As a committed supporter of the UK leaving the European Union – you might have noticed – you will understand the strong sense of despondency that has been settling upon me over recent weeks. It really is quite a remarkable achievement for Theresa May to have united the Johnson brothers in opposing her plan. The flaws in what she has negotiated have been rehearsed extensively elsewhere; for me, the crucial point is that we will end up with less sovereignty than before the Referendum. If this passes the House of Commons then the Conservative party will deserve to be renamed as the BBP – the Brexit Betrayal Party. They will be defined by that one act against the democratic will of the United Kingdom and will deserve to fade away into ignominy.
It is a fair question, however, to ask ‘Well what would you do?’ It is comparatively easy to carp from the sidelines about the omnishambles of this present government; it is rather more difficult to say precisely what would be done instead. It is not that Theresa May is without virtues – I would credit her with duty, diligence and courage at least. It is simply that her framework for understanding this issue would appear to have been captured (after the departure of her advisor Nick Timothy) by the existing establishment, which clearly has an agenda for reversing the decision to leave the European Union. If the UK is truly to leave the orbit then Theresa May, sadly, has to be removed from office. I don’t expect that to happen any time soon, or easily.
So what would I do? There is the proverbial joke about a man asking for directions (must be a made-up story – men never ask for directions) and being given the response ‘Well I wouldn’t start from here…’ So I shall answer the question in two parts, the first relating to what might have been done from immediately after the Referendum, the second relating to where we might go from where we are now. Then, finally, a religious comment – as I do believe that this is a matter that relates to the souls of nations, which are real things.
Immediately following the Referendum in 2016 the most important thing is that I would have stated explicitly that the people had decided that the UK was to leave the European Union, and that it would therefore have been what the EU calls “a third country”. The aim, therefore, would have been to establish a framework of relationship between the UK and the EU on that basis. This was very much the thrust of Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech – the ‘deep and special partnership’ and so on – but because there was no emphasis upon the nature of the UK as a third country, with all that is implied by that description, the clear thrust of the Referendum verdict has been steadily diluted and diminished into the dog’s breakfast of the Withdrawal Agreement. At so many points those who benefit from the institutional status quo have pointed to areas where they didn’t want the UK to be treated as a third country – this even applies to committed Brexiters like David Davis. Truly this is ‘have cake and eat it’ territory. Instead of all that, there needed to be a hard-headed embrace of the only long-term sustainable position, that we are to be a third country with all that this meant. We could then build close arrangements with the EU from that stable foundation, in ways that are mutually acceptable. Instead we have had this panicked attempt to try and preserve what is unsalvageable.
So where to go from where we are now? Sadly, I think the only way forward that does not promise to rend our social fabric from top to bottom is what is called a ‘no deal’ Brexit, which I’d prefer to call a World Trade Brexit. I believe that the threats to our economy from this are exaggerated. There are threats, and they are not trivial, but even the Project Fear forecasts from the establishment indicate that a no deal Brexit would be less damaging than the recession following the financial crisis of 2008. We need – our political class needs – to have a much wider horizon for their thinking than simply the first few months of possible disruption. It beggars belief that the long term future of our country is being sold for the mess of pottage that is a few months of economic turbulence. I would also desire to see an enthusiastic and rapid embrace of what is called CANZUK – an agreement with Canada, Australia and New Zealand that builds upon our common shared inheritance. Fleshing that out might need another article though.
Which brings me to my theological point. A good rule of thumb for a priest is ‘God is not in the drama’ – that is, when emotions are in a heightened state, and all around are losing their heads and blaming it on others. This is the ‘earthquake, wind and fire’ – and God is found in the still, small voice of calm. What we most need at this point in time is not vehement advocacy but rather a slow and careful delineation of disagreement between those opposed to the EU and those in favour. I do not recognise myself in the regular caricatures of what a Brexit supporter is supposed to believe; doubtless Remainers have the same experience.
I would hope that such a process might lead to a reconciliation between the different parts of our nation, which are so strenuously opposed to each other at this time. It is understandable why that is the case – the vote for Brexit was an immense shock to the dominant consciousness of our time, and it will take time for all of us to adjust to what it meant. Yet we do need to leave the European Union. That choice was a long time coming, and not the consequence of short-term campaigns or slogans on the side of a bus. If that choice is overturned by the establishment – against the Referendum, the votes of the House of Commons and the manifestoes of over 80% of those elected at the last general election – then I do fear for what is to come. It might be diabolical.