Monday, April 21, 2014

21 years of Maastricht: "My last speech in a free Parliament" - Tony Benn

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 people.

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 Conservative party.

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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Mark In Mayenne said...

Hard to disagree. Yet I am benefiting from living in France without significant constraint. Is it the lack of democratic accountability that is the problem?

Sackerson said...

Power has cut itself free from the people. Benn was warning that this road leads to social unrest. Enjoy the 20s / 30s while they last.