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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:20 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative 4:20 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, it is indeed a challenge after some 124 contributions to say anything original at all. We live in a parliamentary democracy and I am absolutely no fan of referendums—neither the first one nor the second that some are calling for. They were described by Clement Attlee as a device of dictators and demagogues—a quote repeated by Margaret Thatcher, so we have both sides of the political divide covered, and indeed by my noble friend Lord Balfe yesterday. However, in 2015 Parliament abrogated its responsibility and devolved the decision on this matter to the British people—and at Third Reading in the House of Commons there were no dissenters. We gave away our authority on this matter. Politicians are much maligned; they are accused of a lack of integrity and a lack of consistency. We need to show both integrity and consistency, or we will be criticised for not keeping our promises and saying different things to different people at different times to curry favour.

I will focus my brief remarks today on those calling for a second referendum. We know what they want, notwithstanding what the noble Lord, Lord Low, has just said. They want a different result. Tony Blair said exactly that when he called upon us all to rise up; the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, said exactly that yesterday, when he said—and it can be read in Hansard—that he wanted a second referendum to allow people to change their mind. It is perfectly reasonable to change one’s mind, but this is actually about telling people that they got it wrong. I recall the Danish no vote on Maastricht in 1992 and the two Irish referendums, on the Nice Treaty and the Lisbon Treaty. On all these occasions the people were told, “Get away, you got it wrong, vote again”. And if the second referendum were to take place, and the same result came out, would there then be calls for a third referendum from those who could not accept the will of the people?

I would like to take the House back to the People’s Budget of 1909, which I do not think has been mentioned before. It was the Liberal Government of Asquith. Lloyd George was Chancellor and Churchill—who was later a successful Conservative—was Home Secretary, so we have all sides covered here. It was the threat of the creation of hundreds of Liberal Peers that led to a similar Budget and the Parliament Act of 1911 being passed. Now that sounds familiar to me today.

I will turn to the inheritance of the Liberal name. On 26 February 2008—at least two noble Lords currently on the Liberal Benches were Members of the House of Commons then—Nick Clegg led a stunt. He led out the Liberal Members of Parliament from the House of Commons because the Speaker had not selected the amendment that he had put down on calling a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. My noble friend Lord Finkelstein pointed out that Nick Clegg then led a campaign. “It is time for a real referendum”, he said. Although there are only two in the Chamber at the moment, in the Commons in 2008 there were 11 Members of Parliament who now sit on your Lordships’ Benches on the Liberal Democrat side. Did they take part in the march out? I have no idea. But what is their consistent intention today?

Also involved in Liberal Democrat politics at the time was the chief executive of the party, the director of communications, the head of the leader’s office, two members of the federal executive and the chairman of the electoral campaign at the time—and they all now sit on the Liberal Democrat Benches. The leader—who is in his place, so I think I may name him—was, I think I am right in saying, chief of staff to Charles Kennedy in 2005, and was then on the Front Bench between 2008 and 2010.

So do those people who then supported the Real Referendum campaign consistently now want to accept the result of the referendum? In 2005, the Liberal Democrat manifesto said of the proposed constitution that,

“ratification must be subject to a referendum of the British people”.

The 2010 manifesto—I see that they all remember it—stated:

Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum the next time a British Government signs up for fundamental change”.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, sadly is not in his place. His comment on the day of the referendum has been much quoted by my right honourable friend Michael Gove and by my noble friend Lord Bridges and yesterday by my noble friend Lord Blencathra. However, it bears repeating. He said:

“I will forgive no-one”— no one—

“who does not respect the sovereign voice of the British people once it has spoken, whether it is a majority of 1% or 20% … It is our duty as those who serve the public to make sure the country does the best it can with the decision they have taken”.

Tim Farron, on 1 February, said:

“Democracy means accepting the will of the people”.—[Official Report, Commons, 1/2/17; col. 1047.]

He then called for a second referendum. In 2008, Nick Clegg said:

“Only a real referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU will let the people decide our country's future”.

On 31 January this year he said that,

“the British people gave the Government a mandate to pull the UK out of the EU”.—[Official Report, Commons, 31/1/17; col. 843.]

He then called for a second referendum.

Do my friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches not understand why they were so comprehensively rejected in 2015? The reasons were integrity and consistency. The British people expect us to live up to our statements and our promises, in this House as well as in the elected House down the Corridor. I hope that those calling for a second referendum will eventually show that consistency, respect the decision of our peoples and be on the right side of history.

I will end on an optimistic note, because this has perhaps been a little partisan.