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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:08 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Cavendish of Furness Lord Cavendish of Furness Conservative 6:08 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, I support the Bill and hope that it goes through unamended. I should say that I joined the Brexit campaign but only after hearing the proposed deal that Mr Cameron came back with.

One of the functions of parliamentary democracy is to provide means of resolving differences that citizens cannot be expected to resolve among themselves. By their very nature, those differences tend to be intractable. People hold very different views on the legitimate reach of government. I happen to believe in small government, not least because whatever Governments do, they do it expensively and often not very well. However, I wonder if the tendency on the part of modern Governments to overreach has not perhaps led indirectly to the divisions that shook the UK last June and which still persist.

I was born in an age when, whoever was in power, we enjoyed a comforting sense that we received governance from one another’s hands. The administration of these islands had a national flavour and, broadly, enjoyed public support. Authority was all around us, and it seemed on the whole to be benign and on our side. Much of that has been lost. In my life and work I feel that authority has come to be seen often as hostile, remote and even menacing. This has produced a public malaise that it strikes me has grown as the influence of the EU has grown.

To make sense of that malaise, we have to look back. As a lifelong member of this party, I was among those who genuinely felt cheated when the deal that we voted for not only turned out to be something quite else but undermined some fundamental freedoms and values, things that my father and grandfather had fought and suffered to defend in two world wars. Of course, for most of my youth Britain was weak and tired and I think it is safe to say that a well-meaning official class took it upon themselves to steer us, not without a degree of stealth, down the road that led to where we stood on the eve of the referendum; that road, as we now know, was labelled “managed decline”. It took no account of the possibility that the decline might be reversed, as in fact happened. This is not the place to say how it happened and at whose hands.

The party opposite’s journey in its approach to the Common Market and its successor entities is very different and completely fascinating. The Labour Party of my youth, as I remember it, believed passionately in the British parliamentary system and was loath to see its participation, won at such cost, assailed and diluted. Then suddenly the orthodoxy changed. Even before the famous Delors speech, I remember reading tracts by socialist authors, saying in effect: “Listen up, brothers; this is a new, global world. Socialism will become an increasingly hard sell with the voters. We must infiltrate the institutions that will give effect to our agenda of redistribution”. All I can say is that I salute them; it has been a triumph for Labour. Shedloads of British taxpayers’ cash is doled out by unaccountable officials without the need for politicians to explain to voters where their hard-earned cash has gone

For the Liberal Democrats, the journey has been different again. There is something counterintuitive to me about seeking political power only to give it away again. It is also insulting to those who entrust power in the first place. Pro-EU politicians seem to be seduced by the superficial attractions of holding office without shouldering the responsibilities that their electors conferred on them. Voters, it now appears, expect more of them. Those I spoke to in Copeland last week certainly understood why, for example, the country had to endure austerity, even if the opposition parties cannot. “That is why we elected them—to make the difficult decisions”, one man said. This Copeland man’s insight suggests to me that many politicians, and probably all Liberal Democrat ones, fundamentally lack the confidence to govern in the modern age—the confidence and the competence. It is hard not to sympathise and agree with them, but the solution does not lie in handing powers that rightly belong to Parliament to a cadre of officials, most of whom have scant understanding of Britain’s needs and aspirations.

It is time, I feel, for those who feel oppressed by the heat in the democratic kitchen to leave it and make way for those prepared to give electors the bad news as well as the good, those who will find solutions to those intractable problems. I have a glorious vision of a new generation of post-Brexit men and women entering public life, valued perhaps as much for their experience outside politics as for their contribution within the Palace of Westminster.

Time allows me to say very little about trade, but once again I remind Ministers that it is the SME sector that is driving UK growth. I declare my interests as an operator in the SME sector, as given in the register. There can be no doubt that regulation impacts on the SME sector disproportionately. It hinders small business by magnitudes more than it does large businesses. The EU has been, and remains, the enemy of small business. It is an enduring stain on EU practice that some 50,000 lobbyists representing large multinationals have been made welcome in Brussels, where in effect they buy regulation to benefit their clients and to damage their smaller competitors. I have always found it odd that EU supporters are so uncritical of this widespread corporate venality.

However, all the defects of the EU pale into insignificance beside the constitutional issue. Anyone with experience of the real world understands that when the discipline of accountability falters, a car crash ensues—not possibly, not probably, but inevitably. In terms of accountability, the European Union is a scandal. Its failures threaten personal freedom. It has contempt for democracy. The ancient settlement under which the citizens of these islands are free to do what they will until Parliament decrees otherwise, and under which government is by consent, this priceless legacy, has been taken apart piece by piece and replaced by forms of governance entirely alien to us.

People may patronise Brexit supporters, characterising them as Mr Blair did over the weekend as having “imperfect knowledge”. Let me tell him what experience should have taught him: the people do understand and a majority spoke last June. Those people I talked to in Copeland understand. They are not rude about immigrants; they are not inward-looking; they are not xenophobic. They want, as I want, our children and grandchildren to walk in freedom under the law. Put simply, they want their country back, and so do I. Let us give a fair wind to the Bill, unamended.