Report (1st Day)

Part of European Union Bill – in the House of Lords at 5:15 pm on 8th June 2011.

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Photo of Lord Deben Lord Deben Conservative 5:15 pm, 8th June 2011

My Lords, I find myself in disagreement with both my noble friend Lord Lamont and the noble Lord behind him. I am opposed to referenda in any case and do not think that we should judge referenda, even if we are in favour of them, by the particular amendment that is before us. We should judge referenda as referenda. Therefore, to vote for a 40 per cent division between compulsory and advisory on one subject and not to vote for it on another seems not to hang together. The issue is not about the European Union. Everyone knows where I stand on that. It is about an issue which comes from before that. Long before there were these debates on the European Union, there were debates about referenda. I enjoyed debating them and I have not changed my view on them.

The parliamentary democracy which we have is the greatest gift which we have been able to give to the world as a whole. Irrespective of the comments of my noble friend Lord Risby, parliamentary democracy and referenda do not go together, as a matter of fact. The one comes from a different tradition and I am not going to be one of those who besmirches the tradition by referring to the use of referenda by such people as Louis-Napoleon. That would be wrong. But referenda do come from that tradition and not from our parliamentary tradition.

Therefore, I was much enlightened by the reminder which the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, gave us of the great conservative thinker, Edmund Burke. He said that the embarrassing fact of being a parliamentarian is that you do have, in the end, to make up your own mind, even though the popular press, the women's advisory committee of your association, the local doctors' alliance and a whole range of other people tell you that you have got it wrong. I remind noble Lords of what happens if you take that away. It means that nobody with a strong view on abortion, for example, would be able to uphold his or her view in those circumstances. If he or she were to follow the views of the electorate, he or she would not be able to uphold what he or she thought was a moral position. The same would be true about capital punishment. No one would have voted against capital punishment if they had listened to the average elector over the past 30 or 40 years.

Let us not be too easily lulled into that simple concept of the referendum now being part of our democratic heritage. Referenda have always been used-I say this as a committed Conservative-in a way which has tended to favour those who take a very conservative attitude. My noble friend takes a very conservative attitude, so I am happy to give way to him.