European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:45 am on 7th March 2017.

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Photo of The Archbishop of Canterbury The Archbishop of Canterbury Bishop 11:45 am, 7th March 2017

My Lords, I apologise to the House for not having been present at earlier stages of the Bill, for medical reasons beyond my control. The benefit for your Lordships is that I will not be on my feet for long.

I was disappointed to miss the excellent debates at early stages. What unites us in this House, across all Benches, is how seriously we take our role as scrutineers. On our best days, we approach each question not on the basis of tribe or loyalty, but on the strength of the argument and how it might work for the common good of the whole country. On these Benches, we are not a party, nor do we follow a Whip. Today will see a significant number of Bishops appearing, not because we hold ourselves out as constitutional experts but because we are deeply embedded in every local community in England. We may dress the same, but we have independent minds, as anyone observing church politics recently will be well aware. So I speak today not in a corporate but in a personal capacity.

The referendum campaign and its aftermath revealed deep divisions in our society, as the noble Lord, Lord Hain, rightly commented—like him, this feels like the most divided country that I have lived in in my lifetime. Whatever the outcome of the next two years, our nation’s future, particularly for the most vulnerable, will be profoundly damaged if we arrive in 2019 even more divided, without a common vision to confront the opportunities and challenges before us. To meet these opportunities and challenges in every aspect of policy and every level of society, we must find a level of national reconciliation. So how we conduct this process is as important as the outcome. It would be dangerous, unwise and wrong to reduce the substance of the terms on which we exit the European Union to the result of a binary yes/no choice taken last summer, and the Government should avoid any inclination to oversimplify the outcome of the most complex peacetime negotiations probably ever to have been undertaken.

But neither is the complexity of a further referendum a good way of dealing with the process at the end of negotiation. It will add to our divisions; it will deepen the bitterness. It is not democratic; it is unwise. Even if circumstances change, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, rightly said they were likely to do—even if they change drastically—a dangerous and overcomplicated process is the result of a referendum.

It is beyond doubt that those bringing this amendment and others before this House today, and last week in Committee, are moved by legitimate and deeply principled concerns for our country. To challenge that, as has been done in the press, is entirely wrong. Similarly, those who have argued against amending the Bill have done so not from a deficit of care but from a concern for process and a legitimate desire to reach the best outcome.

Division of our country is not a mere fact to be navigated around like a rock in a stream but something to be healed, to be challenged and to be changed. During many years in which I have worked in countries in the midst of deep division—sometimes armed, sometimes merely civil—I have seen two cardinal errors made in seeking to bring reconciliation and building common vision. The first is to complicate the process; the second is artificially to simplify complicated substance. On this amendment, I fear we risk making the process too complex and the substance too simple. Although I fully understand the good intentions of those who tabled the amendment, for these reasons I will be unable to support it.