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 it. The Bishop of Leeds, Rt Revd Nick Baines, spoke in the debate:
The Lord Bishop of Leeds: My Lords, I wish that I could pack as much into a single speech as the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, but I defy the challenge.
It is perhaps not a bad idea at this stage in the debate just to take a step back and to remember what the point of all this is. I was doing “Thought for the Day” on Radio 4 this morning and picked up on three words from the title of a Theos think-tank report on resilience in the north-east of England—people, place and purpose. They are three words that offer us a lens through which to see what all this is about. I endorse what the most reverend Primate said this morning in his speech.
Whatever the ultimate outcome, one of the legacies of the Brexit process thus far is, as I have said before, a corruption of public discourse, polarisation between people and communities, and a too frequent reduction of the polity to the merely economic. People are now too often categorised as either Punch or Judy; argument and nuance are dismissed in favour of emotive ad hominem judgment.
I understand that the withdrawal agreement is necessarily a technical means of achieving a political end, but the political declaration is aspirational in its language without offering a big vision for a society that is more than an economic market. Aspiration is good, but it needs to be accompanied by some articulated obligations and accountabilities. Therefore, I repeat the question that has come out in this debate: what is the big vision for British society, not just trade relationships, into which the technical agreement fits as a mechanism? What is the vision, and what is the future that we are asking our young people to build?
To be biblical for a moment, when Moses led the people of Israel out of captivity after 400 years in Egypt, they did not go straight to the promised land; they spent 40 years in the desert. There, a whole generation of romanticisers about the past died out. That is the point. You have to let a generation go in order to have a new generation that can envision and build a new society fired by their own imagination and not something that they were simply required to inherit from their forebears. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tugendhat, that today we are talking about process and not event. I, along with my right reverend colleagues in this place, see deep divisions and significant challenges every day in our communities, and they will not be resolved immediately. In fact, they might define the next generation while we go through a sort of desert and all this gets sorted out. However, I do not believe that all this will evaporate merely by coming to a conclusion. This is not a zero-sum game and it must not become that.
The deal before us has the virtue of being a compromise. Compromise is often spoken of pejoratively, but it is a good thing because it assumes that people have listened to opposing arguments. They have weighed things up in the balance. They know that there might not be a perfect answer but they weigh things up and come to a judgment, and then together try to work out what is best for the common good. I may be naive but I do not believe that anyone could have got a better deal because, frankly, the people they were negotiating with would have been the same and the maths would have been the same, and we would have ended up with the same narrow criteria having to be worked through. It is a fantasy to say that someone else could have come up with a better compromise. That does not address the question of whether this compromise is acceptable but the options were never vast, even if some of the fantasies about Brexit were ridiculous. It was clear from the beginning that some circles were never capable of being squared, and the Government should have been honest about that from the word go.
I confess to being bewildered. I have heard some very powerful speeches today and in one sense I could go either way. I want to vote against an agreement that leaves the country poorer and possibly more isolated. I want to vote against a deal that commands so little support across the country or even in this building but is being pushed as a binary choice. Yet I also want to vote for it, mainly because a compromise was always going to be costly and this one gives both sides something, if not everything, that they wished for. However, I also want to abstain, as I think that the choice before us compels a short-term decision that might have medium to longer-term negative consequences. “No deal” is a failure to deal. This deal reduces the sovereignty—or control—that Brexit was supposed to recover and simply loses us the rather good deal that we already have within the EU. Another referendum is a risk, but it cannot be said to diminish parliamentary democracy any more than the first referendum did—that pass was sold in 2016.
I am in a difficult place, so I will carry on listening to the debate and then make my mind up on Monday. However, assuming, as I do, that there is no ideal outcome—that whatever outcome we come to will have us poorer than we are at the moment—in conclusion I would like to address two or three principles that might be getting lost but which might be worth bearing in mind as we go forward.
First, whatever the outcome of this process, how are we to take responsibility for what we have done and for shaping the United Kingdom and the Europe of the future? We do not just sail off into the sunset and say, “Now that’s all up to them”. I have no doubt that the United Kingdom, if it remains intact, will grow a younger generation who will create a prosperous and creative future for our islands, even if we suffer short-term loss. But the generation that has led us into this mess—my generation—might have to make way for those who can shape a new narrative for our collective future, and they will not be helped by self-exonerating blame games by those of us who can see ourselves only as victims. A new sort of leadership will be needed in future that can rise above the divisions and seeks to reconcile and unite people around a common vision for more than trade and economics.
Secondly, when we speak of “we” and “us”, that must include the EU 27. The demonisation of those remaining in the EU is infantile, counterproductive and unhelpful. If our language reflects who we are, then we are going to have a problem encouraging the next generation to speak, relate and behave like adults.
Finally, very briefly, whatever Brexit looks like in the end, we will still be left with the massive challenges of poverty, homelessness, debt, food banks, poor health among too many people, challenges in education when children come to school hungry, and so on—I could go on and on. We must move on to face the challenges of the NHS, castrated local authorities, transport failures, infrastructure and other consequences of a decade of austerity. The EU cannot be blamed for that lot.
If a divided people are once again to know that they belong—whichever way they voted in the referendum—they will need to hear from this place an articulation of vision, hope and reconciliation: that people in all places have a common purpose that is worth adopting.