My Lords, despite the many hours spent discussing this country’s exit from the European Union in your Lordships’ House, I have not dipped my toe in the water. I used my Front-Bench role as a shield, thinking I could get through the entire debate without participating. However, a particularly surreal interview on the “Today” programme on Monday involving Iain Duncan Smith claiming—preposterously—that not a single job would be lost in this country after we leave the EU, finally propelled me into the fray.
Education is my subject so I will say a few words on that first. It is important to highlight Brexit’s collateral damage to universities and colleges, the loss of EU-funded research and the reduction in student applications from the rest of the EU. UK students need to know whether they will still have access to things like the excellent Erasmus scheme which, since 1987, has allowed more than 200,000 students to study in Europe as part of their UK degree. What fees will EU students be charged? Who can say? How can universities plan in the face of such uncertainty?
I think there is a sinister agenda at play in this whole debate, which has not been highlighted to a great extent in the debates in your Lordships’ House. It is the sort of free-trade deal held up as the Brexit prize of the hard Brexiters, which is contained in a blueprint published by the right-wing think tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs. It is called “Plan A+”—itself a sinister term. The priority areas for removing “anti-competitive” EU regulations highlighted in Plan A+ include GDPR data protection rules introduced by the EU to ensure privacy. It is also believed that services and government procurement should be opened to international competition, with protections designed to prevent workers being exploited or undercut by cheap migrant labour removed. The same goes for environmental protections, food standards and the precautionary principle that the EU favours when assessing risk. That is before we even look at the Plan A+ plans for financial services after Brexit, which they seek to fully deregulate. Let us not forget it was deregulation of the financial sector that enabled the 2008 financial crash.
This agenda will be familiar to anyone who has read Naomi Klein’s seminal book No is Not Enough, which is a chilling volume. She wrote of what she called the “shock doctrine”: the exploitation of a crisis to push through highly controversial policies while everyone is too distracted to fight them off. The plans for ultra-free trade, advocated by many Brexiters, look very much like shock doctrine and we should be aware of what they will mean for the UK as a stand-alone player on the global stage. What chance will we have to resist the predations of Trump’s USA?
That is the world we are facing. The USA was never the bedrock of liberal values but none the less it was a major player in the post-World War II social democratic consensus. It has now gone rogue under a president who is openly and unashamedly racist and misogynistic and sees Vladimir Putin as more of an ally than the European Union, What unites Trump and his allies? They can be classified as anyone unwilling to stand up to him, including politicians in this country among whom Boris Johnson, David Davis, Liam Fox and Mr Rees-Mogg can be counted. They are the real hardliners who believe that leaving the EU is of absolute overriding importance, even without a deal.
What unites these people and their backers—apart, I suspect, from the dream of a return to the days of Empire—is an antipathy towards the EU’s ability to rein in their power and that of their backers. The EU is the target because it signs up to climate agreements, is prepared to legislate for a financial transaction tax, chases down corporate tax dodgers and challenges tech giants and hedge funds. Who will do that after we leave? That is not what people voted for, or even realised they were being asked to vote for, in the referendum.
That is why I am dismayed to see some of my party colleagues in your Lordships’ House as well as in the other place, and indeed not a few trade unionists, argue in favour of leaving the EU, claiming it will benefit this country. It cannot and will not, and it will certainly not benefit many of the people who have traditionally voted Labour. As my parliamentary colleague Chris Matheson MP argued powerfully this week, there is simply no left-wing justification for Brexit. Those who believe differently have short memories, which do not go back to the years of Margaret Thatcher when it was often only EU law that prevented greater attacks on environmental and workplace protections.
But the looming economic slump seems to be of no concern to Brexiters, for whom no deal is regarded as acceptable, even—laughably—being described as “manageable”. If there is any fantasy in this whole sorry episode, that best encapsulates it, surely. My noble friend Lady Smith admirably set out the case for ensuring that no deal must not be allowed to happen and she was warmly supported by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, on behalf of the Cross-Benchers. Yet the Foreign Secretary stated recently that he believes this country will flourish and prosper under a no-deal exit. We should perhaps take some comfort from the fact that a few months ago the same man said that no deal would be a,
“mistake we would regret for generations".
Perhaps his confused state of mind should be seen as a metaphor for this apology for a Government, who have all the sense of purpose of someone stumbling around in a thick fog.
So where does this leave us? I confess I do not know and anyone who claims they do is not to be taken seriously. I do not recall Mr Johnson or Mr Gove mentioning during the referendum campaign that leaving the EU could involve putting troops on the street, stockpiling medicines to keep the NHS operating or establishing websites for people to consult when faced with food shortages, but that is where we are today. Nobody voted for this and that is why the only option—I believe this is likely to be the conclusion ultimately reached by the Prime Minister—is a return to the people. I do not like the misappropriation of the term “the people’s vote”; we had one of those in 2016.
I have reluctantly come round to the position that the knowledge that the people have today is so radically different from that presented to them by both sides in the referendum that it has become appropriate for us as politicians to say to people: “We heard what you said; a majority of you wanted us to leave the EU. We got that. We have tried to put together the best possible terms under which we can do so, but we cannot reach agreement among ourselves or with the EU, and we are now gazing into the abyss that is a no-deal exit. This is what it will mean. Do you still believe leaving the EU is the best option?” This is neither undemocratic nor a threat to democracy. There is nothing wrong with anyone echoing the words of John Maynard Keynes:
“When the facts change, I change my mind”.
That is now what we should do.