June 15, 2005
Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make my first speech in this House.
Mr. Nick Hurd (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to make my first speech in this House. In doing so, I am conscious that in their very different ways the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) have raised the bar to an ambitious height. Although both are no longer in their places, I congratulate them on their contributions to a debate that ought to be addressing one of the great political challenges of our time: how does the European Union reconnect with its people and what role does Britain play in that process? I speak from the delicate position of being both the son of the Foreign Secretary who negotiated the Maastricht treaty and the successor of John Wilkinson, who fought that treaty tooth and nail through the Lobby. It is a genuine pleasure to pay tribute to John, and in so doing I beg the indulgence of more seasoned Members of the House who are waiting to contribute to the debate.
It would be quite wrong to cast John as an anti-European. He campaigned vigorously for our entry into the Common Market and some of the greatest satisfaction in his parliamentary career came from his work on the Council of Europe. He simply felt that the European project was heading in the wrong direction, and he would enjoy the irony of the fact that the majority of the people in France appear to share his view.
John has been a very good model for a young politician working out how to earn the respect of the people whom he intends to serve. His commitment to country and public service is deeply rooted. He brought real expertise to this place. Jeremy Hanley, an ex-Defence Minister and now a constituent, observed “his knowledge of the RAF and its capabilities is probably second to none in the house.”
He was no one’s poodle. His fierce independence of mind may have cost him some shallow glory on the Front Benches, but it won him the long-term admiration of his constituents. They simply trusted him to speak his mind. Over 25 years of service, John was a dedicated local champion who helped many people with endless supplies of courtesy, good humour and patience. Every week I meet individuals and groups who lose no time in reminding me of that. I am sure that the House will join me in wishing John and Ceci a very happy retirement.
I am very proud to have inherited the constituency of Ruislip-Northwood from John Wilkinson. Sitting on the western end of the Central, Piccadilly and Metropolitan lines, it is superbly connected to London but proud to keep a distance. Few constituencies are more regularly visited by the royal family or senior members of the Government, although I should point out that their journeys rarely extend beyond the mile that it takes them to travel from the A40 to RAF Northolt. That famous airbase celebrates this year its 90th anniversary and the proud distinction of being the oldest continually operational RAF station in the country.
The story of Ruislip-Northwood is one of evolution from sleepy rural hamlets to thriving suburban towns, which are determined to maintain their identity and quality of life. The key agents of change were the railwaymen and the property developers who followed in their wake. The extension of the Metropolitan line opened up rural Middlesex and the opportunity for people to pursue the dream of a better quality of life, more space, better air and a greater sense of security, and those aspirations remain as valid today as they were in the late 19th century. Northwood is separated from Ruislip by magnificent ancient woods that once provided sport for kings. Harefield stands apart, surrounded by precious green belt, and it is proud to be the last village in Middlesex and home to the world-famous Harefield heart hospital.
My constituency may have played a quiet role in our nation’s history, but it is not without its heroes: the Polish war memorial honours those brave Polish fliers based at RAF Northolt who laid down their lives for a free Europe; the genius of Sir Magdi Yacoub attracted the brightest and the best to push the boundaries of medicine at Harefield hospital; and Paul Strickland’s vision and drive means that patients at Mount Vernon cancer centre have access to the most sophisticated scanning equipment in the country.
On the whole, our heroes are low-profile, local people who have stood up for what they value over the years and who have done far more to shape their communities than any politician sitting in Whitehall, let alone Brussels. In the 1930s, Ruislip residents took decisive action in saving their woods from being turned into houses, which meant going to Cambridge and persuading the then bursar of King’s college Cambridge, one J Maynard Keynes, to sell the land to them rather than to the developers.
In 1983, local residents took the drastic step of physically occupying Northwood Pinner hospital for three months until the bureaucrats saw sense and abandoned plans to close it. Today that spirit lives on in organisations such as Heart of Harefield, which has been so effective in exposing the folly of trying to move Harefield hospital to Paddington. The tradition of civic pride is rooted in a strong conviction that the quality of life in Ruislip, Eastcote, Northwood and Harefield is worth fighting for. I strongly share that conviction, and it is my privilege and responsibility to give those communities a strong voice in this place.
The clearest message that I heard in the general election was one of frustration and lack of confidence in politicians. People feel less able to control what is important to them, and the big decisions seem to be taken by remote, unaccountable bureaucracies. For example, the public consultations on the future of Harefield hospital and Mount Vernon hospital were widely seen as shams conducted by an increasingly arbitrary and remote NHS. Few issues arouse more local passion than planning, not least because local planning departments seem so toothless in the face of central Government directives. People are deeply worried about increased antisocial behaviour and want to see more police on the streets, but their voice appears to have little weight in shaping local police priorities. My concern is that communities that do not feel empowered quickly lose their sense of community.
You may well ask, Mr. Deputy Speaker, what relevance that point has to the future of the European Union. The EU has begun to symbolise what people feel is wrong with politics: it is too elite; it is too remote; and it is seen as too self-interested and too corrupt. Over the past decade, the British people have recognised the degree to which Europe meddles in their lives, and they want less interference rather than more.
The current European leadership reminds me of the board of a grand multinational company that has lost contact with its customer base over many years. The decision by the French people has prompted a crisis in the boardroom and a vacuum of leadership. It is time for someone to stand up and make the case that this is the opportunity to save the company, if the board accepts the need for a new strategy.
Instead of appearing to focus endlessly on its own workings and the allocation of power, the EU must prove its value to a new generation. I argue humbly that it must first explicitly ditch the principle of ever-closer political union and focus instead on re-establishing the EU’s credentials as a force for prosperity, growth and jobs. That means winning the argument for the Anglo-Saxon model of economic liberalism, which is the only sustainable response to the new competitive age. That means focusing minds on extending the single market, breaking down external tariffs and strengthening the economic ties that will do more to bind us together than any artificial political structure. It also requires a fundamentally different approach to regulation. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) pointed out so powerfully, it asks very awkward questions about the value of monetary union.
The second priority, I would suggest, is to prove that the EU can deliver an effective lead on some of the issues that we cannot tackle on our own, because that is a large part of what it is for. Take climate change, for example. The science has moved on, and there is an urgent need to look beyond the first, very small step that was Kyoto. It is clear that the world is not going to get a lead from the superpower. In this vacuum, the EU has a chance to play a constructive and possibly decisive role in building a coalition of the willing around a post-Kyoto framework. It can certainly take practical steps to put words into action. If, for example, we have to live with the common agricultural policy, is not there a case for using it to incentivise the production of biofuels? A robust EU emissions trading scheme could be, and must be, a template for a global scheme.
In short, it is time for the EU to be seen to be taking a lead on the difficult issues that matter to people. It is time for radical reform to replace a culture of power grab with one of delivering tangible benefits to people. In truth, real progress will require new leadership, and in the short term only Britain can supply it until a new generation of leaders takes the stage in France and Germany. While the old regime struggles to respond to the impudence of the French and Dutch people, it is time for Britain to find a bold, positive voice on the EU—one that steers the Community towards better defining its role, setting its limits much more clearly and, above all, proving its relevance and value to the people who pay for it.
If I can compare the nations of Europe to the inhabitants of the 100 acre wood, I would say that Britain has traditionally and usefully played the role of Eeyore, but it is now time to show some of Tigger’s bounce in pointing the way forward. In 1999, the Prime Minister threw down this challenge:
“If we believe our destiny is with Europe, then let us leave behind the muddling through … the half-heartedness … and play our part with confidence and pride”.
If ever there was a time for him to walk his talk, it is now.