Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

4.45 pm

Lord Leach of Fairford: I am certainly not advocating the daily or weekly use of referendums, but I thought I heard from one or two noble Lords remarks about voters not being well informed enough to take the same wise decisions as Parliament. I stand by what I said.

We talk here about codecision and structured co-operation, article this and article that. I have myself been guilty of that twice today. Millions of our countrymen are not familiar with this arcane private language, but that does not entitle us to brush them aside. The ordinary voter has a pretty good grasp of what is really at stake here. Travel abroad shows them different conditions in Germany and Spain; prices and the jobs market give them a pretty good feel for the trade-off between inflation and recession at home. The only real reason to oppose this amendment would be to clear the way to adopt the euro without consulting the people. As recently as last September, Gordon Brown and David Miliband both repeated their promise that they would not do that. I was glad of that. For reasons not quite clear to me, they said that the currency was of even more constitutional significance than the Lisbon treaty. Nevertheless, the people have already been led up the garden path once on the constitution and disappointed in their expectations.

Lord Clinton-Davis: Is there not an effective sanction in the form of a general election? If, for example, a party misleads the people, it will be slung out of office. Is that, rather than a referendum, not a satisfactory approach?

20 May 2008 : Column 1381

Lord Leach of Fairford: I am grateful for that intervention. It could be satisfactory if the election were immediately to precede a move to adopt this, that or the other measure. But if the election comes two or three years later, the bird may already have flown and it may be far too late. I think that that would be the case here.

The expectations of the people have been disappointed once. It must not happen again. I have pleasure in supporting the amendment.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: Before the noble Lord sits down, will he accept that the reason why Dicey, previously an academic authority on the constitution, changed his mind about the relationship between Parliament and referenda was because he became violently opposed to devolution to Ireland and feared that the coalition which held the majority in the British Parliament would not prevent devolution, so moved to propose a referendum in order to get around Parliament?

Lord Leach of Fairford: I can only thank the noble Lord very much for the history lesson.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: I support my noble friend Lord Blackwell. I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Brittan is not in his place. I disagreed with much of what he said but one thing he said, which was very true and revealing, was that people’s attitude towards referenda is usually coloured by their view of the result. I am sure that one of the reasons that the Liberals and the Labour Party have reneged on their promise in their manifesto to provide a referendum on the treaty is because they know what the result would be—the people would reject it. That is the most reprehensible aspect of this debate.

To suggest that my noble friend’s amendment means that we are moving towards a kind of Swiss canton system with regular referendums is ridiculous. Surely there is a clear principle here. It is not what my noble friend suggested—that Parliament is always sovereign and that supporting referendums somehow contradicts the belief of its sovereignty, which is a view I share. It is, rather, that it is not for Parliament to give away the powers which have been entrusted to it by the people without the people’s consent. There is no question that the treaty achieves that and, were we to join the euro, there would be a massive transfer of power in an irreversible direction which could not be put right by a Government at subsequent general elections. That requires the consent of the people. So my noble friend is right to insist that this is included in the legislation.

This new-found concern to have purity in legislation is very touching. I have sat in this House and watched this Government use almost every criminal justice Bill as a Christmas tree on which to hang all kinds of bits and pieces only for them to argue that somehow we now have to have purity. This amendment is in order. It is certainly consistent with the Government’s declared policy. It is consistent—at least it was this morning—with the Liberal Democrats’ declared policy and it is consistent with Conservative policy. I see no reason at all why it should not be included in the Bill, unless we suspect

20 May 2008 : Column 1382

that maybe yet another promise could be reneged on at a future date, which would be a grave disservice to our country.

I reflect on where we would be today if Britain had joined the euro. Our economic difficulties are considerable now, thanks to the mismanagement of the Government. But I shudder to think how much worse our position would be had we joined the euro. I very much support my noble friend in his amendment and I would have thought that the Government would embrace it with enthusiasm, if for no other reason than to give the Prime Minister something to hang on to. He seems to find it very hard to hang on to his declared policy from week to week.

Lord Clinton-Davis: The noble Lord has forgotten the past. He was a member of the Administration who did not resort to referenda. Would he like to explain that position?

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: If the noble Lord is referring to the Maastricht treaty, on which there was an issue about whether we should have a referendum, he will remember that we made a specific manifesto commitment to implement that treaty and we fought a general election on that basis. When the arguments were put to me that we should have a referendum, we would have been reneging on our manifesto commitment had we not done what we said. My objection is that this Government have not done what they said they would do.

Lord Clinton-Davis: The noble Lord is being rather unsubtle, but for very good reasons. We had plenty of opportunities to engage in referenda and they have not seized that possibility. Of course it is right that at present people trust politicians less and less, but it is important to recognise that Parliament has to reform itself. I am unquestionably of the view that, in the final analysis, Parliament must be sovereign. For that reason, I reject the idea of referenda.

I wholly agree—not for the first time—with the noble Lord, Lord Brittan. We have both been members of the European Commission; the noble Lord, Lord Brittan, served there with consummate accomplishment. It is very important that we should vest in Parliament, without any demur, the possibility that decisions Parliament makes may be unpopular. So be it. The electorate have their remedy. Whether it is one, two or three years later, it will not be forgotten. All the political parties are capable of reminding the electorate of what has happened.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: I am most grateful to the noble Lord. He made the point earlier that the people can throw out a Government who have done something that they do not like. But what if the Government have given away power and sovereignty that can never be returned? That is the point, and that is why the argument being put by my noble friend is so important.

Lord Clinton-Davis: All Governments are capable of doing that. We are not confining it to the possibility of Governments making a wrong decision vis- -vis

20 May 2008 : Column 1383

Europe. I have no doubt that, in the final analysis, the electorate have a right to demand that their Government be brought to account. I regret intensely that all political parties in this House have come to the conclusion that referenda are acceptable. The whole idea of referenda is unacceptable. However, they have come to a decision which, not for the first time, I regard as unacceptable. But there is it is: it may now be a fact of life.

However, the question whether the amendment should feature in the Bill remains. I unhesitatingly come to the conclusion that it is entirely wrong. As has been said previously, we are entitled to debate whether referenda should be a part of our process, but it should be not in the context of this Bill. If this proposal were adopted, it would be entirely irrelevant to the Bill and the needs of a country.

It has been raised that there was a referendum in 1975. I was entirely wrong in supporting the view that Harold Wilson took—I do not think that the decision made had no effects on other causes. It would be entirely wrong to adjudge this situation on the basis of a referendum. For that reason, I am wholly against the amendment.

Lord McNally: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Clinton-Davis, for bringing us back to the question at the heart of this amendment; that is, whether it should be in the Bill, as the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, asked. The noble Lord, Lord Brittan, perhaps rather mischievously, provoked noble Lords into the wider debate about referendums. It may be of interest, since I am never going to write my memoirs, that I was there in 1975—in fact, I was there two or three years before 1975—when Mr Anthony Wedgwood Benn, as he then was, proposed to the National Executive of the Labour Party a referendum on Europe as a way of healing the party’s divisions. He could not find a seconder to that proposal in the National Executive, because its members, like most parliamentarians, at that time saw a referendum as basically undermining the sovereignty and authority of Parliament.

The noble Lord, Lord Kinnock, is absolutely right: the more often that parliamentarians reach for the referendum as a convenient fig-leaf at a moment of difficulty, the more diminished is the authority of this Parliament. It is strange how at one point during this debate we are made to be concerned about the sovereignty of Parliament and then, at another, urged to use the referendum as a kind of opt-out.

It is always interesting to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. I am reminded of those lines from Kipling’s “If” which say,

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools”.

He is very good at interpreting Liberal Democrat policy for his own ends. Let me make it absolutely clear, before it appears in blogs tomorrow, that we will not be supporting this amendment but that does not mean that I am announcing a change in Liberal Democrat policy. It is simply, as the noble Lord has said, that this has been hung on the Bill like a bauble on a Christmas tree. It is not unusual for that to happen. I think I have done it myself once or twice. However, let us recognise a bauble when we see one and not necessarily go into

20 May 2008 : Column 1384

this. Basically, we have been presented with the old “When are you going to stop beating your wife?” question. It is irrelevant to this Bill. It is in the wrong place and for that reason we will not be supporting it. Finally, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson, that we are, at last, reaching a breathtaking consensus. We are about to see the noble Lords, Lord Blackwell and Lord Hunt, marching shoulder to shoulder on the same amendment. That is consensus indeed.

5 pm

Lord Waddington: It would help the Chamber if the noble Lord would confirm whether it is still his party’s policy to have a referendum on the euro.

Lord McNally: It is still my party’s policy to have a referendum on the euro—I believe that that is the policy of the Conservative Party, and, I suspect, of the Labour Party; that makes this amendment irrelevant.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean: There are rumours going round that the noble Lord may not be supporting this amendment because he has done a deal with the Government not to put down or support any amendments to the Bill. Is that not closer to the truth?

Lord McNally: There we go again—the knave making a trap for fools. There is no deal with the Government. We have said in both Houses that we believe that it is in our national interest to see this Bill go through. There has certainly been no lack of amendments to enable a full and good debate because the Conservatives have taken most of Bill Cash’s amendments from the Commons; with those they have not taken, they have made common cause with UKIP. We have had plenty of amendments to cover us and, as the noble Lord will have noticed, assembled on these Benches is what can only be described as a galaxy of informed talent. As I put in the House Magazine a week ago in my well read column, our secret weapon is to confuse our enemies with the facts.

The Earl of Liverpool: I rise briefly to support my noble friend Lord Blackwell in this amendment. I brought this up on Second Reading. We need this clause in the Bill because the Government are wriggling out of manifesto undertakings and promises of referenda—they have made that something of an art form. If my noble friend presses his amendment, I will certainly support him. I hope that all noble Lords who wish to see a return to parliamentary integrity will do the same.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: What a fabulous debate this has been. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Blackwell on having initiated a debate that has been extraordinarily useful and which I hope gets reported in the media across the United Kingdom. I very much enjoyed the appearance of the noble Lord, Lord McNally. I recall a phrase, “the elephant has at last entered the room”. It was his constant refrain that all we were trying to do in this House was to set elephant traps for him. Well, he has come and he has fallen straight into it.

20 May 2008 : Column 1385

I congratulate my noble friend Lord Waddington on having elucidated a reaffirmed commitment. However, I have to announce to those who read Hansard that I detected that it was through clenched teeth. It may be that that was just the appearance at the time, but he did seem to speak through clenched teeth. I still have my suspicions, bearing in mind what he said before—and this afternoon—about referendums: that they are some form of convenient fig-leaf. I cannot quite picture the elephant with that fig-leaf in reality. However, we shall return to that.

My noble friend Lord Blackwell started an important debate, and my noble friend Lord Brittan had some very interesting contributions to make—he said that a referendum does not take an issue out of political debate. Well, I think that often it takes it out of party-political debate and enables the issue, either for or against, properly to be discussed. But I was not sure whether he was dismissing it as a Bonapartist device or a populist device. It was interesting to note that he described both those aspects with some derision—

Lord Brittan of Spennithorne: The answer is both. Bonaparte had many qualities, one of which was to play on the public by manipulating the issues on which he chose to have referendums and the time at which he chose to have them. That has been followed by his successors through the ages. The two are not alternatives.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: No, and that was what worried me, because to describe it as a populist device means that it is of, or for, the people, as I understand the definition. But would the noble Lord like to change the definition of “populist”?

Lord Brittan of Spennithorne: It is the difference between a popular and a populist device. A populist device is one in which politicians, for their own ends, choose to manipulate the people; it is not an instrument of democracy. We have evolved over quite a few centuries a procedure known as Parliament, which is meant to filter and sift the process and enable the representatives of the people—Burke will be familiar to the noble Lord as a notable example—to exercise their judgment. That is the system that we have, which I applaud, defend and support, in good times and bad, whether the results lead to what I like or what I do not like.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: I am grateful to my noble friend for that helpful steer. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, really did not score when he interrupted my noble friend to say that in France—he said this in his speech, too—the French people were not voting on the constitution. He ignored the fact that a copy of the constitution had been put through every door in France and he dismissed the French people not because of the populist device but because they were, he said, voting on Jacques Chirac.

Lord Hannay of Chiswick: I hate to give a piece of anecdotal evidence to the noble Lord, but I was actually in France at the time of the referendum. My next-door neighbour, who farms, showed me the large tome that

20 May 2008 : Column 1386

had been put through his letterbox and said, in the vernacular, “What the hell am I meant to do with this?”. He then threw it in the waste-paper basket. There is a great deal of evidence better than my anecdotal evidence that the large number of French people who support the National Front—the neo-fascists—and the large number of French people who support the Trotskyite wing of the socialist party, who made up the backbone of the no vote, were not voting about the treaty at all. That evidence has been confirmed by any number of sources. I do not want to press the point but I wanted to illustrate why—this will come out more when we finally get on and debate the other amendments—a referendum does not have democratic legitimacy.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: I never until this moment understood how much bureaucrats hated referenda, as the noble Lord does. It is with great sadness that I hear what he says, which is really about the sort of people with whom he mixes and the sort of company that receives a copy of the constitution and throws it straight into the waste-paper basket. My view of what happened in France was that the personality of Jacques Chirac loomed large over the referendum, but that the majority of the French people did not want that particular constitution. The noble Lord should not dismiss so easily the right of the people in a referendum to decide on these very important issues.

Lord Kinnock: I do not hear anyone disputing the right of a people to vote in a referendum when a referendum is provided. What we dispute is the noble Lord’s right to represent the outcome of the French referendum mainly, purely and even substantially as a judgment on what was then the constitutional treaty, when he knows very well, as he is a highly intelligent man and an observer of events, that among the strong components of the no vote were xenophobes objecting to the entry of Turkey into the European Union and objectors to migration—the whole agenda of the Front National and Le Pen—as well as scaremongers who had utterly misrepresented what was being proposed. The Polish plumber also played a part in it. Even if someone does not have precise numerical recall, surely the noble Lord will recall that.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: I can understand the noble Lord having contempt for the electorate in view of their past decisions.

Lord Kinnock: As someone who was honoured to stand in several elections and be elected, and as someone who subscribes totally to responsive and accountable democracy, I will not have the noble Lord saying that.

Lord Hunt of Wirral: If the noble Lord takes it in that context, of course I apologise. I was referring to the fact that he depicted the no vote in France in contemptuous terms. I hope that he will reread what he said, because it was an example of real criticism.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page