Lord Dobbs of Wylye is a former Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party and a writer.
Last Friday, a week ago, was a special day for the House of Lords. Seven hours of debate discussing the EU Referendum Bill showed the House at its best – and many of the Bill’s opponents at their worst.
Our Lib-Dem coalition partners, for instance, promised an In/Out referendum in their last election manifesto. No ifs, ands or buts. Yet now they are stumbling around like old maids at midnight trying to offer reasons why they’re backing down.
On the Labour side, Lord Mandelson described a referendum as ‘a lottery’. Strange turn of phrase. I prefer to see it as simple democracy. But after all those hours of debate no-one is still any the wiser about Labour policy. Over the years they’ve flip-flopped on the European issue like a hooked fish. They won’t say yes, they won’t say no, they won’t say when – except not in 2017.
I agreed to sponsor this Bill, pushed successfully through the Commons by the immensely able James Wharton MP, because I believe in letting the people decide. They are desperately disillusioned. In 1975 they voted to join a Common Market – me amongst them. But you have to be over the age of 60 to have taken part in that vote, and Europe has changed beyond recognition since then.
A referendum isn’t about being pro-EU or anti-EU. It’s about believing in democracy and the judgement of the people. David Cameron is already making huge changes in our relationship with the EU. For the first time in its history, the EU has been forced to cut its budget, and we have transformed the appalling Common Fisheries Policy that demanded fishermen dump fish back into the sea. But there’s so much more still to do. The policy is simple. Continue the Prime Minister’s policy of fundamental renegotiation, then let the people decide some time before the end of 2017.
There are many passionate pro-Europeans who support this policy. Sir John Major recently said he supports the referendum as the only way to drain the poison that has made its way into our political system, and he will then campaign for us to stay in the EU. Of course there are plenty of Euro-sceptics who also support the referendum. That’s what democracy is about. Debate, dispute, resolve – then move on.
Yet last Friday, Lib-Dem and Labour peers lined up to try to prevent the people having their say. They demanded that we change the question, change the date, change the franchise. They will try to filibuster this Bill in its Committee stages so it runs out of time. They want to kill it without having the courage to stand up and say so. Party politics at their worst.
The people want a vote. The Bill passed its final stages in the Commons by a huge majority. It would be utterly reckless for unelected peers to deliberately kill this Bill, but that is what our opponents are intent on doing. I have huge respect for the Lords. It does immensely valuable work, usually unsung. But this could do immense damage to our public standing if the House ends up using subterfuge to kill off the referendum. Elderly and unelected peers versus the people. I and my Conservative colleagues will put all our effort into preventing that outcome and making sure you get your vote.
Last year, Conservative Home readers voted it your policy of the year. We need your continuing support. Together we are within touching distance of an historic opportunity, to let Britain decide.