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My Lords, I admit at the outset that the referendum result was a very bad, sad day for me, but that is democracy for you and I am not reneging on it. I wrote an article during the campaign for a national newspaper urging my side of the argument to campaign with greater passion and vigour, but it had little effect and we lost. It is not the first time that I have been on the losing side.
So I am all the more bemused now to find that it is the winning side that is blowing a fuse because of the confusion that its victory has created—confusion inside government, in industry and commerce, in the City of London, in the European Union and across the wider world. I do not recall a comparable crisis of such prolonged intensity and danger to the national interest and the country’s future as a United Kingdom.
Regardless of how we voted in the referendum or what we think of the Government’s squabbling factions now, the duty of your Lordships’ House is very clear. That, I submit, is to assert our rights to scrutinise, amend and, if needs be, to reject unacceptable parts of this Bill and to use the entire arsenal of our powers and prerogatives to limit the damage that threatens the sovereignty of Parliament and the national interest. Let us put aside partisan allegiances on this issue. Nothing less than the nation’s future is now at stake and that is surely more important than veiled threats to the leadership of a divided party and a possible change of government that would start the process all over again. This is no time for self-indulgence.
If this House can help the Government to contribute some sense to this important Bill, it should do so. The report from the Constitution Committee shows what needs to be done. Similarly, if some of the arguments tabled by opposition parties or independent groups improve the legislation, we should give them a proper, fair hearing.
In my book, parliamentary democracy has always meant that parties that win elections or referendums do not take all the spoils of victory. They may call the tune, but they are not in the divine position of writing every note of the score. In a democracy, winners do not take all. In my experience, reflection and well-considered second thoughts oil the wheels of a liberal state and a free society.
Accusations by ill-informed pundits—mainly in the media—against this House and our alleged irrelevance belie the facts. If Parliament does its job in making this Bill and the legislation that follows in the coming months fit for purpose, I see no reason for a second referendum, but we must end the pretence that the referendum was the last word on Britain’s future in Europe. We are no longer debating a slogan on the side of a bus; that is long gone. Legally and constitutionally, this Bill must be made copper-bottomed, iron-clad and storm-proof before our statutes can revert to their made-in-UK format and we can examine the decades of made-in-Brussels directives. I believe that the Constitution Committee of this House has shown the way. Its findings should not be ignored.
Unless the Bill is made fit for purpose, the Prime Minister’s call for frictionless access to the European market, on which our economy depends and which future generations seek to enjoy, will remain a pipe dream and we, as parliamentarians, will have failed in our duty.