AFTER 65 years of public service, I do not remember such an unholy mess as we are in now, except perhaps after the Suez affair. It is an existential as well as a political crisis.
As a result of recent events, my enthusiasm for referenda, never very strong, has evaporated almost to nothing. I pass over the lies and half-truths, the threats and the promises, the commitments proposed and then abandoned as soon as the votes had been counted and the rancour of the recent campaign.
The problem with a referendum is that the issue is presented as a simple binary choice: yes or no, leave or remain. The issue of membership of the European Union is not simple or binary; it is a choice of complex and often conflicting considerations and of deciding where the best interests of the nation lie. Such issues are better decided in our traditional system of representative democracy by Parliament.
In that system, a referendum is advisory, not mandatory. The result of a referendum deserves to be treated with the greatest respect, but it is for Parliament to decide, and in this time of tension a great responsibility falls on this Parliament. We in both Houses of Parliament have to rise to that responsibility – we are in uncharted and turbulent waters.
We are told that the process of extracting ourselves from the European Union will take five years or more – five years of continuing economic, financial and political uncertainty with the risk of lower investment, less employment and higher inflation as businesses and people speculate over and try to anticipate the outcome.
I cannot rid myself of the fear that we are on the verge of a terrible mistake, for which our children and our children’s children will pay the price. We should be thinking about the effects of the uncertainty on the young going to Europe to work or to study, on the young people from European countries on whom the National Health Service and other public services in this country depend and on the hopes and prospects of those British citizens who have chosen to make their lives in Europe.
We should be thinking about the benefits we derive from the EU’s contribution to scientific and technological research and development and, what is more and most of all, we should be thinking about our place in Europe and in the world.
The European Union – the European Community previously – was created to be one of the institutional guarantors of peace and stability in Europe, and particularly of peace between France and Germany. In this respect, it has been astonishingly successful over the past 60 years, so successful that many of us seem to think – in my view wrongly – that any future European war is simply unimaginable. This is something to remember as we commemorate the Battle of the Somme.
For these reasons I hope that, even while the new Prime Minister and their colleagues develop a strategy for negotiating our departure from the EU a sense of their responsibilities at a time of great uncertainty.
They should explore even now, at this late hour, whether there is any possibility of reaching an agreement with the EU and its other member countries, building on the changes agreed with the present Prime Minister in February. This would allow them to recommend to Parliament, and Parliament to recommend to the British people, that we have a new deal and do not trigger Article 50 but remain as members of the European Union.
That may not now be possible. If it is not, we shall continue on course to leave the EU, but as the Foreign Secretary said, we must seek the best deal we can for Britain. We should not exclude the possibility that the best deal for Britain might be achieved by staying in the EU. The situation has now profoundly changed since February, and even since a month ago. The new Government will have a responsibility to explore the possibility, even now, of such an outcome and they might find the European Union willing to discuss that.
Such an outcome would resolve, at a stroke, the uncertainties that will beset us as we continue on the course of leaving the EU. It would enable the new Government to concentrate on strengthening the economy and pursuing social reform. It would restore the strength of our nation. It would allow us to continue to contribute to the strength and effectiveness of the European Union and to take part in its reform, which is now necessary and inevitable, and it would enhance the confidence and respect in which we are held by our allies and friends in international affairs.
Robert Armstrong was Cabinet Secretary from 1979-87. He is now a peer and this is an edited version of a speech that he delivered in the House of Lords.