European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:00 pm on 7th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Taverne Lord Taverne Liberal Democrat 12:00 pm, 7th March 2017

My Lords, there is one other important reason why the final decision on Brexit should be a national referendum, not the approval of Parliament: Parliament has changed. We have abandoned the main principle that we are a parliamentary democracy and that MPs are representatives, not delegates. Instead, we have adopted the doctrine that the will of the people must always prevail. That is the favourite doctrine of dictators and autocrats throughout history. At Second Reading I gave examples, which I will not repeat now. In that debate the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, pointed out that four-fifths of the MPs who voted to trigger Article 50 had voted to remain and believed that Brexit would be against the national interest. The exercise of their own judgment, based on weighing up the argument and evidence in debate, has given way to the new fashion for populist political correctness. The inescapable logic of this approach means that if MPs, at the end of negotiations, came to the conclusion that the result would be equivalent to falling over a cliff, they would still feel duty bound because of the referendum of 23 June to act like lemmings.

Burke has been ditched; Rousseau rules instead. I have always been a devotee of Burke. I once fought a by-election on his principles. In 1972, I was one of the 69 Labour Members of Parliament led by Roy Jenkins who voted for British entry into the European Community against a three-line Whip. Without our vote, Britain would not have joined. My local, left-wing Labour Party in Lincoln was passionately anti-Europe. It told me that if I voted with the Tories, against the party’s three-line Whip, it would deselect me. I did, and it did. So I resigned and fought a by-election in March 1973 as an independent social democrat. The real issue in that by-election was not Europe, but Burke. I explained my reasons at a mass meeting held in Lincoln. I said that I had always been pro-Europe and as an 18 year-old student—some 70 years ago—I joined a club called the Strasbourg club, which argued that Britain should share some of its sovereignty with other European countries to promote peace and prosperity, and that I was not going to change my views because my party told me to. I was supported at this mass meeting by a famous journalist at the time, Bernard Levin, who put the issue quite simply. He said that the choice in Lincoln was between Dick Taverne and a Dictaphone. I won with an overwhelming majority over Labour and the Conservatives, and it was Burke wot won it.

Burke is popular because people like those who stick to their guns. His championship of MPs as representatives, not delegates, has been a basic part of the strength of our parliamentary system. If referendums determined our laws, we would probably still have the death penalty and flogging in prisons. What would be the point of parliamentary debates if MPs had already pledged their vote irrespective of all arguments?

It may be asked why I support the Liberal Democrat amendment in favour of a new referendum. My noble friend Lord Newby gave a very good answer to that. A referendum is one way in which people would have a chance to change their mind. If the Government’s process is followed, there would be no real choice because the only one would be either to accept or reject the end of the negotiations, whatever their result.

I believe that the decision to leave the single market and the customs union makes a hard Brexit almost inevitable. We will not get a special deal for key industries or the right of our service companies to operate in their biggest market. Mr Trump will not abandon his claim for “America first” and we will face a more protectionist world, not a free trade bonanza. We are in real danger of returning to the nationalism and protectionism of the 1930s. If we leave Europe, we will find it increasingly necessary to rely on Mr Trump’s America: a future of Mrs May and Donald Trump walking hand in hand. We should not travel one miserable inch along that fearsome road.