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Outcome of the European Union Referendum - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:36 pm on 5th July 2016.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Chair, EU Internal Market Sub-Committee 1:36 pm, 5th July 2016

My Lords, I was very pleased to be following shortly the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Kidron, because like her, I wanted largely to focus on the state of the nation following this vote. We rightly will have all sorts of views about the Constitution, international relations, Europe and the economics of the situation, but we also need to take account of what the vote reveals. Like many of my friends and colleagues on all sides of this House, I was devastated by the result. I speak as someone who, against the views of most of my party and movement, campaigned in 1975 to stay in. Even when I had some responsibility for general elections, I do not recall ever crying at the result, but I did after this one. It has been devastating for many of us.

I was devastated but not shocked; I was hardly even surprised. I do not think that any of them are in the Chamber now but there were Members of this House who, two or three weeks before the referendum, told me they had not met a single person advocating Brexit. That applied to others in the London-based elite outside this Parliament and it indicates, perhaps at the extreme end, the difficulties of us in Westminster relating to what was going on in the country. It was not an edifying campaign and the result was not because of the flamboyant leadership of the leavers nor of the ineffective leadership of the remainers. It was a campaign which seemed to be one of fear against prejudice, rather than offering two versions of hope for affirmation. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House said that it was a momentous demonstration of democratic process, and it was. She also said that it was due to enthusiasm, but I do not think so; in some places at least, it was closer to desperation and despair. The elite are not listening to what is going on in large parts of our country. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury had it right today. The issues that people were really moved by were their employment prospects, their lack of access to public services and inequality in our nation.

It was immigration that got blamed, primarily, and the EU got blamed for the immigration. Some of that is logical, but some of the reasons are also that successive leaders of Governments of all parties have not made clear to the British people the benefits of EU membership and have blamed it for decisions, and their effects, which were actually the responsibility of the Westminster Government. A positive side of that campaign never really came across; instead, we opted on the remain side for Project Fear. A lot of why people voted the other way was because of the lack of enforcement of labour standards, the lack of access to public services and so forth. Because of that vote, we have now had a seismic decision in the history of our nation and in our internal constitution and geopolitical position. Those changes have also, as others have said, let other demons out, as we have seen in terms of the racist attacks and other effects on the streets of our cities. It is time that we focused on the basic causes of this vote.

My noble friend Lord Radice said that in effect we have no government in this country at the moment, and no opposition, and he is right. To be slightly more facetious, on the Saturday after the referendum result, there was a point when the Prime Minister had resigned, the Chancellor of the Exchequer had gone AWOL, the leader of the Opposition was pronounced officially to be in bed and the then-assumed next Prime Minister was playing cricket, while sterling was already falling and the prospects for the markets were already appallingly facing us. The Government need to get their act together and so does this House. This House can help. As the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, said, we have a key role in our scrutiny committees and the expertise and approach adopted there.

We have to decide which of the seven or eight options—or the three options—of how we in future relate to the EU are to be pursued. However, I fear that some of those options are not on the table. I need to apologise to some of my noble friends for appearing to echo the noble Lord, Lord Lawson of Blaby, but a single market requires single rules, and the single rules of this market include free movement. I hope that there can be some modification but I fear that there will not be much—because, as noble Lords have said, other EU Governments are under equally acute political pressures in respect of negotiating with the UK over the next few months. I chair the EU Sub-Committee on the Internal Market, so I will be at the brunt of this in some ways.

Another thing that appals me about the Government’s position is the lack of contingency planning. Thank God that the Bank of England at least had a contingency plan but, as I understand things around Whitehall, there is no contingency plan either of the immediate position in relation to policies within Europe during this negotiating limbo nor for the long-term position as to how EU-derived legislation on the UK statute book will ultimately be dealt with in future. The House of Lords scrutiny committees can help in that process, but we can only help.

Our political leaders in another place need to accept that they have been turned over in one way or another. I share some of the view of Nicola Sturgeon that the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, mentioned—but the fact remains that she was the only leader of a political party in these nations of the United Kingdom whose population and electorate actually followed its advice. The rest of us have been seriously disavowed. The House of Commons and the political parties need in very rapid order to get their act together to address our future relationship with the EU, but also to address the problems of a deeply divided and resentful country.