My Lords, I start by making it clear that while I join the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, and other noble Lords in greatly regretting the outcome of the referendum, Government and Parliament must accept and act on it. This means that sooner or later Article 50 must be invoked. If an Act of Parliament has to be passed to do so, Parliament should pass such legislation. I accept also that the campaign is over. Arguments that the British people were misled into making their decision are fruitless. The British people made their decision and that is an end to it.
The question, however, is whether the outcome of the referendum prevents any further critical consideration of the decision to leave in the light of the emerging terms on which we do so. Let us imagine a possibility—which I acknowledge now seems unlikely—that the EU partners decide that it is in their best interests to give us access to the single market, combined with an acceptable degree of control over migration into the United Kingdom. Are the Government saying that our response has to be, “No. The people have decided—albeit by a narrow majority—that we must leave, and that is an end to the matter”?
Let us imagine what I am afraid may be a more likely scenario: that it becomes apparent that our economy is being so badly affected by our decision to leave that there is an overwhelming public demand to be able to think again. Let us imagine a petition, not of 4 million people but of 17 million or even 30 million people.
Let us imagine a third scenario, one such as the noble Lord, Lord Burnett, outlined, whereby the effect of the British decision causes such a clamour for reform from other member countries that the EU is compelled to make such reforms—for example, on free movement—that our continued membership would be acceptable to a substantial proportion of those who voted to leave. Is the position of Parliament and Government going to be so rigid that they say to the British people, “No. You decided two years ago to leave. Leave you must”? It would be one thing for our European partners to deny the British people the right to think again, though it is very doubtful that they could do so. It is quite another for the British Government, in two years’ time, to deny the British people any opportunity to change course, even if it becomes apparent that the road is leading over a cliff.
Whatever the merits of a referendum process—and there are some—we have also to acknowledge its weaknesses. I am grateful to a correspondent who brought to my attention an article by the late Lord Beloff, a greatly respected Member of this House who was Gladstone Professor of Government and Public Administration at the University of Oxford. In that article he argued that a referendum is only meaningful to the extent that clear alternatives are set before the electorate. According to Lord Beloff, in the absence of such clarity the electorate would be indicating a very general bias one way or the other, and nothing more.
It may be argued that the referendum offered such clear alternatives. What could be clearer than “Remain or Leave”? A moment’s thought, however, shows that it did not. One of the alternatives was clear: a modified “business as usual” by remaining within the EU. The other was anything but clear. The leave alternative offers a whole range of different futures, dependent on the outcome of uncertain negotiations and unpredictable market decisions. It is indeed a step into the unknown.
So, let us go into the negotiations in good faith, determined to get the best deal we can for the British people in accordance with their decision in the referendum. However, it is in no one’s interests—not ours, nor those of our partners—to rule out any possibility of a change of mind in response to events as they unfold over the next two years. If legislation must be introduced to authorise the Government to trigger Article 50, I shall support it. But I should also support an amendment providing that the departure does not become final until, at the end of the negotiations, the British people have an opportunity to make an informed decision through a general election or further referendum.