My Lords, it is a privilege to follow the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who takes a great interest in these issues. I note that we have already had contributions in this debate from people who know a tremendous lot about all the detail of these matters. I have therefore decided to take on the role of the common man, the person who does not understand all the details of everything, but of some people who voted in the first referendum. An awful lot of people voted in the first referendum not beginning to comprehend some of the extraordinarily complicated issues that have been raised in these debates, some of which were misrepresented and some of which were never mentioned at all.
I make my position clear, to be honest to the House. I am what I call a conditional remainer. I should have liked us to remain in the European Union, but I was getting increasingly concerned about developments there. I was glad that we were becoming what I would call more of a country member, with our opting out of the eurozone and of membership of Schengen. I was concerned about what seemed to be an everlasting expansion of the European Union, having represented the United Kingdom in the Council of Ministers in various departments, as I did for six years, with eight other countries represented. I fail to see how 28 and rising can be managed in the same way without the larger but looser plan, which I understood was the original concept but which the European Union and the Commission seemed unable to adopt.
On the referendum, one particular remark of the leavers sticks with me: they say that this was the largest vote ever in the history of any vote in this country. I think that 17 million voted. I simply make the point that it was the largest vote against that has ever been registered at any election in this country as well. Relatively speaking, at 52:48, it was a completely split vote, as close to a dead heat as one might imagine. It is that situation and the serious division within our country that we all seek to address here today.
I certainly agree with my noble friend Lord Heseltine that I was under no illusion but that migration was one of the factors at the time. It coincided with that sudden burst of activity across the Mediterranean into Greece and up through the Balkans that gave such concern about the implications of free movement of people.
My particular concern is that this is taking place at a time when the world has undoubtedly become a much more dangerous place. We are obsessed at the moment with the Brexit situation; it is paralysing some of the work of government. That is at a time when we look at the absolute tragedy of what is happening in the Middle East, in Syria and neighbouring countries, with a population explosion in Africa which we see reflected in the migration figures, and with the reassertion of Russian power and influence. We saw only this weekend the allegations of Russian activity in Greece and North Macedonia, as it will be called.
Europe has of course changed in this time. In each country—in Italy, Spain, France and Greece—people are arguing about who will handle the migration figures. There is the rise of the far right in eastern Europe, a weaker Chancellor Merkel than we might have hoped to have had during this difficult time and, on top of all that, we have the slightly uncertain activities of President Trump, who now appears to be launching pretty aggressive actions towards Iran, disapproves of the common structures of NATO, the EU, the World Trade Organization and NAFTA, and is initiating some form of trade war. All of those are very dangerous developments in which we are involved.
It is against that background that I look for early action, because there is too great a risk of no deal and general agreement that no deal could be extremely damaging. I was struck by the comment of the German European Minister, coming out of the meeting on Friday in Brussels discussing the British White Paper, when he said that they do not want to punish the UK. We do not want to punish the UK. We do not want to punish Germany. We do not want to punish France, Holland, Denmark or, in particular, Ireland, if there is a breakdown. I draw support from that from the IMF, which stated that it would be a loss for both sides.
I add the comment that there is a lot of talk about not having a hard Irish border. From my experience of Northern Ireland, I will not tender to build that border. I should not think that there will be a firm Irish border, whatever statements may be made about it.
More positively, I look at the need for maintaining a good, constructive relationship with our friends. I was struck by a remark of José Manuel Barroso at a recent meeting when he said that the UK would always be a most important country for the EU and he wanted us to go forward as friends.
Some think that there might even be a referendum now. Obviously there cannot be, because we would fall straight into the trap that we had before of a referendum without people being properly informed and knowing the issues. For that reason, I strongly support the position of the Government now that there is a White Paper—a proposition on the table. I am encouraged by the start made by the new Secretary of State for Brexit, who I think may be slightly more energetic than his predecessor. I wish him good luck in his activities. I think his initial appearance on the Marr programme gave one some encouragement. We must see whether it is possible to reach an agreement and some understanding.
As for the alternatives: a government of national unity? Certainly not. I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, that I find it extremely difficult to support the idea that the Greening concept—having three alternative propositions to vote for, so you might end up with a decisive result in which 40% was the victory vote—would build national unity. Having said that, there is urgency. As my noble friend Lord Boswell said, we cannot expect that if we hold them to it, the EU will feel the need urgently to reach agreement. Whatever the EU wants to do, its procedures will make that very difficult.
The situation now, as the Times correctly put it in its recent leader, is that the present proposition put forward by the Government is the worst plan, except for all the others. That is what we now have to proceed with, and at the end of the day, it will be up to Parliament and the meaningful vote to decide whether what comes out of this is acceptable. Parliament may then feel the need to enlist the support of the people, but only after it has had the opportunity to make a full and responsible assessment of the outcome of those discussions.