My Lords, some noble Lords say that they cannot support this Motion because it goes too far in promoting a House of Lords role in Brexit. I do not support it for the opposite reason: it does not go far enough.
Your Lordships’ House has recently been the victim of a snub, a serious breach of etiquette. People can get quite touchy about things like that. In the case of Brexit, we have already had one failure of etiquette. Our own Prime Minister was told to go to Brussels and deal with the staff: EU officials and civil servants, well below her pay grade. That is the equivalent of the American President coming to Buckingham Palace to see the Queen and being sent to the Foreign Office to meet the Permanent Secretary. Of course, the US Government would never allow that to happen to their leader, but we did. That is probably why the negotiations failed. Now this EU debacle has brought us face to face with another example of poor etiquette, and this time much closer to home: between your Lordships’ House and another place, down the corridor.
Like all humble people, we in your Lordships’ House do not mind looking up to our superiors, as long as we are not taken advantage of or taken for granted. However, as far as we are concerned, we have been the dog that did not bark in the night; not even a growl. While another place has had meaningful votes on the historic choices about our national future, we have been told to be satisfied with only take-note Motions. In fact, we agreed to that.
Under Section 13(1)(b) of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, which many noble Lords know more about than I do, the withdrawal agreement cannot be ratified unless the House of Commons has given its approval. Apparently, this is what is meant by the House of Commons having a meaningful vote. The House of Lords does not have a corresponding meaningful vote to approve the withdrawal agreement and the framework for the future relationship. However, Section 13(1)(d) provides that the withdrawal agreement can be ratified only if an Act of Parliament has been passed which contains provisions for the implementation of the withdrawal agreement in domestic law. Yet we had no role in the failed EU talks. No Member of your Lordships’ House was a key part of the team during this painful process which brought down the Prime Minister. We constituted one of 28 people around the Cabinet table. That is 3.6% of the decision-making, is it not?
It has been said that we signed away our rights to have a view on Brexit, but that is not the case. We have the power, as confirmed by our Library, which says that the usual powers of the House of Lords will apply to the passage of any Act of Parliament to do with Brexit. That is my point. Section 13 of the withdrawal Act does not change the usual powers of the House of Lords over passing primary and secondary legislation.
I ask your Lordships to consider the historic context of this Motion. Many noble Lords will remember the passage of the House of Lords Act. My noble friends and I were then sitting on the Opposition Benches. We were told that we should not “die in the ditch” to preserve the hereditary Peers. After they had gone, the then Leader of the House told us that your Lordships’ House would be more democratic, more legitimate, more authoritative. That was what was promised to us during the passage of the House of Lords Act, but it never happened. Now it is said that if we step out of line, they will set the Parliament Act on us, or worse, abolish us altogether, so the House of Commons was left to its own devices, but none of that will help us on the day of judgment. The British public say that this has been “a complete mess” and “a total shambles”. We in your Lordships’ House cannot say, “It’s not my fault”, “I’m off the hook, there was nothing we could do to make any difference” or, “It’s not my responsibility. My hands are clean”. The result of this sorry tale of broken promises and failure to deliver on time is general cynicism and disillusionment, so well captured by my noble friend Lord Cormack. We the people are left standing like the passengers at Heathrow, forlornly looking up at that familiar notice board: “Delayed, delayed, delayed, cancelled, cancelled, cancelled”.
How can your Lordships’ House help? We certainly have the expertise. Look at the distinguished members of our Select Committee and sub-committees on Europe, and the speakers’ lists in all our EU debates, including this one. Look around the Chamber, see all the Cabinet Secretaries, the distinguished Private Secretaries to the Prime Minister, the Political Secretaries, the heads of the No. 10 Policy Unit, the No. 10 Chiefs of Staff: a fine group.
We all need a bucket of ice-cold water thrown over our fantasies every now and again. But we, the Members of your Lordships’ House, have been subjected to the political equivalent of waterboarding, a torture that leaves you weak and angry. We feel powerless. They tell us that it is not all bad and that there is nothing we can do about it anyway. They say that no matter how hard we try, it is not going to result in anything. They are a wet blanket that smothers us. I urge all my noble friends and all Members of your Lordships’ House on all Benches to assert ourselves. There is no cause for pride in what has happened in Britain in the last few years. There is no cause for self-satisfaction, but there is cause for hope and faith in our House. In our time, this House has lived with the moments of great crisis. Our lives have been marked with debates about great issues, issues of war and peace, issues of prosperity and depression. This is not about trade deals, tariffs, membership fees, et cetera. It is about the values, the purposes and the meanings of our great nation, our dignity, our good name and our sacred honour. There is no EU problem. There is no Irish problem. There is no Scottish problem. There is only a British problem. We are met here today not as Conservative or Labour, Liberal Democrat or Cross-Bench—or leave or remain—but as British people, to solve that problem. That is our purpose.
Many of the issues of Europe are very complex and most difficult, but about this there should be no argument: we cannot, we ought not and we must not wait any longer before insisting on involving your Lordships’ House in Brexit. We have already waited long enough, and the time for waiting is gone, so I ask you to join me to make this happen. I do not make that request lightly for, from where I sit, I recognise that outside Westminster is the outraged conscience of a nation, the grave concern of many nations, and the harsh judgment of history on our acts.
We need a North Star, a guiding light, and your Lordships’ House can help to provide it. Yet we are continuously told to show “humility”. What is in that word? You will hear it said that we must display modesty, restraint and reserve—admirable qualities all. That, however, is not what is meant by humility—not at all. I looked it up. It has other meanings: obedience, self-abasement, subjection, submissiveness, timidity and inferiority complex.
I am very proud of our House and what it can do. As our brilliant Library confirms, we are at a moment of maximum power for your Lordships’ House. This Motion has much merit but it does not go far enough. We must not show arrogance, egoism or self- importance. Nor will we. Let us, however, at least show boldness, confidence and pride, so that we can all hear, loud and clear, the Clerk’s immortal words in the House of Commons: “Message from the House of Lords”.