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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:27 pm on 5th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Davies of Stamford Lord Davies of Stamford Labour 5:27 pm, 5th December 2018

My Lords, this is not the first time that I have followed the noble Viscount in this House in a debate on Europe. It is always a pleasure to debate with him—he is always interesting and original—but I have to say there is often a strand that leads to paranoia in what he says, and that was true today. Something that worries me is that over the last few years there has appeared on the right wing of politics, and I think the noble Viscount represents the right wing of politics very well, a rejection of the values of rationality, evidence-based decisions, expertise and experience, principles on which our civilisation has been based since the Enlightenment and on which the advance of science has been based for a very long time. That worries me very much.

I do not suppose that many of us or indeed any of us had ever thought or heard of a Government who knowingly pursue a policy that is likely to reduce the wealth of the country that they govern. I suppose the reason why we had not heard about that until the last few days is that, as I am told, there has never been such an occasion in history before. Even reaching through the darkness of the past into the ancient world, no one can come up with an example even in Herodotus of a Greek tyrant who did such an irrational thing. The phenomenon is quite extraordinary.

More extraordinary, surprising and depressing still to a lot of us is that if that phenomenon was going to arise somewhere in the human race one day, of all the 193 countries in this world it would be in our country that it happened. I think that is very frightening. The situation is grotesque. Where there is a breakdown in the governance of the country, and when the Government of the day have obviously lost their bearings, a great responsibility falls upon Members of the House of Commons, and I am sure that they will discharge that responsibility on Tuesday. It is not for me to tell them what to do and I certainly will not—it is not any intention of mine to give them advice—but the purpose of arranging this debate in advance of their decision is, I suppose, that at least we can express some opinions, and if anyone in the Commons wants to take any notice of them then they are free to do so.

If I had half an hour, I could set out my own view on what should happen over the next six months, but I do not. There are, however, three things that I think should not happen. First, no one should be allowed to get away with saying, “Vote for me; support me; follow me, and I will renegotiate with the European Union and get a better deal”. That is rubbish. There is no possibility of renegotiating with the European Union and getting a better deal, nor should there be. No self-respecting person in its shoes, having come to an arrangement like that, would reopen matters and start renegotiating. It would be a fatal thing to do. In the EU’s case, it would be very conscious that the Prime Minister and the Minister of Europe they are dealing with now might change and, in a few weeks or a month or two, their successors would come back and say: “Now I’m in charge so I would like to start renegotiating”. It would be absolute chaos. It is not possible and, in my view, it is dishonest to suggest it. It would be a siren call to disaster. It would be an abdication, preventing us from taking the necessary decisions, and wasting valuable time. I very much hope that that does not happen and that no one is tempted to go down that particular road.

The other thing that we need to bear in mind is that no referendum can be altered. A referendum can be altered constitutionally—I accept that entirely—but politically and psychologically, it would be a great mistake to try to alter one except by another referendum. If we wish to collectively change our mind as a country, the only vehicle for doing that must be another referendum.

All of us find ourselves in a difficult situation, not knowing exactly what to do in these difficult circumstances. It is clear to me that if a Government do not have the confidence of the House of Commons, there must be changes. We cannot have a situation in which a Prime Minister who has been rejected in a project with which he or she has been identified for a very long time, remains in power. It would mean that the Prime Minister has no credibility, either domestically or abroad, and that is undesirable for the country as a whole.

I want to add something on freedom of movement, which has not been mentioned at all in these debates, although it should have been. I accept what I think is the majority view of commentators and experts that it was freedom of movement and not the economy—as the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, said in a brilliant speech a few moments ago—that moved most people to vote for Brexit in the referendum. One understands the emotions that sometimes arise in such contexts. I am sorry to say that, since the beginning of time, all human beings have had a slightly tribal instinct and a suspicion of foreigners. It is not always the most attractive aspects of human personality that come to the fore in contexts like that.

Nevertheless, those who voted for the end of freedom of movement and the great reduction in immigration that they were hoping for at that time have already been betrayed by the Government. The Government have now realised that you cannot run the British economy without foreigners, and they have explicitly rejected their previous policy of reducing net immigration to less than 100,000 people a year. In that situation, interesting choices arise, but the Government have made it clear that they want to replace immigration from the rest of the EU under the freedom of movement principle with immigration from the third world. I think we should probe the reasons for doing that and the merits or demerits of doing so. This is a sensitive subject, but that is not a reason for not touching it. I think it is a great abdication not to talk about difficult subjects when they have a great importance for public policy.

Most of us will have met many thousands of people from the rest of the European continent, not just from countries in eastern Europe such as Romania, Lithuania and Poland but also from France, Spain and Portugal, and so forth, who have been working in this country—very many of them in the NHS and the catering and entertainment industry, in bars and restaurants and in shops. Mostly, they seem to be doing a very good job. I have no doubt at all that there are people from any part of the world who could do a very good job. But if we replace immigrants from the rest of the European Union with people from the third world, they will presumably mostly come from those parts of the third world where there is the greatest degree of emigration and the greatest numbers of people wanting to leave. The countries where there is the greatest emigration at the moment are well known; if I am not mistaken, they are Syria, Somaliland, Eritrea, South Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. All those countries have had a difficult history in recent years and the tradition of political violence and extremism. Cultural integration issues would arise in a context that we all ought to think about very carefully. It would be quite irresponsible just to brush those matters under the carpet.

There are other reasons why there is a good case to be made for freedom of movement within the European Union rather than immigration from outside. First, freedom of movement, from a purely selfish point of view, is a valuable instrument of economic stabilisation. If the economy is overheating and there is a shortage of labour, you can introduce people from the rest of the EU; and when the economy turns down, the experience is that a lot of them tend to go home. That is splendid, and you can carry on with the higher growth rate of the economy for longer, avoid recessions and so forth and stabilise the economy. People do not normally go home to Eritrea or South Sudan. For very obvious reasons, it is the last place they would want to go.

Secondly, freedom of movement is a reciprocal principle. We have benefits in that we can go and work in those countries, and indeed, I made use of those myself as a young man. I do not know why the Government do not recognise the merits of freedom of movement. I do not think that this matter has been properly explored or properly explained. I think we should hear from the Government a rationale for their recent perverse policy in this area.