My Lords, almost 30 years ago, in 1989, I was first elected as a Conservative Member of the European Parliament and was a spear-carrier in putting together the single market. The problem at that time was that the European economies, including our own, were being held back by what was known as “Eurosclerosis”. This is because free trade does not actually mean that you can trade freely, which seems to be a bit of a paradox. Non-tariff barriers ensure this; they are ingeniously constructed and expensive to get through or around.
Free trade is a necessary but insufficient aspect of a frictionless international trading system, which is what our Government are looking for. Free trade is, after all, a late 18th-century and 19th-century phenomenon. Now, in the 21st century, we live in a world of regulated markets because of social attitudes, the size of populations, the nature of business and technologies and probably, to some extent, to avert revolutions.
It was 30 years ago that the Conservatives under the leadership of Margaret Thatcher, helped by Leon Brittan and Arthur Cockfield, drove forward the single market. They recognised that sovereignty can be exercised in differing and more or less sophisticated ways. Being clever about this led to the creation of transnational rules and enforcement procedures, which involved our participation. This has enriched our country, generating revenues for private and public sectors and paying, I suspect, for our net contributions to the European Union budget.
The road to Brexit is through a gate called the withdrawal agreement, and Brexit entails our leaving the single market. We have been told that trade with other countries will make up the difference. All I can say is that it did not do so in the 1980s. Other EU countries trade very successfully from the EU into the wider world. For example, I understand that both France and Germany are more effective at doing business with China than we are. I suspect that third countries are keen to flood this country with cheap goods but will be much less inclined or able to buy things from us.
It is therefore my view that we should pause and take stock. I do not see how a non-binding, somewhat tarnished referendum more than two years ago can mandate a sovereign Parliament to run pell-mell into something that its advocates sold on a flawed prospectus. It seems far from clear what the people of this country want now. Where do they want this country to go? The case for Brexit is invariably that it is what the people want, not that it is in the nation’s best interests.
As currently presented, it seems to me that Brexit looks like a curious cross between the revocation of the Edict of Nantes and a political form of the South Sea bubble. As such, it is something that we as parliamentarians, who must act in our fiduciary capacity for the country—past, present and future—should do our utmost to avert.