Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:58 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield Crossbench 5:58 pm, 9th January 2019

My Lords, in a celebrated article in the Times to mark the unveiling of a statue of the great Benjamin Disraeli in Parliament Square on the second anniversary of his death, the leader writer penned a sentence that has resonated ever since:

“In the inarticulate mass of the British populace which they”— the Conservatives—“held at arm’s length”, Disraeli,

“discerned the Conservative working man as the sculptor perceives the angel imprisoned in a block of marble”.

Is that not a wonderful sentence? The angel-in-marble image flashed across my mind when, in a burst of admitted optimism, I first picked up the political declaration. Euro-documents are, of their very nature, free of the poetry of that Times article, let alone of Disraeli himself, and they can never be a thing of statue- like beauty and symmetry. But here in these 26 pages of aspirations just might, I thought, be found sufficient pieces of marble that we could somehow sculpt into a set of arrangements which capture the real possibility of a sustained, even dynamic, future partnership with the EU 27.

The future relationship document admits that it reflects what it calls a “high ambition” with regard to its “scope and depth”, which “might evolve over time”. Indeed, virtually all its 147 paragraphs assume a harmony model, not just in the converting of the declaratory framework into a legally binding treaty but in a developing partnership thereafter. And “harmony” is not quite the word one associates with the often tense and never serene relationship between the UK and an integrating Europe. Nonetheless, the ambition is there in black and white, as are suggested mechanisms for both the regular review of the proposed arrangements and the seeking of new ways and additional areas in which future co-operation might take place.

Certainly there are, in my judgment, more reasons to be cheerful than I had expected in the deal Mrs May brought back from Brussels on Sunday 25 November, especially as the UK’s negotiating position was weakened from the outset by our inevitably being the mendicant at the table. Though a remainer—but not a second referendum man—I have always held the view that there is much force in the sovereignty arguments expressed by my leaver friends. And there is a very substantial pulse of returning sovereignty in that political declaration.

To my regret, the Prime Minister's deal has been greeted by a cacophony of negatives across the parties. Mrs May has managed to unite a battalion of critics. I do not share their disdain for what she has brought home. I have no idea how the great showdown in the House of Commons will play out next week. The Rubik’s Cube of possibilities shows yet again how difficult it is to reconcile plebiscitary democracy with representative democracy, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, put so eloquently. The primary colours of a binary referendum do not—cannot—sit easily with the shades and subtleties of our standard model of parliamentary democracy.

Another general election would not be a satisfactory means, in my judgment, of settling the European question in its stark current form—of their very nature, general elections cannot be single-issue events.

Never before have we been faced with a contingency comparable to a hard Brexit with all the short-term dislocation that would bring, as well as GDP forgone in the medium term. For all the respect I have for my leaver friends—and I genuinely do—I cannot fathom the insouciance, verging on Pollyanna-ism, about it that some of them exhibit. In my darker moments I sometimes think it would take the four horsemen of the apocalypse to ask for landing rights at Heathrow before they showed the slightest trace of anxiety about what lies ahead. Heaven forbid that we should face such an outcome, for if it happened it would seriously damage—perhaps for a long time—our people’s faith in the ability of the state to fulfil its duty of care to those it exists to protect and serve.

Even so, if Mrs May’s proposal—or something very like it—makes its way through the House of Commons, it would take years of our diplomatic and political skills at their finest to implement it fully and satisfactorily. But it could work and in doing so draw at last the sting from the question of Britain and Europe to the surprise and relief of not just ourselves but of Europe too, as we cease to be a destabiliser nation—that is exactly what we are at the moment—and revert to being a bringer of stability and maturity to the councils of the world.

What a great prize it would be if at last we could find a settlement of the Britain in Europe question, which, in the words of the great Rita Hayworth, has bewitched, bothered and bewildered us as a country and a people for nearly 69 years since in May 1950 the French sprung the European Coal and Steel Community plan on us out of the blue.

There are multiple reasons for our being bewitched, bothered and bewildered—for this particular condition. Especially potent among them is that the European question has always touched directly upon our individual notions of patriotism. The paramount need now at this time of high national anxiety is, while respecting each other’s patriotisms, to find a way through, while satisfying nobody, that somehow carries us to a workable settlement with the EU 27. In my view the Prime Minister’s deal does this and I hope she wins the vote in the Commons.

What a gift it would be to our country—above all to our children and grandchildren—if we could lift the curse that has seared us for so long, freeing up everyone’s minds and energies for application to the other great economic and social questions we face that are crying out for attention. What an angel in marble that would be if somehow we could fashion a viable and durable settlement out of the molten mass of uncertainty and possibility that the people we serve and the country we love are facing.

Despite many other instincts that are pushing the other way, I insist on living in hope.