We are all deeply aware that Britain now stands at a most critical point in her national and international fortunes.
Next week the Premiers of the member states of the European Community gather in Dublin for what is hoped will be the final discussion of the conditions which the Harold WilsonPrime Minister holds to be necessary if he and a majority of his Cabinet are to recommend continued British membership of that Community.
As always when he is negotiating with our overseas partners, I wish the Prime Minister success. But these are no ordinary negotiations, for they take place in the shadow of the Government's stated intention to submit its majority verdict on their outcome to the test of a national referendum—the first time that such a device has ever been employed in the history of our Parliamentary democracy.
A question of fundamental importance to the future of this country for a generation or more to come is being made to hang on the operation and outcome of an imported constituional device of which the British people have no experience whatsoever.
No doubt Mr. Wilson will return from Dublin claiming that his ‘renegotiated’ terms are vastly better than anything the last Conservative Government was able to achieve.
In fact, of course, they will be but the latest stage in a continuing process of adjustment between the members of what is essentially an evolving partnership. We all know that. [end p1]
But perhaps we should be charitable towards Mr. Wilson. After all, he needs the myth of totally new terms as a cover for what promises to be his third U-turn on the basic issue of Community membership since he became leader of the Labour Party.
For of course this basic issue is exactly the same as it was when this Government took office twelve months ago: is it in Britain's best interest to remain a member of the European Community of nations—or should we cut ourselves adrift and try to go it alone? If the Government has its way this basic question will be put in a national referendum this June. If so, the outcome will be crucial to the future of this country. And when the future of our country is at stake there can be no question of the Conservative Party standing aside.
As we look at our island history we see that our people have always been at their best when they have been outward-looking. A century ago we had the jewel of India, while enterprising Britons carried our flags, our trade, our culture, and our justice to the corners of the earth. Our Empire in turn grew into the British Commonwealth—a unique partnership of nations with us as its centre.
We are still proud of this partnership, though its members are now their own centres of influence with their own evolving trade pattern.
For political and economic power in the world today is based much more on continents than on oceans—and on populations the size of American, Western Europe, the Soviet Bloc, and now Japan. Where power resides, there must British influence be exerted.
And so it is, in this decade, that the pursuit of this traditional outward-looking role has brought us to exert our influence within the growing European Community of nations. That, in turn, has helped Europe to be outward-looking too. Who, looking at the recent agreement to help the developing countries of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, can deny that this is so?. And how significant it is that not one of our Commonwealth partners wishes us to quit this Community within which we are helping them to obtain their own favourable trading agreements. [end p2]
Over the past 200 years Britain has never been isolationist, and we must not become so now.
It fell to us, as a Conservative Government, to give fresh expression to Britain's historic role by leading our country into the European Community. If that great achievement is now to be challenged, then we as Conservatives must fight to defend it.
Three years ago we led the country in what came to be called the Great Debate on whether we should join the EEC. The result was an overwhelming majority in Parliament of 112 votes in favour of accepting the entry terms we had negotiated.
Now a Great Debate must start all over again—but this time against a background of far harsher world circumstances. And no longer is it a debate over whether we should go in, but rather, now that we are in, whether we should go through the traumatic experience of pulling out.
As the weeks go by the arguments will unfold, many similar to those deployed three years ago, yet with far sharper cutting edge in present world circumstances.
There will be the economic argument, based on our industry's need for unfettered access to this vast home market of 250 million people, representing 40 per cent of world trade and a third of our own exports.
What alternative trading base would there be for us if we pulled out? How would we ever regain our economic strength?
Already inflation and recession are adding to the ranks of the unemployed. How many thousands more would be forced out of work if we were to deny ourselves easy access to this European market? [end p3]
Then there will be the arguments about our food. Three years ago the fear was that EEC membership would drive up our shopping bills. They have been driven up all right, but not by our Community membership.
Now in a world of food shortages our pressing need is for more secure food supplies, which is what much of the Common Agricultural Policy is all about.
And there will be the argument over sovereignty, and the power to share in the great decisions that affect our daily lives at home and at work.
All these arguments, and many more. But there is one argument which must count very heavily with these in this audience here tonight—and that is the long-term opportunity which Community membership offers to our younger generation.
Of course the Community is not perfect. No human institution is. Yet this is one that is evolving and growing the whole time.
Not only British industry, but also those whose talents lie in commerce and the professions look to the new frontiers of Europe just as their forebears looked to those of North America, Africa and Australasia.
What comparable opportunities can a Britain in isolation possibly offer them?
If we are to have a national referendum—and the Government have yet to decide most of its details, let alone get the necessary Bill through Parliament—then I have no doubt that the younger generation will vote to stay in Europe with a resounding YES.
And let us not forget that the massive vote in the Commons for acceptance of the entry terms, was made up of Conservative, Liberal and many Labour MPs.
Until now I have spoken of our duty as Conservatives. [end p4]
But in the coming months we must be prepared to fight alongside all men and women of goodwill, from all parties and from none, who want to put the future of our country above partisan quarrels.
We shall not spurn allies. But we will fight the battle from the strength of our own conviction. And that conviction is that if we are true to our history, true to ourselves, but above all true to our children and our children's children, then we must ensure that an outward-looking Britain continues to exert her influence wherever it counts for most in the world.
That is the duty that now falls upon us.
We accept it gladly. And we shall not fail.