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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:13 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Low of Dalston Lord Low of Dalston Crossbench 4:13 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, I am sure that we all welcome the fact that the Prime Minister was present for part of our proceedings yesterday. Although it is reported that she looked as if she had come to intimidate more than to learn, I hope that she found her appreciation of the issues enriched, for the debate has been every bit as rich as House of Lords debates can be. She might have learned from the noble Lord, Lord Hain, for example, that member states have more scope to influence levels of immigration from other member states than is commonly supposed, or, at any rate, than is commonly made clear.

Like many other noble Lords, I deplore all the sabre-rattling about abolishing the House of Lords if it does not toe the line. At least, I would if the threats were not so empty. For a Government encumbered by the task of extricating the United Kingdom from the European Union, a commitment to abolish the House of Lords is all you need. If you are going to go in for sabre-rattling, you need to have some sabres to rattle.

I was in South Africa all last week. As I travelled back from Heathrow, I thought someone must have been putting something in the water as I picked up on the rather febrile suggestions that by exercising its traditional function of scrutinising legislation and asking the Commons to think again, the House of Lords would be acting unconstitutionally. It might be wrong on a particular issue but the idea that it would be behaving unconstitutionally is preposterous, especially when the Commons has been so pusillanimous in exercising the authority which the Supreme Court has confirmed it has.

By this point, there must be a premium on brevity so I will cut to the chase. We do not normally vote at Second or even Third Reading in this House but if we do, I will vote against the Bill. In the nearest I get to blogging—my Christmas round robin—I said that I was in favour of a second referendum on the terms of withdrawal once negotiated and would take every opportunity to vote against moves to remove us from the European Union, partly because the vote to leave was won on a fraudulent prospectus and partly out of sheer bloody-mindedness. As the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, put it—for once, in more parliamentary language than mine:

“I will oppose it by any legal and constitutional means”.—[Official Report, 20/2/17; col. 110.]

The equation between the referendum and democracy is specious. I looked that word up in the dictionary. It means superficially plausible but actually wrong. As I said in the debate on 6 July last year,

“a snapshot of public opinion on a particular day is a very bad way to determine a question as complex as to whether we should remain a member of the European Union”.—[Official Report, 6/7/16; col. 2075.]

Moreover, the democratic credentials of the referendum are contested. If the vote had gone the other way, you can bet your life that the leavers would be mounting just the same criticism as the remainers.

Yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, whom I normally find a genial and engaging debater, reminded us in an uncharacteristically intemperate speech of a government leaflet which said to the British people:

“The referendum on Thursday, 23rd June is your chance to decide if we should remain in or leave the European Union … This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide”.

In a final taunt, he said:

“What part of that do those on the Liberal Benches not understand?”.—[Official Report, 20/2/17; col. 60.]

The Liberal Democrats can speak for themselves but I understand it all right. However, I will make five points which suggest that we should take it with a substantial helping of salt.

First, notwithstanding the Government’s language, there has never been any doubt that the referendum was advisory—and, I submit, the more flawed, the more advisory. Secondly, I do not make my stand on the flawed nature of the referendum. We are where we are. However flawed, there can be no question of setting the referendum aside. Whatever else it did, it certainly gave the Government a licence to open negotiations with the EU about withdrawal. But there is no way that it mandated a hard Brexit and there is no way that I am going to vote for triggering a negotiation designed to achieve a hard Brexit, which is likely to be so damaging for our country in terms of the economic growth essential for prosperity, living standards and the progress of civilisation and opportunities, and so inimical to an outward-looking and internationalist approach.

Thirdly, as others have said, a hard Brexit shows a cavalier disregard of the 48% who voted to remain and an unstatesmanlike indifference to the need to work for unity and reconciliation in our country. Fourthly, I cannot emphasise too strongly that support for a second referendum on the terms is not the same as seeking to refight the referendum campaign, which is what supporters of a second referendum are accused of. As Tim Farron MP said in the other place,

“voting for departure is not the same as voting for the destination”.—[Official Report, Commons, 7/2/2017; col. 290.]

Accordingly, I shall support an amendment designed to provide for a second referendum. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord MacGregor of Pulham Market, put it very well in a typically thoughtful and unpolemical speech when he said that he did not believe that the referendum vote should be decided as final, that the real issue is the reaction to the outcome of the negotiations, and that that is where the final judgment and vote should take place.

Finally, I shall support amendments which seek to maximise our access to, or retain our membership of, the single market. The Conservative manifesto for the 2015 general election indicated support for the single market. Especially if, in a bespoke deal, you wish to retain as many of the advantages of remaining in the single market as possible, it makes no sense to signal up front your desire to withdraw from it. If that is the way we are going to conduct the negotiations, we are going to get a very bad deal indeed.