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Clergy report ‘utter frustration and bewilderment’ after Brexit votes

14 March 2019


The Prime Minister on Wednesday night

The Prime Minister on Wednesday night

FRUSTRATION, despair, and a sense of being abandoned by Westminster are the primary emotions in both Leave and Remain areas across the UK, clergy in these communities have said, in the wake of Parliament’s inability so far to resolve the Brexit impasse.

On Wednesday, MPs defeated the Government by voting to reject no-deal in any scenario, after the Prime Minister’s deal was defeated in the Commons by 149 votes for a second time on Tuesday evening.

Mrs May confirmed during PMQs on Wednesday that she would be voting to block a no-deal Brexit. Assuming a defeat for the no-deal option, MPs were due to vote yesterday on seeking an extension to Article 50 from the 27 members of the EU, for how long, and for what purpose.

In the Lincolnshire town of Boston, where three-quarters of voters voted Leave, the largest majority in the country, frustration was coupled with bewilderment in the wake of Tuesday’s vote.

The Team Rector of Boston, the Revd Alyson Buxton, who was serving breakfast at St Botolph’s to more than 40 homeless people in the town, which has a significant eastern European population, said on Wednesday: “Everybody is going about their day job of caring for people regardless of the political situation; but there is a huge sense of complete and utter frustration and bewilderment.

“There is no consensus about anything, everybody has their own little ideas. The benefit of the nation is almost coming second in this discussion. The people’s vote would be so divisive, especially if it went the other way. We don’t need that kind of polarised division now.”

She had voted Remain, and would personally like a second referendum, but fears the consequences in a town that had “been through so much” in the past three years.

“People in the town thought that [Brexit] would just happen overnight, and that the population [from the EU] would go home. But we have children in schools who have been born in this country. It wasn’t about where people had come from; it was the fact that our population grew so fast so quickly.”

The Vicar of All Saints with St Peter, Luton, the Revd David Kesterton, said that religious leaders in the town — which voted 56.5 per cent to leave — were also alert to tensions and potential unrest in the coming weeks. Far-Right groups had a “history” of activism in the area, he said.

As in Boston, immigration had been a significant factor in determining the leave vote. Luton has a high population of South Asian Muslims and eastern Europeans, including a large Roma community. Its main employers are the airport and the Vauxhall van-manufacturing plant; so job insecurity is an issue.

Mr Kesterton said on Wednesday: “The local authority are asking us, as faith leaders, to be alert to any possible rise in community tension, including hostilities towards the migrant communities here. We are always alert to the possibility of an increase in such activity by the far-right groups.”

Oxford was still “desperate” to remain in the EU, the Assistant Curate of St Clement’s, Oxford, the Revd Dr Philip Lockley, said on Tuesday.

“Our congregation is very international, including several EU citizens and families, but there has been worry, insecurity, concern, and doubt that has gone beyond those in the congregation who are EU citizens. The aftermath has been for all nationalities. People from African countries, for example, have felt less welcome, wondering where they belong.”

Dr Lockley voted Remain, but had been ministering in strong Leave areas in County Durham at the time of the referendum. “I have sought to bring a Leave perspective [to the congregation in Oxford]. . .

“For those in my congregation who are EU citizens, that has been very difficult to hear, because they have taken the vote and the whole experience of the past three years as a personal rejection of them. It is personal for me as well: my family were refugees from Germany in the 1930s; the EU project for me is a way we prevent that from ever happening again.”

Some parts of the UK which voted to leave the EU have expressed a sense of isolation from the political process and abandonment by Westminster. Local issues such as homelessness, jobs, and housing have become more pressing than the day-to-day arguments over Brexit, and many in these areas had thought that it would happen more quickly and more smoothly.

The Vicar of St Austell, the Revd Howard Flint, said on Wednesday that, while the Cornish town was still “quite determined to leave” the EU, there was “immense frustration” with the process.

Brexit had polarised communities irrespective of age, gender, or political party, he said. “It hasn’t been a unifying process: the question itself wasn’t unifying; the binary choice of in or out framed the whole thing. I see division and discontent with the process.”

A Team Vicar in Stoke-on-Trent, the Revd Geoff Eze, said that the “sense of abandonment” in the city, which voted 69.4 per cent to leave, had not gone away, “but it hasn’t necessarily got worse, either. . . . People wonder if their voice matters.”

The “length of time and the parliamentary back-and-forth” had simply made people “less interested” in Brexit, rather than angry, he said. “There have been other things that have been going on. . . People want to make sure their kids can eat.”

In the London borough of Lambeth, which recorded the highest majority of Remain votes in the country, congregations had also expressed “bemused amazement” and “resignation” at the political developments, the Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lambeth, the Revd William Wilson, said.

Mrs May said on Wednesday that she “profoundly regretted” her latest defeat, as she gave MPs a free vote on whether the UK should leave without a deal. The Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe, Dr Robert Innes, speaking before Wednesday’s Commons vote, implored MPs to rule out a no-deal Brexit “decisively”, and to vote for extending Article 50.

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