Patrick Nicholls: Fishing. My part in the movement to take control of it back from the EU.

Patrick Nicholls was MP for Teignbridge, and is a former Government Minister.

Even as EU negotiators repeat their demands for a trade deal in ever more bellicose terms, a ‘right deal’ would surely be preferable to no deal.

So right on cue, Michel Barnier suggests a compromise; it’s ‘fish for finance.’ After all, Britain’s fishing industry is miniscule, whereas our finance industry is vast. But the Brexit project is not fundamentally about money; it’s about restoring to the British people the right to govern themselves by electing and dismissing the politicians who govern their lives. How was it that in 1975, we seemingly surrendered that right?

The answer is that the British people were systematically deceived both as to the nature of the Union and what had been surrendered in the matter of fishing policy. In short, the British people were betrayed by the Conservative leadership of the day.

That’s why Boris Johnson must get this right, and to his credit he’s never sought to suggest that ‘stiffing’ what’s left of the British fishing industry is just a ‘cruel necessity,’ an unfortunate but unavoidable exercise in realpolitik.  Johnson was only eight years old in 1972; no guilt attaches to him, unless by betraying the fishing industry a second time, he chooses to endorse and embrace that earlier guilt.

After 1975, it became clear that ‘Europe’ was becoming more than a mere trading block, as it looked towards a Common Foreign Policy and even a single European currency. When I entered government in 1987, what had started off as the Common Market was already morphing into the European Union of 1993.

My belief that it was ‘Europe,’ not Great Britain, that had arbitrarily changed the rules was shattered when I found myself on a plane to Paris to deliver a speech at a ‘European’ event. My officials had put a copy of the Treaty of Rome in my Red Box, which I read for the first time and there it was; the Common Market was not the last step in the march to a free trade block, but the first step towards a United States of Europe.

Some two years, or so, later, under the 30 years rule, the Government revealed correspondence between Edward Heath, then President of the Board of Trade and the minister in charge of Britain’s unsuccessful 1961 bid to join the Common Market, and the Lord Chancellor, Lord Kilmuir, in which Kilmuir had specifically warned Heath that he had mislead the country when he had said that accession to the Treaty of Rome had no constitutional implications.

Lord Kilmuir advised Heath that ‘the surrenders of sovereignty … should be brought out into the open now because if we attempt to gloss them over at this stage, those who are opposed to the whole idea of joining the community will certainly seize on them with more damaging effect later on.” Kilmuir’s advice was ignored.

On Sunday, December 12th 1971, Geoffrey Rippon, as Heath’s Chief Negotiator on the Common Market, concluded the fisheries negotiations. The following day, Rippon told the House of Commons that the deal he had struck made it clear that “we retain full jurisdiction over the whole of our coastal waters up to 12 miles.” What Rippon did not tell ,the House was that this ‘derogation’ was, merely an exception limited to 10 years.

Thus the betrayal was complete, but a later generation of Conservative MPs, were determined to seek redress.

In 1998, I was moved to the Shadow Agriculture team. By then, the Conservative Parliamentary Party was becoming increasingly concerned at the inadequacy of the Party’s approach on the CFP. At the annual ‘set piece’ debate on fisheries each December, the Conservative Opposition, compromised by its record in government had nothing to offer, other than critical platitudes. By 1998, the party had had enough of it. .

I was therefore given the fisheries brief and told to work up something more imaginative before the next debate in December 1998.

I concluded that repudiating the CFP, i.e ‘repatriating fisheries policy in UK waters to the UK Parliament,’ was the only way forward. We had joined the Common Market by passing the European Communities Act 1972. Therefore what Parliament had done, Parliament could undo, either in whole or in part, by amending the Act.

A magic circle firm of solicitors advised me pro bono, that legally I was right, but that in political reality the 1972 Act should be regarded as both irrevocable and irreversible.

On the morning of the Fisheries debate on December 15th 1998, I briefed the shadow ministerial team in general terms as to what I had in mind, with fisheries policy being included in a broader programme of ‘repatriation of powers.’

What was usually a fairly boring debate, proved to be anything but. As I responded to the Minster’s opening remarks and it became obvious that what I was proposing was the unilateral amendment of the 1972 Act, the atmosphere became increasingly bad-tempered and fractious, as the Opposition realised that for the first time since Britain’s accession to the CFP, the Conservative Party had not just criticised the Government, but had actually proposed a solution.

The noise level went through the roof and for the first and only time in my parliamentary career, the ‘chair’ had to come to my assistance, with Speaker Martin shouting above the din, “Order Order, There’s far too much background noise in the Chamber which is unfair to the Honourable Gentleman who is addressing the House.”

Such was the reaction of ‘Old Guard’ Conservative europhiles immediately after the debate that it looked as if I might be dismissed before the evening was out for exceeding my brief, and my speech repudiated in its entirety. In fact, it was a ‘close-run thing,’ but ultimately the support of eurosceptic MPs, many of whom had been in the Chamber, was enough to save me.

Subsequently, the Opposition Leader, William Hague, proved most enthusiastic. It was not to last. In 2000, I resigned from the Shadow team, as I had told William Hague I would when he first appointed me, to concentrate on saving my seat. It didn’t work, and in 2001 I was back in ‘civvy street’ and the policy change was nuanced into oblivion.

The debate of December 15th 1998 was the first time, the Conservative Party had offered an honest diagnosis of the EU problem, All that was required was a Prime Minister with the determination to fix it.

Righting this historic wrong to our fishing industry may prove the first real test of Boris Johnson’s resolution. I don’t think for one moment that he’ll prove unequal to the task.

Patrick Nicholls’ new paper on fisheries (of which this is an abridgement) is in a compilation out shortly on the Red Cell website.

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