Let me return the House to the heart of this debate, which I believe is about our British democracy.
I remember being handed a badge saying “Keep Britain in Europe” way back in 1975, at the time of the referendum called by the then Prime Minister, Harold Wilson. I am sure you will recall, Mr Speaker, that his “new deal” led our nation to vote to remain in what was then believed to be a “common market”. The generation of the time, including my own parents, genuinely thought that it would promote trade and prosperity, while bringing peoples and nations of a troubled continent together in peace and co-operation. To most people it all sounded perfectly reasonable, and given that many had lived through the war years and then faced the prospect of a cold war with Soviet Russia, I can see exactly why they chose to stay in the Common Market.
Ever since then, however—ever since 5 June 1975—as each day has passed, the scales have surely dropped from the eyes of the British people as they have witnessed power being gradually drained from the sovereign nations of Europe by one treaty after another. They saw the Single European Act and then Maastricht, followed by Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon, all slowly but surely transferring power and authority to the institutions of the European Union.
It cannot be denied that the British people have a fine instinct. We can see when something is not right. However passive we may seem, eventually the people of these islands always wake up to the truth, and having done so, we have never flinched and capitulated throughout our entire history. Instead, we have stood our ground, raised the banner high and defended what is ours, and in the referendum on 23 June 2016, 41 years after the original referendum, the British people did exactly that.
The people of this nation are not unreasonable folk. They gave the Common Market and the European Union a chance, they truly did. They gave the EU a chance to prove itself to be an organisation where we, an island people with an unparalleled history as an independent, seafaring, trading nation, with a global outreach like no other and with nearly 1,000 years of being the masters of our own destiny, could feel at home; but it was not to be.
It wasn’t like we didn’t try. We were not in the EU for just a few months or a few years; we have been fully part of it for nearly half a century, and after all that time our people—the people whom we owe so much as their elected representatives here in this House—decided that they no longer trusted this EU institution and freely chose to get out. They chose to leave and to take charge of their own destiny again. Moreover, they did so with the greatest democratic vote the nation has ever seen, with the winning leave side securing wins in about two thirds of the constituencies of this very House in which we sit.
It was this Parliament that gave the British people the right to make the decision; it was this Parliament that voted through the referendum Act, which delegated this decision to the British people themselves. We said it was a once-in-a-generation decision, and that we would respect their vote and it would be final. So I say to colleagues in all parts of the Chamber and to everyone, both leave and remain, that if this Parliament now fails to follow through on the solemn promise we gave—if we fail to truly uphold and respect the will of the British people, and if we show contempt for British democracy and break faith with our electors—I fear we shall be unleashing a collapse of trust in our democracy the like of which we have not seen in our political lifetimes. Our duty must surely be to our nation and its people. In my constituency almost 70% of the people of Romford voted to exit the European Union, and I can tell the House that they have not changed their minds and will not change their minds.
I truly believe our nation is up for this, and whatever the challenges we may face—whatever Chicken Licken-style panic occurs and despite all the fearful threats of doom and gloom just around the corner—the British people have the strength and resilience that will see us through, and nothing will tempt us to adopt the kind of retreat that some are sadly and shamefully advocating, try as they might.
I can do no better than quote the words of the late, great parliamentarian Peter Shore, who said:
“When the people feel they are being made subject to laws in which they have played no part and taxes to which they have never consented, respect for both law and government is undermined. Our tradition for order and peaceful change is based not only on the character of our own people but on an enduring, if tacit, bargain between Government and governed that the former will play fair”.
We must play fair with the British people and deliver a Brexit.