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My Lords, I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, said yesterday: this Bill is a dagger to my heart. I am overcome by three emotions. The first is a sense of shame, which I feel many Members in this House must share, that over decades our political leadership failed to make the case for Europe. The referendum should never have been called, and the leave vote should never have won.
The second is a personal sadness. I am proud to represent on Cumbria County Council a town called Wigton. Its most famous son is my noble friend Lord Bragg, who has just been awarded the companion of honour. Wigton voted strongly leave. I love my leave constituents—I really do. Yes, they voted to take back control. They are no fans of EU remoteness or bureaucracy, and nor am I. But their revolt was against an economy that is grossly out of balance, a world of work that no longer offers self-respect and a lack of opportunity that means that more than half their children leave their home area after school and never come back. Their grievances have, for too long, been allowed to fester. The seeds of anti-immigration populism were sown for the unscrupulous to exploit. Where now is the modern regional policy, the New Deal for the north and Midlands, the Marshall plan for the left behind that England needs? It is nowhere under this Government. They are suffocated by a pursuit of Brexit that can only make Wigton’s problems worse.
My third emotion is a determination that the bunch of scoundrels who propagated their Brexit lies are not going to get away with it. As a citizen and Labour activist, I will fight Brexit to the last. Yet as a Member of this House I understand our role. Yes, I will work for amendments to this Bill that soften the impact of Brexit, safeguard essential rights, weaken the extraordinary powers the Bill grants to the Executive to override the legislature, protect our devolution settlement and give Parliament a meaningful vote on no deal as well as any deal.
But does this response to a highly technical Bill measure up to the scale of events and our constitutional responsibilities? This clueless Government are pursuing a “I haven’t got a clue” Brexit. The only basis on which the Prime Minister can unite her party is pursuing a Brexit that knows not where it leads. In December, to keep the Irish quiet, the Prime Minister signed up to full alignment. Last week, to hang on to her job, she attacked her Chancellor for having the temerity to suggest that Brexit would lead only to very modest changes. In Brussels, the Prime Minister pleads with our EU partners for a deep and special partnership. Back home, she assures the Brexiteers it will be deep only for as long as they want it to be, and Britain will have the freedom to diverge whenever it wants—in Michael Gove’s case, probably before the ink is dry on the treaty. Is it deep and special? I call it shallow and perfidious, and as a negotiating strategy it is a totally unrealistic fantasy.
What has been striking about this debate so far is the lack of any positive vision for Brexit. How can Britain proceed with the most momentous decision on its future since the Second World War when no one is seemingly capable of explaining what our Brexit future will be? “Ah,” people say, “the people have decided, and the will of the people must be obeyed”. This is, frankly, thin gruel. In a democracy, the public are entitled to change their mind, and the rest of Europe keeps telling us that Article 50 can be reversed at any time. The leave option that seemed so simple when people voted in June 2016 is now so complex, and the only question before us is how big the Brexit damage will be.
The job of Parliament is to challenge the vacuum into which at present the Government are leading us. How can we make a real difference? The first way is to press the Commons relentlessly to vote to stay in the single market and customs union—better to be a rule-taker of European laws that have a progressive European vocation at their heart than a theoretically sovereign rule-maker that in practice will be driven to use its new freedoms only to break free of decent European standards in pursuit of some deregulated mid-Atlantic tax haven. I say to Jacob Rees-Mogg that what he derides as a vassal state would be a failed state.
Secondly, if we cannot win the single market, let us help bring on the storm—which the noble Lord, Lord Patten, talked about in his brilliant speech—that could reverse Brexit by forcing a general election or another referendum. I agree so much with the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, in his magnificent defence of representative democracy, but if it comes to it and a referendum is the only way of reversing this historic mistake, we must accept it and, indeed, advocate it.
In conclusion, this brings me to Labour. Europe is in a category of its own in terms of its impact on future generations. It transcends any party manifesto or Whip, I say to my noble friend. I do not want to be a rebel; I want our party to lead, to seize this opportunity to demonstrate that, in contrast to this wretched Government, we can live up to our national responsibilities and our internationalist heritage. I say to my colleagues on these Benches: let us do our bit to make it happen.