House of Commons, Thursday, 20th May 1993, 6.35 pm:
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield) : Tonight's vote on Third Reading will have a pre-set
majority. But not one hon. Member has the legal or moral authority to hand over
the powers that they borrowed from their electors last April to people who will
not be accountable to those whom we now represent. Not one of us put the
Maastricht treaty before the electorate last year, because it was not then
published in English. We offered them no choice--the Labour party, without any
conference authority, decided to support the treaty. I know that the Labour
party had no authority, because the Maastricht treaty was negotiated after the
conference, which intervened before the manifesto was written.
The problem for those who are passionate about Europe is that they cannot
offer this country to Europe. Only half the seats in the Chamber are occupied
for tonight's debate and the Opposition intend to abstain in the vote. If I were
a passionate federalist--which I am not--I would feel more concerned about
tonight's vote than anyone else. If others in Europe say that we have supported
them, it is not true. The House of Commons, under the Whips, the patronage, the
discipline and the disillusionment, has supported them, but not the British
A democracy consists not merely of a mechanism of becoming elected and
passing a law. It contains the responsibility of gaining the continued consent
of the electorate. At the next election I shall have to say to the people of
Chesterfield, "Vote for me and I shall fight for you, but do not vote for me to
deal with your agricultural, environmental, trade or even foreign policy, and
certainly not your economic policy." We are handing over the British people,
without their consent, to a system that has replaced parliamentary democracy,
which we have been told is the justification for what we are doing tonight.
Would the House have been entitled to take Britain into the United States of
America, join the Warsaw pact or invite in Soviet troops without a referendum?
Of course not--nobody would believe that for a minute. We have experienced a
coup d'etat by a parliamentary elite, not only in this country, but in the whole
of Europe. They have abandoned their tasks as representatives and become the
managers of Europe.
Mr. Dykes : Will the
right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr. Benn : I should love
to give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I have an argument that I want to advance
and I have only 10 minutes in which to do so.
The House has given up its power, because it has lost interest in its role. I
do not think that the House of Commons wants power any more ; it has traded
status for power. Hon. Members now get on the television and are introduced as
the right hon. Member for Chesterfield or whatever, but they do not want power.
For them, status is much more important.
The Labour party has adopted a completely new philosophy--that of being in
government when not in government. We now have shadow Ministers--the French call
them "phantomes", which is appropriate. I heard that my right hon. Friend the
Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman) went to Paris and Le Monde called
him le secretaire d'etranger phantome de Britannique. I can imagine people
placing entries in "Who's Who" such as "Phantom Prime Minister 1983-1992". We
shall have a phantom queen next, who will call for Buckingham palace to be open
for two or three months a year at £9.50 a tour. We have abandoned our
representative role, and the same is happening in every country. It is that
crisis that lends support to a Ross Perot and Le Pen. As Members of Parliament,
we do not represent people ; we hope to manage them. If we cannot manage them,
we pretend that, if we were to manage them, we would do it better than the
During the election, the Chancellor appeared on a Labour poster as Batman. I
thought that it was a Tory poster, trying to make him more attractive to younger
voters. What is the point of abuse when there are matters of substance to
discuss, such as how to solve unemployment, what sort of Europe we should have
and what new world order? We have abandoned all those issues. I must not be
controversial--that is not my practice--but my party, in supporting the
Maastricht treaty, has abandoned everything for which the party was established.
Others may take a contrary view. The Labour party believed that people had the
right through the ballot box to control those who made the laws and, by getting
a majority, to change the economic system under which they lived. However, the
party has now given it all up. I am not saying that it has done so out of
wickedness ; it was out of a lack of self-confidence.
I do not think that members of Labour's Front Bench would have even two ideas
about what to do with the economy if they came to power, other than with a
central bank. I say this with some regret, but a series of sound bites glued
together and called an economic policy is not an economic policy. That is the
problem-- [Interruption.] I am sorry to speak sharply, but, if this is my
last speech in a free Parliament, I had better say what I think and take the
consequences. I bitterly resent the title "Euro-sceptic". Am I an
"Anglo-sceptic" because I did not like the Thatcher Government? I oppose the
Maastricht treaty as a European because it takes from every country in Europe
the rights that are being taken away from us. It does not offer durability. The
treaty has divided every country in Europe--Denmark went one way and then the
other, France agreed by a narrow margin and Ireland by a bit more, but in
Britain the people are not allowed to vote.
Let no one tell me that proportional representation to put people in an
impotent Parliament within a European federation merits a referendum. That is an
utterly disreputable argument, and no one will believe it. Labour does not want
to have to put to the Labour movement and the public the arguments for the
Maastricht treaty and European union, because it knows that those notions would
not win support.
A moment ago, someone said that 83 per cent. of the people in Germany want a
referendum and two thirds wish that the Danes had voted no. The treaty will fail
; that is the tragedy. I shall get no satisfaction from its failure, but it will
fail because it cannot be made to work. When it fails, a Bosnian-type crisis
will emerge, because one can no more impose capitalism from Brussels than
communism from Moscow. It cannot be done--you must carry people with you.
That is why I suggested a commonwealth of Europe, a looser arrangement where
harmonisation is by consent. I believe that the crisis in the former Yugoslavia
would be much less serious if we had a commonwealth of Europe in which it could
find a place without having in place of the iron curtain a gold curtain or a
deutschmark curtain, which means that, if one cannot fit in with the policies,
one is not acceptable.
I hope that the House will forgive me for speaking with passion. I have often
wondered whether, when we lost democracy in Britain, it would be to the red
army, the Militant Tendency or Oswald Mosley, but in fact we ourselves have
given it up. The House has agreed to abandon its responsibility to hold to
account those who make our laws. We have given it all up. Walter Bagehot said in the 19th century that the British constitution
was divided between the dignified and the efficient. He said that the Queen was
the dignified and that the Commons was the efficient. The Executive is now the
efficient, and we are the dignified.
We no longer want power. We do not care whether it goes. The nation accepts
that because, after centuries of subservience to a monarch whom we cannot elect
or remove, we are trained to be subservient. If we learned to live with William
the Conqueror, we can learn to live with Jacques Delors. People have been
trained--there is a culture of bowing and scraping, going to another place with
my Lord this or my Lord that. The nation has never been allowed to develop the
equality that comes with birth, to govern oneself as one thinks right and then
to collaborate, harmonise and co- operate with other nations. The idea of one
country living alone is absurd. We could be killed by a Chernobyl nuclear
disaster or destroyed by a nuclear weapon from China. There is no national
sovereignty, but there is a right to choose and remove the people who make our
laws. When we vote tonight, under the discipline of the Whips and the patronage
system, which is also a corrupting influence, the House will abandon that which
makes it a focus of interest and attention for generations of people, from the
chartists and the suffragettes until now.
In 1970, we permitted the vote at 18. The meaning of the vote was taken away
on 1 January 1973. There were two and a half years of the right of the
electorate, but it was too dramatic a power and the Government, without a
referendum, took it away. I regret the fact that my right hon. and hon. Friends
now hope that they will get more justice from Jacques Delors than from the
Government. It is not a policy which any progressive party could pursue.
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