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My Lords, more than 30 million of us voted. Turnout was high, and we cannot—nor should we—ignore the outcome. The Government have a mandate and duty to negotiate the best terms of exit, but in negotiating those terms, if we fail to listen to the voters, we risk unleashing a very intolerant pain. By “listen”, I do not mean to the binary of Brexit or no Brexit, but listening to both the large minority who voted to remain and to the underlying causes of the vote to leave.
That vote largely came from communities that have already paid the price of a global marketplace, as seen in the almost terminal decline of mining, shipbuilding, steelmaking and other huge swathes of manufacturing. For those communities, that decline, and the decline of trade unionism, have also meant a decline in decent pensions, workers’ education, job security and a place at our table—Government and Parliament are worryingly free of working-class representation. These communities have been the collateral damage of an austerity programme under which cuts to the public sector and local councils have denuded whole regions of an ecosystem that allowed for a level of self-determination and the funds to keep them afloat. The referendum did not create a divided country—it was an expression of an already divided country.
The referendum was framed to ask whether the electorate felt the terms negotiated by the Prime Minister were good enough to stay, and they said no. Although many voters were expressing long-held beliefs, a significant minority were persuaded that they were protecting their communities from the onslaught of 50 million Turks, that they were supporting their beloved NHS to the tune of £350 million a week and that all the benefits of EU membership were available even if we voted out. They were persuaded because that is what they were repeatedly told.
Taking the temperature of a nation to inform government policy is not legally binding, nor is it some absolute principle to which we all hold. Indeed, sadly, the decision to hold a referendum at all was a bungled attempt to keep Government Back-Benchers quiet. It would be a travesty if the future of the country was determined by pitting the interests of the political class against the real needs of those communities which so desperately need a new settlement.
The EU is not blameless. In offering the Prime Minister a lousy deal, and now worrying more about contagion than the Union, it is showing the same lack of political imagination and commitment to common good that we have shown here. Not just in the UK but Europe-wide, there is an explicit and expressed anxiety about free movement. It is an admirable principle, but what about community and protecting communities—both the communities of host nations that feel overrun and the communities whose workers, mothers, teachers and doctors abandon them for the relatively better wages, but not necessarily better lives, elsewhere?
I have been so angered by the deliberate conflation of the refugee crisis and free movement, to the detriment of both and the shame of us all. I welcome migration, with all its economic and cultural benefits, but then I am first-generation British. I live in London with my family and am economically secure. It is a more complicated picture both for the young Bulgarian woman who leaves her children in Sofia to come here to clean on a zero-hours contract for marginally better wages—but not necessarily a better life—and for her UK counterpart struggling to find secure work. As one young Geordie man said to me, “Don’t talk to me about losing jobs—I’ve never had one”.
Union remains an ideal worth fighting for. It provides us with ballast against conflict, trading partners, cultural exchange, an enlightened social project and, in a global world, the collective voice of half a billion people on any subject from climate change to data protection. But if Europe refuses to engage with communities that globalisation and nation states have left behind, that ideal is tainted, not only here but right across Europe.
We are going to hear a lot about democracy today and what is or is not democratic. The Prime Minister stated in the other place that how we now leave is our collective responsibility. But the realpolitik is that Conservative Party members have the privilege of choosing our next Prime Minister, and whoever she is will have the privilege of then deciding how we proceed. Worryingly, we already see an arms race to establish who has the best Brexit credentials, pitching the future security and aspirations of those EU citizens who have already made their home here into doubt—more careless talk from politicians, with real-life consequences, as we have seen so recently in the rise of racist and xenophobic attacks and the violent murder of Jo Cox. What short memories we have.
How can we pretend that democracy is represented by unelected people in Europe working alongside an unelected Government, cobbled together during one of the most unedifying periods of British politics, to bang out a deal that does not even begin to express the need for the housing, jobs and services that the electorate so desperately call for? What of the young, who voted overwhelmingly to remain? The Prime Minister has said that they should “make their voice heard”. They will live with this much longer than any of us, but I am struggling to understand by what mechanism they will make their voices heard. Indeed, how do any of us make our voice heard? I would like to hear from the Government how they intend to represent the 48% of the electorate who voted to remain—workers, the nations, regions, businesses, farmers, the creative industries, environmentalists and so on—within the negotiations. The voices of such a group would undoubtedly be better received in Europe, and it might go some way to persuading all the UK that it has been represented.
Just as we have tested the terms of staying and found them wanting, why not test the terms of leaving to see if they are palatable? A second referendum is not an excuse to ask the same question and get a different result, but an opportunity to ask a more exacting question.