The debate was good enough to shift obdurate, entrenched and virulent opinion (I speak for myself).
In the end the summary seems to be: good idea, bad bill/bad idea, bad bill.
In the blue corner, the democrats who say that it is the settled will of the British people that there be a referendum (Lords Owen, King et alia). In the red corner, the lofty lefties who think the people should act in their higher interests by doing what they’re told.
In the middle, peers who may be for or against a referendum but who prefer to wallow the filthy politics of it. For them it’s a partisan Bill, it’s designed to get Cameron out of a hole, it’s pandering, it’s probably the result of global warming.
Lord Liddle (Lab, obviously) got a great shout of laughter when he described the deep divisions in the Conservative party on Europe and claimed, “Labour does not have these visceral internal divisions to manage.”
Noble Lords: Oh!
“Oh!” may need translating. I leave that to Commentators, below.
Mandelson (financial interest undeclared) called it “a pig-in-a-poke referendum”. As one of the aristocrats of Animal farm he meant that a referendum was Government of the pigs, by the pigs, for the pigs.
He deployed a weapon from his dark armoury by ascribing the most vulnerable aspect of his position to his opponents saying the referendum would “create more alienation and public disillusion.”
Noble Lords going Oh! completely missing.
Mandelson gave heart to skeptics saying that “it is stage one in raising impossible demands of the EU in order to create a pretext for leaving it”. But he also cast a chill in the hearts of the faintly-skeptic with his confidence that In would Win.
That’s something skeptics should take more seriously. Their poll lead is not decisive. And the consequences of leaving, when laid out one by one, are impressive.
Lord Turnbull listed some: “. . . citizenship and rights of residence affecting millions of people who have moved one way or another within the European Union; ownership of property; employment; trade in goods and services; recognition of intellectual property; the operation of cross-border businesses; study at European universities; and many others.”
But leaving aside the devils of these details, the case for a referendum is yet more impressive.
Michael Ancram as was: “Never in the history of democracy has there been such a large bureaucratic empire without once consulting the peoples who are affected by it as to whether they wanted it or whether they liked the shape of it.”
UKIP’s Lord Willoughby: “. . . the European project is all about rampant supranationalism, with a sneering disregard for national sovereignty.”
And finally, there was Neil Kinnock (enormous financial interests undeclared). He claimed that the consequences of membership of the European Community were persistently and vigorously presented to the British people. That is such fat, copper-bottomed lie-and-a-half it must go onto the frontispiece of the Out campaign document. With Kinnock against them the Outs can’t lose.
For it or against, the Lords have to process the Referendum Bill because it is a Commons Bill and therefore loose as a goose in its conception and drafting.
The fixed date for the referendum is 2017. There are German and French elections in that year and it may not be clear who is governing those countries, as it takes them time to establish their coalitions.
Can anything be negotiated with the EU in a couple of years? it takes a year to decide on the refreshments at the meetings. It took Mrs T five years to get one demand, her rebate (Lord Armstrong). Cameron should be allowed as long as he needs, he said.
In any event, the deal that we will be offered is entirely unclear. “It is important the public must be able to handle the goods before they buy.” (Lord Inglewood). How will that happen?
Lord Crisp asked: what is the question, and who gets to vote? There are 1.5m Britons now living in Europe, currently not included in the franchise. What happens to their opinion?
The question of the question is a challenge to us short-tempered democrats. “Should Britain be in the European Union” is criticised by the Electoral Commission because many people don’t know we are in the European Union at all. And yet they have a vote on whether we should stay in it. Such is democracy.
But if the question is amended to “Should Britain remain in the European Union” then the Bill is lost.
Because the Bill is, according to the business managers, unamendable. If it’s changed, it goes to the bottom of the Commons pile and is dissolved at the same time as Parliament (Lord Wakeham).
So the Lords can scrutinise it, but not change it. (“Why don’t we all go home now,” more than one peer asked.
And is there any point to the Bill at all, considering that David Cameron has promised a referendum, it will be in the manifesto. Isn’t the prime minister’s word good enough? (Answers to that question to appear in Comments below.).
One result of the Electoral Commission research was that ordinary people are unsure what they know about the EU.
I can tell them.
It’s very unlikely that 25,000 people in Britain know anything of consequence about the EU.
For instance, do you disapprove of the passerelle because a) it’s an expression of a characteristically continental system of fiat government? Or b) because it contains too much fat?
But we know rock-all about benefit tapers as well and yet we all know which way we’d vote on that.
Referendum-fans should monitor the Bill in committee – it has to be out by the end of February, in the same form it went in – or it will be lost.
PS: New peer and Times columnist Danny Finkelstein made a speech on the Bill. It had jokes in it. Peers described it as “refreshing” and “very amusing:”. It wasn’t clear whether Finkelstein realised how damaging to his reputation the reaction was.