Grace and compassion needed in Brexit disagreements says Bishop of Birmingham

On 12th September 2017 the House of Lords debated a Government motion on Brexit, “That this House takes note of the position papers and future partnership papers published by Her Majesty’s Government on the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the European Union.” The Bishop of Birmingham spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Birmingham: My Lords, I am grateful for the debate and for the papers. It may help noble Lords to rest their ears for a moment if I say that my concluding remarks will be very similar to those of the noble Lord who has just spoken. It may also help your Lordships to know that—in confession terms, if I take the lead—I have not read all the papers in detail. None the less, I would have liked those sorts of details much earlier, I would have liked them to be debated and scrutinised, and I would have liked them to achieve a little more consensus as we get into the timetable of these negotiations.

Before and after the referendum, we were treated to the lazy slogans “Brexit means Brexit” and “No deal is better than a bad deal”. I am hopeful and expectant that those moments are over and that now, with these papers and other details, we are getting down to some serious work. We realise that this is no easy task, and I was very grateful that the noble Baroness opposite, the Leader of the Labour Party here, said, “We are here to help”. That is certainly the view from these Benches for very obvious reasons—for the national good, but also for a successful outcome.

Although we have the papers, I am honestly still at a loss to know what the end game is. We heard speeches from the Prime Minister at the party conference last year and at Lancaster House setting out a clear understanding of neither the direction of travel nor the future relationship between Britain and the EU. The vote in the other place last night—or was it early this morning?—was really about process and took me little further into the content of the negotiations. Unless we know what the Government have in mind when they say they want a “deep and special partnership” with the EU—the words used by the Minister today—the House and the public will know little about how the papers fit with that overall strategic objective.

As someone who has spent a lot of time negotiating both in my previous life in the oil industry and, now, in creating relationships between the Church, the state and China, which I do regularly for the archbishop, I know how important it is for negotiators—I am glad to hear them complimented today—to have a very clear understanding of where we want to get to as we go into the nitty-gritty and detail of the papers before us. I am looking forward to hearing from the noble Baroness more detail about the integration of the ideas into an overall strategic objective that can be negotiated harshly and quietly but realistically. The piecemeal ideas that we have here, whether on defence, science, immigration or many of the other topics mentioned in the list of papers today, can lead to uncertainty and confusion and contribute to increased anxiety and entrenched positions.​

In conclusion, perhaps I might be allowed to take a bigger view of our own processes and political life. Politics is tough and often ruthless. On the whole, we do it very well in this country and have done for many centuries. I hope that we continue to raise our game collectively, both here and in the other place, in how we debate and decide on Brexit, so that we do not do any more damage to the special and precious political processes that we have inherited and for which we are responsible. The way we disagree on such an important, generational issue as this—and disagree we will—needs to be with grace and compassion, both for the integrity of our political processes and, let us not forget, for a reliable and successful outcome for the wider population of the country, but especially for the weak and vulnerable whom we are here to serve.


Baroness Ludford: …As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham said, we need a strategy—and, I would add, practicalities. Vision butters no parsnips. The Minister said in her introduction that the Government do not aim to dictate the future arrangements. Leaving aside the obvious fact that they cannot dictate as it is a negotiation, this fig leaf does not cover the lack of hard proposals with realistic content.

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town (Lab)…We have heard many criticisms: of the Government’s response to a nine month-old report at 3 pm before a 4 pm debate; of the unwillingness of the Secretary of State to appear before our EU Committee, as we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Jay; and of the threadbare and, incidentally, undated position papers, which left the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Birmingham at a loss to know what the endgame is.