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.

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Lord Dykes Portrait Lord Dykes
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My Lords, it is always a great honour and pleasure—I say that deliberately and with emphasis —to follow such an excellent speech by the noble Baroness, Lady Quin. She is one of our champions of the cause of Europe and we thank her for all the work she has been doing in the campaign for us to stay in the European Union, which she would prefer, as I would. We may have to face an alternative outcome but, none the less, what she said was, as usual, very wise; if only the Government could listen more wisely to that and her points, we would be in a better state. Unfortunately, the Government still seem to have not only a lack of democratic support in all their antics and activities, but also a closed mind about this matter of our membership of the European Union.

I agree with the meaning of what she was saying about the union flag. We are all proud of the national flag, but it is not the only thing we are proud of. We can be proud of going down to our village or our town, our county, our region, our country—one of four in the United Kingdom, England being the biggest and with, perhaps, sadly, more of a Brexit component in its voting propensities last time than in other parts in terms of percentages—and proud of the European Union, which has been one of the greatest achievements of all. I think the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, was reflecting the majority of speakers in this debate. If you go through the list, you will see how strong, once again, the majority for remaining in the European Union is in the House of Lords.

“Never since the second world war has Europe been so essential. Yet never has Europe been in such danger. Brexit stands as a symbol of that. It symbolises the crisis of a Europe that has failed to respond to its people’s need for protection from the major shocks of the modern world. It also symbolises the European trap. The trap lies not in being part of the European Union; the trap is in the lie and the irresponsibility that can destroy it. Who told the British people the truth about their post-Brexit future? Who spoke to them about losing access to the”,

huge EU internal market?

“Who mentioned the risks to peace in Ireland of restoring the border? Retreating into nationalism offers nothing; it is rejection without an alternative. And this is the trap that threatens the whole of Europe: the anger mongers, backed by fake news, promise anything and everything.

We have to stand firm, proud and lucid, in the face of this manipulation and say first of all what Europe is. It is a”,


“historic success: the reconciliation of a devasted continent is an unprecedented project of peace, prosperity and freedom. Let’s never forget that”.

I would like to say that those are my words but, sadly, they are not. I have to confess that they were the wise words of the President of the Republic of France, Emmanuel Macron, in an opinion piece in one of our more sensible newspapers on 6 March this year. That wisdom is needed now in this country as well. People have to answer those questions and search their minds, asking what people really think.

However, the dark clouds are there not only in the guise of the Prime Minister and the Government but in the British press, which we have to suffer. It has a very strange mixture of journals, as we know. Following the sinister and ruthless raid on the decent British press by Murdoch years ago and, subsequent to that, the activities of other non-UK personal-tax-paying owners—how convenient—many years ago as well as now, we have a cluster of increasingly neo-fascist comics masquerading as newspapers, with only a few credible papers left. The Daily Mirror has had to be a dramatic, colourful tabloid to keep up with the threat of competition from the Sun, but it has very sensible general, economic and political standing and opinions, and it is very keen on the European Union. Therefore, we have the Daily Mirror as a tabloid and at, I suppose, the other end of the spectrum the Guardian and the Financial Times, but we do not have any others.

It is one of the tragedies that the press’s effect has been so massive, understandably, on very disgruntled voters in this country. They voted as they did in the referendum mainly because they were disgruntled, fed up with their lot and wanted to give the Government a kick in the teeth. That is a natural habit of all voters in referendums, and it has been experienced in other countries across the world. That was the main thing. It was not really anything to do with the intrinsic nature of Europe, although that was part of it; it was mainly that they were just fed up with their lot, fed up with austerity and fed up with the then Conservative Government and their austerity programme. I could quote from other respectable papers.

We are now suffering from Boris Johnson and all his antics and activities, and it will get worse before it gets better. He appears to have become more reasonable in the last few days because he has had to surrender—what a terrible word—to the pressure and wisdom of the EU negotiators, who have pointed out to him the realities of the modern world. However, the Prime Minister,

“is not a consistent upholder of proper process at all. On the contrary, he is a shameless and serial abuser of it. This week, the damage being done to this country by this most untrustworthy of prime ministers is scattered as far as the eye can see”.

I agree with that and, again, I wish that those were my words but they appeared on 8 October in one of the more sensible papers that I have just mentioned. The next paragraph of that article continues:

“Only two weeks ago, do not forget, Mr Johnson suffered probably the most humiliating constitutional reprimand ever inflicted on a British prime minister, when the supreme court unanimously dismissed his five-week prorogation of parliament as unlawful. The judges found that his move breached the principle that a government must be held to account by a sovereign parliament. The embarrassing implication was that Mr Johnson misled the Queen”.

I do not know how others in this House felt about the State Opening on Monday. I thought it was depressing and sad. I felt very great sympathy for Her Majesty. I must not bring her into any political context at all, but she looked very sad and unsmiling. I felt sympathy for her too with this problem that we have in this country, which must now be dealt with properly and with proper action. The main things that we need to focus on again are the advantages of our membership of the European Union and what it really means.

I once again say to the House: what is the Brexiteers’ ridiculous, old-fashioned, 100 year-old obsession with getting back so-called national sovereignty? It is totally meaningless in the modern world, the world of interaction and interchange, with multinational, multiracial countries —as we are too, and becoming more interesting because of it—rather than the old-fashioned island we were even after the Second World War.

What is the intrinsic meaning of such old-fashioned sovereignty—150 years old, even—which no longer exists for any country, even the United States? I suppose that China might possibly think that it has that kind of sovereignty because of its huge growth and development in recent years. In reality, every country has to work with the others. The European Union provides that apparatus, machine and structure for giving rational interaction between member countries for the good of everybody. Sovereignty in the EU goes up as people make collective decisions within the system of sovereign countries working within integrated institutions that agree mainly through treaties and other things such as majority voting, with COREPER making decisions as well—all those things down below at the various stages. That is not losing national sovereignty and control of events in this country.

European Union legislation is only a minority of our total picture: most of our legislation is still national. The European issue was not really at all high on the barometers of this country until Cameron made the fatal mistake of becoming obsessed with it because he was terrified of UKIP—the Brexit Party more recently. That was his mistake. When he first became an MP, we had a long conversation—we were both Conservative MPs. He told me emphatically that any Tory leader must make sure that they did not get overly obsessed by the European issue. Look at the mistakes made by Cameron, May and—now, on a gigantic scale—Boris Johnson. We see the whole tragedy unfolding once again before our eyes.

There is only one solution. It is not even to say, “Let’s maybe accept some kind of gradualist deal”, as the noble Lord, Lord Butler, said—I sympathise with some of his arguments—but to say, “No, we resist this”, and see what the public say. The national march on 19 October will show a huge number of people who want to stay in the European Union. That is the only viable future for Britain.