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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:08 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Viscount Ridley Viscount Ridley Conservative 9:08 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, I declare an interest as a beneficiary of the common agricultural policy.

The British people have decided to leave the European Union. The Commons has passed this Bill unamended. We, in this House, pride ourselves on scrutinising and revising Bills, but what is there to scrutinise? What is there to revise? This is a two-clause Bill. It is not our job, as my noble friend Lord Lang said yesterday, to adorn legislation. If we amended this Bill, we would be adding to it. This is just about all there is to say on the matter.

However, listening to all the doom and gloom in this debate, I am reminded of what Woody Allen once said,

“mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction”.

We must, he said, make the wise choice.

That, all too often, is how we have been talking about the future. Being a rational optimist, let me take just a few minutes of your Lordships’ time—less than six, I promise—to strike a note of hope. You might call it “project cheer”. I will start with why I, for one, am surer now than I was on 24 June that the British people have done the right thing. Voting to leave the EU last June has had precisely the opposite effect to what project fear told us would happen. Instead of an emergency Budget and an immediate and profound shock to the economy, a loss of confidence, a drying up of inward investment and a collapse in the stock market—all of which were promised if we voted leave—we have seen an acceleration of growth, now the fastest in the G7. There have been record highs on the stock market, votes of confidence from Apple, Google, Siemens, Nissan, Snapchat, McDonalds, IBM and many other companies. There has been a manufacturing revival, a narrowing of the trade deficit as exports pick up, thanks to a welcome devaluation of the pound, and the humiliation of economic forecasters at the IMF, the Bank of England, the Treasury, the European Commission and elsewhere.

I know that it is early days but to those who say that we face disaster when we actually leave, I say: project fear having failed last year, such warnings cut even less ice with the British public now. Besides, we are rarely ambitious and positive enough about our future. Leaving the exchange rate mechanism in 1992 proved a turning point, not a catastrophe. Staying out of the euro turned out to be a triumph, not a trauma. Moreover, it is becoming clearer by the day why the European Union is stagnating while the rest of the world grows and why so many EU countries have had a lost decade, while some African and Asian countries have doubled the size of their economies. The centralised, top-down dirigisme of Brussels is stifling innovation at the behest of big companies, big bureaucracies and big pressure groups. The Brussels system is hamstrung by an overzealous version of the precautionary principle that is too pessimistic about future possibilities, too complacent about present systems and too convinced that bureaucrats know better.

From the Reformation to Napoleon’s continental system and after, this country has throughout its history done better when it looked outward to the world more than inward to the continent. We are an island, not a peninsula. Perhaps in the 1960s, it was just about understandable that we should try to retreat inside a tariff fortress to get access to a single regulatory zone. But today in the age of container shipping, budget airlines and the internet we have a global language, we are a science superstar, we have immense soft power, we have championed free trade for generations, and we have lent the world our systems of law and finance, of medicine and technology, of ideas and discovery.

Finally, in Theresa May we have a Prime Minister who intends Brexit to be a global, outward advance not an isolationist, defensive retreat. Now I know there are those on the other side of the referendum divide who say that we globalists won the referendum only because we were supported by people with a darker agenda who wanted to pull up the drawbridge, go back to the 1950s and stop all immigration, not just control it. We are told: “What have you unleashed? Are you sure you know how to ride the tiger of populism?”. I say to those who take this view: look at what the Government say and what they do. It is run by the globalists, not the isolationists. If you want to strengthen their hand—our hand—and make sure the globalists get their way and not the protectionists, then come on over and join us. Bring as many of the 48% as you can and we will bring as many of the 52%. To echo what my noble friend Lord Cormack just said, together we can build an unassailable majority for an outward, confident and ambitious country, trading and thriving, inventing and discovering, leading and enlightening the world as never before. This is a great country with a great history, but we have hardly started.