The Prime Minister has set out her Brexit stall. In her speech she sounded persuasive, far-sighted and upbeat as she spoke about how we would leave the European Union. It brought some clarity and this is to be welcomed.
We can’t accuse Theresa May of lacking vision. She asks the right question, what kind of country do we want to be? Her answer deploys a panoply of noble ideals: “stronger, fairer, more united, more outward-looking”, “secure, prosperous, tolerant, a magnet for international talent and a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead”.
No-one will dissent from these aspirations. We all want the best for our country. But why does it need Brexit to bring it about? Misgivings set in as early as the fourth sentence of the speech. The British people, she says, “voted to leave the European Union and embrace the world”. It takes considerable effort to recall where “embracing the world” featured in the Leave campaign. What we remember are attacks on immigration and the populist cry “give us our country back!” It’s hard to spin Brexit as internationalism.
Mrs May wants Britain to be “a great, global, trading nation that is respected around the world”. Those words capture her fundamentally nostalgic ambition for Britain. She draws on a memory coloured by the way Victorian politicians and industrialists spoke about Britain’s role in the world, fuelled by the vast economic opportunities empire had opened up. A post-colonial, not to say Christian, perspective should make us ask whether this kind of grandiose rhetoric belongs in the 21st century or whether a humbler register wouldn’t help make the friends we are going to need in the next few years.
The Prime Minister acknowledges that the UK must be “the best friend and neighbour to our European partners” as well as reaching out to the wider world. Indeed. But wasn’t this already being achieved by a Britain within the EU? From a Christian point of view, a people’s true greatness lies not in asserting its own independent identity but in its moral and spiritual character. To the founding fathers of the European project, catholic social teaching shaped the idea of a just, peaceable and collaborative partnership of nations in which sovereignty was pooled for the common good. It was as much about giving as receiving, serving as being served, in short loving your neighbour.
The historian Nicholas Boyle has argued that it’s the loss of a global imperial role that is partly responsible for Britain’s ambivalence about the EU. He believes that the UK, specifically the English, have got too used to exercising hegemony over others. Being “ordinary” is alien to us because we haven’t had much practice at it. So it’s not surprising that Britain has insisted on its exceptionalism as a “special case” within the EU. If post-imperial Britain had been content to play a more modest role in world affairs like most other nations, we might well have been more convinced Europeans.
As it is, the rhetoric of Brexit has mostly been driven by self-interest, in David Cameron’s oft-repeated phrase, “what’s best for Britain”. And Mrs May can’t shake it off, for all her commitment to being a good friend to the EU and wanting to see it flourish. Perhaps this is inevitable when trade, the economy, immigration and security dominate the agenda. I am not saying that Mrs May does not care about human rights, social justice, reconciliation, peace-making or the environment. But a Christian response to her statement about Brexit is bound to ask why they are not much more prominent.
For many in the finance and business sectors, the biggest stumbling block in the Prime Minister’s speech is her resolve that Britain will leave the Single Market. They are right to be worried about the hard, isolationist Brexit this betokens, given the undertakings made by leading Brexiters that this was not a necessary consequence of leaving the EU. It isn’t the only aspect of Brexit where 48% of those who voted are tempted to call “foul” and wonder where they are going to belong in Mrs May’s new Britain.
Religion is as concerned about the integrity of decision-making as the decision itself. This is at stake in Parliament’s role in the Brexit process. Mrs May has announced that the deal as finally negotiated will be brought before Parliament. But government sources have now disclosed that even if elected members reject it, Brexit will still go ahead. Given the emphasis Leavers laid on UK Parliamentary sovereignty during the referendum, where does that leave our democratic institutions?
Mrs May’s speech includes a ringing endorsement of the United Kingdom. “It is only by coming together as one great union of nations and people that we can make the most of the opportunities ahead.” This for Remainers is precisely the argument for the European Union and Britain’s membership of it. Not for the only time, the logic of her argument leads in completely the opposite direction to the one she takes. Does that sentence, so telling, unmask the emperor’s new clothes?