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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:55 pm on 21st February 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Truscott Lord Truscott Non-affiliated 7:55 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, as a former Member of the European Parliament, I have always believed that the British people are European, geographically, politically and culturally. We are not some pop-up island in the mid-Atlantic; we have ties to the European continent that stretch back centuries, millennia even. However, as we have just learned from the Brexit vote, that does not mean that British people are necessarily wedded to any set of European institutions. Unfortunately, and as I witnessed at first hand, the EU’s leaders overreached themselves and failed to take their people with them; nowhere was that more true than in the UK. The EU increasingly became perceived as a self-serving edifice, a huge ideological and political project, run by an elite remote from the daily concerns of Europe’s citizens. The euro always had a political rather than an economic rationale, designed to bring about the ever-closer union to which the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, referred earlier. Greece should never have been allowed to join the euro in the first place.

In Britain, for over 30 years the European Union was pilloried by our press and much of the Conservative Party as costly, undemocratic, overly bureaucratic and slightly ridiculous. I remember well the straight banana saga referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens. I was an MEP at the time and had the pleasure of receiving a rotten banana through the post. We should hardly be surprised that the British people, conditioned to be anti-EU for so many years, voted for Brexit. When David Cameron came back from Brussels with his non-deal, his fate was sealed, and so was our country’s. I remember Mikhail Gorbachev suffered the same fate in 1991. Asked for financial support, Europe’s leaders refused. A Russian coup followed shortly, and within months the USSR had ceased to exist, after 70-odd years as the Soviet Union. The EU’s leaders’ myopia led to Brexit. Some 60 years after the treaty of Rome, Europe is in crisis and it is an open question whether the EU will survive to its 70th birthday.

We should not rail against the British people for voting in favour of Brexit, no matter how small the margin was. Those who voted did so with their eyes open because they were concerned about mass immigration, loss of national identity, sovereignty, globalisation and marginalisation. That they did so reflects badly not on them, but on a comfortable liberal elite too smug and complacent by far. Brexit, as shown by the election of Donald Trump, was not a purely British or even European phenomenon but one with global implications. Protectionism, largely eradicated in the beggar-thy-neighbour 1930s, is back on the agenda.

I do not believe in government by referenda; I believe in government through a representative democracy, with Parliament at its heart. However, if you ask the people a question, you cannot ignore the answer simply because you do not like the result, as has been said many times in your Lordships’ House over the last couple of days. When people vote for a Government, they live with that choice, often for four years or more with no opportunity to change it. With a referendum, you cannot ask people to keep voting until they come up with the right decision. That is not only contemptuous of democracy, but treats the electorate as stupid. That would be a very dangerous concept to embrace, and would undermine the very principle of democracy that has sustained this island nation since the middle ages.

There is another factor that your Lordships must take into account in this debate. On 23 June last year we heard the verdict of the people. We may not like it, but it was clear. More recently, the other place has spoken, with a Third Reading majority of 372 in favour of triggering Article 50. I agree with the arguments made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, and others on this point. To my mind, it is inconceivable that this unelected House should try to hobble the elected one or the will of the people on a clear issue of principle: that the Government notify the EU of an intention to withdraw and thereby start trade negotiations. Triggering Article 50 is the only logical and democratic response to the referendum held on 23 June. If the elected other place has decided not to approve amendments, then it is not our place to do so on an issue of fundamental principle.

Your Lordships are not being asked to amend or revise some common or garden piece of legislation. In response to the question asked earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, when he said that he had not received a convincing argument as to why your Lordships should not amend the Bill, the issue at stake here is the primacy of the House of Commons. That is the fundamental principle of our unwritten constitution. As a historian, I think it would be totally unacceptable for this unelected House to flout the will of the House of Commons and of the people. That is the difference between this piece of legislation and other pieces of legislation. This was a political decision made by the people and taken by the people. As the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, said, it was a political mandate—a clear mandate by the people to their elected representatives and to Parliament as whole. As many noble Lords have said, your Lordships’ House should not put itself on a collision course with the elected Chamber in a battle that it cannot, and should not, win.

I welcome the fact that the Government have promised a final vote on the deal they will bring back from Brussels, and no doubt there will be further discussion and debate on that. I am sure that the Prime Minister will not make the same mistake as her predecessor in trying to sell a hopeless deal to Parliament and the British people.

As for the EU itself, it has some challenging days ahead. Brexit already means that it will have to adapt to survive. Politically, the thunderstorms in Europe are gathering. Whatever lies ahead, this country will survive. It is the task of Parliament and Government to ensure that it prospers.