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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:50 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 8:50 pm, 25th March 2019

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, always enlivens our debates. I am challenged, and I hope I am not chasing unicorns at this moment. I will proceed as I was, but he has really made me think again.

We are finally close to the brink, and this is a good moment to pause. The cliff edge is in sight, and I am reminded of the old Hoffnung bricklayer’s story, in which our hero meets the barrel of bricks going up and down, and he ultimately receives all the bricks on his head when he hits the bottom. That is the Prime Minister. The bricks of Brexit are still falling, and the damage is still being done. This is no comedy, but it is a joke in a funny way, and a joke it may be for all the 27 EU states, which seem to be at the limit of endurance and good humour. They have shown a remarkable ability to respond, as my noble friends Lord Kerslake and Lord Ricketts have said, to an unprecedented display of political unwisdom. They need us, we need them, and I share their exasperation.

What about this phrase, “Mother of Parliaments”? Do we dare use it any more? I have never rated it highly on overseas visits. Europe has never taken much notice of it, and if you go to Commonwealth Parliaments you will find a semi-circular Chamber. This is one lesson that has been learned. Do not build confrontational Chambers which merely reinforce the two-party system. As we have seen, they can lead the Chamber into stultification or worse.

I am always interested in how others see us. Back in 1972 I persuaded Macmillan Journals to publish a review of the European press so that, as we entered Europe, we would understand more of what the Europeans were saying. However, it was difficult. If it was foggy in the Channel, in those pre-digital days the European press would sometimes never arrive at all. Last Thursday, while the EU was cogitating on the Prime Minister’s latest version of her deal, I quickly scanned the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Le Monde for Brexit. The front-page headline said, “Franz Kafka” in large letters. I thought, “What an appropriate image for Brexit”—until I realised it was about the Leipzig Book Fair. Eventually I found news stories and a disgruntled Bavarian who complained of English arrogance in assuming they were still in charge of a united kingdom.

In Le Monde I found nothing until I got to a full-page spread on China’s overtures to Italy and other EU members. The author seemed genuinely sorry that Brexit was inevitably going to encourage China and everyone else to develop stronger diplomatic and trade relations with the EU.

This leads on to my main point, which is that the powerful centrifugal force of Brexit damages the economic and political health of the separate nations. Brexiteers complain of a growing European unity that I do not see. I see the loss of so many vital ties in security, in health care, in almost every sector of life—ties that are dismissed so often as mere regulations. I see a threat to our own United Kingdom.

Europe is not uniting. Well before the referendum, there were countries expressing discordant voices, not least on the eurozone and on border controls. We were difficult customers. We were given certain privileges and opt-outs—observer status in Schengen and so on—but we were not the only ones. Immigration was always going to be different in different countries because its effects were different, but at least we could all sit down and argue the case. Now we cannot.

I am proud to own an EU passport and to feel that I am an EU citizen, at least for a few more days. I am therefore emotionally encouraged by any further slippage in the timetable that postpones the inevitable and possibly ends up with another referendum. Having said that, I would not vote for a referendum or an Article 50 extension now. We must give Parliament a chance first. I would still prefer that the Government persuade their more eccentric Brexiteers to join them in the lobby and that a deal of some kind go through, because no deal has already been rejected. It is the only amendment that has had such a large majority.

The House of Commons is losing its old discipline, in spite of the Speaker’s valiant efforts. This is, I believe, a genuine reflection of the close voting on Brexit. It has never faced divisions on this scale in our lifetime and it has not experienced such a national confrontation. This is not unique: other European Parliaments have gone into battle, with fisticuffs and even tear gas. We do not see that happening here quite yet. Long before that—even this afternoon—MPs had an opportunity to restore order. The noble Lord, Lord Bridges, was so good on this: they need to find a proper consensus, a coalition of the willing who are respected individuals from all parties who can put forward reasonable, so-called indicative amendments that can command a majority. To achieve that—it is no mean task, as we have heard from the noble Lord, Lord Adonis—there has to be a compromise that satisfies moderate leavers and remainers alike. It will have to be a customs union or Norway-plus, as described by my noble friend Lord Butler, or at any rate a close association with the EU that also provides the opportunity for free trade agreements. We simply cannot throw away all the advantages offered by EU membership over 40 years. Details have already been worked out in the political declaration, for which we are waiting.

This must be a serious exercise. The noble Lord, Lord Soley, spoke about this. He even mentioned a Government of national unity. Why not? It cannot be designed as a scheme to support the Prime Minister; it has to be a genuine effort by senior parliamentarians to lead where the Prime Minister cannot, and, of course, ultimately to persuade the Government that this is the only way through the mess of successive meaningful votes.

I also believe in the power of prayer. The noble Lord, Lord Cormack, and I happened to be in Lincoln Cathedral yesterday morning; I think that he believes in it too. I hope that the right reverend Prelate continues to support the power of prayer.

Perhaps I am being optimistic, because policy formed through indicative voting is not yet policy, but this is a time when the whole country will want to will Parliament forward, and forward it must go. The Prime Minister should support this exploratory process because it could yield new elements to support a deal—not her deal, but one that comes from a majority in Parliament.