Last Saturday, I participated in the People’s March in London. I took part to show solidarity with those who feel a deep sense of frustration that their voices are not being listened to by those in Government who are leading our country right now. And who, I have to say, seem to have no plan beyond Plan A, the Theresa May deal. That’s very worrying given that Parliament shows very little sign of wanting to follow Plan A. And the People’s March is an excellent example of how we can demonstrate peacefully in support of causes close to our hearts.
The same is true of the petition to Parliament. On Saturday afternoon, it had gathered 4 million signatures. I now see this morning that figure has exceeded 5.8 million. In the space of 3 days… and taken together, the March and the Petition are very much a ‘movement of the people’. The time for mantra-like repetition of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ is long gone; and everyone who cares about the future of the UK is of course asking what Brexit should mean on paper, in process, and in practice.
I voted to Remain in 2016. I would dearly like the UK to stay in the EU. So would the vast majority of people in our European Diocese, given a vote. At the same time, Brexit must entail reconciling and healing majorities and minorities that have expressed themselves and continue to do so. I make no apology in this blog for engaging directly in the political choices that are before the UK’s lawmakers in the House of Commons.
I support a second chance, if we want to make another choice for our country.
What I do mean by that? It is patently obvious that we need a Plan B. In addition to two landslide defeats of Plan A, the Speaker of the House, John Bercow indicated yesterday that a 3rd vote substantially the same as the first two defeated motions would not be admissible in terms of Parliamentary procedure.
I remember debates in the early 2000s when several EU member states including France and Netherlands rejected a new proposed Treaty for a European Constitution. And I remember that the former French President, Giscard d’Estaing, said “there is no plan B”.
He was wrong.
There had to be to respect the democratic wishes of millions of people. And the EU then developed a revised agreement that ended up becoming the Lisbon Treaty.
What does this show? The EU does listen; and I think the EU has listened all the way through the Brexit talks process with the UK.
But we find ourselves in a similar place now in the UK, in the sense of needing a Plan B.
That’s why these indicative votes in Parliament yesterday are a very important signalling step on the future direction we could take as a country. As Archbishop Justin has said on social media yesterday, it is easy to criticise our MPs.
Taking seriously the indicative votes at Westminster is critical. Leaving aside views on the Theresa May deal, without an alternative plan the House of Commons has nowhere to lead us to. The outcome will inevitably be exit without a deal on 12 April if there is no other UK plan; yet no fewer than 400 MPs voted against no deal yesterday evening.
But a well-developed and thought through Plan B is going to take time, both to construct a national consensus and negotiate it with the EU27.
As I indicated in a Church Times interview today, I believe that Government should not extend Article 50, but revoke it. I know views differ sharply on this point.
Language is so vitally important in political debate. On Brexit, it has gone way beyond the vocal into the vituperative and visceral. Here’s an example:
Instead of saying “revoking Article 50 is betraying the people who voted for Brexit”, how about saying:
“As a country, we need now to take a pause and a deep breath given the state we’re in. Brexit is fundamentally about our future national direction as a United Kingdom. Decisiveness and durability are far more likely to come from a considered examination of the multiple options we have.”
As Church leaders, we should encourage politicians and people to engage in this prayerfully.
I sense clearly that because the debate has focused so narrowly around one deal or no deal, that has not happened. And politicians are not serving the British people as they should by not telling them what else could be within reach.
If we are not staying in the EU, I am clear that we have to find a way to settle within a European orbit.
– I want to see a durable proposition for the UK that preserves our economic prosperity by access to a single market of 500million consumers. There is already mounting evidence of a Brexodus among UK-based companies moving their operations to the rest of the EU.
– I would want a solution that preserves peace, unity and prosperity on the whole of the island of Ireland.
– I would want to keep customs arrangements as simple as possible for consumers and businesses by remaining in a customs union with the EU.
– And I would want the UK to be able to continue to trade globally outside the EU as well as with our EU neighbours.
We are not Norway. Our economies are different. But the principles of a negotiated agreement between neighbours close to the EU (Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, Liechtenstein) are the same.
A bespoke relationship that the UK could negotiate within, and as a variant of an EEA/EFTA type model, seems to me to offer a landing zone for the future of the UK in relation to the EU. It is this kind of mid-way proposition that deserves serious consideration. Other alternatives are collapsing around us. That’s why I support a pause in the process regarding Article 50.
I note also that some of our politicians are putting their spin on Exodus, for their Brexit ends. As I said on social media this week, I strongly object to Boris Johnson’s misuse of Exodus in the Telegraph article he wrote. Britons are not slaves, the EU is not Pharaoh and Mrs May is not Moses.
And references to ‘Grand Wizards’ in our political discourse are also deeply unwelcome. I am appalled to see British politicians styling themselves in this way. We must keep Ku Klux Klan resonances out of Brexit. This is particularly concerning since it refers specifically to the so-called 4 year “reconstruction era” of KKK in the late 1860s. I see the story has rightly attracted condemnation.
I end this blog on a positive, uplifting note.
Whilst the UK’s current relationship with the EU may be drawing to a close, we have entered a new phase in a key European relationship in our Diocese: we signed an agreement with the Italian State giving the Church of England official recognition at a formal ceremony in the august setting of the Palazzo Chigi, or Presidential Palace, in Rome this week.
This is the culmination of many years of effort, including by Vickie Sims as Archdeacon and Paolo Coniglio of the association of the Church of England in Italy. It is also due to the support of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, including Jill Morris, currently HM Ambassador to Rome, and her team.
This latest example of practical co-operation reaffirms our commitment as a Church to stay on the continent of Europe, whatever Brexit may bring.