We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:36 pm on 2nd October 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour 5:36 pm, 2nd October 2019

My Lords, let us remind ourselves that the case for leaving the European Union is to reclaim the legislative sovereignty that we lent to the European Communities in 1972—and that is a prize of great value. The delegation of so much policy and legislative responsibility to the democratically defective institutions of the European Union has been, I believe, a powerful factor in the growing disaffection with parliamentary democracy that we have witnessed in our country. To take back these responsibilities gives us an opportunity to renew our democracy.

Our country is indeed “full of passionate intensity”; that is not surprising, because Brexit is a struggle for the soul of the nation and the future of our democracy. When people were asked in 2016 to vote to leave or to remain, they were in effect asked, “Do you wish to preserve the status quo?”. That question prompted an outpouring of long pent-up anger against elites and a howl from those who had been failed by the neoliberal orthodoxy practised by all parties in government. Many leavers now take the view that their Parliament is intent on cheating them, while many remainers are fearful of the mob. This is a dangerous state of affairs and we urgently need an access of moderation and reason.

To resume self-government in the sense that Brexit would permit is not to consign our nation to Faragism, to reaction, to racism and to xenophobia. It will be open to us to choose to be a liberal and internationalist society, and that is what I believe people will want to choose. For the centre-left, so unconfident about a post-Brexit future, the challenge is to put forward a vision of a sustainable economy, social justice and policies for climate change, and to win elections.

It is hard to see how compromise between the leave and remain positions can be achieved. Leavers see the Brexit issue in terms of freedom and democracy; remainers choose to frame Brexit in terms of the economy and standards of living. These two sets of considerations do not engage. The withdrawal deal, which I believe was an honourable attempt to find a compromise, was rejected vehemently by both sides of the argument on three occasions.

Is the present condition of our politics therefore a massive failure? There is certainly immense frustration in the country and a paralysis of decision-taking. The parties appear to have descended into chaos. There is too much excessive language, whether of surrender or of catastrophe, in our political discourse. Abuse and threats abound. It was very wrong for the Prime Minister, in a system of parliamentary government, to rouse the people against Parliament. He should desist from the use of populist language and seek to speak for the country as a whole. Among the many divisions in politics is that between those politicians who seek to appeal to,

“the better angels of our nature”,

and those who conjure demons.

On the other hand, it could be said that what has been happening in our politics is rather admirable. There is a mighty contest between politicians who have passionately held but conflicting views of what will be for the good of the country. When the Government have been unable to advance, Parliament has chosen to take the initiative; the Speaker has upheld the right of the House of Commons to do so; politicians have worked across party boundaries and some have been willing to sacrifice their careers for their principles; and the Supreme Court has proved an effective check on arbitrary government—the Prime Minister should never have made that stupid and improper attempt to prorogue Parliament for five weeks.

Whichever view noble Lords may take, we now need as quickly as possible a resolution to the essential Brexit issue of whether we leave or remain, and we need a return to mutual respect and reconciliation. But I fear that neither a referendum nor a general election will produce those outcomes.

Meanwhile, as we look at the time horizon between now and 31 October, it is I suppose possible, although it seems unlikely, that the Prime Minister will negotiate a deal with the European Union. If he does, that deal will presumably be the withdrawal deal with the backstop tweaked. But for many leavers that will be viewed as Brexit in name only.

I will quote Professor David Collins, professor of international economic law at City University:

“We must keep in mind that there are many features of the Withdrawal Agreement which are just as bad as the Backstop, but which have received far less attention, notably from our Prime Minister. The Withdrawal Agreement would maintain the supremacy of EU law over the UK, including new laws created by the EU over which the UK would have no voice. This means that UK courts would be required to strike down Acts of Parliament if they are determined to be inconsistent with EU law. Worse, the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice would be retained, either directly or through a dispute settlement system modelled on the one the EU has with the Ukraine through which a notionally neutral tribunal would be bound on issues of EU law by decisions of the ECJ. Since the UK would have no judge on the ECJ, it would effectively be under the jurisdiction of a foreign court”.

Have we come this far for that? What kind of sovereignty is that? There will be anger if that is the nature of the deal, and it is very questionable whether the House of Commons would vote for it.

Alternatively, we may leave with “no deal”—I use that as a term of art; the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, explained that there are many deals that mitigate the notion of an absolute no deal—should one of the member states of the European Union veto an extension. I believe that that would not be a catastrophe. We would of course have been much better prepared for such a contingency had the previous Chancellor, Mr Hammond, not forbade further public expenditure on preparations for no deal at a crucial phase—but the present Chancellor, Mr Javid, is seeking to make up for lost time. Yes, we would go through choppy waters, but we would go through no hurricane. We could come through, as we have come through many periods of economic disruption and difficulty before. Then, as we worked towards a free trade agreement, we would be doing so with our heads held high as a self- governing nation.