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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 Mr Geoffrey Rippon Mr Geoffrey Rippon , Hexham 12:00 am, 13th July 1972

I can join with the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) in one regard; namely, in expressing the thanks of every right hon. and hon. Member to the Chairman of Ways and Means and his colleagues for the patience and understanding with which they presided over our Committee proceedings.

Before dealing with the speech of the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale, I must congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston-upon-Thames (Mr. Norman Lamont). It is a great pleasure for me to welcome his maiden speech, not only because of my past associations with his well-favoured constituency, which I value very much, but, above all, because of the quality of his contribution to our debate. I am sure that throughout the many years during which I trust he will be a Member of this House he will look back with pride at having spoken so eloquently on this historic day. Certainly his speech was not controversial in the sense that we all recognise that the differences in this House on this issue cut right across customary parliamentary boundaries.

In a parliamentary democracy, which the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale seeks so passionately to defend, each Member of Parliament must resolve, as the right hon. Member for Manchester, Cheetham (Mr. Harold Lever) said, his own particular differences and difficulties according to his conscience.

We heard from the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale the same speech that we have heard so frequently since February. It is an eloquent speech, but in extravagant terms, and is fundamentally depressing. I find that it has an element of futility. Even the references to Munich show how the hon. Gentleman really lives in the past. He thinks that everything must go on in the same old rut, fixed and settled.

I have thought much in the course of these long days and nights about what has linked together my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South- West (Mr. Powell) and the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale. My right hon. Friend said it was no paradox, because they were both agreed on the importance of parliamentary supremacy. I accept that my right hon. Friend forgot parliamentary supremacy in 1967.

I do not believe that the defence of parliamentary democracy is compatible, for example, with arguments about a referendum. The hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. John Mendelson) accepted that. It is not compatible with forcing Members to vote against their consciences. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"]

We all know—it was obvious from the speeches by the right hon. Member for Cheetham and others—that the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale and his right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney (Mr. Shore) do not speak with the full-hearted consent of the Opposition. I believe that great harm is done to parliamentary democracy if that is not recognised and understood, because, as Kenneth Clark in his book "Civilisation" wrote: We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion just as effectively as by bombs. What the opponents of the Bill have principally in common is fear. They are dealers in fear: fear of foreigners, fear of change, fear of the unknown. That is what binds them together.

So what we have had from the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale and his right hon. Friends the Members for Stepney and Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) and others over the 40 days and nights which we have spent in our wilderness of the Committee is an abject, squalid, shameless, stream of defeatism. I ask some of these fearful people to recall President Roosevelt's inaugural address in 1933. [Interruption.] It is still relevant. As the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) said, truisms in politics are often relevant, but may be trite. President Roosevelt said: So let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror, which paralyses needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. That is what we hear from the opponents of the Bill who have played upon the fears and anxieties of the electorate from start to finish.

For five months we have examined in detail in the Bill the legislative consequences of our accession to the European Communities. Once again, as he has done throughout the proceedings, the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale has misunderstood the whole purpose of the Bill. He refuses to recognise that the treaties themselves cannot be amended. They can be accepted or rejected by Parliament, but they cannot be amended. That has always been the constitutional position.

We have perhaps had harsh things to say about each other from time to time, but I believe that the hon. Member for Inverness was right, and I am grateful for some of the things that he said about the two Front Benches. In our debates we have had an honest expression of views, and there has been no stifling of discussion of any kind.

Protracted as these proceedings on the Bill have been, they have to a large extent been merely a continuation of what has been discussed in this House for many years past. My hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General said that two million words have been spoken on the Bill, but I should judge that nearer 20 million words have been spoken on this issue in succeeding Parliaments, and when we ended the Committee stage I could not help recollecting that it was just 16 years ago, almost to the day, on 5th July, 1956, that I was the first Member, on either side of the House, to raise a debate upon the desirability of our negotiating to enter the European Economic Community which was then being formed.

A week later I drew the attention of the then Prime Minister to a Motion standing in my name and in the names of some of my right hon. and hon. Friends, as well as the Liberal Party, on the desirability of accepting in principle the establishment of a Common Market. Needless to say, like many backbenchers on other occasions, I was told "Not before the recess". But we had the first debate on 26th November, 1956, and on looking at the speeches that were made then I see that we canvassed almost all the major issues that we have been discussing on this Bill—the question of sovereignty, the protection of Commonwealth interests, agriculture, the relationship between standard and cost-of-living, the need to get higher wages through higher production, better production costs through access to a larger market, and we even debated the advantages of variable exchange rates.

Nobody can say that we have not debated this issue at great length in Parliament. If I may be forgiven on this occasion for quoting an earlier speech, this is what I said then: In considering whether or not Britain participates, it is fruitless trying to draw up a balance sheet of gains and losses from an economic or a political point of view. From the facts now before us I think that the hon. Member for Stechford is quite right when he says that the balance of economic advantage is in favour of going in. As far as the political issue is concerned, I am sure he is right when he says it is all one way, and that from the political point of view it is essential that we should participate. We should make up our minds on the basic principle…Some years ago, President Auriol of France said: 'Europe must unite herself if she wishes to recover and live, and if she does not want American assistance to be a gesture without future or a humiliating charity'. I think that recent events have given emphasis to his words.The nations of Europe today are learning the lesson that they must stand together in defence of their common interest. In the last resort, nobody else will be prepared to do it for them. I believe that Europe must be strong and prosperous in its own right if we are not to go to the wall. Without Britain a six-Power common market might well have an economic unity which would be gravely detrimental not only to our interests but also to those of the Commonwealth. But it would not be strong enough to be a real power in the world. I believe that only Britain can provide the necessary weight, power and strength."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th November, 1956; Vol. 561, cc. 141–2.] I believe that that is still true today. We know perfectly well that there are people Who do not accept, and never have accepted, the need to make that declaration in principle.

After all the debates and vicissitudes of fortune we reached the point in May, 1967, when the Leader of the Opposition as Prime Minister got what he subsequently boasted to be the largest parliamentary majority in modern history, to apply for entry to the Community. There were then hon. and right hon. Members who dissented from the principle. They still do, and their position is quite honourable, but all those who supported the application accepted the basic principle of the treaties subject only to the negotiation of satisfactory terms.

Last October, by a majority of 112, the House declared its acceptance of the principles of entry on the terms negotiated. We have now to take our final decision on the Bill, a Bill which, I have emphasised time and again in the course of the Committee stage, is to make the necessary changes in our domestic law required to enable us to give effect to our obligations under the Treaty of Accession and so to proceed to ratification. The Bill to which the House is now asked to give the Third Reading makes these provisions, I assert, in an entirely constitutional and parliamentary way. I really cannot understand why people complain about the length of the Bill. I have never thought it necessary for a Bill to be judged by its length. It has always seemed to me absurd to believe that parliamentary democracy is protected by badly drafted or artificially enlarged Bills that have a mass of unnecessary or bad Amendments.

On 14th June and again at the end of our Committee proceedings, I emphasised that we considered all the Amendments put forward to the Bill on their merits. The hon. Member for Ebbw Vale said that surely some Amendments could have been accepted, but, in fact, a great many of the Amendments were to leave out Clauses and subsections and were directed at the whole principle of our entry and were challenging the terms and items in the treaty which because of their nature could not be amended. Alternatively, they were Amendments designed to make procedural changes for which the Bill, as the Committee accepted, is not the proper vehicle.

This afternoon most attention has been directed to the issue of sovereignty and the position of Parliament. That was so in Committee, and it is right that we should conclude our deliberations this evening having regard to that matter. I know that many hon. Members on both sides of the House are genuinely worried about the possible loss of sovereignty. I believe that arises out of a total misunderstanding of the nature of the European Community which we are seeking to join. It is a Community built upon respect for the individuality of the States which comprise it, and the record of the Community, as the Leader of the Opposition used to say time and again, proves that decisions are never taken against the vital interests of its members.

By that I do not mean that it would not make sense for a larger Community to develop stronger institutions at the centre. The point is that as they develop we will be participating at every stage in the development in our own interests in certain defined fields, exercising sovereignty in a larger dimension. I believe that by pooling our sovereignty we shall, in fact, strengthen it. As an influential member of an influential Community we shall have more, not less, influence in the world over matters of international policy which vitally affect us.

To put it differently, I believe that in certain circumstances we may be ceding the shadow of sovereignty in order to keep its substance. The hon. Member for Coventry, North (Mr. Edelman) developed this theme. We are joining an evolving Community. It may be that in giving effect to the provisions of the treaty it is necessary to have a Bill, which brings our domestic law into harmony, which appears to be rigid, but developments in the future will be in no sense rigid and we shall make our own contribution.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maid-stone (Mr. John Wells) asked what we shall do about grading apples. On matters of this kind, and wider issues, in a sense we are renegotiating the arrangements all the time. I had a feeling, listening to my hon. Friend, that one might say that man is a spiritual being with great ideals; he continues to grade his apples. There is a Question tabled for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture about this. But it was an illustration, albeit in a particular sphere, of the point being made by the hon. Member for Coventry, North about the evolving Community in which we shall exercise our influence.