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My Lords, I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Astor, on his speech. I particularly noted his warning about the dangers of a chaotic Brexit, to which I will return in a few moments. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Liddle and the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, on their magnificent speeches.
I have not spoken on Europe since the immediate post-referendum debate. Some noble Lords may think that a very good thing, but, to other colleagues, I would like to explain the reason. It certainly has not been a question of my changing my mind on Europe.
My personal Damascus came when I was 18. It was 10 years after the end of the war, in the summer of 1955. I was between leaving school and my national service, and I set out to bicycle from Rotterdam to Rome—I admit that I took one or two trains. As the Foreign Ministers of the six prepared for the momentous Messina Conference, which launched the common market, I mostly pedalled along the roads and lanes of northern Europe. At night I stayed at youth hostels, where I discussed with my continental contemporaries hopes of building a new and better Europe in which war would be ended for ever and prosperity for all would be assured. It became clear to me that not only was it right that Europeans, or continentals, should unite together, but Britain should not stand aside from such a constructive and imaginative project. I still strongly believe that a medium-sized European power such as Britain should join with its neighbours for the good of its own citizens and of our continental friends.
Turning to the present and the referendum, even though it was a narrow victory for the leavers and it has divided the country almost in half, all the same I accept the result, if with a very heavy heart. I also thought that the Cabinet and the Prime Minister ought to be given a chance to negotiate our departure, which I suspected would be extremely complex. But even I, a dyed-in-the-wool pro-European, did not think the Government would make such an awful mess of things. The first phase has taken far too long—so much so that we now face the pressure of what Mr Barnier calls the ticking clock; you can almost hear it now.
One might have hoped that things would get better from now on, but I am afraid that has not been the case. One problem is that the Prime Minister has made a whole lot of unfortunate soundbites designed not to help the negotiations, but to appease the Eurosceptics. “Brexit means Brexit”—she clearly thought that that was a clever remark to make. On the contrary, it is deeply confusing and ambivalent. What kind Brexit does she mean: a hard or a soft one? Then there was, “No deal is better than a bad deal”. The Select Committee has dealt with that, pointing out that a bad deal would be a disaster for the whole country. Then there is, “Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. That is a fine sort of thing to encourage one’s negotiating partner.
The worst mistake of all is that the Government have announced their red lines without deciding on their objectives. The truth, as we all know, is that the Cabinet is deeply divided between the “Get out whatever the cost” group and those who think that the UK’s economic future should be taken into account. Sadly, the Prime Minister has so far proved undecided, if that is the right word, between those two factions.
There are many speakers who are far more expert than me on the legal and other parts of the Bill and the need to improve it, including the very excellent chairman of the Select Committee on the Constitution. During the passage of the Bill I will concentrate on Clauses 9 and 14, because these need strengthening to give the essential strength to Parliament to make its role meaningful in deciding whether the Government have achieved a successful outcome to the negotiations—in my view, that is key to the Bill—one that takes into account the economic and strategic interests of this great nation of ours.
My final point is a more comforting one in what I believe is a sad situation. Both the referendum and the more recent general election have made me draw the conclusion that if our generation lets the country down, the next generation—that of our children and our grandchildren—will not stand for a botched result that divides this country artificially from its natural partners. I hope it does not happen.