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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:26 pm on 21st February 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 8:26 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, I wish to start with a few quotes from some excellent speeches. We have heard a wealth of expert and apparently reliable information that flatly contradicts itself. We have been told that if we cannot compete inside the EU we cannot compete outside, and the advantages of our being within it seem compelling. We have heard that we are turning our back on many of our friends and on what is in our own interest. Equally, we have heard from some who have spoken of a slow and difficult acceptance that an era has come to an end. We have been warned of the danger of flying in the face of public opinion, albeit a minority. It has been argued that the Government have taken the policy of pushing the Bill through the other place, will undoubtedly do the same thing here and, in the circumstances, cannot do anything else. They cannot admit even small amendments because that would upset the whole timetable. A headline in a national newspaper has boldly stated that this Bill is, “The mandate that never was”.

All those arguments came from our debates in this House in 1971 and 1972. Nothing has changed except the actors and the fact that people on one side are using the arguments that the other side used at that time but with slightly different words. The only major difference from that time is that our speeches are, thankfully, limited to six minutes. I am the only Peer taking part in this debate who listened to those debates. As I did so, sitting then on the Cross Benches, I became increasingly convinced that the UK was right to join the EEC. As I have listened over the last two days, however, I have become increasingly concerned. In the 1970s, the minority accepted the will of the majority. The great difference now is that the minority do not. They are fighting on, banging the war drums and threatening disruption to the Bill. The more that that minority continue their strident tone, which becomes ever more shrill, the more I fear for the future as it will be so much harder to get the unity that we need, and the narrative right, for the oncoming negotiations.

The noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, said in a powerful speech that we need to know what the Government want for the future of the country and its relationship with our continent. I believe the Government have done so as it is very clear in the Bill. It is not the Government who have suddenly sprung the Bill upon us; what has happened is that enough of the British people have changed their minds on the benefits of staying in the EU since the 1970s. The Government are merely reflecting that, and we must respect it too, however difficult it is and however many hazards lie ahead.

The EU is in a mess. The noble Lord, Lord Owen, called it dysfunctional. Although Brexit is our top priority, it is certainly not that in the EU. That was clear in the negotiations that Mr Cameron had with the EU, and it will become clear for our Ministers shortly, when their negotiations start. That will add to the EU’s difficulties.

My noble friend Lord Hill of Oareford, in another powerful speech, said that we should listen to what our friends said, so at the weekend, I spoke to friends of mine in France. They likened the EU to a colossus with feet of iron and clay. We know what happens to such a colossus. My friends also suggested to me that it was essential for the UK to leave the EU for the EU to change to save itself from becoming ashes. Our leaving is the electric shock that is needed and, when it reforms, it will again benefit from the UK rejoining. They are right that the EU as we know it has to change for Europe’s sake and for ours. For a start, it will have to address its budget contributions now that one of the few milch cows is leaving.

None of the extreme predictions of the 1970s came to pass, and neither will the worst fears of the extremists today be fulfilled. It will be difficult. There will have to be changes and yes, I firmly believe that people’s minds will change. However, now is the time to accept the results of the referendum, whether we like it or not—and I did not like it. My daughter, who is much younger than anybody taking part today and works in the City, was firmly in favour of us leaving.

We must allow the Government to trigger Article 50, do the best negotiation they can and come back to Parliament as promised. It is only at that stage that we will know what is and what is not on offer.