My Lords, future generations of historians mulling over and analysing the dysfunction and muddle of the Brexit negotiations will, I suspect, have particular difficulty understanding and explaining how the charge was led by a party that still calls itself the Conservative and Unionist Party and by the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, the hardest and purest of Brexit supporters, despite the risk, I would say with some confidence, of actual damage to the United Kingdom’s own union and very possibly its unity. No amount of prime ministerial labelling of the union, metronomically, as “precious” will conceal that reality. So all credit to the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, for shedding some light on this rather neglected aspect of Brexit before it is too late to do anything about it except bemoan it.
At the time, were we warned about these risks that would be incurred, especially in Northern Ireland, if the UK voted to leave? Of course we were. A few days before the vote, the two Prime Ministers who did most to build the Good Friday agreement, John Major and Tony Blair, jointly gave a stark warning. Since then, precursors of the damage to come—discord over the role of the devolved Administrations in the Brexit process, failure to constitute an Administration in Belfast and the turmoil over the Irish backstop—have multiplied.
In Scotland and Northern Ireland, as others have said, there were clear majorities in favour of remaining in the EU. The democratic legitimacy of those votes is indisputable, but you do not often hear that recognised by supporters of Brexit—and you never hear it recognised by the DUP. Overriding that legitimacy with the leave votes in England and Wales is precisely the sort of majoritarian supremacy that fuels the cause of Scottish independence and of the union of the two parts of Ireland. Will that be different if Brexit goes ahead on the basis of leaving with the Prime Minister’s deal, or without a deal at all? I doubt that. The contrary is far more likely—and I would include Wales, even though its voters opted to leave.
The Government’s own studies indicate a considerable and continuing loss of economic growth as a result of Brexit, and the less prosperous parts of the country, among which Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland undoubtedly rank, are likely to suffer disproportionately. The much-trumpeted prize for the UK of having its own trade policy is likely to result in concessions to trade partners such as the US, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Argentina that will damage sheep and beef farmers in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Even fishermen, among the strongest supporters of Brexit, are likely to be disappointed as the cruel deception of the Government’s claim that access to markets and access to waters are totally different things is shipwrecked on the rocks of the EU’s interests in the post-Brexit negotiations.
Then there will be the discord that is likely to reign over the exercise of the UK’s miserably diminished influence on the shaping of EU policies post Brexit. Are there not likely to be differences between Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast and Westminster and Whitehall over trying to influence trade and regulatory measures in Brussels? Will Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales not fight their corners in Brussels, thus further weakening the influence of the UK? Of course they will—and each setback in the unequal relationship between the UK and the EU will foster the sense of separation.
If even a part of these admittedly gloomy predictions is borne out, our union is in for a rough ride in a post-Brexit world. Would it not be more sensible and honest to recognise now that continued membership of the EU is far more likely to consolidate the unity of the UK than its leaving the EU, and then to give all four nations that make up the United Kingdom a say on whether to accept the deal that the Prime Minister has negotiated or whether to remain in the EU? Of course, that could result in an outcome similar to that in 2016, in which case it would have to be accepted, but we would at least have demonstrated that we had paid some attention to the attitudes and opinions of all parts of the union and that we regarded the stability of the union, which today’s debate has so usefully brought to the fore, as something that we not only paid lip service to but really meant.