European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:46 pm on 4th April 2019.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Chair, International Relations Committee 7:46 pm, 4th April 2019

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, with his crystal clear legal mind. I shall study his amendment with great interest when it is tabled.

Most people will agree that we have had a miserable afternoon here—although it ended slightly less unhappily than I feared—but the reason for the muddle into which we all seemed to get earlier is quite clear and direct: in the Commons, Parliament has taken control of the business and the Government from the Ministers of the Crown. We know that Parliament is not a Government and that, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde made clear earlier, when Parliament takes control, things always go badly wrong—they always have, every time in history. When we look in our history books, we find that every time Parliament has tried to take control from the Crown and the Executive, disasters usually follow.

Outside my office at the other end of the Royal Gallery there is a cabinet in which there is a document signed by 59 commissioners taking parliamentary control by virtue of deciding to cut off the head of the Crown Executive—namely, the King—in 1649. That was Parliament taking control. How did that end? Disastrously: it ended with the abolition of Parliament and a sticky end for all 59 commissioners who signed the executive order. It has always been so. It is natural that if we cannot sustain an Executive and the Crown prerogative is taken away by Parliament taking control, they cannot govern, negotiate or make treaties. This is the position we are in today.

Why are we in this position? Because of cascades of errors. All this is not recent. We could all spend hours blaming each other and events going back years and years into the middle of the previous century. These errors created the waves on which we are riding today, rather like corks on a wave. We are being blown along by events and the bad decisions taken by our predecessors years ago. When I was banging on about predecessors the other day, my younger son warned me, “Well, you are one of the predecessors, so you are to blame for where we are now”.

This morning, I was speaking to a French official visiting London. He said, “This is all familiar to us”. Alexis de Tocqueville described exactly what is happening now—admittedly more in relation to America—in saying that as the growth of individualism and the concern for individual liberty grew, so it would become more and more expressive and detached from the body politic, the professional politicians and the political institutions, and that huge gaps would arise. That is not very far from where we are now but, in a sense, the whole atmosphere—the whole situation—has been vastly amplified by the electronic revolution and communications technology which, in the words of Madeleine Albright, have given every individual their own echo chamber. The flood, power and volatility of opinion have changed the business of trying to prevent the gap between the government system and the individual from growing vastly wide—and vastly wide it has grown.

Where are we heading? If this Bill goes ahead, which it probably will, one possibility—the one favoured by Mr Corbyn and his wing of the Labour Party—is a permanent customs union. Another very strong possibility is a long delay. It may be short to start with, but it could be long. Another possibility, which would cheer up many people on the Lib Dem Benches, is no Brexit. That possibility is now there.

As far as a permanent customs union is concerned, ironically, if the much-reviled withdrawal agreement were supported, it would provide a temporary 21-month customs union and, after that, the means to get out of it. I know that that is denied by those who talk about permanent entrapment, the backstop never being resolved and being permanently entangled in a customs union, but the reality is that, funnily enough, the people who are arguing that are also arguing—and I believe they are right—that the hard border issue can be resolved in 21 months perfectly well, so it would never happen or, if it did, it would be only temporary. Anyway, that is another story we have debated endlessly. The point is that, on present trends, the prospect of a permanent customs union is looming over the scene, which would be a lot worse for many people, including me, than the temporary customs union in the withdrawal agreement.

There is another dubiety behind the present situation: democracy, a much-bandied word, is not the same as majoritarianism. The idea that a majority vote determines all and the minority can be completely ignored is not democracy. It is a different trend that led to some disastrous outcomes in the 20th century. Compromise is always necessary in democracies. There are no exceptions. The irony of our present situation is that if this Bill goes forward, and if one of the outcomes I mentioned—no Brexit—were to occur, that would be an extraordinary situation: not on denial of minorities, which some of my noble friends, and certainly my honourable friends in the other place, do not quite grasp when they speak about the will of the people and that sort of thing, but on the way the referendum decided absolutely that Brexit was the outcome when in fact a vast minority’s view needed to be taken into account. If we go ahead with Brexit, it will be the other way round. We will be denying the interests of the majority instead of those of the minority, which would be hugely dangerous. There should be no illusions about that. If that is the outcome, it would be deeply unsettling and dangerous—certainly equivalent to anything the country experienced in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Quite simply, rather than having this Bill—it looks as though we are going to have it all the same—I would much prefer the way out that some of us have argued for all along: all of my party should support a version of the withdrawal agreement. It is called Mrs May’s deal or the Prime Minister’s deal, but it is in fact a worked-out agreement with the European Union that it does not want to reopen. If the EU can adjust it or add codicils to it, that is fine, but rather than the dangers of denying the majority in the future and saying goodbye to Brexit altogether, it would be far better for my party to support the withdrawal agreement. To my mind, it always was and will be the best way forward. That is difficult to face—compromise is always difficult to face—but unless we face it, there are grave dangers ahead for us.