HL Deb 19 April 1995 vol 563 cc487-516

3.4 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale rose to call attention to the Swiss Federation as a constitutional model; and to move for Papers.

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, having been more fortunate in the Ballot than in the National Lottery, I beg to move the Motion standing on the Order Paper.

At the outset I should comment upon two words in the Motion. The first is "Federation". The reason is that Switzerland is often thought of as a confederation, because in a confederation many fewer powers are vouchsafed by the component states to the central authority, and in Switzerland a great degree of autonomy is left to the component states. The second reason is that Switzerland often refers to herself by the old name Confoederatio Helvetica. Hence the letters on Swiss motor vehicles which cause some confusion to foreigners.

In constitutional and international law Switzerland is undoubtedly a federation. One speaks with some diffidence on that matter in the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, because his edition of The Federalist, with its masterly introduction, is a locus classicus. Nevertheless, there is no doubt—I do not go into it now—that Switzerland is a federation.

The second word I should mention is "model", because any constitution is of course the product of its history and geography—the Swiss as much as any. So there is no question of copying verbatim any element in the Swiss constitution. What it can do, and can do valuably, is to provide lessons to the world. The reason is that Switzerland is a stable, prosperous democracy in the face of—on the face of it—very considerable difficulties.

Switzerland has two major religions, and it is bordered by Catholic and Protestant states which have frequently fought one another, as indeed have the Catholic and Protestant cantons of Switzerland in the past. Switzerland comprises four different national languages: German (the majority); French (about a fifth); Italian and Romansh. Again, the first three are spoken by neighbouring states which have been belligerents in the past, and indeed have sought to enlarge their boundaries. So there is a lesson to be learnt.

Those conditions—a difference of religion and different languages—are mirrored all over the world. When one looks at any continent one finds them: the Caucasus, Kashmir, and the Balkans are but three examples. I propose to leave it to the two noble Lords who are to wind up, who can be relied upon to: Let observation with extensive view,

Survey mankind, from China to Peru". I prefer, if your Lordships will allow it, to concentrate upon two problems which face us immediately; namely, Northern Ireland and the agenda for the second Maastricht conference.

In both cases, Switzerland has much to teach us, as will I think be clear from what I have said about the problems it faces. I am strongly a Unionist, but I am convinced that there must be power sharing in Northern Ireland, as there has been in Switzerland. As regards the agenda for the Inter-Governmental Conference, I strongly believe that we should be at the centre of Europe and doing all that we can to promote its cohesion. Again, Switzerland has lessons to teach.

I turn to what I regard to be the main characteristics of the Swiss constitution. They are, first, democracy; secondly, federalism; thirdly, subsidiarity; and, fourthly, neutrality. I do not believe that we have much to learn in the way of neutrality because it has never been our tradition and it is unlikely to be so. On the whole, our tradition has been to promote the concert of Europe and the balance of power.

As regards the other characteristics, federalism speaks for itself. It is a method of sharing power between component states, which may have considerable differences, and the central authority with more or less power—in the case of Switzerland, it is distinctly less—to conduct matters that are better dealt with centrally on a common basis. As I said, Switzerland as a federal constitution leaves exceptional autonomy to its component parts, not only to the 26 cantons but to the more than 3,000 communes which have great autonomy too. Both cantons and communes have the power to raise their own income taxes.

So much for federalism; but subsidiarity is even more important because it is at the very essence of the Swiss constitution. One of the great achievements of the Prime Minister in his negotiating skill and tenacity at Maastricht was to have inscribed the principle of subsidiarity. In other words, no decision should be made by a decision-making body if it can be made by another decision-making body which is closer to the person affected by the decision. That appears to me to be most important wherever one looks in the world, in particular if one looks at Northern Ireland and the prospects of the Inter-Governmental Conference.

There is a large measure of subsidiarity in Switzerland but it is remarkable how little is spent by the central authority. In Switzerland, it is only 30 per cent. whereas even in the federal United States it is 59 per cent. and in this country it is 74 per cent. That shows how much power is retained by the component cantons. Moreover, it is a continuing process because in 1946 51 per cent. was the Government's share of the expenditure. By 1980 it had fallen to 31 per cent. The same picture is shown if one looks at the number of federal employees.

The third characteristic is democracy, because Switzerland is a profoundly democratic power. Democracy is shown by the test of not if but how far the bulk of the citizens of a country can influence the decisions which affect themselves, Switzerland has achieved high success in meeting that test. It has three kinds of democracy. Like ours, it is partly a representative democracy; it elects members to its parliament both on a cantonal and a total population basis. There are two Houses which exercise considerable power over legislation. Legislation is frequently overturned by one or other House, so much so that the central government tend to negotiate with the Houses before entering into legislation.

There again, we have a lesson to learn domestically because subsidiarity, like charity, begins at home. The popular House in Switzerland exercises considerably more autonomy than the House of Commons does in relation to the Government. The second chamber, the cantonal chamber, exercises considerably more authority than your Lordships venture themselves as regards government legislation.

When the Child Support Bill came before your Lordships' House it was analysed and criticised in a constructive way. However, we entirely failed to effect any amendment, which was to the great disadvantage of many of our citizens and, indeed, to the Government themselves. Such a thing would be quite unheard of in Switzerland and therefore I venture to suggest that there is a lesson that your Lordships' House should exercise more confidence in amending government legislation.

I have mentioned a democracy on a representative basis but Switzerland also has a system of direct democracy. In many of the communes the citizens themselves vote on the proposals that are put before them. That was our system formerly in respect of town meetings and it could well be revived. Indeed, if we had greater subsidiarity and gave power to parish councils, the parish meeting could well be a method of popular direct democracy.

I can only mention summarily the two methods of semi-direct democracy that Switzerland has. One is an institutionalised referendum which can be demanded by a body of citizens. That is a highly conservative provision but it is counterbalanced by the popular initiative which is again proposed by a body of citizens. That is not peculiar to Switzerland. Many of the United States have that system to the great advantage, political scientists tell us, by way of countering maladministration and corruption.

I hope that the other important matters will be taken up by other speakers. I beg to move for Papers.

3.20 p.m.

Lord Cockfield

My Lords, it is always both an honour and a pleasure to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, not least because any speech which he delivers is an occasion for intellectual stimulus.

With all due respect to the authorities and, indeed, to President Mitterrand, who has recently been dabbling in that field, I doubt whether there is any real difference between a confederation and a federation. Indeed, I suspect that those terms originated in the American Civil War where the states of the south felt that they had to describe themselves as a confederation to distinguish themselves from the states of the north which described themselves as a federation, in just the same way as they chose to wear grey uniforms whereas the troops of the north wore dark blue uniforms.

The noble and learned Lord does a significant service in raising this matter in your Lordships' House. Indeed, the implications may be wider than he suggests or than the Government may realise.

As I have said before, the policy of Her Majesty's Government in this field rests upon Humpty Dumpty's dictum: 'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less'". Unfortunately, if the other 14 members of the European Union, as well as virtually every other country in the world, uses the word to mean something entirely different, it is not surprising that confusion abounds and that Johnny, the only man in the regiment who is in step, is sometimes regarded as a member of the awkward squad.

It is a real tragedy if what may be shared objectives are thwarted by differences in language and expression. We need to bear in mind continually that the purpose of language is the communication of knowledge and ideas and not merely the expression of abuse. That is particularly important in the present context, not least because the federal model is infinitely variable both in form and in content.

The implications go very much wider and deeper than mere policy towards the European Union. We have a Union of our own. It is the Union of the three Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Wales and the Province of Northern Ireland. That Union is an extreme example of the centralised super-state so often, but wrongly, attributed to Brussels. But more important, it is crumbling before our eyes because the Scots do not like being governed by an English Government at Westminster. That is an essential lesson to be drawn from the Scottish local elections. The only possible counter argument is if the Government do even worse in the English elections than they did in Scotland. I doubt very much whether, even in their wildest moments, the Government would hope to refute the argument in that way.

But if further proof were needed, one has to look only at the attempts of the BBC—an English institution with its headquarters close to Carnaby Street and with a philosophy to match—to interfere in the Scottish electoral process and the retribution which it suffered as a result. We see also the growing evidence of national awakening in Wales. Only last year your Lordships passed the Welsh Language Act.

The only conceivable way in which the Union can be saved in the long term—and I regard it as essential that the Union should be saved—is if it developed not by accident but consciously into a Union of the Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Wales; no longer the United Kingdom but the United Kingdoms. That is a federal solution of the kind which has been adopted successfully in the United States, Canada, Australia, Germany, Belgium, and of course, as the noble and learned Lord has just said, in Switzerland. That is the only way in which the gulf between peoples of different cultures, national traditions and even different languages and laws can he bridged. It is the only way in which the growing gulf between governments and the people can be bridged.

That brings one to Northern Ireland, which has also been raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale. The only conceivable solution to the Irish problem, which is not only a problem of Northern Ireland but a problem of Southern Ireland, is that there will be either a federation of Northern Ireland with the United Kingdoms—and I deliberately say United Kingdoms and not United Kingdom—or a federation of Northern Ireland with the Irish Republic. What a tragedy it would be if the solution to both those problems of paramount constitutional importance in this country—that is, the problems of the relationships between England, Scotland and Wales and the problem of Northern Ireland—were to be thwarted by mistaken rhetoric based upon imperfect knowledge and reflecting little more than internecine political warfare.

I only hope that this debate, initiated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, will provide the Government with the opportunity to put aside their preoccupations with Alice in Wonderland or, more accurately, Alice through the Looking Glass, and come at last to terms with the real world.

3.27 p.m.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe

My Lords, I too express my thanks to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for introducing this subject. When I attended this House originally I noticed on the all-party Whip that there was an Anglo-Swiss parliamentary group. I went along the corridor to find out about it, thinking that we might discuss the Swiss constitution, in which I have an interest. I found that all that the group discussed was the preparation for next year's skiing competition between Swiss and British Parliamentarians. Therefore, I am delighted that the noble and learned Lord has won the ballot for this interesting debate.

I should declare an interest. Half of my family live in Switzerland. I have only one complaint about that; namely, that one of my grandchildren tells me that she lost marks in a recent examination because she spoke English with a Scottish accent. However, the trouble with Switzerland—which we all admire because it is such a beautiful country—is that unfortunately nowadays it is almost too expensive to visit. With the Swiss franc conversion rate now standing at 1.7 to the pound, it is financially difficult for us to enjoy all the beauty and the amenities of that country.

The question that has been raised this afternoon is: what can we learn from Switzerland? It has been instructive to learn a little about the weight and authority which are given to the various constitutional arrangements—the federal government at the centre, the cantons and the communities. There is a great deal to be learnt from the particular weighting of those organisations. The noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, quite rightly pointed out that some of the tensions that arise in the United Kingdom could be avoided if greater attention was given to the decentralisation which is inherent in the Swiss constitution.

In the local authority elections two weeks ago the Conservative Party managed to get 11 per cent. of the votes of the people of Scotland—I repeat, 11 per cent. That means that 89 per cent. of the people in Scotland are living under a regime which they resent and which they oppose. That cannot be a long-term arrangement which is sustainable. One cannot possibly have that kind of imbalance because Scotland regards itself as a nation.

If one looks at the cantons in Switzerland, which also have tax-raising powers and considerable powers inherent in their constitution, it will be seen that the Scottish problem—and, indeed, now the increasing Welsh tension—could not possibly arise if we gave greater attention to the danger of centralisation. Over the past few years there has been a substantial loss of power and authority at local level in this country. Local government functions have frequently been replaced by the appointment of quangos which are not at all responsible in any democratic sense. Therefore, the lesson pointed out by the noble Lord this afternoon regarding the importance of decentralisation to make democracy a living reality is important for us.

The absence of tensions in Swiss politics is due to a number of reasons. There has been a greater consensus in politics in general in that country. It has been ruled by a coalition government which probably commands 80 per cent. of the total votes in Switzerland, That makes for very smooth government: negotiation and consensus are the rule. But, at the same time, it also leads to a degree of conservatism and to a certain cosiness in the relationships of parties.

Those noble Lords who know Swiss history will recall that one of the great men of Switzerland in recent times was a Mr. Duttweiler who built the most successful retail chain in that country; namely, MIGROS. It will be recalled that, when he asked for permission to open shops in the country, the co-operatives and the private shopkeepers got together and decided that no licences should be provided. That was a very cosy arrangement to avoid competition. Mr. Duttweiler dramatically illustrated his disgust by actually throwing a brick through the window of the Swiss Parliament building. That is somewhat unheard of in the kind of environment in which Swiss politics are conducted.

Reference has been made to the importance of a referendum. There is no doubt that a referendum seems to have a kind of restraining influence on legislation and sometimes has dramatic effects. It represents grass-roots democracy in a very real sense. I shall mention one or two of the recent instances of the operation of the referendum. Enough signatures were gathered in Switzerland for a referendum to take place on the abolition of the Swiss Army. Despite the fact that Switzerland has observed neutrality, the Swiss are rather proud of their army. However, the case was put to a referendum of the people and 70 per cent. of the electors voted on the question of the abolition of the Swiss Army. In fact, the majority was 64 per cent. That was a sufficiently alarming vote against the continuance of the Swiss Army for the government to take heed of it and decide that the Swiss Army would be reduced by one-third by 1985. There is no doubt about that. It is an example of democracy at work.

There have been one or two referenda in that country. In a recent referendum the Swiss electorate decided that, in order to protect the beauty of the Swiss Alps, they would prevent the movement of freight by road across Switzerland—something very important to a country in the centre of Europe—and that, by the year 2000, freight would be carried by rail and not by road so as to protect the amenities of the Alps. That was not done because of a decision taken by the government at the centre; it was done because of a decision taken by the people when voting in a referendum.

The one occasion where the referendum worked, I believe, to the disadvantage of Switzerland—and, certainly to my disappointment—was when a vote was taken on membership of the European Community. But at least the Swiss decided by common consent that they would not join the European Community; indeed, a vote was held. When one considers the fact that Switzerland depends on its international trade—it is a small country with very few minerals—on its ability to export and on its ability to survive by way of high-tech industry, that was quite a remarkable decision. The banks and the Swiss Government supported membership of the European Community, but the people turned it down. That was perhaps unfortunate from a British point of view, because I am sure that Switzerland would have joined us in championing the cause of subsidiarity, which is built into their own constitution. The Swiss would have been a natural ally for us in achieving the degree of subsidiarity which most of us desire.

The other issue which creates a degree of tension is the large number of asylum-seekers in Switzerland. Switzerland is a beautiful country with the highest GNP per person in the world, and so it has 100,000 asylum-seekers. The Swiss people took a vote on limiting the number of new immigrants and the voters decided in favour of it. However, there is a new Right Wing party in Switzerland called the Automobile Party which was originally established to defend the rights of the owners of the motor car. However, it has now developed into an extreme Right Wing anti-immigration party. When it put forward the proposal for a further, more drastic, reduction in the number of asylum-seekers, the very people who decided that there should be some restriction turned down the proposal of the extreme Right Wing. So there is a degree of good sense around. Decisions are being made in the various referenda which reflect very creditably on the democratic idea.

Switzerland is essentially a conservative country and things change there rather more gradually than in some other countries. I would have thought that the attitude of the Swiss Government and the Swiss constitution to women, for example, is unfortunate. It is only now that a second woman has been appointed, after a great deal of hassle in the coalition, to the federal government office. Switzerland runs on the basis of a coalition and it was the turn of the socialists to nominate someone to a government office. The social democrats, who were really to the Right Wing of Tony Blair, put up a woman candidate but the male dominated assembly decided not to have a woman. It was only when there was a threat to the continuation of the coalition that a woman was appointed. In some areas Switzerland and its constitution has not caught up with the ideas that are consistent with a democratic society.

We can learn a great deal from Switzerland, particularly in the field of decentralisation. As I said at the beginning, we have moved more and more into centralised government in this country. It is high time that we looked at our own constitution as regards decentralisation, the spread of democratic control and the right of people to become involved in major decision-making, which is inherent in the Swiss constitution.

3.41 p.m.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, deserves our thanks for introducing a subject on which almost anything can be said with relevance. We have already heard discussion on the European Union, on Scotland's grievances, and no doubt in the course of this short debate other topics will he raised. But it is, alas, only a peg because, seriously, there is no possibility of Switzerland, admirable country though it is, offering a model anywhere. Its history is so idiosyncratic; its formation over a period of 700 years fraught with so many ups and downs, both political, constitutional and religious, that there is nothing quite like it—or could he anything quite like it—on the face of the globe.

I shall discuss only one or two of the points which the noble and learned Lord made. He talked about the fact that two major religious denominations divide the country and that this still—at least nowadays—does not lead to the kind of violence and difficulties which we observe elsewhere. He might have added a third—the powerful force of anti-religious, secularist sentiment which was at the formation of some of the political movements in Switzerland in the middle of the last century.

But the main point, perhaps, is that in Switzerland, unlike in other places where religions confront each other, their adherents are not also members of particular linguistic or ethnic groups. There are French-speaking Protestants and French-speaking Catholics and there are German-speaking Protestants and German-speaking Catholics. Therefore the kind of clash which may occur in other parts of the world does not occur there. To compare the situation there in any respect with the situation in Northern Ireland seems to me so far-fetched as to be out of court.

The noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, suggested that the European Union—it may not long survive—could be modelled on Switzerland. That, again, is enormously far-fetched because what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, did not add to his list of Swiss virtues was a sense of Swiss nationhood. Switzerland is a nation. The cantons may differ; they may have greater powers than is common with subordinate units of government in many other countries, and indeed in some other federations. As the noble and learned Lord said, they have differences in religion and in language. They differ, of course, in having two or three cities of major importance and also in having isolated rural communes which for part of the year have more or less to subsist on their own.

Every kind of division exists in Switzerland but for some curious reason—perhaps because for nearly 700 years it was confronted with the possibility of hostile invasions (after all, it is only a mere two centuries since it was overrun by the armies of Napoleon)—and perhaps for the reason I have just mentioned, they have an extraordinary degree of feeling as regards being Swiss. If Europeans felt about Europe the way Swiss feel about Switzerland, then indeed there might be something of a model in their constitution.

It is also, of course, true that in some respects Switzerland is—as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, said—a little peculiar, not sharing in all the fashions which have predominated in the politics and Political discourse of other western countries. But, again, there is a reason for that. I refer to the referendum on the Swiss Army at a time of relative peace in Europe. Switzerland is a country in which its citizens have first and foremost been armed; that is to say, civilians have been trained to defend their country. That is the backbone of the Swiss military set-up. It would have been curious if the franchise had early on been allotted to women who in those enlightened days were not expected to bear arms.

Usually there is an explanation for the actions that are taken. There is also, I think, a further important fact. The noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, made an extraordinary request from a former commissioner when he asked us to observe reality. Switzerland has had an unusual set of economic circumstances because apart from water power, which was not effective until the previous century, it does not have much in the way of natural resources. It has had an extraordinary capacity for making do without them; in earlier centuries by selling cuckoo clocks and—perhaps this was more important economically—by supplying mercenary soldiers to parts of Europe, of which the Papal Guard in the Vatican is now the last symbolic element. In more recent times Switzerland has developed a banking system from which it derives enormous profit, though perhaps some other countries may feel that it also provides opportunities for less than palatable accounts to he secreted away.

I turn now to the Swiss decision on where they stand in relation to Europe, which the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, mentioned. I speak subject to correction, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, but it is my belief that the Swiss were never asked whether they wished to join the European Community or the European Union. They were merely asked whether they wished to join the outer ring, the free trade area which now unites other countries which are possible future members of the European Union. The Swiss declined, primarily because there would be no obvious advantage to Switzerland. The present advantages in trade exist because of Switzerland's geographical location and the skill of both its financial and some of its industrial institutions.

Membership of the European Union could not be combined with neutrality. Swiss neutrality is an important international asset. It would have been highly damaging to the rest of the world if Switzerland had abandoned it. After all, it is the fact that Switzerland is and is known to be a permanent neutral which makes possible the activities of the International Committee of the Red Cross, to which so many people in so many countries owe so much. If Switzerland were part of the European Union, which is not and cannot of its nature be a permanent neutral because who knows what its common foreign policy may produce in the way of enemies, the situation would have been quite different.

Switzerland is a country which one is entitled to admire. Having been to school there and visited it to ski, like the family of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, I have enormous admiration for Switzerland. However, we must not think that it is perfect, because no country is perfect. Nor can it possibly provide a model.

I agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, that Switzerland is a federation. There is no possible definition of a federation which would not include Switzerland. There is division of powers between the centre and the cantons. It is possible to be a federation because at the same time it is a nation. As noble Lords know, I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, that there is any confusion about the meaning of the word "federal". That is a suggestion which is put up when we say that the United Kingdom could not be part of a federation. We understand what it means. Those who talk about a united states of Europe—a federal Europe—also understand what it means. On the other hand, the word "subsidiarity", which I do not recollect the Swiss using when making their constitution, is a piece of unnecessary jargon which adds nothing whatever to the notion of federalism. It is simply another way of saying how powers could be distributed.

It is therefore important that we should sympathise with the idea that something as remote in Europe's experience as the experience of Switzerland should be considered. But each time we probe we will find that the differences from any other arrangement anywhere in the world are much greater than the similarities.

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, touched on a matter which is very relevant to some of the current problems of the European Union; namely, the Swiss attitude towards immigration. That has always been a problem. The Swiss have never wished to extend their territories. The original three cantons came to be 26 by a process of accretion, not of conquest. They have also been aware that making people Swiss would be a long and difficult process. In recent years they may not altogether have been the best employers of temporary residents working in Swiss industry or commerce. The Swiss have had to be harsh to the outside world in order to preserve their distinctive national consciousness, That was noticeable at the time when there was the Nazi regime on one side of the country and a fascist regime on the other.

The acquaintance of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, with Switzerland, is closer than mine today. It looks as though in some respects the Swiss have not been able to stand against some of the less pleasant elements of our contemporary world—youth culture, drug culture and all that goes with those. Zurich is not the haven of peace and respectability that it was when Lenin lived there. Even so, Switzerland is a great country. I am glad that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, asked us to think about it. Let us think about it and then proceed to business.

3.57 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I begin by apologising to the House because I fear that I shall have to leave before the end of the debate. I have already apologised to the Minister. I shall stay, I hope, until the very moment when he rises to his feet, but I shall have to leave at 5 o'clock. I apologise.

Much to my surprise, I agreed with something that the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, said in his, as always, learned and witty remarks. I agree with him very much that this is a fine debate which offers us a pretext to talk about something which matters to us—our constitutional arrangements. I did not agree with the noble Lord that Switzerland is a far-fetched country from which we can learn very little in constitutional terms. I do not agree because I believe that in this country we now have a constitutional problem—some would say a constitutional crisis. We need to learn, from whatever source and inspiration, how to govern ourselves better.

On three crucial axes the British constitution is creaking: the relationship between the state and the citizen; the relationship between the centre and the locality; and the relationship between the three traditional arms of government—the Executive, the legislature and the judiciary.

One reason the British state and the British system are creaking is that we are now the most centralised unitary state in Europe since Napoleonic France. We have gathered power to the centre in the most extraordinary way. A whole series of constitutional problems is now coming together in a major constitutional issue. I shall mention one or two of those problems.

First, there is the problem which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, so wisely identified some years ago when the Conservative Party was in opposition as an "elective dictatorship"; namely, the lack of any formal restraint on the powers of government.

Secondly, there is the question of citizen participation and the distance between government and parties and the people of this country. Thirdly, there is the question of local autonomy and the weakening we have seen in the powers and respect that exist for local government in London. That issue comes to a head with the problem of Scotland and Wales. Like several noble Lords who have spoken—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, and the noble Lords, Lord Cockfield and Lord Taylor of Gryfe—I am a unionist. I wish the union to be maintained, but an intelligent unionist must be a devolutionist. It is no good saying of nations like Scotland and Wales, with their own strong traditions, that they must be administered as though they were provinces of imperial London. Then there is the question of the need to create a new sense of legitimacy in our whole political system.

All those questions come together in the constitutional crisis which I mentioned a moment ago. It is now being put into the pressure cooker of what our future relationships will be with the European Union and what shape the European Union itself is to have. The IGC is approaching and so far the British Government have been conspicuous by not bringing forward proposals for the future governance of Europe, which stop a long way short of a united states of Europe, a long way short of the notion that has, quite rightly, been attacked, but do not go far enough towards the sharing and layering of power in a way that reflects the wishes of the citizens of Europe.

I do not think that it is necessary to embrace the idea of constitutional imitation; to embrace the idea that in some way Switzerland is a model. I do not believe that it is for us. It comes from a different culture and history from ours. But we do not have to embrace that idea to be open to the possibility that we can learn something from Switzerland. It is probably right that successful institutions—whether companies or governments—are learning institutions. They learn from experience and observation. If we observe Switzerland, it has several features of great interest to British politics, some of which noble Lords have mentioned and others which have not been mentioned. First, there is the issue of decentralisation. The Swiss confederation is almost a model of a decentralised state. It demonstrates powerfully that political power can be delegated to local assemblies without any of the chaos, waste and inefficiency which are routinely forecast in this country by people who oppose further decentralisation and devolution. The Swiss model shows that a highly decentralised state can he prosperous. It shows that responsible citizens who are encouraged to participate democratically, at a variety of different levels, can do so. Therefore, it has produced a participatory democracy rather than what at times I fear we are becoming in this country—a nation of cynics, united only in our distaste for what happens in Whitehall and Westminster. Switzerland is a state in which political power derives from the citizens and the local communities where it originates at the apex of the political triangle and is passed upwards. So delegation is upwards rather than downwards from the centre.

Secondly, Switzerland exemplifies very well a greater wish to spread participation than this country. The Swiss confederation demonstrates that a strong state need have no fear of the proper and judicious use of the referendum. It can form part of a mature democracy. As many noble Lords know, proposed legislation can stem from the Federal Council, from members of parliament, from the cantons or—as I believe the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, said—by a people's initiative with the signatures of 100,000 enfranchised citizens.

I maintain that over the past century in Switzerland it is undeniable that the instruments of direct democracy have, on the whole, had positive effects. In a time of social fragmentation, it has provided a sure means of enlisting the involvement and co-operation of different ethnic groups. It is hard to think of other countries that have done as well in achieving the participation of ordinary citizens in the running of the nation's social, political and economic life.

Thirdly, noble Lords would expect me from these Benches to refer to another feature of the Swiss constitution: the use of proportional representation. The Swiss confederation uses proportional representation extremely effectively. It shows that many of the arguments used by opponents of proportional representation in this country are erroneous because coalition government in Switzerland has, on the whole, been strong, stable, and popular. Proportional representation has meant that every Swiss citizen has felt that he or she is represented in the deliberations of the nation, whereas in this country, as noble Lords know, a majority of people do not get either the Member of Parliament or the government that they want. In Switzerland, everyone can feel that he has a stake in the legislature that ensues after an election. So we have something to learn from Switzerland; some lessons are applicable.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, mentioned Northern Ireland; also referred to by other noble Lords. As spokesman from these Benches with responsibility for Northern Ireland, I congratulate the Government wholeheartedly on the achievement represented by the framework document. One of the most striking features about that document is, first, that it recommends an assembly elected in Northern Ireland by proportional representation. Secondly, it recommends a devolved assembly. Thirdly, it recommends an assembly in which there should be power sharing between communities in Northern Ireland. Fourthly, it recommends that there should be a Bill of Rights, or charter of rights, for the people of Northern Ireland.

I say to the Minister that a great many British citizens will find it difficult to determine why those good, constitutional innovations are to be granted to the people of Northern Ireland and not to the rest of the United Kingdom where they would be just as applicable and helpful in strengthening our democracy.

I wish to say a final word on the future of the European Union and the impending IGC. It is good to hear the "f" word—federalism—coming out and being discussed in a rational way in your Lordships' House instead of in the vein of vulgar misrepresentative populism in which Her Majesty's Government have so far described it. All those who dislike the prospect—as I certainly do—of a European superstate should be supporters of federalism. That is the way to share power, to layer power, to create a system of power that is bottom up and starts with the citizen. It is the way to retain strong traditions, strong nationalities within a framework of pooled sovereignty for the greater good.

I conclude by urging that the Government do not approach either this discussion or the next election in a spirit of constitutional complacency that they alone defend our ancient institution. What we have to defend is the prospect of a real, thriving democracy in this country. To achieve that we shall need reform; for that reform we should be informed by debates such as this debate today.

4.8 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I return to the happy subject raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, of the Swiss confederation. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Holme, would approve that I declare several interests. The first is possibly not a happy one, since one of my early visits to Switzerland resulted in the termination of my National Service through a triple fracture of the leg, two years in hospital—six months in a Swiss hospital—and various other allied and associated consequences.

On the other hand, perhaps a beneficial side to the interests that I should declare is that for 22 years consecutively, as a Member of your Lordships' House, I have been a loyal and I hope sturdy member of the Anglo-Swiss Parliamentary Group so beloved of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe. Among many other benefits, that gave me at least one week of meeting, talking to and skiing with other Swiss parliamentarians in Davos in eastern Switzerland, well known to many noble Lords.

I declare the interest that I have experienced much hospitality, kindness and sporting rivalry. Above all, declare my interest in learning with—and this is important for the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and myself as Scots—free language tuition while both skiing and travelling in Switzerland. Therefore, it is a worthwhile experience to look at the Swiss federal constitution—as expressed in the Latin Confederatio Helvetica.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, who introduced the debate, mentioned the four languages spoken in Switzerland. I obtained free lessons in three of them: French, which is spoken by nearly 19 per cent. of the population; German, spoken by approximately 65 per cent. of the population; and Italian, spoken by a mere 10 per cent. of the population. Those noble Lords with a mathematical bent will find that those figures add up to 94 per cent. There is also the language of Romansh, which accounts for 0.8 per cent. I obtained those figures from the Swiss Embassy this morning.

It seems to me that perhaps the remaining almost 6 per cent. might be English-speaking, with or without whatever accent they choose to put on that English. So perhaps the fifth language used in Switzerland is English, which most of the population seem to speak.

Forty years ago, during my schooldays, in an attempt to learn German, I spent a whole summer struggling through Friedrich Schiller's story of William Tell. Four years ago, the story of William Tell came alive. It may be of interest to the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, that on 1st August 1991 I happened to be in Switzerland celebrating the founding of Switzerland, 700 years ago to the day—the three cantons of the Rütli Rock where the oath was taken. That day and for a Scot—especially with regard to what the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, had to say—everything was free: ski lifts, food, drink and company. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, does not have to wait another 700 years for such a time. Certainly, what I learned and continued to learn throughout my experiences in Switzerland was something of the political system of Switzerland and those who participate in it. It is an enormous achievement that they have put together over 700 years.

I wonder why that has come about. Your Lordships might have their own opinion. I am sure that when my noble friend comes to wind up the debate he will have his opinion and we shall no doubt have an opinion from the Government. But why is it that 6.5 million sturdy, independent, influential and above all quietly and discreetly proud souls in Switzerland have shown such a tremendous achievement in the middle of Europe? I wonder how they have done it.

Perhaps one could just glance at the first three articles from the purposes of the federal constitution. First, the federal constitution declares and asserts the independence of the fatherland from the outside world. Secondly, it seeks the maintenance of law and order throughout the country. Thirdly, it protects the freedom and the rights of citizens and promotes their common welfare. Those rights are asserted through both the federal system and the cantonal or community structure.

Switzerland is the perfect model of a federal government. Where is that replicated? Right here in your Lordships' House. The Swiss Parliament meets from 12 to 16 weeks a year, and one of the features that unites your Lordships' House with the federal parliament is that its members are not paid. They receive only expenses. Perhaps that is one example of where Switzerland goes and your Lordships follow; or it might be the other way round.

The federal government have responsibilities in clearly defined areas: foreign affairs, customs, telecommunications and post, and, above all, defence. That is the Swiss Government as carried out by the federal council. I wonder whether we can learn from it. We can see, when we look around your Lordships' House, say, at Question Time, and the other place, that there is a limitless number of participants in government. But in Switzerland there are just seven. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, referred to the second woman federal councillor, Councillor Dreifuss, who is a member of that council. The composition of the Swiss Federal Council has evolved to two plus two, plus two, plus one members: two radicals, two social democrats, two christian democrats and one from the Swiss People's Party. The structure is determined on a party basis and on a cantonal basis. As it has evolved, much of it goes a long way towards confirming the arguments of the noble Lord, Lord Holme.

As a Scot, I think of government as seeking to open my wallet or bank account and extract funds from it. How is that done in Switzerland? The tax sovereignty of the community or canton is sacrosanct. But in the community or commune—the canton—there are defined powers for education and the usual services that are found in our local authority, unitary or secondary tier, as we have it even in Scotland. I believe that that is subsidiarity in practice.

But how and why does that conventional and perhaps even dull system work? Perhaps I may give your Lordships one idiosyncratic view. It centres around a wicked, five-letter word called "pride". I mentioned that the federal government have responsibility for the army. Indeed, the noble Lords, Lord Taylor or Lord Holme, or perhaps it was my noble friend Lord Beloff, referred to the citizens' army of Switzerland. On Saturday mornings in Switzerland one can hardly get on a train, even though extra trains are run, without seeing everywhere field grey uniforms. That is the citizens' army at training. The soldiers train on a federal basis. They mingle and meet with others from all over Switzerland and they earn great respect. That might be one aspect of how and why the Swiss confederation works with what I believe to be no small measure of success.

A unique aspect of Switzerland is its geography. There are the Alps. According to figures that I obtained from the Swiss Embassy this morning, 25 per cent. of Switzerland's land area is either unproductive or uncultivated. It has no natural resources. But what Switzerland does have is an enormous history of trade, manufacture and, latterly, banking, finance and insurance. The Swiss Information Centre sent me some information on the Swiss economy and—no doubt with great Scottish ability—referred to the nation as being prosperous and industrial. Figures from 1975 showed average per annum income of each person in Switzerland to have been 19,000 Swiss francs. In 1987 it was 34,000 Swiss francs. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, will be able to do a swift calculation on what he obtained at the currency exchange last week. That is some measure of how the Swiss, with their political system, have managed their life and their economy.

Money does not solve or settle everything. The noble and learned Lord who introduced the debate referred to public spending. I understand that Swiss Government figures last year showed that public spending was 25 per cent. of gross domestic product and the rate of all taxes averaged all over Switzerland was approximately 28 per cent.

I have mentioned both the economy and the geography of Switzerland. I conclude by referring to one particular aspect which might put a brake on the perhaps perfect, rather twee image that some of us may have. Perhaps I have given such an image to your Lordships this afternoon. It is allied to the geography of Switzerland and deals with transport. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, mentioned the "happy referenda". He may care to cast his mind back to last year when a referendum took place. One of the subjects for voting was something called the Alpen Initiative. That would ban heavy lorries from crossing Switzerland in the year 2000. That referendum was carried against the strong wish of the Swiss Government and the Swiss Federal Council, let alone the Swiss transport Minister.

I think that the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, was far too tactful about the results of the referendum, and I really wonder whether the noble Lord delved too deeply beyond the confines of his family in Basle, because the official programme that the Swiss are proposing to alleviate this problem of the transit of freight from north to south under the Alps is Neve Eisenbahn Alpine Transit, or NEAT, a happy little acronym. That apparently is supposed to be costing 15 billion francs of federal funding. The original plan was to have two tunnels under the Alps: one to be open in 2005 and the other in, I think, 2015. This is under considerable political discussion and undergoing considerable political risk as we speak. Indeed all this was raised because of the problem of heavy goods vehicles transiting through Switzerland where there is a weight limit of 28-tonne lorries. For the rest of the Community, as your Lordships will know, it is 44 tonnes. So to alleviate this problem the Swiss said, "Right, we had better try to drill two tunnels dedicated to trucks to go under the Alps".

The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, may have heard of the NEAT system. Whenever I speak about it I suffer from the "polecat syndrome" in that my friends fall silent, if indeed they do not scatter. I am grateful for all the thoughts that were expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, because that makes two of us. But probably if he and I were to go to Switzerland we might find that we are the only two giving unqualified support to this particular concept.

I wonder whether this great political discussion, which is shaking the foundations of the Swiss federal tax system and causing considerable concern, although it may be discreetly concealed, in the Swiss Parliament, is necessarily terrible. Is this problem one of geography, economics, strategy or 20th century afflictions, be they 44-tonne lorries, pollution or trade, and is it insuperable? I do not think that it is insuperable. I hope that my Swiss friends and your Lordships will forgive a Scot for intervening in this debate. I believe that the Swiss, with their political traditions and their politics which have evolved over 700 years, will solve their problems. There are one or two aspects of what Switzerland is discussing now that can and probably will help us in the next 20 years.

4.24 p.m.

Lord Moyne

My Lords, we must be very grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, for raising this topic which has been, as I expected, extremely fruitful. Very good points have been made by many of your Lordships. I remember a story about Evelyn Waugh. Asked by a journalist how he would vote at the next general election, he said: I do not aspire to advise my Sovereign in her choice of servants". To which the late James Cameron, the journalist, replied: I aspire: I aspire like anything. James Cameron, of course, would have been more an admirer of Tom Paine than of Edmund Burke. He probably fancied that politicians were his servants rather than those of Her Majesty. The Swiss certainly take that view. And that is, I think, the basic reason why they are of such perennial interest to the rest of us. They have come the nearest in modern times to achieving a real direct democracy. This is shown in three ways. First, there is the variety of opinions represented in Parliament. The Swiss, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, pointed out, are an outstanding advertisement for proportional representation. The system may have certain disadvantages, but in Switzerland it works extremely well. It causes a great variety of opinions to be represented and spoken of in Parliament.

Reference has been made to the motorists' party: it may well be that the motorists' party is not quite all that it seems. However, I think the idea of a motorists' party having eight Members of Parliament is worth all the "cone hotlines" that one can imagine. It really is an advertisement for the Swiss system.

Secondly, there is the fact that the Swiss govern themselves in small units. Most matters are dealt with either by cantons or by communes. There are 26 cantons: that means an average population of 300,000. Many have a very much lower population than that. They deal with many matters we regard as belonging completely to central government, including tax. There was a tax expert, I understand, who married a Swiss lady. "What does he see in her?" someone asked. "Oh, he did not marry her for herself but for her cantonal residence."

Thirdly, the Swiss system of referenda means that 100,000 people can sign a petition and cause a national referendum to be called which can go against the views of the great and the good. That is extremely important. It is a marvellous way of keeping in order those parliamentarians who take too literally their status as representatives rather than delegates. They have lots of referenda in Switzerland. All visitors to that country will have seen the notices, some new and some half torn, advising "Ja" or "Oui" or their opposites. A referendum can deal with anything from the voting age to shopping hours.

Two recent national referenda have been mentioned. One was to keep Switzerland out of the European single market; the other was to keep heavy lorries off Alpine roads. Both proposals were enacted, to the fury of the talking classes and the great and the good. That is extremely salutary. There was also a referendum to abolish the Swiss army. Such activity keeps rulers up to the mark. If we had more referenda in our country I think we should be far better off.

The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, is right. There are ways in which the Swiss model simply would not work here. The United Kingdom would not conveniently divide into 26 small cantons. The nation of Scotland numbers 6 or 7 million. It is a large and proud nation, with a particular tradition. It cannot be compared to, say, the canton of Schwyz. Wales is the same. We do not divide up in quite that way. Nevertheless, the fact that the referendum system is so successful in Switzerland could well be a lesson to us. Modern technology could render the system very much more simple. I have a pipedream. It is that every household should have a computer terminal and that every voter, identified perhaps by his handprint, could press the button of his choice. I hope that our political servants would not be too reluctant to install an arrangement that would keep them, as the Swiss keep theirs, most efficiently in order.

4.29 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, whenever the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, rises to address your Lordships we are assured of what the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, called intellectual stimulation. Again, today, we have heard evidence of the originality of his thinking and in the course of the debate, if I may say so, we have responded.

The noble Lord, Lord Beloff, chided us a little on the relevance of some of the things said about the declared subject matter of the Motion. He pointed out that in many respects Switzerland is unique. Are we not all, in our various ways? Perhaps, fortunately, none of us is a complete model for anyone else. What this debate has enabled us to do is to discuss the merits of the federal type of government and the range of options it offers. Perhaps the most important lesson laid bare in the debate is the extent to which our generation is hypnotised by the concept of the nation state or, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme, said, the centralised nation state. The first article in our credo is that all power resides in the nation station, except in so far as it decides to delegate specific powers upwards or downwards. It may release such powers downwards on such conditions and for such time as it chooses to regional or local government. But, as local government in this country has discovered to its cost over the past few years, those powers are held at the unpredictable pleasure of the national government.

That is not how the matter developed historically. In this country, local government preceded national government. The shire moots and the hundreds moots did not consider their powers to he held by the leave and licence of the national government. Specifically in this country, I believe, the thinking has been confined by the doctrine of the sovereignty of Parliament. It was intended by writers like Dicey to refer primarily to the relationship between the legislature on the one hand and the executive and the judiciary on the other. In that respect it has exercised an important and invaluable influence. But when any attempt is made to extend it to a quite separate subject—discussion about the most convenient size of political unit for particular purposes and the level at which decisions can most suitably he taken—it imposes a straitjacket on our thinking. From my own experience in Northern Ireland I welcome what the noble and learned Lord and other noble Lords have said about its possibilities there. I utter only one caution. Federalism is not the answer to every problem. Of course, if there were a federation in Ireland, the northern constituent would still contain a substantial minority. It would not be a substitute for a Bill of Rights.

Similarly, the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, and my noble friend Lord Taylor, spoke of Scotland where questions of roads and social policy are decided by a government that the Scots have not chosen and did not want.

One turns in the other direction to the release of power upwards. Nation states are seen as delegating specific powers to the United Nations or the European Union. The deity which gives may be the deity which taketh away. In some of our debates the division of powers has been represented as the extent to which a supranational authority impinges on the rights of the nation state, as though some giant vacuum cleaner sucks power from the nation state, its rights are destroyed and—so we are left to infer—the people lose their freedom. I believe that that is a wholly false pattern. What is in question in relation to each subject and power is the level at which decisions can most sensibly he taken. A decision about where to build a bridge or what land is set aside for a housing estate is not necessarily the level at which one should decide the fishing quotas for Spanish vessels in the western Atlantic. Still less is it the level at which one should decide the appropriate standards for the safety of nuclear reactors or how to save the rain forests. The only rights in question are the rights of the people to decide their destiny in the most convenient way.

I return to what the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, said about the uniqueness of Switzerland. The Swiss have developed their model over seven centuries, as the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, reminded us. They have developed it, not as an abstract academic theory, but in response to specific practical problems. I believe that that is true of most federations. In 1291 the peoples of the three specific areas around Lake Lucerne needed to protect themselves from the Holy Roman Emperor. They grasped that for each of them self-determination lay in taking certain decisions together, even though for each it led to limits on the power to take decisions individually. Sometimes, it is in laying down our lives that we save them. They agreed on two things. First, they said that they would give mutual help if any one of them was attacked; secondly, they said that any disputes among them would be settled, not by war, but by arbitration. That was how they solved their immediate problem. I believe that globally our most pressing problem, like theirs, is to establish a stable peace. In the last resort, that will require an accepted dispute resolution procedure and a method of enforcing decisions against recalcitrant members. In this country, the King's peace was established when it was recognised that a sheriff could summon a posse and that all able-bodied individuals would join together against those who infringed that peace, and when, at regional level, the central government could summon sufficient force to impose the King's peace on the robber barons.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, said, the Swiss did not think of themselves in theory as constructing a federation. I do not believe that they even thought of themselves as federalists. We would not regard what they produced even as a confederation. However, 550 years later in 1847, after the first step, when they had been so successful that they numbered 13 cantons, they became, not a Stattesbund—a league of states—but a Bundestat. Sometimes federalism is equated with centralism. There is a fear that the first step towards taking decisions at supranational level will lead to an unstoppable centrifugal process, sucking more and more power to the centre. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Holme. It is not the case, Human beings can always decide in which units and at what level they want to take their various decisions. If and when power moves substantially towards the centre, it does not do so by some impersonal process but in consequence of a decision taken by the people. I believe that in the case of Switzerland that was a rational decision taken in 1847 for good reasons.

In 1979 Sir Shridath Ramphal, then Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, encapsulated all of this at the Nigerian conference on federalism. He said that: Federalism as a method of organising government has been hammered out over many centuries by peoples the world over with creativity and constant innovation and always on the anvil of political reality". Of course, it can be said that the Swiss federation has established its unity by force. But the Swiss have been wise enough to recognise two principles without which no force could have achieved its survival. Its constitution both in 1848 and 1874, and in subsequent amendments, was seen as responding to specific needs. No power was conferred on wider units unless there was a consensus that such power was necessary for the purpose.

There are two steps, the first of which is subsidiarity. With great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, I was a little surprised when he poured scorn on the term "subsidiarity". He said that it was only about how powers were distributed. Sometimes that is quite an important question, and in a sense that is what federalism is about.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, perhaps the noble and learned Lord will permit me to intervene. I did not intend to say that it was unimportant because the distribution of powers was unimportant but that the federal model in itself, in its various guises in various countries, managed to do this long before the term was imported into current discourse.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, the noble Lord and I are totally ad idem. That exchange was well worth while. With great respect, I could not agree more.

Another important aspect is consensus, a point raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, and by my noble friend Lord Taylor. It was not just a matter of subsidiarity. A step was not taken until there was a consensus that such provision was not an instance of subsidiarity and that it related to matters where decisions by one canton necessarily affected its neighbours.

Secondly, it was found that stability was not achievable simply by inventing constitutional provisions and writing them down on a sheet of paper. Stability requires a commitment to the purposes of the federation by the people for whose government it is designed. It requires a sense of unity and of common nationhood. That may happen because the people recognise how much they have in common with one another. As many of your Lordships have pointed out, that was not so for the Swiss. They had no common language. They did not have a common religion. Indeed, it was the religious divide which triggered the attempt at secession in 1847 which led to the new constitution. They had in common none of the elements which are normally said to amount to a common nationality, as the noble Lord, Lord Beloff, said. Yet the citizens recognise themselves as Swiss, and there is a bond of loyalty between the individual citizen and the federation. Indeed, their pluralism has opened their culture to a wider range of influences.

Federalism does not depend on uniformity of outlook, or of interests, or of opinions. It can provide a sensible way of living together and co-operating precisely despite differences. The Swiss found that a most important way to achieve that was to establish structures through which the people could participate directly in the decisions of the federation and not simply indirectly through their canton. It is a lesson which we are learning in Europe, although I believe that we have to take it a stage further. I do not believe it will be fully effective until some of the powers of the Council of Ministers, which is the citadel of the nation states, are moved to the European Parliament, the institution representing the people.

I believe that in time the world will come to realise that, if the United Nations is to be seen as "We, the peoples", and not just as "We, the nation states", the secretariat will have to be accountable to a representative chamber. Then farmers in France and fishermen in Spain and—dare we hope—more Conservative politicians will recognise a wider loyalty to our planet, which will improve the quality of life for everyone.

What the Swiss discovered was that loyalty is divisible. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, said, being a good Swiss does not preclude someone in any way from demonstrating a loyalty to his canton, and to his own commune.

I must have a care. The noble and learned Lord encouraged us to think more widely and less fearfully about these matters. I hope that we have responded. Not all the thoughts which I have ventilated are yet the policy of my party. I would not want to mislead anyone. But my party is alive to these issues and believes that we should reflect on them together. There is nothing to hold us back except the limitations which we ourselves choose to impose on our mental processes.

Sir Peter Ustinov, president of the World Federalist Movement, once expressed it in an article in the European in this way. He said: The sure evolution of Switzerland from a people described by none other than Machiavelli as 'armed to the teeth' into a civilised nation with a world mission out of all proportion to its size can be put down to its intelligent espousal of federalism". That is a lesson well worth the learning, and I believe that posterity will be grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, for reminding us of it.

4.44 p.m.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, I have listened with great interest and pleasure to the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, about the Swiss system of government. I am sure that I speak for all your Lordships when I say that. It was a stimulating introduction to what I am sure we can all agree has been a most worthwhile debate.

As the noble and learned Lord explained with his customary eloquence, the Swiss system is one with many qualities and good points. Perhaps the most important and admirable of these qualities is that the system works. It commands the support and consent of a diverse society because it respects, both in theory and in practice, that diversity. But because a particular system works for Switzerland it does not follow that it would necessarily work on a much larger scale for Europe, or for that matter anywhere else, as the noble and learned Lord pointed out in his opening remarks.

The word "federalism" was mentioned at a number of points during the debate. In his opening remarks the noble and learned Lord gave a correct and proper technical definition of that word. But as has also been mentioned during the debate, it has become debased in popular parlance. While we here know what it means I shall endeavour to use the word itself as little as possible in order to avoid wider misrepresentation.

Secondly, as my noble friend Lord Beloff pointed out, this is a subject on which just about anything can be said with relevance, whether it is shooting an apple off the head of my noble friend Lord Lye or going into the merits of Swiss ladies as potential wives. What I shall try to do is to focus on those matters which are relevant to our country and on the main points that have arisen during the debate. I shall also endeavour to divide my remarks into two general groups: those which relate to outside the United Kingdom and those which should be more properly focused within it.

There are huge differences between Switzerland, with a population of around 7 million, and the European Union, with nearly 350 million people living in its 15 member states. I do not, however, intend to try to make a comparison between the Swiss system and the pillared structure of the European Union. That is because I believe it would be a mistake, as we approach next year's Inter-Governmental Conference, to slip hack into a sterile doctrinal and theoretical debate about systems of government. It was this perhaps more than anything else which caused the disillusionment with the development of the European political process and led in turn to the difficulties throughout Europe with the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty.

Just when Europe had shown the rest of the world an example by creating an outward looking, liberal, free-trading bloc of more than 300 million people, we turned in on ourselves. When we should have been building on the foundation of the single market, using this momentum to fight unemployment and further to improve Europe's competitiveness, we turned inwards and became bogged down in divisive and sometimes almost theological battles over the institutional balance, qualified majority voting and Community competence. Those were and remain important issues. We cannot and should not ignore them. But we must not focus on them to the exclusion of everything else. Doing that can undermine the entire process of which they are merely a part.

That is why I believe that reviving a theoretical debate in the abstract about federalism would be unhelpful. Others agree. M. Balladur, M. Juppe and Herr Kohl have said that we must not do that. Only last month, the president of the European Parliament, Klaus Hänsch, told an audience in Bonn that Europe was already too large to contemplate there being a United States of Europe. He said that neither the United States of America Germany nor Switzerland could be a model for the Union, which would develop in a unique fashion. It is not all that often that the British Government and Dr. Hänsch are in full agreement, but on this there is nothing between us.

What we must do in 1996 is to build on the sound base for working together that was created by the Maastricht Treaty, which was implemented only 18 months ago and is still bedding down. Maastricht established a flexible structure well suited to satisfying different demands of co-operation at European level in the contemporary world. It created a pillared structure with inter-governmental co-operation in the common foreign and security policy and justice and home affairs. In the Community pillar, which covers important areas such as the single market, competition rules, agriculture and trade, the Commission, the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice are fully involved. This structure needs to be improved, not dismantled. We will be bringing forward a number of positive proposals to improve it so that it works better over the next 12 months or so.

A number of noble Lords, beginning with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, referred to Europe and subsidiarity. We have in your Lordships' House discussed this matter on numerous occasions. It is defined clearly in Article 3b of the Maastricht Treaty. That article was a considerable success for Britain. Its effect is that, in areas of shared competence, the Community can only act if it has genuine value to add over national action. Moreover, if it does act, then it should do so in the least intrusive way possible.

Substantial progress has been made since Maastricht. The Birmingham, Edinburgh, Brussels, Corfu and Essen European Councils have put flesh on the bones of Article 3b. The number of legislative initiatives has more than halved since 1991. All have now to pass a stringent subsidiarity test. The Commission has withdrawn 11 proposals no longer deemed to meet subsidiarity criteria. At the Brussels European Council, the Commission said that it would propose the repeal of about 25 per cent. of all existing legislation. Some of them would be repealed for good and some replaced with a smaller number of new proposals. That work is well under way.

Perhaps even more importantly, the principle is now firmly embedded in the minds of the European Union's law makers. There is a general realisation that what is required is fewer laws, better observed, and that a Community which forces its way into every corner of people's lives will weaken their commitment to Europe.

Subsidiarity is working and I share all noble Lords' enthusiasm for it. The European Union approach I have described is designed for the flexible framework that the Union represents and is rather different from the Swiss model which sets out clearly and formally which areas are for action at cantonal level and which are for the federal government. I doubt that this approach makes sense for the European Union. Would such classification really end the turf battles between member states and the Community over divisions of competence? We have here a subsidiarity model that works. The Government's intention is to build on this in 1996 to make the existing mechanisms work better and not to break them up and start again.

I now refer to some more domestic matters. I begin with some comments about Northern Ireland which a number of noble Lords mentioned. In particular I shall refer to what, if any, relevance the Swiss system might have there and to try to help to resolve the tragic troubles that that Province faces. The key in Northern Ireland, as in other parts of the world, is to find a system of government that the local political representatives would support and which is relevant to local circumstances. I believe that there has been very general agreement around the House about that basic approach.

To the best of my knowledge, none of the main constitutional parties there has shown any serious interest in the type of structures which are to be found in Switzerland and which have been the basis of our discussion today; although, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon, mentioned, many of the characteristics of the Swiss system may well be helpful. I believe that was the point made by my noble friend Lord Beloff. He said that he did not see that the Swiss model had any special relevance for the Northern Irish problem although we seem to be agreed that there may be lessons to be drawn from it.

What seems more likely to secure convergence is a system involving a devolved Assembly, with executive and legislative responsibility for a range of local issues such as health, education and agriculture, and which offers a fair and effective role for all sections of the community. New arrangements within Northern Ireland would be supported by other arrangements for close co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic where this was to the mutual benefit of both north and south and for close co-operation between the two governments.

Ideas on these lines were, of course, published recently in Frameworks for the Future. The ideas in those framework documents have stimulated a level of public debate in Northern Ireland and that is what they are intended to do. They are designed to help the political parties and the wider community make progress towards an agreed, comprehensive settlement. That is what we must continue to strive towards if there is to be lasting peace in Northern Ireland, taking full advantage of the very welcome ceasefires that have been in place from both Republicans and Loyalists since last Autumn. In order to carry forward political dialogue, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has recently announced that he intends to invite the main constitutional parties for bilateral discussions in the near future.

I was most grateful for the gracious comments of the noble Lord, Lord Holme, about the framework document. I am sorry to see that Oxford has called him. Perhaps he will allow me in his absence to pick out one point of detail. Reference is made to a possible charter of rights. However, there is no specific proposal for a Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland. The framework certainly stresses the desirability of increased protection for civil, political, social and cultural rights, but leaves it for further discussion with the parties as to how that protection would be provided. I hope that that is a helpful clarification.

I now turn to the other matters which were raised in the context of domestic politics within the United Kingdom. I understand the approach adopted by many noble Lords who spoke, but it seemed to me that there was a certain degree of cherry picking by those noble Lords who had a particular point to make. If they found it somewhere in the arrangements that are in place for Switzerland, they then said, "That helps to prove our point".

Perhaps more of the debate relating to the United Kingdom referred specifically to Scotland than to any other particular matter. We had a wide range of strongly held views expressed by noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Cockfield and the noble Lords, Lord Taylor of Gryfe and Lord Holme, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer. As is appropriate with someone with his background, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, began his learned exposition with the constitutional history of our country; but it seems to me that in the context of this particular debate it is important that we begin from where we are now. We begin with a unitary United Kingdom. That has arisen not simply by accident, but evolved over time in response to particular requirements which people have had.

Against that background the noble Lord, Lord Taylor of Gryfe, said that in the most recent local government elections only 11 per cent. of the population voted Conservative. Needless to say, anyone who is a Conservative supporter would rather that more had done so. But it is important that we put that into perspective. There may be a multitude of reasons why people, for one reason or another, may feel disgruntled or antagonistic towards the Government, but it would not be responsible to think about a fundamental change to the constitutional arrangements of our country simply on the basis of one local government election where the Government in power found themselves very unpopular.

In response to the problems that there may be, we have to see exactly where the real focus of interest and concern lies. I understand that in my childhood there was a general election in which the Conservative Party polled more than 50 per cent. of the votes cast in Scotland. At that time perhaps one might have drawn an entirely different conclusion. As regards the constitutional arrangements we have to see where the real wishes of people lie. It is certainly the case that Scottish people have consistently voted for parties which are pro-Union. It seems to us that against that background, if there is to be a change in the constitutional arrangements in the Union, a case has to be made for that change. At the moment, that does not seem to have occurred.

There was a similar point about devolution which applies even more widely as regards how the doctrine of subsidiarity—a horrible word which I am sure my noble friend Lord Beloff would agree—actually fulfils a useful function in this kind of debate. Is subsidiarity being properly applied domestically? As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, said, subsidiarity, like charity, begins at home. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, complained about the gathering of power to the centre.

It seems to me that the same general principles apply here. The particular arrangements that we have currently in our society have not arisen merely by chance; they have evolved over time. It is undoubtedly the case that if one were to go back, say, 10 to 15 years, there was very serious criticism throughout society about the ways in which various activities were being carried out at local government level which were not giving people satisfaction. Again, the problem here is to identify the issue. In a democracy it is collective decision-making which is important and that is to discover what people want. Simply to apply rigidly a kind of doctrinaire principle automatically reducing decision-making to some kind of legally identified lowest possible level, regardless of the circumstances, does not necessarily mean that we shall give people the best system to live in or one that is delivering its services to their best advantage.

Reference was made to proportional representation. Perhaps not surprisingly, it was the noble Lord, Lord Holme, who said that one of the great features of the Swiss system was that it proved that PR can work. In fact, the Swiss system is not quite as straightforward as that. It is interesting that most of the cantons have some form of first-past-the-post system. It is also relevant to note that in certain of the Swiss cantons, the different size of the constituencies becomes relevant. In a small canton with just two seats, a small minority party may need up to 34 per cent. of the votes to win just one seat, while a similar party in a large canton such as Zurich may need only 3 per cent. of the votes.

It therefore emerges that the effects of proportional representation are weakened in the small cantons and that proportional rule favours the relative electoral strength of the larger historical parties. Therefore, as far as proportional representation is concerned, I do not believe that the experience of Switzerland takes us a great deal further in respect of any debate that there might be in this country on the topic.

Right from the opening remarks of the noble and learned Lord, reference has continually been made to the unique system of referenda in' Switzerland. It is a political phenomenon which undoubtedly attracts many people. Perhaps its most attractive point is that mentioned by my noble friend Lord Moyne, who said that the presence of referenda—checking the government—has a salutary effect on the rulers. Perhaps not surprisingly, speaking from the Dispatch Box, that is not something that necessarily appeals to me.

The important point behind that slightly frivolous way of describing the system of referenda is that, as can be seen from the Swiss case, it can cause serious problems about government because there is now concern about the impact of lobby-driven initiatives. There is an increase in the ease with which the requisite number of signatures is breached and that has led to a backlog of initiatives. A revision of the constitution is due to address that in the summer. Equally, there have been problems about the Federal Council's foreign policy. Clearly, any country has to have a foreign policy and must be able to implement that policy.

We have been discussing some attractive ideas, but it is worth remembering that the tradition in our country is one of representative parliamentary democracy. That is the bedrock on which our nation has evolved. In recent years, referenda have been introduced, but that is very much an ad hoc development and cannot truly be said to he an integral part of our system—and our system has served our country well. We would have to think carefully before fundamentally undercutting what we have been bequeathed by our forefathers.

Many things can be learnt from the Swiss system of government—both about its systems and the principles upon which it is based. But, when all is said and done, what matters is the applicability of the lessons learnt—whether we are thinking about domestic politics or politics abroad.

We must not forget that we have other experiences on which to rely. It is clear from our European experience that if you try to impose unacceptable constitutional models on unwilling participants they will not succeed. It is misguided and usually divisive and can destroy the common purpose that it is designed to create.

It is central to our policy that the positive achievements of the European political experiment are not pushed aside by theoretical debate over constitutional niceties. The way in which Europe develops must be sufficiently flexible to accommodate our shared traditions, history, democratic principles and the rule of law. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, pointed out, political institutions can succeed only if they command popular support and provide tangible benefits. While the way in which we work and live together must be intellectually coherent, it must also be acceptable in human terms. If we fail to achieve that, we shall risk making a theoretical system which will not work whatever the level at which we try to apply it.

As far as our European policy is concerned, our task is to build a Europe of nation states for the 21st century which is competitive and which faces its global economic rivals from a position of strength; a Europe that pulls its weight internationally and plays a constructive role in international relations. That is the Europe that Europe's citizens want; that is the Europe that the British people want.

5.5 p.m.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, I am most grateful to your Lordships for your participation in this debate. I hope that it is not invidious if I mention only one or two contributions. First, the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, showed the great advantage of a refresher course in constitutional law conducted on the ski slopes.

I should like to refer also to the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, who I know came along to make his speech today at great personal sacrifice. He made his splendid speech under what must have been a considerable strain. All of your Lordships should he grateful to him.

I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Moyne, made the most original contribution; namely, that within a few decades it might be possible technologically for us to have a system of direct democracy on the Swiss model by using press-button techniques. One should put that in the context set by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer; namely, that direct democracy in our country, as in Switzerland, was the original form of democracy with the meeting of the Hundred and the meeting of the Wapentake in this country, just as there was the meeting of the Gemeinde in Switzerland.

The subject of proportional representation is altogether too large to be dealt with in this debate, although I confess that it did not surprise me at all that the noble Lord, Lord Holme, jumped at the chance to develop that aspect of the Swiss constitution.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, in his scholarly and, if I may say so, constitutionally discerning speech, made a most valuable contribution. I do not think that I am merely prejudiced because our professional backgrounds have so much in common.

The noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, who summed up for the Government, addressed all the topics that we hoped would he addressed by him, and did so admirably. However, I should like to refer to the one point on which I found the noble Lord less than convincing. I refer to the subject of the referendum. We have had it in this country. The danger is that unless we work out systematically where it is desirable and who asks the questions, it will simply be clamoured for by a populist minority who find that they cannot get their own way in Parliament. I am convinced that there is a place for a referendum, but it needs to be considered much more carefully by a royal commission on the constitution, together with so many other constitutional matters.

There are two lessons that have come out of this debate. The first is that federalism is one of the constitutional aspects of subsidiarity. The second is that looking at the Swiss constitution, it is impossible to say that a federal constitution means an overweening central power at the expense of the component members. Having said that, there remains my Motion for Papers. I do not know what would happen if I took this Motion to a Division, I do not intend to do so because the noble Baroness, Lady Faithfull, also has a Motion for Papers on the Order Paper, and I would not wish to deprive her. So I beg leave to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.