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Orders of the Day — European Assembly Elections Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th July 1977.

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Photo of Mr John Mendelson Mr John Mendelson , Penistone 12:00 am, 7th July 1977

That may be the hon. Gentleman's explanation; it is not mine. I do not believe that simplicity is always the essential element of truth. I believe that the true answer is a little more complex than that. No one in his senses will deny that the Liberal Party is presenting itself to the country as the master of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the tribal chief of the Prime Minister. No one will deny that the Liberal Party presents my right hon. Friend as its own little poodle. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) may eat that, but I do not accept it. One Liberal Member who parades himself as his party's economic spokesman goes about the country saying that, in the light of trade union conference decisions this week, we need immediately a statutory wages policy. The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds will not see my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister rushing to accept the Liberal Party's proposal. Therefore, I do not accept his simple explanation. It is more complex than that, for a number of reasons, none of them legitimate, in my opinion.

What I am about to say is no more favourable to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister than is any suggestion coming from the Opposition. However, I believe that it is nearer the truth. For a combination of reasons, the Government have persuaded themselves that it would be a good idea to have a system of proportional representation in this piece of legislation. I believe that they have no right to do that without first having put that change before the electorate in a General Election. They have no right to do that without having tried to get all-party agreement for such a change before putting it into a Bill. That is what I consider to be the proper constitutional course for any Government. It does not matter whether we speak of a Labour Government or of a Conservative Government. We speak of a British Government, which must conduct themselves at all times in accordance with our constitution. They have no right to make such a change. For that reason, I am prepared to join in voting against the recommendation to introduce a system of proportional representation.

I come back to the Liberal Party, and why its present stance has nothing to do with the Common Market. It should be exposed. At a recent discussion at the Liberal Assembly of Scotland, the Leader of the Liberal Party was criticised for not having demanded the introduction of a system of proportional representation in the United Kingdom as the price of continued support for this proposed legislation. His reply to the delegates of that Assembly was that they must not be silly and that they could not get everything at once. That is the true explanation of the attitude of the Liberal Party. Therefore, it is no good my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary saying in good faith that he does not intend to introduce such a system for elections in the United Kingdom. For the Liberal Party, it is a step towards the introduction of such a system into this country, and Conservative Members had better look out if they are in principle opposed to the system, because they have no business to vote for it in this piece of legislation.

Right hon. and hon. Members may ask why I am so completely opposed to that system. In an intervention yesterday, during the speech of the Leader of the Liberal Party, I suggested that historians were agreed that, especially before the 1939 war, over a period of between 30 and 40 years systems of proportional representation in various European countries had always led to a multiplicity of political parties—as many as 28 in a number of cases—and that the result had been the downfall of democratic parliamentary systems and their replacement by dictatorships.

That is the most serious of all the reasons why I am opposed to a change in our system.

It has been argued that it is time for a change. The Liberal Party argues that. To my regret, though in a different context, Lord Hailsham, for whom normally I have a great deal of respect, argues it when he says that democracy in this country is going to the dogs. The two arguments have in common the fact that the Labour Party has been in office too often during the past 15 years. That is what they do not like about it. That is a legitimate reason for being unhappy, and I can understand it But it is no reason for changing our electoral system without considering the consequences.

A system of proportional representation deliberately avoids clear responsibility for what has been done by any Government. I assure my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary that I should prefer to face electoral difficulties for the Labour Party if, in a General Election, there has to be a change of Government than to tamper with our system merely because we think that it might do us some good.

But that is not even the position. It is essential that we should be clear-headed about this. I do not believe that it is predetermined what the outcome of any election will be. All that I know is that the Liberal Party hopes to climb to power through the destruction of our electoral system and that it is interested only in achieving that aim and purpose.

On the substance of the Bill, a great many arguments are being advanced in various of the European Assemblies, of one of which I have recently been a Member. Each of them puts one aim before all the others. All of them say that at present the European Assembly is not capable of overruling the Council of Ministers.

At present, as the House knows, the Council of Ministers is both the legislature and the executive of the Common Market organisation. I regard that as the only safeguard for the British people. At present, there is virtually only the common agricultural policy, with its great disadvantages for the British consumer. Because of that, what stands between our consumers and their being railroaded by decisions in the Common Market which are against our interests is the Council of Ministers and each individual Minister in his respective Council. Moreover, parliamentary sovereignty in this country can be defended only by the Council of Ministers. It cannot be defended in any other way.

I turn to the speech yesterday of the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies). I am glad that he is present now. The right hon. Gentleman has an excellent record, not only in this House but among many of us who have known him over the years, for accuracy and for not deliberately trying to mislead his audience. Therefore, I cannot bring myself to think that he tried to mislead us yesterday. I can only put it down to a disagreement on facts that can be resolved in good faith. He said that Britain was now the only country in the EEC which had serious difficulties about the adoption in its Parliament of legislation on direct elections. That is profoundly incorrect— I choose my words carefully.

I have an original document here. It is the Bill on direct elections that was passed by the French Assembly. I hate using French in this Chamber, but I am as near to doing so as I have ever been. This document is now an Act. In it the Prime Minister was forced to introduce—because of the parliamentary position—a section that is not in our legislation. I would like the Home Secretary to know that in Committee I and some of my like-minded colleagues will seek to introduce a new clause to the Bill which will have the same effect as this section in the French document.

This section, which is now part of the law of France, makes special provisions in two paragraphs, and I paraphrase them. They say, in effect, that at any time in the future if the European Assembly, directly elected, were to introduce any measures directly or indirectly to add to its powers, expressly or by implication, that legislation and that addition to its powers immediately would be null and void as far as France was concerned.