I said on Tuesday that I hope to be making a statement on this very important subject before very long. That does not mean that we should now start, in advance of the completion of that review, to make fundamental changes in policies which have stood the test of time and which on their own merits seem right to the Government and the House of Commons.
In view of the many questions that have been asked by hon. Members on both sides of the House on the subject of the proposed British entry into the Common Market, could we have an assurance from my right hon. Friend that, because this is a matter of vital national importance, perhaps the electors might be consulted? As far as I am aware, they have never yet been consulted on this question. Could we have the assurance of my right hon. Friend that no definite decision will be taken until the electors are consulted at the next General Election?
Yes. I welcome my right hon. Friend's robust attitude on this question because, in 1961, the then Government sought entry virtually unconditionally, having told the electors at a previous election that they would not do it, and then in the next General Election in 1964 they refused to say anything at all about it, saying that it would be a matter for Parliament—presumably not for the Government. Our position is that we stated in our manifesto in 1966 the basis on which we were prepared to enter the Common Market and the conditions that should be realised. We shall act within this Parliament fully in accordance with the terms of the manifesto which we put to the electorate.
As I told my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, Central (Mr. Palmer) on 1st November, I hope that we shall be able to make a statement in the not too distant future. But, Sir, I undertook when next I answered Questions to reply to the point of the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and other hon. Members about his assertion that in my speech at Bristol I did not relate my references to cheap food imports to our trade with the Commonwealth. As I told the House on Tuesday, I was speaking from memory and I did not have the text in front of
me. I have now checked the exact words. They were as follows:
… we must be free to go on buying food and raw materials, as we have for 100 years, in the cheapest markets—in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other Commonwealth countries …
—[Interruption.] I am sorry. I have been challenged to read the next sentence. It is:
and not have this trade wrecked by the levies the Tories are so keen to impose.
Does the right hon. Gentleman really think that anyone can accuse him of rushing into a panic decision about this matter, or did he use that phrase in reply to my right hon. Friend on Tuesday merely to score a party point? Does he think that cheap food is more important to our people than the threatened disintegration of the Western Alliance, which might well be averted by our entry into Europe now?
I did not suggest on Tuesday that we were likely to be panicked into an over-hasty decision on this matter. I was making the point that that was what happened in 1961 and that it put the right hon. Gentleman opposite in the worst possible negotiating position. So far as the vast questions of agriculture are concerned, which we have debated many times, I think that this country has the right to stand on its interest in this matter, affecting, as it does, hundreds of millions of £s on our balance of payments as well as the cost of living and, therefore, wages and costs of production.
I am sure the House is grateful to the Prime Minister for clarifying his Bristol statement. If he looks at the hand-out from Transport House, he will see that he was reported to have said:
… we must be free to go on buying food and raw materials, as we have for 100 years, in the cheapest markets",
and then it mentions Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries. Then there is a dash, and these words follow:
and not have this trade wrecked by the levies the Tories are so keen to impose.
This, therefore, is liable to two interpretations. The cheapest markets include other countries besides the Commonwealth, such as the Argentine for meat.
That is how the Prime Minister's speech was interpreted at the time, without any correction from himself and others. Can I get him now to be quite specific, that he has limited free entry as one of his terms to Commonwealth countries, but it also includes food, which he mentioned last Tuesday, and raw materials, which he has mentioned now?
I stand by what I said at Bristol and what I have read out. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was going to complain about a split infinitive in the next sentence. Instead, this great divide in opposition has reduced itself to a couple of hyphens and all that he has succeeded in doing is to emphasise what I said—
… the cheapest markets—in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and other Commonwealth countries—…
Unlike Tuesday, when he said that I did not refer to the Commonwealth at all. These three countries, as the right hon. Gentleman will recall, are Commonwealth countries, as are other Commonwealth countries.
With regard to the question about the Argentine, the right hon. Gentleman has studied these things—it is no good the Opposition Chief Whip saying, "No, no", the right hon. Gentleman has studied these things—and because of that study he realises that what we are up against, all of us in this House, is this system of levies which will bear most heavily on the Commonwealth, and if we are to get changes made in the levy system it will have consequential effects on the Argentine and other countries, but our principal concern is with the Commonwealth.
The right hon. Gentleman may claim the right to speak for Europeans in this House, I do not know whether he does, but if three years ago he had spoken for Britain we should not have been in this mess. [Interruption.]
Now that the Prime Minister has finished his low-grade music hall turn, can he tell the House unequivocally whether it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government now to follow the example of Her Majesty's Opposition and make a formal declaration of intent of joining the Common Market at the earliest possible opportunity?
I do not regard this or any other subject as a matter for music hall, despite the excellence of my foil opposite. I do consider it a mark of frivolity, when we are considering this vital question of hundreds of millions of £s on our balance of payments, and our right to go on trading with the Commonwealth, to try to make some petty point about a hyphen.
With regard to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, which was an important question, I said on Tuesday that when our study of this in very great depth is completed I shall certainly make a full statement in the House on the Government's position. The hon. Gentleman asked whether this would mean a declaration of intent like 1961. He had better wait until I can make the statement, but I can tell him that on that occasion the declaration of intent was made with no thought of the consequences, and no thought—[HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."]—of the implications for Commonwealth trade, or many of the other difficulties with which the right hon. Gentleman had to deal as he went along.
There was no question of distorting history. This interchange began with the right hon. Gentleman on Tuesday distorting what I said at Bristol, and then relying at the end of the day on a hyphen. If he is interested in history, let me tell him that I remember the anger which we had from him during the election at my suggestion that the cut-off in 1963 was due to Nassau. He vigorously denied this on a series of platforms, but I notice that President de Gaulle last Friday confirmed it.
Is the right hon. Gentleman also aware that I recall at the election his completely inaccurate statement about Mr. Macmillan at Rambouillet, and when the right hon. Gentleman was proved wrong he completely refused to withdraw.
I was certainly—[HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."]—not proved wrong. It was the right hon. Gentleman denying the responsibility of Nassau for this, and if the right hon. Gentleman is satisfied with the conduct of negotiations where one week there is a meeting at Rambouillet and the next week, as the General said, it is broken off because of Nassau, I think that my charge was proved at the election.