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European Union Withdrawal Negotiations

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 5th March 2019.

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Photo of Alex Cole-Hamilton Alex Cole-Hamilton Liberal Democrat

It is my great privilege to close for the Liberal Democrats. I am grateful that the Government afforded time for the debate and I give good wishes to our colleagues in Wales.

We stand together at an inflection point in the history of these islands; not since the early days of world war two have we faced an inflection point of such magnitude. When we compare those two fulcrum moments in our nation’s history, the sad reality is that we realise that, in 1940, Great Britain stood alone surrounded by enemies, whereas today, we stand alone surrounded by friends. Those friends are trying desperately, with affection and concern, to coax us out of the tree into which we have inexorably climbed. These are days of national humiliation.

It is ironic that a once-great country should be laid so low by a jingoistic elite that still hungers for such greatness but which, with every passing day, pushes it further beyond reach. Those people have brought us to the cliff edge of no deal, as if it were a lever of negotiation and a preferred destination.

Let us remember that, in part, the same elite persuaded some of the people who voted leave to do so on the basis that 80 million Turks stood ready to enter our shores on Turkey’s accession to the European Union. That proposition came from a narrative arc that stoked an old fury. For 40 years, that narrative has ascribed the blame for negative social outcomes to incomers and foreigners and has mourned the loss of a country that, to be frank, never existed. That does not speak to the Britain that I still recognise, which is welcoming, tolerant and resilient.

Brexiteers and ERG members now play up that quality of resilience as a virtue in the calamity that we face. It is true that we are a resilient people: in the teeth of war and global economic depression, the people of these islands have endured. However, those times were thrust upon us; at no point in our nation’s history have we imposed a state of emergency on our own citizens, as we do now.

Throughout history, Governments have made bad decisions that harm us. The normal course of things is for the population to be afforded the chance to correct such decisions at the ballot box at subsequent general elections. This time, no such opportunity has been afforded to the people of Great Britain. Therefore, on 24 June 2016, when the referendum result was known, our party was the first to call for a referendum on the final terms of the deal. I am grateful to those parties who have joined us in that call and for their members’ solidarity.

The focus on resilience has led Brexiteers such as Liam Fox to move on from saying that a no deal is “preferable” to no Brexit to saying that a no deal is now “survivable”. The cold reality is that Brexit without a deal might not be survivable for all the people whom we represent. Indeed, I am sure that I am not alone in finding panic in the letters in my postbag from constituents who rely on life-saving medicines that have a short shelf life, have to be taken in a time-sensitive manner and are produced on the continent. They have deep concerns. Their conditions, which include epilepsy, diabetes and HIV, could prove fatal should those resources dry up.

The first duty of any Government should be to offer comfort to our most vulnerable citizens and to protect them from harm. This UK Government has singularly failed in that regard. When the United Kingdom’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, boasts that the UK is now

“the largest buyer of fridges in the world”,

he diminishes himself, the office that he holds and the entire country.

It is not just patients who are affected. We have heard a lot about the NFU and why we should back the deal. However, the NFU points to the surge in the numbers reported to it of farmers on what the NFU calls suicide watch because of their anxiety about the products that they will be unable to sell in the event of a no-deal Brexit. We know all about the fruit pickers who are integral to the just-in-time economy, but sheep farmers will lose £30 a lamb in the event of a no-deal Brexit, never mind the difficulties that they might have in exporting to the continent.

The biggest threat is to peace on the island of Ireland. No deal would drive a coach and horses through the Good Friday agreement. It would very possibly lead that island—and potentially the mainland—into a state of civil war.

No form of Brexit is less harmful; no form of Brexit does not cause harm. For all those reasons, my party has articulated the basic necessity that, in the cold light of dawn, now that the reality of the departure from the EU is known, we should credit the British people with maturity and ask them, in the solemnity of the polling stations where this all first started, “Is this really what you meant?” If it is not, they should have the right to return us to membership of the European Union.

We have heard of the deficiency in unicorns that exists at Westminster; there is also a deficiency in no-deal planning. The sum total of our preparation has been laid out in the debate: an out-of-court settlement to Eurostar, a ferry company that has never floated a boat in its existence and a pile of fridges so big that it would embarrass a Magnet showroom. These are days of humiliation for this country.

On the threat of no deal, I say to ERG members and hard Brexiteers—some of whom may sit on the benches to my left—that they have promised to take back control, but we have no control in the circumstances in which we find ourselves. With their threat of no deal, they are holding a gun to nobody’s head but our own and the constituents whom we represent. They have sought to restore these islands to greatness, but that greatness lies in ruins. It is high time that they recognise that the emperor of no deal, which they and their colleagues have created, is not just underdressed but stark bollock naked.