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Brexit: What next?

16 January 2019

Read our latest leader comment on the future of the UK in Europe


Television broadcasters in Westminster, London, on Tuesday night

Television broadcasters in Westminster, London, on Tuesday night

THE Church is good at preaching ideology over material benefit: God rather than Mammon. If progression towards wealth — for nations as well as individuals — is imagined as a straight road, the Church, with firm biblical support, has set up various tax booths along it, each dealing with a different ethical question. Is your trade honest? Are you being fair to your suppliers and customers? Are you paying your workers fairly? Are you contributing to the welfare of the poor? Does your work honour God’s creation? Do you give thanks for the benefits you have received? Travellers might leave each booth materially poorer but spiritually richer. The Church has been criticised in the past, with some justification, for being concerned only with the distribution of wealth and not its creation; but for the past decade or so it has directed its attention to wealth-getting, not least because the 2008 global financial crash and the degradation of the planet have shown what happens when those ethical questions are not asked early enough along the road. A recent example was the Archbishop of Canterbury’s involvement in the report of the Commission on Economic Justice, a project of the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), published in the autumn (News, 5 September 2018).

When it comes to Brexit, therefore, it is not enough to point to the material benefit of remaining in the European Union, on the basis of the Government’s own figures — even though the chief argument of the Leave campaigners was a mendacious claim about all the money that the UK would save (that infamous bus). Ideology, often of an unexamined, visceral nature, is clearly involved. Last week’s Channel 4 drama about the Vote Leave campaign highlighted the way in which the slogan “Take back control” channelled vague feelings of helplessness into antipathy towards the EU. After two years of almost no direction from Westminster, those feelings are stronger, if anything.

Now that Parliament has decided that the Prime Minister’s deal would be letting the British people down, to use her own phrase against her, attention must be given to the ideologies that have driven this whole process. There is a clear ethical dimension to questions about enfranchisement and accountability, for example, when it comes to decision-making in Brussels; but also to questions about immigration, wage levels, regulation, international trade, borders, peace. . . Given that these are issues of urgency for the whole of Europe, it seems paradoxical to be debat­ing them in the context of a move towards greater isolation, which, in itself, presupposes one particular answer, and not by any means the most attractive. After two years of such debate, the option suggested by one MP this week, to “remain and reform”, still seems the most sensible. As Parliament considers its next move, we hope that this is allowed to become a serious pos­sibility, as the way forward that most encourages the deepest engagement with these questions.

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