Lib Dem Lords vs the Article 50 Bill: Sarah Ludford: Brexiteers fear the people realising the disastrous truth

The Lib Dem Lords have made some cracking contributions to the debate on the Article 50 Bill. Ahead of its next Lords stages, we’re bringing you all the Lib Dem contributions over the course of this weekend. That’s no mean feat. There were 32 of them and cover more than 30,000 words. You are not expected to read every single one of them as they appear. Nobody’s going to be testing you or anything. However, they will be there to refer to in the future. 

Our Lords excelled themselves. Their contributions were thoughtful, individual, well-researched and wide-ranging and it’s right that we present them in full on this site to help the historian of the future. 

After two days of debate, it fell to Sarah Ludford to sum up for the Liberal Democrats. She brought together all the strands of the debate. She took on the two days of vitriol that had been directed at the party from the Brexiteers. What were they frightened of, she wondered. They were, she said, so keen to stamp on dissent for fear of the disaster of Brexit being realised by the people. She summarised the massive negatives to business, to jobs, to prosperity, to EU nationals and their British families and made the case for a referendum on the deal.

There were times during this mammoth task of putting all the speeches up that we wondered what on earth had possessed us to think that it was a good idea, but we now have in one place a comprehensive rebuttal to everything the Government says on Brexit. Our lot did us proud as they drove a coach and horses through the Government’s arguments. The sheer vitriol they took from the Brexiteer zealots shows that their arguments were very effective.

My Lords, I draw the attention of the House, and perhaps the Daily Mail, to the fact that my receipt of an MEP pension is in the register.

We have had a long and intense debate, with many excellent speeches. I concur with the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, in thanking Gina Miller for the fact that we have had this debate. It has been a marathon rather than a sprint, just as the Brexit process itself will prove to be over possibly a decade of blood, sweat and tears. Those who swallowed the myth perpetrated by some Brexiteers that it would mean “With one bound, we are free” are going to be cruelly disappointed. This is just one of the many disillusionments to come. Another is the unravelling of the notion that leaving the EU will solve all our problems. There are in fact many sources of valid dissatisfaction, grievance and frustration among the people of the United Kingdom today. To most of these problems, Brexit will bring no relief but there is no spare capacity in this Government to focus on anything but Brexit. As Tony Blair so rightly said in his recent speech:

“This is a Government for Brexit, of Brexit and dominated by Brexit. It is a mono-purpose political entity”.

The Government’s Statement introducing the White Paper three weeks ago made an extraordinary assertion about the Bill. They said that the Bill is not,

“about whether or not we leave the EU, or even how we do so ”.—[Official Report, 2/2/17; col. 1310.]

From these Benches, and as we have heard from others, there is profound disagreement with that assertion so Liberal Democrats are not prepared to throw in the towel. We hope that majorities will form for key amendments and I welcome indications from across the House of such support.

Against the citation by the noble Lord, Lord Hague, and others that 37% of the electorate voted to leave, I set the riposte of my noble friend Lady Walmsley: that means that 63% did not vote leave. Thus, it is perfectly legitimate to try to persuade the other place to think again. Indeed, waving this Bill through with no change, while harbouring serious reservations, would be an abrogation of our responsibility—as the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, the noble Lord, Lord Warner, and my noble friend Lord Taverne emphasised. We are being asked to rubber-stamp Brexit at any cost, the most extreme of all the options open to the Government.

Extreme Brexit shamefully forgets the interests of the young, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, noted. As the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, said, we will be asked, “What did you do to stop this?”. To the noble Lord, Lord Kakkar, who espoused the “doctrine of unripe time”, I say: if not now, when? When do we try to stop the fall off the cliff edge? As the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, said in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, no deal is the worst deal of all. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Russell, coined the best phrase of the debate for the Brexiteers—“sore losers”—and I believe that the speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Lawson and Lord Forsyth, bore out that description. Responses came from my noble friend Lady Featherstone, who said, more or less, “Do not bully or threaten me to give up my belief in a close relationship with Europe”, and from the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, who said that speaking out is our right, our responsibility and our duty.

There have been objections to the Liberal Democrat call for people to have the final say on any Brexit deal. The noble Lord, Lord Hamilton, said it was not very British to have a further referendum, but Mr David Davis, who is surely very British, thought it was a good idea. As my noble friend Lady Walmsley said, you cannot start with democracy and end with a stitch-up, and I am grateful that other noble Lords, including the noble Lords, Lord Butler and Lord Triesman, agreed with that proposition. As my noble friends Lady Randerson and Lady Kramer stressed, this would be a first referendum on the result of negotiations, the first chance for the British people to pass judgment on the Brexit deal that the Government come back with. It is not a second referendum in the sense of a rerun of last June. Some noble Lords need to grasp this essential difference, which was well understood by the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston.

My noble friend Lord Newby, in his long-ago introduction, referred to Gladstone’s call to trust the people. This was in fact requoted by Randolph Churchill, but Gladstone originated it, and it is worth recalling the whole quote:

“Liberalism is trust of the people tempered by prudence. Conservatism is distrust of the people tempered by fear”.

It is that fear which is so driving the Brexiteer intolerance of disagreement or dissent from the true faith—fear that people might realise that the extreme Brexit emperor has no clothes, and that will mean exposure to cruel, cold winds.

Last June’s vote cannot possibly be interpreted as a decision to leave the single market, as the noble Lord, Lord Darling, emphasised. Not only was Mrs Thatcher —as she then was—the original sponsor of the European single market, but the Conservatives obtained an overall majority at the 2015 general election—the last one we had—with an explicit manifesto commitment to safeguard the UK’s position in it, as my noble friend Lord Shipley reminded us. The noble Lord, Lord Leigh of Hurley, urged respect for that manifesto. Perhaps he might ask his noble friends on the Front Bench and in the Government to respect that manifesto commitment to the single market.

The price we will pay for the alleged privilege of global Britain freedom is not only a restriction of opportunities for all our citizens but also the far greater weight and expense of red tape for exporting to the EU from outside the single market and the customs union. My noble friend Lady Walmsley said that the single market gives us the freedom to sell and the confidence to buy.

The refusal to seek continued membership of the single market is due to two self-imposed red lines—against enforcement of EU law through ECJ jurisdiction and against free movement of people. Yet it is blindly obvious—even the White Paper says so—that, in any transitional period or longer term under a free trade agreement or security arrangements, we will be obliged to follow EU standards and the ruling of the court either directly or indirectly. My noble friend Lord Lester pointed this out, as did the noble Lord, Lord Monks, and my noble friend Lord Marks labelled the Government’s position as absurd. The Government are clearly hoping to get away with a smoke and mirrors concealment of this link to the ECJ.

The Government turn their back on free movement without either acknowledging that it is a two-way street, enabling many British people to explore the delights of study, residence or retirement in another EU country or options for flexibility and change. This was urged by the noble Lords, Lord Hannay and Lord Hain.

Some speakers seemed to think we could have the single market without the single market. The noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Ludgate, expects free trade as at present. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Wirral, wants mutual market access for insurance. My noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr and the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, rightly refuted any such notion as delusional.

The noble Lords, Lord O’Donnell, Lord O’Neill and Lord Giddens, explained how global trade agreements could not offset the disadvantages of exit from the single market. Other noble Lords explained how Brexit would harm co-operation in different sectors, such as financial services. My noble friend Lord Paddick talked about security and my noble friend Lady Jolly mentioned defence.

The potential effect of very hard Brexit on these islands is alarming. Much concern was rightly expressed about the effects within the island of Ireland of pulling out of the single market and the customs union. The White Paper gives no clue about how it will actually avoid a hard border, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Loan, pointed out. My noble friend Lord Purvis of Tweed rightly feared for the social unity of this kingdom and for the future of the Union. My noble friends Lady Humphreys and Lord Thomas deplored the effect on Wales and Welsh economic development of pulling out of the single market.

The Government seem blind to economic, social and personal distress being caused by their refusal to guarantee the continued residence and other rights to EEA nationals already legally here. Liberal Democrats are totally committed to securing the continued rights of Britons across the EEA, as well as those of EEA citizens here. We believe—I cite the words of the noble Lord, Lord Howard, in evidence to the EU Select Committee—that it is “inconceivable” that a first move will not be reciprocated. So I hope there will be wide support across this House for an amendment.

In conclusion, it is Parliament’s job to seek to put the “how” into Brexit in a way that at least puts a reasonable proposition to the people and allows them to make a sensible choice between that and continued EU membership. Let us have a return to the pragmatic, common sense on which Tories traditionally pride themselves, even if this is not as exhilarating as the revolutionary ideology gripping this very un-Tory Government now. Britain is set to pay a high price, unless the Conservative Government can be deflected from their inflexible pursuit of the hardest of hard Brexits.


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  • …and yet Scottish LibDems continue to put the Imperial Union first rather than fight for the Scottish nation to have its vote respected. The video clip below highlights the need to be apart from the Right Wing politics of little englanders. It is only one of thousands of similar stories now being posted on a regular basis

  • Clottie,
    If you look at what brave Brexiteers believe and what the SNP believe they are actually the same.
    Brave Brexiteers it’s all the EU’s fault.
    SNP it’s all Westminster’s fault.
    Brave Brexiteers the EU is a Imperial project designed to hold us in chains.
    SNP well as you put it “the Imperial Union”
    You both believe in the “will of the people” but only in the way you want it to be.
    You both believe devorce is best and that your old partners will give you everything, in your case because you have oil, in the case of the Brexiteers because we buy lots of German cars.

    You both rant at people who don’t agree with you. You both believe if only you were free everything would be perfect. The fact is reality isn’t like that, I’d advise you to see how the Brexit devorce goes before trying it for yourself.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Feb '17 - 6:41pm

    It has been said that some countries in central and eastern Europe entered the European Union because they wanted to join NATO. Others have the same ambition but have not yet achieved it. The current UK government is committed to NATO, committed to helping neighbours such as Ukraine and committed to spending 2% of GDP on defence. These pro-European policies are inconsistent with leaving the European Union.

  • It’s fair enough for Simon Shaw to put Clootie’s position under close examination…… and of course some Lib Dems including me quite like marmalade on toast first thing in the morning.

    It is equally fair to ask frankie to explain his specialist knowledge and experience of the Scottish political scene.

  • @David Raw

    I’ve read wings over Scotland need I say more.

  • Oh and I read the Scottish independence white paper, if that isn’t a wish list and a flight of fantasy well I don’t know what is.

  • Caron, thank you for posting this fascinating series of speeches, which have received little coverage elsewhere.
    If only the Remain argument had been put so powerfully and eloquently during the Referendum ‘debate’, the outcome might have been rather different.
    Instead, Liberal Democrat voices were largely sidelined, as the hubristic Cameron and Osborne monopolised much of the Remain campaign.
    We may have lost the pre-Referendum argument, but we are winning the post-Referendum one decisively. The question is, how do we make this count?

  • Lorenzo Cherin 27th Feb '17 - 12:10am

    Well phrased praise from, Allan, we have good people in the Lords who represent our cause well indeed , the EU , for me but an example of the many issues it touches on, and values too. The country is in need of new voices and ones that resonate, but those we have thus far do their very best and we should say it .

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