Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:40 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Soley Lord Soley Labour 5:40 pm, 25th March 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, whose views I have known for some time; I agree with very many of them, and he gives this matter great thought. I agree with him absolutely that this is a real political and economic crisis for the United Kingdom.

I ask Members to bear in mind that those of us on the European Union Select Committees meet representatives of European countries on this issue. A few weeks ago, I was in Bucharest, Romania, which currently holds the presidency of the European Union, to talk about Europol and the future of the security relationship; that includes, of course, the relationship between the EU and the UK. The general feeling there is one of wanting the British to stay but recognising that it has gone beyond that, for many of the reasons set out by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges. What they want now is for us to make a decision and move on, and to start building a relationship between the EU and the UK, which we all know will be necessary.

This Sunday, I am going again to Bucharest, together with my noble friend Lord Whitty, where we will be speaking about the future of the European Union. Interestingly, we will be there not just as observers but as participants. But I ask Members to bear in mind that, when I go to such meetings, for the first time in my political career it is very difficult for me to answer questions about what is happening in the British political system—a system they have always assumed was among the best and most stable in the world. I can only reply, as I do at times, that we have not quite cracked it yet; I then like to tell them that that is a classic example of British understatement. It is terribly difficult to talk to Europeans about where we are in this country.

The reality is that the country is divided, the political parties are divided and organisations are divided, but we have to follow the referendum—a referendum which should never have been held, frankly. Britain works best when it has representative democracy; it has worked really well for this country for several hundred years and we forgo it at our peril. Tragically, what one never does is hold a referendum without knowing what you will do if you do not get the result you want. That is why we are in the mess we are in today.

It is with some sadness I say that the other issue to be addressed is this: as a number of noble Lords have said, we are debating this partly because of the state of the Tory party. I do not normally go around calling on Ministers or Prime Ministers to resign for the hell of it—there is not much future in that. But the present Prime Minister has lost control. I was brought up politically on the idea of Cabinet responsibility and unity. There is no Cabinet unity—arguably, there is no Cabinet. That is a terrible state for Parliament and Britain to be in. We have to crack that problem.

Over time, I have come to the conclusion that we need to accept this withdrawal agreement and to do so fairly soon. But there are caveats to that. It has always been my view—not just in recent years but for a long time—that the British public were supportive of a European common market but never very supportive of the European state. In other words, the British public tended to see it as a supermarket, not a superstate. That has been the problem that runs through the core of British thinking. It explains the power of the Brexiteers’ strapline, “Take back control”. It was about not just immigration but a variety of things: making our own laws, being able to sack the Government and so on. That difference has never been resolved among the British public in the way it was in Europe, which had a far greater need for political unity because of the horror of two world wars, defeat, occupation and having borders changed by force.

Where do we go from here? I urge—as far as I am able to these days, which is not so much in the other place—that the withdrawal agreement must go through. Probably the best way of doing it is that put forward by Tom Watson MP, my colleague in the House of Commons. We have the withdrawal agreement and we must get it through soon, and then—I say this very reluctantly and regretfully—we probably have to have some sort of referendum at the end of it. I do not want that—as I have said, I do not like referendums—but I am not sure how you avoid the trap otherwise.

We need to face the fact that the British public are so deeply divided. The divisions are not just between parties and organisations, or business and trade unions; there is division within families. Young people in particular are arguing to stay in, and the older generation is arguing to get out. This is of such importance and we cannot go on like this much longer.

I suggest there is a case for the Prime Minister to step aside so that we can have a more conciliatory approach from a new Prime Minister. I would love to see a Government of national unity for a time, to get us out of the hole we are in. Believe me, if you talk to people abroad about this, they cannot understand what has happened to Britain. It is tragic.

I end with a plug for the report we have just produced in the European Union Select Committee, called Beyond Brexit; noble Lords might find its subtitle slightly facetious: How to Win Friends and Influence People. We will certainly need to do that. We had so many friends and supporters throughout the European Union until this business happened. Now, we have very few. They want us to go but they want a good relationship, and they wish we had not decided to go in the first place.

In both Houses, we have a duty to try to get this moving. We must accept the withdrawal agreement and then start working on the political declaration. Had we started on that two years ago, it would have formed the basis of a realistic and proper relationship between the UK and the EU. That is still a possibility but we are coming to it very late. However, we need to do it and we need to do it fast.