The Rt Hon Lord Blunkett is Professor of Politics in Practice at the University of Sheffield, and Chair of the Crick Centre Board. In this special blog he comments on the House of Lords’ recent amendments to the Article 50 Bill.
It is very unusual in politics these days for people to keep reiterating that they’d like to stand on the “high ground”. Yet this was a phrase used over and over again in the debate in the House of Lords on the Bill to trigger Article 50.
This was particularly true in relation to the debate that took place on the issue of the rights of EU citizens to remain in the United Kingdom and to feel secure that their existing position would be guaranteed.
There are a number of extremely good speeches from all quarters. Douglas Hogg (Lord Hailsham) made an impassioned and extremely effective speech from the Conservative benches. Lord Bob Kerslake (former head of the civil service and sometime chief executive of Sheffield City Council) made another very effective intervention about not just the moral case but the practical one as well.
Separately Lord Ashdown (Liberal Democrat) had made the point that it was important (and unusual) for an appeal to be made for the Government to act morally.
One reason why such emphasis has been placed on modifying this simple bill to authorise the Government to trigger Article 50, and the critical nature of having broad statements placed as a genuine legal guarantee on the face of the bill, is recent events.
Lord (Alf) Dubs’ amendment in relation to unaccompanied asylum seeker children stranded in France, is often used as an example. The guarantee by the Government given broadly following the “Dubs amendment” that they would take 3000, rapidly turned into 350 and a rejection of what had been “approved”.
Palace of Westminster. Image courtesy of DAVID ILIFF via Wikimedia Commons and reproduced under license CC-BY-SA 3.0
Hence the desire to link the imperative to do the right thing for the right reasons, with practicality. Practicality being the fact that our economy, social wellbeing and broader cultural imperatives require us to encourage European citizens already here in the country, many of them over a long period of time, to stay with us. To do otherwise would result in jobs unfilled, expertise lost and contribution to community as well as economy, disappearing.
In other words, practical and moral standpoints coming together in a way that would in normal circumstances, have led the Government to welcome the amendment moved and to indicate that they would ensure that this was then used (again with the with the moral high ground) to negotiate the rights and well-being of British citizens within the remaining 27 countries of the European Union.
This point was stressed over and over again. It would be “immoral” and completely wrong to use EU citizens in the UK as a bargaining chip. In any case, as was pointed out over and over again, EU negotiations involve ratification by all 27 countries before they come into force, so vague agreements at the beginning of the process do not hold legal water.
Therefore, establishing the rights of citizens of other countries here in the UK, would be not just the right thing to do but the right tactical and political measure in terms of securing the wellbeing of UK citizens elsewhere.
Much is still to go in terms of this debate. The House of Lords is not rocking the boat or seeking to block the triggering of Article 50 – indeed, the amendment that would have gone a long way to doing this by insisting that the Single Market had to remain was defeated.
But as the Government contemplate debating the amendment in the House of Commons, let us hope that in this very delicate and difficult time for democratic politics and the rule of intelligent order (legal, moral or civic) we can get this right for all of us.
David Blunkett is Professor of Politics in Practice in the Department of Politics and Chair of the Board of the Crick Centre.
Professor Blunkett first joined the University as a mature student in 1969, where he studied Political Theory and Institutions, and was tutored by Sir Bernard Crick. He served as the Member of Parliament for Sheffield Brightside between 1987 and May 2010, and then as the Member of Parliament for Sheffield Brightside and Hillsborough between May 2010 and May 2015. During this time Professor Blunkett held a number of Cabinet positions, including Secretary of State for Education and Employment, Home Secretary and Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
Professor Blunkett received a peerage in the 2015 Dissolution Honours List, and joined the House of Lords in September 2015
This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. To write for the Understanding Politics blog email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.