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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:22 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Pidding Baroness Pidding Conservative 11:22 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords,

“We will honour the result of the referendum, whatever the outcome”.

Those less than a dozen words with an unambiguous meaning were clearly written on the Government’s leaflet and delivered to all homes prior to the referendum last year. The Conservative Party at the last election was clear in its commitment that a Conservative Government would hold a referendum on our membership of the European Union. As David Cameron said, this was to settle the issue of one of the most vexing political debates of the past 40 years. It was the largest democratic exercise in British history. More people voted to leave the European Union than have voted for any Government, party or anything else before. With this in mind, I am struck by the challenges presented to our constitution by some Members sitting in this Chamber—many purporting to be democrats—who are willing to vote to deny or frustrate the democratically expressed will of the British people.

This issue transcends party politics. I have for the past 30 years, through involvement in voluntary politics, knocked on countless doors. One thing has been clear, expressed in different ways, through so many of those thousands of conversations—people are fed up and want their politicians to listen. It would be seen as an act of considerable arrogance if we were to act against the largest ever popular vote in a ballot in our history by attempting to frustrate the Government and the clear will of the other place.

Trust in British politics and politicians is at a terrible low. What will the message be to the people if we frustrate or ignore their direction? Over the weeks and months following the referendum, much was written about those who felt left behind in this country and felt they did not matter. Many people feel looked down upon by distant elites, sitting in high, lofty chambers and deaf to their concerns. What message do we send from this place if we frustrate Brexit now? They will feel more and more alienated from politics and the politicians who vote on the laws that govern their lives. That is dangerous to our democracy. It is not for us in this place, or indeed in this Palace, to use parliamentary gymnastics to frustrate or delay the will of the British people.

It would be a fool’s folly and a dangerous undertaking to ignore the instruction given on 23 June last year. What precedent does it set if we simply ignore the results of referendums that we do not like? We must vote for this Bill.

On the subject of the Bill itself, this is a straightforward piece of legislation that simply gives the Prime Minister the authority to execute an instruction already given by the British people last summer. With that in mind, and given the fact that this Bill was given to us without amendment, the Prime Minister must have the flexibility to undertake these difficult negotiations. For this reason, I do not believe that we in this House should amend the Bill.

I am mindful of the fact that 48% of the country voted to remain, and the referendum exposed a country divided. But I believe we can begin to mend the wounds only by moving forward. Now that the decision has been made by the British people, we need to make Brexit work, and work for everyone. We should all now focus on getting the best possible deal from the EU, one which will allow Britain to fulfil its ambition and play its full part on the global stage—an open Britain which is international and outward-looking, engaged with Europe and the world, and which offers opportunities to all.