House of Lords


This is the Hansard transcript of my speech in the House of Lords yesterday (39 out of 180) in the take-note debate on the EU Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.

My Lords, I wish that I could pack as much into a single speech as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, but I defy the challenge.

It is perhaps not a bad idea at this stage in the debate just to take a step back and to remember what the point of all this is. I was doing “Thought for the Day” on Radio 4 this morning and picked up on three words from the title of a Theos think-tank report on resilience in the north-east of England—people, place and purpose. They are three words that offer us a lens through which to see what all this is about. I endorse what the most reverend Primate said this morning in his speech.

Whatever the ultimate outcome, one of the legacies of the Brexit process thus far is, as I have said before, a corruption of public discourse, polarisation between people and communities, and a too frequent reduction of the polity to the merely economic. People are now too often categorised as either Punch or Judy; argument and nuance are dismissed in favour of emotive ad hominem judgment.

I understand that the withdrawal agreement is necessarily a technical means of achieving a political end, but the political declaration is aspirational in its language without offering a big vision for a society that is more than an economic market. Aspiration is good, but it needs to be accompanied by some articulated obligations and accountabilities. Therefore, I repeat the question that has come out in this debate: what is the big vision for British society, not just trade relationships, into which the technical agreement fits as a mechanism? What is the vision, and what is the future that we are asking our young people to build?

To be biblical for a moment, when Moses led the people of Israel out of captivity after 400 years in Egypt, they did not go straight to the promised land; they spent 40 years in the desert. There, a whole generation of romanticisers about the past died out. That is the point. You have to let a generation go in order to have a new generation that can envision and build a new society fired by their own imagination and not something that they were simply required to inherit from their forebears. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, that today we are talking about process and not event. I, along with my right reverend colleagues in this place, see deep divisions and significant challenges every day in our communities, and they will not be resolved immediately. In fact, they might define the next generation while we go through a sort of desert and all this gets sorted out. However, I do not believe that all this will evaporate merely by coming to a conclusion. This is not a zero-sum game and it must not become that.

The deal before us has the virtue of being a compromise. Compromise is often spoken of pejoratively, but it is a good thing because it assumes that people have listened to opposing arguments. They have weighed things up in the balance. They know that there might not be a perfect answer but they weigh things up and come to a judgment, and then together try to work out what is best for the common good. I may be naive but I do not believe that anyone could have got a better deal because, frankly, the people they were negotiating with would have been the same and the maths would have been the same, and we would have ended up with the same narrow criteria having to be worked through. It is a fantasy to say that someone else could have come up with a better compromise. That does not address the question of whether this compromise is acceptable but the options were never vast, even if some of the fantasies about Brexit were ridiculous. It was clear from the beginning that some circles were never capable of being squared, and the Government should have been honest about that from the word go.

I confess to being bewildered. I have heard some very powerful speeches today and in one sense I could go either way. I want to vote against an agreement that leaves the country poorer and possibly more isolated. I want to vote against a deal that commands so little support across the country or even in this building but is being pushed as a binary choice. Yet I also want to vote for it, mainly because a compromise was always going to be costly and this one gives both sides something, if not everything, that they wished for. However, I also want to abstain, as I think that the choice before us compels a short-term decision that might have medium to longer-term negative consequences. “No deal” is a failure to deal. This deal reduces the sovereignty—or control—that Brexit was supposed to recover and simply loses us the rather good deal that we already have within the EU. Another referendum is a risk, but it cannot be said to diminish parliamentary democracy any more than the first referendum did—that pass was sold in 2016.

I am in a difficult place, so I will carry on listening to the debate and then make my mind up on Monday. However, assuming, as I do, that there is no ideal outcome—that whatever outcome we come to will have us poorer than we are at the moment—in conclusion I would like to address two or three principles that might be getting lost but which might be worth bearing in mind as we go forward.

First, whatever the outcome of this process, how are we to take responsibility for what we have done and for shaping the United Kingdom and the Europe of the future? We do not just sail off into the sunset and say, “Now that’s all up to them”. I have no doubt that the United Kingdom, if it remains intact, will grow a younger generation who will create a prosperous and creative future for our islands, even if we suffer short-term loss. But the generation that has led us into this mess—my generation—might have to make way for those who can shape a new narrative for our collective future, and they will not be helped by self-exonerating blame games by those of us who can see ourselves only as victims. A new sort of leadership will be needed in future that can rise above the divisions and seeks to reconcile and unite people around a common vision for more than trade and economics.

Secondly, when we speak of “we” and “us”, that must include the EU 27. The demonisation of those remaining in the EU is infantile, counterproductive and unhelpful. If our language reflects who we are, then we are going to have a problem encouraging the next generation to speak, relate and behave like adults.

Finally, very briefly, whatever Brexit looks like in the end, we will still be left with the massive challenges of poverty, homelessness, debt, food banks, poor health among too many people, challenges in education when children come to school hungry, and so on—I could go on and on. We must move on to face the challenges of the NHS, castrated local authorities, transport failures, infrastructure and other consequences of a decade of austerity. The EU cannot be blamed for that lot.

If a divided people are once again to know that they belong—whichever way they voted in the referendum—they will need to hear from this place an articulation of vision, hope and reconciliation: that people in all places have a common purpose that is worth adopting.

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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?

This is the text of my speech in the House of Lords this afternoon in the debate on the preparations and negotiations for Brexit. It needs to be read in the context of other speeches. The italicised paragraph was omitted for reasons of time.

My Lords, others noble Lords are addressing details … which leaves me to take a step back to look at culture. At Committee stage of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill I spoke about such matters as the corruption of the public discourse – asking that we do not lose sight of the end to which Brexit is supposed to be the means. I tried to pose the existential questions of who we think we are and for whom we are doing what we are doing. However, the debate has coarsened, the ideological divide deepened, and poor use of language worsened.

What I have to say has nothing to with Leave or Remain, but where we are now and what shape we might be in the future.

Weren’t we all embarrassed by the mockery in European media at the UK government’s attempts to translate the White Paper into other languages – German being the most obvious?  Were we not aware that professionally you always translate into your native tongue, not out of it? It seems that not only are we islanders hopeless at learning languages, but we still don’t even see or understand the cost of our hopelessness.

Surely, the first requirement of any negotiation is that the negotiators understand the mindset, culture, language and perceptions of the opposite number – get inside their head, look through their eyes and listen through their ears. If I don’t understand what I, we and the world look like through the eyes of my interlocutor, I can’t begin to negotiate intelligently. This goes well beyond figures, facts and tactics; it goes deeper from the superficial to the emotional and subliminal. It is where we discover what actually moves and shapes the mindset, reactions and behaviours of those with whom we seek to trade. Yet, here we are, unable or unwilling to speak the language of those with whom we think we can reach agreement. We just tell them they have to see everything as we do.

The problem, of course, is that most of those with whom we deal in the EU do speak our language, do get behind the words to the mindset, and, therefore, are in a stronger position from the outset.

I labour this point not in order to grind an axe about the poverty of language learning in the UK – seen as a priority in other countries – but because my earlier concerns about the culture generated by Brexit have deepened. How are ‘the people’ to read a former Foreign Secretary who resigns and immediately and unaccountably earns a fortune from a newspaper column? Or an MP for North East Somerset who moves his business investment interests abroad whilst telling the rest of us that we will experience the benefits of Brexit over the next fifty years (which, by my reckoning, means we still have another ten years or so in which to work on the benefits of EU membership)? Neither of these men will suffer the negative consequences of any form of Brexit. And this is not even a party or partisan matter.

This is a moral issue. In the same way that the US President has normalised lies and relativised truth (‘alternative facts’ and all that stuff, for example), we have descended into a non-rational lobbing of slogans and empty promises and damnations from trench to trench. Honesty and integrity – the essential prerequisites of moral culture are being sacrificed on the altar of mere political or personal pragmatism.

And this is at the core of my concern: the sheer dishonesty of much of the language and rhetoric of the last couple of years. If “the will of the people” matters so much, then shouldn’t the people be told the truth about the range of potential consequences of Brexit? If the government sees that the UK (and the EU) will suffer short- or medium term negativity in order to gain nirvana after a couple of decades or so, shouldn’t they actually say that? Explain that it is worth consigning a generation of young people to a poorer life because we need to take a longer-term view of the national good? If ‘the people’ can be trusted with a vote in a referendum, why can’t they be trusted with the truth rather than being patronised with endless polarising rhetoric?

What happens if the ‘will of the people’ turns out not to be ‘in the national interest’. And who defines these terms? Whose interests have priority? If we are attempting to square an unsquarable circle – whoever is PM -, then this should be admitted – not just lobbed back at the EU for them to resolve when they didn’t ask us to leave.

These are not arcane questions. The Prime Minister has said that we now need to “get on with Brexit”. Which, of course,  begs the question as to what we have been doing thus far. The new Brexit Secretary promises “energy, vigour and pragmatism” … as if these were laudable new ideas. But, they remain meaningless and vacuous if they are not underpinned by a respect for and an intelligent learning of the languages of our interlocutors in the EU.

(If we had been as committed to the EU as France is, and France had voted marginally for a Frexit, do we really think we would be taking seriously the flexing of Gallic muscles or belligerent demands for the best deal in the interests of France over against the integrity of the bloc? I think not.)

My Lords, we can talk about a second referendum, a general election, the change of Prime Minister in a party coup, the ‘taking back of control’ and so on. But, the questions of culture, of language, of dealing with the real world rather than some nostalgic fantasy couched in slogans: these will outlast any deal or no deal. Are we paying attention to who we shall be – not only seen through our own eyes, but also through the eyes of our neighbours, and also in the eye of our children, in the months and years to come?

This debate is not neutral.

This is the text of my speech moving Amendment 93 to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill on the last day of Report Stage in the House of Lords. It might not make immediate sense without knowledge of the detail, but I post it for the record.

My Lords, I move this amendment for two principle reasons: first, in order to assist the government in its shaping of its case for the UK’s future relationship with the European Union post-Brexit; secondly, because it is consistent with Amendment 49 which was passed earlier in this Report Stage.

Speakers in these debates have repeatedly suggested that anyone who moves an amendment is a hypocritical Remoaner intent on sabotaging the Bill and trying to prevent Brexit from ever happening. I regret the referendum result, but I accept that the UK is to leave – even on this 73rd anniversary of VE Day. My concern, along with many in your Lordships’ House is to ask the government seriously to consider improvements to the Bill … in order both that the people should be clear about the how as well as the what of Brexit and that the transition to a final arrangement might be as good as we can get it. It is my understanding that this is both the role and the responsibility of this House.

I remain concerned that a deeply divided country is being offered two stark alternatives which, if you will bear with me, I will put in biblical terms. Like the people of Israel in the desert, we too easily romanticise the past and yearn to return to Egypt; or, on the other hand, we promise on the other side of the mountain a land flowing with milk and honey (ignoring the challenges that go with it not actually being our land to do with as we will).

I mean it seriously when I suggest that we should be honest in our discourse on Brexit and acknowledge that we shall be spending some years in the wilderness as we begin to work out the consequences of the decisions we have taken and the implications of the relationships we must now begin to establish. Wilderness time is not necessarily negative time – simply a time of waiting and wishing and hoping (or recriminating), but a time for stripping away the clutter, identifying and owning our values and priorities as a nation, and actively bringing together a people divided by their varying apprehensions of events that have befallen them. That serious need for a concrete unifying strategy has yet to be addressed seriously in either House of this Parliament – slogans and wishful thinking are not enough.

With this in mind, then, I come to the substance of the amendment standing in my name and to which, I am sure, the Prime Minister would give her consent as it rests on commitments already articulated by her.

In her Mansion House speech of 2 March 2018 the Prime Minister confirmed for the first time that the UK will seek to maintain a formal relationship with certain EU agencies after Brexit. She further acknowledged that the terms of the future UK-EU relationship may see the UK Parliament take the step of replicating certain provisions of EU law. She put it like this (and forgive me for quoting at length in order to obtain clarity):

Our default is that UK law may not necessarily be identical to EU law, but it should achieve the same outcomes. In some cases Parliament might choose to pass an identical law – businesses who export to the EU tell us that it is strongly in their interest to have a single set of regulatory standards that mean they can sell into the UK and EU markets.

If the Parliament of the day decided not to achieve the same outcomes as EU law, it would be in the knowledge that there may be consequences for our market access.

And there will need to be an independent mechanism to oversee these arrangements.

We will also want to explore with the EU, the terms on which the UK could remain part of EU agencies such as those that are critical for the chemicals, medicines and aerospace industries: the European Medicines Agency, the European Chemicals Agency, and the European Aviation Safety Agency.

We would, of course, accept that this would mean abiding by the rules of those agencies and making an appropriate financial contribution.

She then went on to set out what the mutual benefits of such an approach might be. These include firstly, that such membership (however described) is the only way to ensure that products only need to undergo one series of approvals in one country; secondly, that such membership would enable the UK to contribute its technical expertise in setting and enforcing appropriate rules; and thirdly, that this might then allow UK firms to resolve certain challenges related to the agencies through UK courts rather than the ECJ.

That is enough for now to demonstrate the Prime Minister’s case. She concluded with a further statement about the sovereignty of Parliament and the acknowledged costs of rejecting agency rules for membership of the relevant agency and linked market access rights.

Now, it is important to remember that these decentralised agencies were originally established following a proposal from the European Commission and agreement by both the European Parliament and the Council of the European Union. Which, if I am correct, means that the establishment of over 40 bodies was achieved with the support of the UK.

Surely it makes sense, then, to be consistent and retain access to them.

As the Prime Minister made clear in her speech, there will be consequences of not doing so. For example – and to take just one, the European Maritime Safety Agency (EMSA): Our international reporting and monitoring obligations on maritime safety are currently handled via EMSA and there are shared EU rules on seafarer working conditions, which enables the UK to maintain its status as a ‘quality flag state’ under international law. The complexities involved in replicating this would appear to be immense. Furthermore, establishing a domestic equivalent to the EMSA will inevitably put a huge strain on the civil service, take many years to negotiate, and will be enormously expensive. (Yet another uncosted consequence of Brexit?)

I could equally cite the European Aviation Safety Agency, the European Chemicals Agency, Europol, the European Medicines Agency, and others.

My Lords, is it not probable that any future UK-EU trading relationship might demand replication of certain EU measures – product safety regulations, for example? As other regulations continue to evolve in Brussels in the years to come, is it not probable (if not inevitable) that the UK might have to keep pace, if reciprocal arrangements with the EU27 are to continue? (For example, those covering matrimonial and parental judgments.)

My Lords, this amendment does not in any way place an additional burden on the government, nor does it ask the government to change its stated policy stance. It formalises and reinforces those commitments made by the Prime Minister in her Mansion House speech.

Furthermore, with phase two of the negotiations now well underway, the addition of this Clause would demonstrate Parliament’s wish for the UK to maintain a close relationship with the EU – and, in this sense, it is consistent with the role envisaged for Parliament in amendment 49.

I think it is fair to say that although amendments relating to EU agencies were rejected in the House of Commons, this was possibly because the Government had not at that point announced its policy position. Now that the policy position is clear, sending this amendment back to the Commons would simply give an opportunity for further debate on future UK-EU cooperation.

My Lords, I hope I have given a clear rationale for this amendment and its inclusion on the face of the bill. I hope the Minister in responding will recognise the constructive nature of it and its attempt to give some idea as to what sort of milk and honey might lie over the mountain once we have negotiated the wilderness journey. It does no one any favours to pretend we are where we are not; it does everybody a favour to attend to a detail that at least has the virtue of acknowledging the uncertainties ahead, the size and potential costs of the journey upon which we have now embarked, and gives one element of shape to what to many looks, to quote another biblical line, somewhat “formless and void”.

I commend it for debate and I beg to move.

(I tested the opinion of the House and the amendment was passed by 298 votes to 227. It now goes back to the House of Commons.)

This is the basic text of my speech in the House of Lords during the Second Reading of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill:

My Lords, many speakers will attend to the technical and legal details of this Bill, and they will be better equipped than I am to do so. I want to use my time, therefore, to pay attention to a question that lies behind the nature of this Bill and the choices we are required to make in scrutinising and attempting to improve it. This question applies to all sides of the argument, whether we think leaving the European Union is an unmitigated disaster or the best thing since Winston Churchill mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

The question goes beyond economics and trade deals, haunts constitutional matters, and refuses to be submerged by ideologically-driven assertions that promise what can’t be promised and ridicule arguments that are inconvenient. Brexit has unleashed the normalisation of lies, and rendered too easily acceptable the demonising of people who, with integrity and intelligence, venture to hold a contrary view. We are in danger of securing an economic platform at the expense of a culture of respect and intelligent democratic argument.

The question I allude to is simply this: at the end of this process what sort of Britain – and Europe – do we want to inhabit? I accept that this is almost an existential question – challenge, even – but as we debate the legislative detail, we must not lose sight of the point of it all. Existential questions can’t be determined by statute, but the shape of statute speaks loudly of what we think our society should be for, and for whom. This is why debate about discretionary powers of ministers to make laws with equivalent force to primary legislation is of such importance. When such powers are so wide that this House is asked to leave to the judgement of ministers the meaning of such terms as “appropriate”, it is only right to ask for definition. After all, history is riddled with the unintended consequences of what might be termed “enabling legislation”.

But, let’s be honest. Brexit is technically so demanding and complex that, if I were Prime Minister, I would want the authority to deal flexibly with anomalies and technical weaknesses as quickly and smoothly as possible as the consequences of Brexit become known. I understand the technical element of this; but, this Bill goes beyond legislative technicalities and impacts strongly on constitutional arrangements and the balance of power. Surely, if “taking back control” by Parliament is to mean anything, it must mean refraining from bypassing the essential scrutiny that Parliament is privileged and required to provide. Hard parliamentary scrutiny might be inconvenient, but the long-term consequences of granting ministers unprecedented powers (as set out in this Bill) must be considered as they will shape the deeper culture of our state and change our assumptions about democracy.

I think this suggests that, although any sane person will recognise the government’s need to have significant powers to ensure that process (and legal certainty post-Brexit) is as smooth as possible, there must be limits to the use of such powers – or, as a colleague of mine put it succinctly and colourfully, we must avoid Brexit Britain turning into Tudor Britain.

Clearly, there is a balance to be struck here. I do not believe that this Bill, as currently formulated, achieves that balance; nor does it demonstrate that the genuine fears of constitutional experts and lawyers have been properly heard.

I have two concerns about the culture in which this debate is being conducted in this country – looked on with incredulity by those looking at us from beyond these islands.

First, almost every paper, every debate, every statement about Brexit is clothed in purely economic terms. It is almost as if the economy were everything and economics the only Good. Yet, the economy – one might add the word ‘trade’ – is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end … which is about human flourishing and the Common Good. The economy – trade – exists for the building of society, but society is more than the economy. It is not enough for us uncritically to assume that a market society (as opposed to a social market) is a given or an ultimate good. Culture is more than money and things.

Secondly, the referendum tore off the veneer of civilised discourse in this country and unleashed – gave permission for, perhaps – an undisguised language of suspicion, denigration, hatred and vilification. To be a Leaver is to be narrow-mindedly stupid; to be a Remainer is to be a traitor. Our media – and not just the ill-disciplined bear pit of social media – have not helped in challenging this appalling rhetoric or the easy acceptance of such destructive language.

Yet, beneath this lurks an uncomfortable charge articulated in a recent Carnegie report on tensions between Russia and the West by the deputy director of the Russian Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow: if Russians would still die for the Motherland, what would we die for? Or, as Martin Luther King suggested: if we don’t know what we would die for, we have no idea what we would live for. Once we have ‘done’ Brexit, then what? What was it for? Who do we think we are?

If this debate on Britain’s future is to have any lasting value, and not just undermine long-term relationships of respect and trust, then attention must be paid to the corruption of this public discourse. Politicians could begin by moderating their language and engaging in intelligent, informed and respectful argument that chooses to eschew personalised or generalised vindictiveness or violence. My Lords, we must not allow our body politic to be defined by Brexit; rather, we will need to transcend the divisions currently being forced by the terms of discussion. Peers have an opportunity to model good ways of disagreeing well that might encourage others that there is an alternative to a political culture that appears sometimes to have been reduced to an unbridled tribalism where the first casualty is too often the dignity of the other.

My Lords, please let us not lose sight of the deeper question that lies behind the technical detail of this Bill.