House of Lords


This is the text of a speech in the House of Lords today in the debate on the Queen’s Speech, focusing on foreign policy and defence.

My Lords, I am grateful to follow the Noble Lord Campbell and for the Noble Lady the Minister’s comprehensive and ambitious speech introducing this debate. I welcomed the Government’s Integrated Review as a necessary attempt to hold together the diverse interests, challenges and opportunities facing the UK in the future.

One of the things I learned in my early career as a linguist at GCHQ was that words and assumptions need to be interrogated as they can be used to obscure reality. For example, in our context, an increased “cap” on nuclear weapons tells us nothing about numbers that might actually be intended or the rationale for them.

So, I think it was remarkable that reference in the Review to the European Union was almost completely missing. Now, this had been widely predicted as it seems that, for the Government, any such reference might be heard as an ideological Remainer capitulation. Yet, the rationale for a tilt towards the Indo-Pacific only makes sense to a point: it is not just what we are “tilting towards” that matters, but also what we are “tilting away from” that has to be considered.

Put the fractious and loaded politics of Brexit to one side for a moment: we are still going to need a strong common alliance with our European neighbours if, for example, China and Russia are to be rightly understood and handled by the democratic West. Pretending we can simply ignore the EU like a bad smell is ridiculous, and this ideological tilting at windmills needs to be challenged. To argue that we will engage with the EU by way of its member states – the Review singles out three: Germany, France and Ireland – is to impose our own understanding of how we think our European allies should organise themselves politically rather than engaging with them on their own terms. In so doing, we overlook the point that the EU is more than the sum of its parts and has agency in and of itself. To ignore this agency is to shrink the diplomatic networks that the Government has access to in support of its stated diplomatic objectives.

However, my Lords, as cuts to the Overseas Aid budget – and Yemen in particular – demonstrate, there is a potentially serious discrepancy between our rhetoric and our observed behaviour. We assert that we want to be a world leader in upholding the rule of law … having a number of times threatened in the last couple of years to abrogate our responsibilities under international law – not least in the recent Internal Market Bill and the Overseas Operations Bill. We might think we can simply move on, but that doesn’t mean that our damaged reputation and the obvious (to everyone else, that is) gap between our rhetoric and behaviour go unnoticed both internally and externally. It also reduces our credibility when we seek to hold other countries to the rule of law – and that impacts inevitably on global security in the longer term.

Ethical assumptions lie at the heart of our political and economic choices. Ethics matter.

My Lords, I come back to Russia. Chatham House published an immensely helpful paper this month addressing a number of myths and misconceptions about Russia. I commend it to the House. Basically, it urges a deep questioning of the assumptions that lie behind how we see, understand and strategise in relation to Russia. As we noted to our cost during the last five years negotiating our exit from the EU, any party to a relationship – especially a changing one – needs to develop an expertise in looking through the eyes of the other party, listening through their ears, hearing their language, and interpreting it in order to know where to begin in offering a language of proposition or proposal. Failure to learn the language of the other is both stupid and costly.

The Church has to do this work every day, not least because we have partnerships in parts of the world where the world looks very different and our behaviour is read very differently from our intention or expectation.

My Lords, my work as a Soviet specialist developed during the Cold War – for my children and grandchildren as remote as the English Civil War. But, for most of us here it has shaped our world and the way we see it. I am not convinced that the Integrated Review will lead us to a deeper understanding of why Russians see the world the way they do. Building back better demands looking more seriously at the foundations of history.

My Lords, the UK needs to see how we are seen and why. Can the Noble Lady the Minister assure us that the work of translation, interpretation and realism will be at the heart of implementation?

I noticed I hadn’t published the text of my speech on 26 October at Second Reading of the internal Market Bill, so here goes. The speech at Committee (published earlier today) makes more sense if read after this one.

My Lords, I add my congratulations to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman of Ullock, and look forward to her future contributions to this House. I fully endorse the arguments set out by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I concur with the concerns set out in the report cited by other noble Lords earlier. I even welcome the commitments articulated by the Minister, but I question how they can be trusted, given the underlying ethic of the Bill—and it is absolutely right for archbishops to ask questions of such matters.

Relations with potential partners usually depend on integrity. Trade, security, migration and so on all rest on fundamental trust. Trust cannot be one-sided, or it is not trust at all. Respecting one’s interlocutors is essential. This is inevitably evidenced in language. The Bill before us assumes that our interlocutors cannot be trusted and will behave in bad faith, and that we need to be protected from them. If they do not give us what we demand, we are free to do our own thing, including breaking the law and reneging on agreements made less than a year ago that were said at the time to be “oven ready”—a good arrangement that required “no more negotiations”. What the Bill does not ask is why our word should be trusted by others.

Integrity and morality matter at the level of international relations and agreements—unless, of course, we are now agreeing to reduce all our relations and transactions to some sort of utilitarian pragmatism. Morality also applies to how we remember history and establish what will shape the national mythologies that future generations will inherit. What story will be celebrated or commemorated next year, the centenary of partition on the island of Ireland: one that chose to end violence and respect difference, including different perspectives on identity, justice and unity, or one of a conscious abrogation of agreements built from bloodshed and courageous willingness to stem the wounds of grievance? Ireland, both the Province and the Republic, needs some certainty and shape in the future narrative, but what sort of certainty is built on a broken word, the negation of trust or the arrogance of exceptionalism?

Irish church leaders are surely right to be concerned about what the Bill implies for relations between the devolved institutions and with the UK Government. These leaders are not talking into fresh air; they straddle the border in Ireland and their deep concerns about a breach of the Good Friday agreement need to be listened to, not simply dismissed with a wave of boosterish optimism from Westminster.

Others will speak about the implications of closing an illegal route to challenge the Government’s implementation of the protocol, but let us be clear: parliamentary sovereignty does not translate easily into executive sovereignty. A decision to prefer short-term pragmatism over long-term ethics will lead to a future ​in which a question mark will hang over any statement by those whose word and adherence to the rule of law cannot be trusted. More is at stake here than economics.

This is the text of a speech I made in the Internal Market Bill (Committee stage) debate in the House of Lords last night. Hansard made sense of some of my mumblings, for which I am grateful. The government lost heavily in votes to remove clauses that allow ministers too much executive power, threaten the Northern Ireland Protocol and permit ministers to break international agreements. At Second Reading I had left the politics to others, but focussed on the moral/ethical question involved; this was dismissed by the minister as “We will not listen to strictures on morality” – which suggests that there is no place in politics for ethics.

The government has said it will simply re-instate the clauses before bringing it back for Report in the House of Lords. It is a mystery why they have chosen such an unnecessary hill on which to die – one which undermines the UK’s reputation vis-a-vis the rule of law and reduces the possibility of trade agreements (with the US, for example) which demand good faith.

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Suttie. I endorse completely the points made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, at the outset of this debate. I hope the Government will listen carefully to the advice from the noble Lord, Lord Empey, on the alternatives to what is before us. This is not an either/or situation.​

I have read every word of the Second Reading and Committee debates and the reports—especially from the Constitution Committee. I have even reread Tom Bingham’s book on the rule of law. I ask myself whether I am missing something, but I still come back to the point of principle. I accept the Government’s intention in this Bill, but not the means. We were given pragmatic answers to questions of principle, particularly in the responses to the Second Reading debate. These will not work. At Second Reading, the Minister dismissed the ethical argument which I tried to set out succinctly in my speech. Yet even in today’s debate, we have heard moral language used. To speak of suspected bad faith by others is to speak of ethics. Ethics must form the basis of political principle. Objections to other countries breaching international law have to be set in moral considerations.

 In the last couple of decades, during the Mugabe years, I have had a lot to do with Zimbabwe and latterly with Sudan, including meeting former President Omar al-Bashir. How can we say to people like them that the rule of law is paramount and that one’s word has to be taken in good faith?

This is an ethical and a constitutional issue. How can the Government ask Her Majesty the Queen effectively to give Royal Assent to the acceptability of breaking laws to which we have agreed? Mischievously, I suggest that we might refer to it as King John’s revenge.

There are other parts of this Bill with which I am not happy—what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, referred to as Executive sovereignty trumping parliamentary sovereignty; the impact on the devolved authorities, and the concerns raised about the Northern Ireland protocol. Fundamentally, I keep coming back to the issue of ethical principle.

I will vote against the various clauses in Part 5 not standing part of the Bill. I hope that the Government will listen and look at alternatives which can carry the support of the Committee.

This is the script of my speech in the House of Lords today in the Second Reading debate on the Internal Market Bill. I was the 21st speaker out of 115. Others addressed detail – I chose to address ethics. A four-minute speech limit was in force. There were some powerful speeches on both sides of the argument; most were impassioned and courteous.

My Lords, I fully endorse the arguments set out by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge. I concur with the concerns set out in reports cited by other noble Lords earlier. I welcome the commitments articulated by the Minister, but question how they can be trusted, given the underlying ethic of this bill. (And it is absolutely right that Archbishops ask such questions.)

Relations with potential partners usually depend on integrity. Trade, security, migration, and so on, all rest on the matter of fundamental trust. Trust cannot be one-sided or it is not trust at all. Respecting one’s interlocutors is essential, and this is inevitably evidenced in language. The Bill before us assumes that our interlocutors cannot be trusted, will behave in bad faith, and that we need to be protected from them. If they don’t give us what we demand, we are free to do our own thing … including breaking the law and reneging on agreements we made less than a year ago which were said to be “oven-ready”and “a good arrangement” that required “no more negotiations”. What it doesn’t ask is why our word should be trusted by others?

My Lords, integrity and morality matter at the level of international relations and agreements. Unless, of course, we are now agreeing to reduce all our relations and transactions to some sort of utilitarian pragmatism?

Morality also applies to how we both remember history and establish what will shape the national mythologies that future generations will inherit. My Lords, what story will be either celebrated or commemorated next year – the centenary of Partition on the island of Ireland? One that chose to end violence and respect difference – including different perspectives on identity, justice and unity? Or one of a conscious abrogation of agreements that were built from bloodshed and a courageous willingness to stem the wounds of grievance? Ireland – both the Province and the Republic – need some certainty in shaping a future narrative; but, what sort of certainty is built on a broken word, the negation of trust or the arrogance of exceptionalism?

Irish Church leaders are surely right to be concerned about what this Bill implies for relations between the devolved institutions themselves and with the UK government. These leaders straddle the border in Ireland and their deep concerns about a breach of the Good Friday Agreement need to be listened to and not simply dismissed with a wave of boosterish optimism from Westminster.

Others will speak about the implications of closing any legal route to challenge the government’s implementation of the Protocol. But, let’s be clear: parliamentary sovereignty does not translate easily into executive sovereignty.

A decision to prefer short-term pragmatism over longer-term ethics will lead to a future in which a question mark will hang over any statement by those whose word and adherence to the rule of law cannot be trusted. More is at stake here than economics.

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.

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