Archbishop of Canterbury speaks on EU Withdrawal Agreement

On 5th December 2018 the House of Lords debated a motion to take note of the Government’s EU Withdrawal Agreement, alongside an Opposition ‘motion to regret’. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Most Revd and Rt Hon Justin Welby, spoke in the debate, emphasising the importance of reconciliation and for the poorest in society to be protected should there be an economic downturn. 

The Archbishop of Canterbury: My Lords, of the choice of psalms that form part of our daily prayers in the Lords, we have Psalm 46, which we heard today,

“The nations rage, the kingdoms totter”,

and Psalm 121, which we will doubtless hear tomorrow,

“I lift up my eyes to the hills …

My help comes from the Lord,

who made heaven and earth”.

Eyes need to be lifted now more than ever, and that is a gift of this House, perhaps more than others. It is a skill and a calling here.

The withdrawal agreement and the political declaration are essentially political more than economic; the debate has moved on from the referendum campaign, which was the other way round. Another change, as we know particularly since yesterday evening, is that the great decisions are now left firmly in the hands of Parliament—as is right.

The decision on this agreement and consequent legislation is thus about not just the immediate politics but national policy and identity, and our future place in the world and how we develop it. It is long term: it is for the child born yesterday and not just for parliamentarians today. The decision must be made in the interests of those who will be here for the long term. In the midst of political struggle, that is a very hard thing to do, but it is the calling of Parliament and one to which it has risen in equal crises in the past.

In what way will we be able to be the kind of nation we want to be? First, it is obvious that no agreement is ever final. Many years ago, Palmerston said:

“We have no eternal allies”,—[Official Report, Commons, 1/3/1848; col. 122.]

only eternal interests. So no agreement is final, least of all the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, both of which I have read in their entirety. They make it clear that so much is left open in deciding our future and our relationships with the EU 27 and around the world. That may be an advantage or a disadvantage.

What is obvious is that we are choosing a new path. Although I am a remainer, like the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, I fully accept the decision of the referendum, which must now be implemented; the shape of which is in the hands of Parliament, and particularly of the other place. With that responsibility there is a moral agency and a moral choice, and it is that that should guide our votes. It must reflect a genuinely hopeful vision for our nation and its place, because there is a vision of hope and global influence to be grasped by this country, with proper leadership.

Secondly, whichever way we go, there is a requirement for national reconciliation; for restating what the noble Lord, Lord Sacks, calls the core values of civilised discourse, and ensuring that they are lived out. The negative impact of the previous referendum is why I see another one as a possible but not immediately preferable choice, and only if Parliament has failed in its responsibilities. Reconciliation is an area for civil society and faith groups, but it is also largely the responsibility of any Government. It is a process that takes generations, and thus will affect not only the current Government but subsequent ones. What specific commitment will the Leader of the House—and for that matter the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and other leaders of groups and parties—make to future Governments to work purposefully for reconciliation in this House, across politics and across the nation? We have heard much about its need but nothing about its methods.

Thirdly, economically, we know that there are many and diverse views about the outcome of this agreement, of no agreement or of other possibilities. We know that no forecast is certain—that has become very clear over the last two and a half years.

The risk we face now is not a decision to leave without an agreement but an accidental leaving without an agreement. We may drift into something that no one chooses as their ideal. If that happens, and even under some of the other options, there is a significant danger of adverse economic effect, with a fall in government revenue, a rise in unemployment and greater poverty. Some will argue that that will be only temporary, but we need to remember that for those in poverty, temporary is an eternity. It must be the clear policy of this and all future Governments, after so many years of austerity, borne most often by the poorest, that the burden of the transition to a post-EU economy—if there is a burden—must be carried by those with the broadest shoulders, the wealthiest, and not by further cuts, whether to local services, social care, benefits, the Armed Forces, climate change budgets, education or other areas that have lost so much in recent years.

This is not a simply a debate—and, in the other place, a decision—on the agreement and the declaration before us. This is genuinely a moment of national re-imagination; exciting and hope-filled, but also deeply dangerous in some ways. We have had such before; we need not despair.

Another verse from the Bible, from Proverbs in the King James version, says:

“Where there is no vision, the people perish”.

The withdrawal agreement and political declaration are mainly about process, not vision and outcome. Whichever way we go, there must be a vision for justice and fairness, with economic, political, and visionary moral foundations secure enough to bear any storms or shocks that may come. The process must then lay the foundations to fulfil such a vision. That should be the test for our voting.


Baroness Smith of Newnham (LD)…The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury reminded us of Psalm 121, which talks about mine eyes looking up to the hills. The political declaration is something of a mirage. As the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, suggested, it is vague and does not deliver on the expectations generated by leavers or the Prime Minister…

Viscount Astor (Con): My Lords, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury quoted the King James Bible when he spoke. I offer a quote from a rather different hymn sheet, as it were:

“Welcome to the Hotel California … You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave”.

​That Eagles hit from 1976 rather aptly describes the one flaw in the Government’s exit proposal…

Lord Wallace of Saltaire (LD):…If we are to pursue the reconciliation for which the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury rightly calls to heal the wounds that the 2016 referendum exposed, we have to tackle inequality, poverty and social divisions within this country. It will be easier to achieve that reconciliation if we sustain the foundations for Britain’s long-term prosperity and security within the EU rather than through this flawed deal.

Lord Hodgson of Astley Abbotts (Con)…The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, in his remarks this morning, urged us to look to the long term. This issue is nothing if not long-term. It is perfectly true that the Government have not done much to close down or control arrivals from outside the EU, over which they already have complete control. However, a key result of this negotiation is that we now have a tap which can regulate the flow of labour into this country from the EU, and provided we have the political will, we can turn it…

Lord Garnier (Con)… I fear that we are witnessing an accelerating descent into political chaos which will make what has happened so far look like a pretty well-organised affair. I also fear that, unless things take a remarkable turn for the better, the United Kingdom will, for want of an agreed policy and the ​political will to unify the contestants in Parliament and outside it, get to 29 March next year with no deal in place, and with all the difficulties for our economy, our cohesion as a country and our well-being that have been mentioned by several today, and most pointedly by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury in his telling contribution….

Lord Lea of Crondall (Lab): My Lords, we all have to be highly selective in this debate but, before I address the central question of where we go from here, as the right reverend Prelate is on his way out, I would like to express my accord with the remarks he made and how many nails he knocked on the head, referring to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury…

Lord Framlingham (Con)…In his speech today, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury mentioned the need for vision. As a nation with all that we have to offer the world, we should show self-belief without arrogance, conviction without pomposity, determination without aggression, competition without rancour and leadership without conceit…

Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach (Con)…However, I have been profoundly impressed by the referendum. It gave a voice to people. They spoke loudly and clearly, and it exposed the deep divisions in our society—on which the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke eloquently this morning. These divisions will not be solved by the technicalities of customs unions, tariffs and so on; they go much deeper…

…Already the political class of which we are part is discredited. As the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York was reported in the press as saying—he was after all a High Court judge in the country of his birth—such a lack of trust leads to a permanent loss of confidence in political institutions and the road to civil unrest and violence.​..

…Finally, I would like to give a personal note; I do not often make these. This is the end of the day, but I will go back to the beginning of the day. I do not often make Prayers in this House. During the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle’s Prayers this morning—the two psalms that we read, and the prayers, which were followed by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury—I was particularly struck by them saying that our prayers are real. I was struck by our praying, first, to lay aside prejudices—that really hit me between the eyes—secondly, for wisdom greater than our own; and thirdly, that we should have above all, as we approach the subject, humility.

Day 2:

Lord Hunt of Wirral (Con)…The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke movingly of reconciliation, and that is a theme I will develop briefly in my few words this morning. His sentiments were echoed by the authentic voice of Wales in the closing contribution yesterday evening. My noble friend Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach ended his speech with a call for us to “lay aside prejudices” and pray for,

“wisdom greater than our own”,—[Official Report, 5/12/18; col. 1108.]

and for “humility”.

My noble friend’s eloquent call for humility has a strong resonance with me—and not only because I was born in Wales. In a time of strife, there is great wisdom in humility, whereas dogmatic and entrenched positions serve our nation poorly…

Baroness Taylor of Bolton (Lab)…The nature of economic and social change over recent years has been dramatic. In the recent Budget debate, the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, gave a brilliant analysis of what is happening at the moment. We heard from the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, and others about the social problems just yesterday in this debate. These are real, and my concern is that any delay will make them worse…

Baroness Kennedy of The Shaws (Lab)…You can be sure that employment protections will disappear if there is no deal. Part-time workers, who are mainly women, are protected—they have holiday pay, maternity rights and so on—yet we hear a constant moan about the burden of those employee protections on business. That is not a burden; it is what decent ​societies expect of good employers. As the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury said yesterday, there are moral issues at the heart of this debate, and we should not forget it…

Lord Robathan (Con)…In this very fraught and difficult debate, I have heard some quite excellent speeches. Some I agree with, some I do not: I cannot pretend that I shall emulate them. It is of course invidious to name names, but I will name two. One is the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, who took a very incisive look at where our society is. I was impressed, although I did not agree with everything we said. The other is the noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, who is in his place and whose exposition, having read the Hansard ​report of the debate in 2015 in the other place setting up the referendum, was absolutely excellent—I may refer to it later…

Lord Horam (Con)…All our problems are better faced with the liberal democracies of western Europe sticking together. As the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his introductory remarks, quoting Proverbs, we need some vision. My heavens, we do.


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