Lib Dem Lords vs the Article 50 Bill: William Wallace: Our democracy is in danger

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. 

Second up was William Wallace, who called out the brexiteers for shouting about parliamentary democracy and then doing all it could to undermine it. He also said that British foreign policy was now as incoherent as he could ever remember.

My Lords, the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, makes it quite clear that the country is divided—in some ways more divided now than it was before the referendum—and that this process as it continues could lead to the country and its regions becoming increasingly divided. That gives us a great responsibility in how we contribute to the debate.

This House has an entirely legitimate role to play in scrutinising the Government’s approach to Brexit, both as the process proceeds and when it comes to the final package. Our role as a revising Chamber is not to throw out Bills at Second Reading but to examine the rationale for the proposals they contain. It is our role as a second Chamber to weigh up the Government’s proposals against our understanding of the national interest and to challenge the Government when we consider that their arguments do not make sense.

The Vote Leave campaign made much play before the referendum of the principle of restoring parliamentary sovereignty. Since June it has argued, in contradiction to that principle, that neither Chamber of Parliament can claim a significant role in scrutinising the Government’s changing interpretation of what leaving the European Union means. The will of the people, the Daily Mail insists, requires that we now accept whatever the Government put forward. So we are in danger of slipping from parliamentary democracy to direct democracy in which an authoritarian political leader is allowed to interpret occasional expressions of the popular will without a continuing process of criticism.

Nigel Farage’s French lodger, about whom the press showed much interest recently, is the director of the Institute for Direct Democracy in Europe, an institute supported by a group of hard-right nationalist parties across the EU—direct democracy against the necessary compromises and reasoned arguments of parliamentary democracy, in which popular fears and emotions are exploited by media and populist leaders to bully the opposition and target foreigners and minorities. The Conservative Government should not slip down that road, which would betray the best of the Conservative tradition.

It is not that I think that our current Prime Minister is in any way comparable to Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen, but I do fear that she has been captured by the authoritarian right of her party and the almost anti-democratic hysteria of the Daily Mail. Those of us who still believe in parliamentary democracy, with reasoned debate and with attention to evidence and detail at its core, must therefore insist that this Chamber, as part of Parliament, has an important role to play.

Ministers spent a good deal of time and effort quietly examining the detailed costs and benefits of EU membership under the coalition Government at the insistence of the Conservative side. Thirty-two papers on the balance of competences between the EU and the UK were carefully negotiated over 24 months on the basis of widespread consultation with stakeholders and experts in each sector, and the overwhelming consensus was that in most respects the current balance took UK interests well into account. Sadly, the response from the then Prime Minister in No. 10 was to bury the exercise as deeply as he could for fear of enraging the Europhobe right, so the public were left uninformed. But this Prime Minister cannot afford to bury sectional national interests and the impact of Brexit on them as negotiations move forward. If, at the end of the process, the gap between today’s optimistic promises and the hard compromises of the final package is too wide, the public will blame the Conservatives for the result.

Conservatives should therefore recognise that it is in their own enlightened interest to accept the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Newby and others that requires a resolution of both Houses on the final package and a national referendum on the terms agreed, and it is in the Government’s enlightened interest to inform Parliament and the public of what it is realistically possible to achieve as they move forward, rather than raising illusory hopes now and attracting outrage when they fall short later.

The recent White Paper still suggests that Britain can have its cake and eat it in sector after sector. It states:

“This Government will make no attempt to remain in the EU by the backdoor”.

Nevertheless, it lists a long series of areas where it is confident that the UK can retain close co-operation, from scientific research to aviation, medicines, food safety, chemicals and financial services. That simply will not be possible if we are entirely outside.

The White Paper also pledges to maintain close co-operation on internal security, intelligence and crime, but without accepting judicial oversight of such sensitive issues. That will not be possible either.

On foreign policy, the White Paper repeats the meaningless phrase that we are,

“leaving the EU, not leaving Europe”—

a phrase repeated by the Leader of the House yet again today—and suggests that we will continue to participate in EU military and civilian missions “across the globe”, through the EU’s back door, no doubt.

Boris Johnson, meanwhile, is making speeches in India and the Gulf promising that an increasing proportion of our Armed Forces will in future be deployed east of Suez, as far away from Europe as possible, and last week he was in the Gambia proclaiming the revival of the Commonwealth while the Canadian Prime Minister was visiting Brussels and Strasbourg to celebrate Canada’s trade agreement with the European Union. The Prime Minister says that we must be a world power but that none of us must be citizens of that world. I cannot recall a point in my lifetime when British foreign policy has been as incoherent as it is today.

This has the potential for a train crash, so the House should give the Government a qualified and conditional authority to proceed with negotiations to leave, as the amendments we will discuss in Committee propose.

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6 Comments

  • The whole idea of a referendum is that we can vote on an issue which cuts across party boundaries and then still vote in accordance with our general political outlook or allegiances at the next general election.

    The Liberal Democrats are undermining this principle of democracy. As things are going I might at the next election have to vote for a party whose policies and outlook I do not agree with just to ensure the continuing validity of my referendum vote (and the Liberal Democrats will be the losers!) The Liberal Democrats are not supporting democracy they are putting it at risk.

  • Dr Jay, I’ve read and re-read you post and am still puzzled. Not least because you seem to think a single political party should agree with everything that you do.
    There are prominent Remainers in the Conservative Party. Are the Conservatives ‘putting democracy at risk’ by the government championing Brexit against ‘the will’ of many of its supporters?
    At least at the moment, if pro-EU Tories want to base the GE vote on that, they have the Lib Dems as an alternative.
    If you had it your way and the Lib Dems, as a party, changed their stance to follow the Brexit herd, there would be no pro-EU party in England for anyone to vote for. And I’d have to vote Plaid (no thank you) ‘just to ensure the continuing validity of my referendum vote’.

  • What I am saying is that the whole idea of a referendum is that we can vote on an issue which cuts across party boundaries, decide that and then move on and vote for the party that represents our broad views at the next election.

    Unfortunately, If parties don’t accept the referendum result then at next election instead of voting for the party which one thinks would make the best Government, one then has to vote on the basis of which party will implement the referendum result and which not. It becomes a rerun of the referendum rather than a vote for the next Government.

    At the last election, I voted Labour purely on the basis that they were the best chance of avoiding a referendum. Now having been forced into a referendum, I will have to vote at the next election for a party which will not renege on the outcome. Hopefully, the election after that I can revert to my normal practice of writing ‘none of these’ on the ballot sheet. I dispare of the Lib Dems

  • Oops! Accidentally, click ‘post comment above. …

    What I was going to say was that I despair of the Lib Dems, as a former founding member of the SDP they should be my political home but some how they always manage to get it wrong somewhere and I find myself voting for ‘none of those’. I suppose I am not alone, David Owen favoured Leave also.

  • Conor McGovern 27th Feb '17 - 5:31pm

    I’m a liberal leaver. There are others in the party.

  • David Evans 27th Feb '17 - 5:33pm

    Dr Jay, I presume you, like the rest of us, manage to get it wrong somewhere from time to time as well, so you understand the difficulty. The question is do you want look to vote for people who broadly agree with you and so look at the reasons to vote for them, or do you choose to wait for near perfection and instead look for a reason not to vote?

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