Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note (Continued) (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:43 pm on 14th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Triesman Lord Triesman Labour 8:43 pm, 14th January 2019

My Lords, at the start of this debate, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury expressed two objectives. The first was, rightly, that there should be proper regard for real facts on the ground. He cited east Kent and elsewhere. The second, also right, was a desire to see a deeply fractured nation drawn back together by some form of reconciliation.

In my view, the worst thing about the Cameron referendum was arguably not the absurdity of trying to take so complex an issue to a conclusion by that lamentable route, or his palpable fear of Farage, or that he scuttled away after his failure; it was the deep divide that he bequeathed the people of the United Kingdom. While I hope for reconciliation, I do not pretend that it will happen anytime soon. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, was certainly right: we will not be divided by what happens in the near future because we are already deeply divided. I know that I cannot be reconciled to the atavistic nationalism expressed by some Brexiteers and I know full well that they cannot be reconciled to my instinct for internationalism and modernity. The much-researched social divisions in the United Kingdom may not be reconciled for a generation or more—certainly not by clustering around the Prime Minister’s unacceptable proposals. She never grasped what is involved in reaching out in a mature manner to all sides of Parliament.

The fault line between embedded nationalism and modern social democracy should not surprise us; it is visible in the United Kingdom, many parts of Europe and the United States. It has constituted the basis for turmoil in Europe for centuries. It has never gone away. Victories for nationalists have scarred Europe more than any other experience, yet we never seem to learn fully from such disasters. Where institutions build peace and security, we still seem to pull towards chaos and crisis. Nationalistic populism still has broad appeal, especially when it is focused on foreigners—people not like us who can be blamed for a failing economy that leaves people and institutions struggling, for austerity and for feeling humiliated. Those sentiments must be addressed fully and properly.

When was our politics more toxic? With the miserable negativity of the remain campaign, the mind-staggering mendacity of the leave campaign and its funders and the brutality of the language that is now common, have we ever known worse? I cannot be reconciled to that kind of world view. Brexit is not the cause, of course, but it picked the scab open. Hate crime, xenophobia, rhetoric about the “citizens of nowhere” and a hostile environment for the people who wish to live here make us an uglier society by the day. Across the street from us, fascists scream at MPs. I cannot speak at first hand of the place where either of our most reverend Primates celebrates his religion, but what has happened when my place of worship must be surrounded continually by large numbers of guards? Is this what we must live with now? I would rather face the struggle against nationalism because we cannot run from it, but I offer a sincere challenge to those who say that conciliation is possible; the noble Lord, Lord Russell of Liverpool, made a similar point.

It is plain that, until the last few days, the Prime Minister has not tried to reach out to others, and has then tried mainly to frighten them; nor has the leader of my party reached out to anyone. Our calamity has not found our Churchill and Attlee. We do not seem that grown up. Perhaps someone with the moral authority to do so can take the kind of approach taken by Desmond Tutu: to convene urgently an effort to find common ground, hopefully with the broader and more deliberative discussion advocated by my noble friend Lady Armstrong, between crashing out and rebuilding a decent, united United Kingdom. There is little time and I see no sign of the Commons Front Bench doing it. Were the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury here, I would ask him—I will have to ask the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York instead—whether the Church is up to the challenge of carrying out reconciliation, not just calling for it.

I support my noble friend’s amendment in these critical circumstances. It recognises the dangerous shortcomings in our security profile, about which my noble friend Lord Browne warned us on Wednesday. It is an astonishing position for a permanent member of the Security Council to find itself in as a nation. There must be a moment when the weight of economic and commercial evidence is acknowledged by Brexiteers, although I note that on 16 December Jacob Rees-Mogg said that crashing out will boost the UK’s economy by more than £1.1 trillion. What world is he in? Goodness knows, in his case. I have gone back over previous rounds of major European venture financing decisions—the sort of things that businesspeople study to see which way the investment wind is blowing. It is a discouraging picture: only one of the top 10 capital raises was in the United Kingdom. The picture for higher education and culture is equally ugly, as others have said. I do not buy shares in the crash-out sunny uplands myth peddled by the hard right. Those saying it—except perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Lilley—cannot truly believe it either. Mr Rees-Mogg and his colleagues want to convince us that we will enjoy a soft landing. What they always omit to tell us is what we will be landing in.

What worries me most, and I conclude on this point, is the failure to focus on the prospects of young people, who took no part in the decision and who have been ignored by Jeremy Corbyn among others. They have a say every few years in general elections—nothing is set in stone—and here we are trying to bind them more or less indefinitely to a decision which all the evidence shows they abhor. Few mistakes are more dishonourable than damaging the future of our children and their children. We will rely on them as the architects of the future. Let us give them a decent start.