My Lords, I speak as a committed European who regrets the breach with the European Union, accepts the referendum result as the will of the people and believes that we can overcome the challenges that face us if we do our duty as a Parliament and work together as a united country. It pains me to say that we are currently failing on every front.
Parliament is paralysed by a lame-duck Government who have lost the country’s confidence. We have a leaderless and divided Opposition who are the despair of those who expect better of the Labour Party. Many decent people feel that they are outsiders in their own country: forgotten also-rans in what they perceive as a race for obscene wealth by many fat cats in big business, finance and property development. We shall need to rebuild trust in what this country stands for and foster the qualities that made it great. We can no longer use slogans to accuse the European Union of holding us back when the exit button is pressed. People have had enough—they are sick to the stomach of the sloganising of recent weeks. We need more than slogans to rebuild trust and restore confidence both at home and overseas.
I was brought up on the fail-safe mechanism of our democracy, which used to be a Commons Motion of no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government and a general election. It is a measure of our weakness that neither side dares risk that now. There is no Churchill in the Tory party to lead us, and Jeremy Corbyn is no Clem Attlee. He falls far short of the leadership Attlee displayed when the country pulled together to save our way of life in 1940. Alas, I am afraid that statesmanship is in short supply, both here and overseas. Politics has become toxic—but fortunately not so far as this House is concerned. Here I pay tribute to the detailed work that our committees do, and in particular the European Union Committee, which has captured great respect beyond the walls of Westminster. It will be invaluable during the negotiations and amended legislation that will have to follow.
The electorate pointed us in the direction they want to go, but the Brexiteers failed to agree the route to get there and fed us falsehoods during the campaign which they no longer bother to deny. It will be left to the next Government to find the best way forward, and it is Parliament’s responsibility to approve and monitor it.
In this connection, I hope that the procedural dispute over Parliament’s right to vote on the referendum result does not reach court. All my experience tells me that whatever the merits of the argument, it will be another symptom of our debility if we breach the separation of power between the legislature and the judiciary. While I commend the noble Lords, Lord Owen and Lord Lawson, on their ingenuity in short-cutting the separation procedure set out in the Lisbon treaty, I suspect that it would be further grist to the lawyers. Parliament, not the courts, is the forum of the nation, and I would dread the consequences if we no longer were. If the British Parliament is not sovereign in this sovereign country, what was the referendum all about?
I will say a word—a couple of words—to those who think the Government can settle big issues by executive action. I say to them, “Think again”. We need to bind the wounds that still fester after weeks of bitter campaigning and we need to remember that in our democracy the winner does not take all. We govern by consent—the consent of Parliament and the people. This House has its own constitutional role, which is now more crucial than ever. I hope that the Government—whoever leads them—will recognise that and stop interfering with us. If I may say so—recalling my years as Speaker in another place—it has to be acknowledged that the powers of scrutiny of this House are more dispassionate than they are in the Commons, which is why we are frequently asked to make sense of what they do.
Restoring confidence in Parliament will not be easy. The “either/or” choice on the ballot paper was illusory and the referendum was a blunt instrument which suited the dominant mood. It is obvious that the Government were unprepared for defeat, but that is no excuse for legislation based on a first, second and third reading of the Daily Mail.
Our duty now is to help our country through these perilous times so that we may eventually reach the sunny uplands that we have been promised.