My Lords, I have no interest to declare, save that I have waited for 25 years for this moment. The decisions about Brexit did not start last summer. There are a number of reasons why this House will not bring credit upon itself by obstructing the Article 50 process. The first is the continuing failure to appreciate that people knew what they were voting for. The disdain shown for leave voters is unprecedented. They do not want to be patronised. Many voted to leave precisely because they were being treated as ignorant.
Over the years, leavers have seen, sadly, that tolerance, the rule of law, judicial integrity and freedom of the press have all failed in various countries of the EU; that it is dysfunctional; that a number of EU states are low in the league table of world corruption; that some eastern European states are sliding backwards, with leaders who espouse the same attitudes as President Trump to barriers and to rejecting migrants on religious grounds. The UK has been unable to stop this happening. This country should not be part of a union, let alone have laws determined by it, if it has such failings.
Leavers have seen the damage that the institution has wrought through, for example, state aid rules and the imposition of the euro; the lack of effective foreign policy and accountability; the failures to deal with migrants and the rise of the extreme right wing; and even diesel. The economic benefits that membership may bring are outweighed in my mind by the EU’s weaknesses over principles of rights and proper governance which are far more vital to us in the long run. I am not prepared to compromise my values on an altar of tariffs and I am optimistic that things will work out. Another reason is that a significant number of noble Lords have close ties to the EU: the perception will be that this affects their judgment.
It is for the House to determine the question of relevance, but in ordinary parlance the amendments do not seem to me to be within the scope of the Bill, which is about giving notice to withdraw under Article 50. There is no scope within Article 50 itself for embellishments. The negotiations and agreements come later. In considering our negotiation aims, where is the equivalent of our White Paper from the 27 other members, setting out their position and their goals? All we have heard from the EU since the referendum is a desire for punishment and self-protection. There has been no rallying call, no conciliation and no plans for a better future—only fear and a desire for revenge and money, rather like a bad divorce where mediation has failed. I would not want to be a member of a club that will not let me leave even though I am disliked.
The time for seeking agreements—for example, about the residence rights of EU nationals living here and UK citizens living abroad—is later, but in relation to residence rights the UK is now, and will stay for the foreseeable future, a party to the European Convention on Human Rights. The call for immediate guarantees on residence is, in fact, a red herring: it is impossible to imagine that any EU national living here could suffer an arbitrary reduction in benefits or threats to family life, let alone mass expulsion, without recourse to the Human Rights Act, with every prospect of success. To embed rights for residents now is to force Her Majesty’s Government into a position without the real need to do so and to hamper the Government in their negotiations.
So far as a second referendum is hypothetically concerned, why would it be any more binding than the first? Losing it would be as unacceptable to the losing side as the June referendum was. Would there have to be a third referendum—the best of three? It would plunge negotiations into chaos at the moment of conclusion and leave us in limbo. Clauses that might be added to the Bill now could, of course, be repealed by the Government, like the provisions of any other Act. One can envisage the Government coming back in two years and saying, “We have to repeal this addition because it does not fit in our negotiations”. If they have a majority, that is what they will achieve. Only after the two-year process is over does Parliament get its sovereignty back.
The House of Lords, although it may disagree, always concedes to the Commons that which is promised in the manifesto of the party that won the election. I quote:
“We will let you decide whether to stay in or leave the EU … We will honour the result of the referendum, whatever the outcome”.
Some 65% of the electorate did not vote to remain. There has been a strong undemocratic attack on the referendum result, and some of these amendments are plainly designed to undermine Brexit or to make it meaningless. It is impossible to imagine that had a political party with a radical manifesto won a general election by 2% or 3% the losing side would chip away at and more or less refuse to accept the result in a way reminiscent of those tin-pot dictators in some parts of the world who refuse to accept defeat. The nature of the push-back is summed up by the mission of the former Prime Minister whose judgment on another international situation led directly to the Chilcot inquiry. As for voting with one’s conscience, even if one believes that Brexit would turn out badly, that prerogative belongs to the Cross-Bench Peers. Every day in this House, Peers belonging to political parties troop into the lobby to vote in a particular way as mandated by their party—because democracy in our system is tied to party discipline—and so it should be today. The duty of the House is to give this Bill a fair wind as it stands.