Sir William Cash is Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee, and is MP for Stone.
I have been in Parliament battling over the European issue for well over 30 years. Nothing, not even the Maastricht rebellion in the early 1990s, compares to what we are now engaged in, which is no less than deciding who governs this country.
In our great island story, there are few comparable watersheds. They include the English civil war, which took place after the King imposed taxation without Parliamentary consent. In the late seventeenth century, Parliament was bypassed by French subsidies and a return to Stuart misrule. In the eighteenth century, following the Hanoverian succession, we had a period of great prosperity and enterprise in peace and global expansion, but we lost the War of American Independence.
Then followed the Napoleonic Wars and our survival as a nation. The ‘who governs’ question later translated into a domestic battle for the repeal of the Corn Laws and for free trade. Then, by 1867, the great domestic issue at stake was the right of working men to vote, and for Parliamentary government to be shared by the people themselves.
During the early twentieth century, the Suffragette movement entered its first phase, and was followed by the First World War and the defeat of Germany. The Second World War ended with victory over Hitler. There followed “the winds of change” blowing through the British Empire, which led the Establishment to promote our entry into the European Community to redefine our international role.
This was achieved by the voluntary enactment by Parliament of the European Communities Act 1972. This eventually proved to be a democratic failure – abdicating centuries of evolving, democratic Parliamentary government. It is not always understood that under this Act, in the Council of Ministers, laws are made behind closed doors, with no transcript of the discussions, nor any public explanation – as we would expect from Westminster via Hansard – of the reasons why they are taken, or how the laws in question are made. There is rarely any way of discovering who voted which way and, invariably, the laws imposed on us and the decisions of other countries are made by consensus.
The Maastricht rebellion during the early 1990s was a critical moment. The Establishment had gone too far in acquiescing in European government, and in allowing majority voting to impose laws made against our national interest. Later successive European treaties increasingly demonstrated this unacceptable decline in national self-government – culminating in the Lisbon Treaty which the Conservative Party opposed.
A referendum was promised on this treaty, but it did not take place. Eventually, in 2015, a decision was at last agreed to authorise by Act of Parliament a referendum on our membership of the European Union. This deliberately transferred from MPs themselves the decision as to whether to remain in or leave the EU and, with it, to regain our freedom to make our own laws, in line with the wishes of voters in general elections.
The EU Withdrawal Bill, which returns to the Commons next week, was introduced to give statutory effect to that referendum result. It therefore repeals the 1972 Act, and unshackles us from all the treaties, rights and obligations that go with it, including our subjugation to these undemocratically imposed European laws.
The Bill was passed by the Commons, and opposed by no Conservative MP, after much discussion and many proposed amendments, at Third Reading in January earlier this year. The Bill then went to the unelected Lords, which made 15 amendments – including wrecking amendments – inconsistent with that Third Reading result, and which flatly defy the will of the people in the referendum itself.
The Government is absolutely right to seek to throw these amendments back to the Lords, but it now needs a majority in the Commons on each to achieve this.
We thus face a crisis as great as any in our long constitutional history. The only reason that we face it would be – and, I repeat, would be – if a small but sufficient number of Conservative MPs, irrespective of the Party’s manifesto commitment during last year’s general election, were to decide to join forces with the official Labour opposition, together with the SNP, Liberal Democrats and other smaller parties, to endorse these Lords amendments, thus undermining Brexit and the referendum result and, of course, the Government’s negotiations.
The Bill will be taken on the floor of the Commons next Tuesday. The danger is therefore near, clear and present. There are good reasons of principle and of policy for not voting for these Lords amendments.
First, there are questions of principle. It would not be reasonable to support these amendments claiming that these are in aid of Parliamentary sovereignty, when it is perfectly obvious that the decision taken by the British people in the referendum was taken by a sovereign Act of Parliament itself, which deliberately transferred the decision away from the 650 Members of Parliament themselves to the people.
Second, how could one justify supporting amendments which were not originally accepted by the elected Commons during its consideration of the Bill, but only by the unelected Lords? Bear in mind that the Lords themselves agreed to vote for the Referendum Act. Furthermore, the Commons enacted that act by a margin of no less than six-to-one. Let me now turn to some of the Lords amendments that will be considered next week.
- The so-called ‘meaningful vote’ amendment, promoted by Viscount Hailsham, is an attempt to reverse Brexit. He disingenuously suggested that it protects the primacy of the Commons when it does no such thing – because the lower house, like the upper one, has no capacity collectively to decide the basis on which the Brexit negotiations should be conducted. The negotiations must be conducted by the Government in line with the democratic UK decision to leave. This cannot be prescribed by MPs who have abdicated by statute their ‘judgement’, as Edmund Burke put it, to the people.
- The so-called exit day amendment is intended to delay our exit from the EU. This amendment would unravel a decision taken in the Commons after detailed discussions.
- Although the wording of the further amendment relating to the Customs Union suggests merely the making of a statement about remaining in a customs union, it would if passed enable the EU27 to lay down the terms leading almost certainly to litigation and frustrating the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972.
- The European Economic Area amendment has in essence already been defeated twice in the Commons. We are only in the EEA because we are in the EU, which we are leaving. Furthermore, being in the EEA includes our conceding the free movement of people. This was categorically rejected in the EU referendum result.
- As to the amendment relating to Northern Ireland, this would simply give to the Irish government a veto over the Irish border issue; would undermine our sovereignty and make agreement with the EU27 impossible.
I was the promoter of the Maastricht rebellion, with dedicated colleagues who were fighting for the principle of our democratic self-government against European government. But it should be remembered that the Maastricht Treaty was preceded by neither a referendum, nor a White Paper, nor by a manifesto commitment, as this bill was last year.
Voting to support these Lords amendments would undermine the Government’s negotiations and Brexit itself. We are escaping the EU just as so many other member states are despairing at the EU’s lack of democracy and accountability, and its failures on immigration and the rule of law. Their electors are repeatedly voting with their feet. The referendum was an instruction by the British people to leave the EU. This Bill should be passed without these disreputable Lords amendments – and the Government and the United Kingdom must not be undermined at this critical junction in our history.