§ 2.57 p.m.
§ Lord SHEPHERD rose to move, That this House takes note of the White Paper Referendum on United Kingdom Membership of the European Community 287 (Cmnd. 5925). The noble Lord said: My Lords, at the outset, on behalf of your Lordships' House, may I welcome the noble Lord, Lord Balniel, to the Front Bench opposite and say how much we are looking forward to his maiden speech. I hope and expect that he will maintain the traditions of maiden speakers by not being too provocative. To that end, I myself shall assist by not making a provocative speech and by dealing with the issue before us as calmly as your Lordships' House will allow.
§ In inviting your Lordships to take note of the Government's White Paper on the Referendum on United Kingdom Membership of the European Community, I should like to begin by reminding the House of the pledge contained in the Election Manifesto which we put before the country in October last year, and on which we were elected to Office. We promised then that, within 12 months of the Election, we would give the British people the final say, through the ballot box, on whether to accept the terms achieved as a result of renegotiation and stay in, or to reject the terms and come out.
§ My Lords, the Government have now explained how they propose to redeem that pledge. That is what the White Paper is about. The method which we have decided to adopt is one which is novel in United Kingdom constitutional practice, apart from the Northern Ireland Border poll, and which gives rise to a number of difficult issues. About the novelty I make no apology. The subject with which we are concerned is unique, both in its nature and in its fundamental importance for the future of the country. The Manifesto referred to it as "the greatest single peacetime decision of this century "and I do not believe that that is an exaggeration.
§ There are only two ways in which the British people can be enabled to decide the matter: by General Election or by a Referendum. We have had two Elections in little more than a year and I do not believe that the country wants a third. Moreover, a General Election is not really a satisfactory method of testing opinion on a single issue of this kind which cuts across normal Party loyalties. And single issues, even over a three-week campaign, 288 as noble Lords opposite will well remember, are very hard to sustain. Therefore, the Government have decided on a Referendum. In so doing, we are keeping our Manifesto promise, but we wish to do so with a minimum of disruption and delay to serve the best interests both of this country and of the other members of the European Community.
§ My Lords, I said a moment ago that this gave rise to a number of difficult issues, and I do not want to disguise the fact that they are difficult issues. In saying this I am not, of course, referring to the fundamental policy issue of whether or not the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community. There will be an opportunity to debate that at a later stage, when the Government have made their recommendation on the out-come of renegotiation, which will be published as a White Paper.
§ My Lords, what we are concerned with today is not the substance of the issue nor the merits of holding a Referendum. We are concerned with the mechanics by which the popular verdict of that issue is to be recorded. To those concerned with the merits of holding a Referendum, I would only say this. It is not an attack on the sovereignty of Parliament. Although the Government have said that they will be bound by the result, Parliament is sovereign and nothing can bind Parliament. Nor can the Referendum itself be held without the approval of Parliament. We shall allow reasonable time for discussion both on the Referendum Bill itself and on the outcome of renegotiation. So far as the Bill is concerned, we hope it will receive the Royal Assent by the third week in May. This would enable the Referendum to be held in the second half of June. And yet, even the "mechanics"present a number of difficulties, and I should like to attempt to explain some of the thinking behind the conclusions which are presented in the White Paper. These conclusions take account of discussion we have already held with representatives of the major political Parties and of what are likely to be the two main campaigning groups. Although it has been generally well received, the White Paper will not satisfy everyone.
§ My Lords, I would emphasise that the Government's proposals are still provisional and that we look forward to 289 hearing the view of your Lordships on them. I can asure your Lordships that the Government will take full account of these views before reaching a final decision. To put our proposals in their context, I should explain the Government's basic approach. Our main concerns are simplicity, efficiency and fairness. If we can achieve these, there is more likely to be a good turnout and the result is more likely to be widely accepted. We want, therefore, to stick as closely as possible to existing electoral practice, which is familiar to the electorate, and to depart from it only for very compelling reasons. There will be some departures. For example, I am sure your Lordships will agree with the proposal in paragraph 12 of the White Paper that on this occasion Peers should have the right to vote.
§ My Lords, I will, if I may, begin at the heart of the matter, with the formulation of the Question. Much has already been said on this subject, both before and since the White Paper appeared. Much sublety has been expended in trying to devise a wording which is not loaded in one way or the other— and on discovering bias in the most innocent formulation. There are those who profess to believe that to use a phrase like "stay in"is biased because people are naturally conservative—with a small "c "—and tend to prefer the existing state of affairs to making any sort of change. There are even those who say that it confers an unfair advantage to put the square marked "Yes "above the square marked "No".
§ I believe that some of these fears are exaggerated. The electorate will have had a considerable amount of time to get used to the wording of the Question. It will not be suddenly sprung upon them like most opinion poll questions. The Question will be known well before the vote, and people will have had ample time to reflect upon it. Having said that, however, we must try to ensure that the wording is clear, unambiguous and as free from bias as possible so that people are in no doubt about the choice before them. And yet to find such a form of words is far from easy. It is something to which the Government have given careful thought, and on which they have consulted the Parliamentary political Parties and the leading campaign organisations.290
§ My Lords, on the assumption that the Question is to be a single, straightforward one, with a simple "Yes/No "answer— as I believe it must be—there are, I think, three broad possibilities. On the one hand, you can have a fairly lengthy formulation which tries to tell the voter something about the European Community—lists the members, for example— refers to the results of renegotiation and invites him to say whether or not the United Kingdom should remain a member of the Community. But, quite apart from its length, this type of formula is open to accusations of a pro-Community bias. At the other extreme, you can have a very short Question which simply asks whether the United Kingdom should be —not remain—a member of the Community. But that is misleading, since the point now at issue is not whether we should ever have joined, but whether in the light of the results of renegotiation we should now stay in or withdraw.
My Lords, the formula which the Government propose is an attempt to steer a middle course between the two extremes. First, a short preamble;
The Government have announced the results of the renegotiation of the United Kingdom's terms of membership of the European Community.
Then, a simple question :
Do you think that the United Kingdom should stay in the European Community?
§ I feel that the wording is about as fair as possible ; but the Government are not finally committed to it, and if after due reflection any of your Lordships have improvements to suggest I can assure you that they will be carefully considered. In addition to the form in which the Question is to be put, it is necessary to consider the way in which the voting is to be organised. I think there are two main questions here : whether or not a minimum poll or majority should be required for a decision binding on the Government, and the arrangements for counting the votes.
§ My Lords, so far as the first question— the size of the poll and of the majority— is concerned, the Government have considered the practice in a number of other countries where referenda are used. But we have come to the conclusion, as I have already said, that we should as far as possible follow the traditional practice 291 of Parliamentary Elections in this country, with no special conditions in terms of the size of the poll or the extent of the majority.
§ I believe that this is right for a number of reasons : First, such arrangements are simple and familiar.
§ Secondly, no one would agree on what the minimum size of the poll or of the majority should be.
§ Thirdly, any stipulations for a minimum poll or majority could make the electorate feel under pressure. In particular, an abstention lobby might well spring up, thus reducing the number voting. This would be contrary to what I am sure we all want; that is, a large turnout.
§ Fourthly, despite what a large number of people have said, these arrangements should make for a clear and conclusive result. This must be the objective of both sides if we are to put an end to the continuing divisions in Parliament and in the country on the question of Community membership.
§ An indecisive result— which is much more likely if a minimum poll or majority is required— would not be accepted and would cause a lot of bitterness. We must avoid this if possible.
§ Finally, the objection that the result will not be decisive if it turns on a single vote in a simple majority situation is not removed by insisting on a minimum majority. It is equally possible, in theory, for a single vote to be decisive where a minimum majority is stipulated. For all these reasons, therefore, the Government think it right to follow the normal electoral practice.
§ My Lords, the second main question is how the votes should be counted. The Government's conclusion is set out in paragraph 21 of the White Paper—that the votes should be counted and the result of the Referendum announced on a central, rather than on a local, basis. This was one of the most difficult issues we had to face and the Government considered it with great care. A central count involving perhaps 30 million votes, collected in 50,000 ballot boxes, is a formidable task which poses numerous problems of organisation, administration and security. It will take something like 292 5,000 persons about a week to complete the job. We had to satisfy ourselves, on the basis of a detailed examination by officials, that the task could be done and then to decide whether it was worth while.
§ My Lords, I am aware that there are those who believe that some form of local count would be preferable; that the Scots, or the Welsh, or those who live in London or Bristol, have a right to know how their region voted. I can understand their point of view; but there are good reasons which led the Government to suggest that the count should be on a central basis. In a Parliamentary Election we are concerned with the number of votes cast for each candidate in the whole constituency — not how the North Ward or the South Ward voted. In the Referendum we shall be conducting a national poll on a national issue. As the White Paper puts it, "the constituency is the whole of the United Kingdom ". The issue is whether the United Kingdom as a single entity shall stay in the European Community. In this context what matters is the total number of votes cast on either side, not the regional pattern of voting. Consequently, we propose in the White Paper that the votes should be counted centrally and the result announced as the single verdict of the whole country.
§ To do otherwise might well be divisive at a time when it will be important that we should all accept the verdict of the British people—whichever way that verdict is eventually given. It is for this reason that the Government opted for a central count, in spite of the very real practical problems which this presents. However, our minds are still open on this and we shall take full account of any views which noble Lords put forward.
§ I should like now to turn for a few moments to the question of Information Activities, which is dealt with in Chapter 4 of the White Paper. Having decided upon a Referendum, I believe that the Government have a responsibility to ensure that adequate information is made available to the voters—whether from official sources or in other ways—to enable them to reach an informed decision. We also have a responsibility to ensure fair play in the campaign which will precede the holding of the Referendum.293
§ How are these twin responsibilities to be discharged? It would have been possible for the Government themselves to mount a massive information campaign and deluge every household in the land with a great weight of detailed material on the history and workings of the European Community and the advantages and disadvantages of membership. There may be those who will point to the lack of knowledge of the subject revealed in opinion polls and who will argue that this is what we should do.
§ But, my Lords, I think we must be realistic about this. As the date of the poll approaches there will, I am sure, be increasingly wide coverage of the subject in the Press, on radio and television and by means of material distributed by the campaign organisations. There is a limit to what the ordinary citizen can be or should be, expected to absorb. Moreover, to produce even so-called "factual "material in a way which is not open to accusations of bias is extremely difficult. You can list the other members of the Community and give the date of the Treaty of Rome; that is easy, but after that everything involves subjective judgments.
§ The Government have therefore concluded that a more modest approach is most likely to prove effective. There are certain things which I believe we should do. We must ensure that every voter is aware of the arrangements for holding the Referendum, of the main arguments for and against continued membership of the European Community, and of the Government's recommendation in the light of renegotiation.
§ Accordingly, the Government will arrange for the delivery to every house- hold of a popular version of the White Paper on renegotiation and their own recommendation, together with an explanation of the way in which the Referendum is to be conducted. At the same time we have suggested that a further document should be delivered containing a statement in up to 2,000 words of each of the opposing viewpoints, contributed we hope by the two main campaigning organisations, which seems to us to be the best way of achieving fair-ness. We also intend to set up a special Government information unit to answer questions and deal with requests for factual information.294
§ For the rest, my Lords, we propose to leave information activities to outside organisations. It is here that the most difficult problem of "fairness"arises,bearing in mind that those campaigning on one side are likely to have greater financial resources at their disposal than those on the other. I am sure that the BBC and IBA can be relied on to maintain the same sort of balance as they do at General Elections and I hope that they will follow the suggestion in the White Paper for a series of short "Referendum broadcasts ". But there are other areas —paid advertising, for example, where there could be an imbalance.
§ The Government considered carefully whether some financial control should be imposed in the form of a limit on total expenditure; but decided against this on grounds of both principle and practicability. Any limitation would be an un-desirable restriction on freedom of expression on an issue where there should be the maximum discussion, and which more-over, would be extremely difficult to enforce. For example, would a poster advertising Danish bacon be regarded as propaganda in favour of remaining in the Community? I think that we must allow freedom of campaign advertising, just as we shall have freedom of Press comment. But what the Government are prepared to consider is the provision of some limited financial assistance from public funds to be paid equally to the two sides, if it is possible to identify two suitably representative organisations. We shall be interested to hear reactions to this.
§ My Lords, I have tried to cover the main issues, as I see them, which arise in this White Paper. It is, as has been said elsewhere, a White Paper which is green around the edges. The Government have reached their conclusions after careful consideration ; but they are not immutable. The object of the present debate is to enable the Government to listen to the views expressed by noble Lords before such matters as the wording of the Question have to be embodied in the Referendum Bill which we propose to introduce around Easter. I can assure the House that the closest possible attention will be given to all the views expressed in this debate. I look forward very much indeed to hearing your Lord-ships' comments.295
§ Lord BARNBY
My Lords, before the noble Leader sits down may I ask whether he is in a position to give any indication, in connection with the Referendum with which he has been dealing in his speech, whether the Government are giving, or are likely to give, consideration to a proposal, apparently responsibly put forward, that at the same time opportunity should be taken to inquire as to whether there should be the reintroduction of the death penalty for limited types of murder?
§ Lord SHEPHERD
My Lords, I have a very great affection for the noble Lord, but I think that is one of the most irrelevant interjections I have ever heard him make. My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name.
§ Moved, That this House takes note of the White Paper Referendum on United Kingdom Membership of the European Community (Cmnd. 5925).—(Lord Shepherd.)
§ 3.19 p.m.
§ Lord BALNIEL
My Lords, I address the House for the first time with considerable diffidence, because by no stretch of the imagination can the subject of the Referendum be described as non-controversial, and by no stretch of my abilities can I discuss it without at least to some extent entering into the realms of controversy. Also this is an important debate and I think the House would expect me, speaking from the Front Bench, to deploy the arguments with vigour. I hope that in doing so I can deploy them without causing any offence. In doing so, of course, I realise that I cannot ask the indulgence which the House so generously and so invariably grants to newcomers. Perhaps the best way I can give compensation is to try to meet the noble Lord's request to be as brief as possible. Also, perhaps, if my speech tends to be controversial, it might well be equalled out by the other maiden speech by my noble friend Lord Tranmire, who has played such a controversial role in regard to this subject in the other House.
I can begin on an entirely non-controversial note by saying that I feel the whole House is indebted to the noble Lord both for his explanation of the White Paper and for his undertaking that the views expressed in this House, in 296 another place and, indeed, by the public at large, will be taken into account by the Government when they come to frame their legislation. What I should like to do in the major part of my remarks is to look at the arguments for the Referendum. But, before I do so, I feel bound to make one comment on the general assumption which lies behind the White Paper. The general assumption contained in the White Paper is that this is a perfectly normal part of an evolutionary process in what is described, admittedly, as a unique situation; it is a perfectly normal part of an evolutionary process to give the general public a greater sense of participation in national affairs and to give them greater direct control over their own destiny.
But what I think is noticeable in the White Paper is that there is hardly a word about the real reason for the Referendum. I should not dream of saying that the noble Lord in his speech was disingenuous, but I think he would be the first to agree that he did move very briskly over this section of his speech; because it really is very disingenuous of the White Paper to say that:The referendum is to be held because of the unique nature of the issue ".There are only four lines devoted to the reasons for the Referendum. There is absolutely no rationale given in the White Paper for the holding of the Referendum. But every person in this House knows— indeed, virtually every person in the country is well aware of the fact—that the holding of the Referendum was to try to quieten difficulties which had arisen some years ago in the Labour Party when they were in Opposition.
There was a major difference of opinion; a perfectly honourable and understandable difference of opinion. This was the mechanism which was developed to try to bring the differing viewpoints together, so as to enable the then Labour Opposition to enter into the General Election and perfectly respectably to maintain their coherence and unity as a Party. There is nothing private about this. We do not have to wait for Dick Crossman's memoirs to tell about it; we all know about it. Indeed, it was their objection to this step which, in fact, led to the resignations of Roy Jenkins, George Thomson and Harold Lever ; the 297 mechanism has proved to be an extra-ordinarily skilful way of defusing a political problem.
But we have to look at it from the point of view of the national interest, and from that point of view the arguments against introducing a Referendum into our system of representative government, the arguments against introducing a Referendum to be part of our constitutional decision-making process, seem to me to be very strong arguments. Of course, one welcomes changes in the Constitution, so that Parliament is constantly better equipped to meet the needs of today. Our Constitution is continuously evolving; it is being formed, framed, moulded and changed literally every single day. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with constitutional change. I am very far removed from a former member of this House, a Royal Duke no less, who once said that any change at any time for any purpose is highly to be deprecated. I do not agree. Indeed, the need today for constitutional change, I think, is probably greater than it has been for many years past.
But the forward thrust of the changes, which I believe one should want to see, should be along the road of establishing and enhancing the authority of Parliament and not diminishing it. It should be along the road of enhancing the status, authority and influence of elected Members of Parliament, whether they be in Westminster or any regional system which might be established, so that they can more effectively hold their own against the Executive or against any power source which might exist outside Parliament. It should not be along the road of diminishing their influence and saying, "This issue is too big to be entrusted to Members of Parliament ; it is too big and too important to be left to our normal constitional process of Members of Parliament consulting with their constituents, listening to their arguments, weighing up their arguments, making their judgment and recording their votes in what they believe to be the national interest or the interest of their constituents ".
In the first few lines of the White Paper it is said:The referendum is to be held because of the unique nature of Che issue, which has fundamental implications …298 and it goes on:… for the constitutional position of Parliament.But surely the Referendum itself has fundamental implications for Parliament, and the more so is this the case because this is not just a public opinion poll which is being organised by the Government; this is an occasion when the Government are binding themselves to accept the verdict of the Referendum, and by doing so, they are, to some extent, abdicating the power of decision. In so far as they are able, they are taking the power of decision away from themselves and away from Parliament and placing it on the verdict of the Referendum. We shall, of course, have to wait to see the legislation. But, if I understand it aright, they are not making it legally mandatory on Members of Parliament to abide by the verdict of the Referendum; they are, however, certainly creating an impression that it is morally mandatory. They are saying that Members of Parliament are expected to fulfil the verdict of the Referendum.
There may be, and, indeed, there obviously are, political arguments for it, but it is frankly difficult to deny that this does not touch upon the sovereignty of Parliament, which, indeed, so many noble Lords in this House have spent their lives defending. But I am bound to say—and here I realise I am touching on controversy—that I agree with the Chancellor of the Duchy. If I may paraphrase his words of not so long ago, he said that a Referendum is alien to our Parliamentary system; incidentally, exactly the words which were used by Lord Attlee. He went on to say that this is a diminution of Parliamentary sovereignty, and he used phrases about the derogation of the power of Parliament. Those are not my words; they are the words of a Minister in the present Cabinet. I shall not weary the House with other quotations, but I can find equally firm words by many eminent parliamentarians, by many leaders of the Party which has introduced this novelty, ranging from Lord Attlee, whom I have just mentioned, to the present Prime Minister.
If we embark on this course we must not delude ourselves as to what the consequences will be. The demand for a repeat performance will come very quickly. " Give us a Referendum" will be the 299 battle cry of every campaigner. Member ship of the Community is enormously important of course, but it is not uniquely important. Membership of NATO carries with it the issues of life and death, and the issues of war or peace. It determines whether this country will continue to live in freedom or whether we will be subjected to tyranny. Quite a number of people want us out of that organisation. Indeed, very shortly we shall all be on our hobby horses. I have no doubt that the Liberal Party will be asking for a Referendum on Electoral Reform; the Conservative Party will be asking for a Referendum on nationalisation; Scottish people will be asking for a Referendum on oil, or their Assembly; people from Northern Ireland will be asking for a Referendum to have back their Parliamentary system of government. I am sure that the Welsh have an equally excitable and interesting Referendum which they would like to hold. Indeed, one can see a whole vista stretching before us—
§ Several Noble Lords: Order! Order! It is a maiden speech.
§ Lord SHEPHERD
My Lords, despite the quality of the noble Lord's speech, I think that we should regard it as a maiden speech which is not subject to interruption.
§ Several Noble Lords: Order!
§ Lord BALNIEL
My Lords, in spite of the extremely kind and courteous remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, I began my speech by saying that, because I realised I was treading in the realms of controversy, I had no wish to ask for the indulgence which is usually given to newcomers, so I most readily give way to the noble Lord, Lord Raglan.
§ Lord RAGLAN
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Balniel, very much. I note particularly what he said, and I am most grateful to him for allowing me to intervene. It is a matter of interest that the Welsh have already had a Referendum. We had one in 1961 on the subject of Sunday drinking, a drought which had been inflicted on us by Lloyd 300 George. Then the Welsh voted county by county, and I am glad to say that the county in which I reside went " wet".
§ Lord BALNIEL
My Lords, I think that by reminding us of that fact to some extent the noble Lord has indicated that there will be a demand for many Referenda. Of course there will be a demand, not only for that kind of Referenda but for a whole vista of those social moral issues where people hold strong views and where it is felt that Parliament is out of line with the views which are held in the country. I am simply making the point that I believe we are embarking on a course of which we shall not see the end in the immediate future. There are of course many other general arguments, most of which were deployed at some length in another place yesterday and which we can consider when we read their Hansard. I will not touch on those issues now.
Finally, I should like to say a brief word about one aspect of the technicalities set out in the White Paper to which the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, referred. We are told that this is a White Paper with green edges. I must confess that, being opposed to the principle, I am only marginally interested in the green edges. It does not, it seems to me, make a bad principle any more attractive by saying "It is a bad principle but it has got green edges". But obviously, if a Referendum has to be held we would want it to be as fair and as effective as possible, and, also, when our society is as divided as it is on so many issues, we want to see the Referendum passed with as little extra tension being created in our society as possible.
I believe there is strength in the Government's argument that their purpose is to secure the verdict of the whole British people. They say that it is a national poll on a national issue and that the constituency is the whole of the United Kingdom. They base themselves on this argument. They believe that the most appropriate arrangement is to count the votes centrally and make a single declaration of the United Kingdom result. I understand the reason for this strong result. The undeclared motive for this decision is of course to try to preserve 301 the unity of the United Kingdom. Referenda can be very bitter and very divisive, as Norway discovered only so very recently. But it seems to me possible that by counting centrally the Government will in fact aggravate the very problem which they are trying to avoid.
First of all, it is quite contrary to the normal practice in other countries where Referenda are part of the written Constitution. In France the count is by departments; in Denmark by polling stations; in Italy, Norway, Ireland and Sweden it is by constituencies; in New Zealand by electoral districts; in Switzerland by cantonal or at communal level, and I believe I am right in saying that in the United States it is by precinct or by city. So it is unusual, and the Government's motive in moving away from the normal method of counting will be looked upon witn suspicion.
My home is in Scotland, and I think the Government should realise that a most effective surging campaign will be waged against this method. I do not for one moment believe that the support will be confined to the separatists in Scotland. It will touch a chord of national feeling that once again a London-based Government are trying to some extent to diminish the feeling of Scottish national identity. Although I have no personal knowledge, I suspect the same emotion will be felt in Northern Ireland and in Wales. There will be a widespread feeling that they are being denied information which legitimately should be made available to them. They will feel that the voice of Scotland, Northern Ireland or Wales is intertwined, intermingled and submerged in the larger voting pattern of England. I have considerable sympathy with the Government in this matter, but I feel that the proposed central count could give birth to a very damaging issue itself. I would suggest that the Government should once again look very carefully at the possibility of having a regional count.
My Lords, I have trespassed far too long upon your time and your kindness. I should like to conclude by thanking your Lordships for listening with such complete courtesy to a speech that I realise has touched upon controversy.
§ 3.38 p.m.
§ Lord BYERS
My Lords, I am sure that your Lordships would wish me, on 302 behalf of the House, to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Balniel, on that exceptional maiden speech. I do not think he needs to worry about controversy. I am advised by my constitutional adviser, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, that it is not controversy that matters and which has to be avoided in a maiden speech, but provocation, because of the convention that maiden speakers are not interrupted. I must tell the noble Lord, Lord Raglan. that I deplore the breaking of that convention and I hope it is not a precedent which we will follow in this House.
§ Several Noble Lords: Hear! hear!
§ Lord BYERS
Our conventions are very important and, whenever it is made in either House, the strain of a maiden speech is great, and we ought to keep to our convention. But it is clear that the noble Lord, Lord Balniel, acquitted himself in a fine manner and that he will be a very substantial addition to the strength to the Front Bench of the Conservative Party. I will not add that they need it, but I am sure they will very much appreciate the strength which he brings to that Bench.
I followed closely the speech that the noble Lord, Lord Balniel, has made. My own position is that ever since the 1930s I have been utterly opposed to the referendum as a constitutional tool. My opposition is not related in any way to my strong view that Britain should remain in the EEC. To my mind the principle of the referendum is totally divorced from the issue of whether or not we stay in the European Economic Community. I have great fears, as the noble Lord has, of the damage which this introduction into our Parliamentary procedure will wreak on our whole system of representative Government. I do not believe it will be possible to limit the case of the referendum to the one issue of the EEC or to constitutional issues alone. Although I am dead against the referendum as a constitutional tool, I do not believe I shall be able to persuade my own Party not to demand it for electoral reform. I am sure that it will be a strong demand, one which may well have to be conceded. It will spread and every time it is used it will weaken the authority of the elected Member of Parliament and will further undermine Parliamentary democracy.
303 I resent the fact that this device has been proposed for no better reason than to try to hold together the Labour Party in a state of sham unity, in which collective Cabinet responsibility has been shelved in favour of that ghastly business of an agreement to differ. Those who were in the Liberal Party in the 1930s know what that means. It is the worst form of Party politics when the Constitution is put at risk for partisan purposes. So far as I know, the referendum as a political tool has never had much support in this country, rather the reverse. I remember vividly that when Winston Churchill proposed one to pro-long the 1945 Government—it was in the 1945 Election that I was elected to the House of Commons—he was turned down coldly and forcefully by Clement Attlee, as the noble Lord said, on the grounds that he could not consent to the introduction into our national life of a device so alien to all our traditions.
There was a recent Fabian pamphlet, well argued, strongly condemning the use of the referendum. When Harold Wilson was questioned by Robin Day about the referendum and the Common Market on 28th May, 1970, he said:I think it is right that it is Parliament which should take that decision with a sense of full responsibility and a sense that reflects national views and national interest".Michael Charlton put a listener's question to Harold Wilson which, in effect, asked:If Mr. Wilson sees the polls going against him "——this was in the 1970 General Election—would he say at the last minute that he would allow a Referendum on the Common Market?The present Prime Minister's answer was:No. I have given my answer many times, I do not change because polls go up or down.That ought to be on the Record! I think that the Government ought to tell us this afternoon what was the factor which changed the present Prime Minister's mind. I do not want to wait for some more diaries to be produced for that answer.
I believe that it is highly dangerous to argue that the Common Market issue is unique to the extent that it justifies setting aside the informed decisions of Members of Parliament. This is the slippery slope. This is the argument of the " special 304 case " which undermines the Social Contract. This is the assertion that some matters are too important to be decided by Government. To claim in the Labour Party Manifesto that this is the most important decision of the century is quite fantastic. A country which has been forced to take a decision to defend itself by arms on two occasions in this century without a direct appeal to the people is hardly likely to believe that there is anything more important than the decisions which were taken in 1914 and 1939. I can still remember Chamberlain's voice telling us,We are at war from this momentThat did not have a Referendum behind it; that was a decision of the Government supported in Parliament.
Quite apart from that, there are other considerations which will make this sorry business one of the untidiest political operations we shall have ever witnessed. Before the people vote there will be a majority recommendation from the Cabinet. There will be a vote in the House of Commons and one in this House. There will be a decision by the National Executive of the Labour Party, followed by the vote in the Special Conference of the Labour Party, and then the national Referendum. This is a blue-print direct from the "Department of Confusion". This is a recipe for creating a total lack of confidence abroad and uncertainty at home. This can do nothing to enhance the status, prestige or credibility of this country in foreign eyes and, particularly, in the minds of those to whom we owe money and from whom we may have to borrow more.
How are we to assure friendly Governments that all future negotiations with them will not be subjected to the hazards of a Referendum before they can be implemented? What about the period just before the Referendum vote, and between the vote and the declaration of the result? As we come up to polling day, there will almost certainly be a plethora of polls seeking to forecast which way the vote is likely to go. If this tends to show a majority for Britain getting out of the EEC, there could be a very serious run on the pound, and what-ever else our allies feel, they know—and they have said so—that Britain will be a weaker nation outside the Community, 305 and that the two or three year period of disengagement will be fraught with frustrations and with chaos. It is for this reason that I have changed my mind on the method of counting the votes.
I had originally thought that the result must be a United Kingdom one and not a constituency one, because the real question is: Shall the United Kingdom stay in the Community? I am now not so certain, and I think that this is one of the weaknesses of the whole Referendum case. If it really is to take five days to count the votes, the pound will be at risk throughout that period, because people will try to find out by sample polls which way people have voted. They will put together in the national newspapers the results day-by-day as they think they have found them out. Once again, if this tends to show that there is a trend towards a Referendum result of Britain leaving the community, the pound will be at risk throughout the whole of that period. Quite apart from the cost in money and manpower time, the Government will be forced—and I say this reluctantly—to go to a constituency or county vote in order to obtain the result as precisely as possible and not have this period of risk and vulnerability.
What is crystal clear is that this whole exercise has not been properly thought through and that, although it may marginally reduce the strains in the Labour Party, I honestly believe it will only be for a short time that those strains are reduced. It will only do so at the expense of our constitutional future and the sovereignty of Parliament. If we have to go through with the Referendum—and after last night's vote in another place I suppose it is inevitable—I urge the Government, in order to preserve the sovereignty of Parliament, to declare that the Referendum will be advisory only and will not be binding on anyone. This would avoid the situation, which might well arise, in which the renegotiated settlement is approved by a substantial majority in both Houses but is then turned down by a very small majority of the electorate in the Referendum. I believe that a binding Referendum is bound to weaken our Parliamentary system irreparably, and should be avoided at all costs.
My Lords, I end with a direct question to the Government: What happens if the 306 two Houses vote in favour of staying in the Community but in the Referendum the electorate votes otherwise? What happens then, and what will the Government do?