Outcome of the European Union Referendum - Motion to Take Note (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:10 pm on 6th July 2016.

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Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development) 6:10 pm, 6th July 2016

My Lords, we have had some amazing speeches during the last couple of days. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury was especially profound and moving. Others have brought their huge wisdom to this debate. When the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, says—as a political historian—that nothing on this scale has happened in his lifetime, we should pay attention.

Knowing what we are doing, we seem to be heading towards something that almost all of us deeply regret and which will profoundly change this country and its future. My noble friend Lord Marks mentioned his children’s devastated reaction. They see themselves as European. My children, too, were horrified. One of them is doing a law conversion course. Of all ironies, on Friday 24 June she had an exam on EU law. Never had an exam seemed more irrelevant.

The young are overwhelmingly in favour of staying in. As you progress through the generations, that moves in the other direction. The long blaming of so much on the EU and the reluctance of political parties and business to counter that has had its effect. To me, as a Lib Dem, the outpouring of support for the EU, especially from young people, has been so welcome, so novel, but so sad.

Others have powerfully put across analyses of how we came to be where we are, and of our hugely divided society. But we should note that Scotland, even with the deprivations there, voted to remain. The irony is, of course, that the Brexiteers are not known for tackling poverty and that leaving the EU is likely to reduce, not increase, the life chances of those who feel most excluded.

I wonder, as did the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, how on earth we ended up with a referendum with a simple majority. What was proposed could not be a more profound constitutional, social and economic change. Our now divided country shows how unwise it is to undertake huge constitutional change on a simple yes/no referendum with a simple majority. Those who led for leave had no agreed plan—hence the poster at Saturday’s march, “Even Baldrick had a plan”. There is no manifesto and no agreement on what relationship we now want with the EU: like Canada’s, Norway’s, Switzerland’s, Albania’s or something else?

Do we face inwards or outwards? The most reverend Primate rightly expressed a wish that the UK reaches out,

“with a forward foreign policy to the poorest around the world”.—[Official Report, 5/7/16; col. 1861.]

The UK should be proud of its record on development. We are the first country in the G8 to commit 0.7% of GNI for aid, as my noble friend Lord Bruce pointed out. Our aid must now be at risk. Our economy is projected to weaken: therefore, our 0.7% will be smaller than it otherwise would have been. In the circumstances of a weak economy, the right-wing campaigns that have wrecked our place in Europe will take their wrecking ball to our aid commitment. If we did not manage to defeat the voices of little England over the EU, where our own interests are so directly affected, how will we fare on aid?

Then there is the impact within the EU itself. We, along with other northern countries, were instrumental in persuading our other EU partners to contribute. The EU is the largest and strongest economic bloc in the world. It is also the largest and strongest contributor to development around the world. Our outstanding Department for International Development has been disproportionately effective in helping to shape what the EU does. The noble Lord, Lord Patten of Barnes, as EU Commissioner, completely shook up what the EU was doing. In more recent years, DfID staff quietly and systematically aligned the EU with UK aims, not the other way round. We led, but we will no longer be there.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper said, those whom I have met recently in developing countries were not arguing for Brexit. In the last month alone, in Nigeria I was asked why the UK was being so isolationist and in Angola I was told that it would be “a big mistake” for us to leave the EU. As we speak, the African Union is seeking to join up Africa, looking to the model of the EU. It seeks to remove customs and visa barriers between countries—the reverse of what we seem to be doing. A Foreign Office civil servant said to me that he was not sure he would want to stay in his job if we left the EU because he would be in the business of managing the UK’s decline.

As my noble friend Lady Kramer made very clear, we are already damaging our economy. That damage will continue, even if, as my noble friend Lord Carlile suggested, we take a judgment, down the track, that it is not in Britain’s interests to settle for an inadequate agreement outside the EU. Clearly, we must redouble our efforts to trade with the rest of the world, but part of our strength came from our membership of the EU and, with it, our political and economic stability. I have to hope that we have as close a relationship as we can with our EU partners. As we embark on this long and dangerous journey, if that is what we must do, it is surely vital that we now work together and that Parliament plays a key role in charting us through these dangerous waters.