Conduct of Debate in Public Life - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:12 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Patten Lord Patten Conservative 3:12 pm, 9th May 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to listen to the noble Lord, Lord Winston, particularly his thoughts about how things used to be in this Chamber. That was in what some would think of as the good old times, when the Whips’ Office would send something round when they wanted you to attend and vote which said, “Your Lordship’s attendance is most earnestly requested”. That is very different from the sort of threats about being there on the night for a three-line Whip, or else. The noble Lord also said that he would like people to speak without notes. I will do my best in my remaining five minutes.

This is the best of times and the worst of times for the debate tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey. Why is it the best of times? It is because he has put a stake in the ground, so we have to do some serious stuff in thinking about turning back the rising tide of vitriol and toxicity that surrounds debate. It is the worst of times because, for the next 14 days, we are going to get all that vitriol and toxicity in the run-up to the elections on 23 May. May we and people in those elections be protected from violent threats and excoriation, and from physical violence and death, which we have seen in the past. I would never have thought 20 years ago that we would be thinking in that kind of way. When it is all over and the results have come out, then it will be the best of times again for us to continue down the road that the noble Lord has set for us today.

It is interesting to reflect, since the elections on the 23rd are about Europe, that very hard words were used in the run-up to the Second World War about Europe and our attitudes to it. There were people accused of being traitors or collaborators. The country and the nation were split very much between 1938 and 1940, but then it really was serious. It was not about changes in trading relationships and the free movement of people, or changes in statutory provisions and the way in which justice is run between different countries in Europe. It was actually about matters of life and death. One of the first things that we need to do is to try to get people to reflect, as I think the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester was saying, about whether matters are serious or not. Our next step should be to try to promote more of a discussion in this country that might reflect a slowing down of the frenetic pace that will be there for the next two weeks. It would try to reclaim the Twittersphere and, following the slow food movement, perhaps there would be a slow debate movement.

I propose to your Lordships that we should all think very hard about trying to get together a group of sensible people, who would be widely recognised as that but also as not being politicians. Broadly speaking, we politicians are thought to be the cause of the problem in the first place. I mean a bunch of people who might be chaired by some acceptable celeb—perhaps someone from the entertainment world who is instantly recognised but perhaps someone from the medical world, from environmental protection or whatever. She or he should not be readily recognised as being a politician in any way but as a free-thinking person who, with a group of other free-thinking people, would say “Enough’s enough, so let’s spend time talking in some place”. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Rochester suggested your Lordships’ Chamber but perhaps it should be in a less partisan place than the Palace of Westminster. The group should talk for a few hours—perhaps half a day—and say, “It’s got to stop, and this is why”. They would need the advice of people who think spiritually such as the humanist associations, who have valuable insights into all this, and those in minority communities, such as the Muslims or the Jews. The Jews rightly feel threatened and afeared, just as they felt in 1939 when those vicious arguments were used.

We would certainly need someone such as the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury to be there. Doubtless, the right reverend Prelates from Rochester and Leeds would have some other brother or sister bishop whom they would like to see there on the day. I will probably get into terrible trouble in the confessional, as I have not consulted him, but I would also like to propose and volunteer the services of his eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, firmly rooted as he is in Merseyside and Liverpool. Your Lordships might think, “That isn’t the right cast”; there are people such as the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, who understand about casting and perhaps they would have a better cast of people to do it. However, a bunch of such people on a stage, talking slowly, rationally and reasonably—following the lead we have had from the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey—might well begin to turn the tide. We might just see an ebbing of the tide of the vitriol and toxicity that we have seen so much of in the last decade.