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Brexit: People’s Vote - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:42 pm on 25th October 2018.

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Photo of Lord Anderson of Swansea Lord Anderson of Swansea Labour 12:42 pm, 25th October 2018

My Lords, I recall with embarrassment that some 60 years ago in the final of the Observer debating tournament a judge said that he could not determine from my speech on which side of the motion I had spoken. I shall try to avoid that judgment today, although I accept that these are very difficult questions. The genesis, of course, was set out very clearly: it was a Prime Minister—incredibly because until that time he had blown on the flames of UKIP—who was seeking party unity and chose to have a referendum to end the debate.

The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, set out the problems of referendums: what do they decide? I think it was President Mitterrand who said that in referendums in France the French people always give the answer to the wrong question. There may be some element of that on this occasion. The case against was put very powerfully by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, repeating much of what the noble Lord, Lord Hague, said in his article in the Telegraph on 1 October: namely, that there may be no majority for any other option; that it would take a long time; that it was unclear what question should be put; that there would be anger among some at a perceived betrayal of the people’s verdict; and that it would not end the debate.

Having lived through the European debate for a very long time, since I joined the Foreign Office in 1960, I can see that the spectre of Europe has haunted our politics for a long time and will probably continue to do so. However, I believe that other considerations will trump—if that is a word one is allowed to use nowadays—the points made so well by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. In the referendum, we are told that the people spoke—but nobody is quite sure what the people said. Since they did not speak clearly, what did they say? Did they favour the sort of outcome that Norway has, where effectively there would be no immigration controls and decisions would be made over which we have no control? Canada is another option: there are clearly many alternatives.

We are assured by the Government that the deal is now 95% certain. Well, even if that extra 5% were concluded, there would clearly be a case for a choice to be made clear between any deal, if one were to be agreed, no deal and the status quo.

One thing which I have been convinced of by sitting on one of this House’s EU sub-committees is that the experts in the various areas we have tackled, be it in consumer protection or dispute resolution, or be it now in intellectual property, are all convinced that any alternative is worse than the status quo. That has become clear to me and, I hope, to most of those on the committee. I believe firmly that, if we are confident that this decision is very detrimental to the national interest, we should seize any opportunity to reverse it. What are we otherwise to do? Are we to fold our arms, seeing that which is looming, and say, “We can do nothing about it—let it inexorably move on into the cul-de-sac”?

Finally, some noble Lords may recall from their schooldays that in classic Greek tragedy, when an impasse was reached they would have a god from a machine: a machine would be pulled on to the stage and an answer would be found from the deus ex machina. It may well be that this second referendum, which is in our national interest, is that god from the machine.