My Lords, when I noted that my name was in the 50th position on the speakers list, I was minded to dig out an old after-dinner speech and seek to entertain your Lordships for a few minutes. However, I am very happy to note that the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, in his inimitable way, has pre-empted me on that.
With your Lordships’ indulgence I would like to say a few words by way of preface to my main remarks on the way in which we conduct these debates on the gracious Speech. I have always found the structure bizarre. Why can we not segment each daily debate and group the speakers so that those who wish to address one topic can follow each other, permitting the Minister or Whip speaking for the appropriate department to answer speeches focusing on that topic before we go on to the next topic, which in turn would be answered by the Minister or Whip answering for the relevant department, and so on? I pity the poor Ministers who have to wind up at the end of an eight-hour debate which has covered issues in the remit of as many as five different departments. Capable as they are, it is an unreasonable burden. It is cruel and unusual punishment. I believe that a sequenced, segmented debate would bring greater coherence and maybe even greater interaction among speakers addressing the same topic. In my humble view, both Front and Back Benches would benefit. I should say that I am not expecting the Minister to react to this because it is a matter for the House, not the Government.
I now come to the substance of my brief remarks. I need hardly remind the House that the word “Europe” is nowhere to be found in the gracious Speech. The Prime Minister’s staff seem to have obeyed the instruction to eschew the “E” word with even more zeal than did the staff of “Fawlty Towers” when instructed not to mention the war, but it has not done the Government any good. Within hours they were embroiled, yet again, in their own internal war over an in/out referendum.
In a debate on the humble Address, custom allows us to comment on matters related to, but conspicuously absent from, the list of measures that the Government have just announced in the gracious Speech. That is just as well, for otherwise this year’s four-day debate would be remembered as the one in which never had so much been said by so many about so little. Therefore, I, like others who have spoken before me, will dare to use the “E” word, but in relation only to the question of a referendum. I do this within the framework of today’s debate because the shape of our future relations with not only Europe but the wider world will be determined by the outcome of any referendum.
Let me at the outset lay my cards on the table. My right honourable friend the Leader of the Opposition is absolutely right when he says that Labour will not commit to an in/out referendum by a set date, and he is equally right not to rule out a referendum when the time is judged to be ripe. Therefore, when Tory spokespersons and some of the media tell us that Labour has once again made clear that it will never trust the British people to have their say and opposes a referendum, they have, to put it charitably, either misread what the Leader of the Opposition said in his address to the annual conference of Progress last Saturday, or they are deliberately making a misleading statement. What is at stake is the national interest. My right honourable friend said in his speech that,
“our national interest lies in staying in the European Union and working for the changes that will make it work better for Britain”.
That is the logical approach. Europhile though I am, I am not blind to the huge shortcomings in the structure and functioning of the European Union. There is deep thinking and massive work to be done to make the Union fit for purpose—to serve the peoples of all its member states, with their full participation in that process of reform and their consent to its outcome.
Those looking for an early exit are in reality saying, “It’s broke, it can’t be fixed, and we want nothing more to do with it”. Any idea that Britain might offer its wisdom and skills to help to design a better Union is alien to them. They are the defeatists. Others, such as the Prime Minister, say, “Let’s negotiate a few concessions from our fellow member states and then see if the British people will buy them”. As the noble Lord, Lord Lawson of Blaby, has correctly observed, such concessions are bound to be inconsequential. At least I can agree with him on that.
The case for staying in cannot be credibly made, let alone won, on the basis of inconsequential concessions. The people will not be fooled by that. The case for staying in can be credibly made and eventually won only when, with Britain’s help, serious reforms are agreed and put in place to the satisfaction of all its members. It is to this that we should be now turning our minds and applying our best efforts. It is a daunting challenge but, together with our European partners, we can meet it. There are plenty of interesting ideas being discussed here as to how we might best fashion a more flexible two-speed or two-tier European Union, more accountable to national parliaments and people, in which those inside the eurozone and those outside it respect each others’ rights and preferences and work together to each others’ advantage. The noble Lord, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, suggested a possible way forward to that end.
The Government should engage fully with other EU Governments to develop these ideas and not simply go whining to them for concessions that irritate them and do little, if anything, for us. For those who accept this approach, it follows logically that you call a referendum when you are able to show the people what a reformed Union looks like. Will we know by 2017? If we do, we could go ahead with a referendum, but it could well take longer than that. Why, therefore, commit to a referendum with an irrevocable deadline, and so far in advance? It makes no sense unless you are determined to invoke Article 50 and embark on a long and complex negotiation to leave the European Union, whatever the reform process might produce.
I should like to see a Government who have the courage to say to the people, “Let us see what we can do to make the Union work for all of us. Give us the time to achieve that”. That will take political courage, and I am convinced that my right honourable friend Ed Miliband has that courage. Political courage has not been much in evidence of late in the European corridors of power. I recall what the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Jean-Claude Juncker, said five years ago as the great financial crisis unfolded. He said, “We know what needs to be done but we don’t know how to get re-elected when we’ve done it”. Spoken half in jest maybe, but he correctly identified what lies in the back of the minds of too many leaders facing tough decisions. We need more leaders with the courage of the German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who in 2003 set out his Agenda 2010 to reform his country’s social system and labour market to improve economic growth and reduce unemployment. It was deeply unpopular in his own Social Democratic Party and many thousands of members left the party, but he persevered even though he knew it would cost him the next election, and indeed it did. However, the reforms went through, the eventual effects were what he had hoped for and Germany has benefited from them ever since. That is political courage.
I was therefore heartened last Saturday to hear Ed Miliband once again remind us forcefully that Labour, despite what the Tories claim, will always stand up for the national interest. I take that as a personal pledge, and I trust him not to waver in his stance on the in or out referendum. I trust him not to heed siren voices warning that such a stance, logical as it may be, could nevertheless cost him and his party dearly at the next election. I hope that the party will stand with him in rock-solid support.
Charles de Gaulle once remarked that, since a politician never believes what he is saying, he is always astonished when others believe him. Of course, the general, throughout his life, held a pretty jaundiced view of politicians. And so, it seems, do most of the British people these days. If we are to restore confidence in the political class, we, with our differing political labels and beliefs, have to say what we believe is right and in the true national interest, not, as so often, what we think will gain us short-term political advantage. In discussing our future relationship with the European Union, and in acting in concert with our European partners to fashion a Union fit for purpose for all of us, that must be our guiding principle. We must show that de Gaulle’s perception of politicians does not apply here.