Thursday, 22 June 2017

Brexit: a Year after the Referendum

The first anniversary of a bereavement is a time of mixed feelings. On the one hand, the fact that the date has come round again can reopen the sharp pain of loss. On the other hand, it can also help us continue to let go of the past as we come to terms with the life we must now live.

Tomorrow, it will be one year since we voted to leave the European Union. Here's what I wrote in a blog the next day.

If I say that I am heartbroken, I don't want you to think that I'm dramatising. But as this "day after" dawns, it's hard for me to see any good in it. So much of my own story is intertwined with the story of continental Europe - if you've been reading this blog regularly, you'll understand how. So it feels as if part of my identity is being stripped away, all that is symbolised by the words "European Union" displayed in the cover of my passport. I've been immensely proud of my EU citizenship. I've regarded it as a privilege to think of myself in that way. To face the fact that I am going to lose a fundamental aspect of myself feels terrible. It's as if a light is going out.

When it was clear that Leave were on their way to winning, Paddy Ashdown tweeted: "God help our country". I share his sense of desperation. Or is it desolation? Or devastation? All those words seem to fit. At a stroke, we find ourselves in exile. It feels like a lonely place to be.

But I know, of course, that it is not the end of the world, however bad it seems. What I wrote at the end of the official (Christians for Europe) blog is the most important sentence of all. It's a quote from St Paul's second Corinthian letter where, having catalogued the ordeals and suffering he has had to face for the sake of the gospel, he speaks of his indomitable hope in the God of resurrection. "We do not lose heart."

I need to say those words to myself over and over again. It will take time to come to terms with what we have done as a nation. There are "fightings within and fears without". We undoubtedly face times of great difficulty. It may be that the UK may come to rue the day. But Paddy Ashdown has given me the clue about facing the future. "God help our country" is the best prayer we can say right now. For praying is all I can think of doing at this moment. 

What does it feel like a year on?

I wish I could say that we are in an altogether better place. I wish I could say that although I disagreed strongly with the Brexit vote, at least we have been able to unite around the result and face our future outside the EU with confidence. I wish I could say that our government has done its very best to recognise that nearly half of those who voted in the Referendum chose "Remain" and reach out to them. I wish I could say that as the negotiations began, our country had made early and binding undertakings to EU citizens from abroad who are resident in the UK. There is so much else I wish I could say today.

Instead, our nation seems more confused than ever about what it really wants. Who would have thought, on 23 June 2016, that within twelve months a new prime minister would be in office, and that we would have held another general election? Who could have predicted, even a few weeks ago, that its outcome would be a hung parliament with all its weaknesses and ambiguities? The word disarray doesn't feel too strong to describe the state we're in.

However, let's try to accentuate the positive. It's true that one reading of the election result is that as a nation we are more divided than ever. But there's another way of seeing it. It's that the British people has perhaps spoken with a wisdom that was not wholly conscious. I think we are saying: we want to see a more consensual style of politics in the UK. We want to see political parties talk to one another across their differences. In particular, we do not want the doctrinaire "hard" Brexit that Theresa May's rhetoric and negotiating position was leading us towards. The UK, I believe, wants to step back from this cliff-edge and find a way of leaving the Union that preserves as much as possible of what was good about our EU membership. This is now the mandate with which the electorate has charged the Prime Minister. And it's clear that Parliament is in no mood to make life easy for her. The fiendish complexities of Brexit legislation make for a formidable mountain to climb. The Government will be sorely tested at every step. That will be good for the outcome. It's too important for there not to be extensive and thorough scrutiny that a hung parliament now makes inevitable.

If it's going to be so hard to achieve, can we believe Brexit will really happen? Who knows. But I'm clear about one thing. The British people should be allowed a say on whether or not we approve the Brexit terms when they are finally negotiated. I'm not at all enamoured of referenda, because we elect MPs to make national decisions on our behalf. But as we look back to the decision of 2016, it's now become obvious that the vote did not express any view about the kind of Brexit that would best serve the nation, whether "hard", "soft" or "crashing out", whether in or out of the Single Market and the Customs Union and so on. The Government has simply made facile assumptions about what it thought we meant, and acted on them. That is now not going to be as easy to do. It seems to me that the only safe way of ensuring that the nation is behind whatever Brexit is negotiated is to put it to the electorate once again.

And if the electorate changes its mind? Well, that is its right. After all, the 2016 Referendum itself represented a change of mind following the UK's decisive endorsement of EEC membership in 1975. The sovereignty of Parliament implies that it may, if it wishes, consult the electorate and, if so advised, change its own mind on decisions reached previously. No decision is absolute: the 2016 Referendum result is not irrevocable. If the nation wishes to reverse it, we can. And this summer's election result may just suggest that the tide is turning and we are beginning to see sense.

Last year's prayer is still valid. I pray it often. I hope we all do. "God save our country." But it's not just our nation we must pray for. As I argued in last year's blogs, it's absolutely not simply a case of "what's best for Britain". We must pray for the welfare of Europe too, and of the whole family of humanity. These global concerns were always meant to be at the heart of our EU membership. We should never have narrowed our vision and become known across the Union for our grudging, foot-dragging ways. We Remainers should have talked up the importance of being an outward-facing people far more than we did in 2016 as a way of countering the self-concern of so much of the Brexit campaign and its meretricious red bus.

But there's still time to think again. That's part of moving on. Lament comes into things. But so does hope. As I wrote last year, we do not lose heart.

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