My Lords, the White Paper is very welcome. It is a very familiar document to those of us who have worked with the Commission on enlargement and foreign policy. It merits high praise to the Whitehall and regional civil servants for their dedicated work and to their colleagues, the Commission officials. As a large set of teams tackling a unique task of historic proportions in a very short time, their combined work has been magnificent.
We are presented with an opportunity that no other nation and no other British Parliament has ever encountered. We are leaving—yes, that is the case—a vast and somewhat controlling intercountry bloc to which we, the British people, have been the second-largest net contributor and much more for nearly half a century. Our task is an enthralling one. The British people voted to change the course of history. While a referendum is not the preferred choice of most people, for nobody ever trusts the outcome—even in California, the home of multiple referendums—this outcome was very clear indeed. To those who say that the information they were given was insufficient or misleading, I have to say that if 43 years in the same institution does not tell one how it works, then no amount of information will provide the understanding to ever satisfy the doubters who cry for a rerun.
It is tempting to recall that the latest eminent former Prime Minister to declare another referendum to be morally justifiable is the same former Prime Minister who achieved the notorious “empty chair” policy which ensured a full cessation of information and of political involvement by the UK in the EU. It was ignorance by choice for several years, which our nation paid heavily for in finance, in influence and in the information and knowledge that we are painfully reacquiring. We do not yet know the final detail of our leaving, but the way ahead is clear.
The earlier 1970s referendum resulted in a higher percentage of voters ticking the yes box, but voter confidence in the outcome was no higher. For all my political life, I have attempted, but failed, to dispel the subsequent view of the electorate that they had not got what they thought they were voting for. They believed that we were entering a single market; instead, our nation came under Roman law, which has intruded to such an extent that thousands of inherited British Magna Carta freedoms have been swallowed up. Unlike Ahab and the whale, we have no God-like powers to recover them. The earlier EU referendum campaign misspoke—in the endearing terminology of our recent presidential visitor. No one informed the electorate that by an almost invisible sleight of hand, certainly unknown here, the Luxembourg court had earlier passed a single case law judgment making Brussels law superior to that of member states. This judgment cascaded through the entire EU system, degrading Parliament’s unique position in our democracy. Never again since joining the EU has the Westminster Parliament been omnipotent and omnicompetent. It became, and still is, subsidiary to Brussels. Our electorate had no knowledge of that fundamental change of locus of decision-making nor of the coming Niagara deluge of frequently irrelevant and somewhat harmful legislation which has poured in over our heads and swamped our inherited systems. Measurements of window cleaners’ steps determined in Brussels for nearly half a billion people is just one of the multiplicity of mini-laws that affect us here today.
No further referendums on any matter affecting our EU status can ever hold the confidence of the British people as they were misled. The fundamental transfer of sovereignty was neither explained nor understood, even in Government or Parliament 20 years later. Were we to succumb to the siren voices suggesting a further referendum now and on the same subject, parliamentary government would be dashed on the rocks and our democracy could not recover. The voter understands that, and the electorate decided that we should regain our autonomy, reshape our future as a nation and ensure that there is a harmony of vision between the European Union and the UK and that there is no sharp, abrupt cessation of partnerships or deep, historic ties, and that our capacity to trade is heightened and enlarged, not shrunken. The statistics today about our economy are looking very good indeed, while the latest PwC global forecast for Britain is even better. The popular will as expressed at the ballot box was incontrovertible, and this White Paper, with the amendments it will acquire as it progresses through both Houses, will reinforce the confidence of the electorate in a powerfully positive future for our country—with a strong economy; financial services at the heart of a digital economy; greater exporting and outward and inward investment; a swifter reaction to the shifting centres of modern power internationally, and a creative shaping together of our nation’s future.
As for that pesky voice shouting too loudly that a 4% majority is not good enough and that we must rerun the entire competition, do we assume that they disregard the previous nationwide referendum which decided that first past the post was the way for British votes to be cast and counted? Shall we rerun that referendum too and the last election and the one before as well? That is not going to happen, not now nor in the future. Let us make friends again, not just with the EU but with ourselves. We are in Parliament to serve the British people and to enhance our nation’s greatness in her post-Brexit new clothes. As the Prime Minister has declared, we should back the White Paper. I believe we should win or lose any wished-for amendments with good grace, meeting political opposition with courtesy and never with personal hostility. Above all, let us get on with the job. I support the White Paper, the Prime Minister and the Government’s policy to the full.