Brexit: Preparations and Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:56 pm on 23rd July 2018.

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Photo of The Bishop of Leeds The Bishop of Leeds Bishop 3:56 pm, 23rd July 2018

My Lords, other noble Lords will be addressing the details, which leaves me to take a step back to look at culture. At the committee stage of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill I spoke about matters such as the corruption of the public discourse, asking that we in this House do not lose sight of the end to which Brexit is supposed to be the means. I tried to pose the existential questions of who we think we are and for whom we are doing what we are doing. However, the debate has coarsened, the ideological divide deepened and poor use of language worsened. What I have to say has nothing to do with leave or remain but where we are now and what shape we might be in in the future.

Were we not all embarrassed by the mockery in the European media of the UK Government’s attempts to translate the White Paper into other languages, German being the most obvious? Were we not aware that professionally you always translate into your native tongue, not out of it? It seems that not only are we islanders hopeless at learning languages but we still do not even see or understand the cost of that hopelessness. Surely the first requirement of any negotiation is that the negotiators understand the mind-set, culture, language and perceptions of their opposite number: get inside their heads, look through their eyes and listen through their ears. If I do not understand what I, we and the world look like through the eyes of my interlocutor, I cannot begin to negotiate intelligently.

This goes well beyond figures, facts and tactics: it goes deeper—from the superficial to the emotional and the subliminal. It is where we discover what moves and shapes the mind-set, reactions and behaviours of those with whom we seek to trade or discuss, and yet here we are, unable or unwilling to speak the language of those with whom we think we can reach agreement. We just tell them they have to see everything as we do.

The problem, of course, is that most of those with whom we deal in the EU speak our language, get behind the words to the mind-set and therefore are in a stronger position from the outset. I labour this point not in order to grind an axe about the poverty of language learning in the UK—although I could, when it is seen as a priority in other countries—but because my earlier concerns about the culture generated by Brexit have deepened.

How are the people to read a former Foreign Secretary who resigns and immediately and unaccountably earns a fortune from a newspaper column, or an MP for North East Somerset who moves his business investment interests abroad while telling the rest of us that we will experience the benefits of Brexit over the next 50 years, which by my reckoning means that we still have another 10 years or so in which to work out the benefits of EU membership? Neither of these men will suffer the negative consequences of any form of Brexit. This, I stress, is not a partisan or a party matter. It is a moral issue. In the same way that the US President has normalised lies and relativised truth—think of alternative facts and all that stuff—we have descended into a non-rational lobbing of slogans, empty promises and damnations from trench to trench. Honesty and integrity, the essential prerequisites of moral culture, are being sacrificed on the altar of mere political or personal pragmatism.

And this is at the core of my concern: the sheer dishonesty of much of the language and rhetoric of the last couple of years. If the “will of the people” matters so much, then should not the people be told the truth about the range of potential consequences of Brexit? If the Government see that the UK and the EU will suffer short or medium-term negativity in order to gain nirvana after a couple of decades or so, should they not actually say that—explain that it is worth consigning a generation of young people to a poorer life because we need to take a longer-term view of the national good? They might be right. If “the people” can be trusted with a vote in a referendum, why can they not be trusted with the truth rather than being patronised with endless polarising rhetoric?

This is a genuine question: what happens if the “will of the people” turns out not to be “in the national interest”? Who defines these terms? Whose interests have priority? If we are attempting to square an unsquarable circle, whoever is the Prime Minister, then this should be admitted, not just lobbed back at the EU for it to resolve when it did not ask us to leave.

These are not arcane questions. The Prime Minister has said that we now need to “get on with Brexit”, which of course begs the question as to what we have been doing thus far. The new Brexit Secretary promises “energy, vigour and pragmatism”, as if these were laudable new ideas. But, they remain meaningless and vacuous if they are not underpinned by a respect for and an intelligent learning of the languages of our interlocutors in the EU.

We can talk about a second referendum, a general election, a change of Prime Minister and a party coup, the taking back of control and so on. But the questions of culture, of language, and of dealing with the real world rather than some nostalgic fantasy couched in slogans will outlast any deal or even no deal. Are we paying attention to who we shall be, seen through not only our own eyes but the eyes of our neighbours and our children in the months and years to come? This debate is not neutral.