North Atlantic Free Trade Area

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 26th July 1968.

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Photo of Mr Hugh Fraser Mr Hugh Fraser , Stafford and Stone 12:00 am, 26th July 1968

As I am on my feet by right, may I, on behalf of the House, express our deepest thanks to you, Mr. Speaker, for the way in which you have conducted this very difficult Session of Parliament and to wish you a very happy Recess. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

I speak on behalf of nearly 100 hon. Members from all parties who, on 6th May, tabled a Motion which proposed that, in view of the position of the Common Market negotiations, a feasibility study of an open-ended Atlantic Free Trade Area initially comprising the United Kingdom, the European Free Trade Association, Canada and the United States be set up. Nothing which has happened since 6th May has reduced the urgency of this request. A few hon. Members may have had time to read the article by Sir Con O'Neill inThe Times this morning. The cleverer a man is, the more danger there is of his being intellectually dishonest. If N.A.F.T.A. is against the provisions of G.A.T.T., how much more so was E.F.T.A., in which the Foreign Office baronet was one of the prime movers? The events which have taken place since 6th May, the proximity of the American general election, the setting up in America of a study into new lines of business and American trade direction after the election, the various crises which we have had, and the danger of a turndown in world trade adds urgency to our request that a feasibility study into this matter should be made.

Why do the Government refuse to consider another option? The hon. Member for Faversham (Mr. Boston) and myself are not asking the Government to withdraw our application to join the Common Market. We believe that every option should be left open to this country in the problems which face it today. All that we are asking the Government to do is to show prudence and some economic and political prescience in this matter. But are: the Government showing either? Surely the most superficial study of N.A.F.T.A., even the one taken by Sir Con O'Neill, would show that the economic benefits to this country would be very considerable indeed. I will not repeat the remarkable speeches made by the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) and my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) in our last debate. I wish to talk about the political considerations involved.

What are the reasons why the Government will not undertake a feasibility study? Why will they not allow British ambassadors abroad to talk to the business men and politicians who approach them, as I know they have done, in E.F.T.A., the United States and Canada, asking what are the possibilities of such a study? Why is there this glassy-eyed conspiracy of silence and inaction on behalf of right hon. Members opposite, especially the Prime Minister?

I believe that the Government's reasons are political. They believe that the United States, Canadian and E.F.T.A. Governments might be adverse. But how can they be sure if no consultation has taken place? I am informed by several ambassadors that the dictate issued by Whitehall is not to discuss the subject at all. This is the height of absurdity. Can it be that the Government are afraid of a rebuff? The Government and the Opposition should be pretty happy about rebuffs. Like Job they want to sharpen their potsherds for a possible rebuff. There is not much more that they can do.

Or are they afraid of offending the Europeans by making the suggestion that we should consider other possibilities at this stage? The imagination boggles at the sort of humiliations which they are prepared to see heaped on this country. I quite see that there would be no approach from the United States, E.F.T.A. or Canada while the Government are not prepared to lift a finger. But at this time, towards the end of 1968, it is nothing short of crazy for a Government policy to be based on one of growing improbability, namely, the growing improbability of our getting into Europe. I say that politically and economically. And further, are not events now by-passing the European Economic Community?

Turning to the question of getting in on political grounds, to use a gruesome analogy with heart transplant operations, for all the flowers, for all the whispered thoughts in the nursing home, for all the gentle holding of hands by the lesser European Powers, it is absolutely clear that for us to get a European transplant is simply not on if it means breaking up the vitals of the Franco-Germanentente. It is not a question of the veto of the General. It is a veto which flows inevitably from the position of France and Germany today. It is a veto clinical, simple and absolute.

If we turn to the economic side, I am convinced that since devaluation and as a result of the position of our balance of payments, neither is Europe prepared to face our competitive position nor are we able to pay the price of entrance. It is ridiculous to suggest to the country that we can afford to pay the ticket of agricultural entry at this stage. We should be going back to the Corn Laws. It would mean a worse position for our people, because of the burden of the balance of payments, since Peel was thrown out by the Conservative Party. If it is the view of some of my hon. Friends that we want to get back to Peel in the 1970s, they want another think.

We want for a moment to think about the problems that face us in the 1970s. I beg the House, and especially the Conservative Party, to see the world in the perspective of the 1970s rather than that of the 1950s when the Treaty of Rome was in creation. Looking ahead, I believe that the prime problem of the coming decade must be the further freeing of world trade. The development of backward economic areas by trade and the reconciliation through trade of the Western and Eastern worlds is essentially in Britain's interest.

This, I believe, is a grand strategy worthy of a great political party—a policy of tariff reform downwards for our and other industrial goods and to our and their mutual benefit, a policy not of the flag following trade but of hope being brought by trade to millions, a free market economy on a world scale with all the advantages of a division of labour and free movement of persons and capital, a policy for world growth. Without that, let me remind right hon. Gentlemen opposite, there can be no local economic miracle.

In such a perspective, what part has our membership of E.E.C. to play? Let there be between us military, technical and financial joint programmes, but in this scheme what part has E.E.C. itself to play—this fairly rich men's club? Is it not, I suggest, the possibility of something which by its inward-lookingness would or could become a road block to world progress? Is it not possible that events are by-passing the world value of this organisation? If we look to the east we look to many countries where this federal idea is on the decline. We see what Mr. Trudeau has been advocating in Canada. We see what is happening in Africa. We see what is happening in the Soviet Union. The powers of these central organisations have not proved as successful as many had intended, especially if they are inward-looking.

I believe that to pursue our entry into Europe is not now to pursue the empyrean, but, in the immortal words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kinross and West Perthshire (Sir Alec Douglas-Home), to pursue a politically dead duck. As the season for party conferences approaches, however much still life there may be upon their platforms the last thing one wants on a platform is a dead duck, especially if it has been dead for several years, and especially if it has been suffering from a continuous process of most unsporting overkill every time it has been exposed to the General. For the main British political parties, to continue to pay lip service to a long-dead duck is not just absurd but becoming idolatrous. Burial is the only service suitable. Let the leaderships bury the bird or the bird will bury the leaderships.

To those who are opposed to my argument, to those who say that the E.E.C. is a dead duck and that the concept of N.A.F.T.A. is an embryo destined to be still-born, my answer is simple—that so long as Britain's main political parties maintain that their joining of a restrictive trading area is their only objective of economic policy, it is unlikely that America, E.F.T.A. or Canada will lift a finger to help.

Therefore, precisely for these reasons we believe that, without commitment, Her Majesty's Government should initiate unofficial talks and studies of feasibility. If that be without commitment, we must be totally committed to the expansion of world trade and—this is important—to the concept of N.A.F.T.A., an instrument which can push forward the ideas of another round of the Kennedy manifestations. Of course, this cannot be done on the same scale as before. There must be a spearhead, and that is precisely where the importance of N.A.F.T.A. lies.

But, above all else, we believe that the idea of N.A.F.T.A. would be a sign and earnest of the world's intention, decision and power not to turn it into rival trading blocs, not to set up more and more non-tariff barriers but to regulate its trading relationship. It is only by doing this that the West can put its affairs to rights.

We are not asking much of the Government today. We ask them simply to set up this feasibility study, but we ask them to act now.