THE headline for this column has been copied from the Church Times leader published just before the first referendum (extract below).
On 5 June 1975, the electorate voted by 67 per cent to stay in the Common Market. It is worth recalling this result when politicians speak of the 23 June 2016 decision as if it were somehow sacrosanct. Yes, the people spoke; but they had said something different 41 years earlier. More to the point, they might say something different today. This is the problem with referendums: they are crude devices, valid only until new information becomes available and a new consensus prevails.
New information is available. Since June 2016 we have learnt that Brexit intimately affects the Irish border, cross-Channel trade, pan-European defence and research agreements, the status of nearly two million British expatriates living in Continental Europe, regions heavily supported by EU subsidies, and all sectors that rely on foreign labour, such as agriculture, catering, health care, and social care.
On a smaller scale, but equally crippling when taken together, are the plethora of regulations that cover everything from environmental standards to mobile phones, driving permits, and the warning photographs on cigarette packets. We have learnt, moreover, that UK politicians are remarkably under-staffed and under-qualified to deal with these matters, distracted as they have been by infighting that threatens to intensify in the next few weeks, just as negotiations with the EU become critical.
Under normal circumstances, this list, with few countervailing arguments, would be enough to halt the Brexit process. The view, reinforced by the Governor of the Bank of England last week, is that the UK would take a serious economic hit for an indeterminate period if it withdrew from Europe without significant agreements. Chequers, the only plan on the table, is most feasible when it comes closest to the existing relationship with the EU. Were a credible political leader to announce that, whatever the original intention, the Brexit process has proved too difficult to bring off without significantly harming the UK economy, and that, consequently, it is in Britain’s best interests to stay in the EU, he or she ought to be able to command respect and support.
The pivotal word in that last sentence, though, is “credible”. Back at the start of the Brexit process, the small group of right-wingers who wished to divorce the UK from the EU faced a considerable difficulty: MPs and peers in Westminster, industry leaders engaged in overseas trade, people knowledgable about industry, politics, migration, economics — almost all were overwhelmingly pro-Europe. The solution was to undermine confidence in them. This was not difficult with politicians, whose ability to render themselves untrustworthy is exercised frequently; but it was extraordinary to see how, in the run-up to the referendum, the term “expert” was transformed into a synonym for self-serving, even ill-informed. This poisoning of the well was remarkably successful: many leave votes were cast to give Westminster a black eye. But it has had far-reaching consequences, one of which is to sever the lines of respect and accountability which used to tie an MP to his or her constituents.
A parallel case of poisoning is mentioned by the Revd Dr Gary Wilton, the former C of E representative to the EU. Given the unremitting barrage of insults directed at the EU throughout the UK’s membership, the election of obstructionist MEPs, and the unwillingness to give the EU credit for any benefits, it is to be doubted whether the other 27 nations would have us back. The visceral nature of the debate since June 2016 indicates that there is more going on than a mere weighing up of economic benefit.
The following pages were produced out of a conviction that the Church has been neglectful in not speaking out. True, there are valid criticisms of the workings of the EU, and uncertainties about its future; but the view expressed privately to us by church leaders is that they favour remaining in the EU. This should be said openly. Christ’s Kingdom requires no map, no customs posts. Its understanding of neighbour recognises no national boundaries. The most attractive argument from the Brexiteers is the idea that Britain might function as a “global nation”. The paradox is that such a phrase can be voiced approvingly by politicians while they actively sever links with the nearest part of the globe.
We disapproved of the first referendum, and feel equally unenthusiastic about another. Nothing has been done to address the disaffection that caused so many to vote leave. But if David Davis MP meant what he said last year about building “a national consensus wherever possible”, he and fellow Brexiteers should have no fear of a second vote in which the electorate can, for the first time, give their informed consent.
May 30th 1975, the eve of the first ECC vote
NEXT Thursday’s referendum will find the British electorate thoroughly confused by the babel of conflicting voices with which the preliminary debate has been conducted on the issue whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Economic Community (ECC), popularly known as the Common Market, or withdraw from its membership. Day after day in past weeks members of both the main political parties as well as professed economic experts have contradicted one another, with one side calling continued membership “a recipe for total disaster “and with the other affirming that “it would be sheer national insanity for Britain to quit.”
Amid all this din of contradictory advice Christian voters are as likely to feel as confused and bewildered as the rest of the electorate, since there are no specifically Christian guidelines to determine an answer to the referendum’s question. It remains true, however, that there are issues here involved of peculiar interest to Christians: they are connected with what Canon David Edwards, in his article today, terms their “incurable international” outlook, and with their concern for honour, peace and the country’s power for good in the world. As a matter of honour it should be appreciated that a “No” vote next Thursday amounts to a vote for Britain’s tearing up a solemn treaty duly approved by Parliament; the Commons voted for membership and reaffirmed a pro-Market stance as recently as last April by a huge majority.
As a matter of peace the institution of the Common Market has undeniably poured oil on the age-old troubled waters of European national rivalries which have twice in this century led to bloody wars. Peace between ancient adversaries, the making and development of European friendships — these are no small gains to be set on the credit side of the balance on this question.
That is a great cause. But it is far from being the only reason to vote in favour of Britain’s continued membership of the EEC. There is also the question of Britain’s power, through membership, to influence the Community in the direction of social justice and an outward-looking, compassionate concern for the poorer nations of the world. It would be easy for the Community to become inward-looking and solely busy with its own material interests. It is significant that the retiring Commonwealth Secretary-General, Mr Arnold Smith, should have gone on record as affirming categorically that continued British membership of the Community could lead to a better economic relationship with the Third World, and that most Commonwealth countries themselves are strongly in favour of a “ Yes ” vote.
As for the purely economic argument, it is impossible for anyone to decide with confidence whether food will be dearer or cheaper, unemployment greater or less, by reason of British involvement with Europe. It is an open question, on which rival experts roundly accuse each other of downright lying. Common sense, however, may suggest, that the efficiency of British industry should be helped, not hindered, by that close involvement with Continental neighbours which membership of the Market entails.
On balance there seems little reason to question the claim made by the “Christians for Europe” organisation that there is an “immense potential for good in the growing unity of Europe,” and that British withdrawal from the Community would be a disaster indeed.
The Church Times digital archive is available free to subscribers.