House of Lords


This is the text of a speech in the House of Lords at Second Reading of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill today. I was the sixth speaker of seventy four, with a speech limit of five minutes. I decided, therefore, to look at principles that go beyond the detail of the Bill.

My Lords,

I think it is important that old arguments are not re-run in this debate. Wherever one stands in relation to the 2016 referendum and subsequent debates, we are now where we are. I suspect, however, that it remains important for certain matters of principle to be re-articulated at this stage, as the record will need to be clear when the history comes to be written – not least regarding the wisdom of writing into law hard deadlines for an implementation period. Do we not have anything to learn from recent history?

I believe it is essential to refute the charge that Parliament stopped Brexit from happening. It did not. Parliament did its job and performed its democratic role, fulfilling its responsibility to question, scrutinise and hold the Executive to account. That might be inconvenient to “getting the job done”; but that phrase itself, widely propagated by people who know very well what they are doing, adds a lie to a lie. Countries where Parliament simply nods to the Executive’s will are not generally respected as paragons of democratic virtue or freedom.

This is the basic reason why amendments will be brought this week to the Bill as received by this House. The other place might well have the numbers to ignore this House, but it remains the responsibility of this House to make the points, raise the arguments and urge improvement to the text. I therefore attend to two matters of principle, rather than detail.

My Lords, if the point of Brexit was to restore parliamentary sovereignty (recalling that opponents were seen to be democratically suspect), then it seems odd at this stage to seek to limit parliamentary scrutiny of the process post-31 January. Asking the government to treat parliament with respect – informing, listening and consulting – must surely lie at the heart of any successful Brexit process. And making Brexit succeed for the good of all in this country must surely be the aim and commitment of all of us, regardless of whether we think Brexit was a wise or good move in the first place.

This, in turn, means that the government must assume the best of those who question and not simply write them off as saboteurs. I would be grateful if the minister in response would give this assurance. Failure to do so would risk feeding and fostering the sort of rhetoric and attitude that Brexit was supposed to protect us from as a sovereign nation.

Making Brexit work best for everyone and mitigating its negative impacts will require government to see questioning and debate as constructive and as a means to strengthen parliamentary support. Brexit will not be done by 31 January 2020. The process beyond then will demand more than just compliance or acquiescence.

Furthermore, my Lords, it is regrettable that this Bill now seeks to remove what will be universally seen as a touchstone of civilised society. How many children now live in poverty in this affluent country whose magic money tree has mysteriously started blossoming since the last general election campaign was launched? And how many children – surely the most vulnerable people on the planet – find themselves separated from their family through no fault of their own? How many exposed refugee children are now to be kept isolated from familial care and protection because this parliament appears to deem them incidental to how we do our politics? Their alienation will come at a price later.

I guess noble lords will hear their own maxims resonating in their conscience. Mine echo to the sounds of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures, such as Amos, who, despite economic flourishing, religious revival and military security, warn those who “trample on the heads of the poor” that this will not be the end of the story.

My Lords, our integrity and honour will not be judged by whether we rule the world as ‘Global Britain’, but, rather, by how we order our society in order to ensure justice and the dignity of those most vulnerable. Restoring the Dubs provisions would go a long way to restore honour.

The Bill will go through. How it goes through matters. It will say something powerful about who we think we are.

 

This is the text of a speech I gave this afternoon in the first day of debate in the House of Lords on the Queen’s Speech (foreign affairs, defence, international development, trade, climate change and the environment). It followed an interpolated debate on a statement about the current crisis over Iran.

My Lords,

I think, following the last debate on Iran, it is wise to take a step back from detail to consider culture and principle.

2020 vision is something that, if claimed, only proves that the claimant is deluded. However, leaving fantasists to one side for a moment, we might take some wisdom from the late former Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany, Helmut Schmidt. At the age of 91 he wrote a book called Außer Dienst (Out of Office) in which he advises young Germans considering a career in politics not to do so unless they speak at least two foreign languages to a competent degree. His reason? You can only understand your own culture if you look at it through the eyes of another culture … and to do that you need language. Some things cannot be translated.

On the anniversary this week of Anthony Eden’s resignation in the wake of Suez, and as the UK plans to leave the European Union and unleash its potential on a waiting world, Schmidt’s advice is both prescient and apposite. The British Government should never take for granted that living on an island generates a very particular (if not peculiar) psychology and that this has an impact not only on how we understand ourselves, but also how we perceive the way we are perceived by other nations. I think this is why the first couple of years of the post-referendum Brexit debate led to incredulity and bewilderment in many of those looking at us from the outside.

Behind all the politics and trading technicalities of Brexit lies the ineluctable fact that on this hyper-connected small planet no policy on anything can ignore its implications for the wider picture. Foreign policy is not primarily about ‘us’ directed at ‘them’, but, rather, ‘us’ behaving as part of ‘them’. And integral to this is the first rule of negotiation: to look through the eyes of the interlocutor in order to see ourselves as we are seen.

In other words, we need our Government to go beyond easy slogans – such as ‘Get Brexit Done!’ or ‘Global Britain’- and consider both (a) how actual policy is to be worked out with real people, and (b) how the implications and consequences of that policy are to be understood and responded to by those with whom we claim to be interconnected partners.

I am not seeking here to avoid the pragmatics of policy-making – other noble Lords will attend to that – but to argue that there is an urgent need for this government to look beneath the political game-playing to the deeper, longer-term dynamics of both ethical substance and communication.

I will not be alone in noting that the language of insulting other European Union countries (as if they weren’t listening or couldn’t understand English) has now changed into the language of ‘our friends and partners’ in Europe. Good. But, our friends and partners will not have forgotten, and they are not stupid. The UK’s response to the assassination of General Soleimani in Baghdad last week further exposes both the interconnectedness of foreign policies and the particular impact of trade dependency on the US of Donald Trump – something that won’t be lost on Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe or her family.

My Lords, daily reading of the Bible does reinforce a sense of the transience of power in history. Quick and obvious defence alliances often led to terrible longer-term enslavements. Empires came and went, their hubris dribbling away into deserts of exiled misery. And powers and rulers never learned, even when they seduced their people into (what turned out to be) false securities.

Ethics is first and foremost an exercise in sympathy – looking through the eyes of others. The ethics of our foreign policy priorities must begin with an understanding of what drives other countries in their domestic and foreign policies … and a cultivated willingness to shape ours in the light of how we are seen by others.

I hope that this government, with some humility and deeper cultural thinking, might just listen to those who wish to see global justice and peace worked out in this complex world by people who are driven not by claims to power, but by the imperatives of mutual human flourishing.

This is the verbatim text of my speech in the debate in the House of Lords today on Brexit and the PM’s deal. There was a five minute speech limit and I was the sixth of 63 speakers. Speeches by previous and subsequent speakers can be read in Hansard.

From what we heard in the Statement earlier, it seems that the question at the root of all of this stuff is trust. Trust cannot be commanded, even by a Prime Minister; it has to be earned. We have had three years or more of either learning to trust or becoming suspicious about trust, and that goes across the country. We heard in the Statement that we have been half-hearted in our commitment to the EU. We have not just been half-hearted. We have been told lies and there has been gross misrepresentation, including from the current Prime Minister when he was a journalist in Brussels. Propagated through the media, these lies have been allowed to go on and have formed the way that we see and understand Europe, ourselves and our role. That raises a question about trust.

We have been asked to reconcile competing instincts. Which ones? Do they include loyalty or integrity? It seems to me that our MPs and parliamentarians have been doing precisely what they are there to do in a parliamentary democracy. They are not delegates. They are there to use their judgment, with integrity, and to face the consequences of that at the ballot box. Of course, the consequences they face are usually through Twitter and other social media, where they and their families are threatened with violence or even death. Is this really acceptable? Is this what we have come to?

I have three questions about what we have learned from the last three years, because the question of trust is behind all the other issues that we are looking at. My three questions have to do with culture, language and character. The cultural question is: what has become of our political and public discourse, and our relationships with one another as we describe them in language and our behaviour towards one another? How will those go beyond today? What used to be called the conflict metaphor, in relation to science and faith, has gone beyond a metaphor in our political culture into a simple acceptance of divide and rule. It is all very well hearing now that we need to pull all the different parties and elements in both Houses together to find a way forward. Some of us were asking for that three years ago, two years ago and a year ago, and it was dismissed. It was a zero-sum game of winner takes all. Have we learned that the conflict metaphor, although effective, is actually disreputable?

On language, we have been subjected to repeated slogans and oversimplifications. We heard them again this morning but “Get Brexit done” is meaningless because we know that whatever happens today, Brexit will not be done. We will be on the starting blocks of Brexit. This was supposed to be the easy bit; well, I look forward to the difficult bit—or maybe not. This is not the end and we know that when we use this language, there are people in the populace beyond Westminster who believe it. We know, and I think we should learn, that slogans are more effective and powerful than reasoned fact or argument.

Briefly, on character, the UK’s global reputation is not exactly flying high as a result of Brexit. I will be in Hanover next week addressing parliamentarians, trying to explain Brexit and what has become of England—their question, not mine. I refer the House to Susan Neiman’s book, Learning from the Germans. What we learn from history is that we need humility instead of hubris. I await what that might look like in the culture of the future.

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 basic text of a speech in the House of Lords today.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester: QSD on the report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Heritage Rail Engaging the Next Generation: Young People and Heritage Railways.

My Lords, while congratulating the noble lord, Lord Faulkner, on securing this debate, I must confess to some surprise at standing to speak in it. I have little knowledge or experience of Heritage Railways despite having had such a beast going through the village where I was for eight years a vicar in Rothley, Leicestershire, and now having several in the Diocese of Leeds. I am not proud of my ignorance, but engineering never quite got me… And I fully accept that this probably makes me a rarity among clergy in the Church of England.

But, I do see the import of this report and fully endorse what this debate seeks to achieve.

Heritage Railways seem to hit two nails on the head in a changing Britain where social capital and the development of skills in young people need some investment at all levels: the two nails are volunteering and skills development in team contexts. We know from history and experience that if you want to get commitment out of children and young people that will shape their adult engagement in the wider world, start them young. Volunteering in a selfish age has to become part of the DNA of people from a young age.

So, raising the lower limit for young people to develop as volunteers, learning skills in basic civil engineering, team work, track-laying, and so on, is not something to be celebrated. We know that teenage volunteers often train for roles such as Assistant Guards, Station Assistants, and Locomotive Cleaners – gaining skills and experience that will shape them for the future. The culture of safety is essential, but also beneficial to those growing up in it. These young people get to work with the public, learn timekeeping, craft skills (including woodwork, painting, metalwork, hedging, land management, and so on). In a school system that wants to measure results in a limited way, surely these learnings have to be gained outside formal education, and such railway environments offer something unique. And young people need to start before they get into GCSEs and exams and the pressures that we all know about.

Under-16s have an opportunity here to gain practical and human skills through volunteering in a safety-conscious environment that has purpose and gives satisfaction. Working in teams, across all age groups, teaches responsibility and helps maturity.

My Lords, the Employment of Women, Young Persons and Children Act of 1920 was surely once useful and necessary. But, it is not the right instrument for today’s world. Our young people do not now need to be protected from industrial exploitation as they did in the past. Surely it is time to lift the current uncertainty over the implementation of this law in order that young people can continue to access and benefit from the kind of life experience that Heritage Railways are uniquely placed to offer.

In Thomas Comes to Breakfast Thomas the Tank Engine came out of the repair shop and was not happy. He said: “It’s nice to feel mended again, but they took so many of my old parts away and put new ones in, that I’m not sure whether I’m really me or another engine.” Imagine being the teenager who has the opportunity to cause Thomas such serious existential angst! My Lords, we need to encourage our young people.

This is the text of a speech just given in the House of Lords. I dropped material covered already by others (I was the ninth speaker and there was a speech limit of six minutes). For the wider context, and to see why I focused as I did, see Hansard when published.

Lord Harris of Haringey to move that this House regrets the conduct, and toxicity, of debate in public life; of the divisions in society which result from that; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to take steps to address such divisions.

My Lords, I am grateful to Lord Harris for securing this debate and for the clarity of his and other speeches. (Although I think, regarding Lord Patten’s suggestion, that some of the people who should be there in such a discussion wouldn’t come – or would seek to disrupt it!)

We still admire Benjamin Disraeli for telling parliament that half the cabinet were asses and, on being ordered to withdraw the comment, responding: “Mr Speaker, I withdraw. Half the cabinet are not asses”. Political invective is not new and surely has its place in a free society. Yet words matter. Language is never neutral. And the ad hominem abuse we increasingly witness now simply encourages wider public expression of violent hatred. It is incrementally corrosive.

If the conduct of debate in public life has become toxic, then it can only be because it has been in the interests of some people to allow it to be so. I have already spoken in this House of “the corruption of the public discourse” and the consequences of normalising lying and misrepresentation. Reducing people to categories might reinforce tribal identity, but it demonises and dehumanises everyone else. As Viktor Klemperer recognised from 1930s Germany, a million repetitions of single words, idioms, and sentence structures or slanders become unconsciously assumed to be normal. Think of Rwanda and ‘cockroaches’.

Jo Cox MP was murdered ten miles from where I live. Her attacker shouted slogans about ‘Britain first’ while killing her. Do we think this is just unfortunate? Or do we admit the link between language, motivation and action? I doubt if there was much analysis of the meaninglessness of the phrase ‘Britain first’ and the assumptions that underlie it. But, there was clearly a dynamic between language, motivation and action – language free from social inhibition and language that legitimises violence in the minds of some people.

What on earth is going on here? Was the violent bile there already and the referendum simply opened a valve? Or has the lack of any legal or political restraint actually sanctioned or legitimised the sort of language we hear and read now? This isn’t about hand-wringing wimpishness about robust debate; rather, it now sees MPs fearing for their safety, Jess Phillips MP being openly spoken of in terms of when rape might be deemed OK, people voicing violence that would have been deemed unacceptable three or four years ago, but which now is normal. This poses a danger to our democracy and corrupts the nature of our common life. It is not neutral and it is not trivial.

Classic populist language – of Left or Right – uses simple slogans, divisive negativity and visceral emotional pull. The accuracy, factuality or truth of what is said is irrelevant. Such language is powerful and effective … and apparently accountable. What are Nigel Farage’s policies for the construction of a post-Brexit United Kingdom? Where is there even a hint of any responsibility for the future other than a rejection of the past. Just one simple message supported by a whole set of angry assumptions. The language is all of ‘betrayal’. The culprits – the enemies – are those who are not them.

This is viscerally emotional and not rational. Reality, truth and factuality are of no concern. Complex questions are reduced to simplistic binary choices. And it works.

What we are witnessing is a trading in the language of victimhood: [if I am a victim of other people’s power, then my bad behaviour is at least understandable, if not completely justifiable]. And everybody is now a victim. All sides of the Brexit shouting match claim to have been betrayed: hard-brexiters by soft-brexiters; remainers by leavers and leavers by remainers; ‘the people’ by the ‘elites’ and the establishment by the people. And everyone by the BBC. The ninth Commandment is there for a purpose: “Do not bear false witness against your neighbour.”

Surely only satire could see old-Etonian Oxbridge-educated senior multimillionaire politicians complaining about ‘establishment elites’ as if this term of abuse referred to someone else? But, no one laughs. And they get away with it. But, it is not a great leap from this to the sort of conspiracy theories that have brought anti-Semitism back into polite conversation.

When politicians speak of the PM “entering the killing zone” and “taking her own noose” to a meeting, we are in trouble.

The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk writes that the nature of our public discourse matters because “moral and political aberrations almost always start with linguistic neglect.” Edmund Burke understood the powerful influence of abstract terms such as ‘liberty’ or ‘equality’ which have the power to move people without enlightening them.

We might be entering a dark age in these matters. But, we can put our own house in order and lead by example – for instance, by promoting a greater sense of responsibility among institutional and political figures who influence the public discourse; by making people who use such speech publicly accountable; by offering counter-narratives that ensure that our children hear something good and witness a discourse that is respectful.

We need strategies for addressing this and we need to start here, with politicians, in Parliament.

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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