The debates about the EU Constitutional Treaty was another sorry coda to our long and distinguished history of Parliamentary democracy. As I sat through or watched the days of debate, I felt so sad that the Mother of Parliaments had come to this.
Our constitutional history prior to the federal Treaties was a proud one. Three important movements came together to create a democratic nation.
There was the continuous pressure of Parliament to gain the right to censure and control the executive. The governments of Kings and Queens were made to listen, to deal with grievances, to ask before they imposed taxes. Later the royal government evolved into Cabinet government formed from the elected members of the Commons. The whole process revolved around the principle of no taxation without righting wrongs.
There was the growing pressure as the centuries advanced for more and more people to gain the right to vote, so they could have a say in how they were governed and who governed them. We moved from a franchise of rich men to all men, and from older women to all women coming to enjoy the right to vote. The principle involved was no taxation and new law without representation.
There was also the movement to enlarge and unite the United Kingdom, with Wales joining in 1485, Scotland in 1707 and Ireland in 1800. After the formation of the Irish Free State we arrived at a United Kingdom where the majorities in each part of the country were volunteers to be part of the Union and to stay in it. It is a Union based on popular support, and one which could be reduced in size should any majority emerge in any substantial part of the UK that wanted independence.
These three great movements are all threatened by the passage of the EU Treaty of Lisbon. The EUâ€™s encouragement of regionalism will help split countries and encourage new loyalties. The EUâ€™s wish to decide so many things through European Court of Justice decisions is inimical to government by representatives answerable to the electors. The EUâ€™s wish to concentrate more and more power in the unelected government of the Commission takes away accountable power from Parliament.
The debates about the Treaty of Lisbon were at their heart debates about where power should lie. Those of us who believe in Parliamentary democracy believe the power should rest in Parliament, to be exercised by MPs on behalf of the people. Once every few years the people can then decide if that group of MPs have exercised it well in the peopleâ€™s name, or if they need replacing. The people lose their power if Parliament loses its power. Neither Parliament nor people can control what the Commission does, what the European Court of Justice does, what the EU president will do.
Day after day during the Lisbon â€œdebatesâ€ we were allowed just one and half hours to discuss a fistful of important amendments and complex issues about the governmentâ€™s wish to transfer major powers to the EU and to put European duties into our law codes through adopting the Constitutional treaty. The government allowed four and half hours for a general debate each day, in order to prevent MPs getting into the important line by line analysis of the 358 Articles and 327 pages of the â€œConsolidated texts of the EU Treaties as amended by the Treaty of Lisbonâ€. Several MPs each day were unable to make the speech they wished to make on the first group of amendments. Subsequent amendments on the order paper languished without debate, thrown into the dustbin of history without word or vote.
This is a constitutional outrage. All previous governments have allowed substantial time for proper debate of constitutional bills on the floor of the House. Much of the time the House has met in committee, which means MPs have time to move amendments and speak to them. Some move probing amendments, to test out what Ministers think the words of the legislation they are recommending mean and will do. Some are important amendments designed to change the bill, to correct errors or remove harmful clauses and provisions.
Bill Cash invited a number of us concerned about the legislation to implement the EU Constitutional Treaty to meetings before the debates began in the House. We all agreed that we needed to move a series of amendments to strike out the varying parts of the Treaty and Bill which transfer substantial powers from the UK to the EU. Bill Cash kindly produced a wide ranging series of amendments which we co-signed and lodged. I am grateful to him for his hard work in producing them. Anyone who values a democracy in the UK should be glad he took the trouble and set out to make a fight of it before these powers are lost, as an adjunct to the full rejection of the Treaty offered by the official Opposition.
The government turned down the official Oppositionâ€™s request for 20 days of consideration. We were offered 12 in committee, plus a day on Second Reading to discuss the overall picture, and a day to discuss the so-called timetable motion. The Official Opposition argued passionately against the whole Treaty, and we voted against it on a three line whip. We all argued passionately against the very restrictive timetable, and voted against that on a three line whip. Needless to say we lost both votes, because there were too few Labour rebels. The Lib Dems sided with the government on the Treaty.
We were promised by the government â€œline by line scrutinyâ€ of this massive piece of legislation, as if this were new or a concession. â€œLine by line scrutinyâ€ of legislation was what we usually had before this government. Most bills went through on no timetable, allowing the Opposition to table as many amendments as they wished and debate them for as long as they liked. Parliament often met into the early hours in the morning to hammer out disagreements on complex bills.
What takes my breath away is the audacity of the government to introduce a constitutional outrage on this bill of all bills. Their decision to allow only one and half hours a day to debate amendments stifled proper consideration. Replacing the time we should have spent in committee with a series of longer general debates was a cynical manoeuvre designed to prevent the Opposition revealing all the danger in the detail as we see it. It implies Ministers are unsure of their ground and their case, that they do not wish to be exposed to the usual cross examination on the wording of each part of this long and complex text. As if denying us a referendum was not enough, Parliament too had to be sidelined.