Dennis Skinner – 1975 Speech on European Referendum Bill

Below is the text of the speech made by Dennis Skinner, the Labour MP for Bolsover, in the House of Commons on 23 April 1975.

I have not taken part in the referendum debate or, on a more general note, in the Common Market debate for some time. The arguments have been made over and over again. They have changed a little.
I wish to say a few words as a result of having listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West (Mr. Buchan) speak about the way in which the European Movement is organising its funds. It is able to do what it is doing in sending letters to various bodies, particularly big business, because, as the Prime Minister has said, this is a unique situation. But we are attempting to conduct it along the lines of the normal general or local election techniques, and, haphazard though it may be, the people will expect, and they have every right to expect, that all the devices and methods used in a General Election will be used in this campaign. Already we are witnessing, as evidenced by the letter to which my hon. Friend referred, the way in which corruption and bribery can take place on a pretty grand scale.

One could argue that for some time people have been flown to Brussels and Strasbourg to try to win favours and influence people. One could equally argue that that is not in an election situation and to that extent it matters little. However, my impression is that, because the procedures laid down are not clear or as fundamentally as clear as in a General Election, this kind of practice will take place even after the Bill becomes law.

Therefore, the kind of capers in which the last Prime Minister indulged when, in halcyon days, he trotted round the marginal seats will pale by comparison with the way in which the media—and I refer to television, apart from the large national daily and weekly newspapers, which are at one on this issue—will combine to ensure that, if there is any chance of the people looking as if they will take Britain out of the Common Market, every means is used to convince them that what they are doing is wrong.

That is why I support the amendment, though not in the most forthright fashion, as I usually do—not that I am enamoured by the prospect of using taxpayers’ money for this purpose but because the campaign is so obviously unequal.

Some of the damage might be repaired if the amount granted to both sides were to be raised. However, no matter how much the taxpayer granted to the anti-Common Market side we could never match either in financial terms or in any other terms the amount of brainwashing and propaganda which are now taking place and which will continue to take place throughout the referendum campaign.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe) Will the hon. Gentleman deal with a suspicion that I have about the real reason why he is using such strong language? It seems that the anti-Europeans, who forced the device of the referendum on the country, now fear that they will be defeated by it and thereby hoist by their own petard. The more hard core of them are now preparing excuses for failure and are using words such as “corruption” and “bribery” and accusing the media of brainwashing the public and are laying the foundations or preparing the way for another unconstitutional device.

Mr. Skinner I shall for my own perhaps eccentric and personal reasons continue to hold my views, whatever the result. They are not necessarily the reasons held by others on these benches. What concerns me is the point I am leading up to. In the course of the past couple of days I have had brought to my attention a letter which is somewhat dissimilar to that which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West but which provides clear evidence of the way in which the Commission will try to influence, bribe and corrupt not only the British people who will cast their votes but those within the media who have the opportunity, power and influence to get their message across to an even greater degree.
The letter is headed Diplomatic and Commonwealth Writers Association of Britain”. It has been sent to members only, but some kind person from the Gallery sent it to me. The letter says: The Commission of the European Communities. A very attractive offer of a visit—all expenses paid—to the EEC in Brussels has been made by our friend and colleague, Michael Lake. It is open to all full members of the Diplomatic and Commonwealth Writers Association. The facility begins with Lunch on Wednesday, May 21, 1975. I would guess that by that time the Bill will have become law.

I know a little about illegal practice, not necessarily corruption. I have looked at the Representation of the People Act on many occasions, long before I came to Parliament. I know what it is like to be riding in a vehicle that has a PSV licence and to be hounded by the police and by the Opposition over a period of many months because of a very slight misdemeanour of which I was eventually proved to be innocent. I know what it is like.

In this referendum it is not a question of riding in a vehicle that has a PSV licence and taking part in a local election campaign. This is a matter which, according to some of my right hon. and hon. Friends and certainly according to hon. Members opposite, will settle the destiny of Britain, today’s children and future generations for ever and a day. There is some difference of view about that matter, but I will not go into that now.

The lunch which is to take place at 20 Kensington Palace Gardens—the Communities’ headquarters—will result in the party that takes part in this event being flown to Brussels followed by a discussion and a return on Friday, 23rd May. That is the kind of forum that is set for the people who will be writing all these glorious articles about why the British people should stay inside the Common Market. It is no different from the one that was organised by that company of which we used to hear so much, Clarkson’s, before it went bankrupt. It had all the writers that it could get hold of flown out to its holiday resorts in order that they could come back and write their articles in the nation’s Press and try to brainwash—

The Chairman Does the hon. Member mind if I deal with my point of order first? I hope the hon. Member from Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) will now relate his argument more to the question of the amount of money to be given in aid.

Mr. Skinner You are a very kind man, Mr. Thomas—

The Chairman Mr. Renton, on a point of order.

Mr. Renton Thank you, Mr. Thomas. My point of order was the same as yours.

Mr. Skinner I have been listening to what has taken place in this debate, Mr. Thomas, before you came into the Chair, and I am answering many of the points which have been made in the debate. What I was saying in the analogy that I was drawing recently was that this is a device by which the British Press managed to get their point of view across. I have no doubt that unless what is happening is brought to the attention not only of the House of Commons—that matters little—but of the British people generally, it will continue unabated and at a pace which we have never experienced before. This referendum campaign is so unique, and people will think that they have got the licence and the opportunity to do what they like. Coupled with the kind of references made by my hon. Friend the Member for Renfrewshire, West to the granting of tax relief—[Interruption.] Well, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has answered my hon. Friend, but I have the impression that the answer my hon. Friend read tonight, and which he showed to me earlier, is not as conclusive as some of us would like. Indeed, many of the Chancellor’s answers on these tax matters cannot be accepted because he is not the man who in the end will deal with the points that have been raised.

Mr. Ridley Why is the hon. Member complaining about one-sidedness in this matter? After all, the Trades Union C. Congress went to very great expense in inviting Mr. Shelepin here—

The Chairman Order. References to Mr. Shelepin are a long way from the point.

Mr. Skinner I do not wish to comment on the hon. Gentleman’s intervention except to say that there has been some talk of us doing our best not to get involved in personalities in this campaign but to concentrate on the policies which divide us. I believe that that is what we must attempt to do. These irrelevancies and red herrings which have been thrown about are not matters with which we should concern ourselves.

I wish to stress that in view of the sum of the disclosures we have heard, we are bordering very close to what could be described as standing four square against Sections 99 and 100 of the Representation of the People Act. Section 100 states, in respect of treating—and this refers to the letter which I read earlier— A person shall be guilty of treating if he corruptly, by himself or by any other person, either before, during or after an election”— and we must assume that this relates to the campaign— directly or indirectly gives or provides, or pays wholly or in part the expense of giving or providing, any meat, drink, entertainment or provision to or for any person—

(a) for the purpose of corruptly influencing that person or any other person to vote or refrain from voting; or
(b)on account of that person …”—

The Chairman Order. I was hoping that the hon. Gentleman had finished reading that. He must relate the argument more directly to the amount of aid to be given.

Mr. Skinner On one side of the argument there is evidence to suggest that money is being used to try to influence people’s votes in the referendum. I am describing the way in which, as set out in the Representation of the People Act, such infringements can result in corrupt practices being proved. In respect of treating, this is conclusive. Therefore, it directly relates to the question of how much money should be allocated by the taxpayer to see that it is a fair fight.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Hemel Hempstead) Perhaps I may assist my hon. Friend on the matter of the letter inviting journalists and writers to Brussels. The European Commission may be wasting its money and ours. My hon. Friend will recall the well-known doggerel: You cannot hope to bribe or twist, Thank God, the British journalist. But seeing what he will do unbribed, There’s no occasion to.

Mr. Skinner My hon. Friend makes a better job of the argument than I do. I was just concluding paragraph (b), which says—

The Chairman Order. The hon. Gentleman need not continue to read it, because we are dealing not with how money is spent but with how much is to be contributed. The amendments are in clear language. Therefore, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will confine his argument to the contribution that shall be made.

Mr. Skinner The people who sent out the letter to which I have referred may well consider that the £125,000 apiece is enough, on the basis that they have plenty more. With respect, that is relevant to this argument. Therefore, we must ensure, whatever happens throughout the rest of this week and when the Bill becomes law, that the referendum is fought along the lines of General Elections or local government elections. Otherwise, many people will feel considerable doubt about whether it was a fair and balanced fight, in which each side had an opportunity to express its views through the media and elsewhere.

We believe that already one side has tremendous amounts of money at its disposal, even to the extent of having money from the taxpayer through the various grants made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Industry, and possibly in tax relief. We believe that the balance is tilted to one side and that the only reparation we can make is to ensure that we obtain more money for our side, to reduce the present vast gap.