Brexit: Preparations and Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:21 pm on 23rd July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield Crossbench 10:21 pm, 23rd July 2018

My Lords, in a history department somewhere within the British university system, there may well have sat this very afternoon a young man or woman sifting their way through the paper trail already laid down by Brexit. When in 10, 15 or 20 years one or other of them sets out to write The Strange Birth, Life and Death of European Britain—the book which will make their scholarly reputation—what might they make of the document before us this evening?

Much, of course, will depend on the coming days, weeks and months as our civil war—almost sometimes, I think, our war of religion—over Brexit fights over the White Paper’s pages, especially if the content of those pages are at some stage somehow fashioned into an instrument for removing the Prime Minister from 10 Downing Street. Whatever happens, I think that the young scholar will linger long over Command Paper 9593. Why is that? There are three reasons.

First, The Future Relationship Between the United Kingdom and the European Union captures in its 98 pages the sheer mass of factors, complications and pitfalls that have to be tackled if 46 years of European Britain are to be unravelled successfully and a viable set of successor relationships put in place. The White Paper, in my judgment, is a fascinating—almost overwhelming —piece of geopolitical cartography without, I think, parallel in our history.

The second reason that I adduce for the enduring significance of Command Paper 9593 can be found in a cascade of paragraphs in the Prime Minister’s foreword to the White Paper. Mrs May says,

“over the last two years I have travelled up and down the country, listening to views from all four nations of our United Kingdom and every side of the debate ... We share an ambition for our country to be fairer and more prosperous than ever before … Leaving the EU gives us the opportunity to deliver on that ambition once and for all—strengthening our economy, our communities, our union, our democracy, and our place in the world, while maintaining a close friendship and strong partnership with our European neighbours”.

Those paragraphs alone illustrate why this is such a heavily freighted White Paper. Like all properly trained historians, our young scholar and future biographer of the relationship between Britain and Europe will have been trained how to slice up history into capital Q “Questions”.

Think how many can be extracted just from that snatch of the Prime Minister’s opening refrain. The European Question, obviously—that great tormentor of successive British political generations—has prised wide open once more the Britain’s-place-in-the-world Question; the stress generated by Brexit has reheated the very union of the UK Question and the possibility of a Scottish separation some time in the 2020s; and, as we are all aware, the need for a friction-free border between Northern Ireland and the Republic has re-posed the Irish Question. The European Question has, too, revived what Disraeli would have called the condition-of-Britain Question, as the referendum result showed that the UK was an extended family but no longer knew itself or fully appreciated the disparities in life chances and outlooks across large parts of our country.

There lurks, too, a special post-Brexit problem in the pages of this White Paper. Chapter 4, which I do not think we have discussed much today, on post-leaving institutional arrangements, makes for sobering reading. It assumes a high level of harmony to make its complicated mechanics work. I fear that there will be a rich harvest here for those whose political lives have so far put them on permanent grudge-watch with Europe. That will continue.

Perhaps my greatest anxiety, apart from the possibility of Scotland one day leaving the UK, is the coarsening, sometimes even the envenoming, effect of the European question on our national political conversation more generally. Once we have left the European Union we will need to put much care and real persistence into putting that right: the first people we have to get on with are ourselves. I live in hope—and there is no tariff on hope.