Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:24 pm on 25th March 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield Crossbench 6:24 pm, 25th March 2019

My Lords, I am rendered almost speechless, but I shall try. I have no desire to add to the reservoir of recrimination into which so many words have been poured because of Brexit. But, despite the kind words of my noble friend Lord Foulkes and my cherished former research student, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, I must confess that I am still struggling to absorb quite how a formidably resourceful country with a deeply mature parliamentary system, and which nurtures a real pride in its gift for international statecraft, could have come to such a pass as a destabiliser among the constellation of nations in Europe and the wider world—a nation that other countries can no longer read. What have we done to ourselves? What will become of us?

In that context, it dawned on me earlier this month that the number one target for British intelligence surely now is us. Since, nearly three years ago, we moved temporarily into a strange new country—let us call it “Brexitland”—we have become a mystery even unto ourselves; so much so that in a column in last Friday’s Tablet, I respectfully suggested to the chairman of the Cabinet Office’s Joint Intelligence Committee that he commission a special assessment under the heading, “Brexitland: Questions Facing the UK”.

Such an assessment might touch on a range of themes that are in play: future relationships with the EU, obviously; Britain’s wider place in the world after withdrawal; the sustainability of the very union of the UK and the prospects for a Scottish separation in the early 2020s; the social, economic and regional inequalities within the UK; the stress testing of UK institutions, including Parliament, the party-political structure and the Civil Service; the durability of the UK’s international alliances, including the special nuclear and intelligence relationships with the United States; prospects for the UK economy, research, innovation and technical education; and the enhancement of UK soft power, the transmission of values abroad and the restoration of a relatively rancour-free national political conversation at home. Perhaps the Minister, when he gets back to the department, could get on the phone to the Cabinet Office’s joint intelligence people and tell them what I have just said.

When it comes to my own future assessment—as a remainer but not a second referendum man—I carry an optimism about the longer-term prospects for the UK, provided that the cumulative effects of living in Brexitland do not leave us wallowing in a resentful torpor blighted by mutual scapegoating. Every generation needs a flag to which it can rally, a banner upon which it embroiders its shared aspirations. The banner under which my own, early post-war generation lived, for example, was particularly lustrous, very much woven by the great collective experience of the Second World War. What went into its embroidery? The answer is: the Beveridge report on welfare of 1942; the Education Act 1944; the full employment White Paper of 1944; the formation of the National Health Service in 1948; the placing of a collective security roof over all of this with the creation of NATO in 1949; and, from the late 1940s onwards, the transition from Empire to Commonwealth.

What we need now, especially in these highly polarised times, is another shared banner. We would all have our individual aspirations, but there are three I would embroider as a priority, for which I think there might—just might—be a new consensus once we are through Brexit. These would be: to do for social care what 1948 did for health; a very substantial building programme of social housing based on a public/private mix; and to get technical education right for the first time—after all, we have been trying to do this since the late 19th century.

If we can rally to a new banner, we might take not only ourselves pleasantly by surprise but our European neighbours and the rest of the world, in our ability to bounce back and cohere once more. In the meantime, I hope that the Prime Minister gets her deal through the House of Commons and that Friday 12 April does not go down as one of the bleakest days in our history. We have most definitely not been living through a finest hour, but a finest hour just might be there for the living if only we can get across the Brexit barrier and plant that shining flag on the other side. My Lords, I live in hope.