By Matthew Barrett
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My series profiling the groups of Tory MPs continues with a look at a pioneering Eurosceptic group which helped backbenchers cause significant headaches for Prime Minister John Major during the early 1990s. The Bruges Group is a well-established forum for advocating looser ties with Brussels, and it has gone from a relatively small collection of Tories to one of the groups that best represents mainstream Conservative thinking on its particular policy area.
Origins of the group
The Bruges Group was founded in February 1989 to promote and uphold the ideas Margaret Thatcher expressed in her famous Bruges Speech in late 1988. Mrs Thatcher argued that the tide of opinion on the continent was towards centralising the structure of the European institutions - and this would be unsuitable for Britain's national identity and democracy. In the most famous passage of the speech, Mrs Thatcher said:
"I want to see us work more closely on the things we can do better together than alone. Europe is stronger when we do so, whether it be in trade, in defence or in our relations with the rest of the world. But working more closely together does not require power to be centralised in Brussels or decisions to be taken by an appointed bureaucracy. ... We have not successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them re-imposed at a European level with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels."
The group was set up by Patrick Robertson and Lord Harris of High Cross, ie Ralph Harris, the director of the Institute of Economic Affairs from 1957 to 1988. Lord Harris' work promoting free-market economics at the IEA was instrumental in the creation of Thatcherism.
"Does my noble friend accept that in a number of bicameral systems in the world it is possible for a Prime Minister to be in either House? While it might not be acceptable to public opinion at the moment for a Prime Minister to sit in this House as it is presently constituted, if in, say, 10 years' time this House is wholly elected, is deemed more legitimate and is demanding more powers, would it not be appropriate and necessary for there to be more senior Ministers in this House? Would it not be wrong for the Government's legislation to exclude the possibility of a Prime Minister being in this House, as used to be the case right up to the early years of the 20th century?"
Leader of the Lords, Tom Strathclyde responded:
"The fact is that the Prime Minister is First Lord of the Treasury. It would a very strange thing, given the reduced powers of this House since 1911, for the Prime Minister to be a Member of this House. Therefore, we have no plan or proposal to make it so."
The ePolitix website sees these issues as the beginning of a potential power struggle between the Lords and what would be an elected Lords. Many people would start to see the Lords - if elected by PR - as more legitimate than the Commons.
In answering another question Lord Strathclyde confirmed that "it was in the coalition agreement that, in the event of there being an elected second Chamber, it would be under the system of proportional representation." My own view remains that Tory MPs won't stomach AV or an elected Upper House but, if AV is defeated, Nick Clegg will insist on Lords reform.
86 MORE TORY PEERS THIS PARLIAMENT?
Baroness Royall of Blaisdon for Labour asked if the Government will continue to pursue the coalition agreement's commitment that "Lords appointments will be made with the objective of creating a second chamber that is reflective of the share of the vote secured by the political parties in the last general election", meaning, she concluded, "86 more Conservative Peers and 99 more Liberal Democrat Peers."
Lord Strathclyde responded: "My Lords, over time, we shall certainly wish to produce what is in the coalition agreement."
More in Hansard.
Yesterday evening the House of Lords defeated attempts to grant the British people a referendum on the EU Treaty. Published below are extracts from the contributions that Tory peers made to the debate.
Lord Howe of Aberavon argues that the 1975 referendum damaged Britain's standing in Europe: "Although it went the right way, having the referendum in 1975 damaged the interests of the United Kingdom. First, it eroded our credibility, standing and influence within the Community. Happily, I am able to say that restoring our credibility and effectiveness in the Community thereafter was undertaken overwhelmingly under the leadership of my noble friend Lady Thatcher, but that was repairing damage done even by a referendum that had been won. Even then, it had a damaging effect on us, because it also distracted from other business that the UK should have been addressing and had a divisive impact on the Government of that time."
Lord Bruce-Lockhart says that the EU has changed since he voted for membership in 1975: "Unlike, I suspect, many in this House and across the country, I was brought up, until the age of 10 or 11, entirely in France—in Paris—Germany and Austria. I was brought up in a family which read Goethe in German, and played and sang Schubert in the evenings. They may today be described as Europhiles. They had a great regard for European culture, but that has nothing to do with desiring a political union across Europe. Secondly, in the 1975 referendum, I, like many people here, voted to stay in, but what I voted for was not a European Union but an EEC, as it was described. I voted for a European Economic Community and nothing more... My Lords, the vast number of people I speak to all say exactly the same thing: they voted for a European Economic Community. Since then, there has been huge change. Little by little, stealth by stealth, we have given away sovereign powers over many areas, including judicial, legal and environmental matters, fishing, employment, human rights and business. Sovereign powers have been given away, which we never thought would happen in 1972."
Lord Patten says EU hasn't changed much in 27 years:
"I do not think that the European Union is changed fundamentally,
except that it now has 27 members, which is why, as the noble Lord,
Lord Kerr, said, we have to have the institutional arrangements in this
treaty. It will not be a terrible disaster if the Irish vote no, and I
will make that point; but the European Union would work better if we
had those arrangements in place. I have not changed my views. Some
others have changed theirs. My strong prediction is that after the next
election, they will find that they have to change their views back
again as we come with a crashing and grinding of gears to face up to
the fact that we are living in the real world and have responsibilities
in it for the national interest."
We don't need Hercule Poirot to see the similarities between Lisbon and the EU Constitution, says Lord Howell of Guildford: "Lisbon is really the same as the Constitutional Treaty: "As we have argued and debated our way through the text of the treaty and the Bill, most of us can see—and it becomes clearer page by page—that the words are almost identical to those of the former constitutional treaty. In most places they are absolutely identical. The constitutional treaty met a sticky end when it was voted down in referenda in the Netherlands and France some years ago. The mystery is this: if our eyes can see the identical words, how is it that—while we see one thing—Ministers insist on seeing something quite different? Of course, the answer requires no detective work at all. We do not need Hercule Poirot to see exactly what has happened. The treaty drafters and this Government have rather cleverly achieved an illusion by using a methodological device to argue that the constitutional concept has been abandoned."
Lord Blackwell also notes the similarities between Lisbon and the Constitution: "I have asserted in previous debates—and the Government have not rebutted it—that there are only two articles in the constitutional treaty which have not been transferred, in whole or in part, to the consolidated treaty text following Lisbon. I believe three articles have been added to the Lisbon text. The vast majority of these 35 differences—some 30 in all—are simply changes to the wording of articles which appear in both texts and the rest of the articles are the same. The issue for the House is to judge whether those differences are significant."
Lord Brittan of Spennithorne argued against the Lords requiring the Government to implement its promises: "No reference has been made to the Salisbury convention in this debate, although it was discussed in previous debates. The Salisbury convention was a prudent, self-denying ordinance of the House not to use its legal power to frustrate the will clearly expressed by an incoming Government in their manifesto. It is quite a different matter for this House to say that it has the right not just to refrain from stopping a Government implementing their promises, but to force a Government to implement their promises. Whatever the considerable merits of your Lordships' House, which we all agree about, it is not an elected body, and it is peculiarly inappropriate to say, “Not only should the Government keep their promise but we, of all people, are insisting that they do so by a particular form of populous democracy—that is, a referendum”. There is something faintly ironic, and beyond, in this House arrogating to itself the intention or the right to do that. It is for those reasons that I cannot go along with the proposal that there should be a referendum."
Lord Lamont highlights confusion in Liberal Democrat ranks: "This is a sad day for politics. I make no criticism at all of those who, like my noble friend and my noble and learned friend sitting beside me, have always been against referenda and who have made clear in the past their opposition to referenda on this sort of issue. Maybe the arguments are not overwhelming and maybe there never should have been a promise to hold a referendum; maybe it was not wise and maybe the treaty is not as different from others as I profoundly believe that it is. The fact is that the Government made a promise and should stick to it. The Liberals also went along with it, but they have not just ratted—they have re-ratted and re-re-ratted. First, they were for a referendum, then they were for abstaining, adamant for drift—and now they are firmly against a referendum. Who knows where they will be tomorrow?"