The June 2016 referendum resulted in a small but clear majority in favour of leaving the EU.
If this verdict is not implemented by our political class then the centre ground of British politics will be hollowed out. It will be the gravest political crisis that our nation has faced in peacetime.
That we are still contemplating the verdict not being implemented by our political class two years after the referendum is a terrible result.
I think Theresa May’s approach has been appalling. ‘Theresa the Appeaser’ indeed.
What would I do?
Assert the following, in order:
the UK, in accordance with the result of the referendum, will leave the EU;
it will therefore become a ‘third nation’ in EU terms;
the UK should seek:
i) to have healthy relations with the EU on the basis of being a third nation, covering such things as air transport and so on;
ii) seek mutual recognition for large parts of our industrial sector;
iii) be open to a mutually beneficial Free Trade Arrangement, at a point that the remainder EU shows that it is open to such a thing;
be prepared for the EU, for its own reasons, to resist the above;
be prepared to change the overall orientation of our country’s foreign policy in the light of such resistance (if the EU acts as a hostile state towards the UK then certain conclusions follow);
pursue CANZUK and similar arrangements with those states with whom we share close ties of history and family.
This craven, pusillanimous, faithless capitulation to the institutional inertia of the establishment elite is driving me mad. It has to stop.
It will stop, of course – and the UK will exit the EU, and in twenty years time we will look back on the summer of 2018 as the year the heat addled our brains.
Theresa May has been leading the Brexit negotiations from a position of bad faith. Which is a damning thing to write as an opening sentence, yet seems an inescapable conclusion in the light of the Chequers agreement and the consequent honourable resignations of David Davis and Steve Baker. After all, Davis has been formally responsible for our negotiations with the European Commission as we seek to leave the European Union. It is now clear that Davis’ department – the Department for Exiting the European Union – was deliberately sidelined by May as a team reporting to Downing Street, led by a civil servant, prepared an alternative plan to that which Davis and his team had been working on.
The plan that Davis and Baker were working on was one that was developed in good faith. It was based upon the Lancaster House speech that Theresa May gave in January 2017, in which she explicitly sought to regain control over our own laws as a result of the referendum – Brexit meant Brexit at that point. Yet at the same time as those with formal responsibilities for developing our position were working openly, May was fostering a clandestine document (well, clandestine to Davis and Baker, it was shared with Angela Merkel in advance of being shared with the Cabinet).
This is bad faith. Why did Theresa May follow such a path? I do not believe that she is an instinctively bad or dishonourable person, so where can we identify the causes of such underhand behaviour? I believe that the answer is found in a simple word ‘establishment’. There is, after all, an immense bureaucracy which is the ‘continuing state’ in our government. Most of these voted to Remain in the EU, for that is the environment in which they have been formed, and on which, in many cases, their careers depend. These establishment attitudes are buttressed from outside by all the other seemingly permanent fixtures of the British political landscape, from the Financial Times to the CBI. As Jacob Rees-Mogg has put it, the establishment considers the vote for Brexit to have been a terrible mistake, and has therefore put all of its efforts into seeking to minimise the consequence of the decision taken by the British people in the referendum.
This is a path to disaster.
There is no benefit to be found in seeking to split the difference between the referendum vote and the inertia of the establishment. That leads us to the worst of all worlds – even Peter Mandelson agrees with that! The Chequers agreement compromises in too many ways, leaving the UK as a ‘rule taker’ and implicitly under the suzerainty of the European Court of Justice. In this scenario, Brexit simply doesn’t mean Brexit.
Imagine an animal caught in a trap. The animal can stay caught, or the animal can seek to sever it’s own limb and escape. What makes no sense is to apply medical methods to minimise the direct impact of the trap upon its flesh, to pretend that nothing has happened, that the trap falling upon its limb was simply an illusion that can be wished away.
Our governing establishment was caught in a trap sprung by the referendum vote. The only coherent and rational responses to such a vote are either: to explicitly repudiate it and overthrow it through non-democratic means, accepting that this would irrevocably destroy British democracy – or, to sever the wounded limb and act with freedom, accepting the losses to establishment interests.
That the establishment has not done so, that it has chosen instead to meekly submit to the framing of all the issues in terms set by the European Commission, represents the most colossal failure of imagination in our governing class since the ill-advised venture into Suez in 1956. It is into this failure of imagination that Theresa May has been seduced, and it is this that will destroy her, unless she is somehow brought to a realisation of her peril.
After all, it is not that we are short of visions of how life in our country might proceed outside the European Union, visions that are realistic and joyful, that act in harmony with our deepest instincts and traditions. The referendum was an expression of the most profound animal spirits of our national life. Imagine a stallion that has been put to work in the fields, that then catches the scent of a mare in season. The farm-hand is desperately trying to keep the stallion tethered, and the stallion doesn’t quite know what it is that has filled his nostrils – but he has begun to recognise that there might be more to life than pulling a plough. We are the stallion, and the establishment is the farm hand – and the farm hand needs to be placed upon his backside sharpish.
We are not a people that sit comfortably with rule from a foreign power, and the original sin of Ted Heath’s referendum campaign in the 1970s has led us directly to the situation that we are in now. We will not be able to move forward unless we act honourably, in good faith, with a well-ordered imagination oriented towards our future.
Some Brexiters – Michael Gove the most notable – think that the Chequers agreement is the best that can be achieved at this point in time. His horizon of calculation is the current composition of the House of Commons, where there is no majority for the harder, or I would say cleaner, forms of Brexit. This is despite the fact that 80% of MPs campaigned on the basis that they would respect the result of the referendum and implement it; and, more significant, the fact that over 400 constituencies have a leave-voting majority. I believe that it is a profound mistake to act on the basis of what parliament may or may not approve – parliament needs to bend before the choice made by the British people.
If the Conservative party sticks with this approach – that is, if the parliamentary party preserves Theresa May in power and she clings to this establishment compromise – then it will split, and rightfully so. Then, within a few years, a government will be brought to power that fully embraces the spirit of Brexit. If the conservative party doesn’t do so, another party will replace it. The governance of Britain will be inherited by the first party to fully embrace the spirit of Brexit, the first party that keeps faith with the choice made by the British people, the first party that is willing to lead our imagining of a better future.
It was announced in the parishes this morning that I have been appointed as Vicar of Parkend and Viney Hill in the Forest of Dean, and Associate Diocesan Director of Ordinands for the Diocese of Gloucester. After fifteen years as Rector here on Mersea moving will be quite a wrench, but I do believe that it is the right time to do so, and I am very excited by the opportunity to make a fresh start. Please keep us all in your prayers!
Whilst I have been following much of the continuing conversation around Brexit fairly closely, I have tended to avoid writing too much due to the unfavourable ratio between heat and light that has shaped so much of the debate. I am moved to write now, however, due to a remarkably poor piece of writing that I have discovered in the Church Times, which ever so gently seems to suggest that those in favour of Brexit are not simply warmongers tossing aside a hard-earned peace, but also in the wrong with God. So herewith some comments follow, paragraph by paragraph (read Professor Chapman’s article first).
Paragraph 1: David Cameron was indeed an appalling Prime Minister, with a deeply anti-conservative world view, like most of the commentariat and those who live within that bubble of thought. I disagree that we are in a ‘fine mess’, but we’ll come on to why.
Paragraph 3: participation in the EU “requires adjudication through mutually accepted standards and mediated by a court”. Indeed it does, which is why Brexiters would prefer trading on WTO terms – also through mutually accepted standards and mediated by a court. We do not particularly seek the Norwegian or Swiss models, unless as part of a temporary transition process. Linking the free movement of goods in Ireland to the continuation of the Good Friday peace process is mistaken both practically and morally – and the use (abuse!) of this issue by the European Commission is shameful.
Paragraph 4: I’m never sure whether Remainers like Chapman fully appreciate the implications of the arguments made in this paragraph. He writes, “there is no incentive to offer concessions that might mean other countries would start their own renegotiations with Brussels”. In other words, the Commission is not negotiating with a view to the best long-term interest of the population of the EU but with a view to preserving their existing power structure – which implies, therefore, that it is not sustained by widespread support. Rather than arguing for the principles at stake, this is about power. Chapman is speaking from a position of fear, which is not a particularly Christian stance. The last part of this paragraph, about nations finding it ‘much more effective to work as part of a massive economic bloc’ is pro-EU boiler-plate, without a great deal of empirical support. It is undoubtedly good for the major multinationals to work in a market in which local differences have been erased. I find it disturbing that an Anglican priest – and professor! – cannot see any tension between an Incarnational theology and support for companies like Monsanto.
Paragraph 5: “sovereign states have far more geopolitical power when they pool their sovereignty” – again, this reveals much about what is assumed to be important. This claim may or may not be true (I think not), but what seems unthinkable to Chapman is the notion that someone might prefer to have less power in order to have greater sovereignty. The EU largely runs according to German dictates, either explicit or implicit – see Varoufakis’ book for details on how the latter works. The construction of the UK economy over the last three decades can be seen as being shaped by German industrial interests. I’m not sure what the point of Chapman’s last sentence is, or how it is relevant.
Paragraphs 6-8: Conservative MPs, if assessed by their votes in the referendum, are indeed split – yet equally clearly the majority of MPs, and the overwhelming majority of party members, are now committed to implementing Brexit. There is an issue of principle here – the people of the UK voted by a clear majority to leave the European Union. It is perfectly in order to say ‘I think this was the wrong decision, but the people have decided and we now need to make the best of it’ (which I think is May’s position); it is a very different proposition to say ‘I think this was the wrong decision and I am now going to do everything I can to frustrate it’ – such an attitude places someone outside of the democratic process and is an unashamed bid for power. Again, in favour of large multi-national corporations – a bit of a theme in Remainer dialogue.
Paragraphs 9&10: here the fear comes fully into the open, a fear of Britain being ‘forced into a third-country status, which could have a disastrous impact upon the economy’. Trade with the EU represents something like 12% of the British economy, which is less than trade with the rest of the world and very much less than that of the internal economy itself. I have no doubt that there will be some disruption to business, especially the large multinational corporations mentioned earlier, yet there is nothing here of which to be especially afraid. The economy changes constantly and I rather suspect that the car industry in particular is facing major technology-driven changes in the next five to ten years that will have a much larger impact upon employment in the supply chain than anything which will be agreed or not between ourselves and the EU.
Paragraph 11: “The EU has preserved peace for the longest period…” This is incorrect. Peace in Europe has been preserved by NATO. Indeed, looking at the situation in Greece a compelling case could be made that it is now the EU itself which is the largest source of conflict within Europe! Chapman goes on, “that peace is fragile in the face of the simplistic populism and extremist nationalism” which he sees as dominating national politics. Clearly, Brexiters are simplistic populists – the very idea that there might be a coherent argument in favour of leaving the EU that doesn’t reduce to ‘simplistic populism’ is outside of Chapman’s experience. Which is an argument for him to read more widely. I recommend Roger Bootle, Andrew Lilico and Daniel Hannan as people whose arguments he needs to get acquainted with.
Paragraph 12: “our Church leaders might need to stand up for a vision of pan-European peace and a common humanity” – for clearly, those in favour of Brexit reject such things. In Chapman’s argument, the EU is cast in the role of ‘source of all good things’, certainly membership of it represents an extremely high political value – and I would simply ask the good Professor, how can we be certain that it is not functioning as an idol within your theology? Like all human institutions it is a fallen principality, which the British people have chosen to leave. Is there really no room for seeing positives about this? Again, the comment about “upsetting some churchgoers” is revealing – I rather suspect that there is much unexpressed anxiety amongst the great and the good of the Church of England that the people in the pew voted for Brexit at a much higher rate than average. Clearly the great unwashed must be re-educated and forced to repent of their intellectual failures.
Might it not just possibly be the case, however, that God was at work in the Brexit process? That the EU has become something deeply antagonistic to God’s preference for the poor? That an institution which prioritises the bailing out of French and German banks at the expense of impoverishing the Greek population simply no longer possesses any moral credibility whatsoever? And that the sight of an eminent theologian and teacher of the clergy defending such a fallen principality in these terms tells us all that we need to know about why the Church of England is in the state that it is in?