Orders of the Day — European Community (Membership)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 9th April 1975.

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Photo of Mr Tom Arnold Mr Tom Arnold , Hazel Grove 12:00 am, 9th April 1975

When the electors of Hazel Grove sent me to Westminster, they did so in the aftermath of two closely-fought General Elections in the same year. While it is difficult to maintain true perspective in large affairs, in the unwinding of the complex destiny of our nation, I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to address the House for the first time since I was sworn in as their Member of Parliament last October.

Formed out of the urban districts of Bredbury and Romiley, Marple and Hazel Grove and Bramhall, all of which have now been amalgamated within the Metropolitan Borough of Stockport, itself a District of the new Greater Manchester Council, the Hazel Grove constituency came into being as the result of sweeping demographic change, which brought about not only a rapid increase in population but also other fundamental economic upheavals which, escaping by their gradual character the notice of some contemporary observers, played the greater part in bursting the bonds of local convention. This applied not least to the area's representation in this House, where I must pay tribute to the work which my predecessor, Dr. Michael Winstanley performed on behalf of his constituents. Local patriotism, like patriotism itself, can, however, gain in depth and sweetness for being in harmony with newly-discovered, wider loyalties.

If I may expand upon this theme, I would add that the formative years of my upbringing were spent on the European mainland, and an accident of fate similar to that of other hon. Members born in the aftermath of the Second World War, meant that the historical vision of a democratic Western Europe, within the context of the new inescapable great power rivalry of the United States of America and the Soviet Union, determined a large part of my own political thinking and development.

The essential facts of the situation are expressed simply. Europe consists of one of the densest aggregations of population in the history of the world. This population now expects a high standard of living, education and social welfare in which, even in the aftermath of the oil crisis, most sections anticipate improvement rather deterioration. Yet Europe is not self-sufficient. In particular, it does not feed itself. Internally, the population is not evenly distributed, but much of it is crowded into a relatively small number of dense industrial centres, of which Manchester and its surrounding districts and towns can be taken as a prime example. This population secures for itself a livelihood by means of a delicate and immensely complicated organisation, the foundations of which are supported by an unbroken supply of imported food, oil, raw materials and technology from other continents, as well as international credit, research into future developments, transport, coal, iron and steel.

The more serious problems for Europe have been brought to a head by the oil crisis but are in their origins more fundamental. The economic motives and ideals—the very ideas and assumptions —which until recently made post-war Europe's institutions legitimate, authoritative, and confident are fast eroding. They are slipping away in the face of a changing reality and are being replaced by different ideas and assumptions which are as yet contradictory, ill-formed and sometimes shocking.

The transition is neither good nor bad, although there is possibility for plenty of both. The point is that it is taking place. Rights of membership are already overshadowing property rights. A need to satisfy consumer desires is already supplementing competition as a means of controlling the uses of property. The rôle of Government has in consequence inevitably expanded. Reality requires the perception of whole systems and not only the parts, while the dilemma of protest and how to accommodate it within the framework of democracy is once again real and constant.

In the case of our own country the internal inconsistency between what people demand of government and what it can deliver remains unchanged. The appetites of consumption continually demand more than the economy can produce and, as hon. Members opposite will shortly rediscover, the cake has now become so small in proportion that no one, if it were shared all around, would be that much the better off by the cutting of it.

It is a sobering exercise to review the record of the very recent past and to find how badly off the mark almost all predictions of the nature and magnitude of Britain's problems have been. Even those who seemed at the time Cassandras, in retrospect appear as unguarded optimists in the light of the decay which confronts us today. In dizzying succession one crisis had led almost directly to another. As a result, little confidence is left in the stability of the situation, which has already produced internally an impasse which presently affords no politically discernible way out.

A plausible case for rejecting continued British membership of the European Community cannot be made to rest upon the argument that no one would care to deny, that the success of such membership depends upon answers to many questions which we simply cannot have with assurance, not least on the future rôle of the Commission. The evident implication of the argument is that in the absence of these answers we are far better advised to pursue a different but presumably known course. That also has its uncertainties, which perhaps even the most passionate anti-Marketeer would be prepared to admit. At this stage of the development in our nation's affairs we would be extremely unwise not to appreciate how numerous and potentially serious those uncertainties may be.

In these circumstances it is excessive, to say the least, to insist that the many uncertainties attending membership be answered with assurance before that membership can be continued. Equally, it is excessive to insist that before contemplating membership we must exhaust all other remedies, when the exhaustion of all other remedies is little more than the functional equivalent of accepting chaos.

What may be reasonably demanded is a critical weighing, however rough and approximate it must necessarily be, of the dangers, uncertainties and opportunities attending membership, as opposed to the hazards and choices of following a different course. Everyone should make up his own mind in this respect, but those who simply dismiss membership refuse even to make the effort, and the dilemmas of action are thereby overcome by denying their reality.

Such detached wisdom of passivity may express the truth about our present plight as a nation, though if it does, the more practical consequences to be drawn from it arc scarcely those commonly assembled. It is plausible to surmise, however, that the obsession with Britain's vanished greatness and the sudden attraction to events beyond our control, often summed up in the phrase "We shall go it alone", are little more than rationalisations of political incompetence and the failure of will. At the same time, an apparent resignation before the inevitable may, and often does, conceal an optimism that takes for granted that somehow we shall have our way in the end. If membership is ruled out it is in part because we assume, whether consciously or unconsciously, that the French are, after all, still only French and that in the game we are playing with the Germans and the Italians, generations of what we allege to be political supremacy and economic superiority must count for something.

To this assumption is added the belief that we do still hold the trumps when all is said and done. No longer comforted by yesterday's thought that the Commonwealth countries cannot do without us, we have found a serviceable substitute in today's thought that the Common Market countries cannot do without our North Sea oil. We can only hope that this latest argument, designed to reassure us that all will end well, enjoys a better fate than its predecessor.

Of course, I accept that the search for European solutions for their own sake in any examination of our hopes and problems is a discernible attitude and a dangerous one. A European Europe is really a multiform Europe. It is a Europe in which there is joint action and regulation of those matters which can be better dealt with through joint action and regulation, or for which joint action is perhaps the only sensible solution. The aim must be not to bend to the will of others but to combine our interests with theirs. Those who wish to prevent the revival of virulent nationalism would be well advised to pay special attention to the defence of national interests. The crucial issue so far as the Europe of the future is concerned is neither supranational fictions, nor a mere increase in the number of its member States. It is neither the establishment of an entirely new third structure over and above that of its member States, nor the separate existence of the latter. It is neither the renunciation, nor the unchanged exercise of sovereignty. It is the attempt by the nations of Europe to exercise sovereignty in common.

Let me put it more pointedly. If the negotiations for British entry had been concerned with the issues of national sovereignty, joint foreign policy and other political objectives and institutions, the Council of Ministers and the Heads of Government of the European Community could never have brought them to a successful conclusion. They were able to do so because they were concerned with butter and sugar, lamb and fish, parabolically climbing financial percentages and the possibility of transitional periods for agriculture. Supranational illusions can only act as a hindrance rather than a spur to real political co-operation. The most urgent task facing the Community is that of forging policies involving co-operation without dependence. Certainly I believe that this is something which can be done and which we are at present in the process of doing.

It is often said that in top-level politics ideas do not count—only actions taken in response to circumstances. But if there is one connecting thread which links all the stages of my plea for continued British membership of the European Community, it would be this: mercantile and trading practices are harder to change than we think, but the identification of mutual interests can weld together in one day, and perhaps for ever, nations which for years have been mutually antagonistic. That golden rule ought to govern future European politics—in fact, all politics.

I would suggest to the House and, through the House, to my fellow residents in Hazel Grove, and ultimately to other citizens of Greater Manchester, that uncontrolled passions have a disastrous effect on politics, leading to civil or foreign wars, or both. They can paralyse the life of a nation and destroy everything it has built. The real victories are to be won in agriculture, commerce and in industry—victories for civilisation. mankind's benefactor.

Britain is a permanent fact, and Britain must be served by serving Britain's interests. The circumstances of our postwar world, if we are to avoid a future holocaust, dictate that those interests require a compromise with the nations of Europe, expressed through the European Community. Our nation must once again win that most difficult struggle of all—self-mastery. We must learn to dominate our reverses and our humiliations. We must temper our pride with courtesy, what remains of our power with humanity, and our wealth with prudence and foresight. For the sake of survival and the preservation of past achievements, we must meet the demands of the future.

The great question is no longer whether Britain is to become a member. It is whether Britain is to remain or quit. On the first leg of the journey towards that decision, which if hon. Members on the Government benches have their way is likely to be long and hard, I shall cast my vote, Mr. Deputy Speaker, accordingly.