Thursday, 7 April 2016

The EU Referendum: why we shouldn't walk away from our promises

Earlier this week, on her wedding day, I walked my daughter up the aisle of the church where I had been Vicar in the 1980s. It was a proud and moving thing to do. She was beautiful in her wedding dress. Well, what bride's father wouldn't say that? It was a lovely service, solemn but joyous. The words and music all felt exactly right. Our hearts reached out to this young couple, so tender and so happy together.

I wasn't (for once) thinking about the European Union that day. But afterwards, I thought about what the preacher had said in his fine homily. He spoke about the marriage vow, and how a few words said in public change everything. I've quoted the philosopher J. L. Austin before in a blog. He wrote a famous book called How To Do Things With Words. He took the marriage vow as an example of a "performative utterance", words that change things, make a significant difference. When the bridal couple process out of church at the end of the marriage ceremony, they have taken on a different status from what they had when they came in. They now have new privileges, duties, responsibilities. It's their promises that effected that change.

What's that got to do with the EU referendum? 

Simply this, that as members of the European Union, we have signed treaties that bind us to this family of peoples. We have given undertakings and made promises to our fellow EU nations. Like marriage, a treaty is a kind of covenant. It commits us to fidelity, to being true to our word. We British take pride in behaving honourably and being trustworthy. It isn't only Englishmen (and women) whose word is their bond. I'd like to think that our neighbours in Europe thought they could safely trust us to honour our undertakings. I'd like to imagine that to them, whatever shortcomings the British may exhibit, unreliability and bad faith were not among them.

Thanks to the referendum, we are now considering walking away from commitments we have freely entered into. I find this deeply disappointing. It's not that any treaty is irrevocable, or that situations may not change so drastically that old undertakings need renegotiating. But to me, the very possibility of Brexit feels like the threat of a divorce. It would be the un-saying of promises that were made in good faith, in an environment of trust that pledged our nations to work together for the common good and our mutual flourishing. It would be the unraveling of the bonds of friendship and loyalty that held our peoples together. It would be, I think, to break our word which our neighbours had come to trust, and on which they thought they could rely. 

Am I making too much about "honour"? Christian wisdom would say not. In the Bible, the vow or promise is sacred, born witness to not only by human beings but by God himself. Covenant-breaking is one of the worst of sins you could commit: maybe this lies behind the gospels' condemnation of Judas for betraying - handing over - Jesus to be crucified. "Let your yes be yes, and your no be no" he teaches: "anything more than this comes from evil". Theologically, pledging our word is to imitate the God who in Jesus, pledges his living Word to humanity and in him utters his final Yes to the world he loves. Honour is a central idea in all religious faiths. A word once given is solemn and binding. 

Like any marriage, our relationship with the EU has had its ups and downs. It has been tested beyond what was originally anticipated. When a marriage is under pressure, it's tempting for one or both partners to walk away. Many do. But marital therapists tell us that to begin with at least, staying in the relationship and facing its difficulties openly and honestly in the hope of achieving a better life together is better than the easy option of escaping. It's not a perfect analogy, but the point is that our relationship with Europe is not an abstract connection with some faceless entity, "the EU", that we're talking about. It's a "marriage" to twenty seven other nations. It is they we would be disappointing and letting down, people to whom we have obligations of neighbourliness and friendship, particularly the most needy among them. 

There isn't anything about this in the Government leaflet on the referendum that will drop on to our doormats in a few days' time. That focuses mainly on whether we are better off in or out, with a postscript on how the EU can achieve things (such as security and climate change) that no nation can do on its own. I don't have any quarrel with its contents. But it doesn't go far enough, doesn't probe the very reasons we belong to the European Union at all, and doesn't ask us whether we think it matters to honour our treaty commitments or not. 

But surely it does matter that we commit to our undertakings and keep our promises. In one of the Psalms (15), the virtuous man or woman is someone who, having made a promise to a neighbour, does not go back on that word, even though it was troublesome and inconvenient. As individuals we want to be trustworthy and thought of us reliable. Fidelity is a value almost everyone shares. So we ought to uphold it as a nation too. And not turn our backs on the very many people of other European nations who are begging us not to walk away. 


  1. Jonathan Jennings7 April 2016 at 21:26

    I'm in the yes camp, but I think this kind of analysis is unhelpful. 'Let your yes be yes and no be no' fits with a marriage covenant where 'for better and for worse' is understood as being at the heart of the agreement. But that was not at the heart of the original covenant signed in the 1970s, and neither is trust at the heart of the current debate, any more than ever closer political union was on the slate at the time of the first vote.

    We have always had the option of reconsidering our relationship with Europe; not least because the nature of that covenant itself specfically provides for it. To reconsider under these circumstances is not to break trust; it is, upon democratic mandate, to implement one of those provisions and to call upon the other partners to respect our autonomy within the European Community to ask for an exit if such a request is produced as the result of a democratic referendum. I was not old enough to vote first time round and therefore the marriage, such as it is, was therefore not one to which I am a freely consenting partner.

    To exercise our rights under the treaties we have signed cannot be to break faith with them. I am convinced enough to vote yes this time round, but I do not think it a waste of time to put the question, nor do I regard those who wish to take a different view as in any sense breaking faith in contending for their own views. I am sorry that the debate has taken the turn that it has, but I do not think it safe to dismiss the large number of people who are, at this point, aiming to vote leave in this way: it will not convince them to change their views.

  2. I'm interested in this careful response & recognise the logic. But I'm wondering whether the same critique would apply to the UK's membership if other inter-governmental organisations such as the UN, NATO, WTO etc, or to the Union that is our own UK itself. In the Scottish referendum, many of the Better Together camp did argue in just this kind of way, even though the "marriage" in question took place in 1707! If treaty obligations end up as subject to the whim of the electorate in each generation, what stability can our polity hope to have? Obviously, democratic governance must always be with the consent of the people (as indeed is the life of every organisation in the modern world even if it is not decided by election or referendum). But it's a nice political judgment as to whether, why, when and how to put this question. Why now, when the EU should not be deflected from tackling the immense challenges that face it, and when we as one of its leading members should be fully engaged in those tasks. This is what I mean by not walking away from our undertakings.

  3. Yes; 'Now is not the time' goes with 'The legal situation is too complex' and 'It will all cost too much' and 'This would be a courageous decision' in Sir Humphrey's five-stage stalling technique. 'Too close to the next General Election' doesn't apply in this case - or at least not as far as we know.

    And, yes, Scotland is a very interesting parallel; as I said in a letter to the Guardian at the time, "... the Better Together campaign in Scotland wasn’t able to halt the significant momentum generated by the exit lobby. That only happened by external intervention: the belated acknowledgement by those outside Scotland of the core separatist concerns, irritations and resentments, together with a degree of humility in the face of a large democratic groundswell, all sweetened by the offering of substantial, significant and credible concessions. David Cameron is simply not in a position to offer these in respect of Europe, any more than Alistair Darling was in respect of Scotland."

    David Cameron's European opt-out package has indeed proved unappetising and this time the chances of humilty and the prospect of real reform from Europe itself - the only measures that will successfully deflate Vote Leave's prospects - looks abjectly unlikely.

  4. Thoughtful points. I think I'm in the "we have to take what our government does/says on our behalf personally" camp. Not least so that we protest "not in my name" when necessary.

  5. Glenys Goodwill14 April 2016 at 17:50

    I go round and round in circles, trying to make my mind up. I want to vote 'in', but things trip me up. Turkey was in the news recently, partly about their joining. To continue with the wedding analogy, do I want to marry them as well? But then, do I feel part of England and especially the rich people in the Cabinet? I think not. So using the Brexit argument, perhaps I should leave England and stay in the North East! I want to stay part of the EU, but not for the reasons the Tory politicians keep trundling out. Always thinking of their wallets. I want to be part of an organisation which wants to do the right thing. The moral thing. But to vote the same way as those expounding greed as a reason feels wrong. Sometimes I feel like not voting. But that would be truly wrong. Oh dear!

  6. Glenys, should you read this, it's not wrong to vote for a heartfelt reason: that you want to be part of something that works to do the right thing. I'm passionately supportive of our EU membership, though it's more about that general sense of rightness and wider belonging than any number of economic arguments. And I'm certainly not concerned about Turkey. They have a lot of issues to iron out before they can be granted full accession. But I try to remember that Turkish people are not their president. They are people, who feel an affinity and draw towards Europe. I think in the end they will be an asset - though for the moment it seems their role, sadly, is to be used as fodder for scare stories in the anti-EU media.