‘Mr Speaker, it is past time for someone to tell the truth to this House, and the British people, in the face of the tide of falsehood that has engulfed us since 2016.
Much has been made in recent months of the fact that 80% of the electorate voted in the last election for parties that made a manifesto commitment to honour the result of the referendum. Leaving aside the fact that it has been the norm for the past hundred years for the great majority to vote for the same two parties, let us start by doing something that everyone here on a daily basis claims to do yet few if any have actually ever done, namely, respect the referendum.
If you respect someone, you pay attention to what they tell you – the same rule, I suggest, can be applied to referendums.
What the referendum of 2016 tells us is that the majority of the electorate – some 62% – expressed no desire to leave the European Union. In other words – despite what many in the House have asserted to the contrary – there was not then, nor is there now – nor indeed has there ever been – a majority of the British people in favour of leaving the European Union, an institution from which this country, along with all our European neighbours, has benefited economically, culturally and in terms of national security for the last 45 years to an extent that far outweighs any drawbacks, real or imagined, that may be attributed to it.
That is the truth that this House must acknowledge.
While we are on the subject of telling the truth, let me say in passing that the 2016 referendum was not, by any measure, ‘the greatest democratic exercise in our history,’ whatever others may claim. Numerically, more people took part in the 1992 election – 33.6 million; proportionally, a far greater percentage of the electorate – 83.9% – voted in the 1951 election, and indeed the 2016 referendum, at 72.2%, is very slightly below the average for UK votes from 1918 to 2017.
2016 is not even the greatest single-issue vote in our history, short though that history is – there have only been three such. In 1974, some 17.4 million people – 43% of the electorate – voted to remain in Europe; the same number voting to leave in 2016 was less than 38% of the electorate.
I mention this only because day in and day out, members of the ERG and their cronies assert this falsehood and media commentators uncritically repeat it; as recently as last week, the Prime Minister herself broadcast the same false claim in her speech to the nation from 10 Downing St. It is no light matter to mislead the people in this fashion, and those who do so should be ashamed of themselves.
So just before it is too late, Mr Speaker, let us now agree that, in what was not, in fact, the greatest democratic exercise in our history, the overwhelming majority of the British people did not, in fact, vote for Brexit: the reverse is true. Only a minority – 17.4 million out of an electorate of 46.5 million, a population of 65.5 million – expressed a desire to leave at that time.
Mr Speaker, I would suggest that the figure now is smaller still, since the reality of Brexit has begun to dawn on everyone: it does not mean 350 million pounds a week for the NHS any more than remaining in Europe meant 80 million Turks joining the EU – two falsehoods that can be directly attributed to a leading member of the ERG, the member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip. It has not proved ‘quick and easy’ – as the member for Wokingham said it would – because, contrary to what he claimed, the UK did not ‘hold most of the cards in any negotiation’. Nor has the Free Trade Agreement proved ‘the easiest in human history’ as the member for North Somerset said it would. On the contrary, two and a half years of misdirected effort has seen us arrive at a stalemate that makes the government and this House look ineffectual to the point of ridicule.
In the meantime, billions have been spent – and some of it misspent – in preparing for the no-deal scenario that most are agreed will be economically disastrous for the country and will leave our citizens considerably worse off than they ever were in Europe. In anticipation of this disaster, large-scale enterprises are abandoning us in droves, while businesses that cannot afford the luxury of removing face the prospect of chaos and possible ruin as we cut ourselves off from our largest single trading partner – and all because no-one in this House has had the courage to give the lie to the oft-repeated claim that this is what the British people voted for.
Mr Speaker, they did not.
And if the Prime Minister is sincere in her intention to break the deadlock – and she may be – then she could do worse than to heed the wise words of the member for North East Somerset, spoken in this House, that ‘we could have a second referendum – that it might make more sense to have one when the renegotiation is completed’.
Mr Speaker, there is one further falsehood we need to expose and then we are done. The referendum of 2016 was not – as some in this House have foolishly asserted – like a football match or similar contest where the winner takes all. Its nature is quite other – to quote Commons briefing paper 7212 (which I take it you are all familiar with, since it gives the background to the European referendum bill) ‘It does not contain any requirement for the UK Government to implement the results of the referendum, nor set a time limit by which a vote to leave the EU should be implemented. Instead, this is a type of referendum known as pre-legislative or consultative, which enables the electorate to voice an opinion which then influences the Government in its policy decisions.’
That is critical: the value of the referendum is as an index of public opinion on a specific matter; in itself, it is nothing – its worth is entirely in what it points to. But what does it point to? From the outset, some have maintained vigorously, even violently, that it tells us that the British people – and always they use that all-encompassing phrase, so resonant of national unity – that the British people, rather than 17.4 million of the British people, who number 65.5 million – that the British people voted to leave the EU.
Yet strangely, the same people who are so keen to assert that the British people voted to leave the EU are adamant in their refusal to allow the British people any further say on the matter. Why is that?
If you claim that leaving the EU is what the British people want, why would you shy away from the easiest means of demonstrating that your claim is true? Surely, at this critical time, you should be clamouring for a second referendum which – if what you say is true – would serve only to confirm the first?
Aye, Mr Speaker – there’s the rub: a second referendum would indeed confirm what the first has already told us, that the great majority of the British people have no desire to leave the European Union.
The reason why we must have a second referendum – a People’s Vote, if you like – is not that the people have changed their minds, but that they still think the same: that despite the dishonesty and venality of some sections of the press (and, I am sorry to say, of this House) and the pusillanimity of those in this House and the media who have failed to challenge the false narrative promoted by the Brexit propagandists, the British people are still convinced that we will be far better off remaining in the European Union than leaving it.
And, unlike those yammering on the benches opposite, that is a claim I will gladly put to the test. Let us ask the British people what they want – without delay.’