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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 23rd May 2016.

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Photo of Lord Garel-Jones Lord Garel-Jones Conservative 6:15 pm, 23rd May 2016

My Lords, I will concentrate my remarks on the upcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. In the time available, I will make just two points: first, to try to explain why Britain is—and I think will continue to be—the awkward squad among our European partners; and secondly, why I believe that awkwardness is in not just Britain’s interests but the wider interests of the European Union.

Noble Lords will be well aware that in living memory most of our partners have had to rebuild their democracy, whether it was after the horrors of the Second World War, of Soviet Communist dictatorship or, in the case of Portugal and Spain, of long-standing authoritarian dictators. Part of the result of that is that for many of our European partners the Treaty of Rome enjoys what I would almost describe as a quasi-religious status. That is not the case in Great Britain. The truth is that during those terrible events, our democratic system was strengthened. The Labour Party supported Winston Churchill’s Government during the war and at the end of that war, when the Conservatives lost the election, they became the loyal Opposition to the Labour Government led by Clement Attlee. So we are entitled to look back with pride on the democratic institutions of our country during those difficult times.

But looking back is not necessarily the best way of coping with the future. This brings me to my second point: the challenge that the European Union faces, and always has faced, and why in Britain asking the awkward question is so useful. It must be said that the basic challenge that the European Union has faced from the outset is to find the right balance between those areas where the pooling of our respective sovereignties gives us added leverage and makes the European Union function better and areas where we risk undermining the undoubted benefits of nation states and everything that goes with them—a sense of belonging, a sense of social cohesion, and so on. This has not been met by the central part of Europe. If one looks around one finds that more and more decisions are taken centrally and more and more national Governments and national Parliaments have been sidelined. If there are any doubts about that, we need only look at the rest of Europe, where so-called patriotic parties are springing up all over the place. That is why Prime Minister Major in Maastricht introduced that admirable thing called subsidiarity, which in essence means that the centre should not take on any responsibilities or do anything that cannot be properly managed at nation state level.

Alas, that admirable principle has subsequently been neutered by something called the yellow card system. One of David Cameron’s achievements in his renegotiation has been to upgrade the yellow card to a red card, whereby if a majority of nation states raise the red card, the proposal is dead. I am pretty confident going forward that this will have a significant influence on the way in which national Parliaments and nations have an input into what is going on in the centre.

Time does not allow me to address the case being made by Brexit. It would be an exaggeration to say that I feel sympathy for its case, but it is based on those feelings of confidence and pride in our democracy that we all share. However, it does not follow that brave Blighty can navigate the difficult waters of the 21st century standing alone. I am afraid that Britannia no longer rules the waves and that Rule Britannia no longer applies.

Noble Lords will have followed Boris Johnson’s principled struggle to decide which side of the debate to join, so I will conclude by suggesting what he might have said to the Brexit campaign had he joined the remain campaign. I think he would have looked them straight in the face and said, “Rule Britannia? That’s history. Cool Britannia: that’s today”. Cool Britannia defends Britain’s values and interests in the largest trading bloc in the world and in international fora where decisions are taken every day that affect the daily lives of all of us. So, along with Boris Johnson, I would say, “Cool Britannia”.