Brexit or not, the UK has changed irrevocably

14 December 2018

At this time of crisis, the UK must rediscover a vision of what sort of society and nation it wants to be, says Chris Baker

THE Prime Minister’s decision on Monday to defer the Parliamentary vote on the EU Withdrawal legislation simply prolongs the most damaging political and constitutional crisis to hit the UK in 50 years. Whatever Brexit eventually emerges, this country has been changed irrevocably. Even if the UK revoked Article 50, as allowed under the latest European Court of Justice ruling, there can be no return to the way things were and felt before the Referendum campaign and result.

Brexit has had a long gestation, built up over many years of complacency and lack of vision, both nationally and across Europe. The last decade of ideologically and economically misjudged austerity by successive UK governments, on the heels of the 2008 financial crash, has exacerbated regional and financial gulfs, and steadily extinguished hope and opportunity for many.

The latest Joseph Rowntree report on poverty highlights that 30 per cent of children and 16 per cent of pensioners now live in poverty (News 7 December). Forty-seven per cent of working-age adults on low incomes spend more than one third of their income on housing costs. These shocking statistics have crept inexorably upwards as we have become fatalistically entranced by the whole Brexit sideshow.

But beneath the technical outcomes and debates about what “sort of Brexit” will emerge, there are deeper fissures and “leavings” that have already taken place, inflicting grave damage to our national and local sense of well-being. We have already, over the years, psychologically “exited” the country that we thought we knew — a country that we understood to have worked reasonably well. We have already Brexited the UK, never mind Europe or the rest of the world. We have lost touch with who we once were, and we no longer have a sustaining vision of the sort of society and nation we aspire to be.

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We may lurch to a more stable economic equilibrium at some point after 29 March. But, if we have not addressed the fundamental question of who we are, what we aspire to be, and what our sources of inspiration are, then we will be doomed to live out the toxic legacy of Brexit far longer, and at much greater cost to our psychic and national well-being.

 

AT THIS point of crisis, it is not at all fanciful to remind ourselves that Archbishop William Temple, in 1941, the darkest days of the Second World War, dared to imagine a process of national debate about the sort of nation that should be rebuilt out of the ashes of an old, swept-aside order.

In the blacked-out landscape of threatened aerial bombardment, he convened the Malvern conference, which drew together writers, scientists, and economists alongside the serried ranks of the Church of England. Entitled “The Life of the Church and the Order of Society”, the conference met “to consider how far the Christian faith and principles based upon it afford guidance for action in the world today”; and then, “to think out actual political programmes or support those drawn up by others which in their judgement give effects to these fundamental principles”.

Temple’s six policy agendas that emerged from these principles addressed issues such as lifelong education, decent housing, and working conditions. This became the basis of the universal and comprehensive welfare state (a term coined by Temple himself), subsequently developed by Beveridge and implemented by the post-war Labour government of Clement Attlee.

The purpose of highlighting Temple’s great work at a time of national crisis nearly 80 years ago is not to wallow in pointless nostalgia, but to emphasise two highly pertinent issues. First, Temple did not think or act sequentially: he did not wait for the crisis to pass before he undertook his critical and strategic reimagining. He took control of the narrative and the process in the midst of the crisis. We must do the same now.

Second, the idea of a national conversation focusing not on technical solutions, but on fundamental questions of moral purpose, identity, and imagination should be strategically resurrected. The style and constituency will be different: we need all faiths and none, all walks of life and experiences, and especially the perspectives of the young, on whose future the narrow-sightedness of current debates has such a direct impact.

Mrs May has mooted a new Festival of Britain in 2022 to restore the narrative of hope and energy that the 1951 version attempted to do, following the meandering recovery after the Second World War. We need to sow the seeds of a new narrative now, if this festival is to be a success.

 

WHO should curate such a conversation, and where will the large resources that are needed come from? The Archbishop of Canterbury, very much in the spirit of Temple, has begun the conversation decisively in his latest book, Reimagining Britain: Foundations for hope. We are delighted that he will continue the debate at our next annual lecture on 13 May 2019 at Lambeth Palace: “Reimagining Britain: Faith and the Common Good”.

These are important first steps. But we need to build the momentum over the next 12 months if we are to turn the pain of our self-imposed exile from ourselves, epitomised by Brexit, into a new opportunity for rebirth and renewal for the sake of the many and not the few.

 

Professor Chris Baker is director of research at the William Temple Foundation. This an updated version of an original blog that can be read at williamtemplefoundation.org.uk.

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