It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Robertson. I congratulate my hon. Friend Julia Lopez not only on securing this timely debate, but on her extremely thoughtful and persuasive opening speech. That wonderful speech illustrates why she is one of the rising stars of the Conservative party.
I am honoured to stand alongside the exceptionally talented 2017 intake of Members of Parliament. It is particularly fitting because we are all dealing with the consequences of decisions that were taken, in many cases, before we were born, and certainly many years ago. Those of us who speak from the back row in this debate are all post-referendum MPs. I was the first of them, so I take a slightly different attitude from many Members. My role is not to fight old battles or to justify why I took a particular position at the time, because I was elected, as all Conservative MPs were in 2017, on a manifesto committed to implementing the referendum result, that in/out referendum having being called on the back of a clear promise in 2015. That is the historic charge that we have been given, and it is an enormous honour for us to do it.
Fundamentally, Brexit is not a policy; it is a constitutional question. It is the fundamental issue of how this country is governed and by whom—whether it is by elected politicians in this place, whom the people can judge, and hire and fire as they desire, or by a supranational layer of government in Brussels. We will start to bring the country back together only by understanding that we were going to have to deal with that question, or one like it, at some point.
Anybody who voted at the time of our entry to the then Common Market in the early 1970s will say, “I thought I was joining a trading arrangement. I thought I was joining a common market.” Nobody thinks that now. Everybody now accepts that the European Union is a political union. People may have different views about how far it should stretch, but clearly it is no longer a trading organisation; we need only to look at the recent comments, which I do not need to repeat, by Guy Verhofstadt about a European empire, and President Macron’s calls for further integration and a European army.
At some point, Britain had to deal with the logical consequences of joining a political union while trying to persuade itself, even to this day, that it is only a trading bloc. It is not a trading bloc, and we had to deal with that. We could not forever have remained reluctant passengers in a car going in a direction that we do not want to go in, constantly asking the driver to slow down or change direction. We had to decide whether we were going to be passengers or get off.
The issue was thrown into stark relief when Britain decided not to join the euro. From that point, some major, fundamental parting of the ways was going to happen, because a monetary union cannot exist without fiscal and political union. The European Union will have to integrate or accept that the euro will not survive. We wish them well with their project, but nobody in Britain wants to be part of a United States of Europe—or, at least, nobody who does want that has ever had the courage to make that argument.
A fundamental reassessment of our relationship was therefore going to have to happen, but that did not have to mean leaving. As I think my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch and Upminster said, I was a firm supporter of David Cameron’s policy of remaining in a renegotiated European Union—one in which we could remain at the table but outside the political structures, in a second tier of membership. However, that question was settled when David Cameron’s renegotiation could not produce enough to persuade the British people to remain.
It would do all of us in this House, and the country, a lot of good to take some of the heat out of the issue, and accept that we were always going to have to renegotiate in some way our relationship with the European Union; and that once it became clear that the European Union would not budge and allow us to be part of a looser outer tier, we were probably going to have to leave. However, that does not mean that we raise the drawbridge, that we are not friends with our European neighbours, that we do not co-operate, or that we do not trade.
I take the slightly controversial view that the two sides of the argument are not as far apart as they think. Whenever I speak to someone in my constituency who wants to remain, I ask them why. They say, “Because I want to work with our European neighbours. I want us to trade closely with them. I want us to co-operate.” When I speak to somebody who voted to leave, I ask them what they want. They say, “I want to trade closely. I want to be part of a co-operative relationship. I want to be friends with our closest neighbours. I simply don’t want to be part of a political union. I’m comfortable with the concept of the nation state, and I want our decisions to be made here by our politicians—people we not only elect but can get rid of.” If people cannot dispense with those who govern them, they are not living in a proper democracy.
Let us now accept all that; let us accept that we have a historic charge that we have to carry out. It was not of our making; it was probably preordained to some extent, in many cases before we were born, and certainly before we became MPs. It would do us a lot of good to understand that and to ensure we have a close relationship, but that close relationship must have democratic accountability. If MPs exist to do one thing it is to defend our democracy. People want to see a direct link between their vote, their constituency MP and the rules that govern them.
I am conscious that I have run out of time; there is much more that I would love to say. My final point is simply that we can establish that relationship in a number of ways, but let us please have a spirit of optimism. We have to stop looking at Brexit as a damage limitation exercise. We are recovering full democratic self-government. That is something to be proud of—now let us get together and shape it.