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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:28 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat 5:28 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Low, who is not in his place at the moment, I want to talk about democracy. I never thought that, one day, speaker after speaker in a Commons debate, on an issue of immense significance for Britain’s future, would announce that, although they believed that Brexit would gravely damage our national interests, they would nevertheless vote to leave because the will of the people must be obeyed. They did not say, “Of course, we have to take the decision of the people very seriously, but in the end we have to make up our own minds”; they declared, in effect, that they were not in Parliament to exercise their own judgment but were delegates who had to vote the ticket of populist correctness.

Out goes the tradition of parliamentary democracy, with its checks and balances; out go Locke, John Stuart Mill and others, who created liberal democracy, which has been much admired; and out goes Edmund Burke, who argued that MPs were representatives, not delegates. The doctrine of Rousseau now rules in Westminster, that the will of the people must always prevail, a doctrine much admired by autocrats ever since the days of Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety. With great respect to my noble friend Lord Ashdown, the idea that the will of the people equals democracy or the national interest is a fallacy. Before the Second World War, Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin all commanded overwhelming public support and represented the will of the people. That hardly made them democrats or left their countries better off. Today Putin and Erdogan are among the most popular populists. They boast about their majority support. Are they democrats, even though they suppress dissent and trample on the rule of law?

Of course, the view of the majority matters. It is often, in my view, probably generally right but there have been times when the majority has been disastrously wrong. In 1938 Chamberlain came back from Berchtesgaden with a piece of paper, declaring, “peace for our time”. His message was almost universally acclaimed. Only a few dissented against the wish of the people. They were led by Churchill, who was denounced as a warmonger, a pessimist and, no doubt, a moaner. Then Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia.

I fear that the vote for Brexit will turn out to be one of those occasions. If we are heading for disaster, we do not lie down and give up but fight to avoid it and point out the dangers of what we are heading for. If after the very short period for negotiations there is no deal or one that leaves us all much poorer, must MPs accept that we must still leave the European Union because the June vote requires them to act as lemmings? Mrs May graciously allowed Parliament a vote on the final deal, if there is one, but even if her deal is a very hard Brexit, Parliament’s only choice will be either to accept or to reject and fall off a cliff—no chance for the people to change their vote if they change their mind or because circumstances have changed.

In fact, circumstances have changed. We now know, as several speakers have pointed out, that curbing immigration is the Government’s first priority, not economic welfare. In addition, Mr Trump was elected President. The United States used to lead the world as the champion of free trade. Now it is “America First”. He threatens a trade war with China. His election, like the Brexit vote, encouraged every protectionist and nationalist in Europe. What price then for the Brexiteers’ promise of a bonanza of free trade? Worse still, having decided to abandon the European Union, Mrs May feels she must cosy up to someone who wants to destabilise the European Union itself, has doubts about the importance of NATO, seeks a new deal with Putin as a strong man he greatly admires, and who declares that torture is an effective weapon against terrorism because torture works.

The forecasts of most independent economists that we are now in the calm before the storm may prove wrong. So far there is no clear evidence of a significant shift in public opinion. If there is none before the end of next year, it is doubtful that Brexit can still be avoided. But if opinion does shift, because the economists are right and the pound falls further, inflation rises, employment suffers, more companies emigrate and living standards decline, or if increased dependence on the good will of Trump repels the public—a future symbolised by Mrs May and Mr Trump walking hand in hand—the June verdict must be open to review. Brexit is not yet a done deal. A new referendum will not be a rerun of June, as the noble Baroness, Lady Randerson, pointed out, because this time we will know what Brexit means. Its consequences will not be speculation but reality.

It is also said that the June verdict is irreversible. Dictatorships do not allow people to change their mind but in a democracy no decision is ever irreversible and if people feel they have made a mistake, they must be allowed to change their mind.

In her famous Bruges speech, Mrs Thatcher made a profound observation about Europe when she said that,

“on many great issues, the countries of Europe should try to speak with a single voice. I want to see us work more closely on the things we can do better together than alone. Europe is stronger when we do so, whether it be in trade, in defence or in our relations with the rest of the world”.

Is now the time, in the Trump era, for Britain to leave and weaken the European Union, ourselves and our influence in the world?