European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:38 pm on 5th September 2019.

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Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative 12:38 pm, 5th September 2019

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Hain and Lord Wigley, whom I am very glad to count among my friends.

We should not be here, but we are. A few months ago, a resolution was passed in your Lordships’ House to set up a Joint Committee of both Houses, built upon a suggestion I made three years ago, to talk about the problems that this country would face and evaluate the cost of no-deal exit. I greatly regret that that opportunity was missed. Indeed, it was flagrantly ignored by those who had the power to accept it in another place: those who sat on the Government Benches.

My noble friend Lord Howard talked about the “good chaps” theory of government. We owe a great deal to a number of good chaps and chapesseswho are responsible for this Bill. They are giving us the opportunity of drawing back from the brink. While I agree very much with the general sentiments of the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Pittenweem, I came to the conclusion that the referendum, having happened and having produced what I consider to be an extremely disappointing and potentially very damaging result, had nevertheless been sanctioned by us and a clear but narrow result was achieved. I wanted to bend my efforts to ensuring that we left in a seemly and proper manner. What we are really talking about today is our continuing relationship with our friends and allies—and they are both—in continental Europe. It would be desperately damaging to our country, as well as to the peace of Europe, if we left in a fractious manner. It is crucial that we maintain our strong friendships. We are part of the continent of Europe; an insular part but a part none the less.

As I have said before in your Lordships’ House, even though I have a Scottish family background, my identity is English and my nationality is British. But my civilisation is European and that is something that we all share, whether we acknowledge it or not. Whether I go across the road to the great abbey, or across the road at home to the great cathedral of Lincoln, I see an embodiment of European civilisation. It is crucial that, in a continent that has been devastated by war far too often, we maintain the closest, friendliest and most co-operative relations with the nations of Europe. If we crash out without a deal, in a spirit of inevitable acrimony—we saw yesterday how that could arise in this very House, among friends and colleagues—then we are reneging on our joint parliamentary duties, in the other place and in this House.

We owe a great deal to the bravery of the 21. I believe that the vindictive and appalling treatment of them is a blot on our party, which must be expunged as quickly as possible. The very future of our country and our political system is at stake. My noble friend Lord Howell, in his interesting speech, talked about changes. I think of my favourite poet, Tennyson, who said:

“The old order changeth, yielding place to new”.

Maybe we will have to look at new political alignments in our country, because if the Conservative Party becomes a rebranded Brexit Party, as Ken Clarke indicated the other day, where is the place for one-nation conservatism? Where is the place for a party that has contributed so much, as other parties have, to our country’s history and present position? If the Conservative Party is led in this direction, and those who have given such notable and distinguished service as Ken Clarke are extinguished from it, maybe we will have to look for a new centre party, embodying what is best in the political system in our country.

The tragedy of British politics today is that we have a Conservative Party being led in a particular manner and a Labour Party that brings shame upon itself and deserves, in the tradition of Attlee, Gaitskell, Wilson and Callaghan, to have a statesman at its head. Whatever one’s views of Mr Corbyn, one can never define him as a statesman. All of us, on both sides of this House, face real problems. We will compound those problems in a terrible manner if we crash out of the European Union and heap upon ourselves problems that we do not need to heap upon ourselves.

We have missed opportunities. I referred to the failure to take up the suggestion of the Joint Committee. I believe we missed an opportunity in not being more embracing of the deal that my noble friend Lord Callanan, who is just leaving the Chamber, did so much to defend here. I hope that his exit does not indicate a change of mind on it, because the May deal was not even the beginning of the end; it was really the beginning of the beginning, because there is a great deal more work and negotiation to be done, whatever happens. I hope that, because of the deep, visceral divisions in our country, we will give some thought, when the election comes, to having a referendum on the same day. Some may utter notes of dissent, but a good many of my friends who have not been supporters of a second referendum believe that this may well be a way of separating the issues of who people want to govern the country and our place in Europe.

There is a lot to play for but it is crucial in the context of today’s debate that we have a proper and organised exit that maintains relations with countries with which we have had such close relations, in a continent in which we have played such a seminal part through the centuries. From the Spanish Armada to the Napoleonic wars, and beyond to the wars of the last century, this country’s role has been one of which we can be proud. Do not let us descend into an insular status of which our grandchildren would be ashamed.