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My Lords, two years ago a political party trying to settle an internal dispute set us off on this path, imagining that the result was a foregone conclusion. Meanwhile, an unscrupulous but impressively motivated alliance delivered a protest vote from a population suffering the uneven effects of austerity, globalisation and deindustrialisation, and then had absolutely no idea what to do next.
The referendum question did not ask if we wanted to leave at any price, or any cost. It had no footnotes about NHS staff, or the value of the European space programme, nor did it allude to the need for an Irish border backstop, or the just-in-time supply lines of Jaguar Land Rover.
But that is okay because, for all that, we have politicians. A representative democracy entrusts politicians on behalf of the electorate to balance a complex matrix of allegiance—to country, to party, to the latest manifesto or referendum result—with the needs of their constituencies and local businesses, alongside their responsibilities to the planet, human rights and children. Politicians are expected to turn big ideas into technical solutions, and find political consensus in pursuit of a prosperous society that delivers for all, particularly the most vulnerable.
The Brexit votes, with rare and admirable exceptions, have failed to deliver on that compact. The complex role of the representative has been denuded into the single idea of delivering on “the will of the people”. This is short-term party expediency to protect supposed electoral prospects.
No time limit was given on leaving. The result required thoughtful consideration and further consultation with almost every sector, stakeholder and citizen—we might even have taken the time to prototype a technical solution to the Irish border issue. Yet in spite of the wild claims of the leave campaign and a partisan media beginning to unravel, both Houses, heavily whipped, rushed through Article 50, blindly creating a cliff edge, without plan or parachute.
What of the will of the people? Theresa May effectively endorsed the view that the referendum was not definitive by calling an election to secure a mandate—a mandate that the electorate refused to give her. However, rather than think again or take into account the new will of the people expressed rather differently in the light of her minority Government, she made her plans entirely dependent on the values and interests of the DUP.
In spite of the volte-face, where the two main parties, once remainers, are now leavers, Parliament has failed to provide clarity, numbers, ideas, leadership or even the basic crisis management skills required to answer the urgent set of questions in front of us.
We are a divided nation: divided in the referendum; divided in the election; divided in the Cabinet; divided in the Government; the Opposition divided between its membership and leadership; divided between young and old. To suggest that a second referendum would divide us further is simply fantastical, and a general election cannot resolve a single-issue question when all parties are putatively on the same side.
Democracy does not mean asking the people once and sticking by it whatever the consequences. Democracy entails transparency and engagement with the electorate. No leave campaigner offered us the current scenario, and no remain campaigner had a plan for leave. And absolutely no one voted for a Canada-plus, a Canada-plus-plus, a hard, a soft, a Chequers, a blind or a brave or a bodged Brexit. That simply was not on the ballot or in the conversation.
We have to give the people another vote on the reality that is now on the table, to allow them to determine their own future, because all other democratic options have been squandered.