Hilary Benn - Member of Parliament for Leeds Central
A journalist asked me the other day how my constituents are feeling about Brexit. I replied that judging by my inbox they are pretty much split down the middle. On the one hand, people say ‘I just want out’ while on the other people plead ‘Can’t you stop Brexit?’ And while some people’s views are becoming more polarised, others confess to feeling weary of the whole process.
I sympathise. In Parliament, Brexit has taken up most of MPs’ time for the past two and a half years, including mine because I chair the Committee on Exiting the European Union. Our job is to scrutinise the process of leaving the EU and publish reports.
We have met, talked to and taken evidence from, hundreds of people from all over the country who, like the members of the Committee, hold different views. We’ve been from Aberdeen to Truro, including a visit to Leeds, to talk about manufacturing, scientific research, fishing and agriculture and services industries like finance and broadcasting. We’ve been to Brussels to see the EU negotiators. We’ve travelled to Dublin and Northern Ireland and stood on the border just outside Middletown in Armagh.
Today there’s nothing to see; just a road with goods moving and lives being lived back and forth across the border. If we’d stood on the same spot 40 years ago, however, we would have seen a customs post, checkpoints, army bases and watchtowers in an area where people were killed during the Troubles. It was a sobering reminder of both how working with others and showing political courage can transform things, and of why keeping the border as it is today matters so much.
What I have learned from all of this is that something that may appear simple – leaving the European Union – is actually very complicated. The question that people affected by it most frequently ask is “I can tell you how things work today but can you please explain to me how they will work tomorrow after we have left?“ The truth is that we can’t answer that question at the moment and that causes a lot of anxiety and uncertainty. It’s particularly true when it comes to the idea of leaving the European Union without any agreement at all – a so-called no deal Brexit.
The latest report of our Committee has looked at that in detail and we concluded that no responsible Government could pursue such a policy. Not all the members, however, agreed with that conclusion and all of us are, of course, entitled to our own view. But it does help to explain why Parliament is having such difficulty at the moment in trying to find a way forward.
We have made a suggestion which I think would help. We know what the House of Commons doesn’t support – it’s rejected the Prime Minister‘s deal – but we don’t yet know whether there is an alternative that Parliament might support. So we’ve proposed that MPs should vote on a series of options for a different way forward.
By the time you read this, we will know whether Parliament has decided to follow our advice. After all, when you have a constituency, a country and a Parliament that are all more or less evenly divided, searching for a compromise in which everyone has to give a bit in order to reach agreement is surely the right thing to do. Because when this is all over, regardless of which way any of us voted in the referendum two and a half years ago, we’re going to have to find a way of bringing the country back together.