Wednesday 16th October 2019

(4 years, 9 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Alderdice Portrait Lord Alderdice (LD)
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My Lords, I do not intend to focus all that I wish to say solely on the question of Brexit, but there is one question that I would like to put to Her Majesty’s Government on that subject.

Before the referendum, I spoke on a number of occasions in your Lordships’ House and in other places about my fear, as a supporter of and as someone committed to the European project, that people’s minds and hearts were turning away from that project, and that if there were not serious efforts by those of us who are supporters of the European Union and those who are functionaries of the European Union, that disenchantment would continue and become more serious. Sadly, it has been so. There was not the kind of reform that might have changed the course of history in the last few years.

We are now in a position where in this country there are now really only two realistic positions as far as most people are concerned. One is the position of my party: although we accept that people voted by a small majority to leave, we remain committed to the European Union and wish to persuade people to change their minds on that, and, if we were in government, we would revoke Article 50. That is an honourable and intellectually credible position. The alternative position, held by those committed to Brexit, is also honourable and credible, although it is not one with which I agree and the arguments against it are substantial.

Given the background that I come from, I have become increasingly concerned about polarisation in the community.

Lord Dykes Portrait Lord Dykes (CB)
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I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I apologise for interrupting when he has just begun his speech. A lot of people refer to the need for reform in the EU but never say what they mean or suggest individual details of that reform. Would the noble Lord care to enlighten us?

Lord Alderdice Portrait Lord Alderdice
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I have given a number of speeches setting out exactly what I would suggest, and have suggested, over the years. I suggest that I continue with what I have to say, rather than focusing entirely on the question of Brexit and matters that have been gone over repeatedly.

My concern is that our country has become increasingly polarised by focusing on this question. It is not just in this country with Brexit. It is the zeitgeist all around the world: countries and communities are becoming deeply divided and polarised. This is a very serious situation. Therefore, my question to Her Majesty’s Government—which I have discussed with some of my own colleagues—is this: whatever the outcome, remain or leave, what are we going to do subsequently to bring our people together? Whatever the outcome, a large percentage of the population will feel deeply unhappy. That is not a satisfactory situation. There is now no widely accepted public narrative in our country. We must work hard to recreate it. It will not happen automatically. I look forward to hearing what Her Majesty’s Government believe they need to do and can do if they have their way on Brexit.

That leads me to the wider questions laid out in a remarkable speech by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, early in the debate yesterday. He mentioned a whole series of issues including the Kurds, Ukraine and Hong Kong. He described how we as a country cannot look with any great satisfaction or pride on our own role—or, in some cases, lack thereof—in those areas where we ought to have been able to take responsibility and have effect.

It is important not just to regret things but to try to understand why they have happened. One of the reasons is that, in today’s world—as is right—it is no longer acceptable to use overwhelming force against those with whom you disagree. It is also not effective. The United States has involved itself in a whole series of wars in Afghanistan, in Iraq, in assistance to us in Libya and in Syria. None of them has been successful. All have made the situation worse.

We must therefore really begin to reflect in a serious way on how the rules have changed. The rules of politics and intervention have changed. How we govern our world is changing in ways that we do not understand. In the Prayers at the start of the day, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Coventry laid out from the scriptures how those who behave with integrity and virtue will be blessed. Yes, at times that has been the case. However, I think that the words of the psalmist in Psalm 37, verse 35, are more appropriate:

“I have seen the wicked in great power, and spreading himself like a green bay tree”.

It looks as though wickedness, arrogance and abuse are getting further than virtue at the moment.

We need to think about what is going on and why this is happening. The character of war has changed. We now have hybrid warfare, in which the old, accepted rules of international engagement have disappeared. New technology is being used in unprecedented ways. People are not in a position where they think rationally about decisions because they are so moved by how they feel, affected by social media and fake news. There are other changes in warfare coming down the track that are not even being discussed.

There was a time when this House would have preoccupied itself with the prospect of nuclear war, and rightly so. It is back on the real agenda, if not on the debate agenda. I was talking recently with a friend from Mumbai who said he was shocked and dismayed to hear many thoughtful middle and upper-middle-class people saying that a nuclear war with Pakistan would solve their problems; they had no concept of how global the problems would become. And it is not just India and Pakistan; it is Saudi Arabia and Iran, the situation with North Korea—and, of course, all China’s neighbours are becoming increasingly anxious about how that is developing.

Neither we nor the public have been debating these issues, so preoccupied have we been with the problem of Brexit. That is not good leadership because, frankly, if we find ourselves in a war of that kind—we are already in a global cyber war—so many of the issues that we debate will ultimately become secondary.

So how do we address these kinds of problems? We do not address them by simply trying to reinforce the old ways. My noble friend Lord Campbell pointed out how NATO, upon which we depend, is falling to pieces. The Minister referred to “our ally Turkey”; well, “our ally Turkey” is doing things that we absolutely disavow and do not agree with at all. “Our ally Saudi Arabia”, as Her Majesty’s Government have referred to it, is consistently doing things that we do not identify with or support at all.

The situation is changing, and we must think carefully about that. What are Her Majesty’s Government going to do, inside this building and beyond, to enable us to think and reflect on the changing character of war and the importance of engaging with that? It is not about how many ships we have, how many people we have in GCHQ or how many people we are devoting to fighting the old wars, but about how we can get a debate.

Before the referendum, I was asked by my colleagues if I would conduct a pro-remain campaign in Northern Ireland. I said, “No”. They said, “Do you not believe in it?” I said, “I do”. They said, “Well then, why do you not want to do this?” I said, “Because I know what will happen. If I, as a former Alliance leader conducted a pro-remain campaign, the Alliance Party, Sinn Féin and the SDLP would all vote ‘Yes’, the Ulster Unionists and the DUP would vote ‘No’, and I would have contributed to deepening a division that I have spent much of my life trying to heal”. They said, “So what are you going to do?” I said, “I am going to get together with colleagues to conduct a public conversation where we will let all sides have their say, and encourage people to think and engage with the problems”.

We did that. We gave a platform to Mr Farage, and the more times he came to Northern Ireland, the more the remain camp increased. Yet he and his colleagues felt that they were being given a platform and given respect. We need a public conversation, and not just about Brexit; we have come to a point where I do not think there is much enlightenment to be had on that. We need a public conversation on issues of war and peace—issues which could bring not only our economy to a shuddering halt but our civilisation to a disastrous end.