My Lords, I cherish my European citizenship and regret its loss when or if—dare I say it?—Brexit becomes law. I identified myself as a British patriot and a European when I went to Berlin and other war-torn cities on the continent with little more than £5 in my pocket at the age of 17. I stayed with social democrat families who welcomed me into their homes. Europe is part of my DNA; it transcends treaties and bureaucracy.
For a time, I sat in the European Parliament, but preferred Westminster. This is not the first time that the Tory party has torn itself apart on this issue. As Speaker of the Commons, I watched the Tory party tear itself apart during the Maastricht debates. I feared the worst when David Cameron allied his party with the far right in Strasbourg and even more so when he caved in to his right-wingers and media pressure by calling the 2016 referendum. He thought he would win but has said since that he did not mind losing. I did mind.
Theresa May, whose tenacity commands respect, has been struggling to keep her party together ever since. Her Government stumble from one expediency to another, unimpeded by a dithering leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition whose only consistency is evasion. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, was right the other day when she related the current drift and national crisis to the period of 1940, but there is a major difference. At that time, the leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition gave leadership. He carried his parliamentary party with him and people in the country knew of his commitment and supported it—that is the difference.
I am not a devotee of referenda. I rather enjoy general elections, but general elections are not single-issue events—they cover a host of issues. A general election is not the way to settle the European question. After two years, we are now more aware of the minuses and pluses and the people must determine this single issue. I urge Back-Benchers in the Commons to reject the pretences of Ministers who say—I quote Dr Fox, the International Trade Secretary—that a second referendum would put us in,
“unprecedented territory with unknown consequences”.
My Lords, we have been wandering in the wilderness since Mrs May lost her majority in the election. I wonder how high Dr Fox was flying when he dreamed that one up. In my book, if a democracy cannot be allowed to change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.
When the Minister winds up, will he say what the Government are afraid of in refusing a people’s vote? In answering that question, will he please explain to young people who have reached adulthood why they do not have the right to be heard on an issue that our generation has manifestly bodged? Brexit will shape these youngsters’ futures for the next 50 years—not ours. I have no children or grandchildren; my quality of life will not be affected. I am all right, Jack. But what about the Jacks and Jills out there? Are they to be stripped of their rights on the whim of those who peddled rubbish in the referendum and are afraid to be challenged in another?
I was a government Whip when Harold Wilson was Prime Minister. He said that anyone who claimed that membership of the European Community was a black and white issue was either a charlatan or a simpleton. I leave your Lordships to adjudicate on that one. Which brings me to Mr Boris Johnson: his campaign bus did not proclaim, “Say yes to no deal”. We were promised an easy ride with a cash bonus thrown in. The question on the ballot paper did not ask us to choose between a hard or soft Brexit, a Canadian or a Norway-plus deal, or a deal that would separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.
Nobody dreamed that we would be frantically preparing for worst-case scenarios. We are now paying the price for a referendum that was dominated by falsehoods. Brexiteers promised the world but ignored the social and political realities festering in our own country. Now, Parliament is convulsed, Whitehall is pulverised and Downing Street has become a drop-in for chilled wine and persuasive chats, while industry and business are alarmed and our friends and allies are bewildered. Who can possibly blame them?
In yesterday’s Sunday Express, Mrs May said:
“Some of you put your trust in the political process for the first time in decades. We cannot—and must not—let you down”.
But voters were let down—all of them. Both sides failed to focus on the issues that mattered most to them. Look at the Electoral Commission report. It said that many voters were unclear about the consequences of victory for either side and did not know the answers to questions they expected to be at the heart of the campaign. Both the Prime Minister and the leader of the Opposition should heed that report and listen to the voice of a young generation, who have a right to be part of the decisions affecting their future.
Many years ago, a debate took place in the Commons that changed the course of the war. Back-Benchers played a pivotal role then and I hope will do so tomorrow. My message is: Back-Benchers arise and forget your party allegiance. The national interest demands it.