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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:55 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Russell of Liverpool Lord Russell of Liverpool Crossbench 7:55 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, I first arrived in this House in 1981, at the tender age of 29—even younger than the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. Unlike the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, I am actually elected—as an accepted hereditary. It is rather like being the Member for Old Sarum, but I am elected. During that time, one has seen and heard a lot; this is the largest turnout I have ever witnessed. Given my number on the speakers list, I have been listening politely. We got up to 10, 20, 30 and 40 and I thought: “This is wonderful, nobody has made the points that I wish to make”. Then, suddenly, the noble Lord, Lord Alli, stood up. I have not had the pleasure of meeting him but perhaps we should get together and confer more often, since he clearly reads my mind or, in the early hours of the morning, I have been reading his.

Like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, my reputation as a political soothsayer or voter in referenda suffered a bit of a battering in 2016. I got it wrong about the referendum and the US election, so my credit with people who thought I had some political insight is virtually zero. I last spoke in this House in March last year and that seems like a lifetime ago, but here we are. We have an unanticipated outcome and we appear to have had little or no effective scenario planning of options before the event. Now we have a scramble to get our collective heads around it. This was illuminated for me, rather uncomfortably, by a real conversation I had about two months ago with a friend from the north of England who turned out to be very strongly pro-leave—for this evening’s purposes I will call him Nigel. We talked about the reasons for voting to leave for about 10 minutes. At the end of the conversation, we tried to sum it up. I said to Nigel: “I think we are agreeing with each other that the political grandees who were most in favour of our leaving are probably, intellectually and managerially, the least competent to manage our way out of it”. He said: “Yes”. I said: “So, basically, those of us who did not want to leave are going to have to manage our way through this”. He said: “Yes”. I said: “OK: that is where we are, but it does not feel too great”. We moved on. For many of us, that is where we are.

By and large, people did not vote on political grounds. Very large numbers of electors who normally support the Conservative Party or the Labour Party chose not to follow their political leaders but to go in their own direction. Some 37.5% of the total electorate voted to leave and 34.6% chose to remain. While the new US President might regard this gulf between the two percentages as “awesome”, “historic”, “unprecedented” or even “earth shattering”, some of us might choose to differ and recognise that it was really quite close. One of my great-grandfathers had the good sense to be a Conservative politician: his name was Stanley Baldwin. If ever he heard somebody speaking about politicians being “in power”, he would quietly correct them and say: “You misunderstand the basis of being elected. You are elected into office, as much to represent those who did not vote for you—or at all—as those who did vote for you”.

I listened to the passionate arguments and so-called facts and counterfacts being bandied about, and listened with, frankly, visceral distaste to accusations of a lack of patriotism from people who I describe as strangely sore winners. You normally have sore losers but we appear to have sore winners as well. We need cool and measured heads and minds, but we also need political stethoscopes to enable us to listen to our fellow citizens’ hearts. Sore winners and sore losers do not make good negotiators, particularly when they disagree with one another rather thoughtlessly.

Finally, I echo what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Alli. Some in your Lordships’ House, particularly those who have enjoyed a career in another place and have achieved the dizzy heights of being appointed privy counsellors, seem to have forgotten that the courtesies of this House are different and are greatly valued by most of us. Audibly and theatrically disagreeing with others’ views may be meat and drink to the other place but not here.