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Archbishop of Canterbury speaks in the Lords on the EU Withdrawal Agreement

05 December 2018

Archbishop Welby spoke in the House of Lords on Wednesday, in a debate on the EU Withdrawal Agreement. This is what he said:


“MY LORDS, of the choices of psalm that form part of our daily prayers in the Lords, we have Psalm 46, which we heard today – “The nations are in uproar, the kingdoms totter” – and Psalm 121, which we will doubtless hear tomorrow: “I lift up mine eyes to the hills, my help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

Eyes need to be lifted now more than ever. . . The withdrawal agreement and the political declaration are essentially political more than economic. The debate has moved on from the referendum campaign, which was the other way round.

Another change is that, as we know particularly since yesterday evening, the great decisions are now left firmly in the hands of Parliament, as is right. The decision as to this agreement and consequent legislation is thus about not just the immediate politics but national policy and identity, our future place in the world and how we develop it. It is long term, for the child born yesterday, and not just for parliamentarians today. And it must be made in the interests of those who will be here for the long term. In the midst of political struggle, that is a very hard thing to do, but it is the calling of parliament and one to which it has risen in equal crises in the past.

In what way will we be able to be the kind of nation we want to be? It is obvious that no agreement is ever final. It was many, many years ago, in 1845, that Palmerston said: “We have no eternal alliances. We have only eternal interests.” So, no agreement is final, least of all the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration, both of which I’ve read in their entirety, which make it clear that so much is left open in deciding our future and our relationships with the EU27 and around the world. That might be an advantage or a disadvantage.

What is obvious is that we are choosing a new path. For although Remainer. . . I fully accept the decision of the referendum, which must now be implemented, and the shape of which is in the hands of Parliament and particularly of the other place. With that responsibility, there is a moral agency and moral choice, and it is that that should guide our votes. It must reflect a genuinely hopeful vision for our nation and its place, because there is a hope and global influence, a vision of that to be grasped, in this country, with proper leadership.

Second, whichever way we go, there is a requirement for national reconciliation, for restating what the Noble Lord, Lord Sachs, calls “core values of civilised discourse”, and for ensuring that they are lived out. The negative impact of the previous referendum is why I see another one as a possible but not immediately preferable choice, and then only if Parliament has failed in its responsibilities.

Reconciliation is an area for civil society, for faith groups, but it is also largely the responsibility of any government. It is a process that takes generations, and thus will affect not only the current government but subsequent ones. I wonder what specific commitment will the Noble Baroness the Leader of the House, and for that matter the Noble Baroness, Baroness Smith, and other leaders of groups and parties make to future governments purposefully working on reconciliation in this House and across politics and across the nation. We have heard much about its need, but nothing about its methods.

Third, economically, we know that there are many and diverse views of the outcome of this agreement, of no agreement, or of other possibilities, and we know that no forecast is certain - that has become very clear over the last two and a half years. But the risk we face now is not a decision to leave without an agreement, it is an accidental leaving without an agreement. We may drift into something that no single person chooses as their ideal. And if that happens, or even with some of the other options we have, there is a significant danger of adverse economic effect, with a fall in government revenue, a rise in unemployment, and greater poverty. Some will argue that is only going to be temporary, but we need to remember that, for those in poverty, temporary is an eternity.

It must be the clear policy of this and all future governments, after so many years of austerity, borne so often by the poorest, that the burden of the transition to a post-EU economy, if there is a burden, must be carried by those with the broadest shoulders - the wealthiest - and not by further cuts, whether in local services, social care, benefits, the armed forces, climate change budgets, education, or others that have lost so much in recent years.

My Lords, this is not simply a debate – and, in the other place, a decision – on the agreement and the declaration that are before us. This is genuinely a moment of national reimagination - exciting and hope-filled, but also deeply dangerous in some ways. We have had such before: we need not despair.

Another verse from the Bible, from the Proverbs, in the King James Version, says: “When there is no vision, the people perish.” The Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration are mainly about process, not vision and outcome. Whichever way we go, there must be a context of a vision for justice and fairness, in which its economic, its political, and its visionary moral foundations must be secure enough to bear any storms of shocks that may come. And the process must then lay the foundations to fulfil such a vision. And that should be the test of our voting.”

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