“We’re not ‘unelected wreckers’. Our role is to safeguard democracy and ensure parliament and the people get a meaningful say on a final deal,” says Lord Karan Bilimoria of Chelsea.
- Crossbench Peer
- Founder of Cobra beer
- Founding Chairman of UK – India Business Council
Theresa May today chairs her Brexit “war cabinet” to resolve growing tensions in government over the course of Brexit negotiations. This follows further defeats for No 10 in the House of Lords as the EU withdrawal bill is debated.
Some might call us a “house of unelected wreckers” – I was one of three peers pictured alongside this headline on the front page of Tuesday’s Daily Mail. But rather than being at war with the nation, we are its very custodians. When I joined the House of Lords, as one of its youngest peers, I made it a point to speak in debates about Lords reform. Over nearly 12 years, those debates have shaped my view, giving me an understanding of the unique role of this institution of appointed, unelected members (including 92 hereditary peers and 26 bishops). It is one of the most effective parliamentary chambers in the world, mainly because of the depth and breadth of expertise. Furthermore, a minimum of a fifth of members have to be, like me, independent crossbench peers – not aligned to any political party. This combination of expertise and independence enables the Lords to challenge the government, debate issues and scrutinise legislation with authority on a day-to-day basis. As the EU withdrawal bill makes its way through parliament, the Lords is a voice of reason, guiding the nation through one of the most challenging times in its history.
We are constantly called on to honour the will of the people. And yet the government has no defence against hundreds of arguments – whether discussing borders, education or the movement of people – other than, “we are implementing the will of the people”, the 17.4 million who voted in favour of Brexit.
However, the referendum was a yes-no vote, not a blank cheque to leave the EU whatever the terms.
This week we debated whether parliament should have a meaningful vote at the end of the Brexit negotiations. The government’s interpretation of “meaningful vote”, spelt out by the Brexit minister Lord Callanan, is that parliament will be given the option to accept the deal or, if not, we would leave the EU on a “no deal” basis, crashing out of the EU on World Trade Organisation rules. This would be an utter disaster – almost 70% of our overseas trade is with countries in the EU, single market and customs union or in a free trade agreement with the EU.The government has already been defeated nine times, with Conservative members voting against their party whip in almost every instance. Over this latest amendment, promising parliament a “meaningful vote” on the final deal, 19 Conservative Lords – including former ministers – rebelled against the Government.
The Lords’ latest amendment allows parliament to have a proper say over our future deal with the EU, including an option of leaving on different terms, or even remaining in the EU if that is by far the best option.
MPs are caught in a trap. At the time of the referendum, over two-thirds of them thought the best thing for the country would be to remain in the EU. And yet many of their constituencies voted to leave. The confusion is whether they see themselves as delegates or leaders of their constituencies. Are they making these decisions in the interests of their constituents and country, or of their party? The difference between managers and leaders is that managers do things right whereas leaders do the right thing. Are our MPs managers or leaders? Do they have the guts to stand up when the time comes to do the right thing?
And the latest amendment, far from being anti-democratic, could even lead to parliament handing the public a vote on the final deal (or no deal). People were given four months in 2016 to understand the complex issue of our EU membership, spanning four decades. Now, two years after the referendum, so much has changed, the will of the people cannot be interpreted as “take it or leave it”; it is not leave “on whatever terms”.
Surely, with a permanent decision such as this, the public should be asked: “You voted to leave in June 2016 – are you still prepared to leave on these terms, or to accept that there will be no deal?” That, to me, would be real democracy.
In any normal democracy, you have elections every five years and people can change their minds. Deprive us of that option and you have a dictatorship.
The government has already shown that it is willing to bypass parliament. Theresa May wanted to implement article 50 without the assent of parliament, and is now trying to take Britain out of the EU without giving parliament a meaningful vote – let alone giving the people a meaningful say. Far from respecting democracy, it is bypassing democracy.
Whichever way you look at it, if remaining in the European Union is the best option by far, it is our duty in the House of Lords to make sure that option is available to the public.
We learn, day after day, more about the significance of Brexit. It is like watching a train crash in slow motion. Our amendments in the House of Lords are made in the hope that we give MPs the ability to stop this crash.