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My Lords, I welcome this agreement and hope that it will be accepted by Parliament, even though it contains elements that I find very difficult to swallow. I want to address one specific criticism which has been made repeatedly of it: that it leads to a free trade agreement that is inferior to an agreement based on a customs union. All I would ask those who make that criticism is to explain why Switzerland and Norway, both of which have free trade agreements with the EU, are not pushing to convert them into customs unions, and why Canada and Mexico, which have free trade agreements with America, are not pushing to have them converted into customs unions. If the superiority of customs unions was as manifest as countless noble Lords have suggested today, surely there would be movements in those countries towards them.
I want to revert to a point made in what has been in many ways the most powerful speech in this debate so far, that of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, at the beginning. He said that what is at stake is trust, and he is right. Can the people trust their parliamentarians and do parliamentarians trust the people? If we do not agree this deal today and postpone once again the decision with the clear intention of frustrating Brexit by a second referendum or by revocation, I fear that the answer to both of those questions must be no. If we forfeit the trust of the people because we do not, in Churchill’s words, “trust the people”, we will wreak terrible damage to the fabric of our body politic.
During the referendum, the leaders of both sides promised that they would implement the decision that Parliament had decided the British people should take. At the start, David Cameron said:
“When the British people speak, their voice will be respected, not ignored. If we vote to leave, then we will leave. There will not be another … referendum”.
That is sort of a promise; enough mention was made of it throughout the campaign. Right at the end, on the night of the referendum itself, Paddy Ashdown said:
“I will forgive no one who does not accept the sovereign voice of the British people once it has spoken, whether it be by 1% or 20%”.
I wonder if he is turning in his grave when he sees the position adopted by his party now.
At the subsequent general election, both major parties promised to implement that decision, and 85% of MPs were elected on such a manifesto pledge. The three parties that did not make such an unequivocal pledge saw their share of the vote decline. I do not recall any of those who now say that the referendum was only advisory, can be revoked or should be subject to a second vote telling the electorate that during the referendum or the subsequent election.
It has been made clear that many simply do not trust the British people because they had the temerity to ignore the advice the elites, the great and the good gave them, and they reached the wrong decision in the referendum. As Bertolt Brecht put it,
“the people had forfeited the confidence of the government and could win it back only by redoubled efforts”.
Those who call for a second referendum want them to redouble their efforts to understand the case they rejected before.
Arch-remainers criticise this agreement because it leaves the British people responsible through their elected representatives for deciding what, for example, our employment and environmental legislation should be. Apparently, they have greater faith in the European Parliament, institutions and peoples, which they believe either cannot or will not change what they think is the right form of legislation on these issues.
I simply cannot imagine that the British people would support anyone or any party proposing to make their jobs less secure or to desecrate our green and pleasant land. In areas in which Britain has been free to diverge from EU legislation, we have used that freedom to create a higher level of job security, less unemployment and more people in work than most continental countries. In practice, any divergence from the European Union will be not to reduce protections but to streamline regulation, make it less burdensome and avoid it becoming a barrier to entry or to innovation. We are more likely to legislate to achieve desirable outcomes and less likely to prescribe specific processes that, although intended to benefit workers and the environment, do not have those outcomes. That is the feature of much of European law. I am glad we will have the freedom to set our own regulations and tariffs if this agreement goes through.