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Lord Patten: My Lords, I am very glad to follow the noble Lord, Lord Radice, who is always very thoughtful in what he says. I have believed that in the years I have been in your Lordships' House and, indeed, in listening to him over many years in another place. But I do not agree with the noble Lord. I have always believed that the referendum was right. That guides me to think that my noble friend's Bill comes at a very apposite time.

I am no self-regarding constitutional expert, but I have a longstanding concern about the way in which our constitutional arrangements in this country are going. That is why my noble friend's Bill is so important. It is seeking to embed the principle that no government can ratify a European constitution without popular assent. Further, the Bill seeks to ensure that a referendum to measure popular opinion is held within a reasonable time, which is very important indeed and a point powerfully made by my noble friend, Lord Laidlaw, in his notable maiden speech.

I take the mildest of issue with my noble friend's Bill on one point, however. I think that three months is a quite reasonable length of time—a point we might explore in Committee—rather than the four months proposed in the Bill.

Equally, my noble friend's Bill will ensure that any referendum is held as soon as possible before a general election. That is not a political point. Rather, it is a constitutional point, for we have the present Prime Minister seeking to take a decision to bind the hand of a successor government who may be there after the next general election. That strikes me as profoundly constitutionally improper.

This decision to hold but delay a referendum, characteristically, was reportedly taken by the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister on the spur of the moment during one of his holidays. I cannot remember which pop singer's mansion or media magnate's villa was the scene for this Pauline conversion from anti to pro referendum, but it was the scene that should be remembered by future constitutional historians as one of those little constitutional tipping points—trying to introduce a decision to hold a referendum when there may be another government in power, and yet expecting his decision to be binding. I believe that to be wrong. I do
 
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not think that our constitutional arrangements should be subject to the whim of any Prime Minister. That is exactly what my noble friend's Bill seeks to prevent. I congratulate him on that.

I also believe that this sort of Bill is vital to lend wind to a growing movement to seek to control the present Government's often ad hoc, lightweight and sometimes absolutely frivolous attitude to constitutional change. We need to try to re-establish, as one or two earlier speakers said, the principle of care and consideration in constitutional matters, in exactly the way that my noble friend's Bill seeks to do. Your Lordships will, I see, have a further opportunity to explore these issues, if you like and if you wish, on Wednesday, 15 September, during an Unstarred Question debate on the constitution.

We can see exactly these parallel pressures in other EU member states. In Germany, for example, there must be a two-thirds majority of both Houses to bring about constitutional change. There, the unloved—or so I am told—Social Democratic Government have said that if they can get the majorities in both Houses to allow a referendum to be called, there will be one early in 2005, not delayed into the middle distance as Mr Blair seeks to do.

The noble Lord, Lord Radice, referred to the recent findings of the Foreign Policy Centre and its MORI poll. His natural delicacy prevented him from fully reporting to the House all of the findings of that MORI poll commissioned by the Foreign Policy Centre, of which the Prime Minister is a patron. On 6 September, it reported that Mr Blair was a liability to any "yes" campaign over the EU constitution. It is no wonder he seeks to delay the referendum.

Lord Radice: My Lords, as I had the honour of writing the foreword to that document, I may have the advantage over the noble Lord in that I have actually read it. It does not say that. It says that if a referendum is to be won, it will have to be based on an all-party coalition. It cannot be won by the Labour Party or the Prime Minister alone, or indeed by the Liberal Democrats or the pro-European Conservatives—of whom there are some—alone. It needs to be based on a coalition. That is what it actually said.

Lord Patten: My Lords, we can debate the issues during the referendum itself. As reported, however, the MORI poll said that the Prime Minister himself would be a liability if he was leading that campaign.

To wish to listen to people really must not be represented as being anti-European. I think that that is wrong, and I am conscious that the noble Lord, Lord Radice, has not done that. It certainly should not be represented as being xenophobic. Indeed, I took part in these debates in the 1970s as well. I well remember making my first ever political speech in the 1975 referendum. I can remember the place—one does remember these things. It was in the village hall at Wootton under Boars Hill near Oxford. There was an enthralled audience of four to listen to my words. There was the local Conservative Party agent checking
 
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up on my speaking ability, there was the caretaker, and there was the caretaker's dog. Little is known of the fourth person.

After thus demonstrating my European credentials, I really do not wish to be told that I am somehow anti-European, that there are the sounds of men in flapping white coats or that I am going to miss some mythical bus if I wish to pause and consider these important political and constitutional issues and bring them to a decision.

There is a world of difference between the extremes of the uglier forms of nationalism and wishing to balance the interests of our nation with those of any organisation to which we may become more and more treaty-bound. I was much struck in August by a story told me by an alarmed friend who is a senior political figure in one of the larger recent European accession states—exactly one of the countries to which the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, referred in his speech. He was very keen for his country to join the European Union but, on going to Brussels for the first time, was told by an equally leading figure there that it really was no longer "helpful"—a.k.a. politically correct—for my friend to talk of his country any more. It would be much more helpful to use the phrase, "the country that I know best".

It is no wonder to me, in the face of that sort of thing, that some people—completely wrongly, in my mind—have, if not actually become xenophobic, felt that their sense of place has become so threatened that they should flee to the United Kingdom Independence Party. I greatly regret that. There is no point in beating about the bush: some of the people who have gone to UKIP are ex-Conservatives. In some constituencies—again, there is no point in beating about the bush—those movements of people have lost us seats to other parties, paradoxically in so doing making some of the very constitutional and other policy changes that they do not want that much more likely in Europe. Self-inflicted wounds? I do not know, but certainly not the best judged party-political change.

So another reason that I support my noble friend's Bill is that it puts Tory thinking firmly back to where it used to be and always should be: back in to the constitutional driving seat. I hope that it may persuade some who have flirted with UKIP in the past to avoid doing so again in future and persuade them that the Conservative Party is now a party of constitutional protection, which it always was and always should be, and that we should have their vote, as the Bill has mine.

One last point. Sometimes, political issues that have been buried for years or generations ignite and take off. I think that the constitutional issue will be one of exactly those matters. People with strong constitutional interests have too often been thought to be the sort of people who inhabit seminar rooms, not bar rooms. I think that in future months and years, and especially during the referendum campaign that my noble friend's Bill is intended to promote, the constitutional issue will roar up the political agenda in a way that I predict will surprise the governing party very much indeed.
 
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12.23 p.m.

Lord Sewel: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, in introducing the debate and presenting his Bill for Second Reading, made much of the point that he sought to be helpful to Her Majesty's Government. Frankly, pull the other one. If ever I have heard a declaration of political mischief-making, that was it.

I really want to focus my contribution on the four-month provision that the Bill would enshrine. If we look at the contributions that have been made so far, the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, himself said that it was important that the issues are properly considered and not rushed through. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, has just said that it is important that we have care and consideration when we move forward on constitutional issues. I agree with both noble Lords. The only trouble is that one of them wants four months and the other one wants three months. How we can get care, consideration and due diligence about the issues to be presented before the electorate over a period that, I think, ends at the end of February is honestly beyond me. The point that has been continually made by my noble friends is the role of Parliament in the whole process. It is absolutely fundamental that we have a refined mechanism, a developed parliamentary democracy, where issues of great importance are subject to parliamentary scrutiny and debate, which teases out and informs the issues in the debate among the wider electorate.

The noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw, in an excellent maiden speech, made the point that he hoped that the referendum would be settled on the basis of a high turnout. So do I. The noble Lord said that he had been away from the United Kingdom and Scotland for so long. I must point out that a number of us in the Chamber today have connections with more Highland Scotland. January and February are not the best months to go around Highland Scotland arguing the case for or against, in all honesty. But let us go forward.

There are perhaps three dimensions that ought to be taken into account in considering the length of time for public debate in the lead-up to the referendum. They are: the importance of the issue—perhaps not the importance of the substantive issue, because I join many of my noble friends in saying that the treaty as such, in its substantial issues, is not as important as other treaties that have developed our European identity and relationship. But the outcome will be of fundamental importance because it will determine and be a test of the approach of the British people in their relationship to Europe. That is an issue of importance and needs to be developed over time.

There is also the issue of complexity. What concerns me in that area is that we have heard today some of the many myths that surround the treaty as such. Does it automatically mean membership of the euro? Do we lose our seat at the United Nations?—a question dealt with by my noble friend Lord Radice. In a way, the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, let the cat out of the bag because he very much linked the treaty with the creation of a super-European state. That is
 
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fundamentally wrong and misconceived. So we will need time and scrutiny to enable some of the myths to be dispensed with before the actual issues within the treaty can be properly assessed.

The third element is the extent to which there is real division within the country. It ill-serves us to move quickly and precipitously to determine an issue where we know that there are real differences of view, deeply and sincerely held, on both sides of the question throughout the country. It would be an abuse of process if that division was not recognised through having a longish period of reflection before a final outcome is decided.

So on all these points, the argument is against something that would culminate in a decision being made on some winter's day in February. There is a process and a place for a referendum in this whole business. That comes at the end of the period of public debate following robust parliamentary scrutiny. I cannot support the Bill.


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