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 Russell Johnston Mr Russell Johnston , Inverness 12:00 am, 9th April 1975

I look forward to reading those articles later. I always find it difficult to sleep. I am sure that they would help me.

The Leader of the Conservative Party spent quite a bit of time yesterday trying to establish her party's credentials as a consistent supporter of Europe. The one party point that I intend to make is that one thing we can say with justice from this Liberal bench in reply to those who have said during the debate—and there have been a number of them—that it would have been better if we had been in the Community from the beginning is that from the beginning that was what we wanted. The one Division that the right hon. Lady omitted to mention in the list that she gave was that on 25th July 1960, when the Liberal Members, including my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Liberal Party, divided the House on the question of entry into the Community. That followed the 1959 election, when we had been the only party so committed.

A fair amount of nonsense is talked about Europe's having somehow or other raised itself out of the muck of party politics into the rarefied stratosphere of apoliticism. The Liberal Party committed itself after the war to work for a united Europe, for two reasons. First, we believed politically that in a radically altered world the most effective way in which this country could exercise positive influence was in conjunction with our neighbouring countries of a similar size and shared traditions. Secondly, we believed that union in Europe offered the best opportunity for economic advancement and the best opportunity for us to raise the living standards of our own people and of the peoples of the world. They remain the basic reasons which motivate us. Time has underlined their validity.

I should like to look briefly again at those two fundamental arguments and relate them to some of the counter-arguments advanced during the past three days. On the economic argument, let it be clear that our present relative failure as a country has come about outside the Community. It is a fairly obvious thing to say but, judging from what many hon. Members have said, it needs to be repeated. There have been many calls during the debate for fair argument and the avoidance of exaggeration. To attribute our low growth rate and our comparatively falling standard of living to entry into the Community in 1973, as many hon. Members have done, is grossly unfair.

Much play has been made by the right hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) and others with the contrast between the promises, hopes or assertions of 1971 and the realities of 1975. After the two years that we have been in the Community—1973 and 1974 —what else, in all conscience, could one expect? No one in his senses could imagine that two years could change everything. 1973 was a year, as we bitterly remember, of industrial upheaval and confrontation. 1974 was a year of renegotiation, and everything stopped. Coincidentally with entry—it is one of the great tragedies that it has worked out this way—there was the oil crisis and the dramatic rise in world food prices. Even if the first two years had been untrammelled years, I do not think it would have been possible to see anything but a minimal improvement in our performance. The EEC is a course of swimming lessons, not a lifebelt, and there is a world of difference between the two.

There is the linked argument that if we had not entered we would have done better, and that if we now leave we shall do better still. I describe that as an argument, but perhaps a better word would be "assertion". The point has been made that those, like the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), who argue for EFTA-type arrangements in the event of our withdrawal nevertheless obviously accept that it is necessary to participate in a large tariff-free market.

However, the basic fact that the Liberals have long recognised about free trade is that it cannot operate acceptably or effectively unless there are equivalent competitive advantages, the absence of hidden subsidies and protection from unforeseen import and quota controls. That is where I think the hon. Member for Walton was in error in what he was saying about the regional fund and the agreement on a regional fund throughout the Community. A regional fund operated by this country alone will be less effective if regional policies throughout Europe are not conducted on roughly equivalent criteria. That is extremely important.

The EEC has a long-term commitment to a regional fund. I would not dissent from the many critics who have said that the start is small and slow, but the basic decision is highly important. Through the acceptance of the regional fund and the concept of economic convergence, about which the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs spoke the night before last, and through the acceptance of the need for corrective mechanisms, free trade can operate in a fair and reasonable way. This point has been made by a number of hon. Members including the right hon. Member for Battersea, North, who introduced import regulations and controls in 1964 when we were members of EFTA. If one looks at the options to the Community one realises that the real alternatives to the EEC is not the open seas but closed harbours.

But the debate has been dominated by the political argument, arguments about sovereignty and the equally deep, almost atavistic suspicion with which many regard association with the Continent. There are two fundamental illusions which have distorted the argument. The first is the illusion which the hon. Member for Walton fell into a moment ago, the illusion of uniqueness. Many people put it differently. The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) has consistently opposed entry into the Community. He spoke on Monday, as reported, at column 919, of our unique method of government, our unique relationship with Europe and our unique opportunity to be a bridge between the developed and the underdeveloped world.

The hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Taylor) spoke of how the European countries were different. He said: although certain European countries follow the British pattern they do not have the long-term commitment to democratic control". —[Official Report, 7th April 1975; Vol. 889, c. 903.] The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) used the expression "the we-ness of the nation". It was rather difficult to tell to which nation he was referring. It was not Scotland, so presumably it was either England or Ulster. The right hon. Gentleman, who, though he starts from many false premises, is a man of logic, will recognise that if his argument about the nation holds good as a reason for coming out of the European Community, it equally holds good for the break-up of the United Kingdom, which is an end I do not want to see.