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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:47 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Wheatcroft Baroness Wheatcroft Conservative 8:47 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, I want to live in a country that is welcoming, inclusive, tolerant and creative—and, therefore, happy and prosperous. I fear that Britain is heading in a different direction. The referendum seems to have unleashed a wave of anger and intolerance which is truly frightening and dangerous for this country.

I have canvassed in many elections over the years. One of the most cheering aspects of doing so has been the response—even from those who say they would not dream of voting for my party in a million years. People have been pleasant and polite. However, when I campaigned for a remain vote, I was stunned by the irrational hostility I met. When I dared to voice my concerns over the outcome of the referendum, my postbag—both virtual and real—was awful. It was astonishing that people actually put stamps on those diatribes. There were plaintive messages from UK citizens living in Europe who now feel completely abandoned, but there were many more, branding me “slut”, “whore”, “harlot”, “scum” and much, much worse. Encouraged, no doubt, by various, more vicious parts of the media, those correspondents declared that I and others who shared my views were simply out to defy the will of the people.

It is debatable whether what my right honourable friend Kenneth Clarke referred to as “an opinion poll” is a sensible way to determine the will of the people. I should like to pay tribute to the one Tory MP who had the courage to defy the will of the Whips and follow his conscience.

Whatever way the public voted in the referendum, I believe it is not only the right but the responsibility of those of us who believe that leaving Europe will be bad for the country to say so and not be intimidated by the bullies. Sacrifice freedom of speech and society loses far more than just a debate about Brexit. For those of us in this House who believe that the country is taking a dangerous path without even knowing whether we can turn back, speaking out is not only a right and a responsibility but, surely, it is our duty. That position can feel a little lonely over here, but I do not believe we are appointed to this House merely to troop obediently through the Lobbies.

I believe that it would be damaging to this country, both economically and socially, to leave the EU. Jobs will be lost, particularly in the finance sector, which contributes so heavily to the Exchequer. In fact, the exit is already beginning. Manufacturing will move. Yes, we are hearing about investments now, but for every investment that is being trumpeted many others are being put on hold or have even been abandoned already. Talent will migrate. Top scientists and academics are already voicing concerns about joining organisations in the UK. Perhaps they see themselves as citizens of the world, a concept despised by the Prime Minister but not by those who prefer a global vision to narrow nationalism. Would it be so surprising if the UK’s now perceived hostility to foreigners led these people to conclude that they might be more at home elsewhere? The stock market may look reassuring now, but that is no guide to how investors rate the prospects for UK plc. I fear that, a year from now, the economy will be looking distinctly less healthy.

I acknowledge that in June last year there was a majority vote advising the Government to leave the EU. Hence it is only right that we begin that process by triggering Article 50, but only if we do so with due caution. Whatever the various motivations people had for casting their ballot, I believe that my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was absolutely right when he said that they did not vote to become poorer. So it is crucial that there should be a vote on the terms.

Instead, the Government seem to be adopting a “University Challenge” type approach: “I’ve started, so I’ll finish”. However, while that might work for a quiz show, it is not the way to deal with the future of this country. The terms of our suggested departure from the EU must be put to Parliament in a meaningful vote. Where is the sovereignty of Parliament if that is denied? There must also be a referendum to determine whether it is the will of the people to leave on those terms. Why would any dedicated Brexiteer object to that, unless they feared that the terms would be unacceptable to a majority? Without this protection, I cannot support the Bill.

The right honourable Margaret Beckett was able to say that she believed that the potential consequences of the Bill are “catastrophic”, but that she would vote for it. I cannot do that. How on earth could I explain, let alone justify, such behaviour to a granddaughter whom I truly believe will be better off if Britain stays in the EU?