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European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:06 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield Crossbench 7:06 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, there is a line of Nietzsche’s that General de Gaulle liked to quote, which is that the state is,

“the coldest of all cold monsters”.

How chilling too can be the state’s artefacts—even its paper ones. For a remainer such as me, these two little light green pages that capture the Bill before us represent the coldest of cold print. Yet I accept the result of the referendum, and I believe that we need now to crack on with the withdrawal negotiation and that the Government should have its statute triggering Article 50. I welcome the assurance from the Lord Privy Seal that the UK Parliament should have its vote on the departure deal, although I expect it will be an interim one in 2019, ahead of the European Parliament.

At the root of my belief that this is the way to proceed is the deal that underpins a parliamentary democracy: raised voices, yes; raised fists, no. For this deal to work, votes must prevail. The referendum was advisory, but its outcome must be respected. If it is not, and we try to caveat it or claw it back, or ask our people to kindly think again, some of them may think that the deal at the core of our open society is at the least questionable. That way lies peril, in a country already beset by a surfeit of uncertainty and no little antagonism.

Europe causes us to fall out among ourselves, as we have already seen today, like no other question. It will continue to do so, I fear, deep into the mid-to-late 2020s, when the final settlement with the European Union will at last be complete. When it is, we might be able to live, work and flourish in a refreshed geopolitical condition, free-trading enthusiastically—and I hope ever more successfully—with the rest of the world. If we can reach this happy point, our falling out over the triggering of Article 50 in the first weeks of 2017 will safely be but the stuff of PhD theses, and the occasional “Where are they now?” column about the leading personalities of the Brexit story in what few national newspapers remain.

The Bill before us drips with historical significance. It is also couched in a special, emotional geography of its own—always a factor, ever since the European question unloosed its destabilising ingredients on an unsuspecting Westminster and Whitehall, when Jean Monnet arrived from Paris out of the blue, bearing a plan for a European Coal and Steel Community in 1950. The Bill before us is a mere 67 words, but how heavy the historical freight that it bears. It is a key element in what will be the fourth of our country’s great geopolitical shifts since 1945. The first was the protracted withdrawal from Empire—from India in 1947 to Rhodesia/Zimbabwe in 1980. The second was joining the European Economic Community in 1973—or “Brentry”, as the Economist rather neatly described it the other day. The third was the ending of the Cold War between 1989 and 1991.

The parallel with disposing of the territorial Empire is, of course, inexact. It too was an intricate business involving protracted negotiations but the timetable was largely, though not wholly, in the hands of British Ministers, and they were usually dealing with but a few nascent nations at a time rather than 27 existing nations with a two-year clock ticking, which is what our negotiators will face in Brussels from the end of March.

However, there was an intriguing symbolism in the Prime Minister’s speech at Lancaster House on 17 January, for she delivered it in the very room where the independence deals with our former colonies had been shaped in the 1950s and 1960s. Her speech contained what I thought was a fascinating passage that I do not think the press picked up. Under the subheading, “A message from Britain to the rest of Europe”, the Prime Minister declared:

“Our political traditions are different. Unlike other European countries, we have no written constitution, but the principle of Parliamentary Sovereignty is the basis of our unwritten constitutional settlement … The public expect to be able to hold their governments to account very directly, and as a result supranational institutions as strong as those created by the European Union sit very uneasily in relation to our political history and way of life”.

I am still trying to make up my mind if this passage reflects a regretful Mrs May suggesting that a divorce was always likely on the grounds of deep incompatibility or if it is a reprise of that traditional British air, “Oh, why can’t Johnny Foreigner be more like us?”. I like to think it is the former.

Our debate today, as we have seen, has an elegiac quality to it. It is not our final farewell to the European Union—that will come with the repealing of the European Communities Act 1972—but it is perhaps a moment to think of those, whether they be parliamentarians, Ministers, civil servants or diplomats, who devoted much of their professional lives to getting us into the European Community in the first place and making our own often very peculiar relationships with it work thereafter, just as other friends of mine have devoted their professional lives to getting us out.

It looks now as if the UK as part of an integrating Europe will, in the long sweep of British history, seem like a 45-year aberration. Still, I salute those who devoted heart, sinew and brain to it for it was a fine, if ultimately doomed, cause. They gave it their all and, in so doing, did the state considerable service.