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At this last stage I shall allow myself a personal reference. But I do so not for personal reasons but because the reference brings me to the essence of the matter which still, as always in these debates, is before the House.
The great talents and the outstanding oratory which have made the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) easily the first, facile princeps, among the parliamentarians of this day have been displayed for week after week and month after month in the opposition to the Bill. When the history of this episode comes to be written his part in it will be seen to have been at a level with those of the great figures of parliamentary history. Now, it has often been thought to be a paradox that he and I should have found ourselves not only on the same side but closely allied at every stage. Yet there is no paradox at all.
I suppose that the aspirations which the hon. Member has for the future society and the future economy of this country are remotely different from my own. There are probably few of the regular topics of politics which come before the House on which we would not be found to beranged not merely on opposite sides but in sharp antagonism of outlook. Yet there is one ground of agreement which is more important than all the disagreement, because it is the ground upon which this House and parliamentary government itself are based. That ground is the common determination that in so far as politics, policies and legislation determine and affect the future of the people of this country the decisions upon them shall be taken by this House, after debate in this House, and by the processes of this House; and not only that, but that they shall be so taken because only in that way will it be the people of this country, and only the people of this country, who determine their own future, so far as politics and legislation can influence it.
Whether that is to continue, whether it is to be preserved or breached, is the subject which has been at issue since the beginning of these debates, long before the Bill was presented: it has been the central issue of Britain and the European Community.
There are rarely questions so great or so decisive that they cannot be, and are not often, presented as marginal, as trifles, as matters too easily exaggerated. Questions of the cause and cure of inflation can be dismissed as a matter of £50 million. The over-turning of a party's economic policy can be treated at the point of decision as a matter of some small and venial exception. At earlier stages there was a strong disposition to treat the central issue here as something which was remote, theoretical and hypothetical—to say that all that this involved was a matter of relative detail, that the powers removed from Parliament would extend over only a small sector of politics, and that the developments of the future, if they came about at all, must be dated in terms not of years but of decades. It has been at least one product of the debates that, as time has gone on, this disposition to depreciate the nature of the decision being taken has disappeared. My hon. and learned Friend in his speech proposing the Third Reading showed nothing at all of any such disposition.
If I quarrel with my hon. and learned Friend's presentation, it is only that he seemed so surprised that as we were brought nearer and nearer, and in terms of legislation, to the great decision, we concentrated our minds more and more upon what was involved, and that many of us modified earlier enthusiasms of a general character when asked to say "yes" or "no" to a specific proposition. I do not think it is so surprising, whatever any of us may have on our consciences from past years or even past decades, that we have taken a different decision from that which might have been expected in the earlier stages of these debates, or in the earlier debates which have preceded even these.
One of the points which have emerged with increasing clarity is the reality of the cession of the basic characteristics of parliamentary government in this country, the reality of the transfer of the supreme power to legislate, the supreme power to tax, and the over-riding, ultimate power of the courts of this country in all matters and in all causes. Quibble, debate, denial have fallen silent as the debates have proceeded; and I notice there has been unanimity this afternoon that this indeed, literally and practically, is what is involved—my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General did not spare it; he stressed it—in what we are invited to do.
Something else, too, more important still, has become clear, something even more vital to the reality of parliamentary government. That is that the control which Parliament and the electorate. can exercise over a Government who form only part of an international organisation is more remote, more imperfect, than that which they can exercise over a Government who claim, who possess, and who cannot disclaim, the sole responsibility. Of course it is true that a great deal is always decided by the Executive, and—as my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) said—some of the most important matters, without the necessity of reference to this House, and even without debate in this House. But that observation and the fact that—as I myself once said in a passage quoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Norman Lamont)—our control is more often exercised in political than in technical forms do not alter the profound difference which arises as soon as an Executive can say, of the decisions to which it is a party: "We are not solely responsible. These are joint decisions, arrived at jointly, because you, Parliament, you, the nation, have agreed that these decisions shall be arrived at jointly." The profundity of the change in parliamentary and electoral accountability which this involves has come out more and more clearly in the course of these debates and, I believe, is no longer disputed.
There is another process which has been running along in parallel. I noticed that my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, in presenting very skilfully, and, as a fine advocate, with the utmost advantage, the credentials of this Bill, did not include among those credentials—not by one word, not by one syllable—the claim that it enjoyed support amongst the public in this country. Atworst—and here I come to meet and to seek common ground with my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury—no one can assert, no one dare assert, that what this House is being invited to do tonight enjoys the full-hearted consent of the people of this country.
I remember how a year or 18 months ago we were told "Ah, yes, but wait. It does not count now; but you wait until the negotiations are concluded—you will see the difference then." Well the negotiations were concluded; but by all the tests which we well understand in this House, there was very little shift of public opinion, and what shift there was, was more temporary than permanent. But then people said "Well, you must wait until Parliament has given the lead. The public are waiting for a vote in the House of Commons." At the end of October there was a vote in the House, in the proportion of seven to five in favour. But there was no sign of that producing any alteration in public opinion, there was no surge of enthusiasm in the country, no trace of the public saying "There we are: at last it has been voted in the House of Commons, and now we will all put our shoulders to it. This is what we really want." So people said "Well, yes, but you must wait for the treaty to be signed, and then, whether they like it or not, the public will stop complaining. At least, they will accept it as a fait accompli." But there was no sign of that either. As the debates have proceeded—and we are not entirely unobserved or unheard out of doors, though we may often think so—the disenchantment—that is not the correct word, for there never was enchantment, only an absence of it—prevailed, increasingly, if anything, as time went by.