My Lords, this evening I add my voice to those who would speak in support of the gracious Speech. As time is limited, I will focus on one aspect only: a united Britain.
As stated in the Speech:
“A priority will be to build a more united country, strengthening the social, economic and cultural bonds between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales”.
Rarely in my lifetime have we witnessed such forces at work to drive wedges of division through every part of our society: between young and old, north and south, employer and employee, black and white, Christian and Muslim, home owner and renter, leaver and remainer. As I have talked with people on all sides of this House and as we have all watched the events of the last few weeks unfolding, we all seem to recognise the need to build a more united country, where the social, economic and cultural bonds are strengthened. We must refuse to be divided. Last week I walked across London Bridge and saw the small altars and flowers to those who had died. Across the internet are campaigns such as Not In My Name—ordinary members of the public standing with their neighbour, no matter who they are, refusing to be divided.
The referendum result itself has given a voice to many of those who felt disfranchised, and seeing their will enacted by leaving the EU can bring them hope of a stake in the future. But if we are to truly change how people’s lives feel, we must also trigger wider social reform and a better and clearer vision of social justice, by stabilising employment, making home ownership a reality for the many, and providing greater access to good schools and healthcare. This is the only real and long-term way to heal a divided nation, and these are some of the social, economic and cultural bonds that need to be strengthened. As the Prime Minister has said:
“That means fighting against the burning injustice that, if you’re born poor, you will die on average 9 years earlier than others. If you’re black, you’re treated more harshly by the criminal justice system than if you’re white. If you’re a white, working-class boy, you’re less likely than anybody else in Britain to go to university. If you’re at a state school, you’re less likely to reach the top professions than if you’re educated privately. If you’re a woman, you will earn less than a man. If you suffer from mental health problems, there’s not enough help to hand. If you’re young, you’ll find it harder than ever before to own your own home”.
While many of these things require more action than legislation, they need to be central to the focus of the Government’s approach to bringing unity. This is the work that now needs to be done if we are to unify this amazing nation.
We need to unite by strengthening our social bonds. When many individuals and communities feel so alienated, we must address ways of rebuilding relationships. For years I have been saying that a lack of social capital and life chances characterise our most divided communities. There has rarely been a more important time to act. We must unite by strengthening our economic bonds. From schools that prepare people for work, to the training and development that help people on in their careers, we need to look at how individuals do not just remain employed but thrive in their work. We must also strengthen the cultural bonds.
This moment is an unfrozen moment, where change at every level of society is possible. It should not be reduced to moments of conflict, or pitting people against one another, or of international negotiation only, but rather to an opportunity to bring this nation back together and bring healing. Now is the moment to offer a better, new and inclusive vision for our society.
Unity in this country is something that is built with millions of small decisions: an imam standing in the gap to protect an aggressor, a neighbour providing accommodation for a stranger at Grenfell Tower, or decisions of community members to reach across divisions, as we have seen in Manchester and London. It could be the unity of the young serving the older generation and the older generation sharing their stories with the young so that wisdom goes down through the ages, or the unity of purpose around a challenge the size of Brexit that we need to get right to protect this nation for future generations.
Many quote Jo Cox—we have more that unites us than divides us—but then immediately reach for points of division. Unity comes when we choose not to point-score politically even though one could, and to fix one’s eyes on the bigger picture and the bigger challenge. Unity comes when we reach across artificial barriers of background, race and creed. Unity comes when we say no to days of rage and say “Not in my name”. And unity comes when we are responsible with the power and influence we have and use it to build confidence and not to tear down. The bonds of common humanity have to be stronger than the divisiveness of our fears and prejudice. The Brexit negotiations are critical for the prosperity of this nation but the social negotiations are crucial for the reuniting of this nation.