Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th November 1966.

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Photo of Mr Richard Wainwright Mr Richard Wainwright , Colne Valley 12:00 am, 16th November 1966

I hope the hon. Member for Blyth (Mr. Milne) will understand if, simply for the reason of time, I do not follow his argument.

I have found this a surprising debate so far. Some hon. Members who have spoken appear to be such strangers to unanimity they do not recognise the word when it is before them in the very Articles of the Rome Treaty which they have denounced. I am not so surprise by lordly Conservative observations we have had from people who have changed their minds since four years ago as by those who have changed their minds this year, for that was to be expected. We had a speech from the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir A. V. Harvey)—I am sorry he is not in his place—which seemed to me a most compelling demonstration of the desirability of shedding a bit of sovereignty. He did awake echoes from that side of the House—that we might become reduced to the status of a county council.

However, the most surprising thing to me in this debate is the attitude taken up by those who are opposed to the Government's move. I would have thought that their only hope in the present balance of Parliamentary opinion was to come to this debate with the most carefully worked out alternatives to urge upon us, and these, so far, we have not heard. We have had only some very sketchy suggestions, mutually contradictory, amongst the various opponents of the move.

I should like to make it plain that whatever mystery there may have been about some recent Government pronouncements on this matter, at any rate the Liberals do most warmly welcome the speech made by the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister at the Lord Mayor's Banquet on Monday of this week, and only regret it is not recorded in the journals of this House. His references to his initiative as a step to freer trade over a wider area, as a step to world economic development, and as a step to an ever-deepening relationship between Eastern and Western Europe—these were all very welcome to us indeed.

I at any rate noted with interest that the Prime Minister made in terms a denial of the idea that the Common Market is a rich man's club. This was of particular interest to Liberals, since when we were pressing this idea eight or nine years ago this was the most frequent objection flung at us by representatives of the party opposite, including my predecessor in this House.

It cannot be often that this nation has the chance in a major matter to have a second try very shortly after the failure of the first. Placed in that position, our obvious duty in all parts of the House is to try to profit from the lessons learned on the first occasion, painful though many of them were.

First, I should like to mention the lesson that the voices of those negotiating for this country can at times be drowned by deprecatory or hostile noises from Parliament and from other public forums in this country. It is still a risk. In my view, the only way to counter it is by determined action on the Government's part to give every possible earnest to those with whom we are negotiating that we mean business and that we are trying to move in their direction in the course of day to day Government.

I hope that we shall hear from the Government in the course of today or tomorrow that, in some of the legislation which they will be bringing forward during the next few months, specific regard will be had to practices already operating successfully in Western Europe. I am thinking particularly of the impending legislation on companies and the tax legislation which we shall be faced with again before long.

However, I am not speaking only of legislation. In the implementation of Ministers' policies, if there was to be a determined attempt to give proper communications to the Humber ports facing Europe, that in itself would be an earnest to some of our European friends that we really mean business.

In Government procurement, Government Departments have the opportunity to decide upon specifications. If they took a little care to avoid some of the quainter, more insular British specifications for goods which they required and specified European patterns instead, that again would carry its own message to a great many people on the Continent.

Sterling is a subject which we do not expect to be discussed hither and thither in public. However, if in their management of sterling and the development of their future plans the Government could pay some attention to suggestions which have been advanced by members of their own party, amongst others—and I think of Mr. Robert Neild, who some time ago published a most interesting variation of the Triffin Plan which amounted to substituting for sterling a European reserve currency—and if there were indications that thinking along these lines was going on, the statement that the Government mean business would carry a great deal more weight. At the moment, we have decimalisation and the Channel Tunnel to go on. In the opinion of my right hon. and hon. Friends, that is not enough.

Second among the reasons is the welcome fact that, in the present modern climate of public opinion, the fruit of our educational system and greater public sophistication, Ministers are at last, after centuries, freed from the feeling that, when they go abroad to negotiate, the public will expect them to behave as if it was a test match. The mentality that every step must be fought by British representatives in order to carry public opinion at home can be forgotten. That is a great burden gone.

If we are to be treated to it over the next few months, the headline, British Premier surrenders on kangaroo meat", will not stir the blood of many people under the age of 40 in this country. I hope that the Government will take full advantage of that welcome change of climate.

Third amongst the lessons is that the fact that we are only beginning to emerge from a serious balance of payments crisis need not necessarily make us apologetic in our approach. The last approach of the right hon. Gentleman who is now Leader of the Opposition was taken in the immediate aftermath of his own Government's serious balance of payments crisis and all that they had to do to deal with that in 1961–62. As far as I am aware, this difficulty was not raised during the negotiations, and it certainly did not become a factor in the published reports of what happened.

I mention this because there does seem to be some disposition to be too apologetic about our present financial difficulties. I quote here: … the problem of stabilising costs and prices must remain in the foreground of overall short-term economic policy. Those words are not those of the British Chancellor of the Exchequer. They, in fact, appear in the preface to the European Economic Commission's recommendations to its member countries in its quarterly economic survey of December, 1965. Of course, those with whom we shall be negotiating know all about these troubles which we in this country are now enduring, because in one form or another they have all been through them very acutely.

The fourth and last lesson I wish to mention is the essential importance of catching the tide. The Prime Minister spoke at the Guildhall of his impression that at the moment the tide is right and the winds are right. By using that particular simile, he showed that he appreciates that eventually the tide can ebb and the winds can change. It is the essence of negotiation that the moment there appears to be the risk of this happening some detail should be let go and efforts should be bent, and courage shown, in taking advantage of the last moments of the favourable tide. That, in my view, was the crucial point at which the last approach to Europe went seriously wrong. We did not sign when we could have signed and we gave General de Gaulle the opportunity to harden opinion.