen institutions to promote economic, cultural, and political ties between the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, the United States and New Zealand. Malcolm Turnbull is the leader of the republican movement in Australia, and he defended Peter Wright in the "Spycatcher" trial. Some have even said that Mr. Turnbull might have become Australia's first President. Although I do not support his republican views—I am a royalist—some of his arguments are interesting. Similarly, although I do not suggest that Britain should leave the European Union, Malcolm Turnbull's belief that we turned our back on our natural friends and allies when we joined the European Economic Community, as it then was, is persuasive.

A few months ago, Malcolm Turnbull was quoted in The Sunday Times: I think that was a terrible mistake for Britain. Why should you at this point in history, when technology has made distance more irrelevant than ever, suddenly choose to become a political part of Europe? Technology has made geographical proximity irrelevant and geographical proximity was the only reason for being part of Europe. Britain would have been much wiser focusing on and developing closer relations with those countries with which it really did have a lot in common in terms of language, background, human relationships and institutions. And those countries plainly were the Anglo-Saxon countries—the old Commonwealth and the USA. I was educated for a while in America and like you, Madam Speaker, I have worked there. You were based on Capitol hill in Washington DC, working in Congress—and I worked not far away, from a base in New Haven in Connecticut, setting up and financing radio stations. As I have also worked in Europe, I have long held views similar to those of Mr. Turnbull, but with one big difference. There does not have to be a mutual exclusivity between membership of the European Union and strengthening ties with the old Commonwealth and the USA. The Government already do just that.

But I believe that we are reaching a crossroads in our nation's history. Our country cannot survive and prosper on its own. We have always needed to be part of a trading bloc. In the 18th and 19th centuries, that bloc was the British empire. People who now think that we can go it alone live in an economic cloud cuckoo land. But the crossroads are fast approaching as a confluence of technology and dissatisfaction with existing trading blocs fast approach each other. That creates a window of opportunity and an unlocking door to a future of mutual prosperity that this nation must not miss lest future generations rightly condemn our short-sightedness at the obvious and our failure of stewardship of our country.

Before I speak of the confluence of ways and the unlocking door, I shall state the obvious and the not so obvious about Britain, Australia, Canada, the United States and New Zealand. We all share a common language. We may speak in different dialects, but there is a greater diversity in the British Isles than between London and any state in the United States. We all share a common heritage. The kings and queens of England are still taught in Brighton near Melbourne and in Brighton near New York, even if not in Labour-controlled Brighton in Sussex.

We all share a common legal system. Do we all realise how important that is to British trade? Can that be why the US is still the biggest holder of investments in the United Kingdom and why the UK is still the biggest holder of investments in the US? Is not it startling that despite America having won its independence back in 1783, its independent legal system developed in parallel with our own after all those years? We still share a common basis in law. Our sense of natural justice is similar to that in America and in the old Commonwealth. Wittgenstein was right to illuminate the immutability between language and cognition and it is well demonstrated by our common jurisprudence.

We all share common economic cycles. While Britain and America enjoy growth, continental Europe wallows in recession. Let us pray that France and Germany's slump does not pull us down too. We all share a common state of economic development. There is no need for cohesion funds, huge fund flows or tides of immigration from one nation to another. We all share a view that we should not subsidise industries, such as airlines that should stand on their own two wheels.

We all share relatively wealthy populations. Britain, the US and the old Commonwealth combined have a population of around 356 million, slightly less than the European Union population of 369 million. But whereas the gross national product of the European Union is $7,280,975 million, that of the United Kingdom, the United States and the old Commonwealth is in excess of $8,274,500 million.

Finally, we all share a common culture bound together by a common history. Our nations' folk memories are not scarred by recent lesions caused by war and invasion. No need is felt to concede the nation state in order to seek the will-o'-the-wisp of peace for all time.

But what of the confluence of circumstances, which I mentioned earlier, which creates the unlocking door that we should now seek to push ajar? There are two aspects to that confluence.

First, the nature of trade has altered over the years. In extremis, we no longer export locomotives: we export microchips and software. We no longer export girder bridges: we export financial services, although not enough to Europe, where some borders are not yet open to the City of London. In 1970, 9 per cent. of our import costs were insurance and freight. In 1994, that figure had reduced to 2 per cent., and the trend continues downwards.

Distance is no longer the object in international trade. In my own experience, the selling price in Copenhagen of a broadcast console made in Britain is higher than the selling price in Auckland. The local market determines the price, not the distance of the goods travelled. I do not have to remind hon. Members that telephoning distant destinations has been transformed since the recent laying of trans-world fibre-optic cables. There is no more satellite delay or echo. Calling Seattle is as clear as calling Lichfield.

Secondly, there has been a more fundamental change. For the first time in its 220-year history, the United States is no longer isolationist. It has recognised the need to form strategic trading alliances, and that has not happened before. It has joined the North American Free Trade Agreement, of which Canada is also a member. Yet Canada and the United States find that they are exporting jobs to and importing finished goods from Mexico. Australia and New Zealand trade with the Pacific rim, as we do. Yet Australia and New Zealand also export jobs to and import finished goods from countries such as Vietnam, Taiwan and South Korea. Those countries assumed wrongly that trading blocs must consist of geographically close nations, not economically and culturally close nations. They are beginning to recognise with growing unease that other more compatible partners may need to be sought.

Surely whether one enters into a marriage partnership, a business partnership or a geopolitical trading partnership, if the partnership is to endure, it must be more than merely a marriage of convenience. My Bill recognises today's reality and future certainty.

The world is going through a time of change. It is unlikely, but the general agreement on tariffs and trade may make all trading blocs unnecessary. But if no such agreement is reached, Britain will need to keep open all its many options. The Foreign Secretary and the President of the Board of Trade have rightly spoken time and again of the need for an international view.

The Bill recognises that Britain trades with the world, that no alliances are for ever, that Britain cannot be a little England and needs geopolitical trading partners, that our partners need to be compatible and that we should never allow Britain to be boxed in or to be without options. The Bill will strengthen the already excellent work undertaken by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office through its own initiatives and participation in the work of international organisations including GATT, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Group of Seven.

3.46 pm
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

When I entered the Chamber and read the notice of motion for the first time, I thought to myself, "Who could possibly be against it?" It read like apple pie and motherhood. One would think that there would be a unanimous House in favour of it. Then I began to notice one or two hints in what the hon. Member for Mid-Staffordshire (Mr. Fabricant) was saying. There was a certain sub-text and a certain linkage with yesterday's ten-minute Bill. I began to understand that perhaps the Bill before the House is not all that it appears to be.

The hon. Gentleman says that we must adjust to today's reality. We are not, I hope, against that. He argued that we should keep our options open. I suppose that no one could be wholly against that. He quoted Mr. Turnbull, who is not his ally on other matters. He quoted also Wittgenstein, and who can be against Wittgenstein?

In my judgment, the real sub-text and motive was an essay in nostalgia. Essentially, it was an essay in escapism. The key theme was that there is an alternative to our linkage with our natural allies within the European Union, involving Australia, Canada, the United States and New Zealand. There is, of course, a basic substratum of co-operation and of marriage of the heart with all those countries. Most of us have family in most, if not all of them. There is the binding of common law and of language, which in most instances brings us together.

The essential problem in looking to Australia, Canada, the United States and New Zealand as an alternative to the EU is clearly that they are not options, in spite of important emotional and practical areas of co-operation. The key fallacy in the hon. Gentleman's approach is that it takes two to tango. History tells us, as the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath) knows only too well, that our country has been littered with attempts to escape from its destiny.

During the late 1950s, there was the attempt by the then Mr. Maudling to find an alternative to the treaty of Rome. We were labouring under the illusion created by Sir Anthony Eden in about 1956, that there were the three circles of America, the Commonwealth and the wider world, and that Britain was at the centre of those three concentric circles. We had the Maudling essay in escapism and the European Free Trade Association, which was built up as an alternative. Various other schemes were peddled in the 1960s, notably the North American Free Trade Agreement, associated with Senator Jacob Javits.

The basic problem with all those options was not only that the proposed partners were not terribly interested in the project, but that, basically, it ran against the facts and, notably, the pattern of trade. I invite the hon. Gentleman to consider the way in which our trade pattern has moved from when 40 per cent. of our external trade was with Commonwealth countries to now, when more than 50 per cent. of it is with members of the European Union, a dynamic organisation, at whose door other countries are knocking hard. Countries are trying not to leave the EU or to find an alternative, but to join because they know that, despite all its problems, it is a dynamic organisation.

When we confirmed our membership of the European Union in 1975 after the referendum, we joined not a static Europe, but a Europe that was developing. However much Conservative Members seek to avoid that, the dynamism remains, so, effectively, the apparently anodyne motion must be seen in the context of the agonies of the Conservative party—the escapism that we saw in respect of the European Court of Justice.

That is why we in Britain are not punching our weight in Europe and why, in a Europe that needs alliance-building that is based on partnership, we are increasingly pushed to the side, to the detriment of our interests. Such essays in nostalgia and escapism, however felicitously phrased, are not only contrary to our interests, but avoid the real choices facing the country.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Michael Fabricant, Sir Ivan Lawrence, Sir John Hannam, Sir Michael Spicer, Mr. Norman Lamont, Mr. Jonathan Aitken, Mr. David Alton, Mr. John Butcher, Mr. Patrick Nicholls, Mr. David Martin, Mr. James Pawsey and Mr. John Wilkinson.