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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade) 5:00 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, it remains a remarkable piece of good luck if you are born in our country and a remarkable judgment if you choose to make our country your home, but I am fearful about our union of nations and I am especially fearful for the views that our young people have about their future.

The Leader of the House and I have at least one thing in common: with our birthdays 18 months apart, we have lived all our lives in a country that has been a member of the EU. We are, I understand, two or only three Members taking part in this debate, of 190 speakers, for whom the UK’s membership of the EU is older than we are. The majority of the people of our country of our age and below voted to remain; the Leader of the House is in a minority. Britain’s youngest voters will have an average of 60 years to live with the consequences of the Government’s decisions in the coming two years. Sixteen and 17 year-olds—those with the most at stake—were denied a say, and very many of them are now frustrated that they are denied a voice. If with some good fortune I am now at the halfway point of my life, I fully acknowledge that I may need to come to terms with living in a country that I passionately believe is going on the wrong path. I may have to come to terms with that and we may not be able to turn back.

We use our best judgment in this House on legislation for the future’s interest, but we know that we cannot easily bind our successors. However, with this Bill the Government are explicitly telling us that we are binding our successors, who will be living with the consequences long after most of us are dead. So I refuse to be silenced on having a say if my say is different from that of the Government of the day, and I refuse to be intimidated about having a vote in Parliament on what kind of agreement is in the best interests of the country and its future. Indeed, as this is of such seismic importance, the people of the future—the next generations to come—should have a real say as to what is in their best interests, especially since we are now having to bear down on the reality of the commitments and promises, many of which were known to be mistruths, given to us during the referendum campaign. I am reminded of what Sir Walter Scott said:

“Faces that have charmed us the most escape us the soonest”.

We are now having to pick up the pieces for the next generation.

So far, the Government believe that the future is for them, and them alone, to decide. It was their decision that we should have no formal participation in the common economic market or a free trade area or the customs union or the regulatory bodies. These decisions were based on new Conservative Party policies—made only in months—and there was little mandate for them, not to mention any cross-party consensus. As I say, these were seismic choices made by one party according to what it defined as the will of the people. A Government elected by not even 25% of the electorate made choices based on a referendum won by a narrow majority of those who voted but a minority of the electorate as a whole.

The Government have set extreme parameters which months earlier they argued passionately would be highly damaging to the country. I agreed with them then and still agree with their previous position. The recent White Paper is weak in comparison with its pre-referendum predecessor. The economic facts and realities have not changed. Indeed, the challenges ahead are immense, and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, that some are perhaps insurmountable. How unkind history would have been if Keynes had been reputed to have said, “When I change my mind, I change the facts. What do you do, sir?”

The Government are approaching this alone, and they should not do it alone. In Scotland after the referendum I saw—as we all knew it would—that a winner-takes-all approach would be wounding and perpetuate a deep division in the country, which is hard to heal and continues to be hard to heal. That is why there was a Scotland Bill as a result of cross-party consensus and a commission, with a radical transfer of fiscal and welfare powers after it. But even with the Scotland Act, many people in Scotland on the losing side of referendum feel aggrieved. In many respects, the response by the Government to the EU referendum simply confirms the suspicion that we now have a UK Government which is effectively an English Government playing for an English audience. They play the lines of the unionists when it suits the play, but when they retire for the curtain call the real personality of their character as an English-only party comes to the fore. “Party first” will not do now. You respect the result of a referendum not by courtesy but by action.

What has been quite hard to accept in the debate so far has been many on the government side saying that they would not even countenance the people having a say on the deal. I ask myself why the Government have not ruled out a second Scottish referendum. All of the rhetoric in this debate suggests that they would never countenance a referendum after the previous one for Scotland—when the margin was much stronger and the issue much clearer—but the Government do not say this. They say that the people have a right to decide, and in fact, in confidential briefings to the press before Christmas, the Scotland Office floated the idea that it may well consider another referendum, but only after a Brexit deal is arranged. Is this perhaps for political imperatives? We cannot afford political imperatives any more.

People of my age and younger, who will have to live with the consequences of the next two years for the rest of their lives, and perhaps come to terms with this in the context of a whole different world order, will perhaps agree with the American comedian and commentator who came up with the term “truthiness”: the notion that if I feel something to be true, it must be legitimate. This may well be the new Trump doctrine, but surely it cannot be the Brexit mantra. Our next generation will live with the consequences of this. They need to have a say on whether it is in their best interest, and I will refuse to deny them a voice whenever I have an opportunity to vote in this Parliament.