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
My Lords, this is supposed to be a calm occasion. Can anyone suggest that Brexit has been underdebated in either House? We know what the issues are, and, more importantly, everyone in the country knows what the issues are. We have all heard—but, I regret to say, not all of us have listened to—the arguments in support of Brexit. We have all heard, but not all of us have listened to, the arguments in support of remaining in the EU. We have all heard, but not all of us have listened to, the arguments in support of and against Mrs May’s deal.
I am something of a legal nerd. I forced myself to read that entire document, all 500 pages-plus. I did not understand half of them. I knew that it was not a very favourable deal to the UK, but I also knew that—we tend to overlook this—the EU has a negotiating position to protect the rights and interests of, and advance the welfare of, its 27 nations. “Welfare” is perhaps too modest a word. We must remember that if we go back to the negotiating table, that is what it will do.
I am not going to read this new edition. I am sorry, but 600 pages of it I just cannot face. There is a simple reason why I am not going to be a nerd about this: I no longer think that the terms of the deal are the crucial issue. Notwithstanding all the arguments—indeed, perhaps because of listening to all the arguments—I do not have an absolutist, categoric, assertive, strident view. My personal concern is directed elsewhere. The public understand the arguments. If we have a referendum—which I do not support—the public would be able to vote tomorrow, whatever the terms. Whether they voted for or against Brexit, the majority of the public cannot understand why we the politicians, the parliamentarians, have not resolved this issue. The public voted in a referendum, and in a general election in which both main parties went to the country promising to honour the result, and they are still waiting. I respect and understand the genuine passion and commitment of those on both sides who adhere to the principle they espouse. That respect, however, does not extend to those who contrive a synthetic passion because they sense the proximity of possible political advantage.
Whether it is politics or principle, the parliamentary processes of the last 1,200 days are shattering something even more important than Brexit. It seems to me—it is the only issue I have sought to address when I have spoken in the Brexit debates—that we are so sure that we are right, so preoccupied with our own arguments, that we in both Houses have done, are doing and may continue to inflict on the general public’s confidence in their own political and constitutional institutions, the most profound damage.
The lesson of history is chilling. When the public lose confidence in their own institutions—and they are the public’s, not ours—they can be beguiled by an individual or a party, whether of the left or the right, that appears to offer them a route out of what they perceive to be political chaos and uncertainty. That is aggravated if their perception is that their current politicians and their current political arrangements have caused or contributed to it. Too many democracies in Europe have had cause to learn that bitter lesson. We must be careful that we are not opening a path to a public opinion that will extol authoritarianism.
Every day that goes by and every additional delay adds to public uncertainty, aggravates public anger and disillusionment with our political process and makes the task of restoring that very precious confidence more difficult. Already, it will take years. On Thursday evening, catching my train at Euston, I overheard a young woman, discussing Brexit with her companion, say, “Thank God it’s over”. Well, it is not over yet, but it really should be.