Kirkhope laments “nastiness” of politics after vote on the EU

Lord Kirkhope
Lord Kirkhope
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AS SOMEONE who was a Member of the European Parliament for 17 years and campaigned for Britain to stay in the European Union, it might be expected that Lord Kirkhope’s biggest regret of 2016 would be the result of June’s referendum.

But reflecting on the remarkable events of the last 12 months, the Yorkshire peer has a broader concern about the state of British politics as a new year approaches.

“Politics has become a very unpleasant thing this year,” he says.

“There are no courtesies left in politics. The people themselves are polarised in their views now, not only on Europe but many other subjects.”

Lord Kirkhope considers the referendum to have been the nastiest he can remember in his long political career including the 1997 General Election where he lost his seat at Westminster as MP for Leeds North East.

“In ‘97 the election took place, the Labour Party won decisively and Blair and his friends rolled in. The Conservative Party was defeated very badly indeed, there were a lot of very depressed people around to say the least.

“But there wasn’t the same kind of ongoing unpleasantness. Whereas here, what we’ve got now is a country that’s divided over the result of that referendum, where there is still a lot of nastiness in the system.

“For any politician like myself who’s been involved in politics for 50 years and elected politics in Yorkshire for 30 years, it is the sort of atmosphere I have never had to put up with.”

Having been elevated to the House of Lords this year and resigned as one of Yorkshire’s six MEPs, Lord Kirkhope says he is affected less now than elected politicians but he remains concern about the impact on public debate.

“People are perfectly entitled to say ‘this is the result [of the referendum], we all have to live with that result one way or another’.

“But this is another example of how hard-nosed it is becoming. If anybody wants to say ‘yes, ok, but we need to protect certain things’ they are immediately jumped on and told they are being ‘remoaners’ and to stop being negative.

“They are just being realistic in my opinion.”

And looking ahead to 2017, Lord Kirkhope admits to being “quite worried”.

“I’m a bit apprehensive about the new president of the United States, I’m highly apprehensive about the ambitions of Putin and the Russians and I think all of this coupled with instability in the European Union with our moving out is not necessarily good news.”

Looming large is the beginning of Britain’s formal talks with Brussels on leaving the European Union which are due to get underway by the end of March.

On a personal level, Lord Kirkhope is still considering how he can best use his understanding of the EU’s inner workings to contribute to the debate about Britain’s future relationship with Europe.

His own role aside, the former Conservative home affairs spokesman in the European Parliament is clear that security issues should be at the top of the agenda for the Brexit talks.

Lord Kirkhope was a key figure in negotiating agreement in Europe on security matters, most recently on the sharing of information on airline passengers - known as PNR data - to combat terrorism and organised crime.

“The things I was doing for the last 10 years, essentially the home affairs and justice, the intelligence agencies and police co-operation mechanisms which have required cross-border agreements, all that is now of course under threat.

“But all of it is absolutely essential for our security so somehow we have to be able to find a way to retain all of that,” he says.

“The entire mechanism of exchanging information is pretty critical actually and that is highly dependent on confidence in countries and their organisations.

“How do you maintain confidence if you are moving away from the regulations or structures that are there to protect it?”

Lord Kirkhope points to the recent agreement on PNR data as an example of the challenge that lies ahead.

“How are we going to maintain that? We’ve just successfully concluded that after seven years work.

“Can we keep that or the body of that in some way bearing in mind that ultimately that depends to some extent on arbitration from the European Court of Justice.

“If you mention the words European Court of Justice the vast majority of people, particularly Conservatives, leap around. They scream and shout.

“But of course if others are subject to those rules and others are not how are we expected to have the confidence we need to continue?”