My Lords, for most of the time I have strongly supported Conservative policy on Europe. I welcomed our entry into the common market under Mr Heath. I supported the development of the single European market under Mrs Thatcher and I was strongly opposed to Britain joining the European single currency. But when it came to having a referendum, I was uneasy and cautious. I voted for the referendum Bill. It was in the manifesto on which the Conservative Government were elected in 2015 and it had been passed by the elected House of Commons.
The referendum had two objectives, clearly set out in David Cameron’s Bloomberg speech. The first—today I can hardly say this with a straight face—was,
“to settle this European question in British politics”,
once and for all. I am afraid there is not much hope of that. There was also a wider objective set out in the Bloomberg speech: to acknowledge the frustration of the electorate at decisions being,
“taken further and further away from them”.
So it was argued that a referendum would empower the voters. I understood this argument: while in general elections the voters had a choice between the mainstream political parties, this did not give them a choice between whether they wanted to remain in or leave the European Union. A referendum, unlike a general election, would give them this choice. In so doing, it was argued, a referendum would restore the voters’ trust in our political parties and reinforce their confidence in our democracy.
Post referendum, the very reverse is happening. Trust in our political parties—in the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats—is low. Confidence in the competence of government is falling and faith in our democratic system is ebbing away. Yet now, at this of all times, Members of Parliament may decide this week not to honour the decision of the people’s vote in 2016 to leave the European Union. I am afraid that millions of people, whether we like it or not, would see this as an act of betrayal. The question is: would our political and democratic system withstand this? I hope it would. Over the years it has proved remarkably resilient, and maybe it would again—but maybe not. For all these reasons, I hope the House of Commons will vote to leave the EU and on the terms of the Prime Minister’s deal.