My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Chidgey, although I disagree with just about every single word that he said. By his own admission, he has been involved with European institutions since the 1970s, and I think that that showed. I do not like the word “mendacity” being used about anybody during the campaign—I think it is ill chosen—and his dismissal of the Commonwealth as far as the future is concerned is quite ridiculous.
In a debate in the House of Commons on the Maastricht treaty on
“I am not sure what impact my words will have, but it is vital to me to be able to tell the Committee how strongly I feel about this issue. I feel certain that, however well or badly I put my thoughts, this will be my most important contribution in my 10 years in the House and, together with my vote at the end of the debate, it may be the most important thing that I do for as long as I am a Member of Parliament. The debate is not simply about whether this great House of Commons continues to govern our nation; it is also about how it is governing today and how in touch it is with the people it governs”.—[Official Report, 21/4/1993; col. 463.]
So it has proved. Twenty-three years later, at long last I have been able to vote again to undo the damage done by the Maastricht treaty and to set us free from the European Union.
All great issues are essentially very simple. We make them complicated when we do not want to face them. So it was in this referendum on whether our country wished to remain a member of the European Union. The single and most important question was, “Do you want to take back control of your country and run your own affairs?”. Immigration, financial contributions and trade agreements are all very important, but they are inevitably and obviously secondary to that simple question.
The nation did not see this issue in the same way as it would a general election. General elections give the people just three weeks to digest often long and complicated manifestos produced along party lines. This non-party referendum gave them many months to consider their decision but, more importantly, they had already had years and years of living with the EU and seeing its effect on our country, for good or ill. They thought it through and gave their verdict, which was, “We are brave enough and strong enough to run our own affairs”.
The decision was final. We are going to leave the European Union. This has been confirmed by the Prime Minister, the other European Heads of State and, one way or another, most speakers in this debate. There must be no talk of dilution, undue delay, second thoughts or, heaven forbid, as touted several times already, a second referendum. Since the vote, unlike other Members of this House, I have not met one person who voted to leave who is anything other than pleased with the result and looking forward to the future. There would be huge and understandable anger in the country if their will were to be thwarted. For our political leaders, this would be as irresponsible as it would be dangerous.
There will have been 115 Back-Bench speeches in this debate and I am number 102, so there can be little new to say. I have sat through most of the debate and I think that it has been divided into two groups. One group—sadly, by far the largest—has made sad and dispiriting speeches doubting our ability as a nation to succeed, and questioning the referendum and its outcome and even people’s motives for voting as they did. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, who is not in his seat.
By contrast, in the other, smaller group, there have been some positive and memorable contributions from both sides of your Lordships’ House from Members who understand our role and who, I feel, are much more in tune with the people and with what they expect from us. I thought that the Leader of the House got us off to an excellent start, setting the scene in a balanced way and showing us the way forward. My noble friend Lord Lawson gave us a plan to follow. There has been a constant clamour for plans. He gave us one: we have a plan. I thought my noble friend Lord Dobbs—in, as usual, an entertaining speech—put everything in perspective. He ended with the sentence:
“We have a mountain to climb, but the view from the summit might yet prove awesome”.—[Official Report, 5/7/16; col. 1900.]
The noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, who is not now in his place, related in a very positive way the outcome of the referendum to the country’s other problems and the need to address them. I do not want to embarrass the noble Baroness, Lady Mallalieu, again, but I thought she spoke so well and dealt so comprehensively with every aspect of the issue that, as I told her afterwards, she made much of my speech redundant.
It is from positive speeches such as these that we must take our lead and our tone. In this inevitably difficult period, this House should provide the experienced political and intellectual ballast that will help to keep the ship of state steady as it moves ahead through uncharted waters. You cannot see the road ahead clearly if you are constantly looking over your shoulder. In this House, we can either waste much time arguing over the past, disputing the result and hoping our gloomy predictions come to pass, regardless of the fate of the country, or we can accept the result and understand that, although there may be short-term difficulties, it is our duty to do all we can to make the new situation a success.
Some questions have been asked to which I would have thought the answers were obvious, but apparently not. Of course we will not turn our back on our European neighbours, but will seek to work harmoniously with them. Of course anyone in this country lawfully must be able to stay, and as this seems necessary—I am surprised that it is—they should be given that assurance without delay.
If we fail this country at this historic moment, it will not just be harmful to Europe during this transitional period and make life much more difficult for our Government and our country; it will show this House—as, sadly, it has already shown itself to some extent to be—to be so out of touch with the people and unable and unwilling to listen to them that it will cause serious damage to your Lordships’ House and possibly its future. Finally, let our glass be half full, not half empty. We have been given a unique opportunity as a nation to break free, change course and forge a new future. We should seize it gladly.