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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:21 pm on 2nd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Houghton of Richmond Lord Houghton of Richmond Crossbench 7:21 pm, 2nd October 2019

I think that is the cue for me to stand up. As an ex-Chief of Defence and a relative newcomer to the House, I do not make my contribution with great enthusiasm. In fact, my motivation is brought about primarily by friends in North Yorkshire with whom I spend my weekends. I feel a duty to reflect some of their anger, frustration and confusion about the state of the country and what this House does. I want to make some observations about the state of the country and our political institutions, both of which, to me and those I talk to, seem currently to lack integrity in the true sense of that word.

I start by offering four bits of context. The first is that, since the end of the Cold War, liberal democracies have ceased having to fight for internal legitimacy. As a result, populations have been neglected. Societies feel increasingly isolated from government. They feel increasingly that their concerns are not understood and not represented. Too much of politics seems to be about the pursuit of power and relatively narrow interest.

My second bit of context is that the population does not know what to believe. We live in an age in which truth is a rare commodity. The vast majority of news is either junk news, which I define as the sensationalisation of the unsubstantiated, or fake news, which I define as misinformation or disinformation designed to influence and deceive. I fear that much political debate involves as much of the junk and the fake as it does the truth.

My third bit of context flows from the first two and is probably not a new revelation. It is that the outcome of the 2016 Brexit referendum had little to do with the rational response of a well-informed public. The Brexit referendum was not a judgment on the benefits or otherwise of our relationship with the EU; it was the vehicle by which large parts of the country expressed anger at their isolation from and neglect by government. For those who study global strategic megatrends, as I used to, the referendum outcome was no more or less than the British version of the Arab spring. President Trump was the American version.

My fourth bit of context—one to which I have borne witness even in this Chamber—is that intolerance has become one of the dominant elements of the political climate. We seem to have become unable to listen to the views of those people we disagree with.

What do I deduce from all this? My first deduction is that we are consumed by the wrong issue. Our relationship with the European Union is not existential to the United Kingdom in any meaningful sense. The right or more important issues are: first, how do we sustain the integrity of the United Kingdom? Secondly, how do we restore the integrity of our political system? These are the issues which should inform future action.

Given the context I have described, my own view is that we should pursue Brexit, but it should be the least damaging Brexit that we can secure. We should then be supportive of a government approach which is fairer and more inclusive; which maximises the amount of activity delegated to local discretion and accountability; and which rebuilds public trust in political leadership and activity at all levels.

We should, in tandem, set out to restore the integrity and civility of government and political discourse. Perhaps, dare I say it, even in this Chamber we should take far greater notice of how others view us rather than simply being dazzled by the opinion we sometimes hold of ourselves. If we can achieve all this, we will go a long way towards regaining some national self-respect.