This is my Presidential Address to the Leeds Diocesan Synod in Harrogate this morning:

When we decided to create the Diocese of Leeds back in 2013/14, who’d have thought that before five years had passed the UK would be leaving the European Union, Donald Trump would be in the White House, the Far Right in both eastern and western Europe would be organising and mainstreaming language and ideas that previously had been kept under the counter (as it were)? (Or that Manchester United would be sinking?) Assumptions about the effortless and inevitable progress of liberal capitalism have been proven illusory, and we have been reminded once again that civilisation – however it is ordered politically – is fragile: we take order for granted at our peril.

Well, I thought I would begin on this cheerful note simply because it sets the context for the business of the church and this synod. The church does not float around in a context-free realm of spiritual isolation in which individuals pursue their personal and privatised piety as if disembodied from the real world. And Christians do not come to worship in church or to deliberate in a synod without being shaped mentally by what is going on around and among us. It is no wonder, then, that Christians are as in danger as anyone else of being driven by fear and anxiety at a time of considerable national and international uncertainty.

I am not sure anyone would put a bet on how Brexit will turn out by the end of March next year. But, whether you are an ardent Brexiteer or a die-hard Remainer, both the uncertainty of the situation and the bitterness of the public discourse in these matters will be of some concern. What is of most concern to me at this point is that argument about substance has been submerged under polarised sloganizing designed at a visceral level to diminish real engagement. However we got here, we are where we are; and simplistic categories – Leaver or Remainer – do not help us steer a common future of mutual respect.

As usual, the language is the give-away. If “the will of the people” is a vacuous and fatuous statement incapable of clear rational defence, then so is the term being used for a second referendum (which, in fact, would be a third referendum…), “the people’s vote”. I don’t think the last referendum enfranchised budgies or aliens. Language really does matter – what is not said as well as what is heard.

But, this is the Orwellian problem we now face – one that will not be solved by liberation from the shackles of Brussels or a return to the Remainer status quo. We now seem happy with the normalisation of lying and misrepresentation by politicians. Just one example from the last few days: Boris Johnson claims that the 1.3 million majority in the referendum was “the biggest majority in our history” – only for the BBC Reality Check Twitter site to reply that the majority in the referendum on joining the EEC in 1975 was 8.9 million.

The point is not the numbers; the point is the shameless lying that, on being exposed, never provokes an apology or retraction. We are getting used to this and learning afresh in the twenty-first century the lesson clearly not learned from the twentieth century that public lying, the categorising and demonisation of other people, and deliberate or careless representation of facts always have consequences – and those consequences are not normally positive. And none of this has to do whether the UK should leave or remain.

However, analysis and criticism are easy. The question we face as a church goes beyond Brexit and Trump and Orban and the far right demagogues bestriding Europe like some embarrassingly pathetic Colossus; it has to do with the need for some agents of reconciliation who have the courage simultaneously to be prophetic and generous. This goes beyond political affiliation or referendum preferences, beyond feelings about immigration and economics. This present context must push Christians back to asking fundamental questions of theology (who is God and what is God about?), anthropology (what is a human being and why do we matter?), sociology (what is a human community and how do we enable the ‘other’ to thrive?) and Christology (who and what are we for if we belong to Christ and are primarily called to resemble Christ?).

I never cease to be amazed by the self-giving commitment of our churches which, often in the face of their own resource challenges, offer food to hungry people, company to lonely people, hope to diminished people, care to abandoned people, and dignity to unvalued people. We now also face the challenge of how to broker conversations and relationships between people divided by sloganized politics, visceral rejection of those who differ, and sheer anger at uncertainty or helplessness in the face of uncontrollable powers. The national church is attending to this, and I will be taking part in an ecumenical colloquium at Lambeth Palace next month as we take counsel from partners at home and abroad. But, each church in each parish needs at the very least to ask what steps – simple and achievable – can be taken in the next few months to bring together what has been divided and begin a healing of what has been wounded. This is our mandate – a ministry of reconciliation between God and people and between people and other people. Regardless of the outcomes next March, the need in the months and years to come for common healing, common vision and common repentance will be demanding and urgent.

Against this backdrop we also do our synodical business today. Our diocesan strategy has been under development for some time in order to flesh out how our diocesan vision might look as we prioritise and make decisions. The vision is the goal; strategy is the plumbing that helps us get there. Vision can remain nebulous and imaginary unless someone does the hard work of asking (and answering) the questions how, when, by whom, how much, and so on. Following considerable road testing with groups, individuals, the Bishop’s Staff, the Diocesan Board, and many others, we bring the strategy to the Synod today. This is not an imposition on parishes or individuals; like our three simple values Loving Living Learning, this strategy invites parishes and churches to ask which elements of it might help them in their local ministry and mission as they, integral constituents of a diocese that has a responsibility to make the best of the resources of people, money and things available, seek to see the Kingdom come in our parts of Yorkshire. I look forward to good and constructive engagement with the strategy as we debate it later.

Yet, this in itself depends on the resources we are prepared to make available for the work of the Church of England in our parts of Yorkshire. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, once famously described a financial budget as “theology by numbers”. I think he was right. How we direct our finances tells the world what we really think matters – what we really believe about God, the world and ourselves as Christians. Money matters – as Jesus made clear when he pointed out that the contents of our heart will be exposed by the way we use our wallets. (He put it more elegantly than that, but the point is the same.) Or, as I put it at the excellent Lay Conference back in June this year: “If we believe it and want it, then we will pay for it; if we don’t believe it or want it, don’t pay for it and we won’t have it.” Brutal, but with the virtue of clarity.

Now, I am not naïve, and it is not as simple as that. Some people, some churches and some communities are getting poorer while others are getting richer. The Church of England takes responsibility for territory – a unique vocation in itself – and this imposes demands on our parishes that can weigh heavily. Yet, we believe in mutual resourcing according to ability and need. What generosity looks like will differ according to context and the discipleship of the people. But, we cannot avoid the hard task and challenge of deciding together how we shall aim to fund the ministry and mission entrusted to us here in the Diocese of Leeds.

This will be challenging. Significant strides have been made to reduce the deficit – this will be explained later. More will need to follow, if we are to afford what we say we want. While all the hard work is going on to work this out, please continue to pray for Debbie Child and Geoff Park in particular as they face the day-to-day hard work of bringing us into line and keeping us real. And pray for those who have asked for voluntary redundancy or who might face difficult decisions in the future as we seek to balance the books. Some have served for a long time and with great loyalty through great change; this is not an easy time, and we thank them for their service, and wish them well in their future.

So, before we proceed with this important business, I want to thank you for being willing to sit on this synod and bring your wisdom and experience to our deliberations for the next three years. When we established our new governance in 2014 the Synod was clear about maintaining a large membership of both clergy and lay people – options had been presented that would have created smaller bodies. However, there are now deaneries that are well underrepresented in both Houses, and we need to explore the reasons for this without jumping to conclusions. That said, we now have a smaller Synod, and I hope all members will feel able to contribute in the knowledge that opinions will be listened to and heard (if not always agreed with) with mutual respect and generosity. Sometimes a single voice might shine light on a matter that a couple of hundred others have not.

I also want to thank and congratulate our new chairs, Canon Sam Corley and Matthew Ambler. Please be kind to them as they get to grips with their new responsibilities – not least in chairing this Synod today. And, as in all things, let us do our business in the name of the Christ who gave himself for us, claims us for his own, and calls us to minister through the church for the sake of his world. May God bless us as we do our best for his sake.

The Rt Revd Nicholas Baines

Bishop of Leeds

13 October 2018

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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.)

In her great book of essays The Givenness of Things Marilynne Robinson makes an observation that struck me:

Whenever there is talk of decline – as in fact there always is – the one thing that seems to be lacking is a meaningful standard of change. How can we know where we are if we don’t know where we were, in those days when things were as they ought to be? How can we know there has been decline, an invidious qualitative change, if we cannot establish a terminus a quo? (Fear, p. 125)

This is the question that haunts the Brexit debate – one in which I am involved, but one that has left me disturbed for reasons I have been trying to work out. I alluded to some of these in my speech in the House of Lords during the EU (Withdrawal) Bill debate Second Reading in February 2018. But, five minutes wasn’t long enough to tease out some of the deeper disturbance.

What Robinson points us to is perhaps the most fundamental feature of the whole debate in the UK since we entered the EEC in the first place: the lack of honesty in appraising the enterprise, characterised by language and rhetoric that assumes much but owns up to little. The costs and benefits of EU membership have not been the subject of honest appraisal, but have been turned into selective ideological footballs suitable only for a damned good kicking.

When during the 2016 referendum the red bus promised £350 million coming back to the NHS, what was not explained was what it paid for: easy travel, common nuclear standards, equivalence of qualifications, to name but three. The polarisation stated incontrovertibly that we paid everything and received nothing other than empty bureaucracy and millions of immigrant people we are not supposed to like.

Equally, after forty years of silence in articulating the benefits (as well as costs) of EU membership, so-called ‘Project Fear’ failed to explain honestly some of the challenges and costs of EU membership. Membership of any group always and inevitably brings compromises and costs as well as benefits; but, these became submerged under the partisan polarisations of politics and dramatic rhetoric.

This lack of honesty in the popular sphere is obvious in hindsight, but this does not help us now. Yet, the lack of honesty persists. We seem to be living in a phoney war in an echo chamber, being compelled to jump fully into one camp rather than the other. And the rhetoric continues to pretend that virtue lies comprehensively and only in one camp – usually the one that satisfies my unarticulated and sometimes ill-informed political prejudices. It feels a bit like the sort of divorce proceedings in which the children have to choose between one completely evil and one uncompromisingly virtuous parent.

The Prime Minister’s speech at the Mansion House on Friday 2 March promised to be honest about the UK’s vision for the future post-Brexit. It promised to lay out a vision around which different sides could coalesce and move forward. What it offered was a statement of the obvious (we are not going to get all we want; negotiations are not going to be easy; etc.) and nothing concrete. It was a speech that could have been written a year ago – the cake-consumption metaphor goes back well before even that. Perhaps the reason it has proved so remarkably uncontroversial is simply that it said nothing new and, in stating the obvious, could hardly be disagreed with.

The problem, again, is language. Two things struck me in the speech: (a) we now assume a presidential polity in which the Prime Minister gets away with speaking solely in the first person singular: “I…”, “my vision”, etc. There is no pretence that there is (or can be?) any collective vision or strategy. How did this personalisation come about? One response might be to say that such language allows government ministers to opt out or in as they please (or find it politically convenient); another might be that it distances Parliament from the need for a collective vision. (b) There was plenty of assertion about “what I want”, but little recognition that the power to get it lies not in our own hands, but also in those of our EU partners.

This language has dogged the whole Brexit business from even before the referendum. Mere assertion escaped any need for argument. Facts became “alternative truths”, depending on one’s position. “We will” avoided the complexities of “we might”. Objections to projections were labelled “treacherous” or “scaremongering” – both sidestepping the need to respond to the case itself. Optimism is simply not enough to survive a potentially negative reality; pessimism is inadequate as a tool for creatively and positively shaping a future that might begin from a hard and unwanted place.

One of the points of consensus I have discerned through many conversations in Parliament – with those of all sides, including the convinced, the dubious, the fearful, the excited, the alarmed, and the deeply depressed – is that the government needs now to be honest with ‘The People’, giving substance to what might be gained by Brexit and what will be lost. The cost is no reason in itself to fear the future, but the cost should be reckoned, set out clearly, and understood. If the benefits will outweigh the costs, then let us see them and then walk into this future with our eyes wide open. Equally, those who see only costs must also set out what they can offer if and when what they warn against actually happens.

Any reading of history tells us that the future is shaped by those who choose to shape it, taking seriously those dynamics over which it does and does not have control. If we leave the EU and face an acknowledged weakening of the UK economy (as well as other non-economic deficits), then we shall over time re-align and re-build. But, the crucial point is that this will be more positive and hopeful only if ‘The People’ (in whose interests this is all being done, apparently – although, given their financial security, none of those advocates in government will suffer much discomfort in contrast with the poorer people and communities of our islands) are clear about the costs as well as the benefits.

I can understand an argument that puts economic distress as a worthwhile consequence of a decision that brings wider and deeper and worthwhile human or social benefits. I cannot understand or accept an argument that pretends and obfuscates and obscures reality. The Prime Minister’s speech acknowledged for the first time that the cake cannot simultaneously be both had and eaten (although the cherries remain stubbornly pickable, apparently); it seemed to identify the cake purely with the economy and trade. It was a statement of faith that once again avoided content.

In Marilynne Robinson’s phrase, what and where is the “meaningful standard of change”?

 

This is the text of this morning’s Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, following yesterday’s debate in the House of the Lords on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill:

Current debates in Parliament and beyond about the nature of the UK’s relationship with Europe go beyond the technical detail of Bills and amendments. Clearly, many people are just fed up with what they see as the trading of insults and misrepresentations that have come to characterise this process, rendering it almost impossible to distinguish what is true and what is fact from what is mere assertion or wishful thinking.

But, underlying all this sound and fury is a much more important question – one that has always been around, but often gets forgotten in the storm of the moment: what is it all for? Or, to put it differently: what sort of a society do we wish to construct and what sort of character do we want our common life to exhibit?

These are not exactly new questions. Even the Ten Commandments form not a string of miserable demands to keep people in their place, but a contour for a mutually respectful, honourable and humble society – one in which people respect each other, care for the poor, honour integrity and work at building relationships of trust and accountability.

I wonder if these existential questions – about what and whom a society is for – too easily get lost when the headlines and the fog of social media just bang away at demonising anyone who dares to differ from one’s own position.

I have just read a paper by a Russian military and political analyst who dares to pose a different question. Aleksandr Khramchikhin, deputy director of the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow, suggests that whereas Russians will still fight and die for the Motherland, their western equivalents are too soft to die for anything. Harsh? Maybe.

But, I wonder if this is worth pursuing, if not as a model of idealism, then at least as a matter of practical reality. Russians are almost defined by suffering – think of 20 million dead in the Second World War … a million starved or killed in the siege of Stalingrad alone.

It was Martin Luther King who proposed that if we have nothing worth dying for, then we have nothing worth living for.

So, when we have done our trade deals and dealt with the technical and practical challenges of Brexit – however it might turn out in the end, what will we have gained or lost? What is the end to which we aspire? What is the vision of a society for which we will sacrifice anything or everything? What are the moral goods which shape our ambitions and discipline our passions?

These are not vapid questions. The Old Testament prophet was not joking when he wrote that “without a vision the people perish”. Nor was Jesus when he said there is a danger in gaining the world and losing our soul.

It is a challenge, but, somehow, I need to poke through the fog of debate and not lose sight of the ultimate questions: for what? And for whom?

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.

A cursory glance at social media makes it clear that there is huge concern – across political and cultural divides – about the degeneration of public life, behaviour and language. It is not hard to see why.

Against the explosion of sexual harassment claims (which exposes decades of ‘normal’ behaviour that went unchallenged because of its normality), we also see an eruption of trial by media. I have little sympathy for those who find themselves caught out, but do worry about those who are innocent, but now find themselves tried and sentenced by allegation. There must surely be implications for what I am calling the integrity of the public discourse.

But, we now have a US President who is a proven liar, misogynist and sexual predator (by his own taped evidence), and he continues in power. The lying and misrepresentation does not appear to disturb those who would have strung up previous presidents for just one faux pas. Lying and misrepresenting have become normalised. And there is no penalty.

Yesterday the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, told a House of Commons committee that the 57 Brexit impact assessment papers do not exist. In October these not only existed, but went into what he described as “excruciating detail”. When Parliament demanded sight of them, a highly secretive bunch of papers was eventually submitted to a limited audience – deemed by readers on all sides to be statements of the obvious. This turn of events should, at the very least, be deeply concerning.

The question here is not about the apparent (or should that be ‘alleged’) incompetence of the government in driving the negotiations for the UK’s departure from the EU, but the fact that someone up there is misleading not only Parliament, but the British public. This is not about whether or not we should be leaving the EU; this is not about whether the government is going about its work in the right way or competently; this is not about democracy, parliamentary sovereignty or the legitimate confidentiality demanded by sensitive process; this is about the normalisation of corruption (which, in terms of language, is no less serious than in other ethical matters), the easy acceptance of lying and misrepresentation by a bewildered public, and the implications for civil society (as well as what we teach our children by word and example) of allowing language to be debased, facts to be dismissed in the face of ‘alternative truths’, and for this to be done with such casual impunity.

I have lots of conversations with concerned politicians and journalists about the corruption of the political discourse. I am less sure what to do about it other than to challenge it and try to demonstrate a different way. This goes deeper than “speaking out”.

Any ideas?