[3rd Allotted Day]

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 3:06 pm on 6th December 2018.

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Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Chief Whip, Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland) 3:06 pm, 6th December 2018

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to take part in this debate, which, as others have already observed, is likely to be one of the most important—or the most important—that we will ever know in our parliamentary lives.

In Orkney and Shetland, we voted to remain in the European Union in June 2016. In Orkney, the vote to remain was 63.2% and in Shetland it was 56.5%. I reflect, however, that it has not always been thus. In 1976, when very nearly the entire country voted to enter the European Economic Community as it then was, only Shetland and the Western Isles voted not to. In Shetland, the vote then was in the region of 56.3%. It is worth reflecting on what has happened in the succeeding 40-odd years that has brought about this change.

For communities such as ours, there have been some significant downsides to EU membership. The operation of the common fisheries policy has been one of the most obvious—I will touch on that later on—but there have been other aspects. The operation of state aid rules has often left me perplexed and baffled, but for communities such as ours—communities with small populations far from the centres of power and the larger centres of population—membership of the European Union has been a positive. It has given us opportunities to grow and to keep up in circumstances where we might otherwise have expected to fall behind. Opportunities have been given to us through the availability of structural funds, the guaranteed money that could come to communities such as ours to be invested in our roads, our piers and our airports. I suspect that if we were waiting for the Treasury, or even for Edinburgh, to fund those projects, we would still be waiting today. The existence of a guaranteed system of agricultural support payments has allowed our farmers and crofters to continue to farm the land and to keep the land in the way that we know and value. It worries me that beyond the guarantee of those farm payments up to 2022, there is still no clear indication of how this will work in the future.

Access to the single market has been good for us; it has allowed us to grow new industries in the past 40 years. Forty years ago, there simply was not the aquaculture industry of farmed salmon and mussels that we now know. That market was not available in the real-time basis on which my constituents can now sell into it. Our tourism has blossomed and grown in these years, and in more recent years that has seen a bigger reliance on the workforce coming from other parts of the European Union. An awful lot has changed in the world since 1976.

I was struck by the contribution of Sir Nicholas Soames, who is here as the grandson of a Prime Minister and the great-grandson of a Member of Parliament. No one in my family has ever served in this House before; we have all been hill farmers and crofters. I am here because I am part of a generation that had opportunities that were not given to my parents, just as my parents had opportunities that their parents had not been given. It grieves me beyond measure that I now risk handing on to my children a country and a world in which they will not have the opportunities that we have had.

Yes, we know about the slow and reluctant pace of reform, the bureaucracy and the over-centralisation. But although I often criticise the CFP, I would not have believed it possible that we would find a worse system than we will have when we leave the European Union in March next year, when we will leave our fishermen and our fishing fleet bound by its rules without having any say in how they are made. That surely has to be the worst of all possible worlds, and it is a bitter regret to me that Mr Davis would not take my intervention, because he owes my fishermen an explanation why he thought that was a necessary step to take.

We are a divided country; that is beyond measure. Those who resist the idea of putting this deal to a vote of the people seem to think that somehow we are not. The only possible way that we can hope to heal these divisions is by putting this matter to a vote of the people.