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I wish to say a few words on behalf of the Liberal Democrats’ position that we should have a people’s vote with the option to remain in the European Union. We shall campaign to remain in the European Union, as we believe unambiguously that that is in the national interest and the right thing to do.
I think that I am one of the relatively few people left in the House who actually campaigned to join the European Union and in support of membership during the Wilson referendum. It was my privilege at the time to campaign alongside some very fine British and Scottish statesman, such as Jo Grimond, John Mackintosh and, perhaps above all, John Smith, who strongly believed that Britain’s future lay in the European Union. John Smith in particular would be pleased with the amendment that my Liberal Democrat colleagues have tabled, which fully endorses the Labour party’s amendment, but would add a small section that the leader of the Labour party either forgot or was embarrassed to refer to. It would add
“including a public vote as endorsed by the Labour Party Conference”.
He did not mention that this evening.
My other relevant experience, which I share with Margaret Beckett, is of having worked as President of the Board of Trade, for five years in the coalition Government. There were several important lessons from that experience. The first was the importance to Britain—and this was recognised by both parties in the coalition and the Labour party—of its membership of the single market. It stemmed originally from an insight in the 1980s under Mrs Thatcher and was taken up by the Blair Government, that the future of the British economy lay with services, not just financial services but more generally. It was an area in which Britain had a considerable competitive advantage, and was in the national interest to promote. We did so, and we lectured countries such as Germany that were dragging their feet on issues such as mutual recognition of professional qualifications. At the end of the campaign for the single market, in 2015, we reached a provisional understanding on a digital single market, which was very much in the interests of Britain’s emerging digital economy and creative industries. The Prime Minister herself said recently that this was something that Britain should be part of, until it was pointed out that we cannot be part of it if we leave the single market.
The other major lesson of that period comes from having negotiated with General Motors over Ellesmere Port and Luton, with Ford over its plants in the UK, with Toyota, with Jaguar Land Rover over its expansion, with Airbus over its big investments here, and with Siemens over its investment in wind turbines. In each case, the company made it absolutely clear that it was making its investments in the UK manufacturing sector in order to be part of the wider European market. Many of those investors, who invested here in good faith, now feel somewhat betrayed. The Japanese have said that very clearly, having been told by successive Governments that our membership of the European Union single market, on which the future of their investment here depended, would be maintained.
Looking forward, there are overwhelming arguments for remaining a member of the European Union. Some of them have already been expressed, including the arguments about peace, put forward by Hilary Benn, and about high environmental standards. The fundamental point, however, is the impact on our living standards. It has been acknowledged—even by the Government in the past two weeks, as a result of their assessments—that however Brexit is constructed, we will be worse off if we leave the European Union. We can have different scenarios and assumptions, but there is none that shows that we would actually benefit from leaving the EU. We can see the signs of this already in what has happened since 2016. We have seen the biggest devaluation since the second world war, the cut in real incomes, the stifling of business investment and the decline in productivity. These things will continue on a bigger scale.
We are offered the fantasy of a clutch of trade deals, but we need to look at what that actually means. There will be some trade deals that can be negotiated. Small countries in the Caribbean will certainly sign up for trade deals to get better access for their bananas and sugar. Some countries will find it relatively easy to come to an agreement. They include Japan, Korea and Canada, but they already have trade agreements with the European Union, so we would gain nothing from that.