European Assembly (Direct Elections)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th April 1977.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Bryan Gould Mr Bryan Gould , Southampton, Test 12:00 am, 25th April 1977

Most of those who have taken part in the debate have been concerned with the mechanics of the electoral system that is to be used for direct elections, but most hon. Members have not tried to conceal that they are primarily concerned with the issue of principle. Some have said that they will accept any electoral system provided that we have direct elections. Others have made it clear that the major factor in choosing which system to adopt is whether it will enable us to meet the timetable. Others have pointed out that the issue is of limited importance as, presumably, we shall eventually have to adopt a uniform system that is unlikely to be our existing system or any system that we adopt in the interim.

I make no apology for approaching the debate on the issue of principle. I say clearly that I am opposed to the principle of direct elections. Some have argued that the issue of principle is no longer open to us and that it has mysteriously been decided already by the commitment of the Government. That view has been well and truly refuted throughout the debate.

It is true that there are still some who seem to have difficulty in distinguishing between Parliament and Government. It may be that their difficulty in grasping one of the basic features of our constitution goes some way towards explaining their enthusiasm for adopting another system. It is then said that, quite apart from anything else, we must accept direct elections because they were covered by the referendum, although throughout the campaign no mention was made on behalf of the Government that they have not proceeded under the treaty but have undertaken a new agreement.

If it is said, as it sometimes is, that the consequence of the result of the referendum was that direct elections may take place, the answer is that many other matters were mentioned by our side—for example, rising food prices and a swollen trade deficit. The "Yes" vote demonstrated not that those warnings were not approved by the electorate, or that it wanted the things against which we warned, but that it preferred not to believe us. How much it must regret that now.

The argument that we must accept the referendum does not advance the matter very much. Of course we accept the referendum. The referendum confirmed our membership of the EEC, no more, no less. It is for that reason that we are still members. The referendum did not mean that the United Kingdom is a member in every circumstance. It did not mean that we must suspend all critical judgment and that we must cease to press for changes that would help us or resist developments that would be harmful to us.

The EEC is a dynamic organisation. We cannot be bound to accept every proposal served up to us on the basis that it bears the label "Made in Brussels" If membership is dependent, as we are constantly assured, on the continued assent of the British Parliament, it cannot be that on an issue that still requires the decision of the House we do not have the right and duty to exercise judgment in reaching a decision. Let us have no more nonsense about accepting the referendum. We are told by omniscient journalists and opinion formers that there is no respectable argument against direct elections.

We are used to the notion that all those who failed to perceive the revealed truth from Brussels must be knaves or scoundrels, but our willingness to acknowledge our sins is slightly tempered by one small issue—namely, is it not precisely those self-same people who with the same assurance, moral virtue and self-righteousness assured us that food prices would be stable and our trade would benefit from a wider home market? They have been proved fundamentally wrong, yet we look in vain for any sort of humility or uncertainly as they now repeat the whole exercise of direct elections.

I shall try to adduce one or two arguments which, while perhaps they are not respectable, may explain why heresy persists. They concern two concepts that have featured largely in the debate, namely, federalism and democracy. We have been assured that direct elections will not lead to federalism. Strange though it may seem, some of us have read the Tindemans Report. Some of us have read the Commission's report on political union. Some of us talk to colleagues in Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere who say openly that their objective is federalism. They would laugh to scorn any suggestion that direct elections are not to do with federalism.

Our record of ensuring that our view in such matters prevails over the weight of Continental opinion is very poor. It is not merely a question of assessing which of rival sets of objectives is likely to prevail. There is also the question of political realities. It is in the nature of things that politicians who are able to claim democratic legitimacy will do so. They will seek to extend their powers. They will seek to exercise the powers that they already have. Therefore, it is pointless to underestimate the way in which the situation in Strasbourg or wherever else it might be will be transformed by the simple fact of direct elections.

Other institutions within the Community will help in the development. The Commission will support direct elections because it sees the European Assembly as a cloak of democratic respectability that will help to mask a transfer of power to it from the Council of Ministers. Even the Council will see and take advantage of the new situation. Ministers will say that these are matters which have been or are to be dealt with by the European Assembly, which is what it was elected for. When we say "But we are the elected representatives of the British people", we shall be told that there is another set of British Members of Parliament and that it is their responsibility and their competence to take these decisions.

How shall we resist when finally we are shown the last hoop through which we must jump, when the final details of the blueprint are revealed to us? All the familiar arguments will be used. We shall be told that we must have known, when we voted for direct elections, that federalism was on the agenda, and that we must be taken to have agreed to it. It is implicit in the argument for direct elections that there is an area of governmental activity which is not, which cannot, or which should not be within the competence of this House to look at, and that that deficiency should be made good.