European Union Bill — Second Reading (Continued)
Lord Taverne (Liberal Democrat)
My Lords, as this debate has gone on my speech, as the House will be glad to hear, is getting shorter and shorter. It is almost inevitable that there be some repetition but I will try to keep it to the minimum. I oppose this Bill in principle for three reasons: philosophical, political and constitutional. Where the referendum argument is concerned, that should be put in some context because the Enlightenment -that glorious episode in the history of civilisation-saw the birth of democracy, but the recognition that the will of the majority should generally prevail led to two strands of development. One of them was the approach of John Locke; the other was the approach of Rousseau.
Locke's approach was to emphasise the rule of law and the rights of minorities as well as the right of the majority. The Rousseau approach was to say that the will of the people must prevail at all costs and should not brook any opposition whatsoever. Locke's philosophy was expressed in our parliamentary system and its gradual evolution from the Bill of Rights of 1688, while Rousseau's approach found its expression in the French Revolution and in the Committee of Public Safety. In fact, in the house where he was staying, Robespierre the incorruptible used to read to the daughters of his host the works of Rousseau rather like a religious preacher who was reading it for the benefit and moral edification of his pupils.
I want to challenge the idea that a referendum somehow leads to a connection between the people and government. The followers of the referendum are also the people who feel that it is the ultimate expression of democracy. As a result, they regard MPs as delegates and not representatives-because if they were representatives, they might be flouting the will of the majority. Perhaps I may draw on my own experience to challenge this idea.
I once fought a by-election as an independent in 1973 on the issue of whether a Member of Parliament should be a delegate or a representative. My local Labour party in Lincoln told me that if I voted in favour of joining the European Community, against their instructions-indeed, against a three-line Whip-they would withdraw support. Well, I did and they did. I resigned, called a by-election and the result was an overwhelming victory for the principles enunciated by Edmund Burke. It is interesting that an opinion poll taken in Lincoln showed that the people there were against the idea of our joining the European Community by a majority of three to two.
I therefore believe that it is a mistake to think that, somehow or other, a referendum is the ideal instrument of democracy. If you ask people, "Do you want a vote?" they of course say yes. If you ask, "Do you think it is important that you should have a vote?", it is, "Yes, of course it is important that we have a vote". But do they vote? On the whole, the turnout in a referendum is very low and they often vote on an issue that is not the issue of the referendum. How many people are likely to turn up to vote in a referendum on whether we should partake in the office of a public prosecutor in Europe?
The political objections have been so well stated by so many previous speakers that I shall not repeat them. Yet why do we have this Bill? The fact is that a virus has infected the Conservative Party-a virus of hostility to and even hatred of the European Union, whatever the effect on our long-term national interests. It is odd how, in the past 50 years, a virus has infected both main political parties. I saw it happen in the Labour Party during the 1970s and 1980s when a virus of latter-day Marxism affected nearly all younger members of the party, including some of the brightest. Many of the champions of new Labour were at one time Trots, members of the Socialist Workers Party or the Militant tendency. All of them supported unilateral nuclear disarmament and leaving the European Union, including Tony Blair, but eventually the party recovered its senses. Now, it seems that no Conservative under 40-certainly, no Conservative MP that I am aware of- recognises the need to work closely with Europe as the natural forum for exercising our influence in the world at large. No doubt they will recover in time; I hope they do so soon.
My third objection is a constitutional one and a point that has been made very effectively by several speakers. The referendum will be triggered if there is any transfer of powers to Brussels, but the Government have no intention of transferring them. So have we got it wrong in thinking that they have no such intention? Are they perhaps thinking of joining the eurozone? It seems a bit unlikely. Are they going to support majority voting on foreign policy or a common defence policy, take part in a European public prosecutor's office or extend the scope of majority voting? Will the Minister-I feel slightly sorry for my noble friend who is going to reply-explain under what circumstances the referendum would be triggered in the present Parliament?
The answer regarding the purpose of the Bill is quite plain: it cannot and will not apply to the present Parliament-its purpose is to bind the next Parliament. That is a wholly unconstitutional proposal. It contradicts the principle that Parliament is sovereign and cannot bind its successors, a principle that is now restated in Clause 18. It is a most unconstitutional principle and there is a simple way of thwarting it: to have a sunset clause saying that Clause 1 and Schedule 1 shall cease to have effect when this Parliament is dissolved. I hope that all Liberal Democrats will support such a clause because I see nothing in the coalition agreement that forces us to accept a wholly unconstitutional principle. I hope that Members of all parties, irrespective of their views on the merits of Europe, would also support such a clause to stop a constitutional monstrosity being enacted.