Nigel Lawson – 1993 Maiden Speech in the House of Lords

Below is the text of the maiden speech made by Nigel Lawson in the House of Lords on 14 July 1993.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins—who has just sat down—for his expression of interest in what I am about to say. I shall try not to take too long in saying it. I suspect it is somewhat unusual, although I believe by no means unprecedented, to make one’s maiden speech during the course of the Report stage of a Bill. To those of your Lordships who feel affronted by my departure from custom, I can only apologise but perhaps plead in mitigation that this is no ordinary Bill and that this amendment is no ordinary amendment; not to mention the fact that, having had the privilege of being a Member of your Lordships’ House for a year, it was probably about time that I broke my cluck anyway.

It is a particular pleasure to speak in a debate initiated by my noble friend Lord Blake. My noble friend was my politics tutor when I was an undergraduate at Oxford some 40 years ago. I may say that he survived the experience remarkably well. As a result, I always pay particular heed to what he has to say.

It seems to me that at the heart of this debate lie two distinct questions. The first is whether a consultative referendum has any part in our constitution; the second is whether, if so, this Bill provides one of those rare occasions on which such a referendum is called for.

As to the first of those questions, I am happy to agree with my noble friend Lord Blake. The precedent that has to some extent inadvertently been set in recent years, that fundamental constitutional change be put to the people in a referendum, is one that I welcome. I welcome it because it buttresses a constitution that is badly in need of buttressing. But I have to agree with my noble friend the Leader of the House that those who advocate a referendum on Maastricht do not strengthen their case by praying in aid the fact that at the last general election all three political parties were in favour of Maastricht, thus depriving the electorate of the possibility of casting a vote against it. Even if that had not been so, a general election is not an occasion on which a single isolated issue can be put to the people, as Mr. Heath discovered in 1974.

But much more importantly, all-party agreement is not the only way in which the people can be deprived of the opportunity to vote against a proposal. It happens all the time. The people had no opportunity, for example, to vote against the Single European Act, which was ushered through Parliament under the leadership of my noble friend Lady Thatcher. As an issue it was not even in contemplation at the time of the 1983 general election and by the 1987 election it was already a fait accompli.

No, the question—it is an important question—is simply whether, unlike the Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty involves such a fundamental change to our constitution and such a grave loss of national and parliamentary sovereignty that it should, on those grounds and those grounds alone, be put to the people in a referendum first before final ratification can be contemplated.

Those who claim that the objective of the architects of the Maastricht Treaty is to replace the European Community of nation states by a single European superstate are clearly right. There is nothing disreputable about such an objective, although for my part, as a longstanding proponent of European unity, I believe it to be profoundly mistaken and, if it were ever to be imposed on the peoples of Europe, a blueprint for disaster. But I repeat: there is nothing disreputable about it. All that might perhaps be considered disreputable would be to deny that that is the objective of the architects of the Maastricht Treaty, since it manifestly is so.

But the question to which we have to address ourselves is whether the Maastricht Treaty in fact achieves or can be expected to achieve that objective. The heart of the Maastricht Treaty and the means by which its federalist architects seek to achieve their political objective is monetary union, the replacement of the individual European currencies and central banks by a single European currency and a single European central bank. That is the heart of it.

I believe that there are two distinct constitutional dimensions to it. In the first place the loss of one’s national currency and of the ability to possess a national monetary policy is in itself a constitutional change and a loss of national autonomy of the first importance. But it does not stop there. It is envisaged that monetary policy ‘would be conducted by a European central bank which is politically independent.

The idea of central bank independence has aroused increasing interest in recent years. I myself have long made clear that I favour conferring independence, within an appropriate statutory framework, on the Bank of England. But what is agreed on all sides—and the Prime Minister recently made this point in another place—is that in a democracy independence must be accompanied, as indeed it is in all those countries that already possess an independent central bank, by accountability. That involves both co-operation with the elected government of the day and open accountability to Parliament. So long as there is no single European government and no genuine Single European Parliament, a European central bank, which would arguably be the most powerful entity in the entire Community, would be effectively unaccountable and thus democratically unacceptable.

As the architects of Maastricht are doubtless aware, the only way in which that dilemma could be resolved would be to create the European political institutions of a genuine European Parliament, a European finance ministry and a European government that democracy itself would then demand. Thus would the superstate be born. However, in regard to this country, none of that is in the treaty before us today, containing as it does a protocol specifying that the United Kingdom shall not be obliged or committed to move to the third stage of economic and monetary union without a separate decision to do so by its government and Parliament. It is of course only at the third stage that the single European currency and European central bank are planned to come into being.

It is clear that Her Majesty’s Government, by negotiating that protocol, recognised the special political and constitutional significance of monetary union. Without monetary union the Maastricht Treaty is not, in my judgment, of any greater constitutional importance than the Single European Act (in the preamble to which, incidentally, the objective of monetary union was for the first time brought back to life from the grave in which it had lain since the collapse of the Werner plan in the mid-1970s).

However, should there come a time when this or any future British Government are so unwise as to conclude that this country should participate in a European monetary union, with all its political consequences, that would be a decision of such momentous constitutional significance as to warrant not merely the separate approval of Parliament at a time as provided for in the treaty before us, but also a prior referendum of the British people. Unless and until that time arrives—and for a number of reasons I rather doubt that it ever will—I do not believe that the case for a referendum is made and I shall vote tonight accordingly.