Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:09 pm on 14th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Stephen Lord Stephen Liberal Democrat 4:09 pm, 14th January 2019

My Lords, democracy did not start and finish on 23 June 2016. For those who say we must at all costs respect the result of the referendum, does that mean that whatever the deal, whatever Prime Minister Theresa May or some other Prime Minister might come up with, we have to go through with it, however unpopular that agreement is to both the remainers and those who support Brexit—and, indeed, however misleading, manipulative and incorrect the claims of the leave campaign? Does it mean that one referendum binds us for ever more on an issue? Do we not have a parliamentary, representative democracy? Do our MPs not count? This Government, in this 21st century UK democracy, say that only one vote counted—in June 2016. A new referendum on a new issue—the acceptability of the EU deal currently offered by the Government—is now said to be anti-democratic and a betrayal as it does not respect the decision taken in the summer of 2016.

I am a Liberal Democrat, and it has to be said that we often encourage referendums. But I tell your Lordships this: I do not have any great enthusiasm for referendums. I never have had. That has been emphasised by my position as a Scottish Liberal Democrat. Generally, I would support them only to give authority—the authority of the people of this country—to a major constitutional change that the Government of the day want to implement. I do not much like them being used to test the waters when a Government or party are unclear or divided. I do not like their consequences when the result is desperately close: 51.9% to 48.1% is desperately close and has left a nation very divided. With the Scottish referendum on independence, 55.3% versus 44.7% felt very divisive and very close.

In the current circumstances, a second referendum, a people’s vote, a new referendum on a different question on the detail of the deal, is entirely legitimate. Remember that Theresa May was once a campaigner to remain. On 25 April 2016 she said:

“In essence, the question the country has to answer … whether to Leave or Remain—is about how we maximise Britain’s security, prosperity and influence in the world, and how we maximise our sovereignty: that is, the control we have over our own affairs in future”.

She went on to answer her question by saying that the case for remaining was the stronger. She referred in her speech to how Europe stumbled towards war in the last century. She talked about a hard-headed analysis and confirmed that, on security, trade and the economy, we should stay in the EU. So before she lapsed into the language and rhetoric of “Brexit means Brexit” and “no deal is better than a bad deal”, she was very clear that our “destiny”—again I use her word, not mine—was better inside the EU. Those are strong words, and very different words from those we hear today.

What happens next? There are no strict rules on any of this, and certainly no written rules. It seems that the UK desperately needs those written rules now more than ever, but there is no written constitution in this country. So where from here? I still hold the memories and bear some of the scars of the Scottish referendum. As I mentioned, it was never the outpouring of democracy that some, especially in the SNP, like to suggest. It was divisive and damaging.

If it had gone the other way, I say this: I am totally convinced that some of the unionists opposite me today, who—whether as Brexiteers or government supporters—strongly oppose a new referendum on the EU issue, if there had a been a yes vote on independence would have been strongly supporting a second referendum on the detail of that independence vote, to try to keep Scotland inside the UKU, highlighting the divisive, damaging consequences of a disastrous deal. Such is politics in times of turmoil.

What Theresa May could have done before Christmas, when she realised she was going to be defeated in Parliament, was surely call a second vote, a new referendum. A win-win situation for her, you would have thought. Either the Prime Minister would get the backing for her deal from the people of Great Britain, or we remain in the EU—the position which she supported and perhaps somewhere deep down still does support. Her alternative is ploughing on. Is that better? Why does she do it? Is it better for the Conservative Party? Is it better for the Government? Is it better for the people of this country, better for our future? We shall see—but I see no sign of it being better.

“Accept the deal”, she says. And if we do not trust her—and it seems clear that we do not, either in this place or in the other place—we are no longer at the kicking the can down the road stage of all this, are we? It seems that we go closer and closer to the edge of the cliff and, unless Parliament intervenes, we might all together go over the edge of that cliff. This is high-noon, high-wire madness. It is not good government, it is a derogation of duty. It is done because the Prime Minister has lost sight of her duty to act in the best interests of the nation, and instead is desperately trying to hold together something, I know not what: her Ministers, her party, maybe in her own mind our country. Already over 100 of her MPs believe that she is not the best person to lead her own party, far less our country. It is highly possible that with a new referendum she would win support—