BREXIT is without doubt the gravest matter I have faced in the 20 years I have been in the House of Lords – and probably in my lifetime.
I have always shared the common view that Britain was a pragmatic, sensible country with an instinctive aversion to extremism, be it of the right or the left. It is now clear that I was wrong on just about all counts.
Like one or two other peers, I am a mongrel. My mother’s family were immigrants from Russia and my father’s family were French – albeit they arrived as invaders on these shores 953 years ago. Our family home is in west Cork in the Republic of Ireland, where, for 30 years, I have enjoyed watching the relationship between my country of birth and my country of adoption grow ever closer. Sadly it is now clear that relationship is dangerously deteriorating.
For the past 50 years I have also run my own business, working in and indeed with the United States, during which I have made literally hundreds of trade deals.
Most recently I spent four years as the UK’s trade and cultural envoy in south-east Asia, all of which allows me the conceit of believing that I know a fair bit more about the effects of Brexit on Ireland and the business of negotiating, most especially in the United States, than the current Minister for International Trade, Dr Liam Fox.
From time to time I hear him and others speaking rather airily of a special relationship – that post-Brexit we will be free to make the mother of all trade deals with the US. This belief is either a cruel fantasy or a deliberate falsification of what the best of his department know to be the truth: “The chief business of the American people is business”.
That is not just a speech line dreamed up in 1925 by Calvin Coolidge; there is also a deep truth attached to it.
No matter how close you may personally feel to an American business counterpart, when you sit across the negotiating table, all notions of a special relationship go out of the window and new rules apply.
With the 2020 US elections just 20 months away, how would the Minister fancy the chances of a Senator or a Member of the House of Representatives who was felt to have in any way supported Britain in heaping misery on the Irish economy? I am sure Ministers can safely take refuge in an assurance that the Government have no intention of damaging the Republic of Ireland or its economy. But do they seriously believe that right now that perception holds good in Dublin, in Brussels or, crucially, in Washington?
I can confidently make him one promise. Should we crash out or endanger the Good Friday Agreement, either accidently or through sheer ineptitude, then all the blame will lie with us. We will not be forgiven – not in Ireland, not in Europe and, politically at least, not in the United States.
There will be no point in sending Boris Johnson off to attend a St Patrick’s Day parade wearing a green leprechaun hat, because Dr Fox is likely to find what he believed to be a friendly Congressional door slammed firmly in his face.
That is the purely political reality. But on any number of other fronts we are already discovering powerful lobbies in the US seeking preferential treatment in areas such as food safety standards, demands that are totally incompatible with our own established norms.
Is Dr Fox, a medical doctor, going to suggest for one moment that we downgrade our own health and safety standards to close a trade deal? It is unthinkable.
Our Minister for International Trade has developed a habit of trying to retrofit his ideological preferences to imaginary world scenarios. However, despite small successes with Switzerland and Singapore, real life will surely close in, and he will be found to be what the Americans refer to as a blowhard.
John Harris, the Guardian columnist, wrote of his recent encounters with real life on both sides of the Irish border: “Just about everyone I met knew perfectly well that Theresa May’s travails over the so-called backstop are the product of politicians and voters elsewhere forgetting about the island of Ireland, only to be reminded that for the people who live there, Brexit represents a profound set of dangers. No one was that surprised about this amnesia, but many were very angry about it”.
I am one of them. I am very angry. I am angry because most of the public discourse regarding the backstop, particularly from the ERG (European Research Group), has revealed a staggering level of either pig ignorance or malicious disregard, and I am not quite sure which is worse. As Harris wrote, Brexit is a “Pandora’s box, brimming with unforeseen consequences”.
David Puttnam is a film producer and Labour peer. He spoke in a House of Lords debate on Brexit – this is an edited version.