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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:24 pm on 14th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Lang of Monkton Lord Lang of Monkton Conservative 4:24 pm, 14th January 2019

My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Hunt, I propose to confine my remarks to the subject of the referendum and what should happen now. I do not much like them, but I believe that a referendum can be a valid instrument of democracy, used rarely and with care, for really big issues on which the nation is divided. The Independent Commission on Referendums recently suggested that only issues of sovereignty and constitutional change should be covered and I agree. Referendums are always dangerous, however, because the Government of the day forfeit control. As we have seen, once triggered, they can move in unexpected directions with unpredictable results.

It is vital to recognise that referendum democracy and parliamentary democracy are different animals. They do not sit easily together. They have different blood groups, and to inject a referendum into our parliamentary processes, especially on complex and protracted matters of uncertain outcome is indeed hazardous. Once embarked upon, it needs to be carried through with respect and consistency and, above all, it must be honoured. I recall that the Welsh referendum, not mentioned so far today, was passed with a majority of 0.3%, but getting a result is part of the main point of a referendum.

At the outset, the Brexit referendum had the almost unanimous support of the political parties. They agreed on the unconditional nature of the question asked and undertook to support and implement the outcome—promises ratified in the subsequent general election. Since then, many in Parliament, of all parties, have resiled from that commitment, and that is the cause of our present difficulties. Negotiations with an ill-disposed EU, hard enough to pursue with the backing of a united Parliament, have been sabotaged and frustrated by Parliament itself. We are gridlocked and self-indulgent, and it is not a proud day for parliamentary democracy. Parliament is now defying its own electorate. Worse than that, we are invalidating the referendum as a credible instrument of democracy for the future.

Of course, in the delivery of day-to-day decisions such as we take in this place, with our general debates and our legislative processes, changes of mind form a natural part of the continuum of politics, but a referendum is different. It is, as we all know, a one-off decision-making process, in which Parliament abrogates its responsibility in favour of the electorate to answer a specific, clear question. For us then to ignore that answer is, to put it mildly, unworthy. We have no right to put our widely varied interpretations on what the electorate really meant. To suggest instead that we should hold a second referendum, before the outcome of the first has been delivered is to add insult to injury. “Wrong answer”, as they say in Europe, “Try again”. That has never been our kind of politics. As the SNP once so helpfully reminded us, a referendum is generational in nature. They are not buses. If you miss one you cannot say, “Don’t worry, there’ll be another along in a minute”.

Why hold another referendum now? I heard an MP say on television the other day that the electorate should be asked again “now that they know what Brexit looks like”. But we do not know what Brexit looks like. The deal as it stands could yet be changed in further negotiations, and anyway it has never been clearly explained to the electorate. It is changing day by day, as a blizzard of further amendments and other wizard wheezes are churned out in another place. What really matters is what the terms of our future relationship with the EU will be, about which we know nothing at all, except that the negotiations will be a nightmare. What would the question be? I have not yet seen or heard a single suggestion of a question that would be clear, balanced and unconditional, as the last one was. What would it settle? I do not believe it would settle anything, except to leave a legacy of bitterness. A second referendum cannot just wipe out what has already been decided. Why, then, is it proposed by so many? I see it as a subterfuge, one that dresses up as a virtue what is really an escape route through which its promoters are trying to wriggle out of the promises they made in 2016.

I voted remain in the referendum, and I respect the opinions expressed by others on this and other issues, but I believe that fulfilling the pledges we made then is a debt to the electorate that we must pay. That has a greater chance of closure than to leave an open wound. I see this as a matter of principle, and one that goes wider than Brexit. Our purpose now should be to honour the outcome of the referendum. That is not just the right thing to do; it is also, I venture, the moral thing to do. We should prepare now, urgently, to leave the EU, as the law provides, on 29 March—with or without a deal. Only then can the nation start to come together and our parliamentary democracy restore its self-respect.