Seventeen years! I am only getting close to 30 years. It is extremely refreshing to hear such cogent and well thought out concern about the whole European issue, which has dogged our political debates for the 30 years or so that I have been in the House—whether there is any connection, I cannot say. Today, the one thing that saddens me slightly and, I dare say, her, too, is that so few people are participating in a debate about what is at the heart of our democratic system. I regard this matter as being not “about Europe” but about Britain, and about democracy, which is not peculiar to any one country.
Our democratic systems have, in real terms, emerged since the 19th century, because of John Bright and others. I mention his name because the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston represents part of his old constituency, before it was Birmingham Central. His fight for the working-class vote was in essence the beginnings of our democratic system. The Conservative party, under Disraeli, gave in to the pressures. There is no need to go into the detail, but it was incredibly important and was based on the assumption that when people went into the polling booth and cast their vote secretly in a ballot box—that was the system that was devised in the late 19th century to ensure that the people had their say—we had a democracy. Other countries have run parallel with that, so the issue is not exclusively British but applies elsewhere in the whole of the European continent and the rest of the world.
I fear that with the movement towards bigger regional systems, even those who claim that they want world government ignore national identity, traditions and democratic systems, and therefore in essence national Parliaments, at their peril. The European Union, which I voted for as the European Community in 1975—I said yes—has since moved inexorably along a trajectory towards more and more centralisation and less and less national involvement.
The Minister for Europe is here. He and I have engaged in debates and discussions on the matter since at least 1988 or 1989, when I was first elected chairman of the backbench committee on European affairs in hostile circumstances. It was interesting that the national parliamentarians who then represented the Conservative party elected me in a secret ballot because I had put out a note explaining why I was standing, which was all about national Parliaments. I had written a pamphlet for the Bow Group called “A Democratic Way to European Unity: Arguments against Federalism” and I followed that up the following year with another called “Against a Federal Europe—The Battle for Britain”. I think I can fairly say—I do so without presumption—that what I set out in those two documents has remained the central problem.
The difference is that the evidence now demonstrates the analysis of where we were going wrong, which was further and further integration, and that was in the 1988 to 1991 period. Since then, we have had Amsterdam, Nice and Maastricht, and we have had the constitutional and Lisbon treaties. Irrespective of the evidence, both economic and political, there is increasing distrust not only in the United Kingdom but throughout the whole of Europe. I need not give all the Eurobarometer’s figures, but 72% of those in countries such as Spain and Italy have now decided that they do not trust the European Union. I presume to say that riots, unemployment and the rise of the far right are all things that I said would happen when I wrote those pamphlets back in 1988-91 and since.
Despite all that, as well as the Bloomberg speech and the movement towards a referendum—I believe that there will be a money resolution this afternoon on the European Union (Referendum) Bill—if I am being completely objective, nothing has changed except public opinion. The facts demonstrate that those of us who have argued this case consistently over a long period have been proved right. I am not saying, “I told you so.” The matter is far too serious for that because, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston said, it is about our democratic system.
National parliamentarians are elected by virtue of manifestos in general elections. We ultimately control taxation and spending. That is what determines the nature of our economy, and it also determines public services. If circumstances arise in which the economic and political situation in this country, let alone other countries, becomes dysfunctional and as a result we cannot deliver the prosperity that people want, not only will they become completely alienated from laws that are generated to exclude them from participation in a prosperous business and social environment, but the entire fabric of the European system will disintegrate.
The real problem is the treaties. The issue is no longer just a call for reform. I was anxious for reform, and I have called for renegotiation for as long as I can remember, because I thought the treaties would go wrong. Now that they have gone so wrong, there is no prospect of their improving the situation and, as I will explain, there is absolutely no sign that any Government in any European country are seriously grappling with the intrinsic problem at the heart of the treaties. Governments talk about renegotiation, but we are past that. The reality is that we must leave the existing treaties—I make this point in the context of our national Parliament and our own country—because unless other countries are prepared to face up to the fact that there has been a cataclysmic failure of the system, they will not be impelled to make the changes that are needed to achieve what I still believe in: co-operation on the European continent and in trade.
I need not go into the arguments about trading, because we are talking about national Parliaments, but one reason why the British Chambers of Commerce and others have become so deeply disillusioned by the European Union in business terms is precisely the legislation that has come about as a result of being passed under the aegis of the treaties. Those treaties, because of the concrete framework of the acquis communautaire, cannot be changed without unanimity among all member states, and there is absolutely no intention whatever to make fundamental changes to the treaties.