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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:06 pm on 23rd May 2016.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative 9:06 pm, 23rd May 2016

My Lords, we have been treated to two inspiring speeches, one by my noble friend Lady Perry saying goodbye and the other from the noble Baroness, Lady Jowell, saying hello. Those speeches impressed us all, but inevitably the debate this afternoon has been overshadowed by the forthcoming referendum. My comment on the Brexit debate itself is simply that it would be a lot healthier and more realistic—and we might be freer from the antics on both sides—if the focus was on what Britain can contribute to a better EU model than the one we are stuck with today, in incredibly fast-changing world conditions and in the networked world which we now have but which did not even exist when the EU was put together or indeed until very recently.

The EU itself faces monumental change from outside forces much bigger than any Government, Commission or Council. Contrary to the apparent thinking of experts such as Chatham House and other think tanks, and contrary to the continuous and constant assertions of many Brexiteers, the EU has no hope of strengthening and cohering into a superstate in the classic sense at all. The reason is that the colossal centrifugal powers of the digital age, the spaghetti bowl of new global trade and capital flows, and the globalisation not only of production but of processes will just not permit that.

If one looks at the political movements in many countries of the European Union, we can already see the transforming effect of politics on member states. My own belief is that in most EU countries, political and grass-roots opinion is pulsating with demands for the rejection of a neo-Luddite Europe and for precisely the reforms towards a somewhat looser Europe that we have been urging in this country. A Europe of progressive nationalism, less centralisation and greater diversity is what most people appear to want. As the former UN Secretary-General, Boutros Boutros-Ghali, some years ago wisely observed, everyone needs a country to love and the time for a profound renewal of the nation state has truly arrived.

In short, we are addressing a European question, not just a British question, and I believe we should remain in the European Union to work on the answer rather than trying to stand on the sidelines, almost certainly in vain. There are no sidelines in the European situation for our country. Whichever way the vote goes, leave or stay, most of the problems will remain with us. Enormous immigrant pressures—as we have been reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, and others—will continue, widespread treaty restraints will remain on our lawmakers and judges in an increasingly interwoven world, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, just reminded us, and plenty of tiresome regulations will keep piling on our backs and on small business.

Those who look for a nirvana of freedom from controls and overseas involvement in our affairs are, I fear, in for a big disappointment. What can be said with certainty is that after and beyond 23 June, whether we stay or leave, a major reshaping of our international strategy and purposes will be necessary—indeed it is already overdue.

If we stay, the urgent task remains. It is reform of the old EU and our place within it, although, as Asia and Africa rise, as global power moves from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, our European region is bound to play a lesser world role and have a lesser significance in our national strategy. If we leave, relations not with not only the EU but the whole world network will need revising, although geography and history will still tie us, whether we like it or not, to the European region, even if more loosely.

Either way, a transformed and greatly enlarged and wider role for both the FCO and all our international agencies and departments and outward-facing activities becomes the priority. This is because our interests and international strategies, and the diplomacy which has to underpin them, have been changed out of all recognition by new technologies and revolutionary trade patterns. Among other things, we will need a more focused and much better-funded FCO to take the lead in the new arena. I hope that Tom Fletcher, whom we read about, will have good luck in his task of overhauling the FCO so that our diplomats pick up the right tunes and, apparently, choose the right chocolates.

In the age of big data and block chains when communication with an international audience swollen to unimaginable size has to be addressed, telling our national story with clarity and confidence is the first and foremost requirement, and an updated FCO has to be the sharpest spearhead in doing that. We seem deliberately to have blunted it. That just cannot be right. Modern digital age diplomacy is a new game, but it is clear that we are still using old dispositions to play it.

In this new era, when power is in unprecedented flux, as Henry Kissinger and others point out, the national imperative is to form a much clearer and more coherent strategy and a more realistic conception of the future. Techniques for combining our traditional hard power—our Armed Forces—with the persuasion and influence of our colossal soft power potential will have to be developed faster and with 10 times more vigour than in the past. My hope is that your Lordships’ new international relations committee, which I have the very great privilege of chairing, will be able to throw more light on some of these areas and the challenges they present.

Finally, we have heard contradictory economic forecasts put with great authority on both sides. The Financial Times says that this time has for economists never been more difficult and more challenging. I just add that I am terribly sorry to hear it.