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Viscount Mountgarret: My Lords, I should like to make a short intervention, not so much on the ability of Parliament to deal with this Bill--I am sure that I shall be corrected, but Parliament is omnipotent and the sovereign, through Parliament, passes laws that affect the whole country--but the fact that power used without consideration can easily be abused and not respected. Power that is used prudently and considerately with discretion is accepted far more easily than otherwise. One considers the major changes in the constitution that occurred in Wales and Scotland. The people of England were not asked about those changes although the matters relating to Wales and Scotland affected many of them. It is right that people should be asked specifically for their views.
On this issue there is no shadow of doubt in my mind that the people of this country should be asked. It is argued uphill and down dale that there is a mandate for it in the election manifesto, and that is a perfectly valid argument. I believe that the people of this country
I suspect that if people were asked whether they wished to throw away 800 years of constitutional history in the form of a House that provided an effective control over the executive, despite the observations of the noble Lord who just spoke, they would be extremely interested in the matter. Of course, people are very interested in health, education and many of the matters that affect their daily lives--quite rightly so--but I suspect that they are also interested in seeing that there is not unicameral government without an effective check on the legislature which, if this Bill is passed as it stands, will be the case. I believe that it is only right and proper that people should be asked, and for that reason I shall be right behind the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, if he chooses to press this amendment to a Division. It may be that because of what I have said he will think that it is probably better not to do so.
I agree with those who say that this change is as major as the changes in Scotland, Wales and London. I agree that people have not been able to discuss the issue and do not realise the implications. I agree that people are becoming worried about referendums. That is obvious. They have never liked them. Anyone who has taken part in a referendum campaign knows that one has to talk quite a lot about the question as one campaigns. One has to justify the fact that that enormous operation is taking place.
If one campaigned on this referendum, one would have to say, "You are voting on something which may last for only two or three years, but what worries those who have asked for the referendum is that it might last for 15 or 20 years". If we had said that in the Scottish referendum campaign, people would never again have wanted a referendum. I should have been sorry about that. It is a tool which sometimes has to be used. I have from time to time regretted that we have not had one. The recent referendum demonstrates that people are not too keen on having too many in too hot a succession.
On this issue, I do not believe that we should be doing a service to the public or democracy by having a referendum. I believe that we would do the public a disservice. Taking account of all the feelings about the issue at stake, I hope noble Lords will agree that this amendment should not be accepted.
I do not know whether, like me, in noble Lords' adolescence they became a fan of the Edwardian writer Saki. If your Lordships were, in the distant past, fans of that writer, no doubt you will remember the story entitled, The Great Weep. Noble Lords will remember that in the story there was a plague in the United
It came to pass that that happened; and so onerous was that new duty that there came into being an enormous political movement dedicated towards the revocation of the right to vote; and as a protest a great weep was organised outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. During the course of the agitation accompanying this protest, the prime minister came to the monarch, who advised the prime minister in the following terms: "Prime Minister, in politics it is sometimes worth knowing when to retreat"; and so it came to pass that the obligation to vote was revoked.
I remind your Lordships of that story for one simple reason. Of course the prime minister of the then monarch, Hermann the Irascible also called the Wise, was wrong in his feeling that the women should not be allowed to vote. But there was a great truth which the imaginary monarch encapsulated in his advice to his prime minister: that it is unwise to expect the electorate to do the duty of Parliament; and that there is a judgment to be made that the electorate of this country has other things on its mind but politics. That is perhaps a gauge of the political health of the nation: that the electorate feels able to delegate substantial powers of judgment to its representatives in Parliament.
My noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway feels that there should be a less limited opportunity than I do. In this modern age, I am not against the principle of the referendum on all matters, but the choice of the question which we submit to the judgment of the electorate in a referendum should be used with enormous care. The choice should be clear and on a matter of overwhelming importance. I yield to no one, least of all my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway, in my sense of the importance of your Lordship's House in any constitutional settlement. But a referendum on stage one, particularly given the Government's--in my view--foolish stance in their election manifesto is not a sufficient reason to submit the matter to a referendum. By that judgment the wisdom of Hermann the Irascible applies.
Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, we have been told that a referendum would result in a delay to the coming into force of the proposed Act of Parliament of at least two months. In such an important matter, is a delay of two months important? It seems to me that on such an important matter two months is neither here nor there. We have already heard many people tell us that referenda have been held recently on no less important constitutional matters. I think that that has created a precedent which cannot be disregarded in this case.
Finally, we have been told that the Government have made a great concession: they have accepted the Weatherill amendment. I am sorry, but I believe that the Government accepted the Weatherill amendment because it suited them to do so, whatever they have told us. It suited them for two reasons: first, it would enable them to get their business through; and, secondly, they realised that it would divide the opposition and so kill it.
Lord Desai: My Lords, this amendment reminds me of the time when I used to chair the Islington South and Finsbury Labour Party when on the management committee some people by a show of hands lost a Motion. They then decided to have a roll-call vote. When they lost that they decided that they must have a postal ballot. Until all the electorate had been consulted they were not willing to accept the obvious truth that they had lost.
As a number of noble Lords have said, the present Bill has arisen out of a manifesto commitment. They also said--and I did not agree with them--that Clause 2 had improved the Bill. Therefore, the Bill as previously approved by the electorate is new and improved. It will be strongly approved by this House and another place. I do not believe that after that procedure one should go through the arcane doctrine of expecting the public to take any interest just because we are being reformed.
Some noble Lords have said that if the public rediscovered how good we are, they will begin crying and gnashing their teeth and saying that we should stay here forever. In my view, sadly the opposite will happen. When one cares to ask the public what they think of us one discovers that it is not very much. They think that we in the House of Lords are asleep most of the time and that what we say is most obscure. I have always said that that is because this House lacks legitimacy and effectiveness and the Bill will make the House more legitimate and more effective. The sooner we pass this Bill, the sooner we shall be loved for our efficiency and not for the pomp.
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