European Union Referendum Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:20 pm on 13th October 2015.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Hunt of Wirral Lord Hunt of Wirral Conservative 12:20 pm, 13th October 2015

My Lords, I start by congratulating the right reverend Prelate on what was an outstandingly good speech. I have to embarrass him by saying that I agreed with every word—as of course I did with my noble friend the Minister. Having also agreed with most of what the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan of Ely, said, I caution her about her throwaway line about splits, pointing to this side of the House. I think she needs to look behind her, and also to remember that if it had not been for the courage of Roy Jenkins, we would never have been able to enter the European Union in the first place.

Perhaps I had better move away from controversy and back to Edmund Burke. Another reason why I agreed with the right reverend Prelate is that I have always adhered to the basic principle of democracy as brilliantly and famously elucidated and promulgated by Edmund Burke: that it is the responsibility of parliamentarians to use their experience and, above all, their judgment, the better to resolve the policy challenges of the age in which they live. Taken at face value, that principle appears to militate against the use of a referendum, but I say to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Newnham, that although I agree in part with her comments about a referendum, I was persuaded at the time of the Lisbon treaty that it was time to test public opinion again on our relationship with Europe. I can see no other way of drawing a line under the fractious, divisive debate over our relationship with Europe which has threatened to paralyse not only my party but politics and political discourse in this country more generally.

Over my lifetime, I have heard much talk of the sovereignty of Parliament, but sovereignty ultimately belongs not to Parliament, nor to parliamentarians, but to the people. When the union between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, which I passionately support, is at stake, or when our role in the family of nations of Europe, as embodied by the European Union, which I also passionately support, is at stake, the fundamental question of sovereignty is also at stake. When sovereignty is pooled, shared or invested—whichever term of art we choose—then, sometimes, it is right to put the argument directly to the people; or, to put it another way, it would be wrong not to do so.

We in this House—and even our colleagues in another place, who enjoy a democratic mandate that we do not—can and should claim no ownership over the sovereignty of the people. It is entrusted and leased to us by them, but the freehold does and must always remain with them.

I add that while the prospect of promoting a positive role for the United Kingdom at the heart of Europe was an inspiration to me and played a major part in bringing me into politics and active public life, like many others in this Chamber and elsewhere, I have had more than my fair share of frustration with the European Economic Community and the European Union. I said before that I agreed with every word spoken by the right reverend Prelate. I also agreed with every word spoken by my then leader, Margaret Thatcher—I speak as a former chairman of the Conservative Group for Europe. I was present when our leader launched the yes campaign in 1975, 40 years ago. It was the first occasion on which she appeared on the same platform as Ted Heath. I remind people exactly what our leader said, which was that,

“the Conservative party has been pursuing the European vision almost as long as we have existed as a Party”.

After quoting Disraeli and all our other previous leaders, she made the clear point that:

“We are inextricably part of Europe”.

I so strongly agree.

I must tell the House that when I was Secretary of State for Employment I took a case to the European Court, because sometimes the European Union felt like the bane of my life. I fought tooth and claw to retain the flexibility in the labour market that this nation so desperately needs if it is to compete effectively in the global market against the more collectivist and protectionist instincts of colleagues, even centre-right colleagues, from elsewhere in the EU. I greatly regret the decision of the Blair Government to sign up to the social protocol of the Maastricht treaty, from which Sir John Major as Prime Minister had so skilfully extricated us.

Despite these occasional frustrations, I have never doubted that our great nation is a part of Europe and, in order to retain our extraordinary, hard-earned and benign influence in the world, it must remain part of the European Union. We will hear much in the months ahead about the economic arguments for remaining within the European Union but I hope we will also think very hard about the political arguments about this highly respected nation of ours retaining a place at the top table. All our true friends elsewhere in the world agree with that proposition and virtually every President of the United States has been eager to see us play a full role at the heart of Europe.

In conclusion, this referendum will provide us all with the opportunity, after four decades, to put our distinctive and authoritative stamp once again on the most important decision our nation has taken since the end of hostilities in 1945. I am confident that the Prime Minister will present a deal that is in the best interests of this country and, when he does, I shall relish playing my own part in the campaign to persuade the people to endorse it. To quote Margaret Thatcher in 1990 again:

“We want Britain to play a leading part in Europe and to be part of the further political, economic and monetary development of the European Community”.

How right she was in 1990 and how right we all are to endorse that principle now.