European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:10 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Darling of Roulanish Lord Darling of Roulanish Labour 3:10 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord. I agree with just about everything he said. I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests. In particular, I am a director of Morgan Stanley, a trustee of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, and president of Chatham House.

Invoking Article 50 is the inevitable consequence of the referendum result last year. There is no alternative but to do that. I am being consistent here. Throughout the Scottish referendum campaign, in which I played some part, I made it very clear that the result would be binding. If we voted to leave, that was it; there was no going back. For the sake of consistency, and because I happen to think it is right as a matter of democratic principle, if we ask people what they think and they come back with an answer, even if we do not like the answer, we have to go along with it. There is no point in trying to rerun the arguments that should frankly have been made with more force on my side last year. It did not work and we now have that result. It is now up to us to ensure that we try to shape things so that we get the best possible result for the United Kingdom, as the noble Lord has just said.

However, that will not be easy. I also, of course, part company with the many who have spoken who take a different view from mine—mainly from the Benches opposite—who are more or less inviting us to give the Prime Minister and the Government a blank cheque. I am not prepared to do that. The problem is this: whereas a narrow majority, but a majority none the less, voted for us to leave the European Union last year—we know what they are against—there was no plan B, no alternative on the ballot paper. It is not at all clear exactly what people were voting for. The truth is that there will be a whole spectrum of people who voted to leave the European Union and will not be happy until we treat it as any other third country—keeping it at a distance—and those who just wanted a rearrangement and a slightly different sense of direction.

The problem is that the leavers did not expect to win and the remainers thought they would, and the result was that there was no plan B waiting to be taken down. That is why we get the impression that the Government over the last few months have been very much making up matters on the hoof and why we have a White Paper which must be the thinnest government publication I have ever seen—I say that having been a Member of a Government for 13 years. This has precious little to commend it.

The next two to five years will be critical and, of course, they also take place in unusual circumstances in British politics. The Prime Minister has chosen to tack towards the Brexiteers because she does not see that there is much in the way of opposition that would pull her back the other way. However, that means that the middle ground of British politics has been abandoned which is a very dangerous place for us to be. There are many people in this country—even a majority—who are prepared to say that there will be a different relationship, but they want a voice and at the moment they are not always getting it.

I might also say that the idea that after a referendum people will come together may be a pious hope. I live in Edinburgh; Scotland is more divided now than it was two years ago. The wounds every day are being reopened and, as the House will know, the nationalists never accepted the result and have always said they will come back. I imagine that had last June’s result gone the other way, the idea that those who were against the European Union for the last 40 years would have kept quiet and gone away is fanciful.

Those of us who believe in openness, in trade, and who take a liberal view of where this country should stand in the world, will not want abandon everything that we believe in but we have to accept the referendum result. However, we must also be ready to engage.

Following on from the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, I would say that there are alliances to be made if only the Prime Minister and the Government would allow themselves to make them. This is not a divorce with one party on either side of the table. There are 27 on the other side, and in many ways 27 different views as to where we ought to end up. If we were living in a rational world—the world described by the noble Lord, Lord Hill, yesterday, and there was no politics in all of this, I suppose we could say, “We all have problems with freedom of movement of people, so why not look at this again?”. We know that there are problems with the construction of the single European currency—the euro and the Eurozone. However, we have to recognise that the politics on the other side of the Channel is different. We are the only country that joined the European Union largely because of trade. Most of them joined to escape their history, to avoid some of the terrible things that happened in the past. That is why we have an attraction to an ever closer union because they saw it as a political rather than an economic construct.

We also need to have a grown-up conversation with our own people. Negotiations inevitably involve compromise, and it does not matter whether you are negotiating with the United States or anyone else. By the way, I do not regard a deal with the US as an alternative to a deal with the rest of Europe. If America is to come first, it seems to me that somebody will have to come second. I do not have the slightest doubt that we will get some sort of deal but I just wonder what it might be. So it is not an alternative, and that is all the more reason for engaging constructively with the European Union as we go through the difficult issues of trade and the free movement of people.

All these issues are set out in the White Paper and they all sound absolutely fine, except that someone on the other side has to agree to them. That is why I do not accept the argument that from now on those of us on the remain side should sit back, say nothing and simply give the Government a blank cheque to proceed. We cannot do that because there are so many uncertainties and unanswered questions, whether on the freedom of movement or sectoral trade agreements, which sound like we are going back to the planning agreements of the 1940s. How will all this work?

Finally, none of these negotiations will be conducted in secret. It is not a case of sending away negotiators who will come back in two years’ time. There will be a running commentary on all this every single day. You cannot talk to 27 other countries and expect anyone to keep quiet for more than about 30 seconds. So let us be grown-up about it and engage positively. However, the Brexiters and the Government have to accept that there is a large section of the population in this country and a large number among the membership in this House and the other place who will not for one moment accept some of the extreme arguments being put forward and who think that the voice of reason must prevail for the good of our country in the decades to come.