European Union Referendum Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:53 pm on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Lord Radice Lord Radice Labour 1:53 pm, 13th October 2015

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, on his usual, vigorous House of Commons speech. He made it with great skill and a lot of very good jokes. I also refer to the 1975 referendum, mentioned by a number of noble Lords. I want to draw three lessons from that earlier referendum, which may possibly be of relevance to us today. The 1975 referendum was the brainchild of Tony Benn, as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, said. When the Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, first heard that Tony Benn was talking about a referendum, he called him in and said,

“I understand you are suggesting a plebiscite on the Common Market. You can’t do that”.

However, as the row inside the Labour Party over Europe grew in intensity, Wilson changed his mind. He turned to the referendum as a means of uniting a divided party—yes, we were divided—and remaining in the EU. As the Foreign Secretary, Jim Callaghan, had predicted, it proved to be a useful “rubber dinghy”.

David Cameron was against an in/out referendum in October 2011. He argued that such a complicated issue could not be reduced to a simple choice. He even imposed a three-line Whip against a Tory Back-Bench Motion in favour of an in/out referendum. However, under pressure from Eurosceptic Tory MPs in Parliament and from UKIP outside, in his Bloomsbury speech of January 2013, Cameron committed the Conservative Party to such a referendum. The conclusion that I draw from this bit of history is that both Wilson and Cameron had a referendum imposed on them not so much by a democratic groundswell from below but by pressure from within their own parties. That is the reality. Let us not be too high-minded about all this.

Secondly, on the renegotiation of the terms of entry, in 1974-75, Wilson’s tactics were to renegotiate the terms of entry. I remember it very well because I had just become a Labour Member of Parliament. The German Chancellor—we clearly always turn to the Germans when we are in trouble; it was Helmut Schmidt then—was able to help secure a renegotiation. In March 1975, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, remembers, Wilson and Callaghan announced that negotiations had been finalised, and highlighted an important deal for New Zealand lamb and butter and the way in which the UK budget could be related to the gross national product. I admit that this then had to be renegotiated by Margaret Thatcher.

My point relating to David Cameron is that, significantly, Wilson did not pretend that the negotiations had been a complete success. He claimed that he had achieved significant improvements and, on that basis, asked the British to vote in favour of remaining in the Community. I think that David Cameron has been reading back on this history. He appears to be following much the same path as Harold Wilson. He assured his party that he was negotiating a new settlement with our European partners. It is true, of course, that nobody, least of all our partners, is entirely clear what the new settlement entails. I think that, for understandable reasons, the Prime Minister does not wish to reveal his hand, least of all to his own Eurosceptic Back-Benchers, because we know exactly what they would do if he revealed this. However, we have the benefit of the Sunday Telegraph of 11 October, where it was suggested that there were four areas which the Government, again with the help of their German allies led by Angela Merkel, hoped to make progress. The four areas mentioned were: a UK exemption from the commitment to an ever closer union—we have mentioned that already; a statement that the euro was not the EU’s official currency—that is clearly a bow to the pound; a new “red card” system for national parliaments; and protection for the City of London and our membership of the single market. Like Wilson, Cameron has had to accept that there are not going to be any early treaty changes.

It is quite clear that it is going to be very difficult for David Cameron to represent a package along these lines as a complete success, given the way the terms have been ratcheted up all the time by the Eurosceptics. But if Cameron follows the Wilson example of claiming only a limited victory—that is what I advise him to do—and follows this up, like Wilson, with a call to vote for staying in, this could in fact be an effective approach if, as I think, he wants to stay in.

In any case, in 1975, it was not so much the detailed but more the fundamental questions that decided the two-to-one outcome in favour. The British people voted to remain in partly for economic reasons and partly for political reasons. They believed that staying in would give us greater influence, while outside we would have little say in European affairs; and I think they were right. In other words, outside we should be clinging to the shadow of British sovereignty while its substance had flown out of the window.

As in 1975, I predict that whatever we hear from the boffins of the Eurosceptics such as the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, these more fundamental issues will decide the referendum. Those of us who wish to stay in will emphasise the benefits of the single market. That will be an absolutely key issue. Secondly, we will also emphasise the additional clout which being a member of the EU brings to this country. Incidentally, the reason that the TTIP negotiations are going on is because we are a member of the EU. It is the EU that is negotiating TTIP, not Britain alone. We will also point out that those who want to leave have totally failed to offer a credible alternative—I am sorry, but I have not been convinced by anything I have heard in this debate. We are told by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, that a “no” vote would not risk the break-up of the UK as well. I wish I was as certain as him on that, but of course he is an expert on Scotland and I am not.

In conclusion, the British people, when they consider these deeper, vital questions, will, as in 1975, vote to remain a member of the European Union.