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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:15 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Baroness Ramsay of Cartvale Labour 9:15 pm, 9th January 2019

My Lords, if the noble Baroness really is finished, I will get to my feet. Of all the many things that could be said about the situation we are in, certainly no one can say that our political system is having one of its finest hours. We are in a situation which is perhaps inevitable when you use a referendum—a very blunt instrument—to answer a complicated, multifaceted question, especially in a political system like ours, which is a representative democracy without a written constitution. But we are where we are; we are in a mess. I agree with what my noble friend Lord Hutton said about that earlier. It is a mess which demands decisive action from a Parliament which seems to be going round in ever-decreasing, fractious circles. That is a rather messy mixed metaphor, but it is a very messy, mixed-up situation.

We should be very clear about our role in this House in this mess of a situation. We are a bicameral Parliament, so in this House, we are not just entitled to give our opinion—which may or may not be in opposition to decisions made at the other end of the building—we have a duty to do that. We are supposed to give our advice and opinions based on the very varied experiences we all have, and we must do that. Of course the elected House at the other end of the building must make all the decisions, but at the moment we have to hope its Members find the courage to remember that while it is wholly legitimate for them to be very concerned about the views of their constituents, they are representatives not delegates. That is the basis of our democracy and it is what representative democracy is supposed to be about. I sometimes think that is lost sight of in the constant talk about the will of the people as expressed in the referendum.

To be told that only two choices for the future development of this country are open to us is frankly political blackmail, and I do not accept that premise for one minute. Of course we have more than two choices about where the country can now go. Instead of either the inadequate and very poor deal the Prime Minister has produced from the woefully inept negotiations of her Government, or the disaster of crashing out of the EU with no deal at all, we could decide that the best of all possible deals is the one we have now, as a full EU member. We could then revoke Article 50—there is absolutely no doubt that we have the power to do that, unilaterally—and work to reform the EU and do whatever we would like to make it better than it is. Nobody in Europe thinks the EU is perfect, but it is better to work from the inside to change it than to walk off in a huff and make things much worse for ourselves. As the right honourable Kenneth Clarke repeatedly explains, nothing prevents applying for Article 50 again some time if we withdraw now. Or we could do what is, for me, a second-best option: we could decide to have a people’s vote and ask the other 27 EU members to agree to us delaying Article 50 to do that.

In my opinion, the best option for the economic, political and strategic future of our country is to remain a member and work to reform the EU from within. As a Scot, I add that I am also very conscious that, by leaving the European Union, we are handing the SNP a nuclear political weapon in its battle for independence. It is no use hopefully shaking one’s head about this, as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, is doing from a sedentary position, because that is exactly what the SNP is hoping for. I know, as someone who fought hard during the independence referendum in Scotland, how we used the idea that if you leave the United Kingdom you will be leaving the European Union. That will be complete denied to us as an argument.