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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:26 pm on 14th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Wrigglesworth Lord Wrigglesworth Liberal Democrat 7:26 pm, 14th January 2019

My Lords, I have worked in the north-east with the noble Viscount and his father over many decades and it is a pleasure to follow him. However, I fear that on this issue we are on opposite sides of the fence. Maybe, if we get together some time in the future, we will find a way of reconciling our views, but I fear not.

I want to talk a little about the referendum, because the one way of bringing reconciliation after a dispute is for the victor to be generous in attitude to those who have been defeated. I do not think the inflammatory and gross exaggerations about the outcome of the election by some of the Brexiteers have in any way helped to bring about that reconciliation. We have heard a great deal about the mandate from the 17.4 million people in the country who voted in favour of Brexit. We have heard very little about the 16.1 million who voted to stay. That amounts to 34.7% of the electorate.

I remember in the other place, back in 1979, we had great debates over the referendum on Scottish devolution. George Cunningham proposed an amendment that there should be a threshold of 40% of the electorate voting in favour of the legislation for it were to go through. Of course, it did not reach the 40%—a very modest threshold—needed for that legislation to go ahead. In my experience, most clubs, institutions, businesses and all types of organisation have a threshold above 50% if they want to change the constitution or make an amendment. It is not 50% plus one, it is anything up to 75%, or two-thirds, before the vote becomes legitimate.

The language that people, including the Prime Minister, have used—talking about catastrophic betrayal and people being let down, with Members of Parliament saying that they have been instructed by this referendum when it has been so close and that they have been ordered what to do—really has not helped. Do MPs not have minds or judgment? Are they just going to accept the outcome of such a narrowly based referendum? If there is to be reconciliation, I hope some Brexiteers will start paying attention to the 16 million who voted to remain and seek to reconcile the differences between the people. The 40% threshold would, in effect, have ruled out the result of this referendum and I believe that we should move towards another vote on this deal.

Other dangerous myths and distortions have been introduced into this whole debate and we have heard some of them in the contributions in this House. The whole business of Project Fear and attacks on experts is deeply damaging to our political debate. I was very interested to see in last week’s Sunday Times that David Smith, the economics editor, had analysed different forecasts from the experts. Almost at the top of the list came the Office for Budget Responsibility, which got 10 out of 10 on all the points that it had forecast for 2018. Second on the list came the much maligned—from the Brexit side—CBI, which got nine out of 10. Just out of interest, who came bottom on the list? It was one Patrick Minford, of the Liverpool Research Group and founder member of Economists for Free Trade, who got three out of 10 for his forecasts for 2018 and had a similar result in 2017. Many things have been said but this attack on policy by evidence-based activity is deeply damaging to British politics and government, and I hope the attacks on experts will cease.

Another issue—which I regard as largely mythological —is covered by Clare Foges in today’s Times. She talks about the left behind and refutes the suggestion that they voted in protest against the metropolitan elite. It is very amusing that the metropolitan elite making this accusation have been educated at Eton, Dulwich College and other such places, yet they have the brass face to attack Members of the other House and this place for being elitist.

The fact is that over decades Governments of all parties have poured in money through development corporations. The noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, has probably done more than any other person in this country to try to help the areas hit by industrial change and the wind-down of the old industries, not just in Liverpool but everywhere in the country. It is simply not true to suggest that people have voted against the EU just because of 30, 40 or 50 years of decline in those areas; the issue is much more sophisticated and subtle than that. A great deal has been done and they should not be described as the left behind.

The noble Lords, Lord Skidelsky and Lord Soley, referred to the powerful arguments that Brexiteers have mounted. Some of us, including me and many on these Benches, take the view that this is not just about the cost of customs. We have an internationalist view of the world, in which we believe that co-operation between countries is the best way to solve the problems facing us, and such co-operation is needed now probably more than it ever has been. That being the case, we believe in co-operating with others through institutions such as the EU. That is the basis of our commitment to the EU. It is not to do with the price of exports and the market; it is about people working together.