My speech in the Lords on the need for a People's Vote
My Lords, I strongly support the amendment and, along with many of my noble friends, I will vote for it.
Few of us would have started from here. Most of us are in the position of the now-famous maiden aunts of the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, who turned up at the Odeon next to the Electric Ballroom on 23 June 2016 to find that only two films were showing: “Reservoir Dogs” and “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre”. I am now in a position to tell the House what happened after they went to the cinema. They have been in touch and told me that they decided to return home without watching either film. With the noble Lord’s help, they put a DVD on. It was Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho”. They are still watching it in slow motion. To their horror, the point they have reached is that of Janet Leigh about to go into the shower—or, to be more precise, she goes into the shower on 29 March next year, in 333 days. The big question facing your Lordships and the country is this: is there a better ending to the film, knowing—as we do—that the British people will suffer serious harm if Brexit proceeds, but equally that we are a democracy and believe in the will of the people?
The only way I can see of deciding Brexit democratically, with a real option to reject it, is a referendum on Mrs May’s withdrawal treaty after she presents it to Parliament this autumn. Like many noble Lords, I am not a fan of national referendums for all the reasons that Churchill and Attlee banned them in post-war Germany. The imperative for a referendum on the Brexit deal is that we currently have a Government in office who believe that they are operating under an instruction from the British people two years ago to withdraw from the European Union. If that view turns out not to be supported by a majority of the Members of the House of Commons when they consider the exit treaty in the autumn but the Government present the treaty as a matter of confidence—which they surely will, and must, given its centrality to government policy—the only constitutional course is for the people to judge whether the Brexit treaty is their considered will or their considered will is to stay in the European Union. This could take the form of a general election but we have already had two of those in the last three years so a referendum looks like a highly credible option.
I want to make three quick points. First, I say this to my noble friends: the amendment straightforwardly supports Labour Party policy. The resolution on Brexit, passed unanimously by our conference last year, stated:
“Unless the final settlement proves to be acceptable, then the option of retaining EU membership must be retained. The final settlement should therefore be subject to approval, through Parliament and potentially through a general election or referendum”.
That is party policy and what the amendment enshrines in law.
Secondly, it is important not to be distracted by subsidiary issues. Is the time ripe? In my experience, the time is never completely ripe, but this is probably the only chance we will get before the withdrawal treaty so there is not much time left and we should seize it. What about the referendum question? Parliament will decide on that; of course, as said by the noble Lord, Lord Butler, it will be a decision between the treaty and staying in the EU, because if the majority of MPs are for a referendum, that is the choice they will want to put before the country. Is a referendum too divisive? Well, it will be, but nothing like as divisive as when Brexit goes badly wrong, there is a search for scapegoats and we have to try to get back into the EU after we have left.
Finally, I want to make a point about abstention, which, to my great regret, is my party’s whip. On the great issues of life and politics, it is hard to abstain with dignity and self-respect. All of us will be asked what we did. I for one do not intend to say, “I abstained”. I will say, “I voted for the British people to be in control of their destiny at a moment of supreme national crisis”.