How RTE covered the recent parliamentary debates on a shoestring budget. The excellent Audrey Carville was flown to London to co-present the Morning Ireland radio programme from a patch of grass in Westminster.
I am not a Tory, and normally I would be happy to see the party mired in even more confusion than it finds itself in at the present time. But I have much respect for those of its members who espouse what is usually called ‘old-fashioned One Nation Conservatism’. They love their country, they respect other traditions and, above all, they are democrats. So it has been shocking to see so many of them turfed out of the Conservative Party after daring to vote for the anti-no deal bill on Tuesday night. One such was minister of state Alistair Burt, who was first elected as an MP in 1983. In Wednesday’s debate he spoke as ‘the proud but slightly bemused independent Member for North East Bedfordshire’, In his excellent speech, which you can read in full here, he said:
Many in the UK have failed to grasp that it is we who are leaving the EU. That means that it is a negotiation between us. We have never really understood the EU or its arguments, believing that a negotiation was a series of demands from the United Kingdom, not a negotiation. That and the language that we have used—built on 20-odd years of the drip, drip of poison about the EU—has made sure that we did not get a deal.
… [W]hy do we want to avoid no deal? I will not repeat all the things that the right hon. Member for Leeds Central said, which are obvious; the economics are clear. For me, there are three reasons. The first is the threat to the Union. I am a Scot, my mother and father from Scotland. I am a proud Scot. I am also British through and through. I could not believe a recent poll of Conservative members that said they would abandon almost anything, including the Union, providing they left the EU. I regard that as a terrible threat. We should not risk it.
My second reason is Ireland, which is treated by some here as some sort of irrelevance and a place that has made up the border issue to prevent us from leaving the EU. With our history in relation to Ireland and everything that happened there, it became our best friend in the European Union. Our choice to leave—our Brexit—has put Ireland in the most catastrophic situation of any country, and we now expect it to accept another English demand that it should do something. Have we no understanding of what that relationship means and the damage done?
My third reason for wanting to avoid no deal is the damage to Europe and the relationship with Europe itself. I grew up as part of the first generation to avoid war in Europe for countless hundreds of years. I arrived in the House of Commons when there were giants here such as Denis Healey, Willie Whitelaw and Ted Heath—people for whom Europe was the place where they and their friends had fought and died—and they wanted something different. That has always motivated me in my sense of Europe. Whether we are in the European Union or not, that relationship with Europe is clouded by the sort of language that the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) mentioned. I do not want to see that relationship threatened by a no deal.
Thirdly, let me end where I began, as the Independent Member for North East Bedfordshire. I do not complain at the removal of the Whip—voting on an issue of confidence, I accept the rules—but I say to my colleagues: just think how this looks. Last week, the Conservative party lost Ruth Davidson and George Young in the House of Lords resigned the Whip. This morning, we lost my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Runnymede and Weybridge (Mr Hammond) —who made the economy we were cheering just a few minutes ago. What are people going to think about what we have left and what we have lost? Some will have been very happy at the fact that some have been purged—purged. A few weeks ago, one of our colleagues retweeted an article in The Daily Telegraph that looked forward to the purging of remoaners in the Conservative party. That was disgraceful. I say to my colleagues, if we are being purged now, who is next? Watch a film called “Good Night, and Good Luck”, and you will take my point.
This may be the last substantive speech I make here as I am not standing again—and who knows when the election will come? I will leave with the best of memories of this place, friends and colleagues on all sides. The obsession that my party has developed may have sought to devalue my past as a friend of the EU, of our sister centre-right parties, and of many friends, and it may have curtailed my future, but it will not rob me of what I believe. I will walk out of here looking up at the sky, not down at my shoes. [Applause.]
Burt went further in a compelling interview on today’s Morning Ireland programme on RTE radio. You can hear the piece in full on the programme website but here is an extract:
The obsession with leaving the European Union which has grown in the Conservative Party over the past 20 years has now reached an almost irrational position. Your listeners may have seen the polling which was done a couple of months ago where they asked Conservative voters in the UK what they were prepared to sacrifice just to leave and it was virtually everything. If the economy and agriculture collapses but we leave the EU is it OK? The majority said Yes. If we lose the Union, are you happy with this as long as we leave the EU? They said Yes. It’s become almost irrational. …
My particular hurt on behalf of Ireland is that I am aware of how this affects Ireland. I think my colleagues have been incredibly careless and have felt that the issues surrounding the border, whether it’s trade or the fear of the troubles returning, have been seen as part of a political game being played by the European Union and by Irish politicians instead of something fundamental which affects people because of decisions that we have made which Ireland had no say on. That’s made me particularly upset, which is why I mentioned it yesterday.
It’s refreshing to see a British politician, from any party, spell this out. It is not said often enough, which is what everyone this side of the Irish Sea finds so frustrating. Too few English Brexiteers have thought about the disaster they have inflicted on the rest of the UK and on Ireland, an independent country. But that’s all right. They just want to get on with it.
If I hear that said in a vox pop interview one more time, I think I might throw something at the screen.
A 2 minute interview with another ex-Tory MP, Ed Vaizey, was heard later the same day on RTE Drivetime, where he also expressed sorrow for the fact that the Irish position has not been discussed. Link is here. Starts at about 4min 10sec.