THE Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, has condemned the corruption of public discourse in the Brexit debate, telling politicians “to model good ways of disagreeing well”.
Bishop Baines spoke at the beginning of the second reading of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill in the House of Lords on Tuesday. “We are in danger of securing an economic platform at the expense of a culture of respect and intelligent democratic argument,” he said.
He told peers that the Brexit referendum “tore off the veneer of civilised discourse in this country, and unleashed an undisguised language of suspicion, denigration, hatred, and vilification.”
The Withdrawal Bill is the legislation that will transfer all EU law into the UK legal system after Brexit. It has already passed through the House of Commons. Critics say that it gives the Government too much power to change the law without having to consult Parliament.
Bishop Baines said that Brexit had “unleashed the normalisation of lies”, and that politicians should be “moderating their language and engaging in intelligent, informed, and respectful argument that chooses to eschew personalised or generalised vindictiveness or violence”.
The former Brexit minister Lord Bridges said that Britain could no longer “just muddle through” its withdrawal from the EU. “Keeping every option open is no longer an option.”
He said that the Government needed to decide what kind of country it wanted the UK to be after Brexit: “Only once we have answered this question can we properly and fully answer the second question: what agreement do we want to strike with the European Union?”
He asked: “What do we value more? Parliamentary sovereignty and control? Or market access and trade?
“Four months on, and there are still no clear answers to these basic, critical questions. All we hear, day after day, are conflicting, confusing voices.”
Lord Bridges went on: “At this pivotal moment in our history, we cannot, we must not, indulge in that very British habit of just muddling through.
“With under 300 working days until we leave the European Union, we need to know the Government’s answers to these simple questions.”
Bishop Baines also looked to the future: “As we debate the legislative detail, we must not lose sight of the point of it all. At the end of this process, what sort of Britain — and Europe — do we want to inhabit?
“The economy is not an end in itself, but rather a means to an end . . . which is about human flourishing and the Common Good.”
He said that the Government “must avoid Brexit Britain turning into Tudor Britain” through the use of so-called Henry VIII powers, which allow the Government to amend legislation with little external scrutiny.
The Leader of the House, Baroness Evans, had begun the two-day debate by telling peers that the powers in the Withdrawal Bill were “vital to a smooth and orderly exit from the EU”.
She said that, while she understood the concerns that peers had about “delegated powers”, such powers were needed to provide the “discretion that this unique situation calls for”.
The Labour peer Lord Adonis said that the public should be given a “final say” on any Brexit deal; and Lord Mandelson warned the Government not to “behave as if it has a blank cheque to take Britain out of the EU in just about any vandalistic way it chooses”.