Thursday, July 10, 2003

William Hague Speech

As promised, here is my look at a the speech by William Hague in the House of Commons yesterday in a debate about The European Convention. You can find the Hansard transcript here.

For those who know little or nothing about the context of this here is a quick summary. For the last 18 months the Convention on the Future of Europe has been meeting with two parallel objectives. Objective A is to simplify the existing EU treaty structure by bringing all treaties into one. Objective B is to reform the EU for the accession of 10 new members next year. Since the EU structures are still more or less the same as when the EEC was first founded with 6 members there is a clear need to update. All well and good. The Conservative Party argue that the changes that this process will bring about warrant the holding of a referendum. The Labour Party opposes this, in part because of the moderately deep antipathy to the EU that currently resides in the British electorate. The Conservatives are essentially anti-integrationist. The Liberal Democrats meanwhile are generally pro-EU and pro-integration. After this, I can hand it over to Mr Hague, the Honourable Member from Richmond, to tell the tale of what has happened since.

Near the very beginning there was a priceless moment. Hague, in a tandem, was remarking about how was agreeing with Menzies Campbell (Foreign Affairs spokesman for the Lib Dems) about a proposal that he had put forward. He then remarks how the Minister, David McShane was to be heard also saying 'good idea' to the proposal. McShane nodded.

Hague: "The Minister nods assent, so it is clearly on the record."

McShane: indicates dissent

Hague: "Now he is dissenting. We have had a U-turn in a matter not of days, but seconds."

Hague was, and is, always very quick on the uptake; and one can only pity McShane for having nodded his way into the trap. After this amusement Hague got onto the crux of the argument, the reasons Labour has given for not holding a referendum.

Firstly, initially the Labour Party claimed the Convention was nothing more than a tidying-up exercise. He mentions a time when McShane said it was 'thre-quarters a tidying-up exercise' - to which the hapless minister nods.

He then comes out with the following quotes about the Convention:

"the most important treaty since the foundation of the European Economic Community"
"a new political age".
"a legal revolution, with no precedent".
"so new and large a document that it would be right to hold a referendum on it."

From the German, French, Spanish, and Danish foriegn ministers respectively. Strike 1.

McShane tried to stage a come-back. "Does the right hon. Gentleman recall that the President of the Commission, Mr. Prodi, said that when he read the document he burst into tears, so anti-communautaire was it?"

Hague rallied, and though he referred to the "cheering news" of Prodi's distraught he referred to the fact that every other government in the union thinks that the Convention is rather more than the tidy-up so claimed. At this point Sir Patrick Cormack thought that Mr. Prodi's distress could have been caused by another factor.

Cormack: "Prodi burst into tears because he thought that Berlusconi could become President of the EU."

Which Hague acknowledged by saying: "Well he [Berlusconi] is the President of the EU, so, yes, lots of tears have been shed."

After making another joke at Tony Blair's expense, Hague moves on. He mentioned that Tony Blair had apparantly given up the first argument for lost, and that before the Liaison Committee Tony Blair had employed a new argument: that the Treaty was not in fact too unimportant, but too important to be trusted to the electorate. That "its very complexity means that parliamentary scrutiny is the right way to debate this." Hague was quick to seize the assertion that while the Irish, Danish, Spanish and Luxembourg people were evidently thought to be competent to vote on this matter the Labour Party was of the view that the British electorate was not. He then points out the occasions when the British electorate has been trusted with a complex decision - such as the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland. The minister could only sit and grit his teeth. Strike 2.

And the Hague turned to the third argument: that the tradition of this country is not one of referenda but parliamentary scrutiny. Hague is happy to acknowledge that is the tradition of the country, but then he asks, since when is the Prime minister a fan of tradition?

Hague: "I must have debated with him a couple of hundred times across the Dispatch Box, and I cannot recall—although I have not checked—his ever defending any proposition on the ground that it was in line with the traditions of this country; that does not normally enter his head. We have a Prime Minister who is happy to cast aside the post of Lord Chancellor—a post that has existed for 1,400 years—without even thinking about what would happen the next day." Strike 3.

Personally I do not like William Hague, but on this occasion I have to hand it to him, he said preciely what had to be said, and he exposed the inconsistencies in the Government's arguments beautifully. I rather imagine that Mr McShane was quite happy when Hague sat down.

I have yet really to get the chance to view debates in the either the Senate or the House. It is something I intend to get around to before very much longer. It will be interesting to see how they compare with what is, after all, the Mother of all Parliaments.

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