This week the House of Lords starts its 5 days of deliberation on the Article 50 Bill. The Brexiteers in Government have basically told them not to muck about with it or else. David Davis has even told them that it’s their patriotic duty to simply vote in favour of it.
Actually, there’s a very strong argument that it is their patriotic duty to put a brake on this Government’s relentless pursuit of the most damaging Brexit possible – Tony Blair’s “Brexit at all costs.” Hard Brexit doesn’t quite capture how relentlessly difficult the lives of many of the poorest people in our society are going to become if the Government gets its way.
It’s actually quite shocking to think that a Bill of this significance should pass through all its parliamentary stages in less than a month. Invoking Article 50 will be the biggest and most major change of direction in decades and it deserves much more careful consideration. It’s not being done in a vacuum. We have Theresa May’s statement of intent to pull us out of the single market and customs union. If that had been on the ballot paper, I doubt Leave would have won their majority. The people did not vote for this and so their consent must be sought.
There is every reason for the Lords to say to the Government something along the lines of: “We will vote for Article 50 to be invoked but only when certain conditions are met.” One of those conditions, given that they are unelected, would have to be one which brought the people into the equation – giving them a final say on the terms of Brexit, with an option to Remain which, entirely coincidentally, just happens to be Lib Dem policy.
The Lords runs on convention and gentility. These are unprecedented times, though. A Government elected on barely a third of the vote has put this country in a perilous situation. They need to be made to think again.
Now, the Lords can’t stop the Bill completely. If they really played hardball, though, they could delay it for a year. They would certainly have the entirety of the right wing media on their case and the Government would call them every name under the sun, but their comeback would be very simple. Why not give the people their say? If you buy a kettle, you have the right to change your mind on that under consumer law. If you get married, you can change your mind on that, too. Why must the decision made on 23 June bind us for all time especially when the claims made by the Leave campaign wouldn’t pass normal advertising standards?
The Lib Dems in the Lords will be arguing for staying in the single market, giving EU nationals the right to remain and, crucially, that referendum. Quite a few of them are in the almost 200 lined up to speak in the next couple of days. Sharon Bowles, Lindsay Northover, Judith Jolly, Roger Roberts, Malcolm Bruce and Ming Campbell to name but a few. We’ll be bringing you all their speeches.
I just hope that they will be willing to persuade others to fight with them on behalf of the British people to give the Government an ultimatum. Either you accept the referendum on the deal or you have to wait a year. And if the Government doesn’t give way, they just need to be asked, very simply, every time, “What are you scared of? Don’t you think the people will back you?”
I don’t hold out much hope for anything so dramatic, but if I were writing the script for the Brexit movie, that is what I’d have them do. The country needs the Government to govern in the interests of the people and not to stick with what keeps the Conservative Party together. An opposition worth its name in the Commons would have pushed them to the wire on every vote. Instead, the whips could have spent the entire debate in their offices with their feet up on their desk playing Candy Crush and drinking the finest champagne. The Lords now have the right and the duty to hold the Government’s feet to the fire and they should do it.
The House of Lords is not what we would want it to be. It is ridiculous that people who are unelected have this role. However, it is the system we have, and the system that both Conservative and Labour MPs lumbered us with. If we Lib Dems had had our way, the first elections to the House of Lords would already have happened.
So, I say to the Lords, this could be your finest hour. Be brave, be bold, be radical. The reason that the Parliament Acts (which stopped the Lords vetoing legislation) were introduced is because historically your predecessors did their damnedest to block great social change like Lloyd George’s People’s Budget and political reforms, the Hunting Act and equalising the age of consent for gay people. Tomorrow you have to deal with a Bill, the consequences of which could roll back much of the social and economic progress we have made in the last half century. Go get us, the British people, the best Bill possible – and give us the chance to have our say on how (or even if) we leave the EU.
The House of Lords is a very polite place. What could be more polite than asking the people if the Government has got it right? The world isn’t going to explode if we wait a bit before invoking Article 50. There’s no reason it has to be done by the end of March. And if the Government is hell-bent on driving us over the cliff edge, the very least the Lords could do is attach a parachute.
* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings