I should inform the House that I have selected none of the amendments.
In view of the very large number of Members who wish to speak in the debate, I have imposed a limit of five minutes on each Back-Bench speech.
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 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.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Here it is in black and white—it was in orange. This is exactly what the Liberal Democrats wanted to give the people and I am surprised that they are not honouring it today.
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?
Order. May I appeal to the House to settle down? A large number of noisy private conservations are taking place, which add nothing to but subtract much from the debate. Let us hear Mr David Nuttall.
Will my hon. Friend also acknowledge that not only is he moving this motion, but more than 100,000 people have signed an e-petition to 10 Downing street calling for him to do just this?
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.
Order. I want to hear the hon. Gentleman’s response.
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. 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, 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?
I have been here for a few Parliaments now and I have never needed to be strong-armed to support the right causes. It is easier for me to say that because I have always been on the Labour Benches and the causes have been easier to support.
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 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 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.
Does the Foreign Secretary not see that very substantial transfers of power are going on at the moment under this Government by directive, by regulation and by opt-in? Why can we not have some lock or vote on that?
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?
It is true that if the European Union’s external tariffs were applied to the car industry they would cost this country £1.5 billion a year, so we do have to bear that in mind.
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 advance 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?
My hon. Friend’s argument is that he would have a preferential voting system, but not everybody would, and I am pointing out the difficulties with that.
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.
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
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.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not agree that if Britain seeks a better deal, Germany will not turn around and say that it will not sell us any more cars and France will not say that it will sell us no more wine? That is an absurd scare.
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?
Order. May I just remind the hon. Gentleman that I have never been in government, and fortunately never will be?
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.
Would it not be far better for the Prime Minister of this country to argue the case for a growth strategy for the whole of the European Union instead of arguing with his Back 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.
Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that the previous Labour Government gave away a huge amount of our annual rebate in return for the reform of the common agricultural policy? How successful has that reform been?
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 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 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 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:
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.
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 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 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 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.
Does the right hon. Gentleman therefore agree that, in the words of Gandhi:
“Evolution of democracy is not possible if we are not prepared to hear the other side”?
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.
The 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 Mr Dodds, who made an impassioned speech. I am pleased that we were 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 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.”
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 Mr Crausby lost the plot by getting hung up on the wording. My hon. Friend 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.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that those antics by our neighbours have increased the cynicism towards Europe and all things European?
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 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 hope that that is not correct and I remind my hon. Friend that he and I first met when we were both on a committee of the European Movement, which, of course, had just campaigned for a yes vote in that very referendum.
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 seems 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 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 to 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.
It was so close to the Lisbon treaty that I assumed they had read it. Can my hon. Friend tell me where in the Lisbon treaty it says anything other than that. One clause allows an in/out decision, but there is nothing else in the treaty on that?
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 of the reasons 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 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 Kate Hoey. I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee, and particularly my hon. Friend and neighbour 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.
Some hon. Members have cited the feeling of people in this country. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that Ipsos MORI conducts regular polling on the most important issues to people and that this month, as in several months, this issue is the 22nd most important, with only 3% of the population believing that it is?
In my home town of Liverpool people would be burned for witchcraft for signing anything on the internet. The general petition had 100,000 signatures.
I am constantly told that the EU is not a doorstep issue, but when one scrapes the surface and goes out and talks to people, as I did in my constituency last weekend, one finds immense anger. People in my area regard the EU as remote, undemocratic and, more often than not, working against our national interest, instead of in favour of the UK. There is a perception among the people I speak to out there that Brussels is elite and is ramming through a federalist agenda while mere voters, such as people in this country, are onlookers. On the rare occasions that we have within the EU been given a chance to make our views heard, if we have voted the wrong way, Europe has simply dismissed our views.
Five of the last eight referendums in the EU have been against a proposition. When countries and people—for example, Ireland—vote against a proposition, they are told to vote again until the right result is achieved or, as with the EU constitution, we are told that it has only been fiddled around the edges with a change in only a few words or a couple of paragraphs, or that it has been changed and is only a treaty so there is no right to a referendum. That is why there is so much interest in today’s debate. The hon. Member for Vauxhall made a good point when she said the issue is not party political, or a matter of left or right, or not even Eurosceptics versus Europhiles. There is a huge appetite in this country for a genuine conversation about where our relationship with the EU should go.
That brings me to my views on the motion, which I will not support. It is absolutely right and proper to have this debate, and I am delighted that we are having it. I take this opportunity to put on record the fact that we must have a fundamental renegotiation of our relationship with Europe, but we do not live in a bubble, and we must pay attention to the crisis in the eurozone and to politics in our own country. The crisis in the
eurozone is like a spark in Pudding lane. If we do not continue to support member states in supporting the euro and in sorting out the Greek problem, the fire will rip through the City of London and our entire economy. A vote today to put in doubt our membership of the EU for up to 18 months would fuel market speculation, fatally wound the eurozone and its economies, and have exactly the same effect here in the UK.
My second reason for opposing the motion is that the mainstream policy, which is supported by my party, to repatriate powers is the right way forward. Now is not the time to tell people that we are taking our bat and ball home. We must fight from within the EU to repatriate powers. There is a coalition behind that point of view beyond this Chamber. The UK Independence party fought the last general election on a policy of withdrawing from the European Union, but it did not win the election. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats together won with a mainstream policy of repatriation.
Did UKIP not win more votes in more constituencies than the number by which we did not achieve a majority? My hon. Friend spoke about repatriating powers, but that is not Government policy. We heard the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary refer to their policy, but it is still to be agreed with our coalition partners.
It is the Government’s policy. We heard the Prime Minister give commitments today on the referendum lock and future treaty negotiations. I and, I hope, my constituents take comfort from the words from the Front Bench. I will not support the motion today, but I am relying on those commitments, and I and my constituents want them to be honoured.
I am sorry, I do not have time to give way.
Failure to honour commitments on the repatriation of powers and the referendum lock will lead to further erosion of trust in this Government and this Chamber. I hope that the Government will continue to look at repatriating those powers.
Let me be clear: I do not support today’s motion because I believe that it is in Britain’s national interest for us to be involved in the European Union. As has been widely acknowledged by many in this debate and elsewhere, half of Britain’s exports go to the rest of the European Union, and 3.5 million jobs in this country are dependent on our trade with our partners in the European Union. My own constituency is a former mining constituency where manufacturing is now very important. If Britain were to withdraw from the European Union, or even substantially to renegotiate its terms of membership, it would be bad economic news for the people I represent.
I am interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman says. However, the argument is not about whether we are in or out of Europe but whether we have a referendum. If he is so convinced of his argument, why is he frightened to allow the British people to express their view?
I believe that our place is firmly inside the European Union. We had a vote in this country to join the European Union, and I see this as a natural progression.
Several Members have referred to those huge countries, Norway and Switzerland, and said that Britain could have a similar relationship with the European Union. I would make two points about that. First, neither of those countries is a major trading nation, whereas the United Kingdom is.
The crucial thing is what happens to the jobs of people in this country. Many of the inward investors who come to this country from the United States of America do so because we are an integral part of the single market. If one puts in question our membership of the single market, one puts in question the economic viability of this country.
Secondly, with regard to Norway and Switzerland, let us not forget that although those countries have a good trading relationship with the European Union, the rules that it applies to them are imposed on them, whereas we are in the single market—an integral part of that market—and have a full say on the rules that apply to everyone.
The real question is not whether we support the European Union but what kind of Europe we want in future. The European Union that I want to see—as, I believe, do most people in this country—is not about uniformity and centralisation but is based on the principle of subsidiarity, whereby decisions are made as close to the people as possible. We want a European Union in which the single market—a single market that works to Britain’s national advantage—is completed. If that is to happen, it is no good our being on the sidelines moaning and groaning; we have to be there, ensuring that the European Union always works to our national benefit.
The European Union should not just be about a single market for business—it should also be a social Europe for people. The social Europe agenda is very important. Unlike the right-wing Eurosceptics, I believe that the European Union should offer something tangible for ordinary working people. Similarly, it is important for us to be concerned about the environment. Who in their right mind, these days, can believe for one moment that individual countries—medium-sized nation states—can successfully tackle the environmental problems that we face? We have to work together with other people, with other countries throughout the world, and, yes, inside the European Union.
It is also important that we address such issues as industrial policy. We must realise that we need to ensure that our small and medium-sized businesses develop over the whole of the European Union and that we need joint policies to ensure that there is maximum benefit.
Will the hon. Gentleman tell us why he will not let the British people have a say so that they can decide that they want to support the kind of European Union that he seems to support?
I respectfully point out that there are such things as election manifestos. The Labour party, for example, has made it clear that this is the kind of Europe we want, and the kind of Europe which, if we are in power before too long, as I think we will be, we want to help to create.
We have heard a lot about money going from the United Kingdom to the European Union. Yes, there is a relatively small membership fee, but we do not hear about the fact that £1 billion of European regional development fund money that has been allocated to the hard-pressed regions of England is not being spent because of Government public expenditure cuts. Hard-pressed regions such as Rotherham, Doncaster, Sheffield, Preston, Scarborough, Barnsley and many others are losing out on European money because of the Government’s ideology. We want to make sure that that money is put to good use. We want to make sure that we have a pragmatic approach to the European Union and do not put blinkered ideology above all else. I am afraid that many people in this debate do precisely that.
Above all, if there is to be economic rehabilitation of this country, it is absolutely imperative that we have a growth strategy not only here in the United Kingdom but in the European Union. Forty per cent of our trade is with our eurozone partners. One of the great ironies is that our Prime Minister believes in a very strict austerity-based economic policy, so his greatest economic soulmate is Chancellor Merkel. The European Union as a whole, and the eurozone in particular, needs a growth strategy. It is no good having austerity, austerity, austerity; we also need a growth strategy that will create the kind of demand that we need for prosperity for the future.
The real debate that we face in this country is not about whether we are in the European Union or out of the European Union; it is about what kind of Europe we want to see.
The big mistake that Mr David has made is to believe that Euroscepticism is a right-wing phenomenon. I have news for him: Euroscepticism is a growing movement, with people of all persuasions—right, left and middle—getting increasingly fed up with how this country is treated by the European Union. The proof of that is some of the petitions that came to the Backbench Business Committee and that stimulated today’s debate. He is going down a blind alley if he thinks that this is just a right-wing cause.
I have the privilege to represent the residents of the borough of Kettering.
The hon. Gentleman says that people are concerned about how they are being treated by the European Union, and that may or may not be so. Does he accept, however, that the European Union is not some distant organisation over which we have no say? We are a powerful member state in the European Union, and we send MEPs, Cabinet Ministers and other Ministers there on our behalf. If we are not getting what we ought to out of the European Union, is not that due as much to how we are represented in Brussels as to anything else?
Many of us would like the European Union to be even more distant than it is. The problem is that its tentacles creep into all aspects of the British way of life. I think the hon. Gentleman will find that there are people in this country, from right, left and middle, who think it is outrageous that over the next five years, in this current Parliament, our membership fee will be £41 billion.
Kate Hoey touched on this point. If the House voted yes tonight, then when our Foreign Secretary, Prime Minister and Chancellor went to negotiate with our European partners, they would take with them the threat of the loss of £45 billion and would perhaps be treated slightly differently in the negotiations. Does my hon. Friend agree with that?
I do agree. They could not really treat us much worse.
From my perspective and that of my constituents, whom I have the privilege to represent, the EU is getting its hands on more and more aspects of the British way of life. My hon. Friend Sheryll Murray spoke about the effect on this country’s fishing industry, which has been destroyed by our membership of the European Union. Our membership fee has more than doubled. Nine out of every 10 jobs in this country go to foreign migrants, most of whom come from the European Union. These issues are not of concern only to right-wing people; they are of concern to every person in this land.
This debate is exposing an increasing disconnect between our constituents—the residents we struggle to represent—and the Front Benchers of Her Majesty’s Government and Her Majesty’s Opposition, who have tried to deny debate on this issue. One of the qualities of the Backbench Business Committee is that it chooses subjects for debate in this House that the Government would not otherwise allow. That is why the Backbench Business Committee chose this subject. We would not be having this debate if we had left it up to Her Majesty’s Government.
I have a confession for the House: I do not believe in ever closer union. I think it is wrong in principle and I think the British people do as well. I have another confession for the House: I believe that Britain would be better off out of the European Union altogether. I do not expect a majority in this House to agree with that, but I am privileged to put that on the record on behalf of my constituents in Kettering. I believe that if we were to have a referendum on in or out, most of my constituents would vote to leave because they have had enough.
Does the hon. Gentleman think we would be better off without the European arrest warrant, which brought home 145 suspects last year to face criminal charges in this country, and without Europol, which cracked the world’s largest online pornography ring last year?
As far as I am concerned, the hon. Gentleman and his Liberal Democrat colleagues are forcing this country to not have the right policy on Europe. If he wants to talk to me and other Members about justice issues, why does his party not do the decent thing and let us come out of the European convention on human rights? There are prisoners in this country whom we cannot repatriate to their country of origin because they claim spurious family life issues, which keep them here.
In my election literature in Kettering and in my campaign speeches and hustings, I made it quite clear that I am in favour of Britain leaving the European Union, and that if there were a referendum I would vote to leave. The majority over Labour in Kettering went up quite substantially as a result. The problem with the European issue at general elections is that there are a lot of other issues to discuss and it gets lost in the noise, in part because of the establishment view on the European Union, which often suppresses public opinion on this issue.
What has most worried me in the course of the past week is the attitude of Her Majesty’s Government. I know that we cannot talk about the amendments that never happened, but one of those amendments called for a White Paper on how this country would repatriate powers from the European Union. Her Majesty’s Government were not even able to support that. Is it any wonder that, on the ConservativeHome website today, a poll suggests that two thirds of Conservative party members do not believe that the Government have any intention of repatriating powers from Europe? I have to say to those on Her Majesty’s Government’s Front Bench tonight, “Shame on you.”
I am grateful for the opportunity to follow Mr Hollobone. He made a point about the European convention on human rights and was corrected by my hon. Friend Michael Connarty. The convention has nothing to do with the European Union and we should not confuse our concepts. The hon. Gentleman also talked about a membership fee. I do not know why he considers our contribution to the European Union to be a fee. The European Union is a political, geographical and economic area, and we play a part in all three aspects. The Foreign Secretary was quite right to say that because of our involvement in the European Union, we have influence with Syria, are able to negotiate with Iran and have greater power.
I am glad that Mr Walter has stayed in the Chamber, because he was perfectly right in his short history lesson. He used the eloquent phrase that the European Union, starting with the Common Market, began from
“the embers of the second world war”.
He was perfectly right about that. He also talked of sovereignty, which keeps popping up in this debate. Sir Malcolm Rifkind referred to sovereignty shared. When Ted Heath took us into the European Community, he talked of a “pooled sovereignty”. That is as true today as when he said it.
The right hon. and learned Gentleman also talked about various aspects of the European Union, such as Ireland and Austria being neutral states. The essence of the European Union is unity in diversity. We may have different views and perspectives, but we are united in that economic, political and geographical space.
We have talked about trade and the single market. The Conservative party is a party of trade and of the single market. The Prime Minister mentioned saying in his discussions on Sunday that the single market would always stay with the 27 member states. He was perfectly right to say that.
I have to take issue with Mr Cash, who is no longer in his place—that is not his fault because he sat here for long enough. When I heard his arguments about the deficit and Europe, I wondered what he was talking about. Does he want a McKinley tariff wall? Does he want to stop people buying Volkswagens, Audis, Fords made in Germany, or iPads, which are made not in America but in China? What does he want in a free-trade area, where there is the free movement of goods and people? How can we go back to the era of tariff walls?
The hon. Gentleman can sit down because I am not giving way to him.
Teesside is the third largest port in our country. We face out to Europe and we export to Europe. The point has been made many times, including by my hon. Friend Mr David, that 50% of our exports go to Europe. Why did Nissan come to Sunderland? It is because it has the Tees and so can export to Europe. Many years ago, I heard Hilary Marquand say that in
Europe we take in each others’ washing. That is perfectly true. We trade among ourselves and that trade is a rising tide that, as John Fitzgerald Kennedy said, “lifts all boats”.
Mr Jenkin touched on a significant point, which I put to the Prime Minister. He mentioned that the 17 eurozone members at the weekend elected their own president, the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy. The 17 members of the European Union that are in the eurozone will have their own meetings, outwith the 27 countries of which we are a member. Mr Van Rompuy said:
“Rest assured that we will narrowly and closely inform all the preparation of the summits we shall have in the eurozone, and we shall advise of the results.”
As I said carefully in my question to the Prime Minister, Mr Van Rompuy will have Germany on one side and France on the other, so where will we be? We have opted for a two-tier Europe and we have opted out. I am sure that the Prime Minister will do all that he can—
This is an important debate. In a sense, I commend the 100,000 people who brought it about for bringing these issues into the open, not least because it has allowed Conservative Members such as Mr Walter and Sir Malcolm Rifkind to find their eloquent, pro-European voices. Many of us are perhaps guilty of having let the Eurosceptics dominate this area for far too long.
I think that the 100,000 people who signed the e-petition would like an answer to a very simple question: the Liberal Democrats promised an in or out referendum, so why are they not supporting one tonight?
The hon. and learned Gentleman has anticipated my next sentence. There has been a lot of talk about manifestos in this debate, so I will tell the House exactly what the Liberal Democrat manifesto said. It stated:
“Liberal Democrats…remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British government signs up for fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU.”
We support that now, we supported it at the general election and we supported it at the time of the Lisbon treaty, when such a fundamental change was actually being discussed. What is more, we put the matter to a vote of the House at that time, and many hon. Members who are now rising in criticism voted against it, including Mrs Main and, actually, Mr Walker, who succinctly asked earlier, “If not now, when?” Well, the answer was then, and I am afraid he missed the chance.
I recall that debate about referendums at the time of the Lisbon treaty. One got the impression that the Liberal Democrats wanted to say they were in favour of a referendum but not vote for the amendment that might actually create one. It was a cynical manoeuvre and just the kind of thing that has brought the House into disrepute with the British people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman, but I have with me the list of how Members voted on our proposal for an in/out referendum at the time when we said it was appropriate, and I do not think his name is on the list of the Ayes. A few Labour Members did break ranks, however.
I am sorry, I will not give way again, otherwise I will be out of time.
May I also remind some Conservative Members of what was promised in their own manifesto? It promised that any proposed future treaty that transferred areas of power or competences would be subject to a referendum lock. Of course, they actually got that in the European Union Act 2011, which we all voted for only a matter of weeks ago.
No, I will not, I am sorry.
Let us look at some of the options on offer in the motion. We have the renegotiation option, which, frankly, is a fiction. What kind of negotiation would take place if we actually tried to do that? What price would Monsieur Sarkozy or Frau Merkel extract in those negotiations for the disruption and risk that would be posed to the working of the Union? Why would the renegotiation succeed if the other 26 member states did not support it, and why would they support it if the only issue of debate was Britain’s terms of membership? That is why it is such a nonsense to extract renegotiation from any other fundamental shift in relationships that would be happening at the time.
I am sorry, I have taken my two interventions.
What I believe all factions of Eurosceptics are really calling for in this debate is withdrawal. That is what they really believe in, let us be honest about it. They perhaps want membership of the European economic area, maybe without the complexities of European Councils or the political complexities of the European Parliament, and I assume without complexities such as the border controls of the Schengen agreement. Let me tell them that there is good news for them. There is one very beautiful country that has achieved that exalted status. One country is a beacon for the Eurosceptics. One country is a member of the European economic area but not of the European Union or Schengen. It is Liechtenstein. That is the level of influence that the Eurosceptics are demanding for this country. They would give up our influence on the European market and our influence as a member of the EU on negotiations from climate change to world trade. They would condemn us to the sidelines of Europe and do profound damage to the interests of this country.
I am old enough to remember a Europe where military, communist and fascist dictatorships outnumbered democracies. One of the greatest achievements of the European Union is that we have between us—27 sovereign states and 500 million people—created a peaceful, democratic federation of which we, as Britons and as Europeans, should be profoundly proud. I am very proud of that. I believe that this is the wrong motion at the wrong time, calling for a referendum that would not work and that would do profound damage to Britain’s national interests, and I think we should throw it out tonight.
Order. Please resume your seats. We have had 23 speakers so far, and considerably more Members than that still wish to come into the debate. To accommodate as many as we possibly can, the time limit is being reduced to four minutes, still with injury time for two interventions.
I want to address the politics of this question, and in doing so pose the question why this issue, above all issues, has a sulphurous effect on our politics. I also wish to thank Ministers for getting us off the hook tonight by imposing a three-line Whip, which disguises the changing politics in the House since I have been a Member and signals that we need to rethink our position.
Why does Europe have such an evil, sulphurous influence on our politics? I am not nearly as hopeful as Martin Horwood, who thinks that we are all sailing into the sunshine. Given the stresses caused by the stupidity of a single currency, I worry about what will happen to democracies in mainland Europe as countries’ living standards are forced down in an attempt to make their budgets balance.
The real reason why Europe has such a sulphurous impact on our politics is that, as we now know from the records, there has been an exercise in deceit from the word go. We know that Ted Heath, in presenting it to the British people as merely a common market, was signing up to the political project that we see now. We need not just dwell on the origins of the problem, because in the previous Parliament my party’s Government said that they would offer a referendum on the constitution. Of course, what we did not notice was that they were going to decide whether it was a constitution, and they decided that it was not. They said that they would have a referendum on it, but then said, “Oh, it’s rather too late now for the people to have such a vote.” Over the years, there has been a growth in cynicism among the electorate about whether we as parliamentarians are ever going to deal seriously with the issue, and that is what we ought to address tonight.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman is very fair-minded, so I put it to him that there is a massive difference between the Labour Government’s promise on the constitution/Lisbon treaty and the Conservative party’s leadership saying, once the cheque had been cashed and the treaty ratified, that holding a
referendum on it was pointless. It was not a betrayal, it was recognition of the betrayal carried out by the Labour party.
I disagree with that. Part of the reason for rearranging our procedures in the House and giving the Backbench Business Committee more power was to try to strike a new relationship with the electorate. What has happened? We are now having a debate that the Government presumably did not want us to have, and they are railroading their Members into supporting them with a three-line Whip. The same is happening on our side of the House.
The truth is that the Government have scored an own goal. The second big change in the House in the years I have been here, along with the cancerous effect of Europe on our democracy in this country, is that the Conservative party has changed radically. People watching the debate tonight need only look at the number of Conservative Members who wish to participate and the number of Labour Members who wish to participate. When I first came here, if someone raised the issue of Europe regularly they were cast as being slightly bonkers or very bonkers. Now we see that the Conservative party has genuinely changed on the issue. Thanks to the Government’s ham-fisted approach in imposing a three-line Whip, the country will not see how significant that change has been and how in tune the Conservative party now is with both Conservative and Labour voters in the country.
I make a plea to Members on my own side of the House. We are getting it wrong on the issue of the representation of England and appear to be a party controlled by our Scottish colleagues. Increasingly, the question will be how England is represented in this Parliament, and so far we are on the wrong side of that debate. Again tonight, by trying to force Members into the Lobby in support of the Government stance, we are in danger of alienating many Labour voters.
When I first stood for election, the turnout was 85%. Last time, it was 60%. How have we managed to turn off 25% of the electorate? It comes down to our conduct as politicians. We were going to make a small move by having debates that we, Back Benchers, could control, but the Government decided it would be better to clobber us with—
It is a pleasure to follow Mr Field, who has long made measured contributions to such debates, but I want to draw attention to my hon. Friend Mr Holloway, who is not in the Chamber. He made the speech of the night so far by bringing his integrity and judgment to the fore at the expense of his political office in the Government. The House should respect him especially for that.
The fact is that this debate is beginning to show a pattern. Members who reflect the widely held public sentiment that our relationship with the European Union is not quite right and that something needs to change are all in favour of a referendum, whether that means a modest renegotiation or, like my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone says, leaving the EU altogether. Members who have spoken against the motion are determined to keep the relationship the same, at least for the time being.
I fully respect my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who says that he wants to repatriate powers, but as with St Augustine and chastity, he wants repatriation, but not yet. We know that public opinion overwhelmingly shows a strong sentiment for a fundamental change in our relationship with the EU. Unfortunately and sadly for the House, on an occasion when we could reflect our voters’ genuine concerns on this vexed subject, which has riven politics and both parties over many years, we will vote perhaps 4:1 against what we know most of our constituents would prefer.
Does my hon. Friend accept that although the country is undoubtedly interested in all matters EU, it is probably more interested in issues such as growth and jobs? Does he also accept that a referendum at this time would simply create uncertainty, which would hardly be conducive to attracting the foreign investors that we need to help with growth and jobs?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point, but this issue has come to the fore because it is about not only democracy and consent, but growth and jobs. If the coalition came into being for anything, it was for the deficit reduction programme. That is its raison d’être. It might not have escaped her notice that that programme is in trouble, because the economy is not growing. There are many reasons for that—the US, the crisis in the eurozone, and our country’s indebtedness and excessive taxation—but one fundamental reason is that we are overburdened with European regulation. That is why a majority of businessmen in this country now say that the advantages of the single market are outweighed by the disadvantages.
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I spent 10 years in the European Parliament and watched powers transferred from Westminster to Brussels, making business more expensive and introducing more regulation. If we want to free up our economy and move forward, we need substantially to renegotiate. The motion gives us a chance to send that message to the Government and to strengthen Ministers’ hands when they go to Europe to do so.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that point.
We know from experience that we cannot rely even on the assurances given to us by our European partners. In 1992, we thought we had opted out of what was then called the social chapter. We thought that would protect us from the working time directive, but by the end of that Parliament the EU had circumvented the opt-out in typical fashion: it used a different treaty base to force the directive on to our statute book, against the wishes of our Parliament, by making it a health and safety programme.
The same thing is happening with the agency workers directive, which the Government have bitterly opposed because they know that it will price more young people out of the labour market. We now have above-average youth unemployment in this country when it used to be below-average.
I hope the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, but I have given way twice.
The same thing is happening in the regulation of the City of London. If there is one thing that we should never have agreed to in principle, it is that the European Union and Michel Barnier should take over the regulation of the City—our biggest single tax generator. That was driven by a misplaced notion that Bonn, Frankfurt, Paris and the City should be given equal status as global financial centres. That would be disastrous for the City.
We should oppose the Tobin tax on principle, because at the end of the day, it is another tax that takes money out of the pockets of ordinary people, but you wait, Mr Deputy Speaker, the financial transactions tax proposed by the EU will be forced through on some spurious treaty basis.
Sir Stuart Bell agrees that that will be forced through on a spurious basis to cover the City. To coin a phrase, we can’t go on like this. Now that the EU is moving into a phase in which huge decisions, such as the decisions of the 17 on fiscal union, are being taken without the requirement of a British signatory on any treaty, we are losing the veto, which was the foundation of our EU membership and which made it acceptable.
Therefore, it is now time to renegotiate. It is urgent for our economy. If we need a referendum to force the Government’s hand, that is what I will vote for.
About halfway through this evening’s debate, it might be helpful to remind the House that the motion states:
“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”.
Do hon. Members remember national referendums? All three parties promised one in their 2005 election manifestos, and each came up with its unique way of reneging. The motion states that the referendum should be
“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.”
I must confess that when I first read that, I thought it would be extraordinarily difficult for anyone to disagree with a single word of it, whether they were for or against the EU.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. Moreover, whatever people think about referendums—whether they think they are good or bad—the political parties on both sides of the House have started to promise them, but once in government, they come up with incredibly ingenious ways of changing their minds.
I recommend that the one third of hon. Members who were not here in 2008 watch the Foreign Secretary’s speech on Second Reading of the European Union (Amendment) Act 2008—the Foreign Secretary mentioned that it is on YouTube. It was a brilliant speech. It was so funny I even bought a copy. It is quite interesting to see why he has changed his mind. For an illustration of a 180° turn, watch that speech.
European Union debates become kitchen sink debates. Rather than put arguments on the substance of the debate, hon. Members put arguments for or against. For the Lib Dems, returning one criminal to the UK becomes the reason why we need an EU-wide arrest warrant and criminal justice system; on the other hand, the EU is bad because one old lady is run over in a constituency in the north-east because of the working time directive.
Let us for a moment forget about that and talk about the nature of democracy and the nature of democracy in the House. For better or worse, the House has decided that it should become a far more participatory democracy. We have said that we will ask the people much more and have such things as e-petitions. If we are to have e-petitions, we had better start taking them seriously. We cannot say, “Some are more frivolous than others. If they suit us, we’ll take them on board; and if they don’t, we’ll knock them on the head,” because they are all serious.
The introduction of the Backbench Business Committee was good for democracy in the House, but there are things that we cannot do—the Prime Minister’s statement, which was one of the weakest I have ever heard from a Prime Minister returning from a European Council, showed the weakness of the changes made. We no longer have pre-European Council debates, whereas previously we would have had a day to discuss it; the Foreign Affairs Committee, as I understand it, no longer visits one of the troika countries during the six-month period of a presidency; and we have no specific debates on the EU, and whenever anybody wants to discuss it, we write them off as narrow-minded little Englanders who just want to get out, but it might be that they do not like the current arrangements or that they want someone to make the case for them.
It is presumptuous of the House to think that it knows what the people would say. We should not take for granted what the people would say. Even if I were to accept the Government’s argument that now is not the time, what is the case against having a referendum at the same time as the EU elections in 2014? I assume that for once—it has not happened since I have been around—we would have a European election during which we actually talked about Europe. We could have a referendum on such an occasion. In the name of democracy and having trust in the people, which we all say that we do, we should vote for the motion tonight, because if politicians do not trust the people, why on earth should the people trust the politicians?
There have been many powerful speeches already rightly saying that this debate is about democracy. Democracy is fundamental to the House—the mother of Parliaments, an example to the world—which has been through a bad time. It has been humbled by its failure to listen carefully enough to the people and because too many powers of self-government have been needlessly given away to Brussels. The people not only want us to listen, to have this great debate and to have a free vote to express their opinions and views, but would like to feel that the people in this House, charged with the duty of governing, have the power to govern. They believe that the Government should come here and answer to us and that we, from both sides of the House, should hold them to account. If they do a good job, the public reward them in a general election, and if they do a bad job, they sack them. However, what we now see happening, because there is too much unaccountable European power, is the breakdown of the fabric of consent that is fundamental to a democracy.
If hon. Members were to go to Greece today, they would see what happens when that consent starts to break down. Rich Greeks now think that their Government have no right to tax them because they are on autopilot from Europe and they do not like what it is doing, and poor Greeks think that the Government have no right to remove some of their benefits because they think, again, that they are on autopilot from Brussels. In Portugal, Ireland or Slovakia, we see that the European mess can change Governments—regardless, almost, of what the people think—but that when the people put in a new Government, it makes absolutely no difference to the policy that the country is following, because it is all on autopilot and has been preordained by the IMF, the bankers and, above all, the EU bureaucrats and assembled member states.
We need to ensure that we—those of us with a heart and a conscience—send a loud message to our constituents tonight that we are democrats, that we think that the public were right to demand this debate, that we admire the Prime Minister for making it possible through the petition system and that we would like the Whips to withdraw so that a proper expression of opinion can be given. We want our Government to understand that if too many powers are taken away, we will no longer have the authority or opportunity to govern. Already, we have to say too often to our constituents, “I cannot help you with that because it is a European directive. I cannot assist you with this because it is an unaccountable European programme.” We can no longer change the law in the way that we wish because it is preordained by some Brussels decision.
This House was great when every law that applied to the British people was fought over in this Chamber and in Committee and satisfied the needs of the majority. This House was great when the public knew that when they had had enough of rotten Government, they could change not just the people, but the policies they were following. This House was great when it had full control of all our money and did not have to give away tariffs and taxes to foreign powers to spend in ways of which we do not approve. We need to wake up. We need to do what the British people want us to do. We need to take responsibility for governing this country. We need to enact the laws. We need to debate and argue about it in here. Brussels has too much power. The British people need a say. Let us have a vote.
I shall be voting for the motion tonight because I do not want to be part of what has become a three-party conspiracy against the people. It is an abomination of democracy that the three parties, all of which have promised referendums and then denied the people those referendums and which are now forcing us to vote against a referendum, decided to impose three-line Whips on their followers to vote for Europe. It is behaving like Europeans. The EU is the construction of an EU elite that does not listen to the people: it knows where it wants to go, and it is not bothered what the people think. We cannot have that attitude in this country.
We have to show the people that they can have a referendum. When we had a referendum 36 years ago, people voted for a very different institution—for a trading relationship—but it has now become a European monolith with ever-increasing powers. It is moving towards ever-closer union and is claiming to control economic policy as well. It is a very different institution and far more expensive. Budget contributions are £7 billion net a year, rising to £10 billion fairly soon. The CAP costs us £16.7 billion while the common fisheries policy costs us £4.7 billion. The British people must have a say on whether they want to make those excessive contributions. Why should the three parties be denying them?
It would have been sensible for all three parties to agree to give us a free vote so that we could hear the sensible, clear, un-Whipped decision of Parliament. That might well have been in favour of a referendum, but I do not know. It would also have been sensible for the Government to have had a referendum in reserve because it would have strengthened their position in the negotiations with Europe that the Foreign Secretary told us were to come, but they avoided that. I cannot tell how this euro crisis, which is bedevilling us all, will work out—nor can the Prime Minister for that matter—but I question whether it is in our interest to keep the euro going. It would be more sensible for Greece to devalue and come out, and perhaps for some of the other Club Med states to do the same, because it would allow them to expand and grow, whereas at present they face 10 years of deflation. That would also put up the exchange rate of the German—or northern—euro, so that it would become less competitive and take a smaller share of our markets. That would be a logical outcome.
We are going to struggle to use the big bazooka, as the Prime Minister put it, to keep Humpty Dumpty together—I am not sure how we would do that—but we have to bear it in mind that the people of Europe also want referendums. There are a series of policy studies based on the 2009 referendum showing that in Europe, 63% of people—from a sample of 27,000—wanted any future decisions to be taken by a referendum. This has been an interesting debate. It has been interesting how little praise for Europe there has been. It was interesting, too, that the Foreign Secretary defended Europe by praising with faint damns and turned down the weapon that the House was offering. I hope that we have tonight a big vote in favour of the motion. It would send a signal to Europe of what the people of this country think—not the elite, but the people—and would send a signal to the people that they can trust us and that we have their interests at heart.
I, for one, shall be supporting tonight’s motion for one simple but important reason: the very nature of our relationship with the EU has fundamentally changed since we joined it in 1975, yet the British people have not been consulted on that change. Instead, they have consistently been denied a say. Perhaps tonight, we have an opportunity to put that right.
It is a great shame that all three political leaders are whipping this vote in the way that they are. Some of the arguments that have been used to try to defeat the motion are illustrative. There has been no shortage of red herrings and Aunt Sallies as to why we cannot have a referendum on our future relationship with the EU. The first is about economics. A long line of speakers have talked about how important Europe is to us economically and how things would get so much worse if we left the EU. However, the debate on the motion is not about that; it is about whether we give the British people a say about the nature of our relationship with the EU. That argument is therefore a red herring. Indeed, the fact that our balance of trade with Europe is negative weakens it even further.
We have had the red herring about timings: “This is not the right time.” However, I cannot remember when, in the last 36 years, it has been the right time. We have consistently been told, “This is not the right time.” I would turn that on its head and say that, with Europe in a state of flux, this might be a good time to renegotiate our relationship. I find it strange that, once again, the line is: “This is not a very good time.”
Does my hon. Friend agree that the right time to have a referendum was on the Lisbon treaty, which was in all three parties’ 2005 manifestos? Frankly, I would have enjoyed campaigning for a no vote to that treaty, rather than watching the previous Prime Minister surreptitiously go down to Lisbon and sign it virtually in secret.
I am sure that the majority in the House can agree with that view.
Let us look at some of the other red herrings that have been discussed this evening. There is the argument that if the motion was passed and we had a referendum, that would somehow weaken the Foreign Secretary’s hand. I completely disagree with that. A Foreign Secretary or Prime Minister going to negotiate would be emboldened by knowing that the voice of the British people had indicated the direction of travel and how they wanted the relationship to progress.
Then we have had the argument that says, “Why bother with the motion? We’ve already got an à la carte Europe”—that is, people are already opting in and out of this and that, and so on. However, that argument does not stand up either, for the simple reason that what is happening, under the very noses of the British people, is that our sovereignty is being salami-sliced, week in, week out. We may talk about a referendum lock on future treaty changes, but to a certain extent that is tilting at windmills, for the simple reason that there is no treaty on the horizon; rather, what is happening, week in, week out, is that key competences and powers are being transferred over to Brussels. One example is in criminal justice, with the European investigation order.
That is a valuable point. Is it not the case that legislation regularly comes forward within the extensive competences that the European Union already enjoys? The European Union is occupying ground and legislating in matters that should be the preserve of this House.
Absolutely, and my hon. Friend is well placed to see that for himself, sitting as he does on the European Scrutiny Committee. Key competences and powers are transferred across to Brussels almost daily, yet the political leaders in this place seem not to recognise that fact.
The political elites across Europe—not just here—should understand the growing frustration with the current situation. We joined what was essentially a free trade area; it has turned more and more into political union. People do not like that. They want to be consulted, but they will be denied that freedom of choice if Members in this Chamber defeat the motion this evening. That, in my view, has to be wrong.
The time to put it right is now. This is the motion that some of us have long believed is right and that was going to happen, but because of U-turns and deliberations by party leaders we have been denied this say. The political elite need to understand that at the end of the day they must answer to their electorate. They cannot justify ignoring the electorate when there has been so much fundamental change in our relationship with the EU. I would urge hon. Members—particularly those who may still be undecided—to support the motion this evening, if only in the name of democracy.
It is amazing how united the Conservative party has been so far today. We had a Eurosceptic statement from the Prime Minister and then a Eurosceptic speech from the Foreign Secretary, so it can only be the Liberal Democrats who are inveigling us down the path of unrighteousness and taking us away from supporting the motion. The Foreign Secretary made six points that must have been written for him by the Liberal Democrats, because he is far too clever a man to have thought of them for himself, because they do not really add up. I shall go through them.
The Foreign Secretary made two points that were essentially trivial—too trivial for a man of his standing. They were, first, that there was no manifesto commitment for a referendum. However, manifestos can deal only with what is known at the time; they cannot deal with things that have not yet arisen. The crisis in the eurozone and the changes that could come from it were not known with clarity at that point, so it is now right to think beyond the manifesto to what the next steps are. That point can therefore be discarded.
The Foreign Secretary then said that we had passed an Act of Parliament to deal with when we could have referendums, and so we did; but again, this House knows many things, but it is not omniscient. It cannot take care of every occasion that may arise when a referendum may be a good idea or every occasion when the British people—whom we should trust—may want one. So, those two points go.
The other two points that do not add up to much were, first, that a three-way referendum is confusing. However, that is not a problem because the motion calls for a Bill in the next Session, which can deal with any confusion. We can, in our wisdom, work out how to phrase a referendum—or series of referendums, if necessary —that will be understandable.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way and we always enjoy his speeches, but will he clear up some confusion about the proposed three-way referendum? Will it use the alternative vote system or first past the post? The motion is not entirely clear.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me an extra minute—it is kind of Gloucestershire to give something to Somerset for once. That issue can be dealt with in the legislation. Indeed, we could have two referendums. As it happens, it might make more sense to have the second referendum after the renegotiation is completed.
The fourth point that did not work was that the EU was all or nothing. However, it is already not all or nothing: we already have opt-outs and so forth. There are therefore two remaining points—as those who are good mathematicians will have worked out—that we need to look at. One was that we are dealing with this issue in a crisis and this is therefore the wrong time: “When a man’s house is burning down, you send in the fire brigade.” Quite right. But then, when he wants to hire someone else’s house nearby to find fresh accommodation, they can set the terms of the tenancy. That is the position that we are in with the European Union—a very strong negotiating position, which we should maximise.
We should also note that we cannot solve our financial crisis until we have freed ourselves from the yoke of European regulation. Only this weekend, we have seen that Tesco is going to take on fewer part-time people because of a directive from Brussels. Are we really going to deny our citizens growth because Brussels wants to put a further yoke on them?
Tesco, great company that it is, is also very popular in Thailand, whose application for membership of the European Union I am currently unaware of.
The Foreign Secretary made a final point that we would lose opportunities by going for a referendum now. Well, of course we would not; we would gain them. We are negotiating on the budget for the next few years on the basis of an absolute majority and a one-vote veto. This is not the intermediate budget. Our position is quite strong.
As I see it, we have a wonderfully united Conservative party, upset by the Liberal Democrats. I admire the Liberal Democrats. They are good, honest people, but, when push comes to shove, getting a proper relationship with the European Union is more important than the coalition. If the Liberal Democrats want to go into a general election saying, “Let’s have more rules from Brussels and from Mr Barroso”, let them try it. We shall see how many seats they win on that basis. It is for us Back Benchers to say to Her Majesty’s Government: “Stiffen your sinews, summon up the blood and imitate the action of a tiger, for that is how you should behave towards our European partners, not like Bagpuss.”
When I made my maiden speech, Ann Widdecombe had spoken just before me and she got a cheer. At the time, I said to myself, under my breath, “Follow that!” I am afraid that I shall have to do the same thing now.
Mr Baron mentioned red herrings several times. I am afraid that there are rather too few herrings around our shores on account of the common fisheries policy. It is a pleasure to speak in the debate on the motion tabled in the name of Mr Nuttall, and I congratulate him on bringing it forward. I shall certainly be voting for it this evening.
It is abundantly clear that the call for a referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union now has mass support across the country. A recent YouGov poll showed that 61% were in favour, with only 24% against. Among Labour supporters, 53% are in favour of a referendum, with 33% against. I hope that, together with other comrades, I speak for that 53% majority of Labour voters.
There is no mystery as to why our political leaders are so opposed to holding a referendum. It is clear that they fear doing so because they fear that our electorate might vote for Britain to withdraw from the EU. If that happened, I suspect that there might be a domino effect across the whole European Union. I am, however, mystified as to why our leaders are so frightened of such an outcome.
I entirely accept that point, but I believe that the British people have become wiser about this matter since 1975. At that time, every single organ of the media was in favour of a yes vote; a no vote had no support in the media at all.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I was the agent for the no vote in Bedfordshire in 1975, so I have a track record.
Is our political class frightened that, if the British people voted to leave the European Union, we would no longer be a member of the common fisheries policy? Are they frightened that we might regain control of our fishing waters, stop the fishing free-for-all and see our fish stocks recover? Is it frightened that we would no longer have to subscribe to the common agricultural policy, and that we could instead choose to subsidise our farming, as and when, and where, we considered it appropriate and necessary? Is it frightened that we would no longer have to contribute to the European Union budget, at a cost of many billions a year, and rising? I cannot for the life of me see why such developments are so frightening.
There is also the old chestnut about Britain’s economic dependence on the EU, and the number of jobs that people say could be lost. We have heard a great deal about that tonight. The reality is that we have a massive trade deficit with the EU. In 2010, we bought £53.5 billion more from the rest of the EU than they bought from us. It is laughable that the EU could start a trade war with the UK, when it needs us so much more than we need it.
I want this Parliament, not Brussels, to decide our employment laws. I have every confidence that the British people will vote in a Labour Government next time, to restore powers to trade unions and to working people. That is what I shall always fight for.
If we were to leave the EU, we should also find ourselves not bound by EU competition rules, so that we could, for example—and uninhibited by Brussels—buy trains from Bombardier, rather than from continental producers. We could also stop EU rules being used to promote the privatisation of the NHS. So what is there to fear? Rather, I think that there would be great advantages to being independent of the EU, and I have not heard a compelling argument to the contrary. I am going to vote for the motion tonight. This is the beginning of a long campaign, and I look forward to its successful end.
It is a pleasure to rise to support the motion tonight. The House will know that I am not a “usual suspect”. Loyalty to the Conservative party runs through my veins, having been a member for 26 years. Those on the Front Bench will know that, when my right hon. Friend Mr Cameron had his problems with grammar schools in 2007, I supported him. I also stood shoulder to shoulder with my right hon. Friend
It is more in sorrow than in anger that I vote for the motion tonight, because I support the Government and the fantastic work that they are doing on schools reform, on welfare reform and on getting down the appalling deficit left by the previous Labour Government. So I need no lectures on loyalty from some people. I defer to the Foreign Secretary, but I regret the unfortunate rhetoric that he used this morning about parliamentary graffiti. If I may be cynical, I fear that it has been a long road to Damascus from Richmond, Yorkshire, but I hope that I am wrong about that.
I say to my colleagues that we can have a proper, mature debate on the future. This is not like the theological, semi-religious schisms of the 1990s. There is a settled Eurosceptic consensus in our party, and we now need to think about where we are going and how we are going to get there. The motion is helpful. It would have given the Prime Minister the wind behind his back. It is flexible, and it does not seek to fetter discretion. It is most certainly not a “better off out” motion. We could have had a well-informed, reasonable debate between the respective positions.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful, personal statement to the House on his position on the motion. Does he agree that the public want to see less Europe and more Britain, and that the only way to achieve that is through supporting the motion and giving the British public a democratic vote on our future relationship with the EU?
I could not have put it better myself.
Hon. Members have made the point that a person has to be over 54 years of age to have had the opportunity to take part in a plebiscite on our future in Europe. If we can have a referendum on fiscal powers for Wales, on the north-east Assembly, on Scotland, Northern Ireland, Greater London government and other issues, why can we not have one on one of the most important philosophical differences about our approach to the European Union in a whole generation? It is not right.
We have heard many Members say this evening that now is not the right time. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a disingenuous argument because this motion does not impose a referendum now, but at some time in the future. Those hon. Members who say that now is not the right time are, as I say, being incredibly disingenuous about the motion.
Absolutely; I agree with my hon. Friend. When is the right time? Net contributions of £9 billion are not loose change in our politics. We are on the cusp of a potentially new, more deeply integrationist treaty and an irreversible hard EU monetary union with profound ramifications for the future of this country, particularly for the City of London.
I have to say to the Foreign Secretary, who is now on his flight to Canberra, that he once described the euro as
“a burning building with no exits”, but he seems happy now to provide new mortice locks for the windows and the doors.
The House of Commons should be allowed a free vote and an unfettered debate on this issue. The Government have no mandate to whip the vote as they have this evening. No one has a mandate since all the parties effectively reneged on the Lisbon treaty prior to the last general election. I have to say, as a former Whip, that this has been a catastrophic mismanagement for my party. We should have been able to show to our people that we were mature and that although we had logical differences, we would respect each other so that the integrity of Parliament would have been improved as a result. Instead, we have had the heavy-handed whipping that we have seen tonight.
We can no longer exclude the people of this country—in the era of Twitter, Facebook and the internet—from the decision-making processes. We cannot infantilise them and make them look foolish as if only we, with the political elite and the plutocratic, bureaucratic elite of Europe, know what we are doing and they are too stupid to understand because they are the little people. It will not do any longer. The people’s voice will be heard.
“all political power is merely a leasehold held on trust and…it can be removed at any time. The people of Peterborough put their trust in me…I promised not to let them down”.—[Hansard, 6 June 2005; Vol. 434, c. 1078.]
It is a leasehold; we cannot sell the freehold of our birthright, our democracy and the freedom of our country.
I have no intention of breaking the bond of trust I made with my constituents in Peterborough. If we cannot debate the biggest constitutional issue of our generation here in the very cockpit of democracy in the House of Commons, why are we here? That would make manifestos a sham and elections meaningless. For me, constituency and country must come before the baubles of ministerial office. I will keep that faith with my constituents and, with a heavy heart, I will vote for the motion and take the consequences.
My starting point is that there are good democratic reasons for those in favour of our continued membership of the EU, albeit a reformed EU, to support a referendum. I believe that it is precisely the refusal to give people a say on the EU that is leading to greater public disillusionment with it. It is precisely that that leads people to think that the EU is an elitist project which is done to them and which is not in the interests of the majority. I do not agree with that position, but I think it right that it should be debated.
I believe that the EU has enormous potential to spread peace, freedom and security, to promote and protect democracy and human rights—at home and throughout the world. It has the potential to be a true pioneer in the transition to low-carbon economies and living more rightly on the planet. I believe that to fulfil that potential, however, it has to change direction and put greater democracy and greater sustainability at the heart of its objectives. I think having a referendum would enable us to debate the end-goal or purpose of the EU. At the moment we have lots of debates about whether we want more or less EU without answering the question, “To what purpose the EU?”
For many Conservative Members, the answer will be that they want the EU, if they want it at all, to have far more of a free trade focus. For my party, we think it has too much of a free trade focus, but that is not the issue. The issue here is the right of the people to say what they want, the right to have that debate and the right for us to differ, as necessary, but none the less to have that debate about the advantages and, indeed, some disadvantages of the EU.
In my experience, many of today’s European citizens are simply no longer sure what the EU is for. In my view, the ambitious free trade project at the heart of its original treatise has become an end in itself. Debates about the future of the EU have been dominated by the idea that the overriding goals of European integration are economic and that the progress of the EU should be judged in terms of economic growth and the removal of market barriers alone. As a result, the EU has failed to address fundamental questions of political culture and strategic purpose and has therefore also failed to inspire the mass of citizens with a sense of enthusiasm and common cause, thus calling into question its own legitimacy.
In order to tackle the new threats and challenges we face today and to deliver a fair, sustainable and peaceful Europe into the 21st century and beyond, the EU must undergo radical reform. It must become more democratic and accountable, less bureaucratic and remote. It also needs to have a more compelling vision of its role and purpose, and a referendum would provide an opportunity to debate precisely those issues. To try to shut down that opportunity is, I think, very dangerous. It is possible to be pro a reformed EU and in favour of a referendum.
I agree that there are plenty of areas where the EU needs reform. The common agricultural policy is in many respects an environmental disaster. The common fisheries policy ends up with enormous over-fishing and the scandal of discards. Unaccountable corporate influence over decision making skews the outcome of many decisions. There is an extraordinary arrogance, for example, in dressing up the Lisbon treaty as something different from the repackaging of the constitution that it really was.
I believe that, more urgently than ever, we need the EU to fulfil its potential for strong environmental policy and for securing energy policy and energy security into the future. If it is to do that, however, it must have the consent of the British people. We need to make the case for a reformed EU. We should not be afraid of making that case. I believe that if we make it strongly, we will win it, which is why I support tonight’s proposal for a referendum.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for calling me to speak in this very important debate. It is, in fact, a historic debate because it is the first that has been triggered by the public through the petitions system. I believe that that system is a wonderful one; it is absolutely right to hold this debate today. I also think it right in principle that this House should debate issues of particular importance to the public, of which this is one.
I shall oppose the motion, which fills me with disappointment. I would have liked to come to this debate to speak about the frustrations I feel—many of my colleagues have spoken about theirs today—over many of the decisions taken in the European Parliament, which I would have preferred to see taken in the British Parliament. There has been a trend for decisions to be made in the European Parliament since 1975. I should have liked to concentrate on that, and to speak in favour of a motion rather than against one.
I am a Eurosceptic and always have been. In 1975 I campaigned for an “out” vote. I remember one of my colleagues saying that at the start of that referendum we thought we would win, but in the event we lost by a ratio of 2:1, and that is a lesson that I have not forgotten. Perhaps my greatest contribution was that in 2001, during a Save the Pound rally in Monmouth at which the current Foreign Secretary was speaking, I was hit on the back of the head by an egg that was directed at him. I “took one” for the Conservative party.
The motion is tragically timed, because it pits against each other the equally valid causes of ensuring that security and stability are maintained during a great euro crisis that will affect us here in the United Kingdom—even the discussion of a referendum on leaving the European Union will contribute to that instability—and giving the people the voice that they have been denied for so long in the determination of our role in Europe. It is a shame that that conflict has arisen today, but it makes our referendum lock and the conditions surrounding it all the more important.
I agree with my hon. Friend. I am in conflict with many of my colleagues who have spoken today about timing, and I am very disappointed not to be flying the Eurosceptic flag that I should like to be flying. I remember how appalled I was when the last Government reneged on what I saw as a promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. That was the right time, but I believe that it may well come again and in similar circumstances.
Two issues matter greatly to me. One is the type of referendum that we are discussing. I think that if a referendum is to be held and is to engage the public, there should be two options rather than three, as the motion suggests. A “preferendum” would be a mistake because it would not be clear enough, and I therefore cannot support the motion. The second issue is timing. I think that to have a debate on a referendum would be a huge mistake while we in Britain must deal with huge financial and economic issues, along with another massive issue—the social dislocation felt by so many of our young people. A referendum on our future relationship with the European Union would constitute a severe distraction from the two real missions of this coalition Government.
The hon. Gentleman knows that it would take at least 18 months to reach the point at which a referendum could take place. If this is not the right time, is 18 months from now the right time? As for the questions that would be asked in the referendum, that will be resolved during the negotiation period and in the Bill Committee. All the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman can easily be accommodated, and I appeal to him to change his position.
I accept what the hon. Gentleman has said, but I think we should be much clearer about both those issues before proceeding with a referendum. We need to know exactly what the position is. We should not say, “We are in favour of this”, as if we were some sixth-form debating society; we should say, “This is what is being proposed”, and then say whether we are in favour of it or not. What we need is a clear-cut question.
Many people have asked when will be the right time, but we cannot say when the right time will be. We have a Foreign Secretary and a Prime Minister who will conduct negotiations with the European Union, hopefully in order to restore powers to the United Kingdom. There may well be another treaty, as there was a Lisbon treaty, and in that event we as a Government would not renege as the last Government did. We would hold a referendum on an issue that the public could clearly understand, at a time when the people were ready to debate it. I hope that this debate will not lead to a referendum, because I do not think its focus would be clear, and clarity is what we need.
There has been a great deal of discussion about a free vote and the involvement of the Whips. I want to make it clear that I made up my mind as soon as I saw the motion. I had been looking forward to a motion on this issue and had been keen to speak in favour of it, but when I saw it, I concluded that it had been a mistake because it divided Eurosceptic opinion. Long before any Whip contacted me I resolved to vote against it, and to try to catch Mr Speaker’s eye. I am glad to say that I did catch Mr Speaker’s eye, and I am grateful for the opportunity to speak.
I believe that one day, following a serious negotiation, there will be a referendum on our relationship with the European Union, and that that referendum will ask a clear question enabling the public to say yes or no about our relationship with the European Union. I look forward to that day, but I shall be voting against the motion tonight.
This is an interesting debate, and I apologise for having missed a few of the contributions. It is also a strange debate, however, in that many of the arguments being proposed in support of the motion do not, in fact, support it. My good friend Mr Cash is not in the Chamber at present. He talked about the £40 billion trade deficit, but anyone who voted for the Common Market voted for that to happen, as, unfortunately, it is inevitable in a free market economy. For instance, 73% of our chemical industry is now owned by companies that are not based in the UK, and that will end up against us in the trade figures.
My hon. Friend Kate Hoey is also no longer here. She urged us to put our own logical or ideological assessments before the instructions of the Whips. I have always done that, which is why I am going to vote against the motion. It is not logical to vote for it.
My hon. Friend Mr Davidson has slipped away. He is not so much a friend as an ongoing further education project for me. I pointed out to him that the only way to get any of what he wants is to invoke article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which states that we can leave the European Union. That has been put in place very deliberately. However, article 49 states that any country that leaves will be dealt with as if it is a new applicant, with no automatic right to rejoin and no special advantages. All this nonsense about renegotiating, repositioning and working on reform does not apply, therefore, and only a straight in/out referendum would be relevant. We could act upon that, but everything else would be left entirely to chance and to negotiations in the European Council and the European Parliament. That is the reality.
Surely the hon. Gentleman accepts that we can agree a new treaty that does exactly what many Members on the Government Benches wish. We can leave it to the treaty to achieve that.
Let me give the following advice to the hon. Gentleman, and to the Scottish National party Member who is present, Pete Wishart. The SNP thinks that if Scotland votes to separate from the rest of the United Kingdom, it can walk straight into the EU, but that is not the case. Scotland would get into the EU only if it agreed to one major condition: it would have to join the eurozone.
If the UK wanted to get back in, we would have to join the eurozone too. That is the reality, because that is now a condition for entering the EU, and it has been since before the Lisbon treaty. The position is as follows, therefore: we would have to decide in a referendum whether we wanted to be out of the EU, and if we wanted to go back in after that, we would then be at a great disadvantage because a decision would not come into force until after two years. It would have to be ratified by the other states; it would go ahead only if the European Parliament were to agree to it; and there would then be a vote to agree it in the Council under qualified majority terms. We are therefore tied up in knots by the Lisbon treaty, which I have described as a tipping point.
I am glad to see that the mover of the motion, Mr Nuttall, is back in his place. He argued that the closure of an accident and emergency department in his constituency was down to the European Union. If there is such a closure in a Member’s area, the people who can deal with it are sitting on the Government Front Bench. The hon. Gentleman should ask SNP Members about that, because of what happened after their party was elected with a clear majority in the Scottish Government elections.
The first thing it did was overturn a proposal to close two accident and emergency units: one in Monklands and the other in Ayrshire. That illustrates the power of Government in this context. Such issues are nothing to do with the European Union, therefore, so the hon. Gentleman should not have made that point.
Some Members have also said that the call for a referendum expresses the settled will of the people. I respect, and am very fond of, my hon. Friend Natascha Engel, but that is a very misleading claim to make. If we get 100,000 people writing in to say we should have a vote on a referendum on capital punishment, that would be more likely to be carried than the vote on this referendum. Are we really saying that 100,000 signatures would trigger a debate and vote in the House on a referendum on capital punishment? This is not about the settled will of the people, therefore. It just so happens that a lot of people have sent in some signatures on blogs, and I do not want to pay particular attention to them because I think that it is important that, like the Tunisian people, we respect parliamentary democracy.
If this referendum were held and its result clearly expressed the settled will of the people, would the hon. Gentleman be willing to accept that?
I voted in the 1975 referendum, and I voted yes. I did not vote in favour of the Common Market; I voted in favour of the aspirations that were so well described by Mr Walter. Do we really think we have lasting peace? How long ago was Srebrenica? What state are the Balkans in at present? Do we really think the search for peace is finished business? It is not finished business by a long way.
I also voted yes because I knew there was a better way forward that was not on offer at that time. That was introduced by Delors, when he brought in the social chapter. That is what I joined the EU for—social agreement. I support most of what would be offered us in the justice and social packages; they would guarantee them for our people as well as for all the people throughout Europe. These are things that are done by negotiation.
I do not have time to give way, as I have given way twice and I know how the system works.
It is clearly important that we consider what the European Union is about. There are things to give up, such as our obsession with not wanting people in Europe to have the same rights when they are on trial. We are opposing translation rights and the right to legal representation—this Government are opposing them at the moment. How can anyone justify that? Europe has to be a better place to live. If it was not for the social chapter—
The hon. Gentleman knows the rules. I have given way often enough and I have had my extra two minutes.
We need to think about Delors and what happened when the package for the social chapter came in. It protected the people I represent from Thatcherism in its worst aspects; it was a chance to rebalance Europe and bring about a social Europe. So much has been said about that. I respect Mr Holloway, who decided to resign as a Parliamentary Private Secretary, as it is right that people should be able to put their principles before someone’s attempt to give them a little bag-carrying job. I am not sure that he would be resigning quite as quickly if he was a Minister. The problem is that no Ministers have been saying that they will resign their ministerial position over this matter.
The Liberal Democrats say that they would vote for a referendum only on a fundamental shift, but there has been a fundamental shift. It has been away from voting Liberal, and their voting with the Government will damage them. I am sorry about that, but the Liberals did say that they would do something. The European Union still protects the three red lines: defence, tax and foreign policy. What we need to do in this place is give more power to the Backbench Business Committee and the European Scrutiny Committee to stop the Government voting things through in the Council, which they do at the moment.
For 40 years, we have left Europe policy to Ministers and to mandarins—to a tiny Whitehall elite. Look at the collective mess that they have made of it. We have a fisheries policy with no fish; red tape strangling small businesses; financial regulation that suffocates the City; and now we are being asked to spend billions of pounds bailing out a currency that we never even joined. We have lurched from one bad deal with Brussels to the next, and from one disastrous round of negotiations to another. That is the price we pay for leaving it to Ministers and mandarins to decide our Europe policy. It is time to trust the people. Today, every Member of this House faces a straightforward choice. They can either vote to give people a referendum on the EU or they can vote not to trust the people.
I shall try to do so over the next three minutes, and I am grateful for that thoughtful and erudite intervention.
This is a matter of principle: is it right, in principle, to put the question of EU membership to a popular vote? Too many people in Westminster—in SW1—try to second-guess how the voters may vote in a referendum and then work backwards to decide whether or not they favour a referendum. Instead we should start from the principle: is it right for the people to decide? Yes it is, and I believe that this issue qualifies for a referendum. The issue is of massive constitutional significance, it divides all three parties and it cannot be adequately settled in a general election.
Referendums can no longer be dismissed, as they have been for many years, as somehow alien to the British tradition. We have had dozens of referendums since 1997, including a national referendum on the alternative vote.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There has been a mood change in this country away from what one might call “deferential democracy”, where people leave it to the 650 people here to make public policy, to a new kind of democracy, where people want more choice and they want politics to be done by them, rather than to them by a remote elite. Some people in my party and in our own Whips Office have not truly understood that sea change.
If we are to have a referendum to decide how we elect Members of Parliament, surely we can have a referendum to decide whether or not those we elect should make the rules under which we live. Today’s motion has been put on the Commons agenda by the people. It is to this coalition’s immense credit that it has introduced a mechanism to allow voters to trigger debates—some 100,000 voters have triggered this debate. But we cannot say that we want to renew democracy if we shy away from the outcome of what the people say. We cannot claim that we want a new politics if we then use old-style whipping tactics from the 1950s to crush debate—or, rather, we could do all that but then we would have the credibility of a Greek Government bond.
Today’s vote is about change. I am voting for an EU referendum because I want change—change not only in our relationship with Europe but fundamental change in the way this country is run. I am not voting for a referendum in the hope that it will take us to some insular, mythical island past: I am voting for an open society—a truly global country. Ultimately, this is not about flags, anthems or identity, but about whether it is right for millions of people to have their lives arranged for them by deliberate design of technocrats. It is about democracy.
I ask each Member to cast their mind back to the day they were first elected to this House. I ask them to recall that sense of pride mingled with awesome responsibility when the returning officer read out the winner’s name. Most hon. Members will have felt in their bones that entering this House was one of the most exalted and greatest moments in their lives. Look at how today we are scorned. “MPs don’t keep their promises,” say the cynics. “You say whatever you say to get elected,” they cry. Today is our chance to show the cynics that they are wrong.
All three parties until recently promised the people a referendum on the EU. There is no point in clever wordplay or in reading the clever brief from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials—most people understood that we were going to give them a referendum. That is what MPs in all parties wanted the people to believe and it is the impression that we deliberately conveyed. This evening, we have a chance to keep our promises, to honour our word and to keep faith in our country. I will vote to let the people decide and I urge other hon. Members to do so. My hon. Friends the Members for Peterborough (Mr Jackson) and for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) are indeed honourable and it is a privilege to be their colleague on the Back Benches.
They say that if you hang around this place for long enough nothing should surprise you, but recent antics do surprise me. The other week we were subjected to manoeuvres par excellence by the Government Whips and business managers to block discussion on a clause put forward by Mr Leigh on the subject of freedom of speech in a Bill laughably called the Protection of Freedoms Bill. Tonight, the Government Whips—indeed, the Whips and business managers of all three main parties—have conspired to put a three-line Whip on a Back-Bench business motion, which effectively means that Parliament is being invited to talk about Europe but not to vote on it. So much for the mother of Parliaments!
Let me make it clear that I am not anti-European and that if I vote for the motion tonight I shall find myself in the Lobby with some strange bedfellows, including some people who, frankly, I think are mad. If there ever were an in/out referendum, I would almost certainly find myself arguing the case for trade and jobs in Europe. I think that is where I would end up. However, I also recognise that there is growing demand for reform in Europe. It is Lib Dem policy to have an in/out referendum, and most people understood it to be the Prime Minister’s policy to have a referendum if there was any significant change to the Lisbon treaty. Indeed, no one who has heard the Prime Minister over the past three years could think he was anything but a referendum man. And our esteemed Foreign Secretary once thought these issues were so important that he fought an entire general election on them.
Tonight, however, in a little Back-Bench business debate where the normally unimportant little people are expressing their views—views that strike a remarkable chord with the British public—the muscle men, the U-turn merchants and the bully boys, the Ministers and the would-be Ministers, are all out to force their say. What they are saying is, “All you little Cinderellas can go to the ball, but you can’t dance.” All the grand talk from this Government about greater respect for Parliament and Back Benchers, and the role that they have played in setting up the Backbench Business Committee, amount to nothing if the Government show tonight that they are scared to debate the topic.
A Back-Bench business debate is just that. It is about taking the temperature. This is not an Opposition day. We are not dealing with Government business. In a simple little Back-Bench business debate, I think I am entitled to vote how I damn well like.
It is a great pleasure to participate in tonight’s historic debate. We have heard many great, passionate speeches from both sides of the House, but none more so than from the Government Benches, many Members seeing this as an opportunity to strike out against over-whipped government and to seek a return to more democratic values.
I consider myself to be a Eurosceptic, so I find myself in a strange position: I will vote against the motion, but not because I have been leant on by any Whips. I came to that conclusion prior to the first call. It is an insight into the co-ordination of Whips that you tell one at length, then another one rings you up anyway. They could get more co-ordinated.
To follow on from Steve McCabe, it is a shame that tonight has gone the way it has, though it is unfair to say that the Government have not allowed debate. From a party political management perspective, it may have been naïve to do what the Government have done. They brought the debate forward to today, the Prime Minister through his statement was able to participate, and the Foreign Secretary led for the Government. Far from stifling debate, therefore, the Government at the highest level have engaged with it. Whether that was wise party management I leave to others to judge, but I think it probably was not.
In response to my hon. Friend Mr Carswell, who gave a powerful speech, I believe in parliamentary democracy. I do not believe parliamentary democracy puts down the small people. I know my hon. Friend has strong beliefs, which he has espoused over many years, including a belief in direct democracy. He has an agenda for direct democracy. He does not believe in the representative democracy that I believe in.
I do not believe that we are delegates. I am not about the percentage of my constituents who believe a particular thing. I should be out there listening to them, and I was out there on Saturday at my street surgery. The previous weekend I spent all day going round the villages listening to people and hearing from them, but it is not my job to do whatever the percentage majority tell me to do. My job is to come to this place and do the best I can by the people whom I represent.
Can representative democracy work only if we keep our promises to the electorate? On this issue, all three major parties promised a referendum and we are not giving it.
With the greatest respect to my hon. Friend, that is one of the great myths that has been peddled. He does a disservice to the party. As I said in an intervention earlier, I honestly believe that the Prime Minister was not reneging on the promise on Lisbon when it had been ratified. If I had promised a board meeting before a payment goes out and someone else pays it out, the cheque is cashed and I do not hold a board meeting to discuss the cheque that has already been cashed—I am not reneging on anything; I am simply recognising the reality. I do not believe that the Conservative party or the Prime Minister reneged on any promise.
The manifesto on which I and my hon. Friend stood in 2010 made no promise of any referendum whatsoever. What it did promise—I say this gently to my colleagues tonight—was to bring in a referendum lock if there was to be further treaty change. I recognise and my hon. Friends point out that some powers leak and leech away without a treaty in prospect. The passage of a European Union treaty, however, was historic in this Parliament and this democracy. There will come a time when a treaty triggers the provision, and it will not be far off—I do not believe that the Government can slip vast powers under it. The truth is that that time is coming and we are winning the argument. The last thing we need to do is fight among ourselves. We must recognise that we are carrying the British people, who are more Eurosceptic, with us.
I continue to believe that we are better off within the European Union, although I am open to persuasion that we could be better off out. Some colleagues who believe that passionately are using today’s debate as a Trojan horse. I respect their view, but I think that the three-part nature of the motion is confusion and that the suggestion that we can somehow mandate the Government to renegotiate is false. I do not see how we can do that. The Government must lead and get the best position they can. When they come back with a treaty, as I am sure they will in the not-too-distant future, it will be put to the British people. That will be the time to do it. I do not think that it is disingenuous to talk about timing.
My hon. Friend touches on a central point, which is that not all of us feel that we would be better off out of the EU. Many of us want the common market we signed up for, more free trade and less of the baggage. Is that not the direction of travel in which we should be headed?
I agree. Colleagues might say tonight with a wry smile that they, too, like the Prime Minister, believe in nudge theory. They would say that the motion, the strong debate and the number of Members who will be in the Aye Lobby will tell the Government how seriously members of our party feel on the matter, and they may have a point. My constituents, whom I have sensibly been talking and listening to, are not telling me that this is top of their list of priorities. At the top of their list are jobs, employment and the need to ensure that we do not put people in the dole queue, particularly young people, as one of the Labour party’s toxic legacies was to leave so many young people not in education, employment or training.
Our duty is to move very coolly on this subject. The time will come when we will have a referendum. We should not pass the motion tonight. We should absolutely listen to our constituents, who are telling us that they have priorities above and beyond the obsession in certain parts of the Conservative party with Europe above all other issues.
May I say how good it is that we are having this important debate this evening, but how disappointed I am that the build-up to it has given the impression that the Conservative party is divided on Britain’s approach to the European Union? The truth is that the only real division this evening will be over the wording of a motion, not the substance of our approach to the EU. In reality, Conservatives are united in believing that the EU has accumulated far too many powers, that the status quo is no longer an option and that we must renegotiate a new relationship with the EU and make a fresh start.
I think that three distinct steps need to be taken. First, we need a plan, and in my view the Government should be doing the work right now to identify which powers we would seek to repatriate. Secondly, we need to take every opportunity we have to negotiate and to deliver that plan. Finally, the end of the process should be the point at which we have a referendum and put the renegotiation to the people.
It is because I believe that a referendum should come at the end of the process, rather than the beginning, that I cannot support the motion as it stands this evening. However, I cannot support the Government by voting against it, so I will abstain. The reason I cannot support the Government is that I want them to do far more than they have so far been willing to do to accelerate the plan for a renegotiation. That will be the main focus of my comments today.
It concerns me that the Foreign Office might be ducking the challenge here, and I have been very disappointed by the “jam tomorrow” nature of some of the Foreign Secretary’s comments. The urgent need to get our economy moving again becomes clearer by the day. There are no easy ways out of the current mess. We need radical thinking to get our country moving again, and that should include dealing with the morass of EU laws and regulations. I do not think that it is good enough to say that changing the EU is all too difficult and so nothing can be done for years to come. Sorting out the EU is not something that might be nice in the distant future; tackling the burden of EU regulation is an integral part of the solution to the current crisis and we must act now. We have to find a way of cutting the Gordian knot that has created a situation in which politicians talk about reforming the EU but can never find the moment to deliver real change.
I was about to come on to precisely that.
I do not accept the argument that nothing can be done until there has been an intergovernmental conference or a new treaty. Where there is the political will, there is always a way, and where needs must, the EU has shown itself able to react quickly and then sort out the lawyers and the legal basis for action later.
It would come as soon as we had finished the negotiation, and if I had my way, it would happen very quickly and, certainly, within this Parliament.
The bail-outs in Greece and Ireland were technically against EU law, but the European financial stability facility was agreed and implemented within days; three years ago, the bank bail-outs breached EU state aid rules, but again exemptions were created when needs required it. Sweden has technically been in breach of the treaties for a decade, because it does not have an opt-out from the euro, but the EU has had to learn to live with it, as that is the political reality. The Danish Government have unilaterally introduced extra customs checks on their borders, which are in breach of the Schengen agreement, but, again, the EU has had to learn to live with it.
The lesson from those examples is that EU law is a flexible notion. In fact, the European Union Act 2011 explicitly states that EU regulations and directives have force in this country only when Parliament allows them to, so we must be far more willing to set aside the authority of the European Court of Justice, and crucially we should not let dreary treaties and EU protocols get in the way of taking urgent action to stimulate our economy.
Let us say to the EU that we are going to delay the agency workers directive, making it clear to the institution that it will have to learn to live with that and that we will not accept an infraction procedure. Let us make it clear, during the current negotiations on the budget, that we intend to disapply, for instance, the working time directive, which was mentioned earlier, until we get this economy out of recession.
The European Union would complain, but, if the evidence of the examples I have cited is anything to go by, it would probably take it at least three years to get around to doing anything about it. Such a move might do something else, too. People keep saying, “These European politicians have no intention of having a treaty; they just won’t negotiate with us, so we have to give up,” but if we unilaterally did those things we would suddenly find that there was an appetite for a long-term solution to such issues. It would be a catalyst to get negotiations moving.
I am sorry, but I have almost finished, and I do not want to eat into other people’s time.
Negotiators in the Foreign Office would probably wince at the idea of adopting such a stance, but it is the only way we can cut that Gordian knot, sort out the EU and get our economy moving again, and I very much hope that the Minister takes those comments on board.
I, like many in the country, am angered at the continued erosion of our sovereignty, and at the shipping of our powers across the channel to Brussels. Businesses, the judicial system and citizens of this country are subject to a growing federalisation—to federalist power—that seeks to engulf not only the economy but our politics.
The unfolding eurozone disaster is an example of the chaotic and unaccountable actions that have been allowed to play out within the European project, and that in itself is bad enough, but the failure of eurozone members to take responsibility, to lay the facts before each other and to own up to mistakes is what concerns me more. I am a Eurosceptic, and I struggle to find anything to respect in an institution that cannot sign off its own accounts, let alone manage someone else’s.
For 32 years the UK has been a net contributor, not a recipient, of EU moneys. If it were a pension scheme, everybody would say, “Let’s get out now.” Does that not underline the need for the people of the United Kingdom to make up their own minds in a referendum, and not to pay into a system that takes plenty but gives little?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I look forward to campaigning for such a referendum to be put into our next manifesto.
I welcome and support the referendum lock, and I look forward to seeing the work of the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary to ensure that we bring powers back from Brussels, and initiate reform of the European Union. That was part of our election promise, and we should see it through.
I watched the Conservative Government in the 1990s rip themselves apart over Europe. After 13 years in opposition, I am dismayed that after just 18 months in government, we are sitting here again with the same tension. There is an element of self indulgence here and, if we are not careful, it will be a route to self-destruction. We are facing the greatest economic upheaval in 100 years.
As I said in response to Jim Shannon, if there is such support for the matter, we should campaign to ensure that it is part of our party’s next election manifesto.
Should we compromise on financial stability, growth and maintaining low interest rates for the sake of losing our ability to negotiate reform, and to negotiate to bring powers back to this country? If we compromise now, we will have a lame duck Government for a couple of years while the world watches, knowing that we will have a referendum that might compromise that position. We have the best hand in a generation, and we should play it to full effect.
This is the wrong motion at the wrong time for this country. This is Great Britain, and we do not run away when Europe gets into trouble. In fact, we have a reputation for sorting out those poor fellows. It is in Britain’s interest to be at the table.
The global economy is changing rapidly, and the focus of power is moving east. We need to be able to use all the opportunities, including through the European Union, to participate in that growth of wealth. Some hon. Members have said today that it would not be democratic if the 100,000 votes do not win the day, but I have an opinion and other hon. Members have a different one. That is democracy, and I will vote against the motion.
“referendum…offers one of the few possibilities to remedy a fundamental weakness in our constitution. We have no written constitution and no procedures to protect and entrench features of our national and constitutional life. Everything can be changed by a simple majority. Many other countries, as we know, have quite elaborate procedures requiring a majority of two thirds for changes in constitutional matters and arrangements, often backed up with public referendums.”
Then he comes to the burden of the argument:
“We have no such defence. Indeed, previously we did not need them, because only this generation of British parliamentary representatives has contemplated handing to others the great prizes of national independence, self-government and the rule of law under our own elected representatives. It would not have occurred to a previous generation to hand to others that which we prize most greatly and have given to other countries throughout the world in the past 50 years. That is the novelty of the proposition, against which, because we did not think it conceivable, we have no defences. A referendum is a major constitutional device for defending the rights of the British people and our constitution.”—[Hansard, 21 February 1992; Vol. 204, c. 590.]
I was personally moved by that because it described the thread that ran through our long march for liberty, with the ordinary people coming to effect the election of this House, and those who represented them knowing that only they could make the law by which we were governed. In this, the concept of the rule of law, there has to be proper due process. That debate, which took place immediately before the election, was very controversial. Subsequently, I moved the referendum amendment to the Maastricht Bill.
All the arguments advanced by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary amounted to what we have heard so often regarding ordinary and constitutional legislation: “It is not the right time.” My hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg put it very brilliantly as he dissected what that amounts to. A referendum essentially says, “Trust the people”, and that is the one thing that the Executive of this House are loth to do because they do not know what the outcome will be. However, we should respond to the generosity of the Government in allowing a Committee of this House to accept a petition from the public outside. We need a referendum.
I have always been proud to be a moderate, one-nation Conservative and a supporter of this coalition Government. Like Kate Hoey, my Euroscepticism is driven by internationalism, and I fear the dangers of a “little Europe”.
I welcome the work that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have done to limit our exposure to eurozone bail-outs, provide a referendum lock on future treaties and reduce the EU budget, and I strongly support what they say about the benefits of being in Europe but not run by Europe. However, I believe that all three major parties are mistaken in opposing the motion, and more greatly so in imposing harsh Whips on their supporters.
This cross-party Back-Bench motion reflects a profound disquiet in the country at the fact that, for decades, we have had no say on our relationship with Europe, and it reflects widespread popular support for an opportunity for people to have that say. I was born in 1978, and in no time during my lifetime, nor in the adult lifetimes of the vast majority of hon. Members, has there been an opportunity to debate publicly our membership, or even the terms of our membership, of the EU. Eight out of 10 people eligible to vote today have never had this opportunity. There should have been a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. I am proud that Conservative Members voted against that treaty when Labour disgracefully broke its promise to hold a referendum on the constitution that it replaced.
There have been many debates in this House on aspects of European policy, but none has triggered a referendum or engaged the public in the way that today’s motion could. Many hon. Members, such as my hon. Friend Glyn Davies, have very reasonably criticised the idea of a three-way referendum. I would far rather have supported a straight yes or no question on renegotiating the powers of Brussels. That is why I would have unreservedly supported the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend George Eustice. Sadly, as that amendment was not selected, I find myself faced with a dilemma. In a three-way referendum, there is a risk that the wrong answer can be achieved with a significant minority vote, as the Prime Minister has explained. I have never argued for an in/out referendum because I do not believe that that is the right question to ask.
My hon. Friend makes a very passionate case. Was not repatriating powers from Brussels in our last election manifesto, and is it not therefore Conservative party policy and the Government’s policy?
I am grateful for that intervention. I agree that that was in our manifesto. Unfortunately, that does not appear to be the policy of the coalition Government. That is my concern.
I support the third option set out on the Order Paper: renegotiating our membership to base it on trade and co-operation. That is what we signed up for in the first place. The question comes down to whether one believes that the risks inherent in a three-way referendum outweigh the benefits of what in my view, in the view of the last Conservative manifesto and, I believe, in the view of the vast majority of the British people is the right thing to do. As Ms Stuart said, it comes down to whether one trusts the people, and I trust the British people. I believe that if they were offered such a choice and were engaged in a reasoned debate on the three options, they would do as they did with the AV referendum and come to a sensible conclusion.
I will not give way again, I am afraid.
I do not buy the argument that now is the wrong time. The motion states that a Bill should be brought forward in the next Session of Parliament. If the eurozone crisis has not been resolved by then, we are all in much greater trouble than we thought.
In conclusion, I am no Euro-fanatic and have no great desire to earn the label of rebel because I strongly support many of the steps that the coalition Government have taken. As my hon. Friend Mr Stuart pointed out, we are the representatives of our constituents, not just delegates. It is not right to vote on an issue simply because of the number of letters we have received or according to what we hear on the doorstep, but as representatives we should certainly take those things into account.
I spent much of my weekend talking to constituents about this issue, along with many others. Everyone I asked felt it was right that they should have a choice. I received many letters in support of the motion and only one against, from a retired Labour councillor. Among those letters, one that made an impression was from my constituent, Mr Raymond Cross, who wrote:
“I am almost 87 years of age, served and offered my life to my King and Country…in the army during the second world war. I still have the original ‘Britain & Europe’ booklet issued by the Ted Heath Government in July 1971. That is what we voted on in 1975.
There should be a free vote on this referendum. Members of Parliament are there to debate the pros and cons of the motion put forward not to obey slavishly the will of” their parties. I profoundly regret that there is no such free vote. I am a passionate supporter of my party and this coalition Government, but it is a well-established convention that constituency should come before party and, still more importantly, that country should come before all. On that basis, I shall support the motion tonight.
I contribute to this debate as a Eurosceptic who believes that too many of our powers and freedoms and too much of our money have been handed over to Brussels.
For years, we have argued desperately and even begged to maintain our membership of the EU without being ruled by an undemocratic federal state. We failed largely because the whole basis of the European project was to have a federal country with its own currency. The assumption was that even countries such as Denmark and Britain would come round eventually and join the euro. After that, we would all become one big federal country like America. That situation made it almost impossible for people like me who want to co-operate in Europe, but to remain British.
Things have changed significantly in recent years. The euro is in turmoil. The dream, or perhaps the nightmare, of a federal state with one currency is nearly dead. It cannot now happen. That gives us an opportunity. For years we have talked about a two-speed Europe. There is now an opportunity for a two-system Europe. Those who want closer union can have it, while countries such as Britain, Greece and Denmark can be more loosely aligned. That is what my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary talked about when he used the phrase,
“In Europe, but not run by Europe.”
It seems that there now have to be two systems, whether Brussels likes it or not. The good news for us Eurosceptics is that for the first time since the 1980s, we have a Government who are genuinely committed to negotiating for that. If negotiations fail on the two-system Europe, we will have to reappraise our approach.
For now, we must grasp the opportunity. This is the first time in decades when we have had the opportunity to be in Europe, but not in a federal state where we are dictated to by people with whom we disagree. We are now in a stronger position and we need to show strength. This window of opportunity will not exist for ever, so I want the Government to go back to Europe and get our powers back.
Most people who advocated this referendum would be happy if we got the benefits of Europe, namely free trade, without all the red tape. If we can do that, we can put the issue to bed for ever. We would save ourselves from extra tax and bureaucracy. That is agreed across the House. Saving ourselves from both those things will be vital for economic growth. I think we now all agree that a federal Europe is dead. Britain will now never join the euro, and we have the chance to renegotiate—we have that assurance from the Prime Minister. Let us do that while the opportunity exists, and if that fails, we can have a referendum on leaving the EU.
The motion has the passion of a broad, belief-based ideology, and we can read it in any way we want depending on our own views. I believe that I signed up to point (c) in the motion—let us renegotiate. In Europe, but not run by Europe.
I had not intended to speak in the debate, but having sat through some three hours or so earlier and heard a number of points of view, I thought I would take the opportunity to make a few points.
I fully accept that the House should take very seriously the number of signatures on the e-petition and the views that have been expressed to many MPs. I certainly accept that they are expressions of widespread concern. However, Members must accept that although some people feel very strongly about the issue, that does not mean that all people do. It is only a year and a half since we had a general election, and at that point none of the major parties stood on a platform of an in/out referendum of the type that is being suggested today. We must question how democratic it would be if we were to vote tonight for a policy that very few of us stood on in the last general election.
The motion is about leaving the EU, or changing our relationship with it in such a way that we would effectively no longer be part of it. My reasons for opposing it are simple, and some of them have already been stated. First, there is the powerful argument that the EU has been a defender and supporter of security and peace in Europe since it was established. If Britain were to withdraw from the EU, it would bring into question the EU’s whole raison d’être, and I do not want us to a return to a Europe of instability and, ultimately, conflict between member states. We have been lucky over the past 70 years, but for many centuries Europe was riven by all sorts of terrible warfare, and we do not want to see that return.
Much more immediately, I support colleagues on the Labour Benches, and some on the Government Benches, who have pointed out that there would be a real danger to our economy, because there would be a danger to the European economy, if we were to begin negotiations over the next 18 months on Britain withdrawing from Europe or renegotiating our relationship in such a way that we would no longer be recognisable as part of the EU.
I have noticed this evening that the view put forward by the Eurosceptics seems to be that their ideal relationship with the EU would be something like that of Norway and Switzerland. Leaving aside the fact that there is no suggestion anywhere of that being a realistic option to put on the negotiating table, as has been said, everything that Norway and Switzerland do in the economic field is affected by the decisions of the EU. As part of their agreements they are required to accept most European legislation. Where relevant, they have to accept the decisions of the European Court, and where they are not bound to accept EU legislation, they are certainly heavily influenced by it. The difference between those countries and us is that we would not have any voice, because we would not have representation in Europe either in the democratic institutions such as the European Parliament, in the European Council or elsewhere.
I believe that we need Britain to play a stronger role in Europe, and I want our Government to take an active role to defend our interests in Europe. I hope that one good thing, at least, will come out of tonight’s debate, and that some of the politicians who have played with a Eurosceptic position over the years as a way of trying to win votes might recognise that they have played with fire and are responsible for the consequences of their action tonight, which is the rebellion by Tory Back Benchers. I hope that there will now be a more positive approach to Europe—criticism, yes, but at the same time let us recognise its benefits to our country. Let us ensure that we work in Europe to make it succeed, rather than go down a road that would lead to an economic downturn for this country and economic damage to Europe as a whole.
I have listened with great attention to all of the speeches for the past five hours, with the occasional break to take in and then expel a little liquid. I can tell the House that the passion and the idealism, and even the personal courage, has all been on one side of the debate—the side of those who support the motion.
I agree with much that those hon. Ladies and hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House believe and want. I agree with them that Governments of all stripes have given too much power to the EU; that we need to renegotiate the terms of our membership, so that it focuses more on economic matters of trade and co-operation, and less on other issues that Europe was not set up to deal with; and that the British people should have the final say.
However, I will not vote with them tonight for the following reason. Although they have the passion, the idealism and the personal courage, I am afraid that they lack good sense. There will be only one time in the foreseeable future when we can hold a referendum on our membership of the EU—it has been 40 years since the last one, and we are likely to get only one shot in the next 40—and we must use it well. We must hold that referendum when it is most likely to assist us in getting the deal from Europe that we want.
I can predict exactly what will happen. If we propose a referendum at a time of economic growth, everyone will say, “Now is not the time to have a referendum, because everything is going so swimmingly.”
I thank my hon. Friend, but that was not my point. My point on timing is simply this: we need the promise—or, indeed, the threat—of that referendum to persuade our European partners to give us some of what we want in that negotiation.
I will not give way again yet.
If an imminent referendum hangs over that negotiation, the Prime Minister has a hand to play. He can say, “If you don’t give me the concessions I need, and if you don’t meet the demands of the British people, I will not be able to win that referendum, and you will lose one of the biggest members of the EU for ever.” However, if we have the referendum now, we will entirely waste the whole exercise. If we have a referendum in the next three years, before we have completed that renegotiation, and on a muddled question with three options, we will entirely forfeit our best negotiating tool.
I commend my hon. Friend for his consistency, and although I do not agree with him, I respect him for his convictions. Will he tell the House what timetable he envisages for a referendum? Would it be in this Parliament or the next one?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention, not least because he brings me to the conclusion that I probably would otherwise have forgotten. He asks exactly the right question, but I do not have news that will cheer up Conservative Members.
The first step before we start that renegotiation is, I am afraid, achieving a majority Conservative Government. We cannot start a renegotiation of our entire membership of the EU when the Government speak with two voices. We need a unified position, and we do not have it now, which I regret. I fought like all Conservatives for a majority Government, but we did not get it.
I will not be giving way again.
The second step is to start a renegotiation, which will probably take two or three years. We can promise that referendum in about year four of the next Parliament, after the Conservatives have won a majority. We might then get the Europe we want.
If we do what those brave hon. Ladies and hon. Gentlemen want us to do, we will waste our chance and get no clear answer to that referendum question. We might find ourselves in an unreformed and unreformable EU for the rest of my lifetime. I am not willing to risk that, which is why I will vote against the motion.
Many Members have referred to the part that they played in the 1975 referendum, and sadly I am one of those who is old enough to have participated. It is interesting to note that that referendum followed a renegotiation of our terms with the Common Market, as it then was, and the question put to the electorate was: “Do we stay in or do we leave?” I voted to leave, and I am pleased that I did so, because I have been consistent throughout. On my selection as a candidate and on the doorstep during the election, I said consistently that I had voted no and that I had not changed my mind, and that the Government position was one thing but mine was another. I am not prepared to break that bond of trust with the electorate.
It has been mentioned that the electorate are becoming disconnected. To a great fanfare of trumpets, the Government introduced the e-petition system, but within weeks they have destroyed the public’s confidence in it. It was as certain as night following day that a motion for an in/out referendum would result from an e-petition, but what have the Government done? They have cast it aside. There have been other distractions. We have been told that it is only eighth or 10th on the list of people’s concerns. This time last year, we were ploughing ahead with legislation on the alternative vote referendum. On the No. 45 from Cleethorpes to Immingham, people were not demanding a referendum on AV, but we allowed ourselves to be distracted.
I am pleased that my Member of Parliament, Austin Mitchell, is in his place, because he will know that the scars run deep in our part of the world following the destruction of the fishing industry which resulted from the sacrifice made at the negotiations to enter the Common Market in the first place.
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the national opinion poll today showing that 81% of those who voted Conservative, 62% of those who voted for the Liberal Democrats and 61% of those who voted Labour would vote for the motion? We ignore the electorate and national opinion polls at our peril.
I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. The Government and the Opposition parties ignore the electorate’s view on this at their peril. We must consider the real people of England, as I like to call them. Yesterday I was at a civic service for a town mayor in Barton-upon-Humber. Members on both sides will have been to these occasions. The real people, those who run our community groups and churches—they are the big society—feel very deeply about this but think that they are being ignored and cast aside. Unless the Government come to terms with that in the near future, they will pay a high price.
I said earlier this year in the debate on votes for prisoners that all Governments take decisions that they know to be against the overwhelming views of those they represent. If they continue to refuse to grant the people a referendum, it will become one of those issues. In fact, it would be something more: it would take away two of their lives. The electorate are disillusioned and cynical about the body politic and the whole political process. If we deny them this opportunity again, the cynicism and disillusionment will grow. I am proud to say that I shall be supporting the motion this evening, and I urge all Members to do so.
This has been a good debate with some outstanding speeches, particularly from my hon. Friends the Members for Gravesham (Mr Holloway) and for Peterborough (Mr Jackson). There have been timing issues during the debate. I have to say to my hon. Friend Nick Boles that to keep saying, “Now is not the right time”, is likely to engender frustration in the other member of the relationship. I believe that a referendum is long overdue. It has been a long time—1975—since we had a referendum. The world is a different place and the EU is certainly a different institution from what it was when we knew it as the Common Market.
There were a few lonely voices in that referendum campaign who said that Europe was a political project and not just an economic project. Others might take a different view, but I think that those who said that have been proved right in spades. The other case made in that referendum campaign has been comprehensively disproved by subsequent events. As the European Union has changed incrementally, granting more powers and competences to itself through successive treaties—the Single European Act, the treaty of Nice, the treaty of Maastricht, the treaty of Amsterdam and the treaty of Lisbon—it has changed beyond recognition.
We were right to offer the electorate a referendum on the treaty of Lisbon. Again on the timing, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made that commitment to hold a referendum until that treaty had been ratified and stayed absolutely true to its terms. His commitment meant that if a Conservative Government had come to power at any point before 3 o’clock on
People today are waiting to have their say on the European Union. We have made our arguments about the European Union in this debate, and we have heard some arguments in favour of it from Opposition Members. Let them put those issues to the people and trust them to make the decision. We cannot be wrong to trust the people: that is why we are having these Back-Bench business debates. This is an excellent example of what can be achieved through such debates. We should send out the message in this debate that we are prepared to trust our constituents, who are the ones who sent us here.
Now is the right time. We have seen much power transferred to the European Union. We need to free ourselves from the dead hand of European Union regulation to give ourselves a chance of achieving the higher growth rates achieved by non-members of the European Union and give our industry a chance. All that makes this an ideal time to have a referendum and set out the terms of that referendum. I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends and to other Government Members that if we keep making these promises to the electorate and not fulfilling them, we will pay a heavy price in lost trust with that electorate. We have to remember that today.
I have listened to the debate for the past five hours, and it is clear that we on the Conservative Benches are all Eurosceptics now. I speak in this debate as a Eurosceptic, and I could not put the case against the EU better than some of my colleagues have. However, I will not be voting against the motion, because I believe that anger and frustration are not enough to form our considerations; we need a clear-sighted, clear-eyed strategy to move forward.
Let me mention some of the considerations that we need to take. My hon. Friend Mr Jenkin said—I paraphrase, probably poorly, in which case I am sorry—that we need to hold the Government’s feet to the fire to ensure that something is done. However, we must remember that to lead the country on this issue we need to be a united rather than a divided party. In 2010, just 13% of voters described the Conservative party as divided, but at the height of the Maastricht rebellion 50% described us as divided. We can all stand for our principles and say that this is only about our consciences—or, as my hon. Friend Jacob Rees-Mogg said, that nothing is more important, including the coalition—but we need to remember that in the reality of the political world, if we want to achieve something we have to balance those factors. We know from the 1997 election result that we need to be mindful of that.
Why do I raise that point? Because when we were kicked out of office for being divided, we suffered the greatest setback in the European project. During those 13 years, the Labour Government opted into the social chapter, which was responsible for a lot of the regulations that have suffocated business and stifled growth, and in 2007 the Labour Government signed the Lisbon treaty. For all our high-minded principle in the mid-1990s, when we got kicked out of government because of division we set back our own project.
My hon. Friend is speaking as though this were a Conservative party issue, but we can see from the debate today that it is a cross-party issue. The question that we face today is: do we trust the people to make this decision or not? The pros and cons of Europe can be discussed later.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. I am not speaking as though this were a Conservative party issue, but we can see that the media, in every interview, have pitted Conservative against Conservative. We need to be careful about divisions on our side.
Of course people need to decide, but we should be careful not to jump from responding to an e-petition that has been signed by a number of people to assuming that this issue is on every voter’s mind. A number of voters will talk about the fact that they care about their jobs. A number will say that they want their streets to be secure. Others will say that they want their children to have a better life than their own. National polls show that when the issue of Europe is considered on its own, everyone is hostile to it, but in general elections, its salience disappears. We need to adopt a very clear-eyed strategy in dealing with this.
I will not be supporting the motion. It should be clear from the debate today, especially to those who are saying that we would be better off out, that, with the eurozone on its knees, we now have the best opportunity to negotiate the best conditions for Britain. It would be catastrophic for us to walk away from the EU, as my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone suggested, as that would result in our giving up influence.
In the 1975 referendum, the country was assured—by a Conservative Prime Minister, I am afraid—that there was no question of any erosion of national sovereignty. The people were told that we would have a veto over any important issue, yet those same people have now seen that what they were told was a Common Market has become a political union in which we can be outvoted, whether we like it or not. They see other countries not following the rules when our country does follow them, and they see an institution whose accounts have not been signed off for some 20 years, yet we continue to give it money year after year. In the coming year, we are giving the European Union £10.9 billion. That is the net contribution, taking account of what we get back. Indeed, in every year except one, we have given more money to the EU than we have got back. That one year was 1974, the year before we last had a referendum on this matter. That was the only year in which we received more money from the EU than we gave. Members who have yet to make up their mind might like to reflect, in the light of that £10.9 billion, that when putting pressure on the EU to reduce our budget contribution, nothing would concentrate its mind more than the knowledge that this country might hold a referendum on our membership of the EU.
There now has to be a referendum. The people have heard too many promises, made by too many parties over too many years. They now want to decide for themselves what our future in Europe, or as an independent country, might be. There has been significant movement on this side of the House during today’s debate. My hon. Friend Kris Hopkins asked why we were having this discussion, 18 months into the Parliament, and why there was so much disagreement. He wondered why the coalition did not agree on this matter. The reason is that the 57 Liberal Democrat coalition Members were given the referendum on the alternative vote that they wanted, yet a far larger number on the Conservative Benches have not been given the referendum that we want on our country’s position in the EU.
We have discussed this already. The Conservative manifesto did not make a commitment to an in/out referendum; it committed to a referendum lock, which we have achieved through the European Union Act 2011.
The Conservative party had offered a referendum on Lisbon. The Liberal Democrats had offered a referendum with a choice between the EU with Lisbon and leaving the EU. However, what the country got, through the coalition agreement, was the Lisbon treaty and no referendum on anything. Three or four days ago, the Liberal Democrats’ website was still campaigning for an in/out referendum, but that has now been removed. Not only have they gone against what they told the electorate on student fees, but they have done the same on Europe.
I voted in the last referendum in 1974. It was the first time I had—[Interruption.] The question was whether we wanted to stay in the European economic area. We have never had a referendum on whether we want to be members of the European Union.
My hon. Friend is quite right. We have the opportunity this evening to give our constituents that referendum—to decide whether they want to be governed by people whom they elect, whom they can hold to account, whom they can throw out if they do not agree with how we vote, whether we make the decisions for them, or whether instead a qualified majority of 26 other countries will decide what the law of this country should be while we pay £10.9 billion a year for the privilege. That is the decision. It is no longer a decision that we can hope to keep within this Westminster bubble, without our constituents having their say. Sooner or later, that decision is going to be made.
We heard earlier that there was going to be a referendum and that a Conservative-led or a coalition Government of some stripe would renegotiate sooner rather than later. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary told us that they were going to bring back powers over social and employment policy, but what is key now is whether our constituents will get to vote on the outcome. Do they want to stay in with whatever improvements we have been able to negotiate, however great or otherwise they might be, or do they want to come out and be an independent country, trading with Europe but governing ourselves? I say to Members, particularly those who are undecided, that that decision must now be our constituents’ decision. That is the way in which we will restore belief and trust in politics.
I support the principle of having an EU referendum, yet I will not support the motion. Let me explain why those two positions are not contradictory.
I am on record as saying that our membership of the EU should be put to the British people. I am 32, and I find it incredible that the last referendum took place four years before I was even born. One has to be 55 to have voted in it. It is therefore understandable that people of my generation do not feel that they have had their say on Europe. They see the EU interfering in our everyday lives, from how fruit and vegetables are packaged, to the number of announcements on trains and, most insidious of all, how long we are allowed to work in our jobs—for just 48 hours a week. [Interruption.] It is clear to me that what was put to the people in 1975—[Interruption.]
Order. The House must come to order. The hon. Gentleman has been waiting courteously; he deserves a proper hearing, and that is what he must get.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
It is clear that what was put to the people in 1975—we should remember that they voted yes—was the Common Market, but the European Union that exists today would be unrecognisable to those who voted then. When Britain joined the Common Market, it signed up to a free trade agreement. Since then, the power of European institutions has changed beyond all recognition. I am delighted that the Government have enshrined in law that a referendum must be held before any further powers are ceded to Brussels. This is a major step—one that I have supported with enthusiasm.
Frankly, given the EU’s propensities for creating new treaties, I suspect it will not be long before the people get the vote that they desire and deserve. That vote will be important. If the public vote in favour of a future treaty, it will rule out for another generation any thought of us ever leaving the EU. If the public vote to reject it, I believe it would be difficult, if not impossible, for there not to be a subsequent vote on our withdrawal. Given that the referendum that I want is inevitable, as a result of the laws passed by the Conservatives, I must think carefully about the current motion and its impact on the people of Cannock Chase.
I respect my hon. Friend’s views. Like him, I was born after the last referendum on the matter, but the problem with his argument is that it does not give us the opportunity to have a say on whether we want to be in the EU. That is what my and his generation want to have. We have never been asked that before, and it is about time that we were.
I think that our generation will be given that choice.
I must consider the impact that passing this motion would have on my constituents. That is the key point. Business men have told me that there are signs that give cause for optimism, but that the recovery is fragile.
No, I will not.
Those business men’s fear, and mine, is that the announcement of a referendum, involving the campaign extending to 2013 for which the motion calls, could have a devastating effect on business confidence and investment. This morning I spoke to a business man from my constituency who had come here to be given a tour of the House of Commons. He works for an international company in the private sector which has invested heavily in the United Kingdom and employs several hundred people in my constituency, and he has already been told by the members of his executive board in America that the potential further instability caused by a referendum could cause them to question future investment not just in Cannock Chase, but in the United Kingdom and the whole of Europe.
I will not.
At a time when business is crying out for stability, a referendum would move it in totally the opposite direction, creating yet more instability when what we need is foreign investment. While that business man would not oppose a referendum in principle, now is simply not the time for one.
I think that the referendum that we all want is coming, and will be a result of the policies that have already been backed by the Government and by the EU itself. However, I think that to hold that referendum now, regardless of the result, would create a significant risk for our economy and for Cannock Chase in particular.
I say to every Member who supports the motion, “Ask yourself one question: are you willing to jeopardise the recovery?”
British people are worried—[Interruption.] Mr Speaker, British people are worried about bread-and-butter issues. They are worried about jobs and about their livelihoods. I do not want to do anything that puts my constituents’ livelihoods at risk. The time will come for people to vote on whether we stay in the EU, but, in my opinion, that time is not today. This is a debate for another day. Voting for the motion would be an indulgence, and I hope Members will vote accordingly. [Interruption.]