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Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:36 pm on 6th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 4:36 pm, 6th December 2018

My Lords, I voted remain in the referendum. I was not surprised by the result. I also took the view that referendums are a bad idea at the best of times. Referendums on complex issues are an even worse idea, and it is even worse when you have a referendum and you have not worked out what you will do if you get an answer that you did not expect and did not want. That has been the tragedy of all of this from the beginning.

Along with the withdrawal agreement, the Government published their document on the future political relationship between the EU and the UK. If David Cameron had thought out what he would do if he got the result that he did not want, that paper would have been ready for publication within a few weeks of the referendum result—because that paper would have been a good paper on which to negotiate. It is one that can and probably will form a structure of negotiation in the years to come—and it will be years; this will not be quick.

The referendum was conducted by the Conservative Party because it was split. That is not unusual. We did the same with Harold Wilson when we were split on this issue. It is what happens in a parliamentary democracy such as ours when Parliaments cannot easily agree. The tragedy of all this is that the nation is deeply divided on the European Union and has been for years. That division has not been resolved. Noble Lords who have spoken in this debate have identified that, and I associate myself very strongly with their remarks.

The divisions are deep. They run through not just the political parties, which is why the House of Commons is in so much difficulty, but trade unions, business, community groups and, as the noble Lord, Lord Leigh of Hurley, said, families and friends. If we have a division such as that, we need to ask ourselves how we will solve it when it is such an important issue. All noble Lords in the debate have recognised how important this issue is, but we are deeply divided. If we could have a discussion on the declaration on the relationship between the UK and the EU, that would be more productive than what we are doing at the moment.

My noble friend Lord Parekh made a perceptive and fascinating comment, as someone who comes from an Indian subcontinent background, about the nature of the relationship between Britain and Europe. It has long been my view that one of the reasons why the British were so uncomfortable with Europe is that they thought they had joined a supermarket and increasingly came to the conclusion that they had joined a superstate. I have no problem with Europe becoming a superstate. I think that it needs to, and I will say a little more about why that should be in a moment, if I have time. But the problem is that, going right back to the referendum of Harold Wilson’s, we were talking about this as a supermarket. The supermarket is obviously appealing, but the superstate bit is not appealing to the British.

The strapline of the Brexiteers in the referendum, “take back control”, was not just about immigration. It gave a feeling that the British were losing control of making their own laws and of sacking their own Government. “How can you sack the Government in Brussels?” people would ask. It is actually a more democratic structure than people realise, as my noble friend Lord Tomlinson said, but that is not the perception. One thing that has worried me about this debate is the number of people who seem to think that if we have another referendum we will automatically get back in. I have to say that I think if there were another referendum it might well come to the same conclusion. What would be worse would be if it came to a slightly different conclusion with only a small majority in favour of remain. We would be in a worse position than Nicola Sturgeon is in in Scotland, where she keeps saying, “We will have another referendum”, but she will not say when because she is not sure she will get the right answer. We really do not want to be constantly in that situation, so we need to find a way to build a greater consensus, a greater understanding of how the world has changed and why we need a very close and powerful relationship with Europe.

I was very pleased with paragraph 128 of the political declaration about the close association between the EU and the UK—the recognition by the Government of a proposal I made a year or so ago about the need for very close parliamentary links between the European Parliament and the British Parliament. That will be vital. In areas such as security we are going to have to negotiate things in order not to become unsafe. We also need a parliamentary link, otherwise we will start to go off in different directions. That is also important in other areas. One of the real dangers to Britain’s economy is that investment will not come into Britain in the way it used to. Another is that we do not have an agreement on security. I have spoken before about the European arrest warrant, which is vital, as are other matters. A third, to which people have paid too little attention, is that we will lose, and the European Union will lose, considerable influence in politics around the world.

Noble Lords should ask themselves whether Britain will still be a member of the Security Council of the United Nations in 30 years’ time. The answer is, almost certainly not, in the present situation. They might want to accept that, and there is a case for doing so. What I am really saying, as others have said, is that the answer is not another referendum: we would end up having referendums and just winning or just losing them. I do not think that answers of that type are relevant. It would not surprise me, in the current situation in Parliament, if the Prime Minister noted that she is quite popular in the way that she is handling this and could therefore win a general election with a working majority: I would not rule out anything in the current situation. But whatever happens, we have to build a closer relationship with the European Union and recognise that we both bring to the history of the world, actually, very important assets, and that it is a matter of recognising and using them.

We really need more time on this. The answer—through what is likely to be a very muddled approach, but I suspect that it will come to this in the end—is to have an extension of Article 50, which will then give us time to negotiate on what the British people voted for, but in a more sophisticated way. At the end of that process, even if it is in 10, 20 or 30 years’ time, if we want to put something to the public in terms of what we have agreed, that makes sense. Having negotiations of the type we have had, which have gone so badly wrong because we were not ready to negotiate, has led to an agreement which my noble friends on the Front Bench are right to oppose. We need to put this to one side, give ourselves more time and get on with those negotiations—and I fear that future generations will have to decide whether we stay in the European Union or not.