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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:10 pm on 14th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 7:10 pm, 14th January 2019

My Lords, in this long-running crisis last week Mr Speaker Bercow made a ruling in the House of Commons which makes an already unpredictable situation even more unpredictable. The long-run consequences of that ruling have yet to play out because I cannot see Parliament giving back the powers it has just gained, and we might well see more cross-party deals if the negotiations on the political declaration continue—as I think they will, and I will say more about that in a moment—over the next few years. This will not be quick.

Before I get on to that, I want to say that, unlike most of my colleagues, I am strongly opposed to another referendum. Another referendum would be a failure, and as a desperation measure it would still probably not solve the problem. I am against another referendum because it would probably produce a very similar result to the one we have already had. This needs to be said very often in this place because the majority of people here voted remain and strongly support it. I voted remain. I think it would have been better if we had stayed in but, as the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, said, it is a profoundly serious mistake to assume that the other side of that argument is a weak argument. There are a lot of people on the Brexit side of the argument who feel passionately that we must be out of the European Union. They do not feel that just because of immigration or bureaucrats or whatever; they feel it because there has been a long-running belief in Britain that we should join an economic market, not a political one.

This goes back to the 1957 treaty of Rome with ever-closer union. The British people did not see a political need for that, but the continental countries did. Why? It was because in the past couple of hundred years all of them without exception had had their borders changed by force and had been defeated and occupied. They see the EU as a peacekeeping mechanism, and they are right. Britain does not see it that way. The last time we had a war on our soil was 380 years ago, and it was a civil war—it worries me to say that perhaps we are running up to another one right now on Brexit. Do not treat the continental countries’ argument as trivial and do not think they will change their view just because the economics of this look bad. For them, the political side is very important. The majority of British people saw themselves joining an economic supermarket not a superstate, and that makes a fundamental difference.

If there were a similar result as before, we would be no better off than we are now. If the result were marginally the other way for remain—this point has already been made, so I need not labour it—there would be more people coming back for yet another referendum. Just look at the SNP’s arguments on this: it always wants another referendum. It would have one a week until it won, and that will happen with both sides of the Brexit argument if we are not careful. That is why I see another referendum as a last resort. It may have to happen if the House of Commons cannot get on top of this and sort out an alternative. I would also be worried about what the question or questions would be and how quickly it could be got through the House of Commons and how quickly it could get the approval of the Electoral Commission, which has to agree to it. At the end of the day, Burke was right. Britain works best with representative democracy. Do not have referendums. One thing that got us into this mess was a referendum when the Prime Minister of the day had not worked out what he would do if he did not get the result that he wanted.

That brings me to the major point I want to make, which is about the political declaration. I see it as the long-term way forward. As many people have said, the political declaration is fairly woolly. Of course it is woolly. It should have been produced about two months after the referendum. Had it been produced just after the referendum, it would have been a negotiated document, and we would be in a rather better position than we are in at the moment. If we can get to a situation where we have a deal with the European Union—and I do not know whether we can and make no predictions about it as the crisis is too serious and unpredictable—then we can use the political declaration to build up that ever-closer relationship which we need. As the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, said in a speech I agreed very largely with, Europe not just is but needs to be travelling at more than one speed so that those who are going for ever-closer union continue to do so.

I would like to see the development of a single state on the European continent, however defined, federal or whatever. It is necessary, not least for defence and foreign policy issues, where it is daft that 450 million well-educated people in the modern economies of Europe cannot stand up to 150 people in the corrupt and despotic regime in Russia without the help of the United States, which will not be there for ever. Although I do not want to see the end of NATO or the EU, bear in mind that what is happening in Europe is long term. We have to be part of it. We cannot be right out of it, but right now we cannot be right in it. Whatever happens in the House of Commons—and it has to decide, not us—we should use the political declaration to move things forward.

Finally, I was delighted to see, in that document and in the agreement, recognition that we need close development between the two Parliaments. That is a proposal I made in this House about two years ago, just after the referendum. If the Minister will stand up and say that we will do that and will get on with it as soon as we have the immediate situation under control, I will buy him a drink.