My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Earl, who has displayed some useful calmness in a difficult area of discussion. This is an important debate, even more so now than when we set out on it before Christmas, as we witness the activities in the other place and indeed among countless groups of citizens who have now realised how little time remains between now and the end of March. But it is also important to acknowledge that, so far as the withdrawal agreement is concerned, we here have a secondary role. We certainly do not vote on the substantive issue; neither for meaningful or meaningless Motions; nor are we able to partake in any ratification process if it comes to that. If the other place rejects the agreement, it has now decided on a process and time limit for the Government to produce other plans, which, again, we can only debate.
One of the reasons why I currently do not support a second referendum is that I believe strongly in representative democracy, which has been referred to by other noble Lords and noble Baronesses this evening: an elected Chamber where, regardless of outside influences, our Members of Parliament can and must make decisions for the people they represent—indeed, all the people they represent. When I was a Member of Parliament in Leeds it was certainly my duty once elected, normally not by an overall majority, to reflect on the needs of all the constituents in that place and to represent them in a changing environment. Whatever I had done or said during an election, it was vital for me to recognise the changing circumstances of the people and of Parliament and to make decisions on their behalf, for which I would be accountable when there came another election.
Noble Lords might therefore think that that is a remark in support of another referendum, but it is not. It seems the responsibility lies squarely with the elected representatives. They must get it right. They will bear the consequences if they do anything that severely, seriously damages the people of this country. I openly admit that I, as a remainer—someone who would like us to remain in the European Union—nevertheless believe that that responsibility lies there.
When David Cameron came back from Brussels before the referendum with the terms he had discussed and agreed for our ongoing membership of the EU, they were regarded here as insufficient and insignificant. But as a Member of the European Parliament at that time I can assure noble Lords that that was not how they were regarded in Europe, the European Parliament or, indeed, the Council. Had they been implemented, they would have changed permanently the way Europe went about its business. That was very much along the lines of the way we in Britain had been involved in the European institutions over many years.
Indeed, I am pleased that my noble friend Lord Callanan is on the Front Bench because he and I shared a long period as Members of the European Parliament. Many of the things that were done that enhanced the reputation of this country were done by him, others and myself, working very hard with our European friends. Britain’s reputation was never higher, particularly once the Soviet system had been destroyed and the countries that had been under that yoke had their independence and freedom restored. They looked to Europe because they wanted not to become part of an ever-closer union as such, but to retain their independence won back from repression.
I want to mention Article 50, and do so with great fear and caution. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, the secretary-general of our European Convention in 2002-03, is the well-known expert on this matter. I was merely a UK representative on that Convention. Article 50 was terribly important because at that time it was necessary to give some support to new countries coming into the European Union, so that in certain circumstances they could decide to change their minds. It was important and, as he and I have always believed, unilaterally revocable. That is the position. While it is a matter for sovereign discretion, to me, it has to be considered by the present Government as a vehicle to give us time to gather thoughts and actions together if we are left with what looks like a major impasse at this time. It is vital, and I hope the Government will not discard it or see it as anything other than a very useful apparatus in certain circumstances.
Finally, what saddens me—as someone who has openly admitted my preference for this country to be at the heart of Europe—is that, at this point in our history, we seem to be disengaging from Europe in such a way that it is breaking hearts needlessly and negligently. Although this House should recognise its limitations in constitutional terms, we should not forget that our reputation here for good common sense and pragmatism has never been more needed than it is now.