Bill Jamieson: Case of the vanished referendum

The debating chamber in the House of Lords . Picture: Contributed
The debating chamber in the House of Lords . Picture: Contributed
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An unelected House of Lords dumped the EU membership vote even though the Commons passed it, writes Bill Jamieson

Whatever happened to the referendum? The one that would profoundly alter our constitution and our standing in the world? The one that millions have urged for years and that the governing party promised it would deliver?

Now we see it… and then we didn’t. It went to the House of Lords – and disappeared. No matter that the Referendum Bill had been passed by the elected House of Commons, it was wholeheartedly torpedoed by the unelected Lords.

This remarkable development was almost lost from view last week under the coverage of storms and gales that have battered the south-west of England. In Scotland it barely registered as attention was focused on Bank of England governor Mark Carney’s speech in Edinburgh on the shared currency constraints on independence. And in any event arguably the bigger setback for Prime Minister David Cameron was the scorn poured by French president Francois Hollande on UK ambitions for a re-negotiation of the UK’s EU membership terms. The Conservatives’ European strategy has now suffered not one but two deadly torpedoes. It is well-nigh impossible now for Cameron to pull any face-saving gimmick before the general election next year. It has thus provided Ukip with an opportunity to tear even bigger chunks out of the soft underbelly of Conservative support.

How was it that a move to hold a popular referendum was killed off by a vote of unelected peers unaccountable to the public and deaf to the support given to this bill both by the government and a large section of the public? English critics of Scotland’s independence referendum might ruefully reflect on their own referendum debacle at Westminster and a political failure that can only feed widespread cynicism about how responsive our democratic institutions really are.

I write this with some regret, as I have frequently written in praise of the work of the House of Lords and the value of its Select Committee reports in particular. It is critical to our freedoms as well as to good governance that Westminster has a revising chamber. And this particular bill merited discussion and analysis no less forensic than that to which other bills are subject.

And there is certainly no lack of searching questions that needed to be explored about this particular bill. Did the suggested timing of the referendum make sense? What was the position of ex-pat UK citizens entitled to a vote? And what was the question to be put? Straight in/out? Or a vote on whether or not accept the mooted renegotiation terms of EU membership – even assuming such negotiations are ever held or amount to much?

These questions notwithstanding, The Strange Case of the Vanishing Referendum exposes a democratic chasm that in Scottish conditions would be unthinkable. For central to the calls for a referendum have been widespread concerns in England about the increasing encroachment on sovereignty and a sense that the UK is losing the power and authority to govern itself. Many English voters feel as helpless before the diktats from Brussels as many Scots feel about those from Westminster.

It is a powerful mood, and one that has grown in intensity since the 1975 referendum (a vote on Harold Wilson’s re-negotiated terms, not on membership per se) as the powers and ambitions of the EU itself have grown exponentially.

In the face of this, the defeat inflicted by the Lords on the Referendum Bill was a combination of procedural game-playing and raw cynicism – and for most came as little surprise. Indeed, the phlegmatic response to the bill’s disappearance is itself a phenomenon we ignore at our peril.

There was never a serious expectation that this bill would succeed, suggesting a widespread scepticism as to whether the government was ever really serious – as opposed, that is, to being seen to be serious before an increasingly Euro-sceptic electorate.

Those concerned about the steady corrosion of trust in politicians and the rebellious frustration evident in the rise of Ukip and the recent revolts in Conservative constituencies may look no further for an example of what is contributing to this mood.

This mood may be less evident in Scotland. But we have other preoccupations currently. And as Professor John Curtice has frequently pointed out, Euro-scepticism in Scotland is rather more pronounced than the SNP’s keen desire to remain an uninterrupted member has so far allowed for. Potential loss of our rebate and extra costs estimated by consultants Europe Economics and the think-tank New Direction at almost £1 billion a year on independence could concentrate public minds.

That our EU membership is a politically sensitive issue explains why EU referendum opponents in the Commons were more than content to let the Lords inflict the fatal wounds, thus sparing them political consequence of constituents demanding to know why MPs opposed a referendum.

So while there was no flashing of the dagger in broad daylight, there was no lack of fingerprints on the handle. There seemed no lack of Lords proud to lay claim to driving in the blade. These ranged from Labour peer Lord Lipsey to the government Chief Whip, Baroness Anelay.

Here was a cross-section of Labour, Liberal Democrat, crossbench peers, and even a handful of Conservatives. The involvement of Lib Dem peers was particularly notable given the party’s fondness – rhetorical at any rate – for referenda in other spheres. Referenda are fine – just so long as they are on issues the Lib Dems happen to agree with.

The reason this bill was so vulnerable was that the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg refused to allow it to be a government bill, thus forcing the Conservatives to use the much more tricky private members’ bill route. It was like setting sail into this wide ocean in no more than a rowing boat. So, death by the Lords it was.

But they should have some regard as to how this all looks – particularly given the opposition that peers have put up to any moves towards an elected second chamber. Heaven forbid!

As if adding to the detachment of the Upper House were revelations this week that a keen concern of members appears to be focused on the catering arrangements. In addition to their £300 a day attendance allowance, peers enjoy delights such as champagne risotto, foie gras and seared scallops for bargain prices, made possible by a public subsidy of £1.3 million a year. This has not stopped peers lodging complaints ranging from the size of size of the menus, the layout of the tables, the inferior quality of the cappuccinos and having to wait 15 minutes to be seated.

If you wanted evidence of the disconnect between government and the governed, here is a sulphurous seam. But The Strange Case of the Vanishing Referendum presents a yawning chasm.