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Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, a speech without an intervention by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, is rather like junketthe
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pudding which I so much disliked as a childto which rennet has not been added. But I none the less welcome the initiative taken by the noble Lord, Lord Blackwell, in introducing this debate, which allows us to focus upon the issue of the timing of the referendum.
Before I turn to his arguments, I have the very pleasant opportunity of welcoming the maiden speech of the noble Lord, Lord Laidlaw. His angle of vision is one drawn from many parts of the world. No doubt he will use future opportunities to draw our attention to matters he has learnt on his overseas sojourns, which will be greatly enlightening. I believe I heard him say that he has a residence in France. It will be interesting to hear his opinion of the French point of view about the developing European debate.
The maiden speech of my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury was a most distinguished introduction to the House. It was fortunate that we heard from her lips, as we might have expected, such a wide-ranging appreciation of the context of the debate on the future of Europe. As has been noted, she comes from a long and distinguished line of Liberals. Her presence here will greatly strengthen the ranks of my right honourable and honourable friends. We very much welcome what she has to say.
The timing of the referendum is clearly important, but I take issue with the suggestion that it is all over bar the shouting and that we ought to have a referendum if not now, then as near to now as can be managed.
The noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, deployed the democratic arguments based upon the appreciation of the historic difficulties of holding referenda and, indeed, elections in midwinter. On that I can only agree with everything that he said. It seems, however, that there are further reasons. They relate to the general lack of information about the content of the constitutional settlement which was agreed so recently. The White Paper, which has just come out, has not been read, I imagine, by very many people who have contributed to this debate, never mind its contents being spread around the country.
I do, as I have on previous occasions, congratulate the Government on the extent to which they have made Parliament the forum for an important part of this debate, both through the work of the Select Committees of this House and by frequent Statements and debates on the changing situation. It is no less important, now that the decision will lie with the public, to have a continuation of this parliamentary debate, as we must, if we are to seek to ratify the treaty in legislation. I hope that there will be further written material of the kind which has been suggested by more than one contributor; an annotated treaty pointing to the extent to which the treaty builds upon the existing principal constitutional treaties to which the Governments of successive Ministers and Prime Ministers have signed up. That will, if nothing else, put to rest the kind of canards which are in circulation about the new constitutional treaty, such as the idea that the supremacy of European law in our own courts is a novel departure.
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The second difficulty on communication, which also underlines the need for a proper time for the debate, concerns the shortcomings of our own British press. It has not covered the development of the debate on the European constitution with anything like the detailed attention that was paid to it by newspapers in a number of other member countries of the Union, notably France. Le Monde, among other papers, frequently devoted two pages to detailed discussion of the particular issues that were being considered, how they were being decided and why they were being decided in that way. I do not think that we can overcome that historical gap in information overnight, but we must attempt to have a properly informed debate in the media to which people listen. That includes Parliament; it also includes the broadcasters and the written press.
The content of the debate to be decided will, of course, range more widely than on the actual nature and detail of the constitutional document itself. There is some risk that if there is a very short discussion, the public will be invited to accept characterisations of the constitutional treaty which bear very little resemblance to the actuality when it is looked at in close detail.
I listened with particular interest to the philosophical discourse from the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, this morning, in which he purported to suggestindeed, he did suggestthat this document was running counter to the political philosophy, the spirit of our times, in rejecting what he sees as the neo-liberal consensus in this country and going for something that smacked more of what he described as the views of the well intentioned popes. With very great respect, I suggest that the well intentioned popes, who have informed the thinking of this constitutional treaty on the doctrine of subsidiarity, deserve a great deal of attention for what the treaty has done. As has been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, it underpinned the notion that power should be exercised as closely as possible to the people. The question is, what is possible? Those who suggest, as did the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, that the treaty was in some way defective in not seeking to transfer powers from the European Union to national or sub-national levels failed, as they always fail, to say which powers it is necessary so to transfer.
It has to be said that when that point was put firmly to the British Conservative representative on the Convention on the Future of Europe, he came back with a suggestion that education should be transferred wholly back to national level. That view was not accepted when it was understood that it would have ruled out the possibility of student exchanges being managed within the context of the European Union as a matter of European policy.
The fundamentalism of the approach that is embraced by those who think and speak like the noble Lord, Lord Rees-Mogg, smacks not of Lockean neo-liberalism but rather of anarchic Hobbeseanism, in which individualism is unbridled and there is no recognition that power has to be exercised and that effective power, in many matters European, in many
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matters which touch all member states of the European Union, can best be exercised by those countries acting in concert. That is what has been the actuality of the European Union's operations. That is why it seeks to embrace responsibilities for handling terrorism; why it seeks to concert its common foreign and security policy; and why it seeks to concert and bring together, in action, measures to deal with such sensitive issues as immigration. If we do not take cognisance of these developments since Bismarckeven since, if I may say it, Locke, who took refuge in the Netherlands from a British government who did not look with favour upon his writingswe are out of touch with our times and the demands of our times.
There is one risk in the way in which this argument is being presented. The Government, through misplaced machismo, might seek to persuade the British people that we can always get our way in Europe. There is just a slight flavour of that coming through the White Paper. The actuality is that what happened was done by consensus. Yes, the Government are right to claim that their principal negotiating objectives were achieved, but it is not a matter of them and us. The more that image is projected by Ministersthat we go there, we beat these so-and-sos round the head and we winthe more we sustain the impression that we are locked in a battle against our European partners.
Frankly, that would be counter-productive to the objectives of the Government themselves. Happily, it does not conform to the way in which negotiations tend to be conducted. It is essentially a matter of presentation, but presentation will become greatly important in the period during which we are seeking to persuade our fellow citizensin Britain as in Europethat what has been done is good for us and for them.
What will be the consequences of the outcome of this referendum? I cannot predict them, and at this stage it would be a foolish person who looked into a crystal ball and predicted the majority view of our country. However, I do not take the somewhat patronising view projected by those in favour of a speedy conclusion of the debate that this is all over bar the shouting and that the British public wish to live in a muddled post-Nice-Treaty sphere. Nor do I think that the British public will agree, when they see the consequences of our being excluded from so many debates. We should be in no doubt that whatever the outcome of the referendum in this country, the bulk of what is decided will be accepted throughout Europe. We shall be an offshore island not sure whether to tack ourselves to the White House and the Pentagon or whether to go as plaidoyer to Brussels asking for a special hearing. Neither is a posture or a role for a proud nation state.
The consequences of the referendum being won by those who favour the adoption of the constitution are highly positive not least because, to reflect what was said by my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter of Yarnbury, it would help to put to rest, certainly for the long term, the issue of what our relationship should be with the European Union. That is the underlying core argument for having this debate. Too much
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uncertainty has now developed about this country's relationship due to too many people cavilling about too many aspects of the European Union's rule making. That these cavils may themselves be well founded sometimes blots out the wider recognition of the goals of the Unionthe achievements such as peace and prosperity. Those were the powerful arguments that moved my noble friend Lady Bonham-Carter to speak as she did in her most distinguished speech.
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