Bishop of Leeds calls for honesty in discourse and about deep challenges UK faces with Brexit

On 20th November 2018 Government Minister Lord Callanan led a debate in the House of Lords on the motion “That this House takes note of the statement by the Prime Minister repeated by the Lord Privy Seal on 15 November relating to the European Union exit negotiations.” The Bishop of Leeds, Rt Revd Nick Baines, spoke in the debate:

The Lord Bishop of Leeds: My Lords, only four months remain before we walk arm-in-arm to the sunlit uplands where the easiest deal in history will have been made and everybody will be happy—except we know that this is not the case.

Other noble Lords will concentrate on the details of the deal—a word I loathe because it reduces an existential question simply to a matter of trade and transaction—and the position in which it leaves us. I want to pick up on one line of the Prime Minister’s Statement to the House last week, which I questioned in the short debate on Thursday:

“If we get behind a deal, we can bring our country back together and seize the opportunities that lie ahead”.—[Official Report, Commons, 15/11/18; col. 1982.]

I asked if the promise to bring our country back together was credible and achievable and, if so, how it was to be done. The answer was simply a repeat of mantras about the deal.

I thought I was being helpful to the Government by inviting a response such as, “The country is split down the middle and the language and behaviour around Brexit have become toxic even in this Parliament, so it is not going to be easy to reconcile people and parties in the wake of such a divisive issue—but, in acknowledging the size of the task, we intend to pay attention in due course to the language, symbolism and mechanisms of reconciliation”. Because this is the challenge here. The Government, by virtue of being the Government, have a primary duty to pay attention to such reconciliation: to the healing of relationships that have been fractured by this process and the restoration of trust as a public value.

I am not making a case for leaving, remaining, wishful thinking or dreaming. The referendum happened and the rest is history, or at least history in the making. However, the factual phenomenon of Brexit—its language and behaviours, its polarising aggression and its destructive reductionism—will not be addressed by statements about getting behind a deal and people romantically falling back into line. That line has been crossed in our public discourse and I think two things have exacerbated it: first, the repeated implication that the “will of the people” is immutable and clear; and, secondly, the fact that the nature of the split down the centre of the United Kingdom is being ignored.

This raises a question of honesty—honesty with the people of this nation. To ask for honesty is not to accuse anyone of dishonesty, but we hear little or no acknowledgment of the fracture that polarises our people: a fracture that will be neither addressed nor healed by the repetition of mantras about a glorious future. This is not about Brexit as a choice; rather, it is about Brexit as a cultural phenomenon and what has happened as a consequence of the referendum. Social media is not the most edifying place to seek enlightenment and calm reflection—you have to wade through acres ​of muck to find any gems. But where the gems are to be found is precisely where adults behave like adults: they face reality, whether or not reality reflects their own preferences; they moderate their language in order to prioritise relationships and values over conflict; and they show a willingness to listen before speaking and an ability to look through the eyes of their interlocutor.

I admire the committed resilience of the Prime Minister and the remarkable expertise of our civil servants, but I appeal again for those engaged in this debate to take seriously the language of the discourse, not least in how we speak of those in the EU with whom we deal. I appeal again to the Government not to dismiss with easy words the crying need for an honesty in discourse that sets people free to grow up and own the truth about the deep challenges that we face, and to offer the people to whom we are accountable, and whom we are called to serve, a model for reconciliation and hope.

Whatever happens, the Church is committed to stand with and serve those who suffer, especially the poor, marginalised and disenfranchised people in our communities, but we need an articulation of political vision that goes beyond economics and trade. So what will those in power do to offer language and symbols of reconciliation and hope in practical ways that recognise the divisions and take seriously the need to bring our country and our union back together?


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