Question for Short Debate
To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have made an assessment of the case for holding a second referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.
My Lords, let me begin by making one thing very plain. At this point in time, it is the will of the British people to leave the European Union. Therefore, negotiations on Brexit must take place. Once they conclude and the shape and meaning of Brexit become clear, at that point it is only fair and democratic that the British people accept or reject the final deal. The problem is that at the moment we have no idea when the deal will be made—even if it will be made—or what it will include. To borrow a phrase, we know nothing.
David Cameron repeatedly said that if he lost the referendum vote he would trigger Article 50 for Britain to leave the EU. Well, he did not trigger Article 50 but he did trigger a series of events that may well lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom and the impoverishment of its people.
Let us turn to the British people. They voted by a narrow margin to leave the EU, but many British people—possibly the majority; possibly even the majority in this House—were unaware of the far-reaching consequences of the EU referendum. After all, they were asked, “Do you want to leave the EU?”, not, “Do you want to break up the UK?”. This likely outcome was not articulated clearly by either side during the referendum campaign. This brings us back to the central problem. After the dust has settled, in the immediate aftermath of the referendum vote, we do not know what we voted for. We have no idea.
Did we vote to leave the EU but stay in the single market? A lot of people who campaigned and voted for Brexit, including Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, say that was what they were fighting for. Really? Well, we are not going to get that unless we accept free movement of people. That has been made very plain by EU leaders. Although the remain camp accepts free movement of people, many in the leave camp do not; in fact, that was why many of them voted to leave. In many of those forgotten British towns that have been left to struggle on their own—like Don Valley in the north, Ebbsfleet and Thurrock in the south and Ebbw Vale and Gwent in Wales—a lot of people who voted to leave said that they did so because they wanted to restrict free movement of people. They voted for something that will probably never happen, so they have already been deceived. At least let them have the final say when they know what the cost is.
I am very grateful to my noble friend for giving way. Does she not think it may be perceived as being somewhat patronising to suggest that people did not know what they were voting for when they voted in the referendum? Would it not be better for this unelected House to say, “The people have spoken, whether we like it or not”?
I thank my noble friend for that intervention. He called me his noble friend and I regard him as mine. I will come on specifically to what I think the role of this unelected House is. It is absolutely fair to say that most people did not realise that the EU referendum and the Brexit vote would trigger the chain of events that have happened so far. Our economy is in crisis, major companies are lining up at this moment to leave and jobs are flooding out. People did not realise that there would be those consequences, and the main reason why they did not know is that the architects of the campaign themselves did not know what the final deal would be that they were voting on. It is that point that I am bringing before the House today.
As I was saying, after only two weeks a new opinion poll released yesterday showed massive voter remorse in Wales, precisely because they did not realise what they were voting for. According to this opinion poll—although I agree that we cannot always trust polls— Wales has changed its mind. If there were a second referendum, Wales would now opt to stay in the EU by a margin of 52% to 47%. Notwithstanding that apparent change of heart, it would be entirely illegitimate for Parliament to thwart the will of the British people by voting down Brexit—something that the noble Lord will know has been raised in the other place. It would be entirely illegitimate to do that even if leave’s key claims were untrue—and it transpires now that many of them are.
It is, however, entirely legitimate for Parliament to ask the British people to review their vote, as it has monumental consequences for our country’s future that were not discussed during the referendum campaign itself. Governments are constantly asked to reconsider their legislation, whether by judicial review or legislative amendments in the Commons or the Lords. In the same way that Governments must often vote on their legislation a second time, I do not see why citizens should not do the same. Like Governments, they are quite entitled to vote the same way if they choose, but it should be their choice.
In these extraordinary circumstances, the House of Lords should fulfil its constitutional role, which is to require legislators to pause, reflect and vote again. As the noble Lord pointed out, we have no elected authority; our only role is to scrutinise the decisions of those with democratic authority—in this case, the British people—to bring more facts to their attention and to ask them to review their decision. Do they still believe that it is the right thing to do?
But if there is a second referendum, here is a note of warning to all in the remain camp: it will lose again unless we have a very clear plan to spread economic opportunity beyond affluent groups and affluent areas. We should reflect on one point above all: our current constitutional crisis is built on Britain’s inequality. Losing Britain’s position as the world’s fifth largest economy—incidentally, something that took place within 24 hours of the Brexit vote; we slipped from fifth to sixth—is meaningless to those who do not even have a toehold in our economy. Why should they care? They voted for change. The problem is that the change they voted for can only make the situation worse for those cities and communities that have been abandoned. Making Britain poorer cannot help Britain’s poorest communities. Shamefully, making Britain richer did not help them, either—or not enough. That is why we should thank the leave campaign for illuminating an inescapable truth: if we do not radically change our economy to provide opportunity for all of Britain, not just metropolitan Britain, our country as we know it will cease to exist and our identity as a tolerant, influential, outward-facing people will vanish.
In summary, in terms of what I am asking parliamentarians to do, if they believe that citizens have voted for something that threatens the future prosperity and fundamental integrity of the UK, they must tell them what they routinely tell the British Government: pause, reflect and vote again, once we know what they are being asked to vote on. Today parliamentarians will not play that role, but it does not really matter what they say today—it is what they say once Brexit is negotiated. This is the most important peacetime challenge that Britain has ever faced—certainly the most important in my lifetime—and, incredibly, we do not have a plan. Basically, the remain camp had no plan B and the leave camp had no plan A. Instead, what have we got? Oliver Letwin, the new Brexit Minister—or, as one journalist described him today, “the Wizard of Brexit”. The curtain has been pulled back to reveal—a disappointment. He can say whatever he wants but that will not make it any more believable.
Our economic prospects are fading. Since Brexit, as we know, the pound has crashed to a 30-year low and innumerable large companies are moving their workforces out. The political prospects of sorting this out are ebbing away almost as quickly as the strength of the pound—and in the meantime, hate crime is on the rise. We are turning into a country that we do not recognise. Last week a Member of this House told me that a friend of hers, a white man, was stopped in his car by a group of men. They asked him threateningly, “What language do you speak?”. “English,” he said, “I’m English”. “Well, that’s all right then,” they said, and drove away. As someone who has campaigned around issues of xenophobia for years, I have to ask what this country is coming to when white Englishmen have to put up with racism. Of course we expect black British people to put up with it—it has been like that for ever and a day—but not white Englishmen. Whatever next? The genie is out of the bottle. We need to protect our tolerant society in every way we can.
That is why I brought this debate: to ask if the Government had made an assessment of the case for a second referendum. I know that the Minister will stand up and say, “Yes, we have made an assessment and no, there will be no second referendum”. I simply say that politicians often eat their words: look at David Cameron and Article 50, Nigel Farage saying that migration would be brought down, and Boris Johnson claiming that £350 million more a week would be available for the NHS. Then let us look at ourselves and think about what we say today. I say this: in the interests of democracy, the British people must be given the chance to vote on the deal to leave the EU once we finally know what the deal is and what it costs in terms of our economy, our jobs, our pensions, our future, our global influence, our geographical borders and—last but certainly not least—our precious identity as a tolerant, open, outward-facing nation. I say let the people decide.
My Lords, I totally respect the right of the noble Baroness to table this debate. That said, it was a topical question when she tabled it but it is no longer topical. We have just spent two long days debating the subject that she has raised, and I do not think it does the House any good if we repeat much of what was said then. The noble Baroness never mentioned the fact that we had had that two-day debate. My noble friend Lady Anelay made the Government’s position totally clear at about 10 pm last night, and it is at col. 2109 of Hansard. There is nothing that she could add to or subtract from that statement; it is perfectly clear.
Say what one will about the campaign—we can howl about the lack of information, protest at the lies told and bemoan the unprincipled behaviour of some politicians—but there will be no second referendum under this Government. I have been active in both recent referendums. They have both been divisive, destructive and distracting. I do not want to go through a third.
When would it be held? Not now; the noble Baroness has said it would be once we had negotiated our position. We might have a position but the negotiations will take many years. In any case, we have only two years from the service of the Article 50 notice to when we could be unilaterally thrown out of the EU on our ear without any further debate.
I have no doubt that the happy alliance of those in this country who feel most isolated and resentful, together with some of those in the Conservative Party, will not last very long. They have totally different objectives; indeed, the noble Baroness has already told us that that is happening. The only way we can have a second bite at this cherry is to have a political party whose main aim in its manifesto commitment is not to break with the EU, and to test that at a general election.
My Lords, on this day in two years’ time, EU exit negotiations are going badly. Growth has stalled; unemployment is soaring. The new “Real Labour Party”, which has an electoral pact with the Lib Dems, leads by 25% in the polls on its sole platform, “Second referendum now”. In that circumstance, what is Parliament to do? I emphasise the word “Parliament” because it barely escapes Ministers’ lips when this subject is under consideration. The Government produced a document in February called The Process of Withdrawing from the European Union, which barely mentions Parliament. Yet at some stage—whether before triggering Article 50, as some people think, or after—Parliament will have to get involved, and surely at some stage, if we wish to exit, we will have to repeal the European Communities Act, and both Houses will vote.
I am not very keen on the European Union. It is a minority view, but I voted no in 1975, rather to the shock of my then boss Tony Crosland, who was a great European, and I reluctantly voted to remain this time, partly because of the economic risks but mainly because the tone of the leave campaign was shocking. However, I am concerned about process and that at a time when we should all be worrying, day and night, about the gap that has emerged between people and politics, we do not act in a way that deepens that gap and makes it more salient. To proceed, irrespective of circumstances, and put into effect a referendum held in 2016 if the circumstances in 2018 are completely different, would be a mistake. If it is clear that the people have changed their mind—and there is nothing wrong with changing your mind—it would strike a deep blow to our remaining democratic legitimacy.
This referendum was partly about sovereignty, which in our country means the sovereignty of Parliament; that is what the leave campaigners said they were trying to restore. That sovereignty still exists, although we have to give great weight to what the people say in any referendum. If opinion in two years’ time remains in favour of leaving, that is fine—we must accept that. But if it shifts, as on balance I expect it to, so that the people are clearly for remain, it is my contention that Parliament would have not merely a right but a duty to put leaving to the test of a second referendum. We should then see whether we are mice or men and women.
My Lords, the way in which the referendum campaign was conducted and covered was shocking. Even the BBC news, which neutralised expertise in the name of balance, was about as useful as an exam where everyone gets 50% because those getting the answer wrong thought it was right and vice versa. It is not the first time this has happened—last time it was about autism and the MMR vaccine.
Nevertheless, a rerun of a close referendum is unlikely to be broadly acceptable to the public without compelling evidence for it. Nor is a rerun for a supermajority; measures such as that need to be contemplated well away from heat or likely use. However, another referendum, later on, about a more focused question is another matter. It might be appropriate after a significant change in circumstances or on the outcome of negotiations with the EU, especially bearing in mind that negotiation strategy cannot all be public.
The last few days of debate have yielded a wealth of reasoning, including that the remain or leave question was broad in scope about a complex matter and was the start of a process that needs parliamentary sovereignty and public assent. Above all, the national interest must come first and cannot be ruled out. However, the fact that there could be a referendum on the outcome should not undermine sincere efforts to identify a genuine mandate and negotiate with the EU. As was also mentioned on previous days of debate, the referendum lock in the 2011 Act is drafted very widely. It covers where an EU treaty confers on an EU institution or body,
“power to impose a requirement or obligation on the United Kingdom”,
and also covers replacing treaties. Such things may well be needed to achieve Brexit, and the logic still applies—a say on being bound.
Finally, it is important that there is the time for a possible referendum or some other ratification. A hard deadline must not rob us of that opportunity. I have seen it all before with the Greek bailouts. Therefore I note that nothing in Article 50 says that extensions are negotiated only at the end—and a ratification extension, or other circumstantial extension, could be pre-agreed as part of the triggering process.
My Lords, I believe passionately in Britain’s membership of the European Union and that leaving would have disastrous consequences for our country—for the union with Scotland, our economy, and our place in the world. Great Britain now faces the very real prospect of becoming little England: poorer and inward-looking, divided and diminished.
However, we cannot pretend that a verdict has not been delivered by the British people in the referendum, and Parliament—particularly this House—must acknowledge a mandate, based on the promises of the leave campaign, for an end to free movement of labour and an end to our financial contribution. But neither can we pretend that this mandate is in any way compatible with the economic well-being of the nation, and Parliament would be failing in its democratic duty if we failed to acknowledge that fact.
The uncertainty created simply by the result of the referendum is already feeding through to the real economy. The Economist Intelligence Unit estimates that investment will decline by 8% by 2017, our debt burden will reach 100% of GDP by 2018, and our GDP will be 6% lower by 2020. Both the politics and the economics are clear but irreconcilable, and we are heading for a moment of decision when a choice has to be made between them.
Rather than confront that choice, a delusion has taken hold in both main parties—and, most importantly, among the candidates vying to become Prime Minister—that our economy can be protected within the single market while at the same time ending free movement and budget contributions. The presidents of the European Parliament, the Commission, the Council, as well as the leaders of Germany, France, and all member states, have said unanimously that there can be no access for the UK to the single market on these terms. After all, why would they give the UK a better deal than they themselves enjoy?
Therefore we face a terrible choice, but one for which the British public have in no way been prepared. Do we honour the political mandate and create an economic crisis, or do we honour our duty to protect the economic well-being of our country and create a political crisis? If the promises made on immigration turn out to be undeliverable, the backlash will be catastrophic for our democracy. Yet how can a democratic Government knowingly and deliberately pursue a policy of leaving the single market when it would cause such economic self-harm to our nation?
Ideological zealots on both the extreme left and right in British politics will make the decision more difficult still for anyone who genuinely seeks to wrestle with this choice. However, decisions of this magnitude cannot be taken by Parliament alone. They require greater democratic legitimacy. The British people must be involved in helping to resolve this choice.
My Lords, I follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, in essentially making a distinction between an argument for a later referendum based on whatever is negotiated under Article 50 and an argument for a rerun of what happened on 23 June. The noble Baroness, Lady King of Bow, said that she was making the case for a later referendum based on the negotiations that took place, but all the arguments that she advanced were for a rerun of the referendum on 23 June. They were based on why the electors got it wrong. That is an extremely dangerous path to pursue. It would convey the impression that the political class was not prepared to accept what the electors had decided. That would undermine trust in the political process when that trust is already fragile.
We cannot second-guess the electors. They voted. We might not like how they voted but there was a result. We asked the electors to make a decision on whether we should remain in or leave the European Union. They made the decision—perhaps by a small majority but it was a decision. In the past two days we have heard various people arguing, “But it was only advisory and there was a small majority. We should have had some sort of threshold or there should have been a much larger majority”.
To say that the referendum was advisory is misleading. We did not say to the electors, “Please tell us what you think and then we’ll decide whether to accept what you’ve said”. It was non-binding but that is a very different matter. There is no statutory obligation on Ministers to trigger Article 50 but there most certainly is a compelling political argument for doing so. The Government are bound by that political dimension. Yesterday I quoted Dicey, who distinguished between parliamentary and political sovereignty. The latter matters.
As for whether we should have applied some rules, we did not. At Second Reading of the European Union Referendum Bill, I raised the question of a threshold but there was clearly no desire to pursue it, so we put it to the people. It was a simple choice based on a majority. We cannot rerun it; we cannot apply rules that were not in place at the time. Therefore, I think that for the moment we have to accept the decision of the people and proceed on that basis. There may be a case for a later referendum based on negotiations—
I agree with the noble Lord. We accept the rule of the people, we see where it takes us and then we give them the democratic right to decide whether they want that or not.
That is the line I am pursuing. My point is that we go forward on the basis of what has been decided. There may be a later case for putting the negotiations to the people, but we do so on the basis of that case, not on the basis that they got the decision wrong on 23 June—on which the noble Baroness’s argument was essentially based. We have to accept the decision and move on. There may be a later argument about referendums but it is not one to have now.
I have to say to my noble friend—and we are very good friends—that I wonder where she was when the referendum was being discussed. The dangers were outlined; it was doom and gloom all the time. People were warned about the dire consequences of voting to leave, so that was certainly put to the people. We must never underestimate the people once they have spoken, even though we may not like it. I have not liked many of the decisions that they have made. The noble Lord, Lord Robathan, is laughing but he knows that from our exchanges in the past. We must accept and go along with what the people say. There may be a case for a later discussion, but we cannot now say that we must have another referendum.
It is argued that the decision was made by only a small majority, but if the decision had gone the other way, would that have been accepted? As has been said, all the arguments put forward were about the present position. If you had another referendum now and did not get the result you wanted, would you want another one?
We have just had a very lengthy debate on Europe and our position in it. I do not want to go over what was said but we are certainly a very important market for the EU. It has a £58.8 billion trade surplus with us. The German car industry exports 20% of its cars here. I will not mention the French wine industry, although I enjoy a glass of its wine. I repeat: our market is very important to the EU.
We have to recognise that the people have spoken. We are in a democracy, so let us get on with it. I agree with those who have said that the negotiations should begin immediately. We cannot wait for two years and the EU does not want that either. It is saying, “You have spoken. Let’s start the discussions and the sooner the better”. Certainly, we must not underestimate the British people or democracy. I want to say here and now that they made their views very clear.
My Lords, I agree with much that was said by the noble Baroness, Lady King, in opening the debate and, more particularly, with everything that was said by the noble Lord, Lord Norton. I of course recognise that the majority vote must be given immediate effect, although I, too, hope that further down the line there may be an opportunity to reverse the process if we find that the price at which we can leave is simply appalling.
I want to use my three minutes to express the fervent hope that we never again get ourselves into the position that we are in now. We have held a referendum requiring a decision by a simple majority on a question of the most profound importance, supposedly offering a simple binary choice. Parliament having, by a large majority in both Houses, commissioned the referendum, realistically it is now bound, in the interests of the public continuing to trust us at all, to accept the result and embark on the process of leaving.
I ask noble Lords to contrast the position under the European Union Act 2011, which essentially provides that, in the event of any proposed significant change in EU competencies or treaty law, no such change is permissible without both majority approval in a referendum vote and—this I stress—approval by Act of Parliament. How much better if that had been the basis of this particular sounding of public opinion?
Referendums generally, I suggest, are to be discouraged. In a compelling article, which is imminently to be published in Prospect magazine, Anatole Kaletsky explains why that is so. Margaret Thatcher, he records, called them,
“a device for dictators and demagogues”.
Their very character, said one of the draftsmen of the original United States constitution, was tyrannous. The so-called “will of the people” is often, the author suggests,
“inconsistent or ill-informed and sometimes dangerously repressive”.
Minority interests are simply ignored or overridden. Small wonder that, for example, in Germany’s post-war constitution referendums were deliberately excluded. Representative democracy should not be compromised. In short, we must never again allow ourselves to get into this intolerable position.
My Lords, perhaps I may take up a point made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown. The reason it was put into the German constitution was that Prime Minister Attlee pointed out that referenda were the tools of Hitler and Mussolini. That constitution was drawn up during the Labour Government of 1945.
Before the referendum, the question was quite simple. It was: what might happen? The people decided that they would find out. That is what they voted for—to find out what might happen if we left the European Union: if we triggered Article 50 and negotiated. For well over 30 years, I have had an Irish passport. One tradition of Ireland is that if people give you the wrong result, you go back and ask them again. On this occasion, I do not think that we can quite do that, but when the negotiations are over, probably in 2019—we have not even started them yet—the question will change. Then, it will be: what will happen if we accept these terms and withdraw? There will be a number of different scenarios.
First, immigration and our membership of the EU are not quite as closely linked as we think. More than half the people who come into Britain do so on visas issued by British embassies around the world. We will find it increasingly difficult in a shrinking world to control migration—that is a prediction—and it will not be seen as an EU matter. As discussions continue, we will find a whole range of problems. I do not think that we will be united in this House or in the political fora on how we face them or on what is acceptable. It is also possible that at the end of the negotiations the Government will say, “Well, we’re sorry, we can’t recommend this package to you. We have not been able to get a package that is acceptable for us to say that it is sensible to leave”. So we should not deny that all sorts of scenarios are possible.
I say to my friends sitting opposite—and a number of them are friends—that if they could manage to find themselves a decent leader, I could well see the Labour Party campaigning at the next election to scrap the renegotiation on the grounds that it is just driving into the sand. The Liberal party, which has a long and historic record of support for Europe, might well go to the public at the next election and say, “Actually, we think you got it wrong”. So we may have another referendum, but it may be called a general election and the parties may be on different sides.
My Lords, it may have been some time since the noble Lord, Lord Balfe, was canvassing and campaigning among Labour voters in the Midlands and the north if he thinks that, in 18 months or so, where they voted widely 2:1 to leave, they will want to go along with such a manifesto as he has described. But I do not want to spend time referring to what has been said before.
It should be the simplest of propositions; it should be the simplest of speeches. Parliament decided that the public should make the decision in a referendum. The public have given us that response. Our duty is to respect that and to implement it—end of discussion from where I am standing.
I know that that causes pain and distress to a lot of people who are on the other side of the argument—it would have done whatever had happened. Perhaps I can offer one piece of expertise to the House, which is that I am something of an expert on losing elections. I know what noble Lords are feeling. Having fought eight general elections—won four and lost four—I know that the feelings that you go through are almost exactly the same. When you lose, your opponent lied; your opponent made promises that he could not possibly keep; probably your opponent had more money than you did; and certainly the press were on your opponent’s side. On the four occasions when I won, I am happy to say that it was a triumph of British democracy.
These responses to losing and winning are unfortunately the case with referendums as well. We have had three in the past five years, all of which were said at the time to be defining referendums. The first was on AV versus first past the post, where the latter was supported by a two-thirds majority. Within a year, a substantial number of people, including many in my own party, said, “Oh well, forget about that referendum result. We’ve got to get on with PR as quickly as possible”. On the Scottish referendum, within weeks of Scottish National Party leaders saying, “This is a once-in-a-generation opportunity”, they were saying, “Oh, perhaps we ought to have another referendum soon”. However, I must say to my noble friend Lady King, whom I am very fond of and have known for a long time, that she really has beaten the world record. It is 10 days since we made a decision and now we’re saying, “Well, no, we ought to look at this one again”. We know what she is saying and I respect it: she wants a second referendum to reverse the decision of the first. That is what it is about. If I am misrepresenting anyone, please could they explain that to me now.
Honestly, I have only three minutes; it is ever so difficult.
I sat through the whole Committee stage of the referendum Bill. The referendum was supported by the Conservative Front Bench, by the Liberal Democrat Front Bench, by my Front Bench, by the Green Party, by the Scottish National Party and by the Welsh national party—all parties supported the referendum. I never heard anyone say, “This is only the first of two referendums”; I never heard anyone say, “Oh, this is just an advisory referendum. You don’t have to take much notice of it. It’s useful advice, but let’s leave it at that”. The unanimous view of this House—no one voted against—was that the public should decide in a referendum.
I simply say to this House, of which I am very fond, that this is essentially an advisory House; the public are not an advisory public. The public have made their decision. I say to my friends in this House—I would say it to my friends at the other end, among whom I see no appetite whatever for another referendum—that it really is not our job to thwart the will of the British people.
My Lords, I am sorry that I failed to get my name down on the list, but I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in the gap. The noble Earl, Lord Caithness, pointed out that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, had made it crystal clear in the debate last night that the Government were against a second referendum and that the matter was closed. I want to drive home the point made most forcefully by the noble Lord, Lord Norton of Louth: that the second referendum being spoken about now would not be a re-run of the referendum on 23 June—in fact, it should not really be called a second referendum at all—but that we are talking about an opportunity for the people to have their say on the terms of withdrawal once they have been negotiated. I do not say that there should be a commitment to holding such a consultation here and now; I just say, as I did in the debate last night, that we should remain open to the possibility of holding such a consultation once the terms have been negotiated.
My Lords, I apologise for not having put down my name; I did not realise that the debate was taking place. I am not a fan of referendums—I really am not; I believe in parliamentary democracy—but we had one, as has just been pointed out. Dear God, was one not enough? Do we really want another one? I cannot believe that people would want another one. I am distressed that we are losing as a consequence the very rare talents of our Prime Minister, but that was his decision, not mine.
Let me focus on this House. This House revealed during the referendum campaign that, frankly, it was quite out of touch with public opinion, with the people whom we are here to serve—our people. I always thought that we would leave, because I talked to people and listened to them. We as a House should perhaps have listened rather more to what the people were saying. We have become out of touch and it is important for our legitimacy that we become a little more in touch with the people, because this is a unique, unelected and—dare I say?—somewhat strange legislative assembly.
The British people were not deluded; they knew what they were doing; they voted to leave. We may disagree with it—many people do; I do not—but they voted to leave. We should not scorn their decision; we should not deride the reasons they did it for; we should accept what they said and get on with being a democracy in this county. When one disagrees, it is of course a bit painful—I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, was absolutely right; luckily, I won all the general elections that I stood in—but, nevertheless, please let us just accept the result.
My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Norton, suggested, there is a distinction between a second referendum, which, as I made clear last night, the Liberal Democrats do not support, and a referendum on the results of a renegotiation or whatever the withdrawal agreement would be. While I made it clear last night that we absolutely respect the outcome of this referendum and are not patronising anybody, I was perhaps not sufficiently clear that if we trigger Article 50 and there is a package, the Liberal Democrats would support a referendum on the outcome of those negotiations. There is a distinction between those two things—no support for a second referendum to unpick the democratic decision, but an acceptance that there is a real question about what people voted for. It is all very well to say that they voted to leave. That was clear. But there was no agreement before 23 June and there is still no agreement among those who advocated leave about what sort of relationship the United Kingdom should have with the European Union once we have left. There is a real gap.
We had no plan B from the Government. The Government have not said, “This is what we propose to negotiate” and I note that the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, will not be able to say, “This will be the package”, because clearly we are waiting for a new Prime Minister and a new Government. There is no clear sense of where we go or what we negotiate. No one standing for the Conservative Party leadership was leading the avant-garde for leaving the single market. There are real questions about what leave means and who has a mandate.
A general election would be the way to give a fresh mandate and the Liberal Democrats will campaign to say that the United Kingdom is better off in the European Union. That is not to say that the voters got it wrong but, if there is another general election in the near term, we would absolutely say that we are better off not leaving the European Union. We would also say that it is vital that we enfranchise those who have most to lose—namely, 16 and 17 year-olds. That carried weight in your Lordships’ House during the passage of the then EU referendum Bill and we would push for it again.
Finally, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, reminded us yesterday that the Prime Minister had said that this was a once-in-a-generation decision and that there would be no further referendum. But what happened to the European Union Act 2011? Will the Minister tell us whether that would be invoked at the end of the Article 50 negotiations?
My Lords, I must say to my noble friend Lord Grocott that, every time I have had the opportunity to vote in a referendum, I have been on the losing side, so there we go. That is how effective they are.
We have spent the past two days in this House debating the referendum outcome and we have sought to better understand what happens next. There is no doubt, as I said last night, that the referendum process has polarised politics in our country, with complex issues appearing to be resolved by one simple answer. Whatever our thoughts on people’s reasons for deciding the way they did, what is not in doubt is the final outcome, which must be honoured—although, as I said last night, if many people had heard the reasons for Brexit given by the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, they might have changed their minds, because they would have understood that it meant a return to the 1980s to finish the work of Margaret Thatcher.
My trade union upbringing taught me never to ask a question unless you know the answer. I suspect that, for most of us, today’s question falls into that category. Even my noble friends suggest that perhaps today is not the time for this debate. But as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said yesterday, the answer given by the people is not straightforward. Of the two options on the ballot paper, one set out clear terms for remain—the agreement negotiated by the Prime Minister—but the leave alternative offered a whole range of different futures, depending on the outcome of uncertain negotiations. I agree with him that we must go into the negotiations in absolute good faith, determined to get the best result for the British people. To do anything else or suggest anything else would totally undermine the political process.
However, I also want to repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, said at the end of his contribution. At the end of the formal negotiations, there will be an exit package. It may be good, it may be acceptable, it may even be disastrous, but it will surely require further authorisation—whether popular, parliamentary or more probably both. But today is not the day for that debate.
My Lords, after what the Prime Minister described as one of the biggest democratic exercises in history, it is fitting that we have the opportunity to discuss questions arising out of the decision by the voters that the UK should leave the European Union. This is one of multiple opportunities. We have had two full days of debate, starting on Tuesday morning at 11.30, and there are some hardy individuals around the House today who took part not only in that but in today’s debate and sounded as fresh today as—if not fresher than—they did in the first debate. I have enjoyed every single word they said; even if I did not agree with half of it, I have certainly enjoyed it. It is the kind of debate that does this House proud. It is a good one.
Of course, I know that the result was not what many of us wanted or hoped and campaigned for. I am reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, about how one can be on the losing side. This is not the first referendum that I have had the opportunity to vote in, and I was on the losing side, but I am not using that as an argument to have another referendum and keep on trying. I will argue just the reverse.
The result was clear. By a margin of more than 1 million votes, 52% of those who cast their votes voted for the UK to leave the European Union. We can quote all the opinion polls we like, but the only one that counts is the ballot box, and it does count. It is an advisory matter—in law it is advisory—and the Prime Minister made that clear. But he also made clear his word that, if the British public, the Gibraltarians and all those who were qualified to vote said out, it would be out. Therefore, on the substantive text of the noble Baroness’s Motion, I would say that there will be no second referendum. However, I realise that what she has done is to extrapolate from that and say: “What I really want to do is to say: let us look at what happens next. What is the role of Parliament and what happens when we have a negotiated agreement? Should there be a referendum on that outcome?”. I will look at that relatively briefly, as this is a time-limited debate.
I was astonished to hear the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, say that he hardly heard Parliament mentioned. “Gosh! Brass neck”, my mother-in-law might have said. If he had been here throughout the debates, he would have heard me and others mention the role of Parliament. It is crucial in this matter—utterly crucial, as I made clear last night. The Prime Minister said that Parliament will have a role, but it is also important that this House fleshes out what we see that role to be. Already, the Leader of the House has spoken to the chair of the European Select Committee to work out how we can best engage with this House. The chair of the European Select Committee has already had meetings with Oliver Letwin, who heads up the unit in Whitehall to provide information to the next Government about how we might go forward, and the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, has also spoken to David Lidington, the Minister for Europe. It is all in train, because Parliament is key to what happens next.
It is the case that there are different views about how Article 50 can be triggered. As I made clear last night, in law the Government alone can trigger the Article 50 process under their inherent prerogative power to conduct foreign affairs, which includes the power to withdraw from a treaty or international organisations. But there is a political decision to make and the Prime Minister said that we now have to look at all the detailed arrangements, and Parliament will clearly have a role in making sure that we find the best way forward. I realise that Parliament will have a variety of views, but I undertake to listen to the views of Parliament. That is provided that I am in this job, given that—who knows?—lots of things change over the summer, but I imagine that whoever is in my position will continue with that undertaking. We have already had debates responded to not just by Foreign Office Ministers but others who have given that same undertaking.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister. Will she now give a commitment that there will be no withdrawal from Europe without both Houses voting for the repeal of the European Communities Act?
My Lords, the noble Lord is taking me neatly into the next part of my remarks.
Perhaps I may first dispose of this issue. There is an argument that leaving could be achieved by an Order in Council, whereas others say that we need to repeal the European Communities Act. Last night, I pointed out that repealing the European Communities Act is the end of the process—it is not the beginning—because the only lawful route to leaving the European Union is through the procedures laid down in Article 50. That is absolutely clear. The report published in May by the European Union Select Committee of this House made it clear that that is the only lawful route; otherwise, if we were to go straight ahead and repeal the European Communities Act, we would be in breach not only of EU law but of international law. This proud country does not breach international law; that is not our plan. There is a process that one needs to go through, but it naturally will involve seeking advice from Parliament. What that will be is now a matter for Parliament to advise on, and getting that advice has been part of the process over the past two days.
We had some tremendous contributions to the debates. For example, my noble friend Lord Lawson suggested with regard to the European Communities Act that there could be an early introduction of its repeal but with the equivalent of a sunrise clause within it so that implementation of the repeal could be delayed. There are lots of ideas that can be brought forward on these matters.
I turn to a matter raised by the noble Baroness which is different from the text of her Question on the Order Paper. She feels passionately that, after a negotiation and once we have reached a position where the Government feel that they have achieved an outcome that is in Britain’s interest, at that stage we should put that decision before the public. Other noble Lords have pointed out some of the holes in that argument. This last referendum put before the public, for the remain side, the negotiated outcome, and yet we are now being told by the noble Baroness, or certainly by others, that people did not know what they were voting for. We are now being told, “Let us bring forward a full negotiated package and we will then put that package before the public”. My concern is that, if the public say that they do not agree with that, there would be an attempt to rerun and rerun. There is a core issue here that we have to be really worried about, which is that as politicians we must re-engage with the public. They have shown that they distrust the political elite. We will increase that disgust if we keep saying to people, “Keep on voting until you do what we want”. That is not the way we operate. I know that it is not what the noble Baroness wants, but I think that that is the implication behind her argument.
Perhaps I may continue, because the debate is time limited. Some of the previous speeches overran, although not by much—noble Lords have been terrific in how they coped with that.
Perhaps I may put another point. Let us say that we reached a position where, at the conclusion of a negotiation, the Government of the day decided that they did want to put the agreed package before the public in a referendum. Let us say that, at that stage, Parliament agreed to such a referendum—there has to be an Act of Parliament for that, with all the conditions that apply, and we know of the resistance to referendums and whether they should be used for the precise purposes that the noble Baroness has outlined. However, let us say that there is then a referendum. Would it be a binary choice? We need to think about that further after this Question for Short Debate, because the noble Baroness has raised some interesting issues. Is it really binary? What if the public say, “No, we don’t want that, but we don’t want to stay in”, because at the time when the choice was put to the public we would still be a full operating member of the European Union, which we are this minute, this day and this year. Or is there a third option, which is, “Go back and try again”?
Perhaps I may finish what I am saying. We must remember that we are reliant on the fact that it is the 27 other members of the European Union who will decide, first, whether the agreement is one that they can agree to, and secondly, how long it may take. Asking to negotiate first for an extended period beyond two years is an interesting idea. It is novel and I am not against the novel, but I like my novels to have some element of reality in them as well. We cannot predict what the result would be.
I have two minutes left, so I shall give way to the noble Baroness.
I completely agree with the noble Baroness and others who have said that we must not treat the British people in a condescending way. They can make up their own minds—absolutely they can. But you cannot say that on the one hand and then say, “Ah, but what happens in two years’ time? It might be too complicated for them”. I am saying this: do not curtail democracy; enhance democracy; let the British people decide when they know the decision that they are actually taking.
My Lords, when the British public know what the deal is, the question will be this: what will be on the paper offering the options? I am trying to point out the unreality of the proposal being put forward by the noble Baroness, given that the other 27 member states would look on in astonishment at this pick ’n’ mix option that she is proposing.
But overall what I would say is that, while democracy can give us a kick in the teeth, my goodness it is better than any alternative of governance that I know, and I am proud of the role that this House plays in it.