In the aftermath of last month’s government’s brexit defeat words of the late and great Laurel and Hardy spring to my mind, ‘What a fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into!’
When it comes to brexit politicians are not the only ones deeply divided. It splits families, friends, work colleagues and communities. Some are calling for a people’s vote, even at this late stage, others just want to get on with our departure, while others hope that we will eventually remain.
Whatever people want it now looks increasingly likely that Mrs May will not get the backing of parliament or Europe for any version of her deal and that the UK might well crash out of the EU on the 29th March. Brexit will mean brexit.
When our former prime minister, David Cameron, called an in/out referendum on our EU membership in June 2016 the remain camp was well ahead in the opinion polls. He was confident that the electorate would vote decisively to stay, thereby silencing the eurosceptics in his own party for a generation. In the end it all went terribly wrong for him and he walked away, handing over the reins of power to Teresa May.
The politicians who led the referendum campaigns three years ago have to accept much of the blame for the impasse we now face as a country. Most commentators agree that it was one of the worse campaigns in modern British history. Over several months voters were bombarded by dodgy statistics, claims and counter claims playing on the fears of the British public over immigration, living standards, the NHS and sovereignty. We all remember the leave campaign’s red bus and the slogan ‘we send the EU £350 million a week, let’s fund the NHS instead.’ The promise was soon forgotten after the country narrowly voted to leave. Almost three years on, though leaving the EU with no deal is the preferred outcome of the hardened brexiteers, most accept that it would be hugely damaging for the UK and to our neighbours on the continent. It’s not what most people who voted to leave actually wanted.
So, how do we resolve all this?
There are a number of talked about options. We could leave with no deal at all; we could delay brexit to give more time for the government to negotiate further with the EU; or there could be what many are now calling for, a ‘People’s vote’, a second referendum.
Going back to the people would be something I would very much support. For though the vote in 2016 showed a small majority in favour of leaving it was more about the principle than the detail. A second vote would give the electorate the opportunity to make a more informed decision, based on what brexit will actually mean. It will also give people the opportunity to change their minds.
Though a second referendum could do what Prime Minister Cameron hoped to do back in 2016, and resolve the matter once and for all, it will still leave a country bitterly divided on Europe and our place in it.
This is where the Church has a role.
It’s true that the Church, like the nation, is also divided on this issue. There are remainers and leavers in every congregation. Churchgoers who sing from the same hymn sheet have to agree to disagree when it comes to Europe. But, if we are about anything, we are a community of reconciliation. It’s at the heart of what we proclaim. When we share the peace in Church we often hear the words, ‘God has, in Christ, reconciled the world to himself and has entrusted to us the message of reconciliation’ [2 Cor.5.19]. We are a diverse community, drawn from many different walks of life, but we dare to proclaim that we are one in Christ. This vision of at-one-ment is what holds us together and is what we offer to our divided world.
In the wake of the brexit vote and subsequent negotiations there is now a very real sense of disillusionment with politicians and the feeling that party politics has ‘gotten us into this fine mess’. We need to reflect on how the referendum of 2016 was heavily influenced by what has been called ‘project fear’. As a Christian, I don’t think that it is naive to suggest that a second referendum could be based around ‘project hope’.
With every blessing,