My Lords, there seems to be a growing interest in the question of whether this country should remain within the European Union, so if noble Lords will forgive me I will confine my remarks to that important issue. In that context I start by welcoming very warmly the Prime Minister’s pledge at the important Bloomberg speech he gave a little while back to provide the people of this country with an “in or out” referendum in 2017. I am also glad that a draft Bill was published today to give effect to this pledge. I gather, incidentally, that it is likely that an amendment may be moved in another place today, regretting the absence of any mention of this in the gracious Speech.
I would not presume—and neither, I am sure, would any noble Lord—to give advice to my right honourable and honourable friends in that place. However, if I may venture a personal opinion, what is needed is a thorough debate about the momentous political and economic issues involved. This will not be assisted by unnecessary and pointless votes. The Prime Minister’s position, as I understand it, is that the EU as presently constituted is not acceptable to the United Kingdom, and perhaps not acceptable on a wider basis. Therefore he will seek to renegotiate the terms of our membership to make it acceptable before holding his promised referendum if he is in a position to do so.
One does not serve as a Minister of the Crown for more than a decade, as I did, without getting to know the realities of the European Union pretty well. In light of that knowledge I do not believe that it will be possible for the Prime Minister to secure the fundamental changes that he seeks. It will certainly not be possible if it is thought that at the end of the day he will, following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Harold Wilson, recommend an “in” vote however inconsequential his renegotiation proves to be.
We are severely limited for time in this debate so I cannot touch on all the important issues involved, many of which I sought to address in an article in the Times last week, which some noble Lords may have had time to read. I will therefore focus on what inevitably is the central concern in all this, which is the fundamental change in the European Union following the coming into being of monetary union and the eurozone, with the United Kingdom rightly outside it. It is no use living in the past and deluding ourselves; that was a watershed and a Rubicon. Judged as an economic venture, monetary union is clearly and predictably a disaster, condemning the eurozone to long-term economic underperformance, which of course none of us wishes to see, as it lurches from crisis to crisis—not to mention the political discord that we see today in Europe as a result.
Of course, it is not an economic venture but a political venture, seen as leading inexorably to the creation of a full-blooded political union and a new superstate, the United States of Europe. This is the only context in which European monetary union can make any sense whatever, and it is not for us. Nor is there any future for a United Kingdom outside the political union, increasingly marginalised but still shackled to it. That, au fond, to use the language of the country in which I live, is why, unless monetary union is abandoned, we must leave the European Union.
Finally, I am puzzled, not upset, that this view is frequently characterised by the media as being rightwing. Of course, it used to be the view of the party opposite, and I have never considered the Labour Party to be a particularly rightwing outfit. My mind at this time goes back to a small private dinner party in Chelsea some 50 years ago, where the guest of honour was the then leader of the Labour Party and leader of the Opposition, Hugh Gaitskell. It was only a very few weeks before his sadly premature death. The discussion turned, not surprisingly, to the then topical question of whether we should join what was then known as the Common Market. I was in favour, but Hugh Gaitskell was passionately against it. His argument was that we should not be part of a European political union, a United States of Europe. At that time, when we had our argument 50 years ago, I insisted that that was not the issue before us and that the European Economic Community, to give it its correct name at that time, was something quite different. That may have been true then, but the issue today, after the watershed and after the Rubicon has been crossed, is clearly that identified by Hugh Gaitskell 50 years ago, and I find myself standing now pretty close to where he stood then.