My Lords, to the extent that, during my six years in this House, I have been able to make any impression at all—which may be questionable —I hope that I have been able to convey my uncompromising attachment to the European ideal, and my belief that the future of the four nations of these islands is best served within an European context.
As a democrat, I respect the outcome of the referendum. I respect the 52% who voted to leave— but also the 48% who voted to remain. I am acutely conscious that the English approach to politics is one of “winner takes all”, as reflected in the electoral system. Our values in Wales are perhaps a little different, based on our sharing within the community—perhaps a reflection of being rooted in gavelkind rather than primogeniture. In the referendum, the leave side knew what it was voting against, without coherence as to what it was voting for, so in trying to implement the wishes of leavers there were no clear benchmarks. The leavers never had one clear-cut manifesto as to what would follow the UK leaving the EU.
Over the past two years, a whole phalanx of leave-voting Ministers have represented the UK in negotiations in Brussels and with the international world. They have made an appalling botch of it, which is partly why we are in such a mess today. We had the Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson insisting that he could have his cake and eat it; David Davis, who led the Brexit negotiations, managed to negotiate with Michel Barnier for just four hours in two years; and, most recently, we had Dominic Raab, who negotiated this withdrawal agreement then resigned from the Cabinet in protest against what he had done. It beggars belief.
The Brexit camp has had its chance; today’s withdrawal agreement is the best that can be mustered—and, frankly, it just is not good enough. It just shifts the uncertainty facing manufacturing industry and agriculture a couple of years down the road to the end of the transition period, which may well turn out to be a bridge to nowhere. It leaves the Irish border issue largely unresolved, and unresolvable, given that both the EU and the UK have a veto on the backstop issue. It leaves uncertainty in the minds of EU citizens in the UK regarding their future, with the massive implications that has for the health service, our universities and our tourist sector.
The Government promised to carry the devolved regimes with them, but from both Edinburgh and Cardiff and their two very different Governments we have had the same retort: that they were not part of developing strategy, nor was agreement sought from them on the final terms. The concerns of the National Assembly remain: the long-term future of our manufacturing and agricultural exports; the failure to make adequate preparations in our ports; whether EU structural funding will be replaced, which the noble Lord, Lord Shipley, emphasised in the equally valid English context; that there will not be a power grab, reversing aspects of the devolution settlement; the fair management of state aid and procurement policy issues; and that the UK will be a partnership of equals, not a Westminster-dominated, neo-unitary state.
As a result of these misgivings, yesterday’s debate on the withdrawal agreement in the National Assembly in Cardiff had the dramatic outcome of the governing Labour Party supporting the Plaid Cymru amendment to reject the UK Government’s proposals; I am glad to see that trend among Labour colleagues in Cardiff. It is interesting to note that today in the Scottish Parliament there was a vote of 92 to 29, also rejecting the proposals. On Tuesday, Welsh MPs will no doubt vote over- whelmingly against this inadequate agreement and it will be buried without trace.
It could have been so very different. There was a workable compromise available, as I have repeatedly stressed in this House, since it was published two years ago. It is contained in the Welsh White Paper Securing Wales’ Future, which accepts leaving the EU but seeks a new settlement involving membership of the customs union and a single market arrangement. That would essentially be a form of common market, which many Brexiters hankered for during the referendum. If the Government had sought a constructive compromise along these lines, it was there for them. They know that there was support for that within Labour ranks, Plaid Cymru and the SNP. Mrs May refused to consider such a step. I was so sorry that last month, when there was so much to play for, the Leader of this House—whom I am pleased to see in her seat—was unwilling to discuss this with me. So be it.
We are now faced with the real possibility of a no-deal Brexit, which would be an absolute disaster. It must be stopped at all costs. While I accept that the final word on these issues must rightly rest with the elected Chamber, I will support the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith. If the only alternatives are this withdrawal agreement or no deal, there must be a provision to return the matter to the people. They asked Parliament to seek a new arrangement with Europe, and it is only proper that they be asked whether they really want to go down this disastrous road.
Perhaps it should now be a matter for Parliament, having taken over control of these processes from the Government—as we have seen with the votes last night, and as the noble Lord, Lord Owen, mentioned earlier—to refine and adopt the preferred model of Brexit, and for that proposal then to be run off against the status quo in a people’s vote. As the European court is being advised that the UK can unilaterally withdraw the Article 50 application, the Government should now give notice of their intention to do so, or at least seek a postponement long enough to arrange a people’s vote, which must have the option of remaining in the EU on present terms. If the people then vote to leave, so be it. But if they wake up to the realities facing us, let us withdraw our notice to leave the EU and then start the important work of trying to rebuild our relationships with the continent of which we are a part, and in partnership with which our future most assuredly lies.