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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:54 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Neville-Jones Baroness Neville-Jones Conservative 3:54 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, we have heard many home truths in the previous speaker’s speech. I voted to remain and I regret but certainly accept the outcome of the referendum. There is a wide perception around the country, which is true even among the remainers, that we now need to get on with the negotiation under Article 50. It is not, as some would assert, because suddenly a national consensus supporting Brexit has now emerged, but because of the simple and common-sense realisation that uncertainty is economically damaging and marking time is not healthy politically. So the Government have my strong support in sticking to their timetable and getting on with the negotiation. There will be plenty to do in the coming months before the elections in continental Europe have concluded, and plenty to avoid as well, I might say, not least a massive bust-up over the value of European Union assets which could sour subsequent negotiations.

No one can tell at this stage how we are going to get on. Let us hope for and do what we can to further enlightened behaviour around the negotiating table to obtain what the Prime Minister has termed as the best possible outcome. We certainly need the partnership that has been promised. As many noble Lords have pointed out, the UK’s hand is not totally devoid of cards to play, and we have plenty to offer our partners. If the deal is a good one, it will be supported in the country at large and I do not think that it will be necessary to have electoral verdicts on it. But that does not exclude the need for endorsement by Parliament in statutory form, and I hope that this issue, which is clearly going to come before us, can be resolved without further resort to the Supreme Court. Parliamentary sovereignty is not to be mocked.

Sadly, we cannot exclude the possibility that the outcome will be judged as less than satisfactory either by the people or by the Government, or indeed by both. What happens next is the question preoccupying many, and we have heard references to the need for another referendum. If the British people judge that responsibility for a bad deal is borne by EU negotiators, which might well be the case, the likelihood of them wishing to crawl back into the European Union can be ruled out. I do not think, as some people fondly hope, that a second referendum will be a sure-fire ticket for a return. Equally, as it has been well put in the debate, the British people did not vote to be poorer and they will be entitled to judge whether the negotiations lead to that outcome. Moreover, they will want a say in any radically new economic model which the Government propose as a response to a bad deal. So, frankly, I think that we can rely on the normal electoral processes of this country kicking in to deliver a verdict on what should happen next, and I reckon that this will happen in a timely way. Our system will certainly cope with whatever outcome the negotiations deliver.

In the time remaining for me to speak, I want to focus on a different aspect which has not been covered so fully by other noble Lords. Whatever the final outcome, which could take years, this country has embarked on a course where it cannot respond in a “behaviour as usual” manner. Underlying the political and economic turbulence of our times is a technological revolution of vast proportions and significance. The word “transformational”, which is overused, is nevertheless appropriate here. We shall need to master rather than be overwhelmed by the changes in train and turn them to our advantage. That means leadership by government and followership in the country. An important start has been made in the Government’s consultative document on an industrial strategy, which must turn not only into a good strategy but into implementation plans which lead to the exploitation of the strong science and research base of this country, upskill the workforce, draw in the private sector as a partner and reward achievement.

Giving them a future is especially owed to the young people of this country, and we know how the majority of them voted. As a people and as a country, I do not think that we like massive organisation and planning, but this is a moment in our history when we must make the most of the opportunity we have of laying a new economic base for the whole of the United Kingdom.

The Government have a lot on their plate, and I hope they have both the bandwidth and the nerve to take forward an ambitious industrial agenda. It is emphatically not a time for characteristic half-measures or failures of departmental co-ordination. Long-term consistency of policy often fails us Brits—we tend to mess about—but we really cannot afford this. A bipartisan approach would be a strength and would, I suggest, help with the task of recreating national unity, which certainly does not exist at the moment. I plead that we do not allow preoccupation with Brexit, important as it is, to drown out the important task of mapping out our national future.