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Article 50 (Constitution Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:53 pm on 22nd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Chair, EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee 4:53 pm, 22nd November 2016

My Lords, there have been few times in recent decades when there have been more divisive issues within the United Kingdom. The start of the 1980s and the miners’ strike was perhaps equal to it, but the EU referendum that we have all passed through was a time of great division within our country. It was a time when people were unable to judge what was truth and what was not, and I think the voters generally assumed that everything that they were being told was not the truth. There was a divide between younger and older people; certainly, my own two daughters were left far more desolate by the result of the European referendum than I was. There was a division between those who live the metropolitan life and those outside. There was division between the four nations of our country, with a different result in Scotland and Northern Ireland from that in Wales and England. I suspect that in Northern Ireland there was a hardening of community relations as a result of the referendum.

So there is a great division in our country and one that needs to be healed. Those in favour of Brexit, who won that referendum, often remind us that there have never been a larger electorate than those who voted for withdrawal from the European Union. It was a decisive result. On the other hand, I could say that more people never voted against something, in terms of the 16 million who voted for remaining within the European Union. There is a huge challenge in trying to bring this country together following that momentous decision. It seems to me—and I say this in a non-partisan way—that the way in which the Prime Minister and the Government are currently approaching this is to seed further division rather than building bridges to mend those divisions.

One of the ways in which the Government could start to put that right and make the 16 million people who voted the other way feel slightly more valued than they are at the moment is to involve a much wider community in terms of how this nation moves forward. It seems obvious that the most important way to do that is through Parliament and to use debates and propositions to Parliament to communicate far more widely and use it as an amplification to our electors and citizens more broadly. That is a fundamental role of Parliament and such an easy way in which the Government could start to find a way of healing. We could all collectively, not just in Parliament but more broadly, find a consensus—as much as we can find consensus—or a smart way to move forward from where we are at the moment. My sincere feeling is that the Government cannot get through this process all the way that they need without having that consultation and much broader conversation, and taking them seriously rather than just listening and giving no feedback whatsoever, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said so well. That is fundamental to the parliamentary role. It is about healing the nation rather than just the fact of the constitutional position of a parliamentary democracy.

The other area is around tone; again the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, said something on this. We have had a number of interesting meetings and evidence sessions within the European Union Committee, led and chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Boswell. One of the most interesting was when we undertook our Irish inquiry. We were very privileged as a committee, and indeed, as a Parliament, to have two former Taoiseachs come before us—Bertie Ahern and John Bruton. They are both very well-regarded statesmen within Europe. One of the questions I asked was: “If you were advising the British Government, what advice would you give them in terms of negotiations towards Brexit?”. John Bruton came back very quickly and said very firmly that the most important thing is for the British Government to argue a common cause of not just what is good for the United Kingdom but what is good for Europe as well. Yet I do not sense that tone in the conversations, or the lack of conversations, that the United Kingdom is having at the moment with our allies and—to-be-former—fellow member states in Europe.

That has not been helped, whether by the Foreign Secretary deciding not to turn up at a meeting of European Foreign Ministers to talk about the President-Elect of the United States, who he has already insulted—I agreed with his earlier comments—by the Secretary of State for Brexit describing Guy Verhofstadt, the negotiator for the European Parliament, a key institution in this, as Satan; or by the Prime Minister understandably, but wrongly, sounding aggressive and standing up for the United Kingdom in the typical way at a Conservative Party conference. None of these things helps the national interest at all.

In terms of tone, it is a question of who the Government speak to. I think it was the Foreign Secretary—it was certainly one of the Secretaries of State—who talked to a Czech newspaper and gave far more information about the future negotiations than had been given to ourselves or the British press. Nobody in this House knows the details of the Nissan deal whatever. That all shows that the Government are not trying to be inclusive, show a way forward and bring the nation together. The tone is around individual conversations, excluding everybody else.

The last thing I will say echoes the comments of many other Members of this House. The Government need to get real. I say that with respect, because the task that the Prime Minister has is one of the most difficult that any British Prime Minister has ever faced in modern times: how to extricate ourselves from the European Union. However, they have to come forward to Parliament and therefore to the nation with what their negotiating position will be. The opposition on the other side of the table will know that proposition as soon as we present it. Let us have a White Paper or a Green Paper to make sure that we are fully involved in that. If we do not undertake that exercise, do not include Parliament and with it the rest of the nation and the 16 million who voted for remain, as well as the 17 million who voted for Brexit, this will continue to be a very divisive process and one that will fail. That will not be in the national interest.