We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
It is a pleasure to follow Keith Vaz, who always speaks a good deal of sense on these occasions. I draw the House’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, and I should like to thank my constituents for so generously returning me to represent them in this place for a fifth time.
This is clearly going to be an unusual Parliament, as the Gracious Speech demonstrates. In a hung Parliament, political power tends to pass from the Cabinet Room to the Floor of this House, and I hope that there are issues on which we can work together across the House. I hope that we can lift our eyes from the obvious party political domestic preoccupations. We did so over Syria in the last Parliament, when I had the great good fortune to work closely with Jo Cox. We were co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on Syria. Syria remains the defining catastrophe of our age, with 11 million Syrians—half the population—displaced from their homes. I am glad that the Gracious Speech supports an intensification of Britain’s efforts in the middle east. There is international consensus on the need to defeat and destroy ISIL, and this should be prosecuted with much greater vigour. However, defeating ISIL militarily is just a small part of our task. The much greater part is to defeat a nihilist death cult that has attracted young people to its cause.
We need to address Britain’s role in the world after Brexit. Britain stands for certain values—not so much British values as international values. We are the fourth largest military power, and one of the very few countries that can undertake expeditionary military activity. We have one of only three diplomatic services that span the world, and it is deeply respected, not least at the United Nations. Our international development work is saving millions of lives and transforms the way in which millions of the world’s poorest live. This British leadership is respected throughout the world, if not in certain quarters of the British press. I urge Ministers to stand up for the brilliant work being done by Britain, and not to cower under the table in the face of the onslaught of the Daily Mail. Of course Britain does not give bilateral money to North Korea, but as part of the United Nations we do try to stop North Korean children starving to death.
There is some concern in the development community about the apparent double-hatting of Foreign Office Ministers to cover the Department for International Development. If I may use a swashbuckling analogy that might appeal to the Foreign Secretary, there is some fear that his eye has alighted on a plump galleon loaded with bullion and that he wishes to board that galleon and plunder her cargo. The rules governing the spending of British aid are clearly laid down by the OECD development assistance committee. I think that those rules can be improved, but I do not believe that this House would agree to their being unilaterally abandoned by the United Kingdom.
Similarly, the Government have a duty to address the terrorist acts that horrified us all during the election. The whole House will also condemn the dreadful anti-Muslim hate crime that surged after the appalling atrocities in Manchester and London. Getting the balance right between collective security and individual liberty will not be easy, but many of us in the House are wary of tampering with ancient liberties and of giving additional power to the state unless it is absolutely necessary. If the terrorists alter our way of life, they win.
I am glad that the ill-advised idea of leaving the ECHR has been dropped. It would never have got through the House anyway. It might be possible to improve the Human Rights Act 1998, but we should not seek to repeal it just because it was drafted by Tony Blair. That brings me to the central issue in British politics today: our departure from the EU. I sometimes think that, when it comes to Europe, my party is the victim of a biblical curse. I hear the arguments eloquently put, by friends and colleagues I greatly respect, in favour of both a soft and a hard Brexit, but what virtually all my constituents want is the best possible deal. They care deeply not only about their living standards and quality of life but about those of their children and grandchildren. They want the best possible deal for Britain.