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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:25 pm on 14th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Liberal Democrat 8:25 pm, 14th January 2019

My Lords, listening to this debate criss-crossing the Chamber, with not all the speeches on one side going one way or the other, has reminded me of a story that Denis Healey used to tell in the 1960s when he was Minister for Defence. A man who came to him saying that he had the answer to the Russian submarines patrolling undetected in the North Sea. His solution was to boil the North Sea and, when the water evaporated, the Russian submarines would be left high and dry for all to see. “But how do I boil the sea?”, asked Denis. “Look here, Mr Healey”, said the man, “I have given you the solution. It is up to the Government to work out its implementation”.

After three Brexit Secretaries and the abandonment of numerous red lines, we are left with a compromise which no one defends as anything but the least worst solution. As the noble Lord, Lord Wilson, indicated, what the Prime Minister has been trying to do so valiantly over the last two and a half years is to boil the sea. The mandate which the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, the noble Baroness, Lady Stroud, and others have claimed because of the impressive 17.4 million votes ignores the fact that the vote was spread across a wide range of opinions. It goes from Sir John Redwood’s plans for a light-touch, small-state, buccaneering free-trade country to the socialist utopia that those such as Len McCluskey want. It was not a single mandate to achieve a single objective—hence the problem that the Prime Minister now faces.

It is becoming abundantly clear that the Prime Minister’s compromise offers only the prospect of us stumbling out of Europe with jagged edges and a mass of unfinished business, satisfying no one and ensuring—let us have no doubt—that the civil war in the Conservative Party will continue. In the circumstances in which we find ourselves, I do not see it as an outrage to give the people an opportunity to take stock in the light of the realities that have been exposed over the last two and a half years. The great benefit of living in a democracy is that there are mechanisms which enable people to change their mind. This is not the Charge of the Light Brigade, where we follow orders regardless of the knowledge that someone has blundered. Nor are we, like Macbeth,

“in blood Stepp’d … so far … that Returning were as tedious as”,

going back. We are a parliamentary democracy, with all the freedoms and maturity that that term implies. If ever there was a time to take back control, now is the moment.

I will be followed in this debate by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, and I am sure that we will once again be presented with his particularly dystopian view of the European Union. I have been in here for nearly 25 years and I will give him full marks for consistency. What would worry me if I were a Conservative is how, over those nearly 25 years, the views of the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, have moved from being those of a rather eccentric voice on the Back Benches to being at the heart of the Conservative argument for where we go next. So let me repeat the view that has motivated me since my student days, reinforced by 50 years of working with and in the European Union. The European Union is the most successful example of multinational co-operation that the world has yet seen. It has set an example to the world of how old enmities can be replaced by fruitful joint endeavours, and it has massively helped to increase Britain’s influence and prosperity.

Recovering from the last two years will be no easy task. It will need Parliament and parliamentarians to regain the confidence to make decisions in the national interest. If, as I hope, that means giving the people the opportunity to have their own meaningful vote, those of us who will be campaigning to remain will have to address the fears that the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, and others drew attention to, which were so successfully exploited in 2016. We will have to renew our commitment to a Europe of peace and prosperity, underpinned by human rights and the rule of law. This is a once in a generation decision which every parliamentarian must take individually. It is the Corn Laws; it is the Norway debate; it is our opportunity to learn the lessons from this ghastly episode and say to the young people who will have to live with the consequences of it, “Here is your European future. The hope lives on, the dream will never die”. I will be voting for the amendment of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, when the House divides.