Lib Dem Lords vs the Article 50 Bill: Lynne Featherstone: It was as if MPs’ cojones had gone missing

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. 

Lynne Featherstone was characteristically pithy, slamming the government’s position on EU nationals as “no way for a decent country to behave” and was quite clear that the people must be given the final say on the deal – and wonders what would happen if public opinion changed on Brexit. Would the brexiteers be so happy to listen to the will of the people then? She said the Lords should do what the Commons didn’t have the nerve to do and amend the bill to guarantee EU nationals’ rights, membership of the single market and that referendum on the deal.

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and I could not agree more with him on that last point.

I do not take kindly to threats. There may be many reasons for which this House in its current form should be abolished or reformed, but expressing our views honestly is not one of them. Those in the other place who seek to threaten and bully us should be ashamed of themselves. If we send this back to the Commons with amendments, it is simply to say, “Look at this again”—that is what we do with legislation. At least, that is my understanding after a year in your Lordships’ House. This is no different.

We live in uncertain times in an uncertain world, which is even more uncertain today now that the new leader of the free world appears to have no understanding of or respect for his role—or worse. Each day brings another jaw-dropping statement, press briefing, appointment, tweet or executive order, the reality of which is stark and dangerous. I have always been a great fan of America and have always wanted a close relationship with the country that has the most power. I also wanted a close relationship with Europe. I am now concerned about our relationship with the former.

But, to be frank, even if it had been Hillary, in an internationalist world we stand with our friends, be that the EU, NATO, the Commonwealth or the United Nations. None of these groupings is perfect—far from it—and all need to be more effective and dynamic. But the EU was our rock and it is our nearest and dearest. I am broken-hearted that, on a simple majority in a poorly argued and lie-ridden campaign—on both sides—our nation is walking away from peace, security, jobs and economic success. Yes, we will survive—how well is yet to be seen—but do not threaten me or tell me not to fight for what I believe in or not to stay as involved and as close as is humanly possible to Europe post Brexit. On this debate—the power to trigger Article 50—I have but a few comments on key issues.

Without Euratom—I have always pronounced it “Eurahtom”: you say “Euratom” and I say “Eurahtom” —the peaceful use of nuclear energy, nuclear safety, nuclear safeguards, nuclear security and research into nuclear fusion are not certain. As ever, there are two views from the legal profession: one that leaving the EU means we automatically leave Euratom, and the opposing view that leaving the EU does not mean leaving Euratom. It is beyond vital that we remain in Euratom, even if we were outside Europe, for the reasons afore given, one way or the other.

On EU nationals, as has been expressed across your Lordships’ House, we should give assurance to the EU unilaterally that their future is secure. This is no way for a decent country to behave. On the single market, we need our heads examined if we leave. I was a Home Office Minister and worked with Theresa May for three years. She is a very sensible and clever woman. I hope beyond hope that hard Brexit is a negotiating position, and that common sense will prevail in the negotiations and that we will retain access to that market. Anything else is beyond mad.

Lastly, I come to perhaps the most important part of the process that this debate kicks off, which is that we should give the British people the final say on the deal when it is dealt. Listening to MP after MP in the Commons debate say how much they disagreed with leaving the EU but that they did not wish to frustrate the will of the people, it was—if noble Lords will forgive me—as if their cojones had gone missing. That is the point. In the Commons they are in a double bind—or perhaps more of a triple bind. They are torn between their conscience, the will of their constituents and the overarching result in the country. That is why this must go back to the people. It will be almost impossible for Parliament to simply vote without the confirmation of the British people. It started with the people and it must end with the people, when they are in a position to make a judgment based on the facts—the deal itself. Parliament can debate and argue, but it is clear that the Commons believes that it must not frustrate the will of the people—though, if noble Lords will excuse my cynicism, I wonder what will happen when the cold wind of Brexit blows public opinion the other way.

Of course, the referendum was clear: as clear as mud. The retrospective clarity that is now given to it was not there at the time and is no substitute for the ultimate truth that will be the deal. That we should make this momentous change and leave the EU on a simple majority—the result of an advisory referendum based on campaigns that had only a tangential relationship to the truth and that was given as the result of appeasement of the right wing of the Conservative Party—is unforgivable.

The final decision must go back to the people; and the people of this country can be trusted, knowing the deal on the table, to make a decision about whether their first view, now informed by reality, remains their view. Of the people, by the people and for the people.


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