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Brexit: People’s Vote - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:50 pm on 25th October 2018.

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Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 12:50 pm, 25th October 2018

My Lords, I begin by quoting one of the greater Prime Ministers of this country, Clement Attlee. In the late 1940s, the UK drew up the constitution of what became the Federal Republic of Germany. Attlee had to decide whether there should be provision for referenda in the constitution of the federal republic. His reaction was that referenda are the tools of despots, demagogues and dictators and in no way should they be allowed into any constitution, let alone that of Germany.

I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, is no longer in his place because about a week before the referendum, I was debating it with Sir Bernard Jenkin in East Anglia. At that time, it looked fairly certain that the yes side was going to win. A questioner in the audience asked the panel, “If your side loses the referendum, will you accept the result?” Bernard Jenkin very clearly indicated that he would not. He said, “I’ve been campaigning for this for many years, so of course I would not accept the result. This is what I believe in, and this is what I believe the British people should do”. Always being honest, when the same question was put to me, I said exactly the reverse, but the same thing. I said, “No. I strongly believe in Europe. I don’t think we will lose the referendum—those are historic last words—but if we do, I will carry on campaigning for us to remain in the European Union”.

The first thing we should do is to strip away all this nonsense. Many of us who campaigned to remain want to use this opportunity to remain. Of course, a lot of rubbishy things were said. You should never put anything to a referendum. If you remember, de Gaulle lost a referendum on regional government, which forced him to resign because the people of France were not voting about regional government in France but were thinking, “We’ve had enough of this man de Gaulle. He’s been around for 10 years”. Once Charles de Gaulle said, “I will resign if the referendum goes against me”, he lost.

Having said that, I am prepared to argue for a confirming vote on this momentous decision. We have votes regularly in this country. It seems to me not unreasonable. Things have changed. I note that when the Scottish nationalists lost the referendum in Scotland, they immediately said that they were going to campaign for another one. They keep on campaigning. Incidentally, I seem to remember that there is a provision in the Ireland settlement for a referendum on a united Ireland. Maybe that is the way out of the hard border. Maybe we should ask them if they would like a referendum on it, just for Ireland.

The one thing I would counsel everybody against is believing that the result would be different. I think it is highly likely that the British people will say, “Sod those politicians. They’re trying to make us reverse our decision, and we’re not going to”. While I am very much in favour of another vote, I am in no way sanguine about the outcome.

Finally, the disaster of the referendum was that it was all based on fear, and all we are doing now is frightening people: “You’ll have no medicine”; “Your food will stop”; “You won’t be able to fly”. Europe has to be about hope. It has to be about the future. It has to be about those sunny uplands. It cannot be about terror, fear and dreadful things happening. Yes, let us have another referendum, but for goodness’ sake, let us stop campaigning all the time on fear and campaign on our moral duty and the future of Europe, of which we are a part and of which we should be proud.