Friday, September 6th, 2019


This is the Hansard record of my speech in the debate in the House of Lords on Thursday. As usual, it’s only afterwards that you think of a better way of saying it.

My Lords, it is already evident in some of the terms of this conversation—of this debate—that we have to get away from this binary thinking about leave or remain. They were terms that pertained to the referendum in 2016 where the question was “what”. Where we have got stuck is on the question of “how”. You do not need a degree in logic or philosophy to recognise that they are different questions.

The Members of the other place and of this House trying to take their obligations seriously under the constitution to serve the people of this country means that we have got to this sort of impasse. It is not because of negligence, or because of waging ongoing campaigns from three years ago. I deeply resent the constant insinuation that if you voted remain then you remain a remainer and anything you do has to be suspected as being a plot to ensure that we remain. Many people in this House who voted remain have gone on to say that the referendum result was to leave and we have to move on to the question of how to do that but with the responsibility to look to the interests of our country.

If, as the Prime Minister said fairly recently, we will easily cope with no deal, why not publish what the actual costs of no deal will be, as for example King’s College London, the UK and the EU project have done, and others are doing? Why not listen to those ​from Ireland and Northern Ireland, who look somewhat askance at some of the discussions going on here about them—rather than with them, if I can use that term? We are still wrestling with the question of “how”.

In my own imagination, I have flirted with what the virtues of no deal would be. One of them would be that it would force us to behave like adults: you face reality, you count the cost and you suffer the consequences. If we are to cope easily and there are to be no terrible consequences, fair enough, but that is not what we are hearing from those doing the detailed work. I know we have to discount experts and intellectuals, but who else will do the work?

If we are to have an extension, there will be two factors at play. The first is that an extension is not a vacation; it is for work to go on and a deal to be sought. The Prime Minister assures us that negotiations are going on, but everything we hear from the EU is that they are not—who do we believe? The second factor is that the timetable—the programme—will be conditioned to some extent by factors that we have no control over, such as the EU budget programme and its timings for establishing its future without us. We cannot simply extend for ever, but what is the content of the conversation that will go on during any extension?

The last thing I want to say to shine some light into this debate is that, while we focus on Brexit and the costs and benefits of however we leave the EU, we will still need, when all that is done—that will be the beginning of the process, not the end, as this was supposed to be the easy bit—a vision for what Brexit is supposed to deliver for the people of our country. What are the big values? What is the big picture? What is the country that we want to live in? We are told that this is to be the greatest place on earth to live, but let us flesh that out. What will it look like? What will it look like for Britain to be “great”, rather than just have that as a title or a slogan? That is the imaginative work that we need to begin in this House, in the other place and in the discourse in the wider country. What sort of country do we want to be? What values will shape it? What price truth, reality and behaving like adults, where we face the cost and are willing to suffer or enjoy the consequences? That is the conversation we need to move on to and I fear that we will have to do so fairly soon.

This is the script of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme:

This year marks the hundredth anniversary of what is now called GCHQ – the Government Communications Headquarters. During that century the world – including the worlds of communication, espionage and intelligence – has changed radically. Even when I joined as a linguist specialist back in 1980 what we thought of as cutting-edge technology now looks quaint. As the world, driven by technology has developed, so have the intelligence services, their competences and self-understanding.

When I was at Cheltenham, working mainly in Russian and German, the place itself was so secret it didn’t even appear on Ordnance Survey maps. Now they have open days, social media recruitment and lots of other imaginative ways of communicating their existence, preoccupations and value to society.

What haven’t changed, of course, are the basic questions of national security and the need for any country to learn the languages of others. Whereas the need for national security, in one sense, speaks for itself, the “learning the language of others” stuff might not be so obvious. But, effective intelligence work demands that you get inside the head of those you suspect of threatening you, look out through their eyes, listen through their ears, and understand how this shapes or directs their language and behaviour.

Now, there is a risk to this exercise. If you learn about another people and enter into their experience, you begin to comprehend and, sometimes, even sympathise with them. It isn’t quite Stockholm Syndrome, but it is risky. For example, learning about the experiences and historical contexts of my enemy might reframe my understanding of why they behave or speak the way they do. We all speak in codes and the codes depend on common intuitions or understandings.

I think this goes to the heart of being human in society. If empathy gets lost, then we find it difficult to read each other. Instead of being exposed to reality – which is often complex and nuanced – I pigeon-hole or stereotype them and then feel justified in the security of my own trench.

“Loving my neighbour as myself” is neither easy nor obvious. It isn’t something that comes naturally, but demands hard and imaginative work – letting the other slip beyond the box I want to put them in.

I think this is also pertinent in other areas of our common life in these strange times. Instead of lobbing accusations from trenches at those who see the world – or particular policies – differently, a decision to invest in listening, imagining and understanding does not come naturally to most of us. Listen to debates in Parliament this last week and it becomes clear how hard and how important it is that we try.

I might have left GCHQ a long time ago, but the questions it fed me have not gone away.