by NORMAN ST JOHN-STEVAS
So the decision on Britain's future membership of the European Community is to be made by referendum after all, as the Commons learned last week from the Prime Minister's own lips. I was there to hear the announcement, and ii was certainly received with less than rapture except by the dedicated anti-marketeers.
Members of Parliament are right to be suspicious of the referendum because it represents a direct and dangerous threat to their position. The basic doctrine of parliamentary government is that members are elected not as delegates but as representatives to use their own judgments on the great issues of the day, in consultation but not in subservience to their constituents.
As that great Irish interpreter of the English Constitution, Ed mund Burke, wrote in his address to the electors of Bristol in the 18th century: "Authoritative instructions, mandates issued, which the member is bound implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest convictions of his judgment and conscience --these pre things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenour of our Constitution." Yet what is a referendum, save that exact instruction about which Burke was so rightly scathing'?
How has it come about that the Prime Minister, who is not without a sense of the Con stitution, has come to commit himself and the nation to this dubious measure? How have those opposed to British membership on chauvinistic grounds brought themselves to espouse, with apparently no saving sense of irony, such a nasty and unpleasant continental device?
The answer lies not in some constitutional revelation from on high, vouchsafed in private vision to Mr Wilson, but in the need to reconcile the deep divisions within the I.abour Par ty over European policy. And before any readers fly to their quills or their typewriters to ac cuse me of being a lackey of the Conservative Central Office in penning such reflections, let them remind themselves that it was the adoption of the referen dum when Labour was in op position, that led Mr Roy Jenkins to give up the deputy leadership of the party and Mr Harold Lever to depert from the Labour front bench.
Mr. Wilson is playing a dangerous game. The referendum may yet prove a Frankenstein monster and lumber out of control. Mr Wilson knows, as does almost every other holder of high office in Britain, that continued membership of the European Community is essential to our wellbeing. Outside the community we should be weak and alone both economically and politically. We could only survive by retreating into political and economic isolationism. Our place at the top table would be permanently vacated.
Yet this vita] and highly emotive issue is to be disposed of by a voting device of which we have no experience and which is contrary to our whole history of Parliamentary government.
Furthermore, the referendum raises a host of technical questions which have never been fully thought through and discussed either at the time Mr Tony Benn succeeded in foisting the idea on the Labour Party oh since.
What, for example, is to be the position of the Government'? Do they recominend the terms or do they not? Mr Wilson told the House of Commons that the Government would make up its mind on the issue but then immediately qualified this by saying that cabinet ministers would be free to dissent from the collective decision.
If, the dissent is widespread, even if the majority in the cabinet is for staying in the community, can there in any effective sense said to be a Government view? And what of the doctrine of Cabinet responsibility and unity? We have moved a long way from the time when the Duke of Wellington shut the Cabinet room door against his departing colleagues and informed them that it didn't 'natter what they said but they must all say the same thing.
True there is a constitutional precedent in the experiment of Ramsay Macdonald's Government in 1932, when the Liberals within the Cabinet were allowed to differ on the subject of tariff reform. Yet in practice the experiment did not work and the free trade Liberals left the Cabinet soon afterwards.
Lesson of polls
Another unresolved question is the fonn the question should take. Everyone knows from our experience of opinion polls that the answer depends on the phrasing of the question as much as on anything else. How arc the questions — for we are told there are to be two of them --to be phrased? And how are the votes to be counted? Arc they to be constituency by constituency or region by region or country by -country?
The pro-markcteers in the Labour Party through Mrs Shirley Williams have made it clear that they do not favour constituency counting. The reason is obvious: they would be put under extreme pressure by their activists in many cases to campaign against the cornmunity. And what of the majority? Suppose, for example, counting is by countries would a majority against the community in Northern Ireland cancel out a majority for the community in England or in Britain as a whole?
And what is the status of the referendum: can it bind Members of Parliament in their votes, whatever its result? The more one contemplates the constitutional morass to which we have so rashly been committed the more the mind boggles.
Yet worst of all is the contempt into which this odd political manoeuvre has brought US with our European partners. They know as well as we do that a solemn treaty has been signed by the British Government, that a commitment has been made on the part of the nation and that it is now pretended that this obligation can be scrapped.
Britain's contribution to the community was never envisaged to be economic but it was thought to be political. The members of the six wanted us in because they believed we would make a political contribution to the stability of the community. Flow sad and how ironic that the only contribution we are making is to weaken the community at a moment when political strength is needed more than ever. How shaming that it can never be said again that an English Government's word is a bond both for itself and for the nation.