My Lords, the European question has long vexed us, as a people and a country. When the wind from Europe blows through the corridors and Chambers of the Palace of Westminster, it scars our politics and sears our national conversation to a degree unmatched by any other issue. It can chill premierships—occasionally fatally. It is the great disrupter of post-war British politics; a story of showdowns punctuated by sometimes fierce parliamentary set-pieces.
The Prime Minister’s Statement on the draft withdrawal agreement last Thursday was just such an occasion. As I watched the debate from the Gallery, two thoughts crossed my mind. One was very fanciful: I could almost sense the hovering wraiths of Prime Ministers past who had faced their own version of Euro torment at that very same Dispatch Box. Secondly, I felt a pang of sympathy for Mrs May. Why was this? It was because, listening to the Prime Minister, I was struck by how heavily freighted her Statement was by multiple capital Q questions, all of which swirl and entwine one with another in the circumstances we face. There are more than any previous Prime Minister encountered and they all require considerable feats of statecraft. By my calculation, there are now seven in play.
The European question itself has reopened the “Britain’s place in the world” question with which we have grappled since the Suez crisis of 1956. The Irish question is revived in a new form. The union of the UK question is also in play, because a brutal Brexit would surely inflame the likelihood of a second independence referendum in Scotland in the 2020s. The condition of Britain question has also been re-posed by the inequalities of life and life chances across the kingdom, thrown into sharp relief by the 2016 referendum. The standard model of our left/right politics is also under serious pressure. It has never been able to handle the European question, which fissures parties from within, rather than between.
Since we debated the Government’s post-Chequers White Paper in July, I would add a seventh question: Parliament. Parliament itself is being seriously stress-tested in its primary function of being “the grand inquest of the nation”, to use the venerable term. In passing, I commend the report of the House of Commons Procedure Committee, published last Friday. It suggests ways in which this might be done in next month’s debate in the Commons, so that every part of the spectrum of opinion on Brexit can feel it had its moment on the Floor of the House of Commons. This is important because, as all noble Lords know, Europe is a great arouser of grievance politics.
I hope that the draft withdrawal agreement makes it to treaty form. A harsh exit would generate the rawest of capital Q questions in the short term, stretching the public’s faith in government as a protector and provider. Somehow, we must rediscover that political genius in which we once took such pride and draw deep—very deep—on our wells of civility and tolerance. The first people we need to get on with when we are through all this are ourselves.