Baroness Thatcher and her cohorts in the anti-Maastricht camp saw their call for a referendum on the treaty overwhelmed by 445 votes to 176 in the House of Lords last night in the biggest turnout of peers in memory.
In a forceful performance, the former prime minister declared that Britain had already surrendered too many powers to the European Community and no more should be surrendered unless the people wished it. 'It is the people's turn to speak. It is their powers of which we are the custodians,' she said.
With all three front benches - Government, Labour and the Liberal Democrats - aligned against it, the referendum amendment moved on the final day of the report stage of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill had little prospect of success. None the less the turnout and the 269 majority was a surprise. Hereditary peers, life peers and so-called 'working peers' filled the red- leather benches, sat in the aisles and crowded round the throne - exceeding by a big margin the 501 who turned out for a key vote on poll tax banding in 1988.
Lord Blake, the Conservative historian, told the assembly they had a 'a golden chance to show that the peers are in favour of the people'. But Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, Leader of the Liberal Democrat peers, dismissed the referendum call as 'a tactical ploy by those who have tried and failed to defeat this Bill'.
Lord Wakeham, Leader of the House, emphasised that the Commons had rejected a referendum by a majority of 239. He rested his case on the fact that the United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy and MPs are elected to represent the people and to take decisions on their behalf. Those advocating a referendum would have Parliament 'abdicate' that responsibility, he said.
Lord Richard, leader of the Labour peers, warned: 'The spectacle of a large number of peers appearing now for the specific purpose of overturning the will of the elected House in the name of a people's democracy would highlight, in a particularly pointed way, the difficulties this House faces in the constitutional process.'
Lady Thatcher said the majority of people wanted Britain to be in Europe and so did she. 'They want to keep our Parliament too, and they do not want to diminish its powers, or its authority, or its prestige.'
She repeated that she would never have accepted the Maastricht agreement. Looking back through debates and legal advice she had been 'absolutely astonished' at the extent to which things were moving towards the Community and against Parliament and the courts.
'The pattern has been that many, many vague phrases in preambles and in things like declarations have all of a sudden been given authority when we thought they were harmless.'
Defending her 1986 Single European Act - held up again during the debate as surrendering more power than Maastricht - Lady Thatcher said that majority voting had been conceded 'strictly for the purpose of the internal market and nothing else'.
But despite assurances, the EC had used its powers to interfere in social matters which were none of its business. 'And so yes, we got our fingers burnt . . . Don't now go back to that same fire with a much bigger treaty with many more powers and get both your arms and perhaps your head burnt as well.'
A referendum would not be a matter of confidence in the Government, Lady Thatcher maintained. The issue went straight across parties and it would have been a very great help if a referendum had been held much earlier.
Her lieutenant, Lord Tebbit, the former Conservative Party chairman, hit out at those who had accused him and others of disloyalty. 'We remained loyal to the prime minister who was overthrown by those who accuse us of disloyalty,' he said.
Moving the amendment, Lord Blake said the likelihood of the Government resigning and precipitating a general election if it lost the referendum on Maastricht was so remote as to be inconceivable. 'I don't think this Cabinet is exactly full of what you might call resigning types,' he said. Lord Blake was unusual among referendum supporters in confessing that he would vote in favour of the treaty.
Viscount Tonypandy, a former Speaker, said peers had every right to ask the Commons to think again. With a passion likened by Lord Jenkins to one of 'the great Welsh revivalist preachers of the 19th century', he called in aid the 'giants of the past' - William Pitt, Gladstone, Churchill and Lloyd George. Their statues were reminders of the sacrifices made to 'keep the sovereign rights of the British people'.
In a maiden speech, Lord Lawson, the former Chancellor, opposed a referendum. While the architects of the treaty wanted a European superstate, with the opt-out from monetary union, Maastricht was of no greater constitutional importance than the Single European Act, he contended.
'Should there come a time when this Government, or any future British government, is so unwise as to conclude 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 - but a prior referendum of the British people,' Lord Lawson said.
His predecessor as Chancellor, Lord Howe, dismissed the referendum call as 'nonsense'. It was, he said, 'surely time for the Lords to recognise that our domestic parliamentary game is over, and that it is time for us to hasten our national team back onto the European field'.Reuse content