Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note (1st Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:38 pm on 5th December 2018.

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Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 8:38 pm, 5th December 2018

My Lords, listening to today’s debate, I am reminded what a privilege it is to be a Member of your Lordships’ House. From time to time, struck by fear, I wonder what I can possibly contribute to such a debate. Then I say to myself that I have my own experience, which may be helpful to one or two of your Lordships.

My father became politically engaged at the age of 17. Fairly early, he became a London county councillor, and he served in your Lordships’ House for many years. He was a very reliable father, and I think your Lordships found him a very reliable Member of this House. He had two pieces of life advice to give me, which also apply to politics and which he probably drew from politics. The first was: if you make a mistake, do not worry about it too much; just learn from it and do not repeat it. The second was: do not raise expectations in people and then disappoint them. In thinking about that mistake, my sense is that there is something rotten, if you like, in the state of our constitution and our polity. We are so proud—we are the mother of parliaments. We have been so successful as a nation, defending Europe against the tyrant Napoleon and the tyrant Hitler, that it may be hard for us to think that we need to change.

I recently visited Germany, which, of course, had the opposite experience. It was crushed and had to change. In fact, we played a large hand in rewriting its constitution of basic law. In all the pain that we are currently experiencing, I hope there may also be an opportunity for us to look at the processes, the system and the constitution that we have and think: are they fit for purpose in the 21st century, in the complex society we now live in?

My noble friend Lord Wilson, speaking about the 17 year-olds he was interviewing for university, said how tested they were. Indeed, some time ago the Chief Inspector of Schools described our children as the most tested in the world. This points out a wider anxiety. Yes, we are a very polarised society—very rich and very poor. For such a wealthy country, there is a terrible disparity in wealth. But, more widely, we are a country that experiences deep insecurity. Many people work long hours for low pay, with job insecurity, and many have insecure housing.

Going to Germany, what struck me most was that it is a prosperous country that also achieves a great deal of social security and comfort. Its shops still do not open on Sundays. If one works past 6 pm, one is seen as inefficient. No businesses are allowed to email their workers after 8 pm, yet it is a most productive, economically successful country. Last year, in preparing to visit the Bundestag with an all-party parliamentary group, I looked at the history of Germany’s political system from 1945 onwards. What struck me was the continuity—not only of leadership but of parties and different coalitions, and their ability to collaborate rather than always be in opposition. Collaboration and continuity are such important qualities, which I do not think we have been able to deliver in this country. I hope we can look to the best-performing nations and see whether we can learn from them and perhaps reform ourselves. That is one good thing that might come from the current crisis that we are experiencing.

The second thing my father said was: do not raise expectations in people that you cannot deliver. My heart jumps for joy in some senses to think that there might be another referendum—that this was all a bad dream and we can all go back to where we were a few years ago. But I think of my father’s advice and I wonder how those people who voted in the referendum for us to remove ourselves from the European Union, who have been led to believe that we have been working solidly towards that over the past two years, will react when they are told, “Sorry, we’re going to rerun it”, and, “We’re going in a different direction now”. I do not have any easy answer to that. If that is the way we go, we have a piece of work to do. Look at France at the moment—at Macron and the yellow vests. When he was elected, Le Monde commented that it was an interesting development and exciting to have Macron and La République En Marche!, but Marine Le Pen is waiting. If Macron falls flat on his face, she is well positioned to take over. In America, we see in Donald Trump a leader who has worked on those people who felt disenfranchised in the rust belt. In Italy, we see the Five Star Movement taking control. Noble Lords might say that it could never happen here, but there are nationalist parties and nationalists who might have influence and even control, so we cannot discount that. I am concerned about that.

I want to express my admiration for Theresa May. In the way that she sticks with her job, she reminds me of the mothers of my acquaintance who live in very difficult circumstances and still struggle to do their best for their children. I am generalising wildly, but generally women have to stick with their children while men can walk away. I know that many men are looking after children and women sometimes walk away, but one of the important differences between men and women is that generally women have to stick with the child whereas men can choose to walk away. I sense that Mrs May has stuck with the child while many of the men and women involved have walked away. I am heartened. She has challenged her party in the past, saying that it is perceived as the nasty party. She dared to talk at a party conference about the value of social housing. She put aside £2 billion for affordable housing and removed the cap on borrowing for local authorities so that they can borrow to build more social housing. I respect the way that she has pursued that agenda, even when she has had to carry forward Brexit.

Whatever happens, I hope we can continue in that direction. As the most reverend Primate said, it should not be the poor who carry the burden of this impoverishment that is Brexit, but those with the broadest shoulders. The Liberal Democrats have often talked about a land tax. We should look at whether we can take some money from those who can afford it and roll back the welfare cuts on the poorest.