My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, I have not spoken in the European debates. I had rather hoped that the Attorney-General would provide an opportunity this afternoon to talk about reconciliation and renewal, but instead we have a degree of delay and rancour, and, as my noble friend Lord Bridges put it so well, a general spirit of “I told you so”. However, it is sometimes at the darkest hours such as these that we need to remind ourselves of what is important, so I will try to soldier on with two observations, one hopeful and one fearful, about reconciliation and renewal. The world outside is moving on without us. We have been heavy on observations about the London political beltway and the Brussels negotiation rooms, but I fear that if we do not take this opportunity of taking the deal, we may miss the boat. I will give your Lordships two examples.
On a characteristically positive note, I saw a wonderful glimmer of hope in recent polling figures about attitudes to immigration. Around the world, attitudes to immigration are hardening; that story is told in the huge Ipsos MORI poll, which, although flawed, is about as good a guide as we will get. However, in Britain, the trend is different, which flies completely in the face of what we hear and see. Since 2011, the number of people who think that immigration has a positive impact on the UK has increased in a steady line from a rather depressing 19% to a more impressive 48%, while the number who think it has had a negative effect has fallen dramatically from 64% to 26%. My noble friend Lord Sherbourne rightly reminded us that trust is in a perilous state in the country.
The figures that I talk about are a good cause for hope. The bottom line is that there is a chance that Brexit, despite all the current rancour, might have lanced the boil. There is hope that the public are beginning to see that the politicians are listening to them, and that, at a time when many countries face challenges of populism and intolerance, Britain has somehow addressed some of the issues that people are worried about and will emerge from this process stronger. We need desperately to nurture these positive developments. I fear that if we delay the Brexit vote further, as the noble Lord, Lord Hope, put it so well earlier, it will be a profound breach of trust that would put those green shoots in jeopardy.
My second point is fearful and less optimistic. We are not out of the woods. We face huge divisions, as widely discussed in this debate. I ran a campaign against the British National Party and have kept an eye on the growth of the far right and the far left ever since. I pay tribute to the police and security services for their diligent focus on those groups. It is not an exaggeration to say that we are sitting on a powder keg of popular extremism that could easily convert into violence and disarray. For briefings, I thank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, Quilliam, HOPE Not Hate and the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at King’s College London.
One trend stands out from my study of this area: the formal and casual collaboration between extreme groups from Europe and America, which means that the vicious tactics and nasty aspirations of the American alt right, the French gilets jaunes, the Hungarian highwaymen’s army and countless other nasty extremist groups are having an effect on our political culture. We must accept that we in Britain are not immune to political turmoil because of some kind of cultural superiority or political resilience.
My recommendations are these: we must accept that we are living in an extended period of uncertainty around our relationship with Europe, a point well made by a number of Peers. We must accept that populism will be part of our lives, probably for the rest of our lives. Therefore, we need really strong political leadership.
I believe that can start tomorrow with a vote for a deal that is not perfect but is on the table and to accept all the challenges it involves. But political leadership does not end tomorrow. We need to maintain clear advocacy for all that is great in this country, we need political leaders who can articulate a clear vision for our future and we need to make tough choices to get us back on course. I fear that if we do not decide to support the Prime Minister’s deal now, we run the risk of losing the opportunity for reconciliation with which Brexit presents us and letting the extremists feed off the result.