Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

On the referendum, I am not predicting the answer because I do not like it. I made it clear that we definitely need to be in the Union, playing an effective role. I am prepared that that should happen on the basis of the treaty of Lisbon, which is neither in my judgment necessary nor ideal as a treaty in that form. Yet it is there, and a rejection of it now by this country would lead to a shambolic situation about our status in the Union thereafter.

One of the matters that one can take account of is very simple. It is quite possible that if this treaty were put to a referendum unsullied, on the strength of its own merits, it might be endorsed on any view of it. But if it is to be put before the electorate by a Government who have already discredited themselves by their initial betrayal and are, above all, in the pit of dismissal, derision and abuse, I can hardly see the case being presented successfully by a Prime Minister who is at a record low point with the electorate. It would be an unnecessary referendum being presented by unattractive advocates in circumstances that are not good.

We should stand by our long-standing procedures, as did Ted Heath, Harold Macmillan and the party that took the fundamental decision to take us into the European Union. We should have the courage to say, “I’m sorry, people, but this is something for which our parliamentary democracy is in the last resort the right tribunal to make this decision”—and proceed on that basis. It may not be the most popular thing to advocate in the House, but I think that it is the right thing to do.

Lord Bruce-Lockhart: My Lords—

Lord Owen: My Lords—

Baroness Ashton of Upholland: My Lords, I am conscious that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce-Lockhart, wanted to get in earlier, but it is actually the turn of the Cross Benches. I am in the House’s hands as to how noble Lords want to do this, but I know that he would like to speak early, for his own reasons. If the noble Lord, Lord Owen, would allow it, that would be fine.

Lord Bruce-Lockhart: My Lords, thank you very much. I apologise to the House for having been unable to take part in the debate earlier. I apologise in particular because it is such an immensely important debate.

On the referendum and the manifesto commitment, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham. It is an issue of trust, but also simply of honourable government. You cannot make a major manifesto commitment, as it was in the eyes of the public, and then act almost with contempt in not honouring it.

11 Jun 2008 : Column 596

Manifesto commitments of such importance must be honoured, and the issue of trust and democracy is tremendously important.

The Government’s main argument on the manifesto commitment is that the changes to the treaty are not significant. That is not a strong argument. I and many others in this House would say that there are significant changes but, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, pointed out, there are also the changes that have been set out and acknowledged by other European state leaders as significant. They have been entirely clear about that. Therefore, the main argument is defused. Even if it were not, it is set aside by the simple issue of honouring a manifesto commitment.

I want briefly to say something about my own experience of Europe in general. Unlike, I suspect, many in this House and across the country, I was brought up, until the age of 10 or 11, entirely in France—in Paris—Germany and Austria. I was brought up in a family which read Goethe in German, and played and sang Schubert in the evenings. They may today be described as Europhiles. They had a great regard for European culture, but that has nothing to do with desiring a political union across Europe. Secondly, in the 1975 referendum, I, like many people here, voted to stay in, but what I voted for was not a European Union but an EEC, as it was described. I voted for a European Economic Community and nothing more.

Lord Lea of Crondall: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way, but this is—to go back to his French lessons—a canard. It has been repeated, but it is wrong. The 1971 White Paper set out the programme of ever closer union and all the rest of it. That was certainly set before the British people.

4.45 pm

Lord Bruce-Lockhart: My Lords, the vast number of people I speak to all say exactly the same thing: they voted for a European Economic Community. Since then, there has been huge change. Little by little, stealth by stealth, we have given away sovereign powers over many areas, including judicial, legal and environmental matters, fishing, employment, human rights and business. Sovereign powers have been given away, which we never thought would happen in 1972.

Then came my experience of working in Europe. In 1998 I was asked to take on the rather ridiculously Gilbert and Sullivan-style title of president of the Trans-Manche region. This was a grandly titled, artificially devised region between Kent, where I was involved, Nord-Pas-de-Calais in France, Flanders and Wallonia. I thought that this would be a good thing to do. It would encourage transport, business and tourism links with European countries. I brushed up on my French and went into it with great enthusiasm, but I found, after a few months, that the system added absolutely nothing. My local government officers said that it was like wading in treacle. Our experience, having started with huge enthusiasm, changed to one of feeling that there was simply nothing to be got out of this. The bureaucracy and endless meetings with commissioners were simply not producing anything. After one year

11 Jun 2008 : Column 597

my time was up, and the following year we pulled out because we felt that, despite trying immensely hard and starting off with immense enthusiasm, we simply could not achieve anything.

Finally, I have already spoken of the sovereign powers that we have given away. I feel immensely strongly that we have given away more sovereign powers in the few years between 1999 and 2008. With regard to the treaty and the manifesto, even if we give away only insignificant powers, those are not acceptable. The whole premise of the Government is that we are not giving anything away. That cannot be true because we have been asked to give away having a president of Europe and there are other examples. To say that we are giving nothing away and therefore do not need a referendum simply cannot be right. Therefore, I fully support the amendment.

Lord Owen: My Lords, I rise to support a referendum and to concentrate some of my remarks on those made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, and in particular his assertion that a referendum is an alien concept. I am afraid that history is important to this issue. In March 1972, the other place was faced with an amendment for a referendum before we could accede to the treaty to join the European Community. There was considerable debate. On 15 March, the Labour Party leadership came out against a referendum. On 16 March, President Pompidou declared that there would be a referendum in France on the question of enlargement from six to nine and taking in the United Kingdom. On 24 March, the then Prime Minister, Edward Heath, announced that there would be a periodic referendum in Northern Ireland to decide the question of whether Northern Ireland would ever join with the Republic. On 29 March, the Labour Party’s leadership decided that there would be a referendum and that they would vote for the amendment. That amendment was not carried, but the Labour Party, in its manifesto for the 1974 election, made a commitment to a referendum and faithfully carried that out and legislated for it. It may have been reluctantly, but the noble and learned Lord supported that referendum and, I might add, he was a member of the Government in 1972 when the pledge for the Irish referendum was made. Indeed, he was a distinguished legal adviser of that Government.

We then persisted to a situation where the Labour Party in opposition decided that it would come out from the European Community without even a referendum. I diametrically differ from the noble and learned Lord in his view that that 1975 referendum was irrelevant and damaging. In my view, it was the central issue that meant that when the Labour Party went to the country on that manifesto in 1983, it was rejected. Having been given the chance to decide whether to stay in or stay out, the British people wished to retain that choice. It was a fundamentally stabilising and welcome factor in changing the mind of the Labour Party to become, as it is today in Government, an enthusiastic supporter of the European Union. It also laid the foundation for a broad consensus on European Union membership which still lasts across the parties, for all the divisions, today. History will show that Harold Wilson showed a lot more courage

11 Jun 2008 : Column 598

than he was given credit for in 1972—more courage than I was ready to give him credit for in 1972, when I voted for Britain's membership.

It goes on longer than that. This is not an alien concept. We have had three general elections—in 1997, 2001 and 2005—in which all three parties committed themselves to a referendum on the question of whether we should join the euro-zone. My views are well known in the House. I have campaigned against that on economic and political grounds but fundamentally on economic grounds. As we now face the downturn in the world economy and the problems of adjustment for the UK economy there must be pretty few people in this House who are not glad that we have the compensating measure of being able to devalue and are not held in a fixed exchange rate.

It goes further than that. The noble Lord said that he had disagreed with the decision of the then Prime Minister, Tony Blair, to have a referendum when he announced it in 2004. That is not really the important decision. Of course he was Prime Minister but he went on to compound that judgment by putting it in his manifesto in the 2005 election. So did the other two parties; all three parties fought that election on a referendum. This is, with respect to the noble Lord, not an alien concept. He may fundamentally disagree with it and there may be many people in this House who believe that this is a parliamentary democracy and they do not wish to see referendums. Yet that commitment in Northern Ireland has been a positive one. I have profound doubts whether we would have been able to have the successful negotiations that started under the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, as Prime Minister and went on through her successor John Major and then on with Tony Blair. Those who feared that they would be forced against their will by a government who were not prepared to listen to them found solace and satisfaction in that there would have to be a referendum.

As people have become more alienated for many complex reasons from what I call representative government, the sort of democracy which I support, from time to time it is necessary to accept that there are some issues which split parties and families and are easier and better dealt with by a referendum. Having defended the constitutional place of referendums—not frequently, I do not want to become a plebiscitary democracy—I want to retain the concept that a government are elected on a manifesto which they broadly speaking maintain for a four-year or five-year term and are judged overall during that period when they come back to the electorate. However, from time to time, and particularly when they promise in an election to have a referendum, that new way of democratic expression should be maintained, honoured and not spurned or despised.

On the present referendum, it is extraordinary that we should be debating this in the House when tomorrow the Republic of Ireland will be holding a referendum. Two days ago the Financial Times wrote an editorial. There is a letter in today’s Financial Times from which, in that to some extent the Irish now hold this issue in their hands, it might be worth reading just a few lines:



11 Jun 2008 : Column 599

the Financial Times

That Irish correspondent goes on to say something else. He does not go to the classics, he invokes another wise statement:

He means the European Union.

5 pm

When we decide in an election, the vast majority of the public have not the slightest idea of our various manifestos, commitments and the detail of the legislation. They make a broad assumption, a broad judgment, about who is competent, who they trust, and whether they need an alternation of power to ensure the best aspect of democracy—that power changes at fairly frequent intervals.

The key question today is this: no one denies that they were promised a referendum; the defence is that this treaty is different. I personally think that it is different and I can point to different elements, subsections and clauses with which I agree. But in view of the fact that there has been a manifesto commitment, our judgments are not anywhere near as important as those of the people. Opinion poll after opinion poll shows that the majority of the people of this country do not see any fundamental difference between the constitution and the treaty. The people also tell us something else, which is profound. They want to be able to express their views on this.

I do not know what will happen in Ireland tomorrow. Just as the Dutch and the French people held the destiny of the European Union in their hands and voted “no”, on—whatever may be said and wherever you sit—a treaty which was great deal better than that put forward by Giscard d’Estaing, which the then Prime Minister said he would have supported, it is much easier to look at this treaty. Nevertheless, the people think that this is still an issue on which they should have the last word.

I would go further if the Irish were to vote for this treaty and if Britain were to be alone in making a decision. I must say something that will probably annoy and surprise quite a number of people. For many of the reasons that were made clear by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, I still think that it is in Britain’s interests to play a full and constructive role. Despite my anger that the Government have not taken the opportunity to put in some of the parliamentary brakes that have been discussed on restricting the competence of the European Court of Justice to do exactly what is in the treaty and try to narrow down

11 Jun 2008 : Column 600

the interpretation of the treaty in the law courts of this country, and despite my belief that there will come a time when the new Supreme Court will be given the powers that the German people have retained in their constitutional court—we will create something similar in this country and the sooner, the better—I would campaign for the treaty, because I do not want us to be put on the margins of Europe. That is a personal decision. It would be one vote in a referendum. It might not win it or it might.

It is defeatism for those who support this treaty to say that they cannot win a referendum. If you are democrats, you should have the courage of your convictions and go out and win it. I, for one, would support it in those circumstances.

Lord Brittan of Spennithorne: My Lords, I, like my noble and learned friend Lord Howe, greatly regret that this is a rare occasion when I differ from my Front Bench. I would add to what my noble friend has said; like him I have been a Minister in a Conservative Government and had the honour to serve under my noble friend Lady Thatcher. There was many an occasion on which I relied on the support and loyalty of my Back-Benchers, even if they were not altogether sure that they agreed with me. There were some occasions when that loyalty was strained too far, but I respected and admired that. It is not likely that I differ from the Front Bench on this issue, but one has to retain one’s independent judgment and this is a matter of sufficient importance that I feel obliged to do that.

I object to referenda on fundamental constitutional grounds. I disagree with what the noble Lord, Lord Owen, has said, both on constitutional theory and on the history. I want to say a word about both. I am a believer in parliamentary government and in parliamentary democracy and it is for exactly those reasons that I was very sympathetic to the amendment put forward by my noble friend Lord Goodlad, which would have required Parliament to approve any change in the opt-in, opt-out situation. I really believe that and I think that the consequence of going for referenda is to debase and to weaken the long tradition of parliamentary democracy which is so important for this country.

It is all very well for the noble Lord, Lord Owen, to say that he is not a believer in plebiscitary democracy and that he does not want referenda to be held that often, but, on this occasion, he tells us, the people would like one. The truth is that, for every public opinion poll that has ever been taken on any issue, however minor, if you were to ask the people whether they would like a vote, the answer would always be yes. What does one expect people to say? That is no foundation for a fundamental change to our constitution, even if it were to be comparatively infrequent.

If referenda are to be held, they should be held only in the rarest circumstances, when really major constitutional decisions are taken, involving a substantial transfer of sovereignty. Having heard and followed the debates as closely as I could, and having read the treaty, I cannot bring myself to say that it involves a substantial transfer of sovereignty. Compared with the Maastricht treaty, the Nice treaty and all the other

11 Jun 2008 : Column 601

treaties that have been put through, this is important and necessary but comparatively piddling. It is piddling in constitutional terms and necessary and important in political terms. It is necessary and important in political terms because it makes the necessary changes to accommodate the enlargement of the European Union, for which all parties in this House argued strongly and which we had to fight to get. It is necessary and important because it provides greater possibility of Europe speaking with one voice on important matters, such as foreign affairs, energy, climate change and so on. It is in our interests that Europe should speak with one voice, but it is also important to remember that in constitutional terms it is piddling in the sense that it is not a substantial transfer of sovereignty.

Take, for example, one of the most important aspects of the treaty, which has been the subject of much debate: the creation of a more permanent president of the European Union. That is desirable because it makes it more probable that there will be continuity, enabling a common view to be built up. However, the really important thing is that that president has no more power than the existing transient six-monthly president of the European Union. He is not given any more power at all. It is merely the creation of an institution which we hope, with reason, will lead to agreement being reached, but if agreement is not reached, unanimity will still be required. That is just one example and I shall not bore the House by giving many examples of why this is not a substantial transfer of sovereignty.

Then we come to the historical argument that there has been some sort of change in the convention. Of course, the concept of having a referendum is not new in this country and of course, people have wanted them and argued for them, usually, although not always, for opportunistic reasons, but the fact is that apart from the very special case of local referenda, in Ireland, Scotland and Wales, there has not been a single national referendum since 1975. My reading of the history is slightly less benign than that of the noble Lord, Lord Owen. A referendum was introduced because the Labour Party was bitterly divided and the only way to maintain the Government in power was to have a referendum on whether to stay in.

Lord Elton: My Lords—

Lord Brittan of Spennithorne: My Lords, if my noble friend allows me to finish the point, I shall certainly give way. That is something that we would do and Ministers would be able to vote in different ways, as they did. The noble Lord said that that introduced stability—hardly stability when, not many years after that, the Labour Party went into an election asking to pull out of a European Union, membership of which had been approved by the very referendum that was introduced by a Labour Prime Minister.

Lord Elton: My Lords, can my noble friend not see what he is doing? What the public outside the House see is a former Commissioner arguing a case which he thinks does not have to be put to the public, probably

11 Jun 2008 : Column 602

because the public will not understand it. That is so arrogant and so offensive to the electorate that it is not a profitable thing to say in the House.

Lord Brittan of Spennithorne: My Lords, the personal imputation, laid by somebody who has previously been my noble friend, is beneath contempt. I deeply resent it. I am saying what I say and talking about the history of this matter and the constitution because I believe that this is in the interests of this country. I was explaining why I think that the constitutional system of this country—parliamentary government—is something that we should all treasure.

Lord Elton: My Lords—

Lord Brittan of Spennithorne: My Lords, I am not going to give way again. I have given way once and I have dealt with the point, for what it was worth.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page