My Lords, one word stands out in reference to the recent EU referendum: “division”. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop and many noble Lords have stated this today. It was a divisive campaign—some would say by both sides—but the divisions were clearly already simmering and ready to surface when conditions allowed: divisions within our political parties and within our society, and divisions along national lines. In Scotland, the SNP Government, apparently unwilling to accept the legitimacy of a UK-wide referendum, are already calling for another independence referendum and fomenting fresh divisions north of the border.
Of course, I would like to think that the majority who voted to remain in the EU or to leave did so purely on a point of principle. For those like me, the economic argument for staying in the EU was obvious and, as a former chairman of CBI Scotland, I made those arguments on numerous occasions on behalf of members. However, as the owner of a small software company, I could also understand why others would see the EU as an overly bureaucratic machine that impacts on small business in particular in a negative way. That is neither here nor there. We have the result to leave the EU and we must begin the task of developing a new strategy to succeed economically and globally. I point noble Lords to a debate on Thursday on this subject.
Today, I confine my remarks to that word “division”. What has emerged from this referendum is that a whole swathe of the population harboured real resentments and their vote to leave was a means of protest. The social and economic gap that has grown over recent decades has created an inequitable society. That is a ripe condition for blame, particularly for blaming those who look different, speak a different language or have a different culture or religion. Of course, the vast majority of British people who voted to leave the EU did so as a consequence of their genuine concerns. However, there were those on the leave side who disgracefully drew on those resentments and fears when the sole focus became immigration. There is only one word for it, one that we do not like to use but the only one that fits: racism. This has not just been about people from the EU. That infamous poster with Nigel Farage said it all. The racist attacks and verbal abuse since the referendum reflect that this is not just about EU citizens. The P-word and N-word have been used abundantly. Indeed, this has been of such concern in the days since the referendum that the Prime Minister and other senior politicians have made public statements condemning such behaviour.
Since 1968, successive Governments in this country have worked hard to bring about a more cohesive society through race relations and equality legislation. The United Kingdom has been by far the most successful in Europe in giving equal rights to its citizens. That is why this is such a great country to live in and why anyone who comes here loves it and has such loyalty towards it. We have come a long way from 1968 and Enoch Powell’s rivers of blood speech. We do not want to go backwards. I remember that time well and the negative impact that it had on me personally as a little girl in primary school. When you are on the receiving end of prejudice, it has a whole different perspective. It leads to feelings of rejection, alienation, anxiety and depression. Make no mistake, it is not just about overt racism; covert racism can be just as damaging. Those who are sensitive to it and know that it is directed at them recognise it in the most fleeting expression. Every one of us has constantly to question ourselves about our own prejudices if we want to build a strong society and real national pride. Politicians and the media perhaps have the biggest responsibility of all.
Ethnic communities of many hues have enriched the lives of this nation. The food that we eat, the colours and clothes that we wear and the music that we listen to have changed beyond recognition from the days when I came to live here as a child. Many people have come to these shores—Irish, Jews, Italians, people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh and from the Caribbean, and the recent migrants from Poland and elsewhere in Europe. They, and the many others from around the world, have all contributed immensely to this country. Those who may have come to exploit it are a disgrace, but they are just a small minority. Overwhelmingly, what the newcomers bring is their energy and ambition to build a new life and to do well. That means having a strong work ethic and often an entrepreneurial spirit.
My late father came to this country from Pakistan and worked hard, employing more than 500 people in his various businesses in the 1970s and 1980s. He paid his taxes, he believed in public service and he was a model citizen. That work ethic was a value that he shared with mainstream British society. What we must do now is to build on these values again—and with fresh energy.
Finally, if we were to baton down the hatches and not allow any more immigration, as some would wish, I would make a gentle reminder that the many hundreds of jobs—in the NHS and agriculture, in the hospitality industry, in transport and in every sector—would still have to be done. Enough home-grown Brits would have to be willing to do them.
I urge the Government, under their new leadership, to refrain from the scapegoating of immigrants that some in our main political parties and certain sections of the media have found politically expedient of late. There is a very positive story to be told about the huge contribution made by immigrants to our country. It was not very well told in the run-up to the referendum, but together we can get this message out now. As we move forward, it is important that our Government clarify their objectives on immigration and the means by which to achieve them.
This is a wake-up call to mend our country, to tackle poverty by providing jobs through small-scale manufacturing and other routes, to engender that work ethic and to encourage enterprise. It is a huge task, but one that cannot be sidestepped if we are to avoid social unrest and if we want to continue to be a great nation. We have to learn to respect and value each other’s contribution and our national leaders have to lead the way.