Debate on the Address

Part of Sessional Orders – in the House of Commons at 6:12 pm on 23rd October 1996.

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Photo of Mr Patrick McNair-Wilson Mr Patrick McNair-Wilson , New Forest 6:12 pm, 23rd October 1996

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. We are talking of the recruiting sergeant for Hamas and all the other fundamentalist religious groups in the area. We must seek to improve the standard of life for the Palestinian. If that is done, Mr. Arafat and other Palestinian leaders will be able to sell the concept of peace in the area far more easily than if the Palestinian people are constantly under curfew and face all the disadvantages to which I referred.

I hope that, when Mr. Weizman comes to the United Kingdom early next year, those in government and all others he meets will encourage him to move in the direction that I outlined. It is not merely a matter of insisting on security, because security will itself grow from a higher standard of living for Palestinian people.

Much of the Queen's Speech is devoted to important social issues. Europe still rests high on the agenda in the run-up to the general election. I do not have the same enthusiasm as my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, Moorlands (Sir D. Knox), but I listened to him with great interest. If we are to make a decision about a single currency, I hope that it will be made, as my hon. Friend suggested, on economic and not political grounds. If the economics are wrong, the single currency will be wrong for everyone.

The concept of belonging to a single currency in the belief that it will never come under pressure is likely to prove a disaster. The exchange rate mechanism was a classic example of believing that, by locking currencies together, we would somehow create a situation in which we could grow together and move away from the problem of speculation, for example. The trouble is that money is a commodity just as much as a bar of chocolate. People will buy it and sell it. As Mr. George Soros proved to us at the time of the ERM collapse, some individuals are prepared to go the full distance and speculate against a currency in the belief that it will either fall or rise.

I do not believe that we shall be any safer in a single currency. The problem that we shall be faced with in that position will be something that affects every nation in the European group. I am less than enthusiastic about a single currency. That is apart from the problems, to which some of us referred in the past, of loss of sovereignty and of control moving away from this country to a central bank, perhaps in Frankfurt.

I am happy with the words that appear on page 1 of the Queen's Speech. The passage reads: In the European Union, my Government will work for an outcome to the Intergovernmental Conference which supports an outward-looking, economically liberal and flexible Union based on a partnership of nations. I am happy to live with that. However, as some hon. Members may know, I have a home in France where I spend some time during the summer recess. I talk to my French neighbours and it seems that they envy us our freedom to manage our own affairs. They are finding that the Maastricht criteria are destroying jobs in France. They find also that the artificially high rate of the franc fort, the strong franc, has created massive unemployment. As we have read recently in newspapers, that has led to strikes and unrest throughout France.

I do not think that there is one answer. We must approach these matters on the basis of what is economically possible for our country. If we can satisfy ourselves on that score, we do not have much to fear.

That leads on directly to the economy. The Government have made it clear over the past 17 years that firm control of the economy is necessary. When I first came to this place in the autumn of 1964, the Labour party came to power, and within a few weeks we were in the middle of a major sterling crisis. I remember the late Harold Wilson explaining to the House that, although Britain's basic economy was strong, we were faced with a narrow crisis of confidence, as I think he called it. The gnomes of Zurich and others were referred to by some hon. Members and by others outside the House.

Confidence is a precious commodity, and it is currently enjoyed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Government. There is confidence in economic matters. Our currency is strong, inflation is low, unemployment is falling and we are growing strongly. I am especially delighted by a passage that appears on page 3 of the Queen's Speech about creating the strongest industrial economy in Western Europe in the medium term and doubling living standards over the next twenty-five years. Good intentions are not enough, as the Labour Government discovered in 1964, but we have achieved a great deal. Against that background, we must take tough decisions from time to time.

Over 17 years, we have seen something of boom and slump. Some of us can remember the stock market crash of October 1987. Some of us can remember also the Government's natural reaction—it was the reaction of parties throughout the House, which felt that we did not want to return to the 1929 to 1931 period—to take off the brakes to try to create more credit to ensure that we would not fall into a deep slump. That was done without realising, perhaps, that the economy was stronger than we had imagined and that it was not necessary to take such action, which led to boom and bust, inflation and other problems that had to be solved. I believe that the Government's economic policy has proved to be entirely correct. The economy is strong, and that will count in a big way on polling day in the next general election.

I move on to two smaller matters. First, again on page 3 of the Queen's Speech, we are told: Legislation will be brought forward to strengthen the powers to protect the United Kingdom coastline from pollution from merchant shipping. Like everyone else, I enjoyed the speeches of the mover and seconder of the Loyal Address, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) and my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Field). My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight has the pleasure of representing the constituency that is bang opposite mine. The southern frontier of my constituency is the north shore of the Solent. The northern frontier of the Isle of Wight is the south shore of the Solent. I was interested to learn that my hon. Friend's constituency has more electors than any other—about 100,000.

The new forest—this is one sadness of mine in leaving the constituency—will be cut in half, thanks to the boundary commissioners, forming two of the smallest constituencies. That means that two of the smallest will face the largest. I wish my successors every possible good fortune, but an added sadness is that, for the first time in our history, the perambulation of the Crown lands of the new forest will be split into two constituencies. I fear that that may lead to problems.

As I have said, I am happy about the proposal to strengthen powers to protect the United Kingdom from pollution from merchant shipping. The Solent, the waterway between the Isle of Wight and my constituency, and the area around Spithead and the entrance to Southampton water, is extremely widely used. I used to represent the whole area, including the refinery, when I was first the Member for New Forest. That has now changed. The Esso refinery at Fawley is the largest refinery in Britain and the sixth largest in the world. Shipping movements there require extremely large tankers to discharge contents and smaller tankers to take away products to other parts of the country.

We have been fortunate because we have never had a really serious accident. I pay warm tribute to those who operate on the waterside, to those who operate within the refinery shipping division and to the local authorities for taking such action as they can to ensure that an accident does not happen.

I am delighted to think, however, that the Gracious Speech may produce something more concrete for us. I am 100 per cent. behind the view that the legislation on marine pollution must be toughened up—especially in relation to an area which, among other things, has a double tide, which means that the effects of a major spillage travel backwards and forwards twice as often as along other parts of the coastline.

Finally, let me say a word about the future. It is not likely to include me, because I shall not be here, but in a few months we shall hear another Gracious Speech. Personally, I am confident that it will be promoted by the Conservative party. We have seen the transformation of which I spoke earlier—involving, for instance, a Conservative leader of the Labour party—and Labour is clearly less frightening to the public than some of its forebears. Nevertheless, as a supporter of the kit-car replica industry, an enthusiast who finds the use of such products a pleasant hobby, I know that the industry is based on the manufacture of cars that look very much like expensive Porsches and Ferraris but probably end up with small Ford engines. Although such a car may give its owner great pleasure, it is never quite as good as—or, indeed, designed to be as good as—the genuine article.

I just wonder whether, when the election takes place and the electorate look at the past 17 years and at what we are planning for the next few months, they will not ask themselves, "Why have a replica Conservative party when you can have the genuine article?" Why have a party that has dropped socialism because it realises that it cannot be elected with socialism, when many good, honest members of that party remain but are required to keep their mouths shut? Would it not be better for the electorate to support a Tory party that they understand—a party with clear policies and a clear plan for the future, as set out in the Gracious Speech? Would it not be better, in the words of the soft drink commercial, to drink the real thing rather than the replica?