Earlier this week John Denham spoke in the House of Commons on the issue of Europe. Following a speech by David Cameron on Europe, there is now a real risk that the UK stumbles into an in/out referendum and Britain stumbles out of Europe. Labour are clear that Britain’s national interest would not be served by announcing an in/out referendum tomorrow and Labour will not promise one unless it does.
Here’s John’s speech:
Mr John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): The Foreign Secretary is a fine orator but today, apart from quite an amusing bit at the end of his speech, he gave the impression that he would rather have been anywhere other than here. He certainly gave no clue why this issue has driven such passions in politics over a long time.
Let me make one or two fundamental points. There is a fundamental truth: the driving forces of anti-Europeanism are fear and pessimism—fear of meeting the challenges of the 21st century and pessimism about our country’s role in the world. Many Eurosceptics would like us to believe that they are patriots, but their actions tell a different story and show a deep belief that Britain’s future is inevitably one of decline, lowered ambitions and a downgrading of our role in the world. I do not think, based on the same evidence as that used by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), that most British people want to share that pessimism about our future.
When Eurosceptics talk of being free from the drag of co-operation, from shared obligations and from any common purpose, and when they talk about Britain going it alone, they think that that is a proud statement of intent. It is not. It is an admission that they have lost faith in the future of our country. Those who say, “Go it alone” do not believe that we can succeed, as any modern nation must, in collaboration with others. They think that if Britain tries to work with others we must inevitably be losers—that it will always be them bossing us, rather than us influencing them. The debate does not divide Europhiles from Europhobes; it divides pessimists from optimists.
Andrea Leadsom: Does the right hon. Gentleman not think that the Prime Minister’s speech last week was incredibly optimistic about Britain’s positive future at the heart of a newly globally competitive reformed European Union? Surely, it was the definition of an optimistic speech.
Mr Denham: None of us is against competitive success, but the Prime Minister gave no clue about how he thought that should be achieved or about which failures to achieve it in the EU would lead him to a no vote. It was all motherhood and apple pie, as my right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party said last Wednesday. We can always sign up to those five principles, but the speech took us no further forward.
Mr Redwood: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Mr Denham: I shall do so a little later.
On the one hand, we have those who believe Britain can never again be a nation of power and influence; on the other, we have those of us who have few doubts about the capacity of our country and our people to succeed, our ability to have an influence that exceeds our economic power and our capacity to create a stronger economy in the future.
Some of the pessimists are the traditional Eurosceptics —that is, the UK Independence party and its allies in the Tory party. They still wear the flapping white coats that caused so much harm to the previous Conservative Prime Minister. Those defeatists have been joined today by a new group who are perhaps a bit sensitive to the taint of the past. Those new Eurosceptics—perhaps we should call them neurosceptics—enjoy a much more nuanced and subtle lunacy. Let us stay in the EU, they say, but only if we can act as though we were not part of it, by pulling out of agreement after agreement until there is no meaningful relationship left. Of course, the end game is the same: years of uncertainty and declining influence, which make it more likely to end in a British exit.
Mr Carswell: The right hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case for remaining in, and I am sure that when the “in” campaign starts it will draw heavily on his powers of advocacy. Is he against allowing the people who voted for him to be an MP from having the final say? If so, why does he believe that the political elite alone should decide these points? Why not allow everyone in the country their say?
Mr Denham: A year ago, I voted with the Prime Minister of the hon. Gentleman’s party to say that an in/out referendum at that point would be damaging to Britain. Nothing I heard last week made the case that an uncertain referendum in five years’ time is not equally damaging. We never say never, but on the two issues that we are considering today, I think that the Prime Minister was right a year ago and wrong on Wednesday.
Mr Redwood rose—
Mr Denham: I will not give way, as I have done so twice already.
The Eurosceptics and the neurosceptics have made the Conservative party ungovernable. The Prime Minister, who lacks the will, ability or interest to lead his party, was forced into last week’s speech. That pessimism is in their language. Historians will surely puzzle over how the party of Winston Churchill—indeed, that of Margaret Thatcher—became the party that sees Britain’s future in Norway and Switzerland and about how a country with all our history, all the capabilities of our people and, notwithstanding our current difficulties, all our strengths should consider countries a 10th our size and with little of our influence as role models.
The pessimism is there in the Eurosceptics’ policy and in the call to withdraw from most of the provisions of the social chapter. They will say that it is about sovereignty, but it reflects a deeper belief that the creation of wealth is incompatible with ensuring that wealth is fairly shared among all the people who help to create it. They want us to turn our back on a broadly shared European value that we helped to create, which is that economic growth and social justice can go hand in hand. That is what leads neurosceptics like the Mayor of London to speak against serious banking reform, despite the damage done to the global economy and our own by the excesses and distortions of the past.
The debate is often clouded by concerns, sometimes quite legitimate, about this regulation or that regulatory threat, but those concerns are the cover for a much bigger and more pessimistic view of Britain’s future. Those who express them believe that we must give up on a fair sharing of wealth, on decent protection at work from exploitation and danger and on the shared obligation to protect our environment, which the Prime Minister attacked last week. That is the pessimist vision: a Britain that can compete only by offering ourselves to the worst regulated, most unstable and least committed global economic forces. That is, indeed, a possible vision of Britain’s future, but true patriots will say that it is not the best.
The real future that is possible—the best vision for Britain—will have sustained, committed private investment that builds on the research, the innovation and the skills that we have to offer, that understands that real success is based not on the quickest profit but on the creation of lasting value and that sees the potential to build strong companies, whether British or foreign, rooted in this country whose business success depends on our country’s success. That is the way to compete and pay our way in the world.
Although their economic prescriptions are founded on pessimism, much of the rest of the Eurosceptics’ and neurosceptics’ agenda is either fanciful or dangerous. On what basis should we believe that an isolated Britain will be able to negotiate more preferential trade terms than a large trading bloc; that an isolated Britain would have more diplomatic influence with the USA or with China and the rest of the BRICs than as an influential part of the EU; or that our constituents would be safer if we tried to tear up co-operation on justice, as though the drugs smugglers, the weapons dealers, the terrorists and the paedophiles will think, “Oh, Britain’s leaving the EU. We won’t go there any more.”? Evil people do not target the strong and the confident; they target the weak and the pessimistic. That leaves our constituents—the people of Britain—more vulnerable, not less.
That is not to say that everything is perfect. It is not. Change is coming and change is needed, so had the Prime Minister come to the House last week and said, “Let’s bring regional aid policy back to member states,” he would not only have united the House but won many friends in Europe. Had he come to the House and said, “Let’s change the state aid rules so that countries that want to develop an active industrial policy can do so within the single market,” he would, I think, have united the House and won many friends in Europe. Had he said, “Let’s change the rules on the movement of people so that benefits are only for those who have contributed through work and taxation, even if they aren’t members of a formal contributory scheme,” I believe that he would have united the House and won more friends in Europe than he thinks.
We have no idea what the Prime Minister wants to achieve, though. The Europe Minister tells us that we will have to wait for the Tory manifesto in 2015 to find out, and tells us nothing about what our Prime Minister wants to achieve in the next two years. That is the truth: it is not about British interests; it is about Tories and the next election. Our hapless Prime Minister dare not say whether he is with the optimists or the pessimists, and the price that our country pays is five years of paralysis, indecision and uncertainty. Britain deserves better than that.