Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:02 pm on 14th January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Baroness Armstrong of Hill Top Labour 4:02 pm, 14th January 2019

My Lords, we have seen a very long and extended debate. There are lots of things I wanted to cover, but will now not do so, as they have been so eloquently dealt with by previous speakers. I have continued to take an interest in the challenge of Brexit and the Northern Ireland peace process, and it is not the backstop that I object to in the withdrawal agreement. I supported the Government agreeing to the backstop in the agreement they initially made in November 2017, so I do not object to it now.

In many parts of the country, including the area I regard as home—the north-east of England—the Brexit vote was driven by a sense of loss: loss of industrial jobs, opportunity, prospects and prosperity. We have to appreciate that sense of loss, and do so with leadership that offers some answers and ways forward, rather than simply encouraging people to find something or someone to blame.

The referendum was not exactly this country’s finest hour. Once the vote had taken place, it was clearly a choice between a complete break, with all the consequences of a hard border between the north and south of Ireland, and huge economic and industrial disruption, or a rule-taking Brexit, in which we left legally speaking, but still obeyed most of the rules and had to make financial contributions. It was, in the words of one of my colleagues in the Commons,

“a choice between a Brexit that raised the question of what is the price, and a Brexit that raised the question of what is the point”.—[Official Report, Commons, 9/1/19; col. 456.]

We cannot have all of the current advantages of EU membership at the same time as the freedoms promised by the leave campaign. That the Government have never been honest with the British people is at the heart of the chaos and disillusionment we face today. This debate seems to have been going on, and has been going on, for more than my political life. Indeed, the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, mentioned being in the Whips’ Office in Harold Wilson’s time. My father was in the Whips’ Office with her, and I was hearing all those arguments at home. As always, the chaos and disillusionment are not because of putting the national interest first; they have far more to do with the internal politics of the Conservative Party. We know that whatever happens, there is now to be a long period of debate and negotiation in front of us. If the Prime Minister wins, the political declaration demonstrates that long, tortuous process.

In these circumstances, I wanted to speak about something I raised with the then Secretary of State, David Davis. He was not able to deal with it, saying he did not understand, and would see me about it. I perfectly understand he was too busy, but I then asked Parliamentary Questions. I was interested in how the Government were going to engage with the British public about the issues that matter to them when they voted, and how they wanted the Government to move forward. If we have learned anything in the past few months, I hope it is that democracy is changing. Those of us involved in democratic institutions have a particular responsibility to work on renewing how people participate in democracy and express their views. Voting, on its own, in general elections or referenda, is no longer enough.

Brexit is the most significant decision of this generation. It is also one of the most complex set of decisions I have experienced. This is a prime opportunity for us to develop more deliberative democracy. I have become convinced that we need a second referendum, for reasons others have mentioned, but also because we have not effectively involved the public in the considerations about Brexit. The Constitution Unit at UCL held a citizens’ assembly in 2017 over two weekends, first identifying the issues, and then looking at those issues and potential ways forward. All the participants talked of how much they got out of the process, their learning, and how useful it was. I hoped the Government would learn from this, and indeed from other countries that effectively use deliberative democracy in the consideration of difficult issues. Who would have thought that the Republic of Ireland would agree gay marriage and abortion legislation in referenda? They did it through a deliberative process.

The Government have been so inwardly focused that they have missed ways of moving Brexit forward in a way that includes those people who voted in the referendum. The public are fed up. They continue to feel they are irrelevant in the debate, and that they will pay the price of this deal. Let us be honest: they have been let down, and we cannot guarantee their prosperity in the future with this deal. Let us stop the threats and intimidation, and recognise that things are so different from what people were promised during the referendum, or indeed during the preparations for Article 50. We now need to involve the public in the issues and ways forward in a deliberative way, through such exercises as citizens’ assemblies. The Irish used them to construct the question. Maybe we have to have the courage to involve people in this way in setting the question for a new referendum. Contrary to what many say, I believe that if we do that we might just begin to restore faith in democracy.