EU Withdrawal Bill: Bishop of Leeds urges Peers to ‘model good ways of disagreeing’

On Tuesday 30th January 2018, the Lords considered the Government’s EU (Withdrawal) Bill at Second Reading. The Bishop of Leeds, Rt Revd Nick Baines, spoke in the debate, focusing on the purpose and tone of Brexit discussions. 

Lord Bishop of Leeds: My Lords, many speakers will attend to the technical and legal details of the Bill and they will be better equipped to do so than I am. I therefore want to use my time to pay attention to a question that lies behind the nature of the Bill and the choices that we are required to make in scrutinising and attempting to improve it. This question applies to all sides of the argument, whether we think that leaving the European Union is an unmitigated disaster or the best thing since Winston Churchill mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

The question goes beyond economics and trade deals. It haunts constitutional matters and refuses to be submerged by ideologically driven assertions that promise what cannot be promised and ridicule arguments that are inconvenient. Brexit has unleashed the normalisation of lies and rendered too easily acceptable the demonising of people who, with integrity and intelligence, venture to hold a contrary view. We are in danger of securing an economic platform at the expense of a culture of respect and intelligent democratic argument.

The question that I allude to is simply this: at the end of this process, what sort of Britain, or indeed Europe, do we want to inhabit? I accept that this is almost an existential question, even a challenge, but, as we debate the legislative detail, we must not lose sight of the point of it all. Existential questions cannot be determined by statute, but the shape of statute speaks loudly of what we think our society should be for, and for whom. This is why debate about the discretionary powers of Ministers to make laws with equivalent force to primary legislation is of such importance. When such powers are so wide that this House is asked to leave to the judgment of Ministers the meaning of such terms as “appropriate”, it is only right to ask for definition. After all, history is riddled with the unintended consequences of what might be termed “enabling legislation”.

Let us be honest, though: Brexit is technically so demanding and complex that, if I were Prime Minister, I would want the authority to deal flexibly with anomalies and technical weaknesses as quickly and smoothly as possible as the consequences of Brexit became known. I understand the technical element of this, but the Bill goes beyond legislative technicalities and impacts strongly on constitutional arrangements and the balance of power. Surely, if “taking back control” by Parliament is to mean anything, it must mean refraining from bypassing the essential scrutiny that Parliament is privileged and required to provide. Hard parliamentary scrutiny might be inconvenient at times, but the long-term consequences of granting Ministers unprecedented powers, as set out in the Bill, must be considered, as they will shape the deeper culture of our state and change our assumptions about democracy. This suggests that, although any sane person will recognise the Government’s need to have significant powers to ensure that process and legal certainty post Brexit are as smooth as possible, there must be limits to the use of such powers. As a colleague of mine put it succinctly and colourfully, we must avoid Brexit Britain turning into Tudor Britain. Clearly there is a balance to be struck, but I do not believe that the Bill as currently formulated achieves that balance, nor does it demonstrate that the genuine fears of constitutional experts and lawyers have been properly heard.

I have two concerns about the culture in which this debate is being conducted in this country—seen with incredulity by those looking at us from beyond these islands. First, almost every paper, every debate and every statement about Brexit is clothed in purely economic terms. It is almost as if the economy were everything and economics the only good. Yet, the economy—one might add the word “trade”—is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end, which is human flourishing and the common good. The economy—trade—exists for the building of society, but society is more than the economy. It is simply not enough for us uncritically to assume that a market society, as opposed to a social market, is a given or an ultimate good. Culture is more than money and things.

Secondly, the referendum tore off the veneer of civilised discourse in this country and unleashed—perhaps gave permission for—an undisguised language of suspicion, denigration, hatred and vilification. To be a leaver is to be narrow-mindedly stupid; to be a remainer is to be a traitor. Our media—and not just the ill-disciplined bear pit of social media—have not helped in challenging this appalling rhetoric or the easy acceptance of such destructive language.

Beneath this lurks an uncomfortable charge articulated in a recent Carnegie report on tensions between Russia and the West by the deputy director of the Russian Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow: if Russians would still die for the motherland, what would we die for in the West? As Martin Luther King suggested, if we do not know what we would die for, we have no idea what we would live for. Once we have done Brexit, then what? What was it for? Who do we think we are?

If this debate on Britain’s future is to have any lasting value and not just undermine long-term relationships of respect and trust—the civic public discourse—then attention must be paid to the corruption of this public discourse. Politicians could begin by moderating their language and engaging in intelligent, informed and respectful argument that chooses to eschew personalised or generalised vindictiveness or violence. We must not allow our body politic to be defined by Brexit; rather, we will need to transcend the divisions currently being forced by the terms of discussion. Peers have an opportunity to model good ways of disagreeing well, which might encourage others to see that there is an alternative to a political culture that appears sometimes to have been reduced to an unbridled tribalism where the first casualty is too often the dignity of the other. Please let us not lose sight of the deeper question that lies behind the technical detail of this Bill.

Lord Krebs (CB): … My Lords, I had been intending to talk exclusively about the impact of this Bill on the environment and climate change, but earlier the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds reminded us that the process that this Bill supports is about a broader matter than translating legislation and instrumental processes. It is about what kind of country we want this to be and what kind of Europe we want to see in the future.

Lord Wilson of Dinton (CB):  The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds used a lovely phrase, “corruption of public discourse”, which he deplored. That phrase should linger in the air, because it is what we are experiencing at the moment. I put in a plea that the Civil Service should not become subject to the corruption of public discourse. There appears in the press to be a tendency for Ministers, ex-Ministers and MPs to blame or play politics with the head of service and people who work for him. I have great admiration for Sir Jeremy Heywood and the people who serve the Government with him. I have absolutely no doubt that they are putting their very best people and efforts into serving the Government to the extent that they possibly can, and I deplore anyone who imputes lower motives to them.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean (Lab): … As the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds said, in what I thought was a very powerful intervention, too much of the debate on our relationship with, and withdrawal from, the EU has descended to a level that undermines all intelligent democratic argument. This Bill does nothing to retrieve the balance necessary to inform decision-taking.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorpe Dorner (LD):  I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds that the Bill should not just talk about the economy, which so many noble Lords have talked about. We will be diminished by Brexit culturally, scientifically—our scientists are no longer part of the network of European research—and in just about every way I can think of, but it will not be so bad for us as it will be for our children and grandchildren. Our natural heritage will not just be diminished but could be destroyed. Even if the Government manage eventually to fulfil their best intentions and bring in protections, there is likely to be a gap of years. We cannot afford to have that gap, which will be taken advantage of by people who would like to make a quick buck by not worrying about the “polluter pays” principle. We therefore need to amend the Bill and make sure that all those protections are in it, as they should have been from the beginning.

Baroness Royall of Blaisdon (Lab): The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds was absolutely right. Membership of the European Union, and what comes afterwards, is about more than trade and the economy; it is about values, tolerance, respect, a space to disagree agreeably and hope not hate. In this difficult and dangerous world, it is our responsibility to seek the best possible outcome as we break our ties with this alliance of sovereign states, which has changed our continent and our country for the better.

Baroness Northover (LD): …. The right revered Prelate the Bishop of Leeds was right to address the wider social and cultural implications. The economic factors themselves, however, have serious political and social effects. Perhaps it is not surprising that we have had strong populist movements since the financial crash of 2008. We should therefore heed the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, and indeed Mark Carney, when he notes that Brexit is already costing the United Kingdom around £200 million a week in lost growth.

Baroness Hooper (Con): … This has been an excellent and good-humoured debate so far, and I trust we can continue to avoid a bitter and acrimonious approach during future stages of the Bill. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds struck just the right note on that at the outset, and we are indebted to him.

Lord Russell of Liverpool (CB): I thought the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds was extremely thoughtful, and reminded us that there is a lot more out in the world that is rather more important than the details of some of the clauses we will be going through.

Lord Triesman (Lab): … I complained about the overstatements on the remain side, unashamedly, and I say to your Lordships that the straightforward lies on the other side have brought our politics to a miserable low, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds said earlier today. We have surrendered our largest constitutional issue in modern times to hucksters and snake oil salesmen. To take these steps on the basis of a referendum conducted in that way will, I suspect, be seen historically as a form of certifiable insanity—a malady comprising crude populism and a sense of profound fantasy…

…Finally, in starting this process David Cameron turned our country inward. I doubt that I will be reconciled to the noble Lord, Lord Framlingham, for example, or to any other zealots for leave, because they want a very different country from the one that I want—and I doubt that they will ever be reconciled to views such as mine. In short, our differences may be resolved if some middle way is found but it is entirely possible that they will never be resolved, at least in a generation. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds put this eloquently today. The ugliness of the debate, the name calling and the lies have all demeaned the United Kingdom. I am afraid that I see a country with deeper xenophobia and more unashamed hate crime than I have ever seen in my lifetime, and with a view of people from other countries which should shame us—and it is getting worse…

Lord Winston (Lab): … My Lords, as the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill of Bengarve, said, this is a technical Bill. But, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds and my noble friend Lord Davies so ably pointed out, it has human consequences. We cannot escape these consequences, which are massive, and I want to dwell on them briefly.

Baroness Morris of Bolton (Con): …The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Leeds and my noble friend Lord Bridges both asked, “What kind of Britain do we want to live in?”. It may surprise some of your Lordships to know that in the referendum I voted to remain, not for economic reasons but for those things so eloquently expressed by the noble Baroness, Lady Royall of Blaisdon, such as tolerance and friendship—the things that the noble Lords, Lord Triesman and Lord Winston, hold so dearly. It was also for the collaboration in a host of areas which I felt brought stability in a world which does not always have a surplus of that. I know that your Lordships might think me a bright-eyed optimist but I am encouraged that these relationships will flourish. I am trying to look at it in a different way now. But I am encouraged—I know noble Lords might think that I am a bright-eyed optimist—that these relationships will flourish, and I am trying to look at it in a different way now. As my noble friend Lady Finn is fond of saying, we were in with opt-outs, now we will be out with opt-ins. There will be many areas of future co-operation, not least on our security and intelligence operations, which are as essential for the security of Europe as they are for us.