Outcome of the European Union Referendum - Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:17 pm on 6th July 2016.

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Photo of Lord Baker of Dorking Lord Baker of Dorking Conservative 6:17 pm, 6th July 2016

My Lords, many speakers in the last few days have used the word “historic” about the vote on 23 June. It is historic in one particular sense. It marked the end of an era. Up until that vote, for the past 70 years, Britain’s relationship with Europe and the European Union was very clear. We have been part of the European Union and both parties have worked very hard to make it work. As the result of that vote, that era has changed. It reminded me rather of dynastic changes in medieval England. When a dynasty changed, a new guard came in and an old guard went out and some poor wretch was executed in Pontefract Castle. The only difference today is that political assassination takes place in primetime in television studios.

The Tory party is bearing some of the wounds. In my party now, reputations have been lost, careers ended and friendships shattered. It is a not unfamiliar scene for my party; it happened when I was party chairman. But we have a capacity to recover. My only regret is that the Labour Party has lost its capacity to recover—I hope temporarily, because we do need it.

We should accept the finality of the vote on 23 June. Some have argued for a second referendum. That is wishful thinking: a fantasy. It is as absurd as saying that if Wales lose tonight, let us play the game again tomorrow to see if they can win. There is a finality about certain decisions and there was a finality about the vote on 23 June. I have some concern about a group of businessmen who are going to encourage Members of the House of Commons to vote on whether Article 50 should be activated or not. I think that could lead to a constitutional and political crisis. The constitutional crisis is that it would pitch referendum democracy against parliamentary democracy—a very unhappy clash. I think it was Gladstone who said that when it came to a clash of the masses and the classes he would always back the masses. There was a masses and classes element in that vote on 23 June. The classes were the elite, and we do not want that replayed again and again. It is very damaging to society when that happens.

The simple fact is that we are all leavers now. The era has changed and it is the task of everyone in this House to try to get the best possible deal. My own belief is that that is unlikely to lie in the single market because that involves the free movement of people. Several people, including my noble friend Lord Howard, spoke of the resourcefulness of British industry. We are a resourceful country and British industry is resourceful, agile and energetic. I hope that we will negotiate bilateral free-trade arrangements to promote the flow of goods and services to and from many countries, inside and outside Europe. As a country, we have fared rather better in our history when we have been on the high seas, roving over the whole world, rather than being concerned with just the narrow waterways of Europe.

I do not believe that the British public want to shut the door on immigration. I certainly do not want that, but we want it to be slightly less open than it has been in recent years. It emerged during the campaign that the net increase in immigration was 330,000 people last year, which is the size of a London borough. If that went on for four years it would rise to 1.2 million, which is the size of the city of Birmingham. That rate of immigration is difficult to absorb into any country at all. It obviously creates enormous pressures on housing, schools, hospitals and wage levels, and this has to be addressed. The only effective way of addressing it is to have a system of work permits applicable to European nationals, as we have for the rest of the world. I certainly want those people who are needed by British industry still to come here.

The other point we have to recognise is that there is great uncertainty about how long this will take, which is affecting the level of investment in our country very seriously. I think that certain investments from overseas are being held back and certain companies are not bringing forward investment programmes. The Government of today—this Government, not the next Government or the next Prime Minister—have a duty to act. Before the House rises for the Summer Recess, the Government should announce a major housebuilding programme for councils, private builders and housing associations. More money must be provided immediately for that.

I remember that this was done by Harold Macmillan when he appointed Ernest Marples to build 300,000 houses a year. Dear old Ernie did build 300,000 houses a year and we need that drive and determination. It should not have to wait until September or October; it should be done now. As the Government have now abandoned their target for a surplus by 2020, that should also allow them to bring forward other, much wider infrastructure projects. This would give a tremendous stimulus to British industry. It would make us expand again and thrive, which is needed in this period of uncertainty. The Government should do it.