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Hilary recently gave a speech as part of the Speaker's Lecture Series 2017 on the Future of Brexit.  Read the full transcript below.

I am very grateful to you Mr Speaker for inviting me to talk this evening about what is the defining British political decision of our generation.

On 23 June 2016, the country divided. It divided into leavers and remainers, and since the result was declared, we have become it seems to me a nation of optimists and pessimists respectively.

The optimists see nothing but benefit and opportunity from the UK’s departure from the European Union. An optimism perhaps unkindly described by Ken Clarke in his speech on the second reading of the Article 50 Bill thus:

apparently, when we follow the rabbit down the hole, we will emerge in a wonderland

The pessimists on the other hand see nothing but gloom and economic decline, and fear that having turned our back on our European neighbours and our largest market, we will become dependent on the willingness of other countries, some led by people we don’t much care for, to offer us trade deals.

And while around the world there are bright spots - the advance of democracy and the extraordinary progress humankind has made in reducing absolute poverty - the watchwords of our age are turmoil and uncertainty.

The continuing and bloody echoes of the Arab spring.

The struggle between the secular and the religious.

A resurgent Russia seeking to receive the velvet glove of respect while wielding an iron fist.

The inexorable dawning of a changing climate.

A rising global population that by the time my two grandchildren reach my age will be more than three times greater than when I was born.

And the relentless movement of people across the globe, whether they be fleeing conflict, escaping the consequences of that change in climate or simply seeking the better life that they see others living.

And for us, in western societies, this question hangs in the air: has the tale we have told ourselves for at least three generations - a story of optimism, onwards, upwards, better - reached its final page?

It is not hard to see why there is so much uncertainty. The global financial crash not only shook our economies; it also shook people’s confidence in our system.

I am of the generation that looks at what we have and is not entirely sure that the lives of our children will be as good as that which we have enjoyed, whether it be their chances of finding a decent and secure job, saving for a pension, being able to afford a home of their own, or living in a world where peace rather than conflict is the natural order of things.

And it was in these circumstances that concerns about immigration and change, the loss of what had been familiar, a wish not to be told by others what to do, stagnant wages, economic inequality, austerity, globalisation, a sense of powerlessness, a loss of identity, and a belief that somehow our country had given up that which had made it great – all these things led 52% of those who came out to vote on that Thursday to send us a message using the power of the ballot box.

It wasn’t so much about facts or even just about the EU. It was about the state of their lives and our politics, as experience, emotion and identity found a way of expressing themselves.

And if those of my constituents who resisted all of my arguments as to why they should vote remain were here today they would probably look us in the eye and say “You weren't listening to us. Well you’re listening now, aren’t you?”

And I say all that, not to make Michael’s argument in response for him, but simply to seek to understand why we are here now.

And we must also understand that the 48% too feel fear, and loss, and uncertainty and worry about a future they think will be worse because the progress and freedoms that the EU has brought will now be taken from them.

And that is why some of them were so angry about the passing of the Article 50 Bill in the House of Commons, even though it was a democratic necessity for which many of us voted.

So if we are to unite our divided nation we have to answer the central political question posed by the referendum.

How do we reconcile the two great forces of our age, reflected in the principles set out side by side by Winston Churchill and Franklin D Roosevelt in the Atlantic Charter of 1941?

The first; the self-evident truth that nations must work together to secure better economic and social conditions for all, as we deal with the great challenges we face as a world that pay no heed to  national borders. 
And the second, the innate thirst for self-determination so that people can shape their own future and have control in a world in which sometimes it seems that we have barely any control at all.

Understanding and responding to these forces is urgent and important work if we are to see off those populists who seek to exploit the frustration, fear and anger that people feel by promising a return to a fictitious golden age when their inward-looking nationalism is in fact a road to nowhere.

And the way in which some of them have sought to fan the flames of prejudice towards our fellow citizens, attack the independence of the judiciary and undermine a free media represents a threat to our way of life.

If the past century has taught us anything it is that international co-operation is at the heart of Britain’s economic and political security, and it was in the second half of that century that we came to realise that it was far better and more effective to be a global power that achieved its goals through the influence that comes from working with others, rather than by conquest.

Our future relationship with the EU – one of the poles of influence in our world – will therefore be critically important in our dangerous and uncertain times, with unpredictability to the east and to the west in the Kremlin and the White House.

So even though we are leaving the EU, we must preserve Europe’s influence and our voice within it, alongside the influence we retain through our membership of the UN Security Council, the Commonwealth and NATO.

And this means that in the negotiations to come we must seek the strongest possible continued cooperation on foreign policy, defence, security and the fight against terrorism with the other 27 member states.

Article 21 of the Lisbon Treaty makes clear that the EU:

shall seek to develop relations and build partnerships with third countries, and international, regional or global organisations which share… [its] principles”.

We should draw on this commitment and our existing relationship to create such a partnership – what I call a ‘European Common Foreign Policy Area’.

There are a range of ways in which this could be done – with goodwill - from informal arrangements to formal structures.

Professor Richard Whitman has proposed that the UK could still take part in EU foreign and security policy-making in the form of an EU+1 arrangement. This would allow UK ministers to attend the Foreign Affairs Council for relevant agenda items and, with the precedent set for participation by the US Secretary of State and the UN Secretary General, in the work of the Political and Security Committee and its working groups. This would allow us to align our foreign policy with that of our neighbours, where we wish to do so.

The UK could also seek to remain within the Common Security and Defence Policy - described by some as a ‘reverse Denmark’.

The European Council has always operated on the basis of unanimity on foreign and security policy, and that will of course continue.

But having the UK there also - being at the table in meetings, ideally as an active participant - would be in everyone's interests.

So the Government should make this a central goal in the Brexit negotiations from the start because we know from experience that by working shoulder-to-shoulder with our European neighbours - whether on standing up to Russia through sanctions, or countering piracy off the East Coast of Africa or helping to secure the Iran nuclear deal - we have kept our citizens safer than they would otherwise have been.

And even in the case of Syria’s refugees, for all the difficulties and the failures, imagine what it would have been like with no European Union seeking to find a way of managing the crisis.

We need to be forthright in defence of internationalism - and the rules-based system created out of the ashes of the Second World War -  especially in the face of the resurgent climate change deniers, the aid cutters and the isolationists who would have us turn away from our responsibilities one to another. If they ever succeeded, far from taking back control, they would lessen our power.

This is no time to be retreating from what helps to give us security and influence in the world. And Europe's collective voice is stronger when it includes the UK's voice too.

In an increasingly interdependent world, true patriots cannot be parochial.

But we must also commit to change at home.

The older I get, the more I have come to see that life and politics is a question of balance, just as climate change has taught us how the balance of nature can be profoundly altered by the smallest rise in temperature. And when things get out of kilter, they stop working quite as well.

The message sent by the referendum was, in part, a cry for a different kind of balance, and it is one I have a lot of sympathy for, although I did not think it should have been at the price of leaving the European Union.

I would much prefer Europe to have got the message that things weren't working. You may recall that some three weeks before polling day Jean-Claude Juncker – the President of the Commission – made a speech in which he said: “instead of getting on people’s nerves by arguing about all kinds of trivialities, I think it would be better if we dealt with the major issues in Europe instead of sticking our nose into all aspects of people’s lives.” 

Many would agree with him, but there are those in Europe who look at the referendum result and declare: “Well, now that perfidious Albion is going we can pursue the goal of ever faster, closer, deeper union.”  I would just observe that these voices don’t, in my view, really understand what is happening.

The much bigger and more urgent question for the European Union is this. How did the EU come to lose one of its most important and influential member states and why are some of the same political forces that we saw in the UK also present in their own domestic politics?

In many parts of our country people feel that things are not working for them, their families, and their community. This crisis of confidence is not only expressing itself in anger at our governance, but also in alienation from mainstream politics itself, and the risk is that people will look for easy answers that are not there.

And so we need to do something about this winter of political discontent by addressing its causes. If we do not do so, then it is not just Europe that is at risk of division, but also our United Kingdom. The EU referendum showed that we are split down the middle; another Scottish referendum could threaten to break it up altogether. 

The last time I was in this room listening to a lecture - and a wonderful one it was given by my friend and colleague Gordon Marsden - the subject was Clem Attlee. He was a great internationalist Prime Minister, but he was also a national patriot.

He understood that these two things - co-operation and self-determination - did not have to be in tension and could both be embraced in a way that fostered solidarity and created a sense of national common purpose.

He would have recognised the practical tasks we face at this moment in our history, which are not only about Brexit.

The need to tackle the crisis affecting the way in which we care for the elderly; our grandparents and our mums and dads, remembering that it will be our turn next. This is the greatest social challenge we face and it needs money, time, energy and commitment, because the system is failing and our NHS is creaking as a consequence.

The need to play to our economic strengths and not to undermine them - a point I shall return to in a moment. Our language is spoken by 1.5 billion people across the world. Our universities attract the brightest and best.  We have more Nobel laureates per head of population than the United States, Germany or China. Our literature, our theatre, our film and our creativity are admired the world over. 

The need to think about how we will manage the next wave of automation and changing forms of employment in a way that simply does not lead to more insecurity, more zero hours contracts, and more young people completely unable to save for a pension. For too long, we have been too content to let this happen.

The need to build and to invest for the long term instead of just thinking about the short term which, as we know to our cost was the cause of the global economic crash that still echoes through our lives.

Nowhere is this long-term investment more important than in education and in skills where business should be training their future workforce rather than expecting some other country to do it for them, as we draw up a new immigration policy to replace free movement.

The need to build homes for our children and grandchildren, which they can afford to live in. Let us give communities both the responsibility to provide the homes and the tools to do it so that they can determine what gets built where and who gets one.

And, most important of all, the need to sustain a strong economy and secure the public finances that will make all these things possible; which brings me to the task in hand.

Our responsibility in Parliament, in all this, is not to fall prey to either mindless optimism or gloomy pessimism, but instead to work out what on earth we are going to do to secure our future as we leave the EU.

So we need to be clear about some things.

Never before have we entered into such important and complex negotiations with so little information, so many unanswered questions and so much uncertainty about the eventual outcome.

What we will be able to secure will depend, yes, on what we ask for, but much more importantly on what the other 27 member states are prepared to agree.

Do not forget that Brexit is also a crisis for them. A big hole in the EU budget. The fear of contagion. Elections looming.

They may well decide that the unity of the Union is more important than particular national economic interests, so giving the impression that we will get everything that we want is not a good way to start or to build goodwill. 

Can we really hope to negotiate both the divorce settlement and a new relationship, including on trade, between the beginning of April this year and October of next?

I have met very few people who think this is possible, so transitional arrangements will be fundamental to our prospects of success.

The spirit in which the UK Government has approached its hugely difficult task thus far - at every stage having to be prodded and pushed and cajoled into  engaging with Parliament - will have to change.

As Clem Attlee, when Prime Minister, said:

 “The inspiring vigour of Parliament, with its free and open criticism, is the source of strength of this Government, as of all British Governments”.

It is time ministers recognised that Parliament intends to be a participant and not a bystander, not least because there would be a deep irony if those who claimed that the referendum was all about the importance of Parliamentary sovereignty were now to lose their enthusiasm for it at this critical moment.

And the reason why there must be a vote with meaning at the end of the negotiations, whether we have a draft deal or no deal at all, is because that is Parliament's job. It’s what we’re here for.

It would be much better to go into the negotiations with the full hearted participation and support of Parliament given that this is, without question, the greatest challenge we have faced as a nation since the end of the Second World War. And better still to have a sense of national purpose about the best deal for Britain that we are trying to achieve.

What does the best deal mean?

Above all else, it must be an agreement that will bring us economic stability by maintaining tariff and barrier free trade with our largest market.

We know - because many witnesses that have appeared before the select committee have told us - that an end to frictionless, tariff free trade with our largest market would have a damaging impact on our economy.

If we fall out onto WTO terms it would mean not just a return to tariffs, but the reappearance of non-tariff barriers – the time, paperwork and costs needed to clear border checks and comply with bureaucratic requirements on rules of origin and EU standards. For many businesses in advanced economies like ours these can be far more costly than the actual tariff itself.

So, the scale, and the scope and the number of new trade deals we would have to strike if we left the customs union would have to be sizeable just to compensate for the impact that doing so would have on our economy.

And not only that, the deals would have to be secured very quickly given the timescales involved.

Ministers say that this is a priority, but they are seeking in effect to be both in and out of the customs union; staying in the customs union for the things we like and leaving the common commercial policy and common external tariff to be able to negotiate our own trade deals.

Of course, this would represent the best deal, but the big question is whether the other member states will agree to it? What if they say “I’m afraid this looks to us like you’re trying to have your cake and eat it?”

If this deal turns out not to be possible, then the UK will be forced to choose between remaining fully in the customs union or leaving it altogether. In those circumstances, there will be a big choice to make and it cannot be one that the Government makes alone.

In my view, based on the evidence I have seen, the only sensible choice would be to remain in the customs union.

Now, there are many other issues that we will have to address, including:

- What exactly does no longer being a member of the single market mean?

- How quickly can we offer certainty to EU citizens here and Brits abroad that they can stay, bearing in mind that documenting 3 million Europeans in the UK will be no easy task.

- How do we design an immigration system that commands the confidence of the public and secures our economic prosperity?

- What will be our relationship with a whole host of European bodies dealing with matters as varied as medicines, banking regulation, aviation safety and patents in the future?

- Will we be able to remain in Europol and have access to the Schengen information system to help us identify people we might need to be worried about?

- How can we ensure that our universities can continue to participate in collaborative research and have access to the funding that makes this possible, while enabling the continuing free flow of people and their ideas?

- What will replace the European structural funds that some of our regions rely so much on?

- What will our new agriculture policy look like?

- Will the UK tech sector get a Data Adequacy Decision from the Commission?

Now tempting as it is to try and answer these and many, many other questions - the more I look the more I find - I fear that would be the subject of a whole series of others lecture entirely.
So, Mr Speaker, I will conclude by returning to where I began – our nation of optimists and pessimists.

I was a passionate Remainer. I still am.

But I am also a democrat and I accept the result of the referendum.

And as a nation of democrats, however we classify ourselves - optimists or pessimists - we must all do all that we can to make a success of Brexit.

I say that because I am otherwise an optimist, and I think we will find a way through.

But to do that we have to accept something.

It’s time to move beyond seeing every question in the negotiations henceforth through the prism of leave or remain.

It’s time to stop re-fighting the referendum as if it wasn’t over.

Doing this is unhelpful, it’s wearisome and it doesn’t assist us with the task we face.

But we also have to accept something else.

The referendum decided one thing. We are leaving the institutions of the European Union. It did not decide how we leave or what kind of new relationship we will forge in the process.
The answer to those questions will be up to us and our 27 neighbours - who will still be our neighbours in the years ahead - to determine as we find a new way of living alongside each other.

There is nothing pre-ordained about our economic future as a country or our place in the world. As we know from our history, both will be what we make of them.

Whether we like it or not, this is a significant moment.

This is a turning point in our history.

And nothing will be more important than hard-headed British realism and a gritty determination to see things through.

Because we are going to need a lot of that in the months and the years that lie ahead.

Thank you.             


Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP

21st February 2017

Speaker's Lecture on the Future of Brexit: Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP

Hilary recently gave a speech as part of the Speaker's Lecture Series 2017 on the Future of Brexit.  Read the full transcript below.

First published in the February 2017 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here

The problems facing the health service are being keenly felt in Leeds. We recently read about operations, including cancer operations, being cancelled in the city, and the pressures on the LGI and St James's accident and emergency departments - staff and patients - as well as on GPs are enormous. Saying that there have only been a ‘small number of incidents’ nationally or trying to blame staff and councils is wrong and ignores the truth about what is happening. I am also very concerned about the Sustainability and Transformation Plans which will involve further cuts that we simply can’t afford, locally or nationally.

The blunt truth is that our NHS needs more resources and more staff, and the Government cannot go on cutting funding for social care and closing care homes (Leeds has lost 316 care home beds) when we have a rising elderly population. One of the consequences of this is that elderly people end up in A&E when they have a fall or are ill, but then have to stay in hospital beds when there is no longer any medical need for them to be there because there is nowhere to discharge them to with the right kind of care and support.

It is obvious that we are not going to be able to relieve the pressure on our hospitals until we tackle this issue of social care. It's the greatest social challenge we face as a society and it needs politicians from all parties to come together to find the answer.

The Leeds United Supporters’ Trust is campaigning for a pilot scheme to show whether safe standing at Elland Road can be made to work. One of the consequences of the terrible Hillsborough tragedy was the recommendation that football stadiums should become all-seating for safety reasons. My view is that safety must be the principal consideration, but in recent years trials have taken place elsewhere with safe standing areas comprising flip-up seats with a barrier along the front of the row so that if fans choose to stand there is no risk of them falling forwards onto supporters in front of them. I’ve told the Trust that I will support a pilot study to see if this can work safely in practice.

Finally, many congratulations to the Holbeck Neighbourhood Forum for producing their draft Neighbourhood Plan. It's been put together following a lot of hard work by members of the Forum, led by its Chair Dennis Kitchen, and a number of local consultation events. As the Forum's website says "Holbeck has gone through many changes in its history.  From its origins as a small village built around the ancient Holbeck Moor, it grew massively to become a booming industrial area. However, in the 20th Century industry went into sharp decline and ever since, Holbeck has struggled with a legacy of complex environmental, social and economic problems. Since 2012 local residents have been working hard on the Holbeck Neighbourhood Plan, which aims to tackle these issues...."

The draft plan sets out a vision for the area with the aim of creating a thriving local centre, improving community facilities, providing housing and jobs, and enhancing local green space while respecting the essential heritage and character of Holbeck. The plan, which shows just what can be achieved locally if we put our minds to it, will now go to be examined before being put to a local referendum later in the year.

Hilary's Article for South Leeds Life - February 2017

First published in the February 2017 edition of South Leeds Life, available online here The problems facing the health service are being keenly felt in Leeds. We recently read...

A lot of you have contacted me about the vote on the Bill which will enable the Government to trigger Article 50 to start the process of leaving the EU following last summer’s decision in the referendum. Here is my speech in the House of Commons on 31 January setting out why I will vote for the Bill but also want the Government to get the right deal for the UK. You can also watch my speech here .

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)
Our relationship with Europe has run like a contentious thread through our politics for more than 60 years, and the referendum revealed a nation that remains divided. Though it pains me to say it, for the reasons so ably set out by the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke)—the Foreign Secretary, who is no longer in his place, was shaking his head throughout that speech, probably because he did not wish to be reminded of the arguments he had included in that other article, which he chose not to publish back in June—we are leaving the European Union, and our task now is to try to bring people together. This means that, whether we voted leave or remain, we have a responsibility to hold in our minds the views, concerns and hopes of everyone in our country, whether they voted leave or remain.

The Supreme Court decided, rightly in my view, that a decision of this magnitude should be made by Parliament and not by the Executive, but with that power comes a responsibility to respect the outcome of the referendum, however much some of us might disagree with it. This is about democracy. This is about faith in our politics, not just in the United Kingdom but across the western world, where—if we are honest—it is not in very good shape. If this Parliament were to say to the people, “You did not know what you were doing, only 37% voted leave, the referendum was only advisory and there were lots of lies”—whether or not we agree with some of those assertions—we really would have a crisis of confidence in our politics, for the reasons so eloquently set out by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer). That is why the democratic thing to do is to vote for this Bill, and I shall do so tomorrow.

But the referendum decided only one thing: the fact that we are leaving the institutions of the European Union. It did not determine the terms on which we leave or our new relationship with the other 27 member states. That is why we have, as a nation, to get our objectives and the process right as we start this great negotiation. The Government’s handling of this matter so far has not shown sufficient respect for Parliament—notwithstanding the number of times the Secretary of State has come to the Dispatch Box. For several months, Ministers appeared to believe that saying that there would be “no running commentary” and telling those asking for greater clarity that they were not, in the words of the No. 10 spokesperson, “backing the UK team” was the right approach. It was not. Commitments have eventually been made to set out objectives, to seek transitional arrangements, to publish a White Paper and to confirm that Parliament will have a vote—all things that the Exiting the European Union Committee, which I have the honour to chair, called for—but at every stage, far from being freely made, they were reluctantly conceded, usually a day or two after the Secretary of State had resisted them from the Dispatch Box.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab)
My right hon. Friend refers to the fact that the Government now say that there will be a vote on the eventual deal. I presume that what they mean is that, under the provisions of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, there will be a single vote on an unamendable motion in relation to a treaty. I do not think that that is good enough. If the European Parliament—and, for that matter, the Irish Dáil and the French Assemblée Nationale—will have the right to consider such a treaty line by line, this House should have that right as well.

Hilary Benn
I agree with my hon. Friend, but the House must have a proper plan and, in the words of my Front-Bench colleague, a “meaningful” opportunity to scrutinise the agreement in draft, rather than being presented with a fait accompli at the end of the process. This is one example of how the Government have had to be pushed, cajoled and prodded at every stage into giving Parliament its proper role.

I say to the Secretary of State—this may not be his fault—that it is extraordinary that we meet here today, and are being asked to vote on this Bill tomorrow, when not a single Government document setting out the consequences has been published. Seven months after the British people reached their decision, there has been no economic assessment, no analysis of the options, and no White Paper. That is not the way to do things and that attitude must change. The Government need to recognise that Parliament should be not a bystander but a participant in what is probably the most complex and significant negotiation that this country has ever faced. We have to unwind and recast 43 years of relationships with our neighbours. It affects every area of our national life, every part of the country, every person, community and business, and the jobs and incomes on which they depend. It is therefore essential that we have unity of purpose in trying to get the best deal for Britain, despite the inevitable uncertainty of the outcome.

We will come to the issues of substance in Committee and subsequently. What does special access to the single market mean now that the Prime Minister has decided that we are leaving it? How exactly will seeking to remain and leave the customs union at the same time work? If ensuring a continuation of tariff and barrier-free trade is a priority for Ministers, but Europe comes back and says, “You can’t have your cake and eat it. You have to choose,” I trust that the Government will choose to remain in the customs union. The world is more uncertain now than at any time over the past 60 years, so how will we continue to co-operate with our neighbours on foreign policy, defence, security and the fight against terrorism?

Finally, the referendum result revealed something else: two great political forces in the western world are now reflected in our politics. On the one hand, people desire greater devolution and control in a world in which many believe that we barely have any control at all owing to the pace of change in our lives. On the other hand, every single Member of the House, whether we voted leave or remain, understands that in the modern world we have to co-operate with our neighbours to deal with the great challenges that we will face in the years and centuries ahead. Leaving the European Union may change the balance between the two, but it will not change the necessity to embrace both as we look to the future.


Article 50 and the EU

A lot of you have contacted me about the vote on the Bill which will enable the Government to trigger Article 50 to start the process of leaving the EU...

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