Lib Dem Lords vs the Article 50 Bill: Martin Thomas The Charge of the Brexit Brigade

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. 

Martin Thomas compared the rush towards Brexit to the disastrous Charge of the Light Brigade. He also highlighted the huge cost of leaving the EU. Where would we find the tens of billions? The Government seems to have no plan on how to deal with this.

My Lords, the Telegraph reports today that the EU Bill for a Brexit divorce is €60 billion. It is made up of existing annual budget commitments until 2019, pension obligations and other longer term liabilities. The European Commission concedes that the United Kingdom should be allowed to offset against that Bill its share of the assets of the EU, perhaps between €15 and €20 billion, so we are left with a net hefty €40 billion or so to stump up as the price of divorce.

What does the Government’s White Paper say about this prospective liability? Absolutely nothing. Do the Government agree we have a price to pay? If so, how much? We do not know. This is not a poker game, and this is just one card in a whole stack of cards. The Government’s argument is that to disclose our negotiating position on any issue would harm our national interest. I do not believe for a moment that that is the reason for their reticence. If you do not disclose your hand, and keep your cards close to your chest, there is no measure by which the public can judge whether your negotiations are a success or failure. Whatever deal can be dragged out of the negotiations can then be termed victory. That is exactly what David Cameron did a year ago. The Government cannot be seen to fail. Where they create a desert, they call it peace.

My noble friend Lord Campbell of Pittenweem pointed out yesterday that if the deal goes pear-shaped, as we believe it will, the members of the public who voted for leave will look the other way, and everybody will blame the politicians. Yet Brexiteers heap scorn on our suggestion that the people of this country should be given ownership of the deal that is negotiated by ratifying it in a referendum. Let them own it. No, the Government say, “You gave us the mandate to start the process, so you must accept the result”. Well, fair enough. Press the Article 50 button and let the Conservative Party take the consequences. This is where I enjoyed the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, yesterday—I regret to say that he has just deserted his post. Like a good general, as Jo Grimond once reminded us, he marched his troops towards the sound of gunfire. There is no longer any point in attacking Her Majesty’s Opposition. It is rather like the fall of France in June 1941, when the leadership had deserted and left behind strong pockets of courageous resistance; the Free French have become Free Labour.

The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, spends his six minutes attacking the Liberal Democrats. He is a latter-day Earl of Cardigan, leading the charge of the Brexit brigade. He bellows at our Benches: “Yours not to make reply, yours not to reason why, yours but to do and die”. The Russian gunners thought the Light Brigade charged the guns at Balaclava because they were drunk. I think the Brexiteers are, for the moment, intoxicated, but merely by the success of their campaign. Unfortunately, it is we in Wales who will share the depths of their hangover.

Wales is a net beneficiary of European funding to the tune of £680 million annually. Importantly, EU funding is based on need, not on a calculation of population share, like the Barnett formula. For example, Welsh farmers receive £274 million each year in direct subsidies under the CAP. These are significantly above the Barnett share of UK receipts. It reflects the marginal nature and low incomes of much Welsh farming. Are the farmers going to receive this support after 2020? Will they face the destruction of their industry by cheap imports or by a trade deal with New Zealand, as the noble Baroness, Lady Cohen, spoke of a moment ago?

Take the support for the poorer parts of Wales. The European Social Fund is due to invest £800 million in Wales in tackling poverty, supporting people into work and increasing skills among young people and the most disadvantaged. Will the Government commit to replacing this funding after 2020? Take economic development. The current ESIF programmes are investing more than £1.1 billion in research and innovation, business, renewable energy and urban development in Wales. We have spent years creating a single market, removing barriers to trade, standardising our regulations and creating a level playing field for us all to serve a market of 400 million people. It is not good business to abandon it all. Progressives believe that it will lead to the impoverishment of the people of this country.

The noble Lords, Lord Forsyth and Lord Robathan, who indulged in some light skirmishing earlier today, are both right. We are the enemy—to Brexiteers, to Trump’s vision of America and to populist politics everywhere. We are progressives. We stand instinctively for co-operation, not conflict, in Europe; for universal human rights; for social welfare and the health service; for the solution of environmental issues across borders; and for a common standard of justice throughout Europe. We have been led along these paths by Lloyd George, Keynes, Beveridge, Attlee, Nye Bevan, Roy Jenkins and many others. The wheel will turn again.

Thirty-six years after Balaclava, Rudyard Kipling reflected on the aftermath of the famous charge in his poem “The Last of the Light Brigade”:

“O thirty million English that babble of England’s might,

Behold there are twenty heroes who lack their food to-night;

Our children’s children are lisping to ‘honour the charge they made—’

And we leave to the streets and the workhouse the charge of the Light Brigade!”


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