The best place to consider what is going on in the UK is somewhere away from the UK. Look through a different lens and listen through distant ears.

So, I am holiday for a week, have read five books (Robert Harris’s Conclave, Sebastian Barry’s excellent and moving Days Without End, Graham Swift’s Mothering Sunday (echoes of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach?), Martin Luther’s Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen, Clinton Heylin’s Trouble in Mind – on which I will post later), and am now glancing with incredulity at the Brexit debate back home.

Disclosure first. I voted to remain in the EU. I thought Brexit would be a disaster for the UK, and was not reassured that those leading the Leave campaign had the first idea how to make Brexit actually happen. Maybe it had something to do with the despising of experts, the lack of whom now presents us with something of a challenge? However, 52% of those who voted in the referendum voted to leave. Like it or not, and like the whole farce of a referendum set up (a simple majority to decide a far-reaching constitutional change?) and campaign or not, the outcome committed the UK government to begin a process to leave the EU.

This meant that the country entered a new phase of debate and process – one for which we were totally unprepared and remarkably ill-equipped. Nevertheless, never run away from a challenge, even if the nature of the particular challenge demands levels of competence that do not appear evident.

The thrust of the Brexit argument was that the UK should reclaim its parliamentary sovereignty. Having won the referendum vote, however, parliamentary democracy then fell off the democratic wagon, being seen as a perverse obstruction of the inevitable freedom awaiting us. All arguments about the shaping of actual Brexit are, apparently, simply attempts to thwart the clear will of the British people.

So, what happened to democracy, political argument and parliamentary sovereignty?

Let’s just assume for a moment that the vote had gone the other way, but by the same margin. Then let’s ask some simple questions of the 48% who had lost the argument.

Well, actually, we can’t ask the questions before rejecting the previous sentence. There is a massive difference between losing an argument and losing a vote. It can be argued – without too much brain strain – that the referendum itself threw up more questions than it ever resolved. But, for now, let’s assume for the sake of this game that Remain had won and considered the matter settled once and for all. Here come the questions:

  • Should Leavers have regarded the matter of the UK’s membership of the EU as having been finally settled?
  • Should Leavers have accepted that the argument against EU membership had finally been settled, and then packed up their minds and gone home for a long sleep?
  • Should Leavers have stopped arguing their political points and merely accepted that “the people had spoken” and, therefore, had to be obeyed?
  • Should Leavers have ceased to write newspaper articles and jumped on the BBC every time the Corporation questioned (or gave a voice to those who continued to question) our continuing membership of the EU?

OK, enough for now. But, this is how absurd the situation has become. We might expect the Daily Mail to question the integrity of universities whose academics dare to think for themselves and ask awkward questions; but, we all get it – all the time. If your argument gets wobbly, start going for the person and his/her integrity.

It is the intellectual and moral vacuity of the situation in the UK that is leaving other Europeans with their mouths open in disbelief. Vigorously debate everything, by all means; but suggest that debate should cease once a vote has been recorded, and that is boggling in a modern democracy. (I was going to quote Hegel here, but that will only get me accused of intellectual snobbery again.) Intelligent Europeans – including those known to me who respect the UK’s decision to leave the EU – are simply boggled by the nature of the public discourse in the UK (though never surprised by the Daily Mail and other organs of the press).

OK, some of the responses to ‘threatening’ letters by MPs to universities might be just part of the whole overblown embarrassment we are compelled to endure just now; but if the original arguments for opting out of the EU still hold (restoring parliamentary sovereignty, etc.), then those involved in the democratic process cannot be cut out of the debate or the information required to make intelligent decisions as it proceeds.

Instead of bland assertions that “it’ll be alright on the night”, we need proper, informed argument about the nature, consequences, benefits and costs of the decision made in the referendum. Being slagged off for asking legitimate political, economic and social questions is unworthy of any person or body who wishes to claim democratic credentials.

It is time to grow up.

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Words are marvellous, aren’t they? Even Humpty Dumpty recognised that those who make words mean whatever they want them to mean have power.

We witness the President of the United States using language in a very particular way. His hypocrisy is boundary-free. It is not proving hard to find tweets from his past that condemn him in the present – for example, his criticism of Obama for playing golf and taking holidays have not stopped him from exceeding Obama in both. Yet, it is as if whatever was said in the past can now be magically forgotten or ignored. And the only reason this corruption of language and political discourse is possible is because we allow it to be so.

That is why protest is so important.

Right wing or left wing models of social or economic policy broadly offer people different approaches to a similar end: the common good and the prospering of a people.But, what we are seeing now is of a different order. The corruption of language and meaning, the dismissal of truth, the casual yet deliberate assertion of fantasy as fact, all these contribute to a dangerous normalisation of lying, misrepresentation and hypocrisy.

What’s new, you ask? Hasn’t it always been thus? Well, yes. But, it has also been protested against, found unacceptable, and held to be shameful. The fact of past general corruption does not legitimise contemporary specific corruption, nor should it excuse us from naming what is wrong now.

As an Englishman it is uncomfortable enough watching the disgraceful Trumpian drama unfolding across the Atlantic. But, I am also reading Shashi Tharoor‘s polemic against the crimes and sins of the British in his recently published Inglorious Empire. Polemical it may be, but it shines a light on Britain and its not-so-distant past that contributes to British self-identity as it gets re-shaped for a post-Brexit world. In other words, offering a critique of Trump and the USA must come with a huge accompanying dose of humility and realism about our own history. And that realism should compel us to demand better from our present in order to ameliorate what might lie in the future.

So, going back to questions of language and our descriptions of truth, today David Davis MP described the British approach to negotiating a customs relationship with the European Union as one of “constructive ambiguity”. Which means what? Constructive from whose perspective? Constructive in terms of building what – clear understanding? Ambiguity in terms of keeping options open? Or an inability or unwillingness to commit?

These are questions, not statements. The point is that language is used in such a way as to imply cleverness when, in reality, it might suggest ignorance or incompetence. (It might be useful just once if the British could entertain the imaginative exercise of looking through EU eyes at ourselves, and listening through ears shaped by other languages to the language we use of them and ourselves. I won’t hold my breath.)

The common factor in all this is the popular acceptance of a corrupt public and political discourse. The fact that alternative power-mongers (Hillary Clinton, for example) might be equally or more corrupt does nothing to address our responsibility for demanding truthfulness, honesty and realism from those who actually have accountable power. Valuing democracy means more than ticking a box every few years.

A billion words have been written about the general election and its aftermath. The best and funniest I have read was pointed out to me by a friend, and comes from the New Yorker. It can be read here.

Well, it made me laugh.

So, the PM is prepared to go to war on Spain over the status of Gibraltar, is she? (Well, “showing the Falklands resolve” isn’t quite the same thing, but you get the point.) We will fight for the rights and sovereignty of Gibraltar, will we? And what exactly is this to look like? The referendum result has dumped Gibraltar and the government now has to try to square a very round circle.

About ten days ago there was a debate in the House of Lords on the question of Gibraltar in the wake of Brexit. The report itself was good, clear and helpful, but one or two of the questions arising from it needed (I believed) to be pressed. Members of the Gibraltar government sat in on the debate. I have never been there and have not previously had a great interest in the place.

However, the challenge to Gibraltar seemed to me to focus on one of the major problems we face as we negotiate our departure from the European Union: realism. The government keeps issuing bland statements of optimism, but neglects to articulate clearly the fact that it has little or no control over delivery of a desired outcome. So, this is the text of my speech:

My Lords, I endorse all that has been said so eloquently. The report is excellent, but for me it raises a number of questions. The main one concerns the fact that throughout the referendum campaign, and subsequently, we have repeatedly heard statements such as, “We will get a good deal”, and, “We will do this and we will do that”, when in fact we do not hold the power in a lot of this—it will have to be negotiated.

Despite urging that we get the best for Gibraltar, I want to be assured that the Government is stress-testing all the scenarios, including the worst-case ones. We owe it to the people of Gibraltar to do that because it was not done in preparation for the referendum itself.

If you look through the eyes of Spain, you find that it is not good enough for us simply to say, “We mustn’t compromise on sovereignty”. What if the Spanish hold out sovereignty, play a long game and say, “We’ll just sit this out. We won’t give equivalence”? What if the EU does not give Gibraltar equivalent status? What if Spain wants to use sovereignty or cross-border access and frontier issues as a bargaining chip? We cannot simply stand there and say, “Well, you can’t”. I want to know that we are stress-testing this. Who has the power? After all, we have spoken of having a clean Brexit; what if the Spanish take us at our word? That has to be thought through and our response to it considered.

Particular questions are raised here. As I indicated, if the EU declines to give equivalent status after Brexit, what then? What is the cost to the UK, already alluded to in this debate, if Gibraltar is given no access in future to EU programmes? Has that been costed out? In paragraph 29 of the report, we read about the strong economic links to the UK, specifically the City, should the single market be infringed in some way. But what if the City effectively moves to Frankfurt or Paris? We keep saying, “Well, it won’t”, but what if it does? We do not hold all the cards.

Paragraph 36 says that, if access to the single market is restricted,

“the rest of the world beckons”.

So does outer space. It does not mean that we can get what we want. Where is the realism that comes from looking through the eyes of those who do not hold the best interests of the UK as their priority?

Paragraph 50 says that, for Spain to intensify border controls would be regarded as an “aggressive act”. Frankly, why should it not? It did not choose this. I suspect that, if the boot were on the other foot, we might be rather aggressive as well.

I just want to be reassured that these scenarios are being stress-tested in the way that they were not before we went into this business in the first place. We owe it to the people of Gibraltar.

I pressed similar questions a day or two later in respect of the environment, agriculture and the ending of subsidies for farming in parts of my diocese.

My point (not as articulately put as it should be, I admit) is that we need all scenarios stress-tested – including the worst-case ones – in order not to feed people with false promises that we cannot deliver. The triggering of Article 50 has not “taken back control”, but has handed it to the 27 EU countries who will, rightly, now look to their own best interests (as the UK would have done if, for example, France had unilaterally decided to depart).

If the UK is to prepare – and that does not mean just government – then we need to know the best and worst options that lie before us.

This afternoon the House of Lords voted at Committee stage against the Government and in favour of an amendment to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. The amendment – one of many – was to add the following:

Within three months of exercising the power under section 1(1), Ministers of the Crown must bring forward proposals to ensure that citizens of another European Union or European Economic Area country and their family members, who are legally resident in the United Kingdom on the day on which this Act is passed, continue to be treated in the same way with regards to their EU derived-rights and, in the case of residency, their potential to acquire such rights in the future.

The debate was long and passionate. The chamber was packed – standing room only. I listened to the entire debate very carefully, but, when I went to speak, the House wanted to bring the debate to a conclusion and the Minister to respond; so, I missed my chance to add to the word count.

When it came to the division, I felt conflicted. I heard clearly the plea not to frustrate or delay the progress of the bill – or to compromise the Government’s freedom to negotiate once Article 50 has been triggered. However, I eventually voted for the amendment because I think the Government has not explained the reciprocal linking of the situations of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU. We have some power in the case of the former, but none in the case of the latter.

Furthermore, and as I have questioned in the House before now, there is no bargain to be struck between the two parties. EU negotiators know (given that they watch the telly and read newspapers) that we cannot throw out EU immigrants already in the UK because much of our construction, academic, agricultural and NHS sectors would cease to function. On what ‘reciprocal basis’ do we think we can negotiate when our hand is already declared? The Government is right to refuse the language of “bargaining chips” because there are none – there cannot be a bargaining where a bottom line has already been assumed and articulated. Contrary to the assertions of some, there is no “equal footing” for the two groups.

One of the intriguing features of this debate for me was to try to listen through the ears of Angela Merkel or other Europeans. We do speak as if we are holding a private conversation. We spent over forty years telling European partners that they are corrupt, lazy and incompetent… and now we expect to get a great deal from them? Had France or Italy done what we are doing, we would have outstripped Merkel in our indignant “make them pay” calls.

Two other elements of the debate are worth moaning about, too. (a) The ‘moral high ground’ was claimed repeatedly. Yet, there is never any definition of what makes a position moral in the first place. What we usually mean is that the ground I stand on is moral, whereas the ground you stand on is not. This is a poor – and rather grandstanding – way of conducting a moral argument. (b) The language of ‘moral gesture’ was used by several speakers, and I know what they mean. But, Parliament is there to do moral good, not to make gestures. This way lies trouble.

That said, I voted for the amendment as the whole purpose of the House of Lords is to scrutinise and question, sending stuff back for further perusal by the Commons. This amendment will not slow down the triggering of Article 50 and will not ultimately frustrate the Government’s will (although the mass of correspondence – most of which I simply could not respond to – was divided on what was morally imperative and how I would be personally judged in the matter). But, it does make a statement that our democratic institutions should not bow to unconvincing arguments about process, and have the duty to raise questions of moral purpose … even where the language of such gets messed about.

EU nationals in the UK need reassurance and security now. I cannot see any reason why they should not be given it – in their interests and in the interests of the country.

The bill will now go back to the House of Commons where (I expect) the amendments passed in the Lords will be resisted; it will then return to the Lords quickly, and we will see what happens.

Beware the Ides of March…

A meeting of bishops from the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Churches is coming to an end here in Birmingham. It has been a stimulating, encouraging, challenging and good time together. In brief, we have looked at the international scene, the European scene, prayer and evangelisation, and where we go from here together.

Haunting the meeting is the spectre of a Trumpian revolution in the United States – with considerable implications for the rest of the world – and the debate about Brexit.

One of the interesting features of debate about the USA and Brexit is the constant attempts to close down debate on detail on the grounds that “we won, so shut up and let the winners get on with it”.

Politics cannot be run only by politicians. Politics is about people who hold different views, different values and have different priorities. In other words, all of us. A vote does not end the conversation. Had the UK voted to remain in the European Union, there is little chance that those who ‘lost’ would be accepting the status quo and going quiet; nor should they.

The referendum on membership of the EU delivered a decision to leave. However, almost half of those who voted did not vote that way. It was not overwhelming or decisive (as has often been stated). The country is divided – almost in two – over the matter. So, how we proceed from here must take seriously the concerns of the half the country that does/did not want to leave the EU. How we leave matters. The language we use in the course of the debate (on how to leave) matters.

From my own experience – and despite some of the public posturing – some of those in government take the 48% seriously and understand the need to hold the country together.

I have not changed my view that much of the language of certainty and promise is at least speculative and at worst fantasy. This means that we have to be prepared for huge disillusionment and further resentment when many of the Brexit promises turn out to be unfulfilled. Yes, the gains must be identified, too, it is the deficits that will provoke the reaction.

Donald Trump might well be doing what he said he would do – which is his prerogative – but democracy means that the debate continues. If lies are told, this matters; and the nature of the lies must (if we believe truth has any value) be named. However, not everything inconvenient to my preferences are necessarily lies.

It is right that serious questions are asked about policy from any democratically elected government. Protest must be legitimate. The questions we must ask about the questions raised pertain to very basic stuff: what is a human being? why do people matter? what is a good society? from what (theological) anthropology do our values and moral judgments derive? what responsibility do I take as a citizen for shaping our collective common life?

For Christians the answers will be rooted in the nature of the world as God’s creation, people as made in the image of this creator God, and neighbourliness being rooted in more than seeing others as commodities or merely economic entities.

 

This is the basic text of my speech in the House of Lords this afternoon, not wanting to repeat what had already been said and trying to make a contribution (in a five minute speech limit) that others might not.

This House takes note of challenges to the liberal international order posed by the development of populism and nationalism around the world.

This is an important debate because it invites us to go behind the popular terms of discourse and to identify some of the philosophical dynamics at play in contemporary political developments.

The excellent Library Note makes it clear that language matters – that definition of terms is not incidental. Populism is clearly more than a movement of people who listen only to the facts that support the prejudices they have already nurtured; but, it can exploit assertive language in such a way as to obscure truth.

And this is what I wish to focus on here. Whereas others will discuss the importance of a rules-based international order, I want to say something about language in a post-truth or post-factual world, and pose a couple of questions about the assumptions we make regarding history.

The United Kingdom (as illustrated by the unfortunate reference of the Foreign Secretary yesterday) has defined itself by its share in the defeat of fascism in the twentieth century. Have we moved on? If we assume that our domestic order has been defined for ever by a past victory, we should not be surprised when our complacency finds itself undermined by events that are not trapped in that same narrative. Democracy and the rule of law are not natural and immutable givens, but are goals for which we must struggle in each generation.

This is why the narratives that guide our self-understanding as a nation among nations on a very small planet in a very large universe matter so much. It is why the UK seeing itself through the lens of a long-gone empire is so facile. It is why seeing Germany simply through the lens of Adolf Hitler is ridiculous. It is why illusions of power are dangerous when they shape language and rhetoric that are heard differently by other audiences. We need new narratives for the contemporary world – narratives of hope rooted in an authentic anthropology that takes seriously the destructive elements of human nature (what used to be known as ‘sin’).

Western liberalism has become complacent about its own self-evident superiority. It is arguable that the proper balance between individual rights and concerns for the common good has not been established. I would argue that this complacency has contributed to the sense of alienation and detachment being seen in what is being called political populism. Progress is not inevitable; it is not true that things can only get better; human rights cannot be assumed to be self-evidently right. Battles for peace, order and social cohesion are not won once and for ever. The tendency to entropy is powerful and finds it easier to pull down rather than build up.

The sorts of populism we see now (and I am trying not to load the term beyond the observation that certain demagogues claim to speak on behalf of ‘the people’) are destructive precisely because they evidently collude in destruction without a compelling vision for what should be constructed. Hence, we have seen a referendum campaign fuelled by lies, misrepresentation and an easy readiness to abuse language.

Who are the elites? Especially when they are being condemned or ridiculed by public school and Oxbridge-educated journalist-politicians who command six-figure incomes above and beyond their basic salary, and who will, whatever the outcome of Brexit, not suffer greatly? Why does it not matter that promises can be made in a referendum campaign that simply get dismissed within hours of that campaign ending? Can liberal order survive the corruption of language and the reduction of truth or fact to mere political convenience or expediency? It is not a game.

Tomorrow sees the inauguration of a US President for whom truth is a commodity to be traded. Direct contradiction of what is proven fact is loudly asserted without shame or embarrassment. I make no comment or judgement about his ability to govern the United States or contribute intelligently and wisely to the establishment of a just international order; I simply observe that the corruption of language and truth is in itself dangerous for everyone.

This debate is about the challenges to the liberal international order posed by the development of populism and nationalism around the world. The liberal international order is not a natural given or an inevitable right. It begs as many questions (of inherent legitimacy) as it addresses. Populism and nationalism are not new phenomena, and their development is a constant in societies that feel uncertain or have lost the security found in a clear sense of common or mutual identity. The particular danger of today’s developments around the world is that instability is far easier to create than stability; that order is fragile and chaos a tempting attraction; that the spectre haunting Europe and the world has little to do with ‘what the people – whoever they are – want’ and much to do with how they can be manipulated into thinking that what they are told they want is in fact what is good for them. The anti-elitist anti-establishmentarians are perpetrating a fraud in their elitist and self-promoting rhetorics. But, they will not be the people to pay the price.

I suspect that the order of the past is being challenged by the threat or promise of a new order. It is essential that we articulate a compelling vision for an order that serves the common good, shapes a good society and resists the claims of a post-truth rhetoric which tells us lying is acceptable as a means to an end.