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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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.

Before resuming debate on the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill the House took four oral questions. Lord (Norman) Tebbitt, commenting on emissions of nitrous oxide from cars in London, was invited to “get on his bike”.

OK, you had to be there…

The final straight of the Brexit debate then resumed. I cannot speak in the debate because to do so I would have had to be in the chamber yesterday as well as today. (In a listed debate you have to be there for the beginning and the end of the debate, and this one is taking two full days – 184 speakers.)

Many speeches have been informed, passionate, realistic, pragmatic, principled and intelligent. Read the record in Hansard. But, the consensus is clear: the UK must leave the EU and the Government has to be given the power to trigger Article 50. However, there is not consensus about whether or not the House of Lords should allow itself to be intimidated into ducking its responsibilities under the constitution to scrutinise legislation that comes from the House of Commons. Threats to abolish the Lords if they dare to do their job is not worthy of a mature democratic discourse.

I think Lord Birt probably summed up what even many Brexiteers in the House believe, however reluctantly, when he began his speech last night as follows:

My Lords, I was a passionate remainer but I will vote to pass this Bill without a moment’s pause for we simply must respect the people’s choice. However, we are woefully underprepared for the gigantic challenges ahead.

There is no sense here – despite the slurs to the contrary – that peers wish to delay the inevitable, or that amendments are being put down in order to frustrate the “will of the people”. Assertion (that all will be well) is not the same as argument (for how best to ensure that it may be well). Amendments are intended to ensure that debate is had and questions addressed.

It is clear that the Lords will not stop Article 50 from being triggered. But, the central plank of the Brexit campaign – that parliamentary sovereignty be restored to “the people” of the UK – surely means that this parliament should be encouraged to do its job as part of the democratic process.

Does anyone really think that had the referendum gone the other way, the Leavers would have declared, “Well, the people have spoken and we must shut up, accept it and embrace membership of the EU without comment, demur or debate”?

“The people” include not only the 48% who voted to remain in the EU, but also those younger people who have (or will have before the two-year negotiation period is concluded) reached the magic age of suffrage – and will endure or enjoy the consequences of “the deal” that is done on their behalf. The people have spoken, but the concerns of nearly half of them also need to be heard as together we build the new country and settlement chosen by the majority in the referendum.

Despite all the bold assertions, “we are woefully underprepared for the gigantic challenges ahead”.

A statement was read in the House of Commons yesterday and repeated later in the House of Lords regarding the 'Process for Invoking Article 50'. The statement was read in the Commons by David Davis, Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and in the Lords by Lord Bridges. Both statements were followed by lengthy and impassioned debate.

There are two elements that struck me, both of which I tried to reference in a question I put in the Lords.

First, the statement begins by saying:

The Government's priority at every stage following the referendum has been to respect the outcome of that referendum and ensure it is delivered on.

My immediate response was to wonder if respect for the outcome was being matched by respect for the people. If 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU, that leaves almost the same number who did not. They need to be respected as well as those who voted to leave. The constant referral to the motives of all those who regret the referendum result – and question the process since – as obstructive is disrespectful. We have a very divided country. Many would like to reverse the decision. But, many who regret it do not see it this way, yet still find themselves criticised and their own integrity impugned. The statement says:

And we will give no quarter to anyone who, while going through the motions of respecting the outcome of the referendum, in fact seek ways to thwart the decision of the British people.

And that is being used to justify writing off the legitimate questions being asked in Parliament and beyond.

My second point, and the one I focused on in my question in the Lords, has to do with the closing paragraph:

We are going to get on with delivering on the mandate to leave the European Union in the best way possible for the UK's national interest – best for jobs, best for growth and best for investment.

Good. The government does need to get on with its work. But, have we really reduced 'the national interest' to economics? Does the national interest not also include what will be best for social order, reconciliation and the maturity of the public/political discourse? If so, does the government not also have a responsibility to defend the independence of the judiciary and those who do what the constitution requires of them without them being subjected to ad hominem vituperation at the hands of a press that shapes the public conversation and does not simply reflect it?

In the House of Lords every attempt to get the government to condemn the behaviour of elements of the press met with a stonewall. Understandable in the circumstances, but neither helpful nor acceptable. The government cannot simply wipe its hands of a declining public discourse that its own language might be seen to encourage.

The statement can be read here.

 

It is clear that the government is working assiduously to create some shape out of the decision in the June referendum to leave the European Union. It is also clear that a huge number of questions that should have been tested out prior to the referendum itself have not been. Now it is a case of catch-up – a not inconsiderable task. It also demands that some proactive shape is made of the process, and not just a complaint about about the outcome. I remain pessimistic about many aspects of Brexit, but the debate must be engaged with.

So, following a question in the House of Lords this afternoon about the economic impact of the UK departure – which in turn was followed by a debate on the Children and Social Work Bill – there was a short debate on the implications of Brexit for peace and stability in Europe and beyond. My speech follows:

To ask HM Government what assessment they have made of the potential effect on peace and stability in Europe and around the world of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union.

My Lords, recognising that this debate and that to come on Thursday belong together, I offer this statement by the German theologian Jürgen Moltmann in a book I have just finished reading: “A free society is not an accumulation of independent individuals; it is a community of persons in solidarity.”

I quote this because the same might equally be applied to nations. It bears repetition that the language and discourse of the referendum – shamelessly fuelled by misrepresentations and misleading promises, now apparently acceptable in a so-called 'post-factual' world – paid little or no attention to the needs or securities of our international neighbours, but focused purely on the national interests of Britain. As if we can live in isolation or that we can be secure without ensuring the security of our neighbours. I invoke the poet John Donne: in a globalised world Britain cannot simply see itself as an island. Although the referendum campaign was dominated by immigration and the domestic economy (with wild promises that should always have used the language of “might” rather than “will”), questions about foreign relations and the security implications of a decision to remain or leave the EU were too often dismissed as if an impertinent intervention by an embarrassing relation.

So, the decision to leave the EU now raises questions that should have been identified and fleshed out before the referendum – questions that assume our place as a nation interdependent on a community of nations. If Europe has been focused for a generation or more on integration, it is surely now coloured by a hint of disintegration. But, to return to the questions…

For example: Brexit will be hugely demanding of energy and resources. What will be the impact of this on other areas of government? We hear bold promises that Britain will not retreat in on itself; but if revenues are reduced, costs increase, the pound continues to fall, and the focus of resource is on Brexit, what will happen to work with the UN Security Council, NATO, G7, G20 and the Commonwealth? Furthermore, is it not inconceivable that this diversion of energy, focus and resource might just create the space for mischief-making by those who are not our best friends?

Peace and stability cannot be achieved by an approach that is rooted in us simply looking to our own best interests. As we see around the world, particularly in the Middle East, security, peace and stability must be mutual. To seek the security of neighbours is costly.

But, I have further questions. The last Strategic Defence and Security Review was published in November 2015. Yet, the brave new post-Brexit world will look different from the one assumed a year ago. It is likely, for instance, that increased and enhanced EU Defence cooperation – potentially intensified outside of NATO – will impact both on the UK and NATO. In turn, if we invest more in NATO, this will have an impact on our relationship with and towards Russia, and this will impact on our response to threats to Poland and the Baltic states. Or, to put it differently, how might greater EU Defence cooperation impact on the government's stated SDSR ambition to “intensify our security and defence relationship with Germany” and to “further strengthen the U.K.-France defence and security relationship”?

It would beggar belief that such questions have not been thought through in detail before now. Or, to put it less charitably, where were the experts when we needed them?

To change tack a little, we recognise that the UK is one of the biggest contributors to the European Development Fund, currently contributing £409 million (which makes 14.8% of total contributions to the Fund). Has the Government yet assessed the impact of Brexit on the EDF? Will Brexit lead to a narrower disbursement of UK aid to a narrower geographical reach than currently channeled through the EDF? And can the Government give an assurance that the UK's Overseas Development Aid will continue to be spent on genuine ODA purposes and not be used as sweeteners for trade deals – given that trade deals have been represented as the highest social good – a questionable anthropological priority at best?

My Lords, peace and security are not merely notional aspirations, but demand a broader and deeper vision of what a human society actually is, and for whom it is to be ordered. Peace and stability cannot be empty or utilitarian words to be thrown around carelessly in a post-factual world. They demand the prioritising of mutual international relationships and detailed costings – not merely financial or economic, but human, social and structural.

I have been in the House of Lords all day today. I didn't put in to speak in any debate, but wanted to listen to debates on the European Union in particular. (The business for each day is established only a week or so beforehand – not great for people with diaries like mine.)

Following a debate on “the conditions in which Palestinian children are living and the impact on their health and wellbeing”, the first EU debate was a Topical Question for Short Debate (limited to sixty minutes): “to ask Her Majesty's Government what assessment they have made of the impact on British farmers of the decision to leave the European Union”.

The debate was good, intelligent and informed – normal for the House of Lords. Then we moved on to the second debate (limited to 2.5 hours): “that this House takes note of the European Union referendum result for government policies in ensuring safe staffing levels n the National Health Service and social care services.”

What was notable about contributions to both debates was the realism rather than romanticism about our Brexit future. The EU referendum debate was not rehearsed by Leavers or Remainers, but promises, 'facts' and 'lies' were given a good run around by many contributors on all sides of the House. The debate will be available on Hansard tomorrow, so I won't rehearse them here. But, two phrases used repeatedly by government ministers stand out for me, and both have ongoing resonance as we now walk into our promised glorious future.

First: until we actually leave the EU it is “business as usual”. It sounds reassuring; just a shame it is patently not true. Ask the NHS with its recruitment challenges. Ask academics who already are finding very real (and expressed) threats to funding – not only in the future, but now. Ask farmers who will be waiting a long time to find out what will happen to their subsidies when the Common Agricultural Policy no longer applies. I could go on, but read the debate when it is published.

In one sense, we can live with the prolonged uncertainty we have chosen, and we can take responsibility for facing the consequences of our decision. But, we should do it on the basis of reality and not language that promises what it cannot deliver. If we were going to have “business as usual”, there was clearly little point in having the referendum and voting to leave.

Second: statements that the UK “will” get the best deals for Britain, and so on. I have rehearsed this many times before. Negotiations have two or more parties. We don't negotiate with ourselves, guaranteeing the best deal for our benefit. We negotiate with countries we have mocked for decades as being incompetent, duplicitous and corrupt. And they are going to be well disposed to giving the UK the best deals – presumably at the expense of their own countries? Really?

Well, we will see what emerges in time. I hope we will get good deals, but this cannot be taken for granted (especially when we don't have any skilled negotiators anyway). And that is the point. The government should use the word “may” and not “will”. I guess “will” is intended to create (or reinforce) confidence that all will be well and all things shall be well. But, it cannot be justified at this point. “May” is more accurate.

Language matters.

 

The excellent Bishop of Hannover, Ralf Meister, delivered a brief ‘greeting’ on behalf of the Evangelischer Kirche in Deutschland (EKD) and ecumenical guests at the recent meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England in York. The bishop is also the newly-appointed German co-chair of the Meissen Commission, so I look forward hugely to working with him (as the English co-chair) in the next few years. The text of his address, coming in the light of the decision by the UK to leave the European Union, follows:

 

It is a great honour to attend this General Synod of the Church of England and to convey to you today the cordial greetings of the Evangelical Church in Germany.

I bring to you the greetings of the Council of the EKD, by the chairman of the council Bishop Professor Heinrich Bedford-Strohm,

the greetings of the plenary church conference and the presidium of the Synod, personally from the chair of the presidium Mrs. Schwätzer.

When I give you my regards as the Bishop of Hannover, there is a common bond between us. Because King Georg I. was King of Great Britain and Ireland from 1714 and ruler of the Duchy and Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg (Kingdom of Hanover).

You come together in turbulent times. I’m aware that the decision in Great Britain for the Brexit is a national democratic decision, but with due respect for that, it has an enormous impact on the international, especially the European Situation and for Germany as well.

Please allow me to make short remarks about the new fragile European situation and our responsibility as Christians.

First: I was irritated, that the main reaction in Germany about the Brexit was a discussion about the financial and economic consequences of this referendum. The European dream is a dream of humanity and justice and not the question whether the stock-exchange is placed in London or in Frankfurt or about the future of the single market. But most important: The idea of Europe is based on shared values and peace.

Recently we remembered the Battle of Somme in 1916.

When we look for some voices, which proclaim a European perspective rooted in Christian values, we find this voice in words and music from your nation: in the War Requiem from Benjamin Britten with the poetry from Wilfred Owen. Owen fought in the war zone of Somme and died in 1918: “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity. […] All a poet can do today is warn.” Owen spoke as a Christian. What a strong sign of hope and reconciliation it was, when the War Requiem was first performed in the cathedral of Coventry in 1962. It will be the Christian charge, to warn of a separated Europe – in all the tendencies for a new nationalism and the modern attraction of political populists. A Europe split in gated national communities will undermine a common period of social, economic, cultural and peaceful welfare in Europe.

But the duty for the churches in Europe is not only to warn, but to give our people the hope, that the liberation in God’s grace will be the condition for a profound understanding of freedom, justice and peace.

Second:

We in the EKD are on the way to celebrate the Jubilee of the Reformation in 2017. It will be the first jubilee in 500 years, which we celebrate in a deep ecumenical understanding with other denominations parallel to a fruitful interreligious dialog with Jews and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs and others. So we realise, that “the reformation is a world citizen”. It interconnects us in a strong line with Christians all over the world.

The Meissen-Agreement states: „We will take steps to closer fellowship in as many areas as possible, so that all our members together may advance on the way to full visible unity.“

This is an ecumenical sentence, first for us and our churches. This is a sentence of faith and of hope. But this is also a strong political proclamation for our worldwide responsibility as Christians; a responsibility to take the challenges of the modern, complex and anxious world as an invitation from God himself to work for his creation.

In this world, “right” answers are not easily found. But we have the task to witness our belief in God to practice tolerance and to engage in difficult dialogues.

Christianity has a history of interdenominational persecutions, discriminations, violence and war. We know, that it took centuries to come from “conflict to communion” and live in “reconciled difference”. May we owe our countries the story of the long way to the house of our neighbours? We owe our people the story of tolerance and acceptance, of respect and dialogue, of reconciliation and peace in the light of the gospel.

We need a strong common narration of Europe in which our Christian experiences are still decisive.

Christians are resilient and resistant people. We are strengthened in the hope from the creator of heaven and earth.

The liberating message of the gospel was in the midst of the reformation. We listen to that message in different contexts and exciting times, like these troubling days in Europe.

The reformation was a catalyst for a new understanding of the church’s role in society. In that tradition we stand. In England as well as in Germany, in the Anglican Church as well as in the Evangelical Church in Germany.

Let me end with a word from the protestant theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer from his “Letters and Papers from Prison”:

“Choose and do what is right, not what fancy takes,

Not weighing the possibilities, but bravely grasping the real,
Not in the flight of ideas, but only in action is there freedom.
Come away from your anxious hesitations into the storm of events,
Carried by God’s command and your faith alone.
Then freedom will embrace your spirit with rejoicing.”

(Widerstand und Ergebung, DBW, Bd 8, S.571)

God bless your synod.