Leaving the European Union DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
Neil CoyleMP Main Page: Neil Coyle (Labour - Bermondsey and Old Southwark)
Department Debates - View all Neil Coyle's debates with the Department for Exiting the European Union
(1 year ago)Westminster Hall
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr McCabe.
“If a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy.”
Those are not my words, but those of our first Brexit Secretary, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), who is one of many. The ability to change one’s mind is a beautiful thing and something that we should particularly value in parliamentarians. As Maynard Keynes said:
“When the facts change, I change my mind.”
Having a sealed mind—the inability to change one’s mind—is something that we should be very careful about. That is where we are at the moment, I am afraid. We are in a situation in which people seem incapable of changing their mind, but the public are not.
It is very difficult to quote a figure for the number of people who have signed the petition to revoke article 50, because it is changing. When we started the debate, it was 6,036,045, but the last time I checked—a couple of minutes ago—it was 6,037,286. Some 10,804 of those signatories are in my constituency, which is almost 16% of the electorate. I pay tribute to the 355 people who signed the petition to leave with or without a deal, because we should recognise their voices in the debate. I also pay tribute to the 496 people who signed the petition for the second referendum.
There are lots of reasons to change one’s mind. A good reason to change one’s mind is that the circumstances have changed. Another is that one has looked at the evidence. I come to this seeing both sides of the debate, because I started out—originally, when the referendum campaign was launched—as a soft-leave Eurosceptic. However, as Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, I heard the evidence of harm week in, week out, and I came to the view that I was wrong. I was not afraid to say that. In fact, many colleagues said to me, “Don’t tell people that you’ve changed your mind. Just put a cross in a different box. It will be very bad for your political career if you change your mind.” It is astonishing that we have come to that—that parliamentarians are not honest and are not prepared to change their mind when they have looked at the evidence.
We focus on the idea that this is all about a WTO Brexit and trade, but from chairing the Health and Social Care Committee it became obvious to me that there is clear evidence of harm to social care, science and research from unpicking a close relationship that has brought enormous benefits for more than four decades. I looked at the harm that Brexit would cause to science and research. There is no version of Brexit that will benefit science and research, improve the situation for our health and social care workforce, or do anything positive for NHS funding.
Of course, the biggest, most remembered non-fact of all the referendum campaign was the £350 million a week for the NHS that never was. Those who led the leave campaign not only know that that was wrong, but valued the fact that people were quoting that figure and that there was a debate. I was in rooms with people who said to me, “Yes, we know the fact is wrong. It’s not a fact. It’s a gross figure, rather than a net figure,” but they were prepared to keep saying it. Many of those people now sit on the Front Bench. It is quite extraordinary.
We must consider the big picture and the extent to which people were misled knowingly and deliberately during the referendum campaign. We must consider the very real evidence that has emerged in every area of the degree of harm. We must be honest about the fact that there were many different versions of Brexit. I am a former clinician—I have said this before—and it would be ridiculous to take someone into an operating theatre more than 1,000 days after they had signed a vague consent form for an operation of some sort. The surgeon would be struck off. The surgeon in this case, I am afraid, is our Prime Minister. Now that we know all the circumstances of Brexit, she has a duty, once we have settled on a version, to allow people to go back and weigh up the risks and benefits of a known deal. That is what is required to give consent.
That is particularly true for young people. We are taking people into the operating theatre kicking and screaming with a consent form signed by their grandparents. We owe it to the British people to check that we have their valid consent before we carry out this extraordinary act of constitutional, social and economic surgery on the population. We have time to do so. We should take that time, and revocation is one way we could do that. We should revoke and reflect. As the hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) said, that does not cancel Brexit altogether; it just gives us the chance to pause. This is a significant decision, and we should take the time to ensure we get it right.
There are many good reasons to change one’s mind, but there are some that are less honourable, such as changing one’s mind because it suits one’s leadership ambition or because this has all become about the unity of the Conservative party. The country is looking on in horror; it does not see those as reasons to change one’s mind or to stick rigidly to a point of view when all the evidence to the contrary is compelling. Many of my constituents have said to me over and over again, “Why is it that all of you get to change your mind so many times but none of us does?” They just want the ability to reflect the fact that many of them have changed their mind.
Last weekend, I was with the million people—an extraordinary, positive outpouring from all around the country, walking past the Prime Minister’s door peacefully and asking her to put this to the people. I contrast that with the crowds that were outside the gate when I cycled out last Friday, screaming at me, “Traitor!” and “Bitch!”, and referring to other parts of my anatomy in a disgusting outpouring of hostility.
I hear the Prime Minister and others say that we cannot put this back to the people because it will unleash dark forces and division in our society, but those dark forces and division are already out there. We counter the far right not by appeasing them but by standing firm. Since when did this country not have a democratic process because we were afraid of the far right? I and many colleagues in this House have had to face that blast full on. I will not be quiet; I will keep saying loud and clear that it is time we put this back to the people.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Mr McCabe. There have been some terrific contributions in the debate. I particularly appreciated that of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), which was wide ranging and covered a great many points that I very much agreed with. Something that really stuck out was what she said about the very different visions of what Brexit meant and how no one was talking to pull those visions together into some sort of whole. I will address that further in my speech.
The hon. Member for Nottingham East (Mr Leslie) spoke of a mirage of Brexit, which I thought was a terrific term. It really describes the nonsense, in some cases, that we were told by those who supported Brexit and which was offered to those who would eventually vote for it. Describing that as a mirage is particularly apt. The hon. Member for York Central (Rachael Maskell) spoke of the country never forgiving and mentioned citizens’ assemblies, which are certainly something that should be considered more closely.
The hon. Member for Streatham (Chuka Umunna) quite rightly reminded us of the younger generation, of the importance of these decisions for their lives and of how we, as those who are in power now—and of a certain generation, in my case—must remember and consider them at all times. We in this place are creating their future and, frankly, if we pursue this Brexit, it will be a very poor future—I include my own children in that consideration.
My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Martyn Day) gave a terrific speech, for which I thank him. It was very measured and considered and I agreed with everything that he said. The hon. Member for East Lothian (Martin Whitfield) reminded us that, ultimately, Brexit is a political choice. That must be remembered during our votes tonight and in all our consideration of this incredibly important issue.
I must highlight in particular the contribution from the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), which was extremely frank. She, too, spoke of the many different versions of Brexit, and her condemnation of the hostility that has arisen in recent weeks hit the nail right on the head. She spoke of the whole Brexit debate unleashing dark forces and division. We must stand up to the far right rather than appease it.
The call rings out from Brexiters that we must respect the will of the people in the 2016 referendum. The question that keeps occurring to me is, “What was the will that was expressed?” For some, it was perhaps the £350 million a week for the NHS, and they may be very disappointed when that does not arrive. For others, it may have been the higher wages that were promised during the leave campaign, which is a benefit that does not seem to be appearing any time soon. Some may have been wooed by the promise to scrap VAT, about which we have heard almost nothing since, or perhaps by the easy-as-pie trade deals, of which we were supposed to have dozens by now. Alternatively, was it the UK-EU trade deal or the new immigration system that we were supposed to have by May next year?
One thing that we still have is the pledge that there will be no change to the operation of the Irish border, as promised in a Vote Leave news release of 1 June 2016 by the right hon. Members for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) and for Witham (Priti Patel). The one promise left standing is the one that seems to be causing all the problems between the Tories and the DUP.
Despite all the fluff and flannel since 2016, it is fairly clear that leave never meant leave and Brexit never meant Brexit. In the blizzard of reasons for voting one way or another, there was never a manifesto; there was never a plan for what happens afterwards; and there was never any vision of the future. No one was selling truth or honesty, but there was plenty of prejudice and imagined slight on offer, and plenty of gung-ho hot-headed invective, but very little sober reflection.
Since then, however, we have all had a chance to take stock. From hearing other hon. Members today, I know that they, like me, have spent time talking to constituents and have received a range of different responses. I have met people who wanted to leave so that our laws would be made at home, but who still wanted to keep freedom of movement. I spoke to one lady who did not like the control that she thought the EU had over our lives, but thought we should have common standards for goods across Europe. There was no settled will of the people, no single movement, and no collective decision-making. There was no plan to vote for, no manifesto to be held to, and no vision of a new constitution. Any politician who says that they are simply respecting the will of the people is actually just hijacking an advisory plebiscite for their own personal or political advantage.
My constituency of Edinburgh North and Leith is decidedly in favour of the EU. More than a quarter of the population signed the online petitions to revoke article 50. That reflects what is said to me across the constituency on a regular basis. People are worried about whether their doctor will be still be here in future. They are concerned about whether their neighbours and friends will face pressure to leave. Concerned constituents have made countless representations to me about how the community will be affected if we no longer have the flow of fresh faces and if we cannot hang on to the new Edinburgh North and Leithers that we have currently.
The wife of the regius keeper of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh contacted me because she was concerned about her right to stay. She did not work much while she was bringing up their children, but her husband served with distinction in the Marines, and was invalided out at the rank of lieutenant colonel. He is also a member of the Her Majesty’s Body Guard of the Honourable Corps of Gentlemen at Arms, but that cuts no ice. A constituent who does not want to be named because she fears the repercussions came to me in fear of being deported to the EU country that she left as a toddler to come to the UK even before that country joined the Common Market. She raised her family here and looks after her grandchildren while her children work, but her status here is now uncertain.
Break in Debate
I am admiring and respectful of the petition, and I understand the reasons for it. I also do not discount the proposition put this evening. The Minister should not read too much into the fact that I am not voting for it. I would add that the Labour party will whip its Members this evening, unlike the Government, who dare not whip even their own Cabinet. If I were the Minister, I am not sure I would bob up and down quite as much on this particular issue.
I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s advice, which I am sure he would have given regardless of advice from his colleagues in the Whips Office.
What I interpret from the fact that 6 million people—thousands of them in my constituency—have signed the petition is how concerned, angry and frustrated people are with how the Brexit process has been mishandled by the Government. I do not think there has been the same amount of public support and cut-through for a petition at any other stage in the Brexit process.
Break in Debate
I shall happily answer that point later in my speech.
In a way the hon. Gentleman is making the point that I was trying to make to the hon. Member for Streatham, because people did pay attention to what individual MPs were saying in their constituencies —at least, more people than ever before attended hustings in my constituency, and I should like to think that that was reflected elsewhere. The disconnect comes from the fact that in the end lots of people vote, as the hon. Gentleman knows, for a party rather than an individual. If a candidate’s party, nationally, says something loud and clear, they are almost disrespecting their party’s manifesto by saying something different locally.