Lib Dem Lords vs the Article 50 Bill: Malcolm Bruce: Tory Brexit plans a denial of democracy and an abrogation of leadership

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. 

Malcolm talked about Scotland’s situation and argued that independence was an even worse prospect than it was before. As someone who has extensive experience in international development, the Government’s plans to use the aid budget to sweeten Eastern Europe really upset him – despicable, he called them.

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes. I am pleased to say that, although I do not always agree with him, I agreed with every word that he said.

I want to focus on two things, involving two people: the Prime Minster and the First Minister of Scotland. Before the referendum, Theresa May was billed as a reluctant remainer—but a remainer. Since the referendum she has become an enthusiastic Brexiteer leading a Government barely distinguishable from UKIP. The referendum was conducted on both sides in a climate of misinformation. A Government elected with under 37% of the vote on a 66% turnout, under a Prime Minister who was not the leader of the party or an obvious prime ministerial candidate at the last election, have decided that their interpretation of the result should be sovereign—even trying to exclude Parliament from the process.

How dare they lecture us about democracy? As Ken Clarke said, had the result gone narrowly the other way—or even substantially the other way—the Brexiteers would not have stayed quiet but now would be in full cry for a rerun, as are the nationalists in Scotland, who also pledged that this was a once-in-a-generation vote. For the Prime Minister to say, definitively, that the people have voted to leave the single market, all or part of the customs union and the European Court of Justice, as well as—and probably more importantly—other institutions of the EU, is a denial of democracy and an abrogation of leadership.

Let me turn to Scotland. Before the independence referendum, the SNP declared that it was a once-in-a-generation vote. Unfortunately for Mr Alex Salmond, he said that on television and it is being broadcast every day on Facebook. Yet now the SNP is threatening another referendum, despite the fact that the Scottish Parliament does not have the power to run one. The circumstances have changed as a result of the EU referendum. They sure have—but not in a way that makes Scottish independence a better option. The SNP traded on the slogan “Independence in Europe” for decades. However, that was based on the assumption that the UK would remain a member of the EU. For Scotland now to leave the UK, for an uncertain future, is anything but appealing. That probably explains why the prospect of a second referendum is unpopular in Scotland and why the likely outcome looks no different from the result before.

Let us face reality. The idea that Scotland can remain in the EU as a residual part of the UK as the rest of the UK leaves is pure fantasy and cannot happen legally or politically—whatever Elmar Brok, in his mischievous way, may wish to think. The independence campaign failed most especially on its inability to give any credible steer on the currency that an independent Scotland would use and the ensuing friction and uncertainty in terms of engaging with the rest of the UK. That problem would be repeated in spades, should Scotland choose to leave the UK without an agreement on using the pound, which would anyway belie the concept of independence. Even allowing for the fact that Scotland, as part of the UK, has already adopted the acquis, it does not meet any of the essential fiscal criteria. It has no currency, no central bank and no track record. It stands to inherit an uncertain and unsustainable share of the UK national debt and, outside the UK, would be running a current account deficit that would not meet EU criteria under any circumstances. Even with a benign EU membership, therefore, it would take years in limbo before Scotland could aspire to full membership of the EU. That is even before consideration of the veto rights of the other member states.

As the UK obsesses with Brexit, which it will, Scotland obsesses with independence. Both those obsessions mean that day-to-day life is sacrificed and standards fall in education, health, skills and investment while we engage in this distraction. It is a form of self-destructive, collective insanity. Of course, we will campaign to minimise the damage and prevent the disintegration of our shared values, but it requires voters to turn away from an SNP that puts independence above the real interests of the people of Scotland and to stand up to a UKIP-leaning Conservative Party, which is leading us over a cliff. Every day it becomes more apparent than ever that more of our daily activities are threatened—culture, science, research, environment protection and workers’ rights are all now in the mix.

Now Brexiteers want to decorate their own Christmas tree. At the weekend we were told that we should use our aid budget to sweeten the trade deal by spending it in Europe and not Africa. How hard-faced to take money away from the poorest in Africa and south Asia to try to win votes from eastern European member states. How despicable. No doubt this will also mean as we proceed in this that we will not speak out on human rights abuses in all the countries that have problems and with which we are trying to negotiate trade and investment deals. I hear it in Iran; I hear it in Burma: “Soft pedal. Don’t upset them. We may want a trade deal. Don’t stand up for British citizens. Don’t stand up for human rights”. In other words, our long-held and proud liberal values risk being traded away for Brexit. Not if I can help it.


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