In this colourful debate Lord Bilimoria opens by discussing the EU referendum and the subject of the will of the people. He notes the realisation by many of the complexity of the issue of leaving the EU and that people have changed their minds and quotes David Davis that “If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy”. There are several interventions throughout which Lord Bilimoria gives way to and answers in turn with evidence from his own experiences. He argues that the country is already divided regardless of a new referendum and that the result of the 2016 referendum was not to allow the Government to leave on any basis. Finally, he repeats a humorous analogy from a Cambridge philosopher and closes by arguing a second referendum is required to allow the people a chance if we are a democratic nation.
European Union (Withdrawal) Bill
19th March 2018
My Lords, as a country we have only had referenda a few times in our history. This is the first time, let us remember, that the referendum result has not reflected the will of Parliament. Looking back to what the will of Parliament was two years ago, before the referendum, let us remind ourselves that about two-thirds of the House of Commons and well over 75% of this House wanted to remain. Since the referendum of 23 June 2016 we have been told to respect the will of the people. We have been told by the Government that they are implementing the will of the people; they are under the orders of the people; it is undemocratic if we even challenge this. The whole nation is now under an impression that this Brexit juggernaut is going, they have to get onto it and there is no turning back. But let us remember that from 20 February, when the referendum was announced, until 23 June represented four months to make a decision about 44 years.
It is so complex. Many noble Lords were in this House when, just before the referendum, the EU Committee debated one of its reports, and it was said that if only people realised how complex this was going to be and how impossible, they would never, ever want to leave. I have always said that I am a Eurosceptic in many ways; I am against a lot of the things about the European Union. It is nowhere near perfect—the euro being a great example—but on balance I think that it is absolute folly to implement this wretched referendum. The Brexit emperor has no clothes. People have changed their minds, people are changing their minds and people will change their minds in the run-up to October, let alone in the run-up to 29 March next year. People have to be given the opportunity to change their minds. As Keynes said, “If the facts change, don’t you change your mind?” Of course you can. Even David Davis said:
“If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy”.
What is wrong with the referendum, and what is so undemocratic about it—the noble Lord, Lord Patten, is so right—is that in a normal vote, if you win with 50.1%, you have won and that is it, but in five years’ time, people can change their minds if they are unhappy, if they have been lied to, if people have not performed. Here, there is no such chance for people to change their minds. What is more, we have had two years, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, said—this is why this amendment is so crucial—during which people who were 16 and 17 year-olds would now be old enough to vote. Every time I speak at universities and schools, and I do so regularly, I ask them, “If you were given a choice, would you wish to remain or leave?” I am not exaggerating; almost 100% of the hands go up saying they want to remain. In fact, I get applauded a lot of the time and people say, “Really? Do we have a chance?”
I am sorry to interrupt my noble colleague, who is very dear to me, but this idea that the young have only one view and that they will always retain this same view throughout their lives is wibble and wobble. It is simply not true. The young had the poorest turnout rate at the referendum; they were split two to one on the issue, which means that there are plenty of young people who actually wanted Brexit. His whole idea that it is impossible to have a successful Brexit is the most undemocratic view of all. Young people deserve to be heard, of course they do. Yes, they are passionate about it, and I am delighted at it, but the idea that young people will never change their minds, no matter what their experience, no matter what their age, simply goes against all the facts of politics as we know it.
I hear everything that my noble colleague has said and I respect him greatly. All I am reflecting is what I have seen when I have asked hundreds if not thousands of young people in the country. Of course they can change their minds. Of course they did not turn out to vote two years ago, and they regret it dearly. I think that if they had a chance now they would turn out in droves, and I guarantee noble Lords that almost 100% of them would vote to remain. What is more, what is worrying and why these amendments are required is that we are being told by the Government that we will get a meaningful say, but we do not know what that meaningful say is. We are being told by the Government that if there is no deal, we will still have to leave. What we are not being told is, if we are not happy with a bad deal or a no-deal, that the people should have a chance to change their minds. Will the Minister confirm that this is the case; that whatever happens—deal, bad deal, no deal—we have to leave and people do not get another say? This is nonsense, because it is unacceptable and undemocratic.
Lord Forsyth of Drumlean
On this theme the noble Lord is pursuing that people have the right to change their minds, how many times do they have the right to change their minds? If, for example, we had another referendum and it was narrowly one way, would people like me be entitled to argue, “Actually, do you know what, we can do a better deal, and we should have another referendum”? We would have a neverendum of neverendums—is that what the noble Lord is arguing? It is clearly ridiculous.
The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has made a point that is always made when I make this argument. But this is not a normal situation. This is a decision that is permanent, which will affect generations to come. It is a decision that has not been made with the full information. It is a decision where already in two years so much has come to light. It is a decision that depends on so many negotiations. Yes, we need another referendum so that people, with the full information, can have the option to make a proper decision, including changing their minds.
My Lords, this has the potential to be extremely divisive for the nation. We need a referendum to ensure that we do not land up, through this whole process, with a divided nation for a very long time.
My Lords, how much more divided can the country be than it is now? That is what this wretched referendum has done: it has divided our country. Our House is divided in a way that it never has been before.
That is why we need a second referendum or a vote on the final outcome.
We do, because if what I feel will happen happens and people decide to remain in the EU, we will have a future that is much better than if we crash out. When people voted to leave they did not say to the Government, “We allow you to leave on any basis”. It was not a carte blanche. It was not a blank sheet of paper.
We all loved my noble friend Lord Lisvane’s story about his aunts. One of the most well-known philosophers in the world today, at the University of Cambridge, gave me this analogy. He said: you go to see a doctor with your arm hurting and you say, “Please, doctor, take away the pain from my arm”. The doctor takes you into the operating theatre. You come out of the operating theatre and the doctor has cut off your arm. You say, “I did not ask you to cut my arm off”. The doctor says, “Well, you told me to stop the pain. I have done what you told me to. You did not say I should not do this or that”. That is the exact analogy: if we leave on any basis we will be letting down the British people.
Call it a referendum part 2 or a second referendum—we have to allow the people a chance if we are a truly democratic nation.