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My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Trenchard, because he has tellingly spelled out to me why I feel so strongly on the issues before us. Of course, they are not simply about Brexit; they are about a committed bunch of people determined to change this country into a deregulated authoritarian state akin to something in south-east Asia, unencumbered by all feelings of responsibility, nationally or internationally, to hold them back. That is a ruthless economic model, and that is why a stand at this juncture is crucial.
A great deal has been said about Ireland in this debate. I have watched the affairs of Northern Ireland and touched on them to some extent in past ministerial experience with great interest. The Good Friday agreement was not the end of the story. It was not a settlement. It was an opportunity for Northern Ireland to rebuild itself as a different kind of society, free of violence. I take my hat off to the countless people in Northern Ireland who have worked for that. It is not just the people who hit the headlines; it is all the people at local and community level who have been steadily transforming the whole nature of Northern Ireland.
That is why the issues of Northern Ireland are crucial and central to our responsibilities. What has been very important in the change in Northern Ireland has been the sense of equivalence. Instead of having all the British traditions, the minority was supported by the concept of the European Charter, which spells out the rights that were so important to all the community. Of course, we decided not to endorse the charter for the future. That means that we have a double responsibility now to make sure that we get it right.
I have argued all my life that in many ways an unwritten constitution is stronger than the written constitution, because it represents what is acceptable to the broadest possible cross-section of political players in society, but also to society as a whole. I have begun to question my position on this, because it depends on the players respecting the consensus as it has emerged. At the moment, we are being encouraged to sweep that consensus to one side in favour of the narrow objectives of the present Administration.
I have therefore come to the conclusion that indeed we must have a second referendum, because we must be able to say to the people, “Is this what you want?” on anything we may have been able to negotiate, or, “Would you prefer to remain part of the European Union?”. I have many misgivings about going down that road, but if you have misgivings, you must decide in the end what is necessary, and I have decided in the end what is necessary.
My misgivings are that I think that referenda have been amply demonstrated to have absolutely no place whatever in a parliamentary representative democracy. In a parliamentary representative democracy, we the representatives of the people—particularly in the other House, of course—are here to do what we believe to be right and appropriate and then give account to people in a general election. If we say, “Oh, on this issue the people will decide”, and then tell the parliamentary representative democracy that its job is simply to implement what the people are saying, that is a denial of the whole concept of the responsibility and integrity that has gone into our parliamentary system in the past. We should be very careful not to go down the road of referenda ever again—but, having said that, I think that on this occasion there is no alternative.
I remain with this thought: whatever happens in this story, whatever the end of the road, a certain fundamental truth remains for Britain. It is the prototype of a nation dependent on its relationships to the world. How on earth does the vindictive wartime rhetoric that we are getting from the Government help us to build relationships with the world? How does it lead the country to understand its interdependence with the world and the fact that our future stability and prosperity in every sense depend on us being positive players together with people across the world, starting with our European neighbours, as a way of ensuring the well-being of our children?
I find this a tragedy. Everything is going into a negative, psychologically manifest, insecure approach, which is saying, “Oh, the world is a threat. Europe is a threat. There are opponents; we must defeat them”. That has no place in any sensible sense of responsibility to our children.