My Lords, at the heart of our negotiations with the European Union about Brexit has been a fundamental difficulty which, uncomfortable though it is, it is important to recognise. It is that the people voted in the referendum to leave but that we have in both Houses of Parliament, the institutions central to the process of leaving, a majority who want to remain—a considerable majority in the Commons and a very large majority in this House. This conflict has meant that, while this House quite rightly voted without dissent to hold a referendum and to invoke Article 50, which was universally understood to make inevitable the UK’s departure from the EU in March this year, there remain many Members who want to thwart or block that process.
First—it is a long time ago now—we were told that the referendum was purely advisory: that neither Parliament nor government was obliged to observe it. I cannot help noticing that those remainers who today want a second referendum make no mention of that one being purely advisory. Then we were told that the real choice was not between remaining and leaving but between a hard Brexit and a soft Brexit. That was clearly a false proposition, because we now have before us the Government’s proposed agreement, which is not just a soft Brexit but the softest of soft Brexits, yet still some remainers will be voting against it. They will say that the terms are not right. I think that the truth, which no one can deny, is that for many of them no terms will ever be right.
During the referendum campaign, I spoke to lots of people who were planning to vote leave. I can report to the House that not a single one said that they were minded to vote leave but only if we got an acceptable withdrawal agreement. Outside the Westminster bubble, there is no ambiguity whatever about the word “leave”. To coin a phrase, leave means leave. If you leave any organisation, whether it is the EU, a trade union, a political party or the darts club, you no longer have to abide by the rules and pay the subscription, and you most certainly do not need a withdrawal agreement.
Unbelievably, as we saw yesterday, some MPs are now saying, “Let’s postpone or even cancel the date of our departure”. We live in a time when public mistrust of politicians is at a level that few of us can remember. A majority voted in good faith to leave the European Union. We are now in the third year since that decision was made. Are we really saying to people that three years is not long enough and that, when they voted in June 2016, it meant that, yes, we would leave the European Union at some time but possibly not in their lifetimes?
The case against Brexit has been argued in this House ad nauseam. Although it gives me no pleasure to do so, I should add that the mere mention in our unelected Chamber these days of the 17.4 million of our fellow citizens who voted for it is often greeted with an audible groan. We have heard every possible doomsday scenario. We have been told that we will have to stockpile food, our doctors’ surgeries and hospitals will run out of medicines, and there will be great problems about taking holidays in France, Spain or Italy. We have even been told that planes taking off from airports in Britain may not be able to land in mainland Europe. It is only a matter of time before we hear about an impending swarm of locusts.
Unbelievably to me, I even heard of one remainer in this House, whom I will not embarrass by naming, comparing the situation that we are facing today with that faced by Britain in 1940. I am very wary indeed of wartime comparisons, but I will say this: if some of the people peddling these frightening scenarios had been in charge of the Normandy landings, the ships would never have left the south coast.
Now we are being told that we need to delay our departure date from the EU to have a second referendum. All I can say is that the mere fact that people are asking for a second referendum three years after the first reveals the fundamental absurdity of that proposal. If you think a second referendum should take place, what on earth is the objection to a third referendum, then a fourth, then a fifth—maybe one every three years? Please do not say that the circumstances have changed. Circumstances are always changing, and, my word, they most certainly changed during the 40-odd years that we were members of the European Union, an institution that, after 40 years, bore no resemblance to the institution that the public had voted for in the referendum in 1975.
The remainers, of course, claim that it is not a second referendum they are after but is a people’s vote. I ask you. Rarely has any public campaigning organisation carried a banner with such a cynical Orwellian title because, of course, the so-called people’s vote campaign has one simple objective: to overturn the vote of the people.
Turning, finally, to the significance of today’s debate, quite rightly, the law requires this House simply to take note of the Government’s negotiations. It would be absurd and indefensible if our unelected House, on an issue of this importance, could veto not just any decision by the House of Commons but also the 2016 referendum result.
Surely the responsibility of both Houses is the same. It is to implement the referendum result, in which, as I need to remind the House, the turnout was 10 % higher than in all recent general elections, and tens of thousands of people voted who had never voted before. At a time when the gap between Parliament and the people is getting wider, they showed their faith in our democracy.
It is surely our clear duty to ensure that we do not confirm the powerful feeling of so many people that politicians do not listen by further frustrating our departure from the EU. It is not an overstatement to say that the integrity of our democracy—of the implicit contract between Parliament and the people—means that we do not just say that we respect their opinion, expressed in 2016, but that we will act on it, ensuring that we leave the European Union on