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European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:28 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 10:28 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, this is a momentous debate, in which the House and Parliament as a whole are trying to turn our back on over 40 years of our history and strike out on our own in a highly dangerous and volatile world. This is the result of the referendum. Some people outside the House, and some of your Lordships as well, have tried to question the democratic legitimacy of the referendum on the grounds that only 39% of the people voted for it, and because all the lies told and falsehoods spread meant that the campaign was not as honest as it could have been. I am afraid that that is water under the bridge. It does not amount to any kind of electoral malpractice and can be ignored.

The referendum poses three extremely important questions. First, what is its constitutional status? Secondly, what does it commit us to? Thirdly, once we have achieved what it wants us to achieve, what next? In the five-odd minutes that I have, I will address those questions in that order.

The constitutional status of the referendum is that it is largely advisory. Although the Prime Minister and others have said differently, this is not part of the Bill—and only the Bill carries its own meaning. More importantly, to suggest that it is mandatory is to question the principle of parliamentary sovereignty, which is the constitutional linchpin of our political system. That means that, as an advisory proposal rather than a mandatory one, it requires every MP not simply to give in to what the referendum says but rather to give it serious thought and to give his best judgment to the question in hand. It is quite important that the MP is never entirely helpless. With an advisory referendum, the MP retains the freedom and responsibility to make sure that he exercises his mind as wisely as he can and delivers a judgment.

The same applies to your Lordships’ House. Although we are not elected, we are nevertheless representatives. As I teach my students in my political philosophy class, being elected and being representative are not necessarily the same thing. In certain contexts, the Queen represents us without having been elected. So the fact that we are sometimes threatened with extinction if we exercise our judgment need not worry us. During the 17 years that I have been in your Lordships’ House, I have seen those threats wielded again and again, and I am afraid that they do not really amount to very much—and if they do, we shall see.

I want to concentrate on the second question, which is: what does this referendum commit us to? Some people seem to think that it commits us conclusively and exclusively to getting out of the European Union. I am afraid that it does not. If 52% of the people want to get out and 48% of the people want to stay in, the message of the referendum, as I understand it, is to leave the European Union in such a way that we remain a member—to leave the European Union but not give up the best that it has given us and the gains we have made. That means that we should not do anything to, or settle on terms that, lower the standards that we have come to expect during the past 40-odd years that we have been a member of the European Union.

We should protect workers’ rights, we should not weaken the UK, we should respect human rights and we should respect the rights of EU nationals resident in the UK. This is what is being said when we are told that we are leaving the European Union but not Europe. What does that mean? What does Europe stand for as different from the European Union? Europe stands for certain social democratic values. So when we are told that we are not leaving Europe, we are saying that we are committed to those values and that they must at all costs remain our guiding star.

It is also quite important that we should not be too obsessed with the question of immigration, which was really the issue in the referendum. Immigration is bound to remain high, partly because of our labour market situation and partly because trade deals that we enter into with individual countries will involve clauses about the movement of people.

The third question is: once the terms of settlement have been reached, what do we do? Obviously they must be approved by the people. Ideally I would have liked this situation to be settled by Parliament on the principle that our system is based on parliamentary sovereignty. But, having conceded a referendum in the first instance, to go back on it or to suggest that there will be no referendum in the future would imply an act of political cowardice as well as being an act of inconsistency.

I will end by simply saying this. We are planning to go alone. We can go alone—no one in the world can stop us from doing that—but we should remember that, in wanting to do that, we run risks. We saw that for example when the Prime Minister had to meet the President of the United States. We need Uncle Sam to hold our hand and to make sure that we can get a better deal; we think that he will use his influence in such a way that other countries might give us one. On the one had we chafe against EU constraints; on the other hand we seem only to keen to embrace those offered by Uncle Sam. I do not think that is the way we should behave.