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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:44 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Henig Baroness Henig Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 6:44 pm, 9th January 2019

My Lords, this has already been a very wide-ranging debate. I listened with great interest, as I always do, to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, and particularly to his mountaineering analogies. He mentioned Ranulph Fiennes, and I wondered whether this was the same Ranulph Fiennes who said in March 2016 that Brexit would be “utterly stupid and pathetic”.

As we have already heard this afternoon, most of us in this Chamber and in the other place strongly oppose a no-deal outcome. So to see the Government wasting billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money preparing for it is not just profoundly depressing but a massive indictment of our political system.

Where do we go from here? What is the best course of action for this country? We should acknowledge, first of all, that there is no single pain-free solution to our self-inflicted predicament. There are too many parliamentary colleagues on all sides of the argument who claim there is one true path, and that it would be economically beneficial and widely popular if only everybody else could see it. Such a path may indeed reveal itself to historians in 30 years’ time, but it is certainly not visible here and now, and I say this as a historian of modern international history.

We face four broad choices: no deal, the Prime Minister’s deal, a people’s vote, or the extension or revoking of Article 50. As is clear from my introduction, I cannot support those urging no deal, whether as a negotiating ploy or in the ludicrously named “managed” no-deal scenario. Moving, with little preparation, from a highly integrated market of nations to an abrupt no-deal exit will inevitably cause extremely serious problems, particularly for small and medium-sized businesses providing goods and services to the EU, and more and more of their owners are telling us that.

But I think the political aspect is equally important. What does it say about the United Kingdom that we cannot reach an agreed settlement with our European neighbours? The United Kingdom has been an active player on the European mainland in one form or another for 1,000 years. By embracing no deal, we would be turning our backs on all that history and pulling away from the European mainland. That is not a position we will be able to sustain for long, unless the intention is to apply to become the 51st state of the United States of America. Even at the height of our Victorian splendour, as the world’s leading trading nation, we knew to keep a watchful eye on developments in Europe, to maintain contacts and to join in regular diplomatic discussions with our major European neighbours. We are now much diminished from that era—though some in the other place appear not to have noticed our steady decline—but how much more necessary is it, therefore, to remain on friendly terms with our EU neighbours, especially when so many of them are actively pleading with us to continue our collaboration with them?

What to say about the Prime Minister’s deal? It is now widely recognised that she made two fundamental errors from the outset of negotiations: putting party unity ahead of the interests of the country, and making little or no effort to construct a cross-party consensus on a Brexit deal. If her deal did actually achieve what she claims—securing our economic future, smoothing trade with the EU, gaining the potential for new trade deals globally—she might still have won support, but even a cursory analysis of her deal reveals that she has achieved none of these objectives. Her deal postpones the resolving of all these issues, merely creating at least one other cliff edge for the end of 2020, if not a further cliff edge in 2022. We surely cannot agree to this: the deal does not deserve to be passed.

A Prime Minister backed by a parliamentary majority could perhaps obtain an improved deal—for example, a commitment to exploring how EEA membership could work for the UK, and whether it would be compatible with no Irish border. I cannot, however, with this dogged, stubborn Prime Minster, see any prospect of a change of approach, so we are stuck with this deal or something close to it, no deal, a people’s vote or no Brexit.

In relation to a people’s vote, I am conflicted. As I argued in this Chamber in 2016, direct democracy undermines our parliamentary system—as we are now finding to our cost. A second vote might resolve our crisis, but it could also make it worse and weaken parliamentary democracy still further. I believe that Margaret Thatcher was right in 1975 to warn of the dangers of referenda trading liberal democracy for majoritarianism, going on to say that she agreed with Attlee that they were a device of dictators and demagogues. Although I do not agree that another vote would be undemocratic or an unfair repudiation of the 2016 referendum, I am concerned that it would be extremely divisive and that the debate would—how can I put this?—in no way resemble a Socratic dialogue. We cannot even agree among ourselves here this afternoon on the relevant facts. What chance is there of a fact-based discussion breaking out across the country during a second referendum campaign?

Therefore, although I would not vote against a second referendum, my preference would be to strengthen parliamentary democracy, not to continue to weaken it. That leads me to favour either extending or revoking Article 50 and explaining to the electorate as clearly as possible why this is now the only viable choice, why it has so far not been possible to deliver on the promises made in the 2016 referendum campaign and then to use the time gained to find new ways to resolve our conflicts.

As the UK is a parliamentary democracy, this decision could be overturned in a subsequent general election. Yes, there would be an outcry but there would also be strong support. I really believe that it is time that we as politicians gave leadership, which so far has been sadly lacking. In this, we would have strong support from the under-40s, and that matters to me more than anything else—that the under-40s continue to have access to European universities and to European cultural networks and economic opportunities. None of us can deny that we are in a mess, and this is the least damaging way that I can see for us to get out of it.