Lib Dem Lords vs the Article 50 Bill: Shas Sheehan: Boris’s sunny uplands quote is a shameless parody

The Lib Dem Lords have made some cracking contributions to the debate on the Article 50 Bill. Ahead of its next Lords stages, we’re bringing you all the Lib Dem contributions over the course of this weekend. That’s no mean feat. There were 32 of them and cover more than 30,000 words. You are not expected to read every single one of them as they appear. Nobody’s going to be testing you or anything. However, they will be there to refer to in the future. 

Our Lords excelled themselves. Their contributions were thoughtful, individual, well-researched and wide-ranging and it’s right that we present them in full on this site to help the historian of the future.

As you would expect from Shas, who has done so much to speak up for and help refugees, she mentioned the border with France and asked what happens to the Le Toucquet agreement. She also pointed out the irony of Boris Johnson’s comments that Brexit would be like sunlit uplands. When Churchill used that phrase, he was talking about a united Europe.  

My Lords, as a signatory to the amendment of the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, I would like to draw attention to the impact of Brexit on the UK’s trade, aid and security policies relating to developing and post-conflict countries. Aid to developing countries is under attack almost daily by elements of the press. Just this Sunday there was a report in the Sunday Times about using Brexit as an excuse to divert aid to eastern European countries to buy their good will. Will the Minister give an assurance that Brexit will not be used to divert the 0.7% of GNI devoted to development aid and that only countries on the DAC list are eligible for ODA? The fact is that development aid fulfils an essential task: not only is it right to help the poorest in the world but it is essential if we are to reduce the factors that push people out of their own countries and, in desperation, lead them to seek shelter with us.

It is a pity that on leaving the EU we will not be able to influence its attempt to manage the largest mass movement of people we have seen since the Second World War. The Calais camp on our doorstep may have been demolished but the problem has not gone away, and refugees are returning to the region because they have nowhere else to go. Can the Minister say, now that we have declared ourselves to be on the road to a hard Brexit, what consideration the Government have given to the Le Touquet agreement between ourselves and the French, whereby they police our border on their soil and vice versa? Can the Government guarantee the border will not move to Dover?

I will return to the broader subject of the impact of Brexit on aid, trade and security in relation to developing countries at later stages. For now, I would like to talk about the rights and wrongs of the process by which the Government are taking us toward Brexit, which is the undeniable result of the advisory referendum, albeit with a very small margin. What is happening is the stuff of nightmares. It is unprecedented in British history to have both the Prime Minister of the day and the Leader of the Opposition on the side of extreme risk-taking. But how else can we characterise their willingness to enter Brexit negotiations with hard-line rhetoric seemingly designed to remove any vestige of good will towards us? The only option we will be given at the end of this do-or-die road is a vote to take it or leave it. Given that the exit options have the potential to change our country so fundamentally, surely it is only fair and democratic that we ask the people what kind of Britain they want to live in. The process started with the people; it should end with the people.

I genuinely do not understand why that is controversial. The only reason why anyone would oppose that that I can think of is if “take back control” did not include the people. Come to that, the Brexiteers did not want it to include Parliament either. Who is meant to take control? Them? An unelected Prime Minister? What happened to trusting the people?

There are those who say that it is the patriotic duty of Peers to wave this Bill through. If noble Lords do not mind my saying so, that is utter tosh, because what, then, is the point of us? It is indeed our patriotic duty to debate and scrutinise this Bill and any amendments it attracts. It is then incumbent on each and every one of us to vote according to what we believe to be in the best interests of our country—and hang the consequences.

When people voted to leave the EU, by and large they did not vote to leave the single market. During the Richmond Park by-election, I knocked on many doors. Many who had voted to leave last June also voted for the Common Market in 1972. They do not want the hard Brexit that the Government are offering them. That is why Liberal Democrats, with their clear message on fighting against a hard Brexit, against leaving the single market and in favour of safeguarding the future of EU nationals, were able to overturn a 23,000 Conservative majority against a popular local MP and send Sarah Olney to Westminster. Let me end this point by quoting Winston Churchill, who said,

“the Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science”.

That was prophetic in 1940 and is perhaps prophetic again today.

Boris Johnson said that Brexit would take us to “sunlit uplands”, but my theory is that, as we plod our weary way uphill and look back on the grassy meadows bathed in mellow light that we leave behind, we will hear the curfew toll the knell of parting ways. I hope that noble Lords will pardon my taking liberties with Gray’s Elegy, but it is not as grave a liberty as that taken by Boris Johnson in his shameless parody of Churchill’s words. The “sunlit uplands” that he referred to were those of a united Europe, which our Government seem content to put at risk.


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