Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:12 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Baroness O'Neill of Bengarve Crossbench 9:12 pm, 9th January 2019

My Lords, I spoke at the beginning of December so I really shall try to be brief. At the start of today’s debate, a number of noble Lords said, “Nothing has changed”. I think some things have changed and not for the better. There is more bitterness, polarisation, hostility and tension; we saw signs of that with Monday’s reports of remarks made to Members of the other place. There may be some issues here of common concern to remainers and Brexiteers, and of common interest.

At the other end of this Palace we have what my noble friend Lord Hennessy called a great showdown in the House of Commons. The showdown seems to have a common assumption behind it: that it would be a good thing if there were, somehow, a vindication of democratic process. The assumption comes in two varieties: noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches hope that a second referendum might be a solution; and some noble Lords on the Labour Benches are hoping not for a second referendum but that a vote of no confidence might lead the way to a general election and that that democratic process could rescue us from this situation.

I wonder whether both assumptions are mistaken. We are seeing a quite unprecedented challenge to democracy itself, not because of Brexit but because of the impact of digital technologies on electoral process. What we realise now is that the democratic process is being undermined and hijacked by those technologies; non-citizens are influencing votes systematically and all over the place, not only in this country but in many others including the US, in its elections.

These are serious issues. We need to realise that democracy is now being manipulated, not merely by rich individuals, but by companies, interest groups and states, including their security apparatuses. In this situation, when our fellow citizens are being digitally micro-targeted by means not apparent to them, we need to think very carefully about saying that more democracy is the solution. More democracy may not be attainable. We need to work out what we ought to do.

I have a question for the Minister. Does he have any views about what the Government could do to ensure that these technologies are not used to subvert democracy in further processes that bear on Brexit? I think the same questions arise for the Lib Dems and for Labour. Are we sure that democracy can be kept safe in present circumstances? I am losing my voice, so I shall stop.