I beg to move,
That this House calls upon the Government to introduce a Bill in the next session of Parliament to provide for the holding of a national referendum on whether the United Kingdom should
(a) remain a member of the European Union on the current terms;
(b) leave the European Union; or
(c) re-negotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and co-operation.
The motion stands in my name and those of many other right hon. and hon. Members.
I must start by thanking the Backbench Business Committee for providing time for today’s debate. It is an historic debate, and the amount of interest generated in advance of it has surely put beyond any doubt the fact that the public are concerned about this matter. It fully vindicates the establishment of the Committee, and its decision to facilitate the debate. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), for Christchurch (Mr Chope), for Clacton (Mr Carswell), for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless) and for Wycombe (Steve Baker), along with many others, for their tireless work and support from the very outset. With the leave of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) will briefly wind up the debate.
The motion reflects the wishes of the hundreds of thousands of people who have signed petitions calling for a referendum on the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the European Union. Opinion polls clearly show that millions of others agree with them: in fact, the vast majority of the British people want a vote in a referendum. The arguments for and against the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union can wait until a future referendum campaign. The motion that is before us today simply paves the way for a referendum to be held on some future, as yet unspecified, date. Therefore, any argument that now is not the right time for a referendum to be held is, quite frankly, irrelevant. Even if the motion is passed today, a referendum is likely to be years away.
One reason for people’s increasing concern about our membership of the European Union is the growing sense that this country, indeed this Parliament, is becoming ever more impotent as more and more decisions are taken in Brussels and then passed down to the United Kingdom to implement, whether we like it or not.
I want to mention one very important example of that from my constituency of Bury North. Before the last general election, the Conservatives pledged that if we won the election we would keep open the children’s department, including the maternity ward and special care baby unit, at Fairfield hospital in Bury, which was scheduled to close under Labour’s plans. Sadly, despite that pledge, and despite massive local opposition to the closure plans, these vital services are still destined to close, and one of the driving forces behind the closure plans is the effect of the European working time directive. Thousands of my constituents feel completely let down, and even at this late stage I urge the Government to keep that pre-election pledge and to ensure these services are retained at Fairfield hospital.
Two weeks ago at the Inverclyde Royal hospital, 23-year-old doctor Lauren Connelly died in a car crash. All her colleagues believe that that was a result of her having worked exhaustingly long hours. We should not mock the working time directive. Although it is sometimes improperly applied in the UK, it is also saving the lives of doctors and patients.
I believe it is for this Parliament to decide what rules and regulations should be taken up.
The voters know that the tentacles of the European Union intrude into ever more areas of our national life. Understandably, they are saddened—and, indeed, disillusioned—at being fobbed off, as they see it, by the political elite, who always seem to find a reason to stop them having their say.
More than a decade ago, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary coined the phrase, “We want to be in Europe, but not run by Europe.” The sad fact is that since then we have increasingly become run by Europe. I and millions of others in this country want to be in Britain, and run by Britain.
More than 36 years have passed since anyone had the chance to have their say on this crucial matter, and in that time not a single power has ever been repatriated. I suspect that for some in this House there will never be a right time for a referendum on this issue, but I think that, by anybody’s standards, nearly four decades is quite long enough to wait.
Moreover, almost two thirds of the people of the United Kingdom have never had the opportunity to vote on this issue. Indeed, figures supplied by the House of Commons Library show that approximately 8 million of the people who voted yes to continuing our membership of the Common Market back in 1975 are still alive today. That is just 16% of the current voting age population, leaving a staggering 84% who have never voted in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the European Economic Community.
Back in 1975, I was engaged in political work but I was also too young to have a vote, so I am very glad that my hon. Friend has raised this important point so early in the debate. The people of South Derbyshire sent me here so that we can have votes on issues such as the one before us.
I thank my hon. Friend. I will now press on.
A staggering 84% of the current voting age population have never voted in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the EEC, never mind the European Union. Furthermore, if I were a betting man, I would wager that some of those who voted yes back in 1975 may well have since changed their minds. The Common Market has fundamentally changed in size and powers as it has been transformed into the European Union, and without the British people ever being consulted, of course.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate. The key point is that what this country joined was, in essence, a free trade area, and that since that time we have seen the continual salami-slicing of our sovereignty and the British people have still not yet been consulted on that change. The Government may talk about referendum locks, but that is tilting at windmills, given that no treaty is on the horizon and that key competences and powers are being transferred in the meantime. It is time to consult the people.
The European Union Act 2011 deals with the future, but this motion deals with where we are today. People already feel that too many powers have been passed on. At a time when people pick up their phones and spend their own money voting week in, week out to keep their favourite contestants on programmes such as “Strictly Come Dancing” and “The X Factor”, many will be baffled as to why the Government and all those who oppose this motion seem keen to prevent them from having their chance to vote on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend. Does he agree that people will be even more baffled to understand the position of the Liberal Democrats? They stood on an election manifesto to have an in/out referendum and actually marched out of this House in the previous Parliament because they were denied one, so does he not agree that people will be particularly baffled as to why none of those charlatans over there will be voting for this motion?
The hon. Gentleman will know, as I am sure he read the Liberal Democrat manifesto very carefully, that we committed to an in/out referendum at the time of a fundamental shift. That is why we supported an in/out referendum and proposed one in this Chamber at the time of the Lisbon treaty. Perhaps he can explain why every one of his then Conservative colleagues voted against that motion.
The situation we find ourselves in is rather like that of someone who has boarded a slow train going in one direction and finds, just as they are settling in, that the train starts to career off at high speed in a completely different direction, with carriages being added on left, right and centre, and they are locked in and have no way of getting off. Worse still, the longer people are on the train, the more the fare goes up, but there is absolutely nothing they can do about it because any negotiation with the guards or the driver is almost impossible. This motion would simply allow the train to stop for a while so that the passengers can decide whether they want to continue the journey or even disembark.
A lot of changes are happening throughout Europe. Does my hon. Friend accept that we need to add some junctions to the track in order to identify whether alternative routes are available? Does he agree that we should not wait for a referendum before doing that?
If one added together all the petitions, one would find that many hundreds of thousands of people have called for us to debate this issue.
I am conscious that this is one of the most, if not the most, heavily subscribed Back-Bench debates ever. In conclusion, with the three largest parties in the House all apparently instructing their MPs to vote against the motion despite what those MPs might individually believe to be the best course of action for our country, the result tonight may not be in very much doubt. Members can vote either to give their constituents a choice on Britain’s ongoing relationship with the European Union or to deny them that opportunity. It is as simple as that. If my fellow MPs join me in voting to give the British people a choice in a referendum, they can do so with a clear conscience, knowing that they will have a very large majority of the British people on their side.
Has my hon. Friend had the same experience as I have? In the past week I have had dozens and dozens of e-mails, telephone calls and letters from constituents urging me to support the motion, whereas the only communication I have had urging me to vote against it has been a telephone call from the Whips Office.
Hear, hear. [Interruption.]
We always have to be careful about whether we are listening to the vocal minority or the silent majority. I believe that on this issue we should listen to the majority of the British people, who clearly want a referendum.
Some 40 million people of voting age alive today in this country have not voted in favour of Britain’s membership of the European Union, and this motion would start to put that right. Those who oppose it may well be smiling today, but winning votes in the House using strong-arm tactics does nothing to help to rebuild trust in politicians or to persuade the public that the majority inside the House are reflecting their views. Those who oppose the motion may well win this battle, but they most certainly will not win the war. We should remember the saying that he who laughs last laughs longest. I commend the motion to the House.
I welcome this debate. For new Members in the new Parliament, this will be their first experience of discussing European issues. I have listened to a lot of debates on Europe over the years in this place and they have not changed very much. Of course, I do have some antecedence on European treaties as I was the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee and its predecessor for a total of 14 years. I honed my skills in chairmanship by keeping the nine Conservative members of a 16-member Committee from battling with and killing one another. I remember that the split was five pro-Europeans and four who described themselves as sceptics but who we knew were anti. The hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) was on that Committee before I joined it and he and I had many exchanges over the years. I respect his views but do not agree with them, and neither did the majority of the Conservatives in the early part of my European scrutiny days.
I have fond memories of our debates on the Maastricht treaty. Those of us who were here at that time will remember that a lot of Members on both sides of the House wore a badge of honour for the number of times they voted against a three-line Whip. The hon. Member for Stone will correct me if I am wrong, but I am sure that he topped 150-odd occasions of rebelling against the Government. I do not see much difference in the debate today.
I did not read anything over the weekend to pre-empt the debate that is any different from the debate all those years ago on the Maastricht treaty. I listened to the Prime Minister today, who said that he was against the decision not to give the people a vote on the Maastricht treaty. I do not know—the records may say, but I thought he was an adviser in the Treasury in those days, or it may have been just after that—but he was certainly involved in advising the Government of the day.
We should not forget that Mrs Thatcher gave us the single market and there was no referendum on that. It is the single market more than anything else that has impacted on how Europe works. Those who argue against the single market now were in the House supporting Mrs Thatcher when the measure went through without a referendum.
I may not be the historian that my hon. Friend gives me credit for, but I remember Mrs Thatcher saying a lot of things. Having been a miner on strike for 12 months during the 1984 miners strike, I have long memories of Mrs Thatcher’s contribution to democracy at that time.
The mover of the motion, the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), alluded to the fact that Members had been strong-armed into voting against a referendum. Who is likely to be able to strong-arm my hon. Friend?
The hon. Gentleman is telling the House of many of his fond memories. Does he remember a certain Tony Blair saying:
“Of course, Britain could survive outside the EU . . . We could probably get access to the Single Market as Norway and Switzerland do”?
It may surprise the hon. Gentleman that I am not very good at remembering Tony Blair’s quotes either, but I do remember Tony Blair winning three elections with massive majorities, and I can remember the good that that Labour Government did for the country, so I have fond memories of Tony Blair.
I conclude my brief contribution by saying that there is a false debate going on in the Chamber today. Those on the Government Benches who are arguing about defending democracy and the right of the people are not talking about democracy and they are not talking about defending the rights of the people; they are talking about getting the UK out of the European Union. Some Members on the Government Benches are honourable and argue that, but some do not. It is all about the nuances and the language, but there is a truism in the House and throughout the country.
The tabloid press is supporting the call for a referendum today. Some are doing it as a good and honourable cause, but there is a side of the tabloid press that supports the right wing on the Government Benches which wants to take the UK out of the European Union. I can remember when we joined the European Union. It was trendy on both sides of the House to be against the European Union. We have moved on, our country has moved on, and we need to be not just in Europe but in the heart of Europe. By doing that, we represent the true sovereignty of this Parliament. For that reason, I will vote against the motion tonight.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton East (Mr Hood) and his shocking revelation that there are tabloid newspapers that wish to leave the European Union. This is an important issue at a critical time in European affairs and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) on securing the debate and moving the motion, even though, as I will explain, I disagree with it. As so many Members wish to contribute to the debate, I have given you, Mr Speaker, an undertaking that I will speak from the Front Bench for no more than 25 minutes—less, I hope—including interventions. I apologise for having to leave for Australia before the end of the debate.
Hon. Members who have put their names to the motion have done so for reasons that are honourable and passionately held. I wish to set out briefly six reasons why I believe the proposition to be the wrong one at the wrong time and why it would cut across a European policy that I believe has the best chance of success for this country. The starting point must be the recognition that disillusionment with the European Union in this country is at an unprecedented level, and in this regard there is some common ground between my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North and me. Just as I want to say some things that he and others will find difficult to accept, so I put it to those who have always enthused about the prospects for greater European integration that for this country the limits of such integration have been reached—more than reached, in my view.
The Leader of the Opposition said at the weekend that he did not rule out joining the euro in future. He must recognise that he is totally out of touch, not only with the people of Britain, but with economic reality. That is why the coalition Government—this is the first part of my argument—have already brought about a major change in European policy, which is absolutely in the interests of this country but which the motion would cut across. That change has three aspects, which I will set out briefly. First, following the previous Government’s refusal to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, we passed the European Union Act 2011, which sets out that, in the event of a Government proposing any further transfer by treaty of powers or competence to the EU, there must by law be a referendum of the British people.
My right hon. Friend mentioned the Opposition’s view. Does he not share my bewilderment that the Leader of the Opposition, in response to the Prime Minister’s statement earlier today, appeared to say that the Prime Minister should not go into EU meetings and be robust in the British self-interest in case he upsets the French?
Well, I never cease to be bewildered by the statements of the Leader of the Opposition, so we will leave him to worry about that himself.
Any or all of the treaties of the past 20 years would have been caught by the 2011 Act, and under the same Act parliamentary scrutiny of any treaty changes was vastly enhanced. The narrow treaty change that has been agreed to set up the European stability mechanism will now require primary legislation to be passed through both Houses of Parliament, rather than the cursory consideration it would have received under the previous Government.
As my right hon. Friend knows, we are also improving the scrutiny of opt-in decisions by this House and made some important commitments on that during the passage of the 2011 Act. On financial regulation, as he may know, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has had a series of negotiating triumphs that have turned around the situation regarding directives that threaten this country’s financial services industry.
I have just stated my view, which is that all the treaties of the past 20 years would have been caught by the 2011 Act and that there would have been a referendum.
Secondly, we have negotiated far harder and far more effectively on the European budget, in which the increases proposed have been totally unacceptable to this country. Working with France and Germany, the Prime Minister has achieved a sharp reduction in the EU’s budget increase and a united demand for a real-terms freeze in the seven years from 2014 without making any concessions of our own.
Thirdly, we have used and will use any treaty change asked for by others to protect and advance our own national interest. The Prime Minister has secured agreement that, in return for accepting a legal basis for the European stability mechanism, Britain will no longer be liable for future eurozone bail-outs through article 122—a liability that the previous Government agreed to in their dying days.
I am going to proceed for a while, given the time constraints. I will give way again a little later.
We have, therefore, already saved the British taxpayer potentially billions of pounds. None of those three major advances for British interests would have happened under the previous Government, because they actually did the opposite: refusing to hold a referendum; giving up £7 billion of rebate in budget negotiations for nothing in return; and signing us into a eurozone bail-out.
We propose to approach further treaty changes in the same firm and clear manner. We have agreed in the coalition that our first priority in responding to treaty changes aimed at stabilising the eurozone will be to protect the rights of those countries in the EU but outside the eurozone over decisions affecting them, and to prevent damage to the financial services industry that is so important to this country’s economy.
I will give way again in a moment.
It is my view and the Prime Minister’s view, and the position of the Conservative party, that we will use future opportunities to bring further powers back to the United Kingdom—to repatriate powers to the United Kingdom in those areas where we believe European integration has gone too far.
The final part of our approach to the EU is to make the case at every opportunity for it to do effectively what we joined it for: to expand the opportunities for trade both within Europe and beyond. Britain is the leading champion of expanding the single market and concluding more free trade agreements with the rest of the world. Last year’s agreement with South Korea is worth up to £500 million to the British economy—a reminder to all of us, when we discuss these matters, that we are talking about not just politics, but people’s jobs and businesses, which we must never forget.
The Foreign Secretary has quite rightly tried to outline the savings that the Government are making on European costs, but he must know that by 2018 this nation will have spent £356 billion on enforcing EU regulations. Does he not agree that this Parliament could spend it better—on farming, on health care and on social policy—than the European Community?
I have explained what we are doing to keep the European budget down, and how I believe the European Union has too much power. The hon. Gentleman must be a little careful, because European Union spending has gone disproportionately to Northern Ireland, and he ought to bear that in mind.
On trade, may I take the Foreign Secretary from the general to the specific? A number of my constituents work at the Luton van factory, which very nearly closed before it secured a major contract with Renault to keep it going for the next decade. Does he share my concern that my constituents’ jobs would have been at risk had there been any danger of Britain being outside the European Union and the single market?
I will have to proceed again. We are under this time constraint.
That is the Government’s policy towards the EU, and that is why we cannot treat this motion, as some have suggested, in a casual way. To do so would not do justice either to the importance of the issues or to the significance of motions presented in this House.
The Prime Minister and I, as he said earlier, want many of the same things as some of the motion’s supporters, but we clearly do not advocate leaving the European Union, and I say as someone who has called for referendums on European matters—on Amsterdam, Nice, Lisbon and the euro—and consumed vast acres of newsprint over the years, criticising the euro and setting out a different vision of Europe’s future, that the proposition for a referendum before the House today is the wrong proposition at the wrong time. Building on what the Prime Minister said earlier, I want in the 15 minutes remaining to me to give the House six reasons—[Interruption]—some of them are very brief, do not worry—why that is the case.
No one doubts my right hon. Friend’s Euroscepticism, but, despite all the talk of reclaiming powers, week in, week out competences and powers are being transferred to Brussels under the very noses of the British people. That is why there is growing frustration in the country, and that is why people want a say on whether they become part of this ever-closer political union.
I do not agree with my hon. Friend that that is what is happening day by day, or week by week. In foreign affairs, for example, we are absolutely clear, and all our embassies and posts throughout the world are clear, that we will not permit any competence creep following on from the Lisbon treaty.
My first reason is the same as the first one given earlier by the Prime Minister. The deficits of recent years, and the slowness of growth in all western economies, make this a difficult and uncertain time for many individuals and firms. The eurozone is clearly in crisis, and to pile on that uncertainty the further uncertainty of a referendum on leaving the European Union, when half the foreign direct investment into Britain comes from the rest of the European Union, and half our exports go out to the rest of the European Union, would not be a responsible action for Her Majesty’s Government to take. It would not help anyone looking for a job. It would not help any business trying to expand. It would mean that for a time, we, the leading advocates of removing barriers to trade in Europe and the rest of the world, would lack the authority to do so. It would mean that as we advocate closer trading links between the EU and the countries of north Africa as they emerge from their revolutions, helping to solidify tremendous potential advances in human freedom and prosperity, we would stand back from that. That is not the right way to respond to this dramatic year of uncertainty and change.
In light of what my right hon. Friend said in advocacy of the single market as it now operates, will he explain why, between 2009 and 2010, our trade deficit with the 26 member states jumped from minus £14 billion to minus £53 billion, and with the eurozone from minus £4 billion to minus £38 billion in one year—last year alone? Why did that happen, and what is his remedy?
The remedy is to restore the health of the British economy, to have a tax system, such as the Chancellor is creating, that attracts businesses to this country, and to create export growth from this country to the whole world, not just to the European Union. We cannot do that if we are not taking part in the free trade agreements that Europe is making with the rest of the world.
The second and third reasons—
I will give two more reasons, and then I will give way again. The second and third reasons why I do not support the motion can be stated quickly. The second is that the election manifesto on which we stood as Conservative Members was very clear about the referendum legislation that we would introduce and that, in a coalition, we have now passed into law. We were also clear, having been asked about this many times during the election, that that did not include the option of an in/out referendum.
The third reason is that this Parliament has only recently, just weeks ago, passed with a large majority in this House comprehensive legislation setting out in minute detail the circumstances in which a referendum will be held.
Given that the Foreign Secretary said that if there is further substantial transference of power to Europe, we will have a referendum in this country, and as the Government are advocating closer fiscal and monetary union in Europe, which will obviously lead to major changes, why do they not adopt this motion and fix their own time scale for the referendum that he is promising?
The only treaty change agreed so far—I am coming to this point—is the one that puts the European stability mechanism on a legal basis, and for that we secured in return, as the Prime Minister explained, that this country will no longer be forced to be part of eurozone bail-outs. We will respond to every proposal by putting forward what we need in return.
Any treaty that transfers power to the European Union, and that is interpreted not just by Ministers but by the courts of this country as doing so, will result in a referendum for the people of the United Kingdom.
Let me give my fourth reason before giving way to a Liberal Democrat Member.
As the Prime Minister said, there is a serious danger that while holding a referendum such as the one advocated —it is predicated on a Bill in the next session of Parliament, which runs from 2012 to 2013 and means that a referendum would be in 2013 or later—we would lose important opportunities to protect or to further our national interest in the meantime. On all those areas where we need the agreement of others—from the shape of the EU budget up to 2020, to agreement on our requirements for any treaty change—it could be harder, not easier, to get our way.
Although of course the Foreign Secretary and his party, and I and mine, come from different positions on Europe, we both made commitments to referendums, but both were conditional on there being a shift of power from this country to Brussels. It therefore must be right that, at the moment, we concentrate on helping our colleagues to sort out the European crisis, which is what businesses want us to do, and on getting our economy to grow again, which is what our constituents, in and out of work, want us to do. The referendum would be an absolute and immediate distraction from that.
That is one of the reasons I am giving.
My fifth reason is that the concept of holding a three-way referendum as set out in the motion is innovative but seriously flawed. Leaving aside for a moment all the uncertainty and difficulty which would occur in the run-up to a referendum, which is my final point, if we are serious about this we have to think carefully about what would actually happen in a three-way vote. It is highly unlikely that any one of the three options would receive more than 50% of the votes. If, for the sake of argument, 40% of people voted to stay in, 30% voted to leave, and 30% voted to renegotiate, would that mean that we stayed in without any renegotiation at all? Is this to be a first-past-the-post referendum or a preferential voting referendum? If it is to be a preferential voting referendum, we have just rejected that system—in a referendum. Perhaps we would have to have a referendum on the voting system for the referendum itself.
I will give way again in a moment.
If we voted to leave the European Union, would that mean that, like Norway, we were in the European Free Trade Association and in the European Economic Area but still paying towards the EU budget, or, like Switzerland, not in the European Economic Area? If we voted to renegotiate
“based on trade and co-operation”,
as the motion says, does that mean that we would be in the single market, or not; still subject to its rules, or not? Does “co-operation” mean that we still work together on a united position on Iran, Syria and other foreign policy positions, or not? When we had renegotiated, would we, given the wide range of possible outcomes, need another referendum on the outcome of the negotiation?
I point these things out because there is a reason why a referendum is normally held on a specific proposition with a yes or no answer, and I believe that any future referendum must be held on that basis, not as a multiple choice among vaguely defined propositions.
Surely my right hon. Friend must know as well as I do that preferential systems are used in this House for certain votes. Is it not equally the case that for some elections, first past the post is appropriate, and for others, a preferential system is appropriate? Why not have this three-way referendum on the basis of the single transferable vote, as we do in this House for other elections?
I will give way another couple of times in a moment, but I am trying to help the House to make progress.
My sixth and final problem with the motion is that it does not do justice to the reality that the European Union is not a matter of everything or nothing. We are in the European Union, but not, thankfully, in the euro. We are not in the Schengen border control area. We opt out of many justice and home affairs provisions. I do not believe that most people in Britain want to say yes to everything in the EU or no to everything in the EU; I believe that they want to know that no more powers will be handed over to Brussels without their explicit consent, which is what we have provided for in our Act.
I am sure that we still have sufficient time before the Foreign Secretary catches the plane to get him a DVD of his 2008 speech on the Second Reading of the legislation on the Lisbon treaty. He can then blush in the privacy of the aeroplane and probably answer the question as to why he was for referendums then and is against them now, the difference being that now he is in government.
It will not be necessary to get the DVD—it is on YouTube. I can assure the hon. Lady that my position is exactly the same. I was in favour of a referendum on any treaty that hands over the powers of the people of the United Kingdom, and I am in favour of that now.
I happened to bump into the chairman of the Electoral Commission today and he did not rule out a three-option referendum as impractical. Did my right hon. Friend consult the Electoral Commission on this matter before giving his opinion?
Will my right hon. Friend also bear it in mind that the treaties are now so comprehensive that at the conclusion of the summit he has just attended, the European Union is setting up a new institution that does not even require the British signature on a new treaty: the so-called euro summit of the 17. He and his colleagues are having difficulty keeping track of things because that is how the European Union now works. The veto was the foundation of our membership and it is being eroded before our eyes.
There is certainly no proposal at the moment to set up such an EU institution. That is an intergovernmental arrangement. Our first priority, as I and the Prime Minister have explained, is to ensure that matters that should be decided at the level of 27 countries are decided by the 27, not by the 17. I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s information about the Electoral Commission—another unelected body that is trying to decide what we might do. I am giving my opinion on the consequences of a three-way referendum.
I will give way one more time.
I absolutely agree with that. I reinforce the point that this is the wrong proposition at the wrong time.
The British people want to know that no more powers will be given away without their consent; that at a time of budgetary restraint, EU institutions will be faced with the financial reality, which is what our Prime Minister is doing; that we will address the crisis in the eurozone with clarity about what should be done, while minimising the exposure of the British taxpayer, which is what the Prime Minister and the Chancellor are engaged in; that we will make a passionate case for Europe to take measures that help growth and free up businesses to trade and expand, which is what we are doing; that we will do nothing to add to economic uncertainty at a difficult and dangerous time; and that we will seek to repatriate powers as the opportunity arises, which is my position and that of the Prime Minister. That is the right policy for the United Kingdom.
It is a pleasure, as always, to speak after the Foreign Secretary. This debate takes place at a time of great peril and uncertainty for the British and European economies. I am sorry that the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, for whatever reason, have felt unable to join us in the Chamber for the debate, which has already revealed, no matter what the result in the Division Lobbies this evening, the scale of division on the Government Benches.
I urge opposition to the motion because I do not believe that Britain’s national interest would be served by spending the coming months and years debating the case for Britain leaving the world’s largest single market. Recent figures have revealed that there has been zero growth in the economy since last autumn. Unemployment is rising again and has reached a 17-year high. Almost 1 million young people are unable to find work. Amid all the passion generated by this debate, no one can dispute the enduring significance of European markets to Britain’s economic prospects.
I will make a little progress, then I will be happy to give way.
Let me share with the House the description of Europe’s economic importance to Britain given to me in a recent parliamentary answer by none other than the Foreign Secretary:
“European markets account for half of the UK’s overall trade and foreign investments and as a result, around 3.5 million jobs in the UK are linked to the export of goods and services to the EU.”
He states that those markets provide
“the world’s most important trading zone, generating total GDP close to £10 billion in 2010”.—[Official Report, 12 July 2011; Vol. 531, c. 256W.]
In what I hope was a drafting error rather than an economic forecast, he of course got the size of Europe’s GDP wrong by a factor of 1,000. It actually had a GDP close to £10 trillion in 2010. The importance of the European economy to the British economy is none the less clear.
Talking of absurd scares, it is now 12 years since the right hon. Gentleman pronounced the death of Britain in his book, so I am a little cautious of taking his advice on the matter.
All of us are aware that growth is stalling in Europe. Indeed, growth forecasts were downgraded in Germany just last week. We need to consider the economic effects at home and in our largest export markets abroad if the motion were to be passed. Businesses deciding whether to invest in Britain at this crucial time would have to make that decision not knowing whether it would still be in the European Union by the time that investment came to fruition.
I would be most grateful if the shadow Foreign Secretary would answer the question that I put to the Foreign Secretary about the tremendous advantages that they claim for this economic miracle of Europe. How do you explain that under your watch, when you were in government—[Interruption.] Not yours, Mr Speaker. Can he explain why, under Labour’s watch, the trade deficit with the other 26 member states went up from minus £14 billion to minus £53 billion in one year between 2009 and 2010?
The global financial crisis that was suffered in 2007 is hardly news to anybody in the House. Indeed, it seems to me that there is a broadening consensus that international economic circumstances affect the performance of the British economy. We are increasingly hearing that line from the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
The House has only recently debated the circumstances in which it judged it appropriate for a referendum to take place, and tried to formalise the process by which to decide what is significant and what is not. The current Government legislated for that in the European Union Act 2011.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept his role in the corrosive state of public mistrust in politics, after promising a referendum on the European constitution, aka Lisbon, and then breaking that promise, and of course after agreeing to the bail-out in the dying days of the last Government? Have the billions of pounds of public money that have been spent on that helped jobs in this country? I suggest to him that they have not.
First, the inconvenient truth for the hon. Gentleman is that there is no EU constitution. It was rejected by the Dutch and French voters. Secondly, if I recall properly, the newest member of the Cabinet, the Transport Secretary, is on record as having written a letter confirming the cross-party nature of support for the steps that were taken. In that sense, the hon. Gentleman might be better directing his question to the newest member of the Cabinet.
I am keen to make a little progress, then I will give way again.
What is proposed on the Order Paper is something entirely different from the recent debates. The motion suggests that the priority should be to debate, campaign on and decide on the question whether Britain should exit the European Union. That is the question of substance that sits beneath the motion—whether it is in Britain’s national interest to leave the EU.
I do not wish to intrude too much on the private grief of Conservative Back Benchers, but their disappointment in their Front Benchers is so great because their hopes were so high. The Foreign Secretary has journeyed a long way, because it was he who said:
“If you believe in an independent Britain then come with me and I will give you back your country.”
Yet if he was not rather conveniently getting on a plane to Australia this evening, the self-same Foreign Secretary would be coming with me into the No Lobby to support membership of the European Union. Along with the rest of the Conservative Front Benchers, he is today marooned between past pandering and his present position; between the rhetoric of opposition and the realities of government.
Just let me answer the question. The economics were not right to enter the euro; the economics are not right to enter the euro; and we do not envisage circumstances in which the economics will be right to enter the euro in the foreseeable future.
Let me offer Government Members a further argument about how they should vote this evening:
“What most people want in this country, I believe, is not actually to leave the European Union, but to reform the European Union”.
Those were not my words but the words of their own Prime Minister. And what of the Prime Minister’s real influence in Europe, about which we have heard something this afternoon? It is true that European leaders have been arguing for months, but President Sarkozy’s comments last night, which seem to have engendered pride among Conservative Members, confirmed that about the only thing that European leaders can agree upon is how unconvincing they find the stance of the British Prime Minister. Let me share with the House the President’s words. He said:
“We’re sick of you criticising us and telling us what to do. You say you hate the euro…and now you want to interfere in our meetings”.
When I read that, I thought for a moment that the President had joined the 1922 committee. The President, European leaders and even 1922 committee members are unconvinced by the position that the Prime Minister has adopted.
The Prime Minister boasts to the House that he will have a leading role when European leaders gather at lunch on Wednesday, but on last night’s performance, he will be lucky to get a bread roll from them. The Prime Minister’s isolation results directly from the sad truth that in recent weeks, the Government have spent more time negotiating with their Back Benchers than they have spent negotiating with European partners.
May I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman is creating an Aunt Sally by talking about the economics of the EU? This debate is about whether we give a say to the British people by having a referendum on the future direction of the EU. Why will he not accept that there is disillusionment about ever-closer political union, and that this debate is not about free trade and access to EU markets?
First, the hon. Gentleman could have directed that question at the Foreign Secretary. Secondly, it is in the character of the EU that it is not open to the UK to say, “We will involve ourselves exclusively in economic and trade matters,” because we need to secure the support of other European partners for such changes. I accept that there is a concern among the British public in relation to Europe. My answer to that concern is not to leave Europe, but to reform it. In that way at least, I agree with Conservative Front Benchers.
We waited in vain for answers to the Leader of the Opposition’s questions on the British Government’s position on what should happen on Wednesday in relation to the scale and significance of the bail-out fund for Greece, and even if the issue of Greek debt is addressed, profound questions remain on economic growth and productivity.
I am glad that at least a degree of truth is entering our discussions—it was suggested earlier that the rebate had not been continued—but I recollect well the circumstances in which those negotiations took place back in 2005. If I recall correctly, there was broad cross-party agreement that we had a responsibility to welcome the A10—the new members of the EU—and that it was inevitable that the European budget would be adjusted to reflect their entry. I am unyielding in my continued commitment to the need for reform of the CAP—I hope that that is another matter on which there is genuine cross-party agreement.
There is a lot of talk about being honest with the British people. My right hon. Friend has exposed the false prospectus of the main Government party, but he has been light in tackling the Liberal Democrats, who committed themselves to a referendum, and who are now jumping into bed with the Tories just to keep—so it seems to me—their ministerial cars.
I want to deal with business before pleasure. That the Liberal Democrats take strong, principled stands in their manifesto and choose to break them only a matter of months later might simply be habitual, but I await with interest a speech from a Liberal Democrat that tries to make sense of the contortions that they have got themselves into.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that Government Members seriously underestimated the economic situation worldwide and thought that they could confine it to Britain, and that as a result the Prime Minister will have less credibility in Europe when he tries to renegotiate some of the powers that have been given to Europe?
I have great sympathy with that point. For many months before and after the election, the Conservative party suggested that Lehman Brothers collapsed and the Greek economy was in difficulty because the Labour Government built too many schools and hospitals and employed too many doctors and nurses. The Government are now attempting suddenly to change their story and attribute their having, this year alone, to reduce the growth forecast four times—if I recollect correctly—to the fact that the Greek and European economies are not performing appropriately. That they are having so much difficulty explaining the inadequacy of their own policy is diminishing their credibility not only in the halls of the European Council, but among the British public.
The right hon. Gentleman is making an unfortunately partisan speech and misrepresenting the clear Liberal Democrat pledge to support a referendum at the time of a fundamental shift in the relationship between Britain and Europe—I am sure that that will be pointed out many times today. Should we not instead be uniting to counter the threat to the £351 billion of direct investment from other EU states posed by discussion of a referendum at this vital time?
I think that the person who started with a partisan speech was the Foreign Secretary, who was at pains continually to assert the position of the Conservative party—a very different approach from that of speaking on behalf of the Government, which is the conventional approach from Government members. However, if the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood) wants to continue to defend and account for the position of the Liberal Democrats, I wish him the best of luck.
Why does the right hon. Gentleman persist in treating the electorate as fools by describing the Lisbon treaty as not a European constitution, when everybody else knows that it is? Is this not one reason why there is so much mistrust in Europe?
Some of the frustration and disappointment I hear from the Government Benches would be better directed towards the Treasury Bench, rather than the Opposition. On Lisbon, one need only recollect the cast-iron guarantee that the now Prime Minister offered to his own Back Benchers. The position on Lisbon has been well-rehearsed. What was new, frankly, was the Prime Minister’s statement today that he supported a referendum on Maastricht. That must have been news to the Foreign Secretary, who entered the Division Lobby to oppose such a referendum—if I recollect correctly.
The right hon. Gentleman says that we should concentrate on reforming the EU from within, but what happened during 13 years of Labour Government? They failed to reform the CAP and the budget, while the accounts have not been signed off for more than 14 years. What happened to the Lisbon competitiveness agenda, signed up to in 2010, to make Europe the most competitive economy in the world? Where were we by 2010? Has he not demonstrated that he tested that policy to destruction and that there must be change?
The hon. Gentleman takes an honourable position with which I disagree: that Britain’s best interests are served by leaving the EU. On the EU’s changing character, I would pray in aid the accession of 10 new members of what was previously the eastern bloc and the change that that has effected to the balance within the EU. Of course, however, there are continuing challenges, which is why I regard it as such a disappointment that the Government seem to glory in the isolation that the Prime Minister has secured for himself, when we should be arguing for continued reform not just of the European budget—
Can my right hon. Friend confirm that under Margaret Thatcher the CAP took 70% of the EEC-EU budgets, but that that figure is now less than 40%, and that under John Major the EU budget was 1.23% of European gross domestic product, but that it is now 1%? It is not perfect, but reform goes on all the time, and I wish the Foreign Secretary well as he continues those reforms. But do not live with these myths.
No, I shall make some progress.
By default or design, the Government’s habit of sitting on the sidelines, only criticising and carping, has proved to be genuinely bad for Britain and the prospects for reform within Europe. All parties support the single market. We want to see reforms on the digital economy, services and energy that could make a real, practical difference to the lives and opportunities of British companies and consumers. All parties support European-level co-ordination on issues where we can work together internationally, such as—I agree with the Foreign Secretary on this—cutting off the oil that helps to prop up the Syrian regime of President Assad.
The way to address the present concerns is reform of Europe, not exit from Europe. Britain’s economy is flatlining and Europe’s economy is in crisis. Putting off investment and undermining confidence at such a critical time would be the wrong choice for this House and the country. The right course for British growth, British jobs and British interests is to reject the motion before the House.
I understand that I have only five minutes, so I will take only two interventions—if people want to intervene—if colleagues do not mind.
I would like to address first the process and principle of the motion and then present-day Europe, if colleagues will forgive the alliteration. The origins of today’s debate lie in the Government’s democratic outreach, through e-petitions. More than 100,000 people signed an e-petition calling for a debate in Parliament on this issue. The Backbench Business Committee then decided that to be the right debate to bring before Parliament and, as Members will know, that Committee is elected by the House. This debate has not been brought about by a small or large number of Conservative Back Benchers, therefore; it is a response to the will and the voice of the British people.
Also, it is wrong to try to frame this debate as calling for an immediate referendum or, indeed, for an in-or-out referendum. That is clearly not the case, as is self-evident from the motion, which is mainstream and inclusive. The motion calls for a Bill and has a timetable referring to this Session. As colleagues will know, that Bill might not come forward for another 18 months and would be subject to the same drafting, the same consultation and the same amendments and new clauses as any other Bill. Therefore, to suggest that the motion necessarily reflects what would be in the Bill is disingenuous at best. Any subsequent referendum would also be consulted on with the Electoral Commission in the normal way and would not necessarily reflect the motion before the House today. This is not about an immediate referendum—I would not support an immediate referendum—nor is it about an in-or-out referendum, which I would not support at this stage. I support a trade-plus relationship with Europe; let us see how Europe responds. If it does not respond, perhaps the British people in future will demand that this Parliament move to an in-or-out referendum.
Is not the point that as far as pro-Europeans are concerned there will never be a right time for a referendum? Indeed, we could see constituents in Scotland voting on their relationship with the Union with England, while our constituents in England will be denied any say about our relationship with Europe.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, as always. We have had referendums on a range of issues, whether in Northern Ireland, London, Wales or Scotland—indeed, referendums on anything but the European issue. I hope that that will change.
Some have accused some Government Members—and even some Opposition Members—of making Europe an issue. I would remind the House that Europe is an issue today because Europe is making itself an issue, not those on our Back Benches. On the principle, millions of people have never had a say on the European question, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) said, because they either had not been born or were not old enough to vote in 1975. Even among those who were old enough to vote, many thought that they were signing up for a common market, not a political union.
I was old enough to vote in 1975, and I voted for joining the European Union for economic reasons and nothing else. It has changed hugely in my lifetime, and I would now like a vote on whether we continue with the slide into a political union. Does my hon. Friend agree?
My hon. Friend makes his point eloquently. He and others signed up to a common market, but that has not turned out to be the case. The millions of people in the group that I call the “great disenfranchised” need to be enfranchised. They are the lost generation of voters that the political establishment in this country has left behind.
Forgive me; I will not have any more time if I give way.
No politician should have anything to fear from the ballot box. This is not just about the narrow renegotiation of powers, or the question of in or out, or remaining in the European Union on the present terms, although that is the text of the motion. This is fundamentally about freedom and democracy, and about ensuring that the European project has ongoing democratic legitimacy, which it currently lacks. I believe that the 1975 referendum result has now passed its sell-by date.
Europe is going to become more of an issue, not less of one. That is self-evident, given the possibility of a financial transaction tax—I welcome the Government’s opposition to that—or of more bail-outs up to 2013. There might not be any beyond that point, but there is always the possibility of back-door bail-outs through low-cost International Monetary Fund loans. There are also the questions of fiscal union, of the loss of Britain’s veto that President Barroso hinted at the other day, and of a single Treasury. Most of my predictions are wrong, so I give the House a big health warning here, but I predict that we might move more rapidly along a fast track to the first elected EU President under a universal franchise. All those things must be resisted. There are those who argue that the renegotiation of powers should come after a referendum. I disagree. I believe that a referendum would empower the Prime Minister to go to Brussels to negotiate. It would also put Brussels on notice that it needed to listen to the British people.
My parliamentary colleagues have come under some pressure, and I say to all of them who are supporting the motion today that they are not rebels; they are patriots. They are people of their country. There are those who say that members of my party are obsessed by Europe, but there is only one obsession on these Benches today, and that is an obsession with growing the economy and tackling the deficit left by Labour. That should not be replaced by the obsession of those who obsess about not giving the people a voice.
I say to my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, for whom I have a huge respect, that the domestic politics of this country can no longer be disaggregated from the economics of the eurozone or the European Union. Europe will therefore have to be dealt with at some point, whether this evening or at some other time in the near future. We as a party, as a country, as a democracy and as a Parliament should listen to the people and be ahead of the political curve, rather than behind it. There are those who are calling for a fresh start. What better fresh start than a fresh vote? Let us do the right thing by allowing all the British people their birthright: a vote on the destiny of their own country. I say to all those who want to support the motion: history is on our side. I say to the Government: we may have a referendum lock, but please don’t start to unpick it.
I will not be voting for the motion this evening, not because I do not believe that the British electorate are entitled to a referendum on European membership; I do. I shall not vote for the motion because the third option makes complete nonsense of the proposal. It establishes the motion as belonging to the far right of the Conservative party, which wants nostalgically to return to the 1970s when the common market was a big businessmen’s club with no workers rights that contained only nine member states. If that were not the case, the motion would include further left-wing options to improve workers rights, for example, but then it would start to look like an even more ridiculous referendum.
The matter should be clear. The question should be whether we should be in or out of Europe. The present three-way proposal would result in a complete dog’s breakfast, leaving the British people as frustrated as ever. What is clear to me, however, is that public dissatisfaction with our Euro-relationship will not go away because Britain has never really had a fair and democratic say.
We were taken into the Common Market in the first place by a Conservative Government without a referendum because Ted Heath knew full well that the public would not have voted for entry. He was well rewarded by defeat at the next election. When Harold Wilson delivered his promised referendum on the so-called negotiated terms, it was a complete farce. To be fair, his Government were rewarded by defeat at the next election.
I was active in the Labour party at that time and I voted no. My hon. Friend might remember that the great majority of Labour MPs at that time voted no in the referendum and that a special Labour party conference had a big no vote on the referendum as well. It was the leadership who supported our continued membership of Europe.
Things have certainly changed. The 1975 referendum yes campaign was all about arguing that leaving Europe would take us into isolation. There were even claims from the yes campaign that if we left we would be starved of food. My own employer at the time wrote to every employee, urging them to vote yes, claiming that leaving the Common Market would cost jobs. They employed more than 3,000 people at that time; now they employ just 100—so I suppose matters could have been worse.
I was on the same side as my hon. Friend in 1975 and I voted to come out of the EEC as it then was, but does he agree that the biggest lie told then about the referendum on entry to the EEC was by Ted Heath when he said that there would be no loss of sovereignty?
I will come to that. Voters were deceived by promises of huge increases in national prosperity and soothed by the leadership of the three political parties into voting yes. On one side of the argument sat the three party leaders—Harold Wilson, Ted Heath and Jeremy Thorpe—and on the other sat Enoch Powell and Tony Benn. The British media almost universally portrayed the issue as established common sense against the extreme fringes. The Government produced a document entitled “Britain’s New Deal in Europe”—I kept it because I knew I would be able to hold it against them one day—in red, white and blue. It recommended a yes vote; it was delivered by the Post Office to every home and it made clear promises. The most important promise was that Britain had a veto on all important new policies and developments. It said:
“No important new policy can be decided in Brussels or anywhere else without the consent of a British Minister answerable to a British Government and British Parliament.”
Just 10 years later, another Conservative Government completely reneged on that vital promise without a referendum. This time, it was Margaret Thatcher who gave up Britain’s veto when she signed the Single European Act, which actually makes Maastricht and Lisbon look like a sideshow. To talk now about “no new powers to Europe” is, quite frankly, shutting the stable door once the horse has bolted. It may well be that this is not the time to resolve the British people’s dissatisfaction with our membership of the European Union, but the time must come.
I often find that people list all the things that they are against when they make an argument, but given my hon. Friend’s background in the trade union movement, surely he must welcome the fact that the social chapter and social Europe have been massively important for improving the lives of our people?
I do, but my point is that we will not resolve this issue until we have sought the consent of the British people, which we have never done.
The leaders of our major political parties must face the facts. If they wish constructively to maintain our relationship with Europe, with public support, they should have the collective courage to take the argument to our people, instead of huddling together against a referendum every time it arises.
I had no real background in politics when I was elected in 2005. I had been a soldier and a television reporter. In fact, I had never even been into the House of Commons Chamber.
A couple of days before the House sat for the first time after the election, I wandered into the Members’ Lobby and chatted to one of the security guards, who let me into the Chamber. It was dark, and I started to think about the historic things that had happened here. I thought of Winston Churchill leading Members out of the House to St Margaret’s church to give thanks for the end of the second world war. And then I asked myself, “Why are you thinking about yourself and how clever you are to have got here?” Actually, this was about the thousands of voters in Gravesend, Northfleet and the villages who had allowed me to overturn quite a healthy Labour majority and replace it with a pretty tiny Conservative one.
Did any of us imagine when we made our acceptance speeches at the counts that Members of Parliament would be slagged off to quite the degree that they are now? My mother does not like to tell people that I am a Member of Parliament, because of the response that she receives when she does.
It may have something to do with the fact that she lives in the north of Scotland.
This country developed and exported the simple idea that laws ought not to be made unless they were made by the people’s elected representatives, but it seems from some of the e-mails that I have been receiving over the last three days that some of our constituents are quite close to giving up on that notion. Why is that? We hear the reason every time we meet our constituents. “You are all the same,” they tell us. “You will say anything to get elected.” One of the things on which I have agreed with them over the past seven years is that we should have a referendum at some point, and, in my view, we need to completely rewire our relationship with Europe. We need to be in Europe, not run by Europe.
What we are taking about today is not just Britain’s relationship with the European Union, but the authority and legitimacy of this Chamber. During the last Parliament, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was one of the leaders of all three parties who expressed the view that we should have a referendum on Europe.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not, actually.
The Deputy Prime Minister was even louder in his protestations. He said:
“The Liberal Democrats believe we should have a real vote on Europe—whether we should be in Europe or out… the public back our position by a margin of 2:1”.
I should say that the margin is about the same today. Those statements, and many more from the Front Benches, render irrelevant the arguments that we have heard today about whether this is the right moment for a referendum.
I am sure that if the Government had not liked today’s motion, they could have come up with something. What would it say about the relationship between Parliament and the people if we were to deny not only what we have recently promised, but what people out there, at our invitation, have asked us to do through the petition?
I should have much preferred a Conservative Government, but I support this Government sincerely and spiritedly. I was one of only about 50 Back Benchers who supported my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) in the leadership election, and now I really do think—I am not just sucking up—that he is a brilliant Prime Minister. I have never voted against the party line, even when I have known enough about what we were discussing to be aware that I should vote against it. I have loved doing my minuscule job as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the foreign affairs team, whose Ministers I respect—and believe me, they are doing a very good job. Trust me, and again I am not sucking up, they do not come better than the Minister for Europe—“Hear, hear” at this point. [Laughter.]
I am mostly enthusiastic about the coalition in private. If you are part of a team, you support it. But if you cannot support a particular policy, the honest course of action is of course to stand down. I want decisions to be closer to the people whom they affect—to be made by local communities, not sent upwards towards Brussels. I am not prepared to go back on my word to my constituents, and I am really staggered that loyal people like me have been put in this position. If Britain’s future as an independent country is not a proper matter for a referendum, I have absolutely no idea what is.
Many people in the country, knowing of the integrity and the honesty that is reflected in my hon. Friend’s speech and knowing that this honourable gentleman—this honourable friend—has decided that he will resign his position as a Parliamentary Private Secretary in the Foreign Office on a matter of such importance, will commend him for it.
Obviously, I completely agree with my hon. Friend.
We do not have the right to give away powers entrusted to us by our constituents. To anyone who is still wondering which way to vote, I say: “Do not try to guess what the result of a referendum would be, and do not worry about wording or timing. You need only ask yourself two questions. First, is this the right thing to do in principle? Secondly, what do your constituents want you to do?” Here is our opportunity to show people that the system can work, that representative government continues to function in the land where it was nurtured and developed, and that patriotism—putting one’s country rather than one’s own interests first—is not foreign to the House.
No, I really cannot give way now.
Members can repay the confidence placed in them by their constituents on that first evening when they stood on the platform and heard the returning officer mention their name. They should not rebel against the people who sent them here. For me, the bottom line is really quite straightforward. For seven years I have been wandering around telling the good people of Gravesham that we should have a referendum, and that we should renegotiate our position. Let me end by saying this: “If you have done the same, you must support the motion.”
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway). I salute him and commend what he has done in putting the country and his constituents before his party. I think that Members here, and his constituents, will praise him loudly for his actions today.
The Foreign Secretary described this as a symbolic debate, and I suppose that there is something symbolic in the fact that tonight, despite his words, he will be heading as far from the European Union as he possibly can—although, if I may paraphrase him slightly, he should think about the rest of us who must stay here until long after he has gone.
The people who deserve to be given credit first tonight are those who signed the petition to secure the debate. I was pleased to be able to go to No. 10, along with others from the House and outside, to deliver that petition. I also commend the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall) and the Backbench Business Committee for allowing the debate to take place. I think that it is very timely indeed.
We meet in the context of reports that are swirling around of threats against Members of Parliament and their ministerial careers, and all sorts of indications of Members’ inability to find new seats should they vote the wrong way tonight. It was said, I think again by the Foreign Secretary, that Members were not adopting a casual approach to the debate. That is certainly true of the Whips, who have very evidently been far from casual in the lines that they have taken. I think it deeply regrettable that the Whips in all parties should be so vociferous on such an issue. This is a Back-Bench debate, and people should be allowed to have their say and vote freely.
One of the problems most evident in political discourse in society today, throughout the United Kingdom, is the disconnection between Parliament—and political leaders—and the people. There is no better illustration of that than the spectacle tonight, in the House, of three party leaders and leaderships telling Members of Parliament, many of whom—in all parties—want a referendum and want to let the people have their say, that they must vote against that. I believe that although the vote may be won today by the party leaderships and the Whips, ultimately the people will have their say, because we have seen throughout the rest of the world that the people cannot be denied their democratic will.
I entirely agree, and I think that people in all parts of the United Kingdom who are listening to the debate will be mystified by some of the arguments being put forward, which are completely contrary to their wish simply to have a choice. Regardless of whether people are for or against the EU, they are entitled to have their say.
We have witnessed a breach of trust by the Labour party. It denied the people of this country a vote on the Lisbon treaty, which was, in effect, a European constitution. The Conservative party has done the same thing, because before the last election the Prime Minister gave a cast-iron guarantee that there would be a vote; and the Lib Dems said, “We must have an in/out referendum,” yet we are now told they will vote against tonight’s motion.
As the majority of the United Kingdom electorate have never voted on our relationship with the rest of Europe, why does my right hon. Friend believe this Government seek to deny them that right through a referendum? Are they afraid of what answer the people might give?
I will address the arguments advanced by the Foreign Secretary shortly.
The Democratic Unionist party is the only party in this House that is united in favour of a referendum for the people of the United Kingdom. We have been consistent on that point; we called for a vote on the Lisbon treaty, the Single European Act and Maastricht. We have also been consistent on the euro.
I cannot give way again, as I do not want to lose any time. The right hon. Gentleman may well have a chance to speak later on.
Many Members on both sides of the House—including some representing Northern Ireland constituencies—are hiding their views on the euro now. They are shy about letting the people know what they truly believe about it. I am glad that our party has been entirely consistent and principled on that, and that our position has been vindicated.
There are clear reasons for calling a referendum. It is clear that the vast majority of the people of the United Kingdom want a referendum; that is their settled will. Moreover, 36 years have passed since the people have had a chance to deliver a verdict. This is also clearly not a party political issue; rather, it is a constitutional one. Members on both sides of the House hold different views, too, as this is a matter that transcends party allegiance. The people must therefore have their say.
It is nonsense to talk about a referendum being a distraction. The EU and all its works go to the heart of decision making on all aspects of policy in this House and in Government. We must therefore have a chance to deliver our verdict on how the relationship between Europe and the United Kingdom should evolve. Moreover, the crisis in the eurozone and the consequent move to create a tighter fiscal union among its 17 members will have a direct and profound impact on the United Kingdom. That is going to happen, and the Prime Minister has indicated that there is likely to be a treaty change. Therefore, despite the argument advanced by the Foreign Secretary that now is not the right time, it is clear that we are going to have a referendum.
The Foreign Secretary listed the occasions on which he advanced the argument for a referendum. I am glad he did so on those occasions, but I am sorry that he is not advancing that argument now, and that when he did so in the past, there was no talk about a referendum being a distraction and about uncertainty for business. The Conservative party was saying very clearly that it was right to have a referendum. Why, therefore, is now suddenly not the right time?
The crisis in the eurozone offers an opportunity for the British people to be given their say, and we must grasp it. It will be scandalous if the people are denied that chance. We are told that that was not in the manifesto, but that argument does not wash, because a referendum on the alternative vote was not in the manifesto either, yet a referendum on that was inflicted on the people of the United Kingdom.
The Foreign Secretary also claimed that there was a danger that opportunities would be lost if we were distracted by having a referendum, but why should that be the case? Why would we not have the opportunity to continue to advance our case in Europe at the same time as laying the groundwork for a referendum, which he and the Prime Minister admit is likely to be on the cards fairly soon anyway? It is better that we take that into our own hands by making the preparations now, so that we give the people of this country what they want: a referendum.
It is a delight to follow the right hon. Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), who made an impassioned speech. I am pleased that we are both named signatories to the motion, as that shows that there is cross-party support for this debate. I was, however, disappointed to hear my Prime Minister say in his statement before the debate that tonight’s vote will show the will of Parliament, as it clearly will not do so. It will show the will of the Whips; it will show the will of enforcement. It will certainly not show the will of the people, who have voted for us to be elected to Parliament to speak on their behalf. I am therefore saddened, as I would like Parliament to express the will of the people tonight.
My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) gave a fine speech, in which he pointed out that some people will say anything to get elected. If Members have been going around their constituencies and the country saying, “I’d like to have a referendum,” when they have the chance to have one they should be principled. I congratulate my hon. Friend on having taken the principled stance of resigning from his post over this. As he said, he spent seven years telling his constituents, “Given a chance, I would give you the opportunity of a referendum.”
It was with a degree of sadness that I dug out the Liberal Democrat leaflet— printed, boldly, in orange. It calls for a real referendum on Europe, and many Members have referred to it. It was printed only a very few months ago, and just before a general election, and I am sure people were giving them out in their thousands. Many people ask what the defining difference is between us and the Liberal Democrats, and perhaps this leaflet helps to answer that. It carries the name of the current Deputy Prime Minister, and a photograph of his face is printed on it, and this is what it says:
“It’s been over THIRTY YEARS since the British people last had a vote on Britain’s membership of the European Union. That’s why the Liberal Democrats want a real referendum on Europe. Only a real referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU will let the people decide our country’s future. But Labour don’t want the people to have their say…The Conservatives only support a limited referendum, on the Lisbon Treaty. Why won’t they give the people a say in a real referendum? Not everything is perfect in Europe, but we”—
the Liberal Democrats—
“believe our membership has been good for the country. In Europe we can get real action to tackle climate change…That’s why the Liberal Democrats will campaign to stay in Europe in the referendum. But whether you agree with Europe or not, it is vital that you and the British people have a say in a real EU referendum.”
The right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz) takes a principled position in arguing exactly the same point. He is in favour of the EU, and he could make that argument in a referendum campaign. Moreover, we are not debating nuances tonight.
As my hon. Friend noted, when the Liberal Democrats were in opposition they read opinion polls to choose popular policies, but now that they are in government they read opinion polls to choose the most unpopular policies possible. Some 80% of the public do not want a three-line Whip, so they impose one; 67% of the public want a referendum, so they are now against that.
I shall not give way to Liberal Democrat Members, as they can speak for themselves when they make their speeches. They can explain why, throughout a general election period, they gave out thousands of leaflets promising a real in/out referendum in which they would be prepared to defend their principled stand of wanting to stay in Europe.
I was surprised that the hon. Member for Bolton North East (Mr Crausby) lost the plot by getting hung up on the wording. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), who proposed the motion, has got it absolutely right, and I hope the hon. Gentleman reconsiders his position.
The argument tonight is not about the wording; it is about whether or not we give the hundreds of thousands of people who want an opportunity to discuss this issue the chance to do so. Whichever side of the argument people fall on, and whatever the answer may be, we should not be frightened of simply giving them the chance to have that debate. That is what we are voting on. We are not voting on the wording. We are not voting on whether we should be in or out. We are voting on whether we want to give the British people a chance to hear the arguments in a reasoned way, rather than hear them as a result of a knee-jerk referendum called because Europe suddenly decides to do something we do not like. I would much rather that we have the chance, whichever side of the argument we fall on, to go out to make the case in a reasoned way. I would rather the wording be carefully crafted in a Public Bill Committee, not cobbled together because Europe suddenly does something we do not like and we say, “Oops, it’s a treaty change. Oops, we need to have a quick referendum.”
Let us do this at our pace. Let us not be frightened of the answer. I do not know what the answer will be. It might be one that I do not like, but I am prepared to live with it. I, too, have never voted on whether or not we should have joined the Common Market, as my mother would have called it, but I know from talking to people that they feel strongly that it is now time to talk about this matter, because we are dealing with something completely different. I am sick of hearing the word “referendum” touted around when it is popular with the voters and then seeing it kicked into the long grass when it falls into the “too difficult” box. This is not the “too difficult” box.
I am not going to give way to my colleague from the Liberal Democrats, because their speakers can defend themselves tonight. This motion is not in the “too difficult” box, and I am sure that there will be Liberal Democrats who search their conscience and decide to walk through the Lobby with us on a principled motion to give the people the right to have their say.
I have explained our position, but I want to ask the hon. Lady about hers. When the Liberal Democrats, at the time of a fundamental shift in the relationship during the course of the Lisbon treaty, actually proposed an in/out referendum, she voted against it. Why was that?
I ask the hon. Gentleman to join us tonight to say, “This is now what we should be doing.” He may just throw brickbats and not consider what the Liberal Democrats promised the people, but he has a chance to renew that promise tonight. We have a chance tonight to engage with what the people are asking us to engage in. Our leader promised us that we would have a chance to vote on the Lisbon treaty and we voted accordingly, but we did not have it. We have a new chance now.
This motion is not about reliving history, but it is about looking at how we have engaged with the voters over the past few years. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham has got it absolutely right: we have to be principled. For those who have maintained a principled plea to be given the chance, tonight is that chance. If the wording is not quite as some people would like, they should not worry because there will be a chance to craft it in Committee. Hon. Members should not feel that unless they can agree with every little word in the motion they cannot go through the Lobby with us. The wording is only suggested; the principal thing we are voting on tonight is whether we are going to listen to the people and say, “Let’s engage in this argument.” Let us not just park it in the “too difficult” grass, with promises of referendums tomorrow, because they may never come; and if they do come, they may come at a very inappropriate time to make the argument with the British people.
It is good to see the Foreign Secretary still in his place before he dashes off to this urgent, massively crucial and completely unavoidable meeting in Australia that he has to attend. I am sure that this has absolutely nothing to do with avoiding tonight’s vote, and any suggestion that it has is scurrilous. He rightly spoke about scrutiny, but he may recall that when he was an MP under John Major’s premiership the then Government removed European questions and the debates on European orders from the Floor of the House, thus reducing the scrutiny, because things were getting a bit lively at that point. If he will not agree to a referendum, perhaps he will agree to bring European questions and European orders back to the Floor of the House.
Having got that small point over with, may I say that I have never been a great supporter of referendums? They can be divisive, they have to be treated with extreme caution and they have been used by dictatorial Governments in the past. The criterion for having a referendum is that a Government pass measures that seek to change the power of the ballot box—that is the time to seek a referendum and seek the consent of the British people. This should not be done at any time other than when a Government seek to change the power of the ballot box.
Since the last referendum in 1975 which, as has been pointed out, was caused by the Wilson Government, we have had the Single European Act, the Maastricht and Amsterdam treaties, the growth and stability pact, and the Lisbon and Nice treaties. All those changed the power of the ballot box, most of them—not all—involving huge shifts of power from the democratically elected Governments of western Europe to Brussels and Strasbourg. The Single European Act gave up the veto, which we had been told at the time of the referendum in 1975 would remain permanently. Since then, many of the treaties have shifted perhaps 30 or 40 areas of responsibility from the veto to quality majority voting. For that reason alone, we need a referendum on future membership of the European Union.
This is not an issue among the political elite of western Europe. There is a justifiable perception among a lot of voters, not only in this country but in other western European countries, that there is a tiny political elite at the apex of the European Union which says, “This doesn’t matter. We don’t want people having their views on Europe tested. We don’t want to have to go out to seek people’s opinions.” That was demonstrated when the Irish people voted against the Nice treaty, as within a day or two the western European Foreign Secretaries issued a communiqué saying, “It’s very nice of you to have made a decision; now go away and make another one. Keep trying until you get it right.” The legislative process in Ireland was actually changed, by a Bill that took a day to get through all the stages in the Dail, in order to gut the process that led to that referendum. They were then able to rig the following referendum and change the view of the Irish people on the Nice treaty.
Yes, I would agree with that. As I believe we all recognise, there is generally a profound cynicism about the political process, not just in Britain but across western Europe. In this country, there are specific reasons for it, but tonight we have the opportunity to restore a bit of trust in the political process. I disagree completely with the three-line Whip being imposed by all the parties. When the leadership of all three parties acts in that way, it tends to foment that cynicism.
One of the great truisms of British politics is that when people move from this side of the House to that side of the House they tend to change their views on Europe pretty rapidly. That has fomented cynicism about the political process. Conservative Members have a chance tonight to restore a bit of face by being consistent in their views on Europe. I was not unanimously loyal during my previous eight years in this place when the Labour party was in government—I voted against my party about 84 times. When I went into the Government Lobby, my then Whip, whom I shall not name, greeted me by saying, “Voting Labour again tonight then, John?” I therefore speak as someone who has rebelled in the past and paid the price for it.
Many Conservatives—I am not talking about the Liberal Democrats because we expect them to be inconsistent—said things about Europe when they went before their selection committees and their electorates and people now expect these things to be upheld tonight. People expect us to be consistent. I suspect that an awful lot of Conservative associations and an awful lot of Conservative voters in those constituencies will applaud Conservative MPs who vote for this motion in the Lobby tonight.
That is a fabulous speech to follow, so I thank you for calling me, Madam Deputy Speaker. I wish, not as succinctly, to say that this debate is about one thing only: our democratic deficit. It is not a debate about what is good or bad about the EU. We are debating whether we think that people should have a say on EU membership. In the 36 years since people first voted on our continued membership of the then European Economic Community, they have not been given a say, yet the EEC of 1975—an economic and trading bloc—is not the EU of today, which is a political union underpinned by a part-common currency in crisis.
I will make a little progress and then I will be happy to give way.
The architects of the European Union have created something of such size and complexity that they themselves have admitted that it has become too big to fail. At the same time, for most normal people the EU becomes ever more remote and unaccountable. It is a political project that people feel has gone too far, too fast, with many things that affect their daily lives being determined by Brussels and not Westminster. That makes this a matter of sovereignty.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) has said, we have referendums very rarely in this country and only on matters that concern how we govern ourselves. As elected politicians who govern, we have a vested interest in this matter, and because we have a vested interest it is a matter that we should not decide just for ourselves. Over the weekend and in the earlier statement the Government argued that now is not the right time to hold a referendum because of the crisis in the eurozone, but it is precisely that crisis that has demonstrated to us how bound up in Europe we have become politically and economically and how little influence we have over the decisions that are taken.
The truth is that the “not the right time” argument has nothing to do with markets and everything to do with what people might say. The Government are worried that people might say no, and, as every experienced politician knows, you do not ask the question unless you are sure that you will get the answer you want. No is not the answer that the Government want.
Last summer, the Government introduced e-petitions to engage and better connect with people and to give them a chance to have their say. The Government promised that any e-petition that gained more than 100,000 signatures would be taken very seriously by the House. We have welcomed the debates on the riots and on Hillsborough, but when it comes to something that is inconvenient and that the Government do not want to have debated, suddenly now is not the right time. If we pick and choose, we are telling people that politicians will decide what people are and, more importantly, what they are not allowed to have a say on. That is not democracy.
Yesterday, we celebrated free and democratic elections in Tunisia. Next week we celebrate Parliament week and this year’s theme is stories of democracy. What a terrible shame it would be if today we took one of the most anti-democratic decisions of our generation and denied people a say on something as fundamental as who governs them.
May I reassure hon. Members on both sides of the House that I shall be voting tonight not in response to a three-line Whip but in what I believe is the national interest?
I am saddened by some of the comments I have heard in the Chamber today. Since 1960, the Conservative party and Conservative Governments, whether it was Harold Macmillan, Alexander Douglas-Home, Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher or John Major, have always believed that our future was in Europe, and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister follows in that tradition.
It was from the embers of the second world war—a Europe torn apart by Germany and Italy—which for many was the second terrible war in a generation after the great war, or the war to end all wars, that the idea of the European Community and European union was born. I believe that European unity was a cause to end all wars—on this continent at least. I campaigned hard in the 1975 referendum for a yes vote and I remember endless arguments with my late father-in-law who told me not to trust the Germans and certainly never to trust the Italians. He rang me up after the vote and said, “I thought I’d better tell you I voted in the referendum yesterday,” and I said, “Oh, yes,” expecting him to tell me that he had voted no. He said, “I voted yes—not for me and probably not for you but for my grandchildren.” His grandchildren are my children and they are grown up now; indeed, they are the same age as many of my colleagues in the House today.
The hon. Gentleman reminds us that the debate about joining the European Economic Community back in 1974 or 1976 was never just an economic argument. It was precisely the argument about securing peace in Europe that was behind European union, and that was also one of the factors that was put forward in the debate at that time, although I accept that economic motives were the prime issue in that debate.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—it was a political argument. What I am sad about is that there are those who want to destroy that legacy and the legacy of those who fought and voted for that lasting peace—a Europe in harmony, comfortable with itself and respecting differences of culture, language, history and nationality, but confident in its ability to work together.
I just want to mention to my hon. Friend that my father was killed in the war in Normandy and I am sure that he, together with all the others, also appreciated that what they were doing was fighting for freedom and for the democracy that is being put at risk by opposition to this motion.
I shall not give way any more.
The world has shrunk. More than ever, we travel, we trade and we live in each other’s countries. In 1972, this House voted not only to be part of that common European future but to be an architect of its destiny as a full member of the European Community. The European Union is not a perfect form of government, but neither are the British Government, any Department of State or any local government. If that were the case, we would not be here; we would all be wasting our time.
I will not give way any more; I really need to get on.
The European Commission and the European Parliament have ideas and aspirations that sit more than awkwardly with the concept that we all have of a sovereign state. There are those in Brussels who see national Governments and national Parliaments as a nuisance and who think that life would be much simpler if we decided everything at a European level, but thank God we live in a democracy. Thank God we have Members of the European Parliament who are prepared to stand up for the British interest and, more particularly, that we have Ministers and a Prime Minister who can go to Brussels, argue our case and succeed.
What is it that my colleagues and friends want from any new treaty? Have we not had enough of treaties? Can we not at least make the one that we have work? What would a new treaty do? Would it relegate us to the European Free Trade Association or the European economic area? Would it get us the Norwegian deal? They argue that the EU would have to give us access to the single market—yes, but at what price? Norway does not have a free ride in its access to the single market. It does not contribute to the common agricultural policy but it jolly well pays its share to other areas of the EU budget and it gets absolutely nothing back. What is more, its price for access means that it too implements all EU directives—in fact, it has a better record than us, with 99.6% of EU directives having been implemented by the Norwegian Parliament—but the difference is that it has no Ministers at the table when they are discussed. It has no commissioner, no parliamentary representation in co-decision and it has to accept whatever Brussels sends. It is not even a case of, “Take it or leave it;” it is, “Take it, or else.”
We cannot blame Brussels and the wicked foreigners for all our woes. To quote the Prime Minister,
“We are all in this together”.
Europe needs Britain and Britain needs Europe. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary struck the right note earlier. We are in Europe, our history is European and our destiny is European. As far as I am concerned, we are here to stay and I beg my colleagues to reject the motion.
I regret the fact that the Government’s business managers managed to turn inconvenience into a full-scale crisis vote this evening. I regret even more the fact that there is not a free vote across the House tonight. There should have been, and I rather suspect that those on both Front Benches will come to regret the fact that they did not allow a free vote.
I voted for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, together with some of my hon. Friends. I will vote tonight in support of a referendum. Some of the suggestions that I have heard, that this debate is a distraction or, as somebody said, an irresponsible distraction, are both arrogant and insulting to the vast majority of the people of this country who feel that their views on Europe are not being heard.
Ever since the treaty of Rome was signed, its architects have had a clear objective of moving towards a united states of Europe and in doing so they have followed three steps. The first was ever-closer union, political and economic. The Single European Act, which Mrs Thatcher signed, was a massive step in that direction, as was the creation of a single currency. The second aim has been to move relentlessly forward—take two steps forward, a massive great row, go into denial, label objectors mad or worse, take one step back, wait for the fury to subside, then move two steps forward again.
The third and most important objective has been to avoid whenever possible giving the electorates of Europe a direct say in decision making. If some member states are legally obliged to have referendums, as happened in France and Holland, then the approach has been to play down the importance of the issues, say they are purely technical, just a tidying-up exercise, not something to bother the electorates of Europe. The reason is obvious. We all know that if we ask the people a question, we might get the answer that we do not want.
The creation of the eurozone is just another attempt to move forward the project of a federal united states of Europe. The creation of the euro was always economic nonsense. There has never in the history of the world been a successful monetary union without a fiscal union as well. It was a house built on quicksand, not a house that caught fire. It does not matter how much money is thrown at it to try to underpin it. It does not matter how much financial scaffolding is put around it. It will fail. It is not me saying this: the markets have already made their decision. They know that the euro is unsustainable. They know that it is built on quicksand. They know it is going to fail, and if the politicians are not on the same wavelength, that is their problem.
The only way out is full fiscal union. I agree with the Chancellor when he urged the members of the eurozone to move towards that. At least that is logical. But in doing so, members of the eurozone will have to cede all their tax-raising and all their spending powers to the Commission in Brussels. That will be a massive step towards the creation of a united states of Europe. Whether the member countries of the eurozone wish that to happen is a matter for them.
The reason why so many people are angry in this country and why the opinion polls seem to show that they are anti-Europe is that they feel that nobody is listening to them. That is bad for democracy. Today the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have set out their stalls and said where they stand. They should put that to the electorate and have it debated in the country. That is what democracy is about. At the end, they should allow the people to decide.
I am against the motion, in part because I think the timing, given the financial chaos in Europe, is highly inappropriate. But that is not the main reason that I would give to the House as to why the motion is unwise. It purports to give three choices to the House and to the country as a whole—in the European Union, out of the European Union, or renegotiation, but as has been pointed out earlier in the debate, that is not really a third option because it is renegotiation with a view to purely a trade relationship in Europe. That is, in effect, leaving the European Union because it involves no sharing of sovereignty. I fully concede that any membership of the European Union at the end of the day must involve, as it always has done, some willingness to acknowledge that sovereignty has to be shared.
No, I am sorry, that is not the case because present Conservative policy is about sharing sovereignty in certain areas where it is overwhelmingly in our national interest. When we consider what the real options are, the real debate is not whether we should be in Europe or out of Europe, but what kind of European Union we are prepared to be members of.
The assumption of this debate and many other debates is that one side or the other will win. We will either have an even closer union or the European Union will ultimately implode. That might be what will happen if the European Union does not use its own common sense and look to see whether there is a third route.
Not at this moment, if my hon. Friend will allow me.
There is a third route and we are already partly along that way—that is, an à la carte Europe, where each member state decides what degree of integration it is prepared to accept in view of its own national history, rather like France being a semi-detached member of NATO for 30 years because it believed it to be in the French interest, and NATO did not collapse as a consequence.
I say that we are already part of the way there, because at present, of the 27 member states, only 17 are members of the eurozone. Ten states are not, some because they do not want to be, and some because they could not join even if they wanted to. We are not part of Schengen, nor are the Irish. The neutral countries such as Austria, Ireland, Sweden and Finland have never been fully involved in defence co-operation because of their neutrality.
The problem at present is not that there is not an element of à la carte, but that there is a fiction in the European Union that that is purely temporary—that it is a transition and that we are all going to the same destination and the debate is merely about how long it will take us to get there. No, that is not the case. What we need is a European Union that respects the rights both of those who have a legitimate desire, in terms of their own national interest, for closer integration, and of those of us who do not choose to go that way. That has to be argued and negotiated, sometimes on the basis of considerable acrimony.
As I said, the idea of an à la carte Europe is already partly there, but it should not just be a privilege; it should be a right. What we need, not just for the United Kingdom, but for all the member states, is a European Union where we will not stop France and Germany if they wish to move to closer integration and fiscal union—that ultimately is their business—but nor must they seek to impose a veto on the level of integration that we should have.
There is an irreducible minimum because, as I mentioned at the beginning of my remarks, a member state cannot simply not participate in the single market, but that does involve substantial sharing of sovereignty in a way that a free trade zone does not. That point does not seem to have been acknowledged by many of the critics. If there is, as we have at present, free movement of labour, that is not consistent with a purist view of national sovereignty, but it is crucially in the interests of the United Kingdom.
I have already given way twice. I am sorry, I cannot give way again without losing my own time.
Those are the points of the real debate that we must take forward. It so happens that this is not just a theoretical option. There is a strong possibility that because of the chaos in the eurozone, there will be a need for some treaty change. That will require to be agreed unanimously, and that provides my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary with what is likely to be an excellent opportunity to take that debate forward and to argue that if other countries wish to go further, we wish to consider the question of the kind of European Union we and perhaps other countries such as Sweden, Denmark and Poland would be content with.
On that basis, I say to the House that we cannot constrain the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister in the incredibly difficult negotiations that will take place. To have a debate that might lead to a referendum on whether Britain will remain in the European Union or leave it entirely is such a massive distraction from the real concerns that this country and the rest of Europe have to address. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but I am entitled to my view, just as all my hon. Friends are entitled to theirs.
I am conscious that many Members wish to speak and so will conclude my remarks. There have been other occasions of this kind when people have had fundamental differences of principle. I recently read a quote that struck me as highly relevant to our debate. It was from a politician who belonged not to the Conservative party, but to the Labour party. In 1957, Aneurin Bevan, a great believer in unilateral disarmament, spoke to a Labour party conference that was likely to carry a resolution in favour of unilateral disarmament. He told his own party:
“if you carry this resolution and follow out all its implications… you will send a British Foreign Secretary, whoever he may be, naked into the conference chamber...And you call that statesmanship?”
It was good advice then and remains good advice now.
I can think of no other issue where the gap between the political elites and ordinary people in this country is so great. It is not the most important matter the House will ever discuss, but it is the one where that divergence is greatest. This divergence, and the feeling among the population of the country that their views are ignored, breeds and feeds cynicism about politics in general. The most cynical attempt to avoid that popular opinion was used in relation to the constitution that was not a constitution, because if it had been a constitution, it would have to have been put to a referendum. That was a breathtaking piece of cynicism and manipulation. No Member really believes that it was anything other than a means of overcoming the possibility of popular rejection.
It is therefore beholden on us to take seriously the fact that 100,000 voters have signed an e-petition. It was mentioned earlier that millions of Liberal Democrat voters would reject the proposal in a referendum, but I think that such a view is seriously mistaken, because there are probably no more than 100,000 people prepared to own up to being Liberal Democrat voters, so the number of people who signed the petition is greater than the number of Liberal Democrats in this country.
I think that disillusionment on this question has also been spread by the false prospectus the Conservatives gave to the country as they ran into the general election. There was a feeling in this country that a Conservative Government would stand up for Britain much more and take a more robust view on European matters, but the fact is that they have sold the jerseys. The overwhelming majority of people who voted for the Conservatives, believing that they would stand up to Europe, are now disillusioned, which is why every registration of public opinion indicates that there is a substantial drift of voters from the Conservatives to UKIP on this matter. I give the Conservatives the following advice for their own good: if they want to stop that drift to UKIP, they must stand up for what they said they would do during the general election. If they wish to say that they would like to do those things, but the Liberals are holding them back, they should come forward and say it honestly, rather than saying, “It’s actually much more difficult than we thought and we’re up to all sorts of sophisticated things that you are too thick to understand.” That is effectively what they are saying.
I am glad that this is not an in/out referendum, because I must confess that I would not have favoured either option. I am not in favour of voting in the referendum to remain in the EU, because that would be seen as a green light to ever-closer union, and I am not willing to be put in a position where the only alternative is to leave the EU, because I do not support that. I believe, as many of my colleagues on the Labour Benches once believed, that there is a third way—the way of reform. I believe that many of those who oppose the motion are doing so under the banner of reform, but are not actually all that serious about reform. They are committed to ever-closer union, but with a little tinkering.
Therefore, I support the motion because I think that the size of the vote tonight matters as a signal to the country that a substantial number of people are strongly committed to strong renegotiation when compared with those who take the view that it should be business as usual. As for those who say that the time is not yet right, I think that that is a disgraceful argument unless they tell us when the time will be right.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving me an extra minute.
I also think that those who argue that this is simply a distraction would never want to discuss it anyway. They argue that it is not the right time or that this is only a distraction, but would they have said otherwise if the motion had been brought forward two weeks ago, or at some other time? I do not think so. They are in fact more interested in being part of the cosy club. This is an important debate, but as I said before, it is not the most important debate the House will ever have, and the EU is not the most important thing we will ever discuss.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one reason why British people are so engaged on this matter is that, in these difficult economic times, when we are giving £25 million a day to Europe, they want to see not only the repatriation of powers, but the repatriation of some of the money?
I agree with that. They would like to see that because what we need to do is move on from the debate we are having today. Whenever I see the three party leaderships lining up together, I think that they must be wrong, and I think that the vast majority of the public take that view as well. At least there is no conspiracy involving the nationalist parties, because they have not bothered to turn up. We do not know what their view is on whether Scotland would be part of an EU that Britain had already left, because that is one of the things they want to fudge and sweep under the carpet.
However, if we want out of the CAP, we ought to be discussing how we can do that? If we want to stop paying so much money to Sicilian gangsters and a variety of other crooks across Europe, how do we manage to do that? If we want to provide genuine bilateral support to those who are much poorer than us in eastern Europe, how do we do it without the middle men cutting chunks out of it? The same concern applies to the third world. How do we ensure that other European countries, individuals and gangs are not siphoning off some of that money? If we want to scrap the common fisheries policy and introduce something better, how do we do that? Those are the sorts of debates we need to have. In my constituency, how can we ensure that local people get local jobs without the EU telling us that they must be advertised Europe-wide? That is what we need to discuss.
A few months ago the Prime Minister asked me after a debate to write to him about my views on the European Union, so I wrote him a pamphlet called “It’s the EU, stupid.” That was a reference not to him, but to Bill Clinton’s recognition that the economy is at the heart of the issue. In just the same way, I believe fundamentally, as I have set out in the pamphlet—I will quickly encapsulate some of the thoughts it contains—that this is first of all a matter of principle. The referendum issue has been going around since before the Maastricht referendum campaign. I voted yes, as it happens, in 1975, but since then we have seen the accumulation of powers and the broken promises, betrayals and prevarication. The argument is that it is never the right time to deal with these issues, but that is the problem, and the British people feel that they have been betrayed by a failure to deliver on those promises.
Yes, indeed, and I will go further: the EU has created a situation in which it actually damages our economy. That is the problem, and that is the reversal of the situation, with massive over-regulation—£8 billion a year, according to the British Chambers of Commerce—over the past 20 years in this country alone.
As I said earlier in my interventions on the Foreign Secretary and the shadow Foreign Secretary, we are running the single market on a deficit that has gone up in the last year alone by as much as £40 billion, so it would be inconceivable for us not to take a rain-check and say, “We cannot just continue with this and pretend that nothing is going on.”
If ever there was a time to tackle the issue in principle, it is now, and that is what the motion is about: whether there is a case for renegotiation or for leaving the European Union. On renegotiation, we must establish the fact in line with the wishes of the people of this country—not because the Whips have said, “You’ve got to do this, that and the other” or, with great respect, because the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary have said so, but because we have a sacred trust, as elected Members of this House, to do what is right, in the interests of the British people as we see it for our constituents, and in the national interest. This is exactly that issue tonight.
The Prime Minister has given two speeches over the past year or so—one was about rebuilding trust in politics, and the other was about a European policy that we can believe in. I strongly recommend that people tonight, tomorrow or at some point read those speeches again and ask themselves, “What is going on in this debate today?” We know that the Whips have been strongly at work, but I had all that over Maastricht, we have had it over the years and it becomes something that we have to get used to. The reality is that we are doing the right thing for the right reason. That is the point.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does he not think that, because the debate has been generated by an e-petition, because it has been made possible by the Backbench Business Committee and because it is an issue that does not divide Members along party lines, it is totally wrong for both party leaders to apply the three-line Whip?
I absolutely agree. In fact, I think that three parties are involved, and the point applies to all of them.
I should like to return to the Prime Minister’s statement today and to test it against what has been going on. He said to us: “Members of my party fought the last election committed to three things,” including, “stopping the passage of further powers to the EU.” The Foreign Secretary, in his article in The Daily Telegraph the day before yesterday, said that he objected to the Lisbon treaty, and he will remember that he, I and many Conservative Members fought, united together, against it line by line—every aspect of it—and fought for a referendum. Yet, we have been watching the implementation of further powers—I do not want to get into the semantics or legal niceties of the word “powers”, because I know them as well as anybody else in the House—and every aspect of that Lisbon treaty day in, day out, and many of the problems that we are now experiencing are a result of its implementation.
The Prime Minister went on to say that we have instituted “a referendum lock to require a referendum, by law, for…such transfer of powers”, and I have a ten-minute rule Bill on that tomorrow. It would reverse section 4 of the European Union Act 2011, which I opposed on the Floor of the House. I see the Foreign Secretary smiling, because he knows what I am going to say. The real test, as I said to the Prime Minister during his statement, is about fundamental change—constitutional, political and economic. That is the test that needs to be applied, and it was endorsed—by the way—by the Lords Constitution Committee only last year.
Fiscal union, of which I shall explain more tomorrow, is such a fundamental change, but the Government quite deliberately ensured through section 4(4)(b) of the 2011 Act that there would be no referendum when the provision in question applied, in their terms, only to the eurozone and not to us directly. At the very time when we were being told that, however, I and others objected because we felt that such a provision would affect us enormously. We were told that it would not, but now we are told day in, day out how much it does affect us, and that therefore we must not do what we are doing tonight, for the very simple reason that, somehow or other, it will undermine our economic activity with the European Union. That is absolute rubbish. The reason why we are in such difficulties with deficit reduction is that there is no growth, and there is no growth because 50% of all our economic laws come from Europe. It also accounts for 40% of our trade, a point that the Foreign Secretary made, but the fact is that we have a massive trade deficit, as I have already described.
The EU is a failed project. It is an undemocratic project. This vote—this motion—is in the national interest, because it is for democracy, for trust in politics and for the integrity of this House.
I am not sure when the Foreign Secretary has to leave, but he is going to a very important conference, the Commonwealth conference in Australia. Many people in this country believe that the Commonwealth was sold out when we joined the Common Market, and I hope he remembers that by 2050 the 55 members of the Commonwealth will have 38% of the global labour force, while the European Union, with its 27 members, will have only 5%. I hope he goes with that figure in his head to the Commonwealth conference, because then we might actually see much more attention paid to the Commonwealth.
This could have been a wonderful day for Parliament, for democracy and for the new regime—on which the coalition have to be congratulated—of the Backbench Business Committee, with its many keen members. This debate was brought about by a process involving people outside, in the United Kingdom—and let us stop talking about “Britain”, please, because when we do we ignore Northern Ireland, which when it comes to a referendum is going to be very important.
Let us not forget, as many Members have said, that this issue has reached us today not only because of the 100,000 e-petition signatories, but because of the many organisations that have brought together different types of petition and written to people. It is not just about e-petitions.
Millions of people out there are watching what we are doing today, but the three party leaders, to whom my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow South West (Mr Davidson) referred, have it seems almost—I am not sure whether I am allowed to use the word—colluded to ensure that Members do not have a free vote. I am therefore so pleased to hear tonight not just from my own side, but from people on the opposing Benches how many Members are prepared to say, “Party Whips are fine, because of course we are elected from our party, but sometimes the issue is more important than the party.” This issue is more important than the party, and that is why we have so much cross-party involvement in and support for the motion.
No, I will not, at this point—and not to you.
A number of points have been made, and I want to make just a few short ones. On the idea that the issue is a distraction, I have to say that the European Union is the thread that runs though every part of every law that we make in this country, and we must recognise that and ask people whether we have gone too far.
The Foreign Secretary talked about repatriation of powers, which I want to see, but, on the threat of a referendum hanging over the Foreign Secretary, we know that the Commission hates referendums, and I remember him arguing—I was on his side—for a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, when he stated how much more strength it would give to the elbow of the then Foreign Secretary. We want to repatriate powers, and, if the rest of the European Union knew that the British public were sick, sore and tired of the money being spent on Europe, of the bureaucracy, of the corruption and of all that, they would be much more likely to negotiate the repatriation of them.
Does the hon. Lady agree that the one industry in this country that has suffered for the past 30 years under the European Union is the fishing industry? A referendum would right the wrong that has been done to that industry, and the destruction that it has suffered over the past 30 years.
I do not understand why my party, which wants a change in the fishery policy, are not allowing a free vote tonight at the very least, never mind supporting a referendum.
I get a bit fed up on this side of the House—I have said this before—about the way the media paint the matter as always being about Tory splits, attacks on Cameron, Tory diversions, and so on when a huge number of Labour supporters in this country want a referendum. That is why my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition was rather ill advised to impose a three-line Whip. We need to have this debate out in the open.
What is everyone afraid of? It is ridiculous of those who are not in favour of a referendum to say that this is not the right time, because we all know that we would not have the legislation in place until the end of 2012, or probably 2013. We could not possibly have the necessary White Paper, or the details of what would go into the referendum until 2014, so no one should accept the reason that this is not the right time.
What causes the lack of confidence felt by the leaders of the main parties who are afraid of a referendum? We must choose whether to integrate fully into a pan-European system of government based in Brussels, or to seek a more international future based on trade and co-operation, not just with the EU, but with the rest of the world. It is time to stop being little Europeans; we must be internationalists. We have all had the Whips on our backs over the years. We have all survived, and many of us are still here. Despite what they have said, it is important that right hon. and hon. Members do what they think is right, what is right for their constituents, and what is right for the country.
It is a privilege to follow the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey). I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee, and particularly my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall), who is not in his place, on securing this debate. It is important, and the strength of support behind the online petition shows that people in this country care about it. I congratulate the Government on introducing the Backbench Business Committee.