CONCERN for democracy was voiced from the Bishops’ Bench this week in speeches opposing amendments to the Brexit Bill.
Seven bishops voted against an amendment requiring the Government to put any Brexit deal to the people in a second referendum.
The Archbishop of Canterbury argued that it would be “dangerous, unwise, and wrong to reduce the substance of the terms on which we exit the European Union to the result of a binary yes/no choice taken last summer”. Archbishop Welby said that the Government “should avoid any inclination to oversimplify the outcome of the most complex peacetime negotiations probably ever to have been undertaken”.
A second referendum would be “not democratic” and would “deepen bitterness” in what felt like “the most divided country that I have lived in in my lifetime”, he said. The division was “not a mere fact to be navigated around like a rock in a stream, but something to be healed, to be challenged, and to be changed”.
Since the referendum, other bishops have backed calls for another referendum, including the Bishop of Liverpool, the Rt Revd Paul Bayes (News, 1 July), and Dr Graham Kings, Mission Theologian in the Anglican Communion.
The amendment was rejected by 336 votes to 131.
The Bishops were divided on another amendment, stating that, at the end of the negotiating process, the approval of Parliament would be required for the terms of withdrawal from the EU.
In the largest vote on record, 366 Peers voted in favour, and 268 against.
Introducing the amendment, Lord Pannick, a crossbencher, argued that it enshrined in law a commitment already made by the Prime Minister that the final deal agreed between the UK and EU would be put to both Houses of Parliament. Were the Lords to disagree with the Commons, it would be “exceptionally unlikely that this House would stand its ground”.
The Archbishop of York, Dr Sentamu, said that the question of what might happen should the Houses disagree had yet to be answered. He feared that the amendment would “give the unelected House almost a veto on the procedure for reaching an agreement with the EU, which in turn would thwart the decision made by the electorate in the 2016 referendum”. It “provides for the intrusion of Parliament into the negotiation process . . . in such a way that it could prevent any deal ever being reached”.
“If in two years’ time Parliament were seen to be blocking the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union without another referendum, there would be a serious political situation in our country,” the Bishop of Chester, Dr Peter Forster, said. “The referendum was won by only 52 per cent to 48 per cent — that is another conflict that we are handling, I accept that. But it seems that we are not facing up to the fundamental fact of the referendum itself.”
The commitment by the Government to seeking parliamentary approval “can be trusted”, he argued.
Eight bishops voted against the amendment: the Archbishops and the Bishops of Chester, Leeds, London, St Albans, Truro, and Winchester. The Bishop of Portsmouth voted in favour, as did the Bishop of Oxford, Dr Steven Croft, who said on Wednesday that “the most significant issue that came to light was the sovereignty of Parliament over and against the prerogative of Government in making the decision”. Against the “unpredictability” of what might happen over the next two years, the amendment offered “additional security” of a return to Parliament, even if a deal was not agreed. His concerns about what would happen in the event of disagreement between the two Houses were allayed during the debate, he said. He was confident that the House of Lords would “follow the normal convention and give way to the Commons in due course”. The amendment was not, he said, “some devious blocking movement”.
Last week, the Bishops divided over an amendment concerning the rights of legally resident EU citizens (News, 2 March).