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Orders of the Day — European Communities Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th July 1972.

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Photo of Hon. Nicholas Ridley Hon. Nicholas Ridley , Cirencester and Tewkesbury 12:00 am, 13th July 1972

I am sure that the whole House will congratulate the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) on the addition to the Liberal Party about whom he has just told us.

I pay due tribute to the Liberal Party for one thing in the hon. Member's speech. That concerned the fact that the Liberals had been right about the Common Market for a long time, since 20 years ago. It is fair to pay that tribute to the Liberal Party for its steadfastness in trying to achieve this aim. It is not because of the views of the people that it has believed this. Indeed, the gravest charge that we who wish to join the Community have to answer is that there is an opposition from the people, a lack of full-hearted consent to the terms, which makes it wrong for the Government to drive on into Europe.

Looking back over the last 10 or 20 years, I can remember times when the public opinion polls have shown majorities in favour and majorities against. No one, particularly on the Opposition side of the House, now feels all that great a confidence in public opinion polls, anyway. The bland assumption that we do not have full-hearted consent has not been substantiated. I do not want to make the counter-allegation: that the Government have full-hearted consent. But I do not believe that any of us know, nor do I believe that any of us have an accurate means of determining this, especially when one realises that the views of people change from month to month and from year to year.

There are only two tests of true public opinon: a referendum or a General Election. The arguments for the referendum have been totally destroyed not only by our debate in Committee but by the French referendum, which—without wishing to impinge on French domestic politics—seemed to be more preoccupied with internal political issues in France than with the question put on the ballot paper as to whether the Common Market should be enlarged. We cannot really say that there has been much support for the idea of a referendum, which brings us back to the General Election again.

I rest my vote tonight for the Bill on the fact that I have been elected in my constituency having consistently, in the four elections I have fought there, made it clear that I believe that we should take this step not according to the "ifs" and "buts" of the terms but as a matter of principle. Hon. Members must satisfy their own consciences in their own constituencies and pay the price of making a wrong decision at the next General Election. This is our constitution. It is not the referendum or the public opinion poll. It is, indeed, the sovereignty of Parliament, and that is what so many of these debates have been about. As a Member of this sovereign Parliament, I am prepared to exercise my vote tonight in full confidence that I am doing the right thing.

It is more questionable whether it is healthy for a parliamentary democracy that a matter of principle should be passed by a majority of 112 and that, when it comes to the detailed voting on the Clauses and Amendments, the majority should shrink sometimes to eight or six. One wonders how it was that those 50 Members changed their view or that the majority dwindled to such an extent when the inevitable consequences of the vote of principle came to be translated into legislation and debated.

We all know that intense pressure was put upon hon. Gentlemen to toe the party line, both by the Whips and by their constituency parties. This did more damage to the concept of a free and independent Parliament than the proposals in the Bill.