Article 50 Debate

31st January 2017

George Freeman calls on MPs to listen to the will of the British people and make Brexit work for everyone and which allows us to respect our European neighbours.

Speaking in the House of Commons, BBC

 
Mr Speaker
 
Last year, as Minister for Life Sciences, I voted for the British people to decide on our membership of the EU in a referendum on the basis that I would be bound by the result. 
 
Despite watching with a heavy heart, over many years, the growing failure of the EU to create an entrepreneurial economy, focussing instead on ever closer union at the expense of economic competitiveness, on balance I felt that we were better off staying in our privilege position as inside the Single Market but outside the Euro and ever closer Political union, to lead the fight for a reformed, 21st-century EU.  
 
A reform which I suspect is about to be forced on the EU, by a combination of markets and people pressure, whether the EU Commission like it or not. 
 
As Life Sciences Minister responsible for this £65billion sector of the UK economy, employing 250,000 people, overwhelmingly for RemaIN, I felt that I had a duty as a Minister of the Crown to represent its interests and concerns. 
 
So I campaigned, along with many colleagues, for RemaIN.  Not in a bullying way as the official RemaIN campaign all too often did, but in an open, democratic way:
 
I actively committed to offer my constituents a choice by inviting leading Leave campaigners - my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) and my friend the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) - to my constituency to put their side of the debate so my constituents could hear both sides of the debate and decide. 
 
We held the debates.  And my side lost. 
 
Our constituents voted to leave the European Union. 
 
My constituents voted, and the country voted, in one of the biggest acts of British democratic engagement we have ever seen. 
 
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) said, it is true that we are not sent here as delegates. As Edmund Burke said, we are not sent here to be slaves to our constituents. We can and should make decisions as we see fit in their interests, as we judge them to be. 
 
But I have always believed that the one thing that parliamentarians should never give away is the sovereignty vested in us by the people we serve. It isn't ours to give. 
 
The truth is that successive Parliaments in recent decades have done precisely that, not least in the Maastricht and the Lisbon treaties, fuelling a sense of powerlessness and public anger and disillusionment at unaccountable political elites giving away powers that were never theirs in the first place. 
 
That is why I believe we were right to give the people their say.  And why we are right—all of us—to recognise the importance of that vote and the anger that underpinned it.  We ignore it at our peril.  
 
 
Since my hon. Friend mentions our debate, I hope that he will not mind my saying that he fought the fight with great nobility and grace, and he was eloquent at all times. If only both sides of the campaign—I do mean both sides—had conducted themselves as he did, the referendum campaign would have been far happier.
 
 
I thank my hon. Friend for that gracious intervention. 
 
Having won sovereignty back for this House, we must now use it. 
 
We must show that the House is worthy of that sovereignty and capable of acting in the interests of all the people we serve.
 
Churchill once said:
“Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak; courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.”
 
In the referendum campaign, we all stood up and spoke passionately for our respective sides, but now is the time for us to do the other courageous thing and listen to the will of the British people.
 
We have to make Brexit work for ALL:
- for the 48% as well as the 52%, 
- for London as well as the north, 
- for white-collar as well as blue-collar workers, and 
- for Scotland as well as Northern Ireland, Wales and England. 
 
We need to deliver not a 'soft' or a 'hard' Brexit but a British Brexit.   
 
One which allows us to respect our European neighbours, to be a good neighbour and, as the Prime Minister made clear in her recent speech, to be an active European ally and collaborator—outside the political institutions of the EU, but members of a European community of nations and neighbours actively collaborating - on science, defense, security, and a range of other common endeavours. 
 
Some who wanted us to remain in say the Referendum vote was in some way flawed or illegitimate because the debate was so poor.  In my view, proper democrats cannot and must not say, “Oh, the Brexit vote was illegitimate. Brexit voters were ignorant. They weren’t qualified.” How condescending. 
 
Do we say that when they vote Labour, or when they vote UKIP?   No.   We all of us accept such results, and so we should now. 
 
Although the referendum was, in my opinion, a tragically low point in British political discourse—let us remember that it included the appalling murder of one of our colleagues by a deranged neo-Nazi— nonetheless the core underlying view of the majority of the British people who cared enough to vote was very clear: that we need to take back control, have our own UK immigration system, and come out of the complex pooling of sovereignty implicit in the EU. 
 
(To the extent that it was not crystal clear, it is our job as elected democrats in our debates in this House to bring to the vote the crystal clarity that it needs.)
 
All we are now doing in this vote today is giving the Prime Minister and her Government the authority to start the negotiation of the terms on which we will leave the European Union. The triggering of Article 50 is a momentous moment but it should not, in my opinion, cause democratic Parliamentarians who voted for the Referendum to much difficulty.  
 
The real debate will come not this afternoon, but when we discuss the terms of the negotiation in the House during the next two years and, ultimately, the all important package that she and her Ministers can negotiate and bring back to us.  That is when WE - this house - WILL have a major decision to take about what is best for this country.  
 
 
Scotland is an equal partner in this “United Kingdom of nations”, to quote the former Prime Minister, so how does it come about that a massive vote in Scotland to remain and a narrow vote in England to leave results in Scotland leaving on England’s terms?
 
 
I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that point. One of the most interesting aspects of the Supreme Court judgment—not picked up adequately by the media - is that Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales were, and are, bound by the vote of this sovereign House, which SNP Members participated in, to give the British people such a decision.
 
 
rose
 
 
The truth is that the real challenge now falls to our new Prime Minister, who stepped in—
 
 
rose—
 
 
Order. I must protect the hon. Gentleman.
 
 
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
 
Our Prime Minister stepped in to lead a Government committed to delivering Brexit, but which would also tackle the domestic policy challenges that fuelled much of the wider disillusionment that the vote also signified. 
 
It is my privilege to work with her team on that. 
 
She now faces an extraordinary political challenge: to deliver Brexit, to negotiate the most important deal for this country in 100 years; to negotiate new trade deals with countries around the world; whilst continuing  the great and urgent task of domestic social and economic reform - tackling our structural deficit, reforming our old-fashioned public services and dealing with the urgent challenges of social and economic exclusion here at home. 
 
The truth is that the Brexit negotiations ahead of us are perhaps the greatest test of the British civil service and peacetime diplomacy for a century, and the burden that falls on our Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and I might add our Whitehall officials, is heavy indeed.
 
To succeed, we will have to put aside many of the differences that divide us, and a country still regrettably bruised and divided by the Referendum,  and work together to make sure that we get the best deal for the country we all serve. 
 
(And our interests are NOT served by requesting that the negotiation be carried out on Twitter. Those who call for the PM to set out her negotiating bottom line in advance know dangerously little of how complex negotiations like this work.)
 
At a time when trust in politics has never been so low, we have an opportunity to restore public trust in Parliament and mainstream politics not to score easy points, but to show that we are worthy of the sovereignty vested in us, and in the name of which the Brexiteers have campaigned. 
 
Our Brexit deal must be an ambitious Brexit deal for Britain. It must be a Brexit that means we can once again control our own laws, strengthen our Union, protect workers’ rights and strike ambitious new trade deals around the world. [Interruption.] Yes, for Scotland, too. 
 
To do this, however, we will have to continue to be engaged with the world, and to cherish our British values. [Interruption.
 
As the Prime Minister made clear in her recent electrifying speech—I encourage the right hon. Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), who is chuntering from a sedentary position, to read it—the work of bridging the gap between Europe and the United States will remain one of the key tasks of international relations in our time. 
 
I believe our Prime Minister has set out to do for markets and the West what the great Lady Thatcher did w Ronald Reagan for the defence of the West in the 1980s. 
 
Last week, she showed that she was more than up for leading such a mission. It may not always be easy, but it is necessary for this country, which is not something that the right hon. Gentleman who was chuntering understands.
 
I welcome the fact that she has made such an encouraging start with President Trump. (Let us not forget that he, too, has been elected - by the American people, and for that reason alone, deserves the same courtesy and respect we afford those with whom we disagree in this House.)
 
Because although he campaigned for “America first”, the signals are that in foreign policy for the Americans it is now a case of “Britain first”, and we should welcome that.
 
 
When the Prime Minister this week refused three times to condemn an obvious breach of not just this country’s values but any liberal democracy’s values, what part of great British values was she standing up for?
 
 
I think the people of this country, in the way they have rewarded our Prime Minister with a huge lead in the opinion polls, know the answer to that question: that British values are very safe with our Prime Minister.  
 
We need a Brexit that works for the UK, the EU and the USA, because the west is facing a major test.  A historic #TestOfTheWest.
 
It is in all our interests to defend our values and our belief in enterprise, free trade, and markets by being prepared to reform where needed to demonstrate markets working us.  ALL of us. 
 
This is not just a cultural debate; it is a hard-headed economic negotiation. 
 
The truth is that our diplomatic, military and political authority in the west - our ability to defend our territories as well as our values - is based on our economic success.
 
That is why I am so passionate about the future for this country as a source of science and innovation for global sustainable growth - especially in the sector for which I was our first Minister - the appliance of science in the enormous markets of food, medicine and energy: Britain as a crucible of an innovation economy outside of increasingly restrictive EU Regulations, leading the world in the global Grand Challenges of the 21st century: to harness our science and innovation to provide the sustainable solutions to feed, fuel and heal the populations of the developing world, better harnessing our soft power and Aid, Trade and Security commitments for global benefit.  It's a win win win. Good for us.   Good for our partners.  Good for the globe. 
 
Let us seize this opportunity.  
 
For the benefit of us all.  
 
And for the next generation of this country who  didn't vote in the Referendum and cannot speak in this debate, but whose interests should guide us through the debates and deliberations in the coming months as we shape a Brexit that works for everyone in a UNITED Kingdom. 

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