This is the basic text of my speech in the House of Lords in today’s debate on the Prime Minster’s Statement on Brexit last week.

 

House of Lords

Tuesday 20 November 2018

Brexit: Debate on the Prime Minster’s Statement

My Lords, only four months remain before we walk arm in arm to the sunlit uplands where the easiest deal in history will have been made … and everybody will be happy.

Except, my Lords, we know this is not the case. Other noble Lords will concentrate on the details of the ‘deal’ (a word that reduces an existential question simply to a matter of trade and transaction) and the position in which it leaves us. I want to pick up on one line of the Prime Minister’s Statement to the House last week – the line I questioned in the short debate on Thursday.“If we get behind a deal, we can bring our country back together and seize the opportunities that lie ahead.”

I asked if the promise to “bring our country back together” is credible and achievable and, if so, how this is to be done. The answer was simply a repeat of mantras about ‘the deal’. I thought I was being helpful to the government by inviting a response such as: “The country is split down the middle and the language and behaviour around Brexit have become toxic – even in this Parliament. So, it is not going to be easy to reconcile people and parties in the wake of such a divisive issue. But, in acknowledging the size of the task, we intend to pay attention in due course to the language, symbolism and mechanisms of reconciliation.”

Because this is the challenge here. The government, by virtue of being the government, has a primary duty to pay attention to such reconciliation – to the healing of relationships that have been fractured by this process and the restoration of trust as a public value.

I am not making a case for leaving, remaining, wishful thinking or dreaming. The referendum happened, the rest is history (in the making). However, the factual phenomenon of Brexit, its language and behaviours, its polarising aggression and its destructive reductionism are not going to be addressed by statements about getting behind a deal and people romantically falling back into line. That line has been crossed in our public discourse, and I think two things have exacerbated it: first, the repeated implication that “the will of the people” is immutable and clear; and, secondly, that the nature of the split down the centre of the United Kingdom is being ignored.

This, my Lords, raises a question of honesty – honesty with the people of this nation. Now, to ask for honesty is not to accuse anyone of dishonesty. But, we hear little or no acknowledgement of the fracture that polarises our people – a fracture that will neither be addressed nor healed by the repetition of mantras about a glorious future.

This is not about Brexit as a choice; rather, it is about Brexit as a cultural phenomenon – what has happened as a consequence of the referendum. Social media is not the most edifying place to seek enlightenment and calm reflection; you have to wade through acres of muck to find any gems. But, where the gems are to be found is precisely where adults behave like adults, face reality (whether or not reality reflects their own preferences), moderate their language in order to prioritise relationship and values over conflict, and show a willingness to listen before speaking and an ability to look through the eyes of my interlocutor.

My Lords, I admire the committed resilience of the Prime Minister and the remarkable expertise of our civil servants. But, I appeal again for those engaged in this debate to take seriously the language of the discourse – not least in how we speak of those in the EU with whom we deal. And I appeal again to the government not to dismiss with easy words the crying need for an honesty of discourse that actually sets people free to grow up, own the truth about the deep challenges we face, and offer the people to whom we are accountable and whom we are called to serve a model for reconciliation and hope.

My Lords, whatever happens, the Church is committed to stand with and serve those who suffer, especially poor, marginalised and disenfranchised people in our communities. But, we need an articulation of political vision that goes beyond economics and trade. So, what will those in power do to offer language and symbols of reconciliation and hope in practical ways that recognise the divisions and take seriously the need to bring our country – and our Union – back together?

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