Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note (1st Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:13 pm on 5th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Wilson of Dinton Lord Wilson of Dinton Crossbench 5:13 pm, 5th December 2018

My Lords, it is an honour to follow the noble Lord. I was particularly moved by his remarks about plebiscite. I will explain why. I want to say a few words about the young. I have spent the last two days interviewing candidates for admission to my college in Cambridge. These are 17 year- olds from diverse backgrounds, all hugely intelligent, sharp and well informed, who are under great pressure, because there were 36 of them in two days competing for—I will not tell you for how many places. I am not allowed to tell you that, but it was tiny. I have done this for 15 years. Each year, they are a window through which I can keep in touch with what the young are doing. Every year, there is a different topic that concerns them.

It was not very difficult, I thought, to presume that Brexit would be among such topics this year. But, for the first time ever, I thought that they were a really troubled generation. They were unhappy, and their troubles went much deeper, although Brexit was part of them. I was interviewing them for politics, and what they wanted to talk about was the inadequacy of our political institutions. I wanted to bring a group of them to talk to noble Lords—they were so sharp and disillusioned with the quality of the handling of Brexit and the debate about it. One said, “My generation is the most tested in the history of this country. Since I was at primary school, we have been under pressure to be excellent, but I don’t see any sign that people in Parliament feel any pressure at all to be excellent in the way that they handle Brexit”. Luckily, I was not being interviewed by them. It is very hard to think how to defend the deal that is before this House.

I asked myself: if I were to vote for the deal and it was passed, how would I defend it to the people I am interviewing? It is clear to me that in economic terms we will be poorer as a country. I know we can argue about how grave it is—I quite like the description of some commentators that it would be like an economic slow puncture—but on any basis we will be poorer. Who will have to pay the price? It will not be our generation, if I may generalise—it will be the young. It will not be just for a year or two; it will be for decades. How do you explain to them that that is a good thing?

We will be politically weaker in the world. One of the main reasons we applied to go into the Common Market was to increase our political influence in the world and not just stand on our own on the edge of Europe. I was privileged to be present when Macmillan was discussing whether Ted, then in opposition, should make a second application to join. Macmillan said two things: someone had remarked that the main challenge would be the French but Macmillan said “No, the big problem will be my party; there will always be a group who will be unhappy with our membership of Europe”. He obviously knew his party. When someone said that there would be great economic advantage in joining, he said, “Yes, but the real argument is that for our security, our defence and our weight in the world, we must be part of Europe”.

Now we are reversing that—we are going backwards. That is the wish of the people. But it is hard to explain that to the young, who see themselves as part of Europe. They see themselves as Europeans. When the Prime Minister talks about migration, they hear her stopping them exploring the world and having adventures in Europe—that is what turns them on. This is nailing down the coffin of their ambitions. How do we defend the Government’s attitude?

We will leave our strongest negotiating weapons at the door on 29 March, if we leave then, and enter the negotiating chamber for much the biggest part of the negotiations in a weak position, on bended knee. Earlier in the debate, I found myself imagining—forgive me—the Front Bench explaining to Mrs Thatcher the deal that they were recommending to Parliament and to the people. I have a fair idea of some of the things she would say, but I cannot repeat them in polite company. I would hate to be in their shoes but I would love to be the minute-taker—it would be great entertainment. She would be shocked by this deal, the backstop, the risks and the gamble that we are taking with this great country. I am confident of that.

The future will not be one of peace and settlement of this argument. We have arguably been having this argument over Europe for 500 years. The first Brexit was when we left the Church of Rome. It will go on bitterly: what we have done has been to make it more and more bitter. The need for reconciliation is one that I sympathise with hugely. The point about the young is that they have no vision of what Britain will be like in the future. One of them said, “I know why we want to leave; I don’t know where we want to go to. Why are we doing this? It is the young who will have to pay the price”. Therefore, I say to the Front Bench: I will be interested to know how they will persuade young people that this is a good thing to do, because I would be ashamed to offer and recommend it to my children and grandchildren.