European Union Referendum Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:44 pm on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 12:44 pm, 13th October 2015

My Lords, I sometimes wonder how we got to this situation. Some of the things that the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, said are absolutely right, about the duplicity that there has been in politics on all sides about the referendum. Having said that, as a Liberal Democrat and someone who, like most of my party, is very much in favour of Europe, wants to see the development of Europe and a successful Britain within a successful Europe, I am hugely disappointed that, during this period of focus groups in politics and trying to find out what people and electorates are thinking when manifestos are put together, Europe peaked at only number 10 or 11 rather than somewhere near the top of the list of electoral issues that people felt were important. Yet this—not health, the economy or even migration—is the area on which we have a referendum, due to a very hostile press and a strong campaign by a minority of people, particularly in the Conservative Party. So it is a strange place for a democracy to be.

Just to correct something said by the Minister, there may have been lots of referenda elsewhere in the European Union, usually around treaty changes, but none of them was an in/out referendum. On the challenge to us as Liberal Democrats made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, it was of course only when Liberal Democrats were in government, ironically, that we legislated for the circumstances in which there would be a referendum on European issues, which effectively would have been an in/out referendum. So the party can stand fairly tall in that area.

The big challenge of the European Union referendum is that, once we go through the process—first of all winning it, because the consequences of not winning it, as has been said so well from the Labour Benches, will be fundamental and irreversible for Britain’s future as a unitary state and its position in the world—we need to make sure that we do not have the situation that we already seem to have in Scotland, whereby people ask for a second, third or fourth referendum. I am sure that those who lose the referendum, if it is lost—or if it is gained but the result is very uncertain, but the vote is to stay in—will still campaign for new referenda. We have to make sure that we do not become a second-class member of the European Union through our negotiations and that, if we win the referendum, there is a determination from the Prime Minister and his successors that Britain takes Europe seriously and we participate as fully as we can, even with the exclusions that we have, and take our role in Europe, in which leading it has to be part. Over the past few years, we have lost that leadership.

As the noble Lord, Lord Jay, said, we can see that in Ukraine; we have not figured at all in those negotiations. It seems a great irony to me that, particularly as soon we will be celebrating and thinking about the end of the Great War in 1918—we are halfway through that cycle at the moment—part of the reason for that war and British foreign policy for many years has been stopping continental domination by a single power. By our having shown that we have a very slight, difficult and reserved position on our role in Europe, we have handed that position to Germany and Angela Merkel. We now have a Europe that is quite unhealthy in terms of German domination. The greater irony, of course, is that this is the last thing that Angela Merkel and Germany want. It is really important for not just Europe’s position in the world but our own to make sure that through this referendum, if it is won and we stay in Europe, we fulfil our role there.

Another lesson from the coalition period was when my then colleague, the right honourable Ed Davey, led on much of the negotiations for the Paris treaty on climate change later this year. By fully engaging and leading and working closely with other major European nations, the European Union was able once again to lead in the run-up to those negotiations, and Britain was at the front in getting an EU position. So it can work.

The franchise is clearly going to be a major part of the debate in Committee and on Report. I just looked at the figures in the Scottish referendum and there was something that said that participation among 16 to 17 year-olds was not as great as among people my age—but it was 75%. To me, the interesting thing was that in the age group above that—the 18 to 24 year-olds, the ones who entered politics, if you like, at 18 and were able to vote—participation was only 54%. That shows that if you get engagement early, that is an opportunity for these people to take an interest in the political system. It is important for this referendum, particularly because these people will be affected by the decision far, far more than me and many people in this House.

I also ask the Government to reconsider the franchise for UK nationals abroad. On page 49 of the Conservative manifesto, it says:

“We will introduce votes for life, scrapping the rule that bars British citizens who have lived abroad for more than 15 years from voting”.

That was a manifesto commitment. The Government have an opportunity to do that now and I ask them to comply with the Salisbury convention and make sure that they do not vote against the manifesto of the winning party in the general election.

The only other area I want to mention, which has been highlighted already, is that we do not know what the alternatives are to being a member of the European Union. I have this wonderful device on my iPhone, as, I am sure, do many of your Lordships. It is called TomTom and I can put it up in my car and it guides me to where I am going, which is quite useful because, like many Members, I go all over the country to visit people. If I go off-course or I change course, miraculously this little computer in my iPhone redirects me down the new route to where I am going. There is certainty; I know where I am going and that I will get to my destination. That is absolutely not the case in this referendum and we must make sure that this area is discussed fully.

Finally, when Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, the Prime Minister put out a tweet saying:

The Labour Party is now a threat to our national security, our economic security and your family’s security”.

I thought that was rather pathetic and it demeaned the office of Prime Minister. The fact is, I am afraid, that Jeremy Corbyn is very unlikely to ever become Prime Minister. David Cameron is Prime Minister and the EU referendum affects all those areas of threat. As Prime Minister, David Cameron has a huge responsibility to deliver this referendum positively and I sincerely hope he will be able to do that.