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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:18 pm on 23rd May 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat 9:18 pm, 23rd May 2016

My Lords, it was reassuring to hear as the opening lines of the gracious Speech that Her Majesty’s Government,

“will use the opportunity of a strengthening economy to deliver security for working people, to increase life chances for the most disadvantaged and to strengthen national defences”.

The attention devoted to matters international generally, and the commitment to the UK continuing to play a leading role in world affairs in particular, were most welcome, particularly given that it was a rather short gracious Speech. Then came a sentence which put a question mark over the whole vision of certainty and the UK’s global standing: Her Majesty’s Government,

“will hold a referendum on membership of the European Union”.

Had we misheard? Was this a copy-and-paste job that had gone wrong in No. 10? Had not many of your Lordships spent many hours in the previous Session of Parliament assisting the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, and the Government in improving what became the European Union Referendum Act 2015, amending it so that we would have information and in such a way that the polls would be fair and be seen as fair and so that both sides—Britain Stronger in Europe and Vote Leave—would feel that we had done a really good job?

None the less, we seem to have a referendum. Is it a new one? It seems not; rather, it is an opportunity for Members of your Lordships’ House and the wider public to reflect on the debate on the UK’s membership of the EU and on the poll that will take place in just one month’s time, a poll that will affect the future of this country and the life chances of all most profoundly. However, it is a poll with considerable risks. I note in passing that in moving the Motion for an humble Address, the noble Lord, Lord King, took a considerable risk: he commented on the physical appearance of a woman Peer. I gather that that can have somewhat unwanted consequences, so I am a little worried not to see either him or the noble Baroness the Leader of the House in their places today. I trust that they are both well.

I am perfectly content to say that I am 62 and a quarter inches tall on a good day, and I am not expecting that to change whether we vote to leave the EU or vote to remain, any more than I expect the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, suddenly to stop living in France. Some things are not going to change, regardless of the outcome of the vote, and certainly not everything would change on day one. Still, a vote to leave would have economic and geopolitical consequences. Quite what the consequences would be depends in part on how far you believe the so-called experts. At this point, I have to declare an interest; I am not an expert, but my day job in Cambridge is teaching European politics. Whether one believes Michael Burrage, whose paper I have indeed read or at least skimmed, or HMT’s forecasts, it is clear that a period of uncertainty and instability is bound to emerge after a vote to leave.

So why take the risk? I understand that for some the economic consequences are a price worth paying in order to regain sovereignty and democracy, which many believe have been lost through our membership of the EU. Indeed, my understanding from the Daily Telegraph and the Scotsman is that the good people attending a Vote Leave rally in Stirling 10 days ago were told that they should consider the Declaration of Arbroath, written by one Abbot Bernard—no relation, I think, to Bernard Jenkin—as providing a clarion call for leavers: “We fight not for riches nor honour nor glory, but for freedom”. Thus the idea of Scottish independence in the EU was a cruel lie because no state can be truly free in the EU. As such, the logic must go, the UK cannot be free within the EU.

The words of the declaration are beguiling—if I have misquoted them, I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, will correct me—but in reality they are a siren call. The problem raised is a false one and the solution proposed illusory. The EU is not some self-created superstate run by unelected bureaucrats; it is an international body, based on the rule of law, in which the UK is represented at every level. It is a voluntary union, not a forced marriage. So why should we contemplate a divorce? What benefits could that bring? Leaving the EU would not lead us back to some halcyon days of parliamentary democracy, nor to the days when Britannia ruled the waves. We would not be returning to the world of the 1950s, still less to that of 1320. The reality of the 21st century is that we live in an interdependent world where regional co-operation is an advantage, not a weakness. Outside the EU we would be subject to a whole range of international laws, as we already are in the UN, the WTO and other voluntary alliances. If we continued to trade with the EU, and particularly if we wanted to be part of the internal market, there would be a price to pay. We would have lost our influence within the EU by severing ties if we harkened to the cruel siren call of illusory sovereignty. We should not take that risk.