European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Livermore Lord Livermore Labour 4:00 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, in the referendum last year I voted for Britain to remain in the European Union. Along with millions of other people, I did so not out of a lack of patriotism but because of a deep and abiding concern for my country. I was convinced that leaving the European Union would be an act of monumental self-harm that would diminish Britain’s prosperity and our influence as a nation. I saw nothing from the supporters of Brexit during last year’s campaign, nor have I seen anything from the Government since, to change that view. However, this debate is not about refighting the referendum, nor is it about the principle of whether or not we should leave. Instead, it is about a seemingly narrow Bill that disguises a far broader intention. Without a meaningful provision to ask the Government to think again, the Bill seeks not just a mandate to leave the European Union but a mandate to negotiate a very specific outcome.

What was set out in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech and in the Government’s White Paper is the hardest of Brexits, giving up our membership not just of the single market but of the customs union too, before even getting to the negotiating table. This is only one possible interpretation of the referendum result, and it is an interpretation for which there is no majority in the country. The referendum campaign, and the relatively narrow margin by which it was won, revealed a country deeply and almost evenly divided. Even among the 52% who voted to leave, there were multiple and often contradictory reasons for wanting to do so. There will have been leave voters who believed the claims that Brexit would mean an extra £350 million a week for the NHS. Others will have been persuaded that it would mean the revival of traditional industries and an end to the impact of globalisation. Still more will have believed assurances that we could end immigration while not having to leave the single market. However, it is now clear that Brexit meant none of these things. They were fake promises and false assurances, specifically designed to deceive.

Rather than seek to heal this divided nation, hold an honest conversation with the country and try to build a national consensus, since 23 June this Government have chosen a very different route. Through the constant repetition of empty phrases such as “Brexit means Brexit”, they have sought to simplify the mandate, disguise its central complexity and distort the meaning of the result, while what they ultimately seek becomes clearer with every threat made to our former partners. Their clear goal is an offshore, small-state Britain, meaning not more money for the NHS but less, and the systematic reduction of the rights of British workers. I have no doubt that this vision of Britain as a mid-Atlantic Singapore is strongly supported by hard line ideologues in the Conservative Party and in some sections of the media. But equally I have no doubt that they would never have won the referendum had they been honest enough to articulate that beforehand.

The verdict of the referendum has now become so distorted as to be unrecognisable. In this Bill, we are being asked to support an unelected Prime Minister, with no mandate of her own and pursuing a policy opposite to that in the manifesto on which her party was elected, as she seeks to negotiate the hardest possible interpretation of Brexit for which there is no majority in the country and which will be devastating to the lives of millions of those leave voters on whom the outcome depended. Yet the Government now have the nerve to lecture us about respecting the “will of the people”.

There was an opportunity in the House of Commons for the Labour Party to resist this interpretation. I am proud that many of my colleagues stood up for an alternative way forward, putting growth, jobs and living standards first. However, at the very moment when the country needed our party to act in the national interest and in the interests of the people it was created to defend, our party’s leadership was found badly wanting.

As a result of that vote in the Commons, I have no doubt that the Bill will pass, but I cannot support it. From the outset, the issue of Brexit, from referendum to negotiation, has put narrow political interest before the national interest. The decision to hold the referendum was made purely to keep the Conservative Party together. The Government’s response has been simply about electoral calculation. Now this House has been warned that, if it dares to act in the national interest, it faces abolition.

I have great humility about the outcome of the referendum and about the unelected nature of this House, but if we sincerely believe that the course we are on will do untold damage to our country, we have a duty, whether elected or unelected, to say so, to oppose it and to tell the truth. I believe that working people’s lives will be made worse by this Bill. I believe that those who voted for Brexit in the greatest numbers will suffer most from the outcome. I believe that the very real problems in their lives were not caused by the European Union, and will not be solved by our leaving. I believe we will do them no favours by pretending otherwise.

Those of us who believe that Britain’s national interests are best pursued inside the European Union must listen, learn and understand why our view was rejected, but we should never stop telling the truth. The British people are being sold a lie, and we should say so. When the extent of this betrayal becomes clear, when what has been promised turns out to be undeliverable, there will be a terrible reckoning—maybe not now, maybe not in two years or even in 20, but history will judge us very harshly indeed if we now connive in that betrayal when we believe in a different course.

I want to know that I did the right thing so, with a clear conscience, I feel bound to affirm my opposition to the Bill and to its profoundly damaging effect on our country.