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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:47 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour 5:47 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, I want to use my time not to repeat the arguments that have already been well rehearsed in the context of the referendum but to reflect on the significance of the Bill before this House. We are, after all, discussing the simplest of simple Bills—just two clauses—with the simplest of simple objectives, which is to begin the process of carrying out the decision of the British people as expressed in a referendum. It was a referendum based on a Bill that this House passed without opposition and, by the way, it was a referendum held all of eight months ago. Yet here we are with a two-day debate on the Second Reading and 184 speakers. I cannot remember when we ever had a speakers list quite like this, but it is absolutely in line with the phenomenal focus that this House has shown on the referendum and related matters since 23 June last year.

Like, I dare say, one or two other people in this House, I spent a bit of time during the short recess knocking on doors in a by-election, and I have to report to the House that our interest in this subject is not matched by people on the doorstep. Bearing in mind that one of the reasons most frequently advanced for the leave vote being so high is that people feel politicians are out of touch, I simply hope that in the months ahead there is a better match between the subjects that we are discussing in this House and those being discussed by our fellow citizens. The fact is—and the polls demonstrate this—that the public have largely made up their minds about the referendum, its significance and the result. An ICM poll on Saturday showed that 68% of us want the Government to get on with the process of leaving the European Union, and that includes no less than 48% of those who voted to remain.

That brings me to the role of the Lords in relation to this Bill. The first point is something on which I think we all agree—the primacy of the Commons. This, of course, expresses itself in a number of different ways. Very rarely, the Commons has to assert itself through the Parliament Act; much more frequently, the view of the Lords in respect of Commons decisions, and the extent to which they are challenged, is dependent on the clarity of the judgment the Commons has made. Well, the message in respect of this Bill is clearer than any I can remember. The Commons decided by a majority of 384 that this Bill should become law. What is more, the Commons’ verdict is a massive endorsement of the even more important decision made by the people in the referendum. Let us be absolutely clear: there really is no wriggle room. If you enter a contest or competition, especially one in which you have written the rules yourself, as we did in the referendum Bill, then surely you must accept the result.

“Ah,” say some remainers, “but this was only an advisory referendum”. Of course, legally that is true. It is advisory. Parliament could reverse it. There are no substantial constraints on what our Parliament can do, apart of course from the very substantial ones applied by the European Union. But politically, and most of all democratically, the referendum was binding. I very much doubt that if remain had won the argument and the Government had then decided that we were going to leave the European Union anyway, there would have been many remainers saying, “Well, fair enough, it was only advisory”.

If you play the game, you accept the result. When I watch Stoke City at the weekend I accept the rules and the result, though I have to admit there have been many occasions when I would have loved to have been able to say that the goals against us were only advisory. Any amendment proposed during the passage of this Bill that has either the effect of seriously delaying the implementation of the verdict of the British people, or at worst rejecting it, should, in my view, be unceremoniously rejected.

What about the suggestion coming from the Liberal Democrats that it is not one referendum we need but two? No doubt they are hoping that the second one will go the other way. I have to say in passing that, where I come from, that would make it one all and we would need a decider. However, I have to acknowledge, at least, that a second referendum would be in the finest traditions of democracy European Union style. Have a referendum if you must, but if you get it wrong, have a second one to reverse it. The EU has plenty of form on this—ask the people of Denmark and Ireland.

A second referendum would be a betrayal of the record number of people who voted in June last year. The turnout was 6% up on the 2015 general election. In my own region, 60% voted to leave. People were enthused to vote who never normally take part in elections. They were assured they had been given a hugely important, once-in-a-lifetime decision to make.

“Ah”, say some opponents of the Bill, “the people were duped. They were fed false information. The referendum wasn’t fair. The people didn’t know what they were voting for”. I say this with all seriousness—with acute seriousness—that in a democracy we should be extraordinarily careful about using the argument that we know what is good for the people better than they know themselves. I have some authority on this because I have the dubious distinction of having lost more general elections than probably most people in this House. My record is: played eight; won four; lost four. The pattern when you lose is always the same: it is because your opponents made promises they could not possibly keep, you say; it is because they lied; it is because they had the press on their side; it is because they had far more money for their campaign. When you win, of course, it is a triumph for democracy.

On the argument that the public did not know what kind of Brexit they were voting for, the answer is simple—they did not vote for Brexit at all. It was not on the ballot paper. The choice was remain or leave. They voted to leave. Brexit may be ambiguous; leaving is not. If you leave an organisation, you no longer sit on the executive committee, you do not have to pay the subscription and you do not have to obey the rules. That applies whether you are leaving a political party, the snooker club or the European Union.

Those in this House who are seriously thinking about voting against the Third Reading and voting this Bill down should think very carefully about the implications. That would mean a straightforward clash between the Commons and the Lords. It would, in my view, inevitably result in a general election very quickly after such a decision had been made. We can all speculate about the conclusion of that general election. It is now eight months since the people made their decision, and one which the Commons has overwhelmingly endorsed. It is now our job to scrutinise the Bill in the most effective way, as we always do, but as our constitutional practice has made clear, not to thwart, delay or block it, and I am confident that we will do just that.