My Lords, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU said at the weekend:
“For the sake of our democracy, we cannot let slip the prize of Brexit”.
I agree, which is why, tomorrow, I hope MPs will disown this democracy-eroding deal.
This deal is not in the national interest. The only thing national about the farcical situation of abject surrender that we are in is that it is a national disgrace. What is wrong with us that we should talk ourselves down so much? Barack Obama won two terms as President with the inspirational campaign cry, “Yes, we can”, while here in Britain, all that our establishment seems inclined to shout is, “No, we can’t!” What sort of message is that to send to the bullies of Brussels or, indeed, the people? How the Eurocrats must delight in our defeatism—a defeatism shrouded in doublespeak which should fool no one. Under this deal we are not leaving. Some may dream of the headline “We’ve sealed the deal”, but the only thing this deal would seal is the fate of our democracy.
The obvious appeal, to some, of the radical Italian parties led by their deputy Prime Ministers and the violent French “yellow vests” protest movement is surely symptomatic of a deepening and dangerous disaffection with democracy. Is there not a lesson to be learned from the democratic disarray in Italy, France and now Germany, where, unbelievably, as my noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater told us, we are witnessing a neo-Nazi renaissance with the breakaway of an even more extreme splinter of the far-right AfD? The tectonic plates are shifting on mainland Europe because more and more voters doubt the ability, even the desire, of their political elites to honour their word and to implement policy commitments, on the very basis of which the people entrusted them with power. Yet our political elite—our establishment—behaves as if this simple, obvious rule somehow does not apply to them.
The Secretary of State for Exiting the EU argues that this deal delivers on Brexit. I beg to differ. This deal fails to deliver on Brexit, for reasons rehearsed ad nauseam in both this House and the other place. To quote his immediate predecessor, Dominic Raab, this deal would keep us locked into swathes of EU laws without any democratic say, threaten the integrity of the UK and prevent us from pursuing an independent trade policy. It suffocates the opportunities that Brexit offers. It does all that and more because, should it ever become a binding international treaty, I fear it would also mark the end for our democracy. Our democracy’s very viability and its durability depend on people’s trust being honoured. So Mr Raab’s successor as Secretary of State is surely absolutely right to say that the stakes could not be higher. And the Prime Minister knows that because she refers to,
“a catastrophic and unforgivable breach of trust in our democracy”,
if the UK remains in the EU. That is exactly so. As the journalist Janet Daley wrote in early December, ultimately,
“pernicious mistrust will be … corrosive to faith in democracy”.
I wonder if the battle has become so intense that we have lost sight of what we all want more than anything else—surely that is a stronger democracy, to enhance rather than diminish government’s accountability to the people. So I agree with my noble friend Lord Cavendish of Furness that we need to be open to the option of a clean break on WTO terms. As someone who has had more than 50 breaks, I think I can claim to speak with some authority when I say that a clean break is better than an awkward break. A clean break would not only bring accountability home and strengthen democracy, it would also heal our divisions, far better than this deal, a second referendum or a Norway-style deal, all of which would only perpetuate Brexit and thus prolong the agony, possibly indefinitely. Of course, exiting on WTO terms would not be the end; it would be the means to an end—a negotiated deal on better terms.
In conclusion, we should surely be saying to Brussels, “Yes, we can”, instead of supporting this defeatist deal which would do incalculable harm to our democracy. That is why I urge colleagues in the other place to disown this deal tomorrow, show that they respect the people’s vote of 2016 and strengthen democracy.