My Lords, it is frequently said that these days are exciting political times—and indeed of course they are. But I do not think that they are the most exciting. For me, that was the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet empire. That is because we won. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the present. The atmosphere that surrounds this debate is melancholy. But this is probably the most febrile time that I can remember.
For me, two certainties frame our discussions this afternoon. The first is that a rejection of this deal now does not mean no deal and crashing out. There is time. Secondly, whatever may happen in the future, the present direction of travel will mean that we will end up in circumstances of permanent revolution for many years to come. The public do not like that and are not impressed by it—but, realistically, we are looking towards political turmoil for years and years. The problem we face in this regard is that the negotiations of the past two years are the template for the future mechanisms for doing the deals that will have to be done—unless of course we simply acquiesce and become a rule taker. This approach is an inherent consequence of the doctrine of taking back control, as it has been interpreted and has evolved in thinking in this country.
As we all know, not least because it was said by the Spanish Advocate General yesterday, EU membership does not mean that we have lost our sovereignty, otherwise we could not have served Article 50. Of course, as many noble Lords know, there are more sophisticated ways of getting what you want than traditional intergovernmentalism in certain circumstances—and getting what you want is what control is all about. In an interdependent world, you can do better by working through different mechanisms on various occasions.
Before the withdrawal negotiations began, we were promised that we would be in Berlin by Christmas. Where in fact are we? We are mired, battered and bruised and on the back foot in the Flanders mud, after the best part of three years, with a fair chance of not getting out for a number of years to come. This, by any measure, is a gloomy, unconstructive and nihilistic prospect.
Of course, it is true that in years gone by our own political institutions were good at criticising others and rather less good at evolving methods of decision-making and scrutiny in a changing world. In particular, we have been very slack as regards scrutinising the progress of European Union legislation and Governments of all persuasions have smuggled legislation onto the statute book via the EU system. But as an individual I am surprised that as a trading nation involved in all kinds of complicated trading relationships which have to be different from those in an introverted, subsistence economy, we have not fully recognised the need for a different kind of system of governance in an interdependent world of regulated economies.
The kind of political and administrative turmoil we are now in is not good, not least for business certainty. As I have said, it looks as if it is going to stretch out in front of us for some time to come. What we need is more stability and certainty, not less, but the deal we are looking at presents myriad loose ends that do not seem to be encouraging. On top of this but also part of it, the vast majority of economic commentators are saying that it is going to reduce national prosperity. Of course, without that we cannot have the healthcare systems we want and the defence capabilities that people want and expect.
Those who support the deal will say, “Ah well, in the long run it will work out in our favour”. All I can say is that I have always thought that a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. As a financial analyst explained to me the other day, an unrealised gain is not a gain at all. Furthermore, we live in a world of regulated markets, which I personally believe is a good thing. I and many of my fellow citizens do not want to live in a kind of ersatz Singapore.
Of course, the heart of the Brexit project is the referendum, whose authority, it is true, has been tarnished and whose prospectuses were in general pretty bogus. As far as I can see, the case for Brexit goes back to the referendum, and I do not think that I have ever heard any Government suggest that on its own terms Brexit does the best for Britain. If the referendum had been constitutionally binding, that would probably have been the end of the matter. But, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger, then President of the Supreme Court, pointed out in the Miller judgment, it is Parliament that is sovereign and so it is for Parliament to take the decisions; we cannot simply duck them. Being a Member of either House of Parliament is not simply a matter of resting one’s backside on green or red Benches in SW1. In the last analysis, our role is to guide the nation’s direction of travel, and in different ways we are Burkean representatives, not delegates. It is our perception of the national interest and our fiduciary duties which must guide us.
For my own part, I envy those who actually believe that these proposals are in the nation’s best interests; it is easy for them. But I do not. I also have a nightmare about basing our decision on the outcome of a referendum held nearly three years ago to justify doing the wrong thing now when that view may no longer command the support it enjoyed then. There has rightly been discussion both in this debate and more widely about the divisions that this has exposed in our country. I agree with that and I hate it, but these things cut in several directions. I consider leaving Europe on the basis of a vote taken nearly three years ago, if now three years later public sentiment has changed, would be the most divisive outcome that could possibly be imagined. It is one that should at all costs be avoided.
In my view, the Prime Minister’s deal—I concur with those who have said that it is a remarkable achievement in the circumstances—is not good enough. It diminishes us all in a variety of ways and so I cannot endorse it. As parliamentarians, we now collectively take a decision on whether or not the nation goes to war and soldiers put their lives on the line for their country. Against that background, I believe that it is craven not to say no to this deal if we believe that it is not good enough. If as a consequence I leave politics in a tumbrel, so be it—but that is an easy thing to say at the end of one’s career. But that is not the only part of the story, because there is another bit—what next? Quite simply, we all have to stop and think carefully and quickly. In reality, we have some time before rushing into anything. We must find an acceptable way of extricating ourselves from the fine mess which unfortunately we find ourselves in.