Speaking in today’s House of Lords debate on the Brexit White Paper, the Bishop of Leeds warned about the long-term legacy of the corruption of political discourse as well as the UK’s disadvantage at the negotiating table because of our linguistic paucity.
The Rt Revd Nick Baines said that when we don’t speak the language of the negotiators, we’re on the back foot and can’t negotiate intelligently because we don’t understand their mindset and culture - and their perceptions of us.
And referring to what he called “the sheer dishonesty of the language and rhetoric of the last couple of years” in the debates over Brexit, he said, "Honesty and integrity - the essential prerequisites of moral culture are being sacrificed on the altar of mere political or personal pragmatism.”
The full text is below:
Brexit White Paper (HoL) speech, 23 July 2018
My Lords, others noble Lords are addressing details ... which leaves me to take a step back to look at culture. At Committee stage of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill I spoke about such matters as the corruption of the public discourse - asking that we do not lose sight of the end to which Brexit is supposed to be the means. I tried to pose the existential questions of who we think we are and for whom we are doing what we are doing. However, the debate has coarsened, the ideological divide deepened, and poor use of language worsened.
What I have to say has nothing to with Leave or Remain, but where we are now and what shape we might be in the future.
Weren’t we all embarrassed by the mockery in European media at the UK government’s attempts to translate the White Paper into other languages - German being the most obvious? Were we not aware that professionally you always translate into your native tongue, not out of it? It seems that not only are we islanders hopeless at learning languages, but we still don’t even see or understand the cost of our hopelessness.
Surely, the first requirement of any negotiation is that the negotiators understand the mindset, culture, language and perceptions of the opposite number - get inside their head, look through their eyes and listen through their ears. If I don’t understand what I, we and the world look like through the eyes of my interlocutor, I can’t begin to negotiate intelligently. This goes well beyond figures, facts and tactics; it goes deeper from the superficial to the emotional and subliminal. It is where we discover what actually moves and shapes the mindset, reactions and behaviours of those with whom we seek to trade. Yet, here we are, unable or unwilling to speak the language of those with whom we think we can reach agreement. We just tell them they have to see everything as we do.
The problem, of course, is that most of those with whom we deal in the EU do speak our language, do get behind the words to the mindset, and, therefore, are in a stronger position from the outset.
I labour this point not in order to grind an axe about the poverty of language learning in the UK - seen as a priority in other countries - but because my earlier concerns about the culture generated by Brexit have deepened. How are ‘the people’ to read a former Foreign Secretary who resigns and immediately and unaccountably earns a fortune from a newspaper column? Or an MP for North East Somerset who moves his business investment interests abroad whilst telling the rest of us that we will experience the benefits of Brexit over the next fifty years (which, by my reckoning, means we still have another ten years or so in which to work on the benefits of EU membership)? Neither of these men will suffer the negative consequences of any form of Brexit. And this is not even a party or partisan matter.
This is a moral issue. In the same way that the US President has normalised lies and relativised truth (‘alternative facts’ and all that stuff, for example), we have descended into a non-rational lobbing of slogans and empty promises and damnations from trench to trench. Honesty and integrity - the essential prerequisites of moral culture are being sacrificed on the altar of mere political or personal pragmatism.
And this is at the core of my concern: the sheer dishonesty of much of the language and rhetoric of the last couple of years. If “the will of the people” matters so much, then shouldn’t the people be told the truth about the range of potential consequences of Brexit? If the government sees that the UK (and the EU) will suffer short- or medium term negativity in order to gain nirvana after a couple of decades or so, shouldn’t they actually say that? Explain that it is worth consigning a generation of young people to a poorer life because we need to take a longer-term view of the national good? If ‘the people’ can be trusted with a vote in a referendum, why can’t they be trusted with the truth rather than being patronised with endless polarising rhetoric?
What happens if the ‘will of the people’ turns out not to be ‘in the national interest’. And who defines these terms? Whose interests have priority? If we are attempting to square an unsquarable circle - whoever is PM -, then this should be admitted - not just lobbed back at the EU for them to resolve when they didn’t ask us to leave.
These are not arcane questions. The Prime Minister has said that we now need to “get on with Brexit”. Which, of course, begs the question as to what we have been doing thus far. The new Brexit Secretary promises “energy, vigour and pragmatism” ... as if these were laudable new ideas. But, they remain meaningless and vacuous if they are not underpinned by a respect for and an intelligent learning of the languages of our interlocutors in the EU.
(If we had been as committed to the EU as France is, and France had voted marginally for a Frexit, do we really think we would be taking seriously the flexing of Gallic muscles or belligerent demands for the best deal in the interests of France over against the integrity of the bloc? I think not.)
My Lords, we can talk about a second referendum, a general election, the change of Prime Minister in a party coup, the ‘taking back of control’ and so on. But, the questions of culture, of language, of dealing with the real world rather than some nostalgic fantasy couched in slogans: these will outlast any deal or no deal. Are we paying attention to who we shall be - not only seen through our own eyes, but also through the eyes of our neighbours, and also in the eye of our children, in the months and years to come?
This debate is not neutral.
Lord Bishop of Leeds