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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:53 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 8:53 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, like my noble friend Lord Tugendhat, who spoke almost 60 places before me on the list, I regard this as a rather sad and sobering day. I do so because I remember, in particular, a very happy day in 2004 when I was with a group of parliamentarians at the University of Tallinn in Estonia. There, a group of us from the All-Party Parliamentary Arts and Heritage Group—not a freebie, I hasten to say—with our spouses were greeted by the rector of the university, who said that they were only recently accustomed to freedom and how thrilled and proud they were that their nation was now a member of the European Union and a member of NATO. I remember looking at my dear friend, the late, great Tam Dalyell, and both of us nodding enthusiastically in agreement.

This is coming to an end. I was glad that the noble Lord, Lord Watson, reminded us of two crucial words on the cover of the new White Paper—“new partnership”. If there is to be any real hope in the future, there has to be a new partnership with our friends and allies in Europe. We have to continue to regard them with affection and respect, which we hope will be reciprocated. My noble friend Lady Hooper talked yesterday about divorce. Well, we may have filed for divorce but I hope that, following the White Paper, we will build a true civil partnership in every sense of those words.

I feel that we have had two sobering days of debate. They have illustrated, very eloquently in many cases, that the divide is still there and that the wounds are still deep. We have a collective duty, on whichever side of the argument we were on 23 June last year, to work together in the national interest. It is not going to be all that easy. These two long days of debate are but the beginning of endless days of debate. This subject will dominate our agenda, not just this year or next year but far into the future. I think that it was the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who reminded us that it is not necessarily what people are talking about in the Dog and Duck, but the future of our country is in our hands and it is absolutely vital that we recognise that.

Those of us on the losing side—the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, yesterday, and the noble Lords, Lord Darling and Lord Triesman, today—say to those on the winning side, “Please do not think that we can discard our beliefs any more than we can discard our beliefs after a general election if the other side has won”. As a Member of Parliament for 40 years in Staffordshire, I had to work—as I did, happily and co-operatively—with a Labour county council for almost the whole of that period. We could do that only if we respected each other’s differences. We have to come together through a mutual respect in the years ahead.

Another theme that has run though this debate has been how complex the situation is. I was sitting next to a colleague at the long table just a few weeks ago. He was a Brexiter. I asked, “Did you really realise it was going to be quite as complex as this?”. The answer was an honest, “No, but we’ve got to make it work, and I believe it will work very well”. I know that he meant that. The fact is that it will be far more complex than many of us thought.

My heart is very much with my noble friends Lady Wheatcroft and Lady Altmann, and I feel similarly to them. My noble friend Lady Wheatcroft, in her powerful speech last night, talked of Kenneth Clarke in the other place, a colleague of mine for 40 years. We entered the House of Commons on the very same day. Had I been in the House of Commons, I might well have gone in with him, but I was not. When I was in the House of Commons, I had an electorate to whom I was responsible and answerable every four or five years. Although my heart is with them, my head is with the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, who made an extremely compelling speech. If this House is to fulfil its constitutional duty properly, it must always recognise that supremacy lies at the other end of the Corridor, with the elected House. We have a duty to examine and scrutinise. It may well be that on one or two issues we ask the Commons to think again when we come to our Committee and Report stage deliberations, but we must not push that too far. If they refuse to think again and they send it back, we have to accept that, however sadly. It would be quite wrong for this House to frustrate the will of the elected one and hold up this process.

I say to noble friends such as my noble friend Lady Altmann, “Please, please think very carefully. Perhaps exercise a vote on an amendment once or twice, but don’t push it, because this House must not jeopardise its important constitutional position”. I make that plea to all noble Lords who are intending to vote on one or more of the amendments. I have particular sympathy with the amendment on EU nationals. I have spoken on the issue several times in your Lordships’ House and I was delighted to hear the UKIP Member, the noble Lord, Lord Stevens of Ludgate, say that he wanted that to be resolved as quickly as possible.

There will be difficult days ahead. We have had a splendid debate, but I hope very much that we can keep a sense of perspective as we go into uncharted waters or perhaps, to use another metaphor, into the quicksands and the fog.