Speech: Jim Wallace – Progressives must come together to work to heal our fractured country

Jim Wallace delivered this speech in the House of Lords on Tuesday. We thought readers might wish to read it in full.

My Lords, as I expressed during our discussions last week, I was devastated by the result of the referendum. I, along with many Noble Friends and many Liberal Democrats, have a profound and deep-rooted commitment to partnership with our European neighbours. Internationalism is in our very DNA. Our commitment is not to an institution in a particular form; rather it is a commitment to the beliefs and ideals of the wider European undertaking– of a peaceful, prosperous and united Europe, kindling a spirit of reconciliation and mutual cooperation among members.

This is something that I and many Noble Friends have striven for our entire political lives. So the result of the referendum last week is felt very personally on these benches.

We cannot be expected to give up core beliefs – nor will we. We believe that Britain should be an outward looking country which can thrive, innovate and lead in an open, global economy. A country which works with those who share our values to overcome our common adversaries and sees the future benefits of close relations with our neighbours and natural partners, investing in each other’s economies and sharing in prosperity so that Britain can be even greater than it is now. The cry to ‘Take Back Our Country’ is not one to which I would subscribe, because I do not believe that I ever lost my country. Reflecting the words of my much-missed friend Charles Kennedy, I too have multiple identities – Scottish, British and European.

My Lords, I am also a democrat. And so I accept and respect the result of the referendum, even if I am saddened by it. I also approach the result with some humility, as I know that I have to accept my fair share of the responsibility not just for the result of the referendum, but for the collective failure of politicians, institutions and the media to make the positive case for the EU and the benefits that it brings to this country.

The referendum should give everyone in public life pause for thought. Too often the European Union was used as a distraction from failures in government. As my Hon. Friend the Member for Westmoreland and Lonsdale, Tim Farron, has said, the vote was a collective howl of frustration at the political class, at big business, and at the global elite.

My very deep concern, my Lords, is that as we go forwards there is likely to be more dissatisfaction, and more frustration, as people realise that much of what they have been promised will not be possible. The sad reality is that the alternatives offered by the Leave campaign will do nothing to help those in England’s poorer regions, not least because the Leave campaign offered very contradictory positions of what life outside the European Union will be like.

This, my Lords, poses very fundamental questions for liberal democracy and to parliamentary democracy, which is based on attention to evidence, reasoned debate, willingness to compromise and tolerance. Politics involves and endless conversation in which we learn about other people and see things from their point of view, trying to balance their needs against our own. You recognise the existence of different groups, interests and opinions and try to balance or reconcile those interests. As Bernard Crick wrote in his book, “In Defence of Politics”:
“Politics is a way of ruling divided societies without undue violence.”

Yet we have seen some very troubling and violent scenes since 23rd June. We have seen that anger and frustration be translated into some very nasty incidents of racism and xenophobia. Scores of racist encounters have been documented online. Over the course of the weekend following the vote, the National Police Chiefs’ Council revealed that hate crimes reported to the police had risen 57% compared to the corresponding days four weeks previously.

The Brexit votes seems to have legitimised the prejudice of some people to the point where they are targeting people who are visibly different. Of course it’s a small minority who perpetrate such outrages, but to the victims, the impact is 100%, and to the communities from which the victims come, the fear is all too real. My Lords, this is completely unacceptable. It must stop. This is not my Britain.

My Lords, I believe that there are many layers and facets to why so many people voted to leave the European Union. The vote was symbolic of a rejection of British multiculturalism; of concerns about pressures on our schools, hospitals and GP surgeries; the housing crisis; the banking crisis; insecurities about employment and the decline of traditional industries.

For me, my Lords, the answers to these questions, are both domestic and international. There is much than can be done in Westminster, and there is much that could have been done standing shoulder to shoulder with our European neighbours. And if those that led the campaign to leave the EU have answers, we need to hear them now.

Do they want to be in the single market or not? What level, if any, of freedom of movement do they wish to see?? How will they retain the City’s ‘passported’ access to European financial markets? Which taxes will go up and what spending will go down?

How will they secure a bright future for our children and young people? One of the defining features of the reaction to the referendum outcome has been the utter dismay and even anger of young people, who believe that they have been deprived of the opportunities and freedoms which our post-war generation came to take for granted. Whichever side of the referendum divide we were on, we owe it to our young people to keep alive hope and establish co-operative links which will provide opportunity.

My Lords, there is a host of unanswered questions and during this debate, a number of my noble friends will want to pose a number of them from their particular areas of expertise. I hope the Noble Lady, the Minister, will take this in the spirit that it is intended – some constructive suggestions to feed into the work of the unit that is being led by the Rt. Hon. Member for West Dorset, Mr Letwin.

For my part, my Lords, I would like to concentrate on some further constitutional questions, in particular the role of Parliament and of your Lordships’ House.

Last week I asked about the process for triggering Article 50. I still await an answer.

Article 50 states:

Any Member State may decide to withdraw from the Union in accordance with its own constitutional requirements.

However, there is currently very little clarity as to what the UK’s “constitutional requirements” are in this regard. Will this be done by the Prime Minister acting alone, using Royal Prerogative powers? Will there be consultation with Parliament, or a debate and vote in both Houses? Does the Prime Minister need the consent of Parliament to act? Should there be legislation? There has been much debate and discussion as to how Article 50 might be triggered, but there is no legal certainty.

My Lords, whilst I can see that there is a case for leaving to the new Prime Minister, the issue of ‘when’ to trigger Article 50, this administration must surely have a view as to ‘how’ it should be triggered. It would be of benefit to Parliament and the country for the position to be clarified as soon as possible.

Secondly, my Lords, what will be the role of Parliament in carrying out its scrutiny functions and its important constitutional duty in holding the Government to account during the process of negotiation with the other EU member states? What part can be played by the European Union Select Committee of this House, and by the European Scrutiny Committee in the Other Place? It would be extremely helpful to have an indication of the principles which will underpin parliamentary scrutiny of this process.

And how will the Government involve Parliament in deciding which laws and regulations that have derived from Europe we will keep and which we will replace? Once these decisions have been made clearly much legislation will be needed to give effect to this process. Can the Noble Lady, the Minister, confirm that Parliament will retain its important scrutiny function in this regard?

There are of course wider constitutional implications following the result of the referendum. Scotland and Northern Ireland both voted strongly to remain in the EU. How will the Government consult with the Scottish Parliament – not just the Government – to ensure that the needs of Scotland are properly reflected in the negotiations? Will Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Government officials be seconded to take part in the work of the special Cabinet Office unit?

As I said, I do not expect the Noble Lady, the Minister to respond to all of these questions today, nor do my Noble Friends. However, I would welcome a commitment from the Noble Lady, Baroness Anelay, that the unit under Mr. Letwin will give the most fulsome consideration to the issues that we on these benches are raising today, and that she will return to this House, on a periodic basis, to ensure that we are kept well-informed on the progress of negotiations and that the Government will make good use of the expertise in this House going forwards.

But in the meantime, my Lords, I am concerned at what seems to be the abdication of responsibility by the Government in relation to a number of matters. It’s only the sixth sitting day since the referendum, but already we are tiring of the expression,

“The Prime Minister has been clear that decisions on issues relating to the UK’s exit will be for a new Prime Minister. I am therefore not in a position to make new policy announcements in this area.”

But on one issue, in particular, this administration can take a lead and state unequivocally the EU nationals settled in this country can continue to stay. The case for such an unequivocal commitment was eloquently made by the noble lord, Lord Dobbs yesterday.

What kind of morality would make bargaining chips of the lives and livelihoods of people legally and responsibly settled here, their families, their livelihoods, their hopes? My Lords, it’s not even as if it is a practical bargaining position. A government which can’t even manage to deport foreign criminals with no right to remain, is not credibly going to be able to deport up to three million EU citizens. In its dying days, surely the Prime Minister and his Ministers can show some moral fibre and pull something honourable, decent and fair out of the wreckage of his government?

Nor do we need to await negotiations with 27 other EU countries to start tackling some of the real divisions that we are seeing in our country. Progressives can come together, now, to work to heal our fractured country. We can come together, to fight for a common cause – a better future for all the people of the UK.

There is so much more that unites us than divides us. We cannot let this unity fade away.

* Jim Wallace is leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and was Deputy First Minister of Scotland from 1999-2005.

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  • Barry Snelson 7th Jul '16 - 6:57pm

    If this could have been kept to 500 words it would have been better. And better still at 50.

  • Our friend Jim Wallace has covered many issues, and done it well. But it is not easy at present, with effectively no prime minister and effectively no main opposition party.

    The referendum having been such a dirty fight, and with both sides having been supported by factions of nearly all parties, we are in disarray.

    Among other things, do we not need a constitutional convention to look at a range of issues, including our voting system for Westminster?

    Paul King

  • Whilst I agree with the general thrust, this is is cast necessarily in “lordism” words! I have met Mr Wallace, and also Sal Brinton, both of whom I respect. We as a a party should be campaigning for a second referendum on “the negotiated settlement” (which is likely to be highly negative) versus the status quo (minus what Cameron negotiated, which I fear is lost). Not another general election! Such a crude instrument, particularly as we do not have PR! People vote in general elections for a multiplicity of reasons. No, one referendum, with no clear plan. must lead to another referendum on the two alternatives – the negotiated versus the status quo. If we confirm the a bad negotiated, almost certainly Scotland would leave the UK, possibly a united Ireland, and Wales separating?

  • Yes, EU citizens legally and responsibly settled here should be able to stay and British citizens legally and responsibly settled in the EU should be able to stay there.

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