Brexit: Stability of the Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:34 pm on 17th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Chartres Lord Chartres Crossbench 1:34 pm, 17th January 2019

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lisvane, recalled the irritation of Governments when Parliament entered a kind of seminar state. However, I have found this seminar immensely instructive and have learned a great deal.

I follow the noble Lord, Lord Judd, on the question of identity. The Motion refers to stability but, as we all know, we face a time of huge instability—not only the political instabilities of which we are all aware but a planetary instability. This is the first generation of people who have incontrovertible evidence of how much damage is being done to the planet and perhaps the last generation which will be able to do anything substantial about it. So we are facing not only political instability but planetary instability.

One of the forces making for instability is a reassertion of national identities—an immensely powerful elemental force. For example, it is a fact of great significance that the former subjects of the Soviet empire asserted themselves against its power as peoples with particular histories, loyalties and allegiances and not in the name of some abstract concept of individual rights. This widespread search for identity—movingly evoked by the noble Lord, Lord Wigley, and referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Judd—has surfaced in the Brexit debate and in the difficulties faced by the EU in applying the west European model to the liberated countries of eastern Europe.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, that in our own islands the resurgence of national identities in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, which preceded Brexit, has had consequences which have enriched our life as a United Kingdom. The various devolution measures may have been piecemeal but they were a response to the new reality. I agree with other noble Lords who have spoken that this leaves us with the need to face the consequences of this huge elemental force for England.

I was Bishop of Stepney at the time of the communal riots in the East End when people were going around insisting on the need to respect the culture of British Bangladeshis. In one school I was confronted by a furious teenager who said, “What’s my effing culture then, Bish?”. Your Lordships can imagine that these words have reverberated and stayed with me over the years. He felt a real sense of cultural loss and poverty which did not dispose him to tolerance but rather to lashing out. You cannot exorcise the evil of hatred of the other by creating a cultural and spiritual vacuum. You have to recognise its reality and build institutions around it which allow it to express itself in a constructive way. If we are to live harmoniously and creatively together in a genuinely pluralistic culture, we have to recognise the power of shared identity and familiar customs in our common life.

As other noble Lords have said, the devolution project must be extended to England, with a renewed attempt to re-localise decision-making, especially now in the light of the experience of the referendum campaign, which revealed how many people feel marginal to an overcentralised, remote political process.