Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:04 pm on 20th February 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Henig Baroness Henig Deputy Chairman of Committees 11:04 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. We are all aware of the importance of this debate. In 30 or 50 years from now, academics, PhD students and programme makers will be poring over our speeches to understand why this country took the decisions it did in 2016-17 and how we parliamentarians explained and analysed the choices facing us. That is my defence for being the 73rd of 190 speakers in this debate.

Whatever our feelings about Brexit, we in your Lordships’ House have a very limited choice in relation to this Bill. We can support it, given its large majority in the other place, or we can try to find improvements in the form of meaningful amendments to send back to the Commons. We are in a very unenviable position because in their election manifesto the Government took the decision to superimpose direct democracy on our parliamentary system of government in respect of membership of the EU. We tried to modify this measure, but the Government were unyielding in their insistence on a winner-takes-all referendum—a simple yes/no proposition—and that is why we ended up in our present situation, with a bitterly divided nation and a Government pursuing a harder and harder Brexit, which I actually believe a majority of parliamentarians do not support.

It is worth considering what might have happened differently in the past few decades had the public, rather than MPs, been the decision-makers. In the mid-1960s, MPs voted to abolish capital punishment, despite vociferous public opposition. We can be absolutely certain that a referendum at that time would have endorsed capital punishment, as it was not until the 1990s at the earliest that majority public opinion shifted towards abolition, 30 years after MPs had taken their vote. Would the public have been right and MPs wrong? Surely a majority in favour of a measure does not automatically mean that it the best action to take.

If we go further back to October 1938, had there been a referendum on whether this country should become involved in a war to stop Hitler from overturning frontiers in eastern Europe, I have no doubt whatsoever that a considerable majority would have been opposed to involvement in war. Churchill would have been tearing his hair out in frustration, but he knew the strength of the appeasement lobby and, let us not forget, of the popular press which was leading it. For how long would that decision have held? As Hitler extended his grip over eastern Europe and it became increasingly clear that Britain faced great peril, would another referendum have been held, or would Parliament or the Government have taken action to override the decision?

This is surely the second big problem with direct democracy: just as the public do not necessarily come up with the optimum answer, so also the system cannot respond to changes in circumstance. Some are now arguing that Brexit is irreversible—200 years at least, suggested the noble Lord, Lord Sterling, not very long ago—but why should that be so? Others in this debate have exhorted us to accept the verdict and get on with implementing it, but if international circumstances or economic trends change significantly and adversely, if in 18 months’ time the only deal in sight is a really bad deal, should we just accept it? Why should there not be a parliamentary vote or even another referendum? This is certainly something that we must debate further in Committee.

The examples of capital punishment and of public opinion in 1938 show us that majority opinion has on many past occasions been at odds with parliamentary opinion, but never before have we had to manage a situation in which that majority have voted to lead us in a direction which large numbers of parliamentarians consider to be disastrous, or at the very least, ill-advised. I understand why so many people voted as they did to leave the EU, but I cannot agree that this was a good outcome.

I will give just two reasons why passing this Bill will make the country weaker, and not stronger. The first is the overwhelming evidence that leaving the EU will undermine our security. That was revealed in the debate in your Lordships’ House two weeks ago on the excellent report, Brexit: Future UK-EU Security and Police Cooperation. Far from taking back control, we will be losing it in a serious way if we are no longer members of Europol, participants in the European arrest warrant scheme, or able to access the European Criminal Records Information System. We will not be able to track travelling criminals so easily, pursue speedy extraditions, or exchange information with our European neighbours so quickly about the movements of potential terrorists. Brexiteers will say we can make special deals to cover these things, but that will hardly be possible because we are severing our links with the European Court of Justice.

The second big negative for me is the proposed departure from the single market. The Conservative election manifesto of 2015 promised that Britain would stay in the single market, and one can certainly ask what percentage of the 52% who wanted to get out of the EU also wanted to get out of the single market and customs union. Here we have the world’s largest tariff-free area—half a billion people—right on our doorstep, and we are turning our back on it. How can that make economic sense? How does that help our small and medium-sized businesses?

The Government talk of the virtues of a clean break, but what of all the issues that have to be resolved before separation? The chair of one of the big banks said that his team have identified 650 crucial issues. The next few years are going to be an absolute nightmare in terms of detailed policy-making to take us out of the EU and the single market. The Chancellor of the Exchequer said that people did not vote to become poorer or less safe; I am sorry, but that is exactly what they did. The only clear outcome of leaving the single market that I can see is steady economic decline, which accession to the EU enabled us to escape for a few decades.

I conclude with a very likely unintended consequence of a hard Brexit, which will be richly ironic. The Scottish Government, unsurprisingly in view of the strong pro-EU sentiments north of the border, want to remain in the single market. If this proves not to be possible, we can be assured that pressure will build irresistibly for a second independence referendum, which may very well be won. So future historians will write with great interest about how an avowedly unionist party, in a bid to resolve internal political differences, instead managed to bring about the break-up of the United Kingdom.

That is why I cannot support Article 50 as it stands. I respect the fact that others will have different views to mine, and they may very well be in a majority. But it is my strong belief that it is not in the national interest for the UK to leave the EU, and certainly not to leave the single market and customs union.