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Bishop accuses Johnson of disparaging the EU

22 October 2019


Flags at the foot of the Elizabeth Tower, at the Palace of Westminster in London, on Monday

Flags at the foot of the Elizabeth Tower, at the Palace of Westminster in London, on Monday


THE UK’S relationship with the European Union has been shaped by “gross misrepresentation” — including that wrought by the Prime Minister — the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, said on Saturday.

In a speech delivered while MPs debated Boris Johnson’s deal to pull the UK out of the EU, Bishop Baines suggested it was late in the day to heed calls for reconciliation made by the Church years ago.

“Trust cannot be commanded, even by a Prime Minister. It has to be earned,” he said.

Asked to approve the contents of the new deal in principle, MPs instead voted in favour of the amendment moved by the Conservative MP Oliver Letwin to withhold final approval of the deal until detailed legislation — the Withdrawal Agreement Bill — was passed.

After the debate, the Prime Minister complied with the “Benn Act” and wrote to the EU Commission to request an extension, although he wrote a second letter stating that a delay would be a mistake. The Commission has yet to respond.

On Monday, thwarted by the Speaker from tabling a second vote on the deal, the Government published the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in the hope that Parliament could be persuaded to complete all its stages before 31 October.

Mr Johnson has urged MPs to “go for a deal that can heal this country and can allow us all to express our legitimate desires for the deepest possible friendship and partnership with our neighbours.”

The Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, criticised the proposed deal as “not good for jobs, damaging to our industry, and a threat to our environment and our natural world”.

Bishop Baines was the only member of the Lords Spiritual to speak in the debate on Saturday. In her opening statement, the Government’s spokeswoman, Baroness Evans of Bowes Park, had noted that European colleagues had described the UK as being “half-hearted in its EU membership”. The country was “sceptical about the modes of EU integration but passionate and enthusiastic about Europe”, she suggested.

“We have not just been half-hearted,” Bishop Baines said. “We have been told lies, and there has been gross misrepresentation, including from the current Prime Minister when he was a journalist in Brussels. Propagated through the media, these lies have been allowed to go on, and have formed the way that we see and understand Europe, ourselves, and our role. That raises a question about trust.”

He went on to defend MPs and peers who had been “doing precisely what they are there to do in a parliamentary democracy. They are not delegates. They are there to use their judgement, with integrity, and to face the consequences of that at the ballot box.”

A political culture of “divide and rule” had developed, he said. “It is all very well hearing now that we need to pull all the different parties and elements in both Houses together to find a way forward,” he said. “Some of us were asking for that three years ago, two years ago, and a year ago, and it was dismissed. It was a zero-sum game of winner takes all.”

People had also been subjected to “repeated slogans and oversimplification. . . We know, and I think we should learn, that slogans are more effective and powerful than reasoned fact or argument.”

Throughout, the UK’s global reputation had suffered, Bishop Baines said: “What we learn from history is that we need humility instead of hubris.”

The most outspoken of the Bishops on the matter of Brexit, Bishop Baines wrote last month that “lying has become normalised, and our discourse has been corrupted” (Comment, 6 September).

His diagnosis of a crisis was echoed on Monday by the Bishop of Coventry, Dr Christopher Cocksworth, in a letter to all licensed ministers, churchwardens, and headteachers in the diocese. 

The UK was “experiencing a very great trauma on a political, constitutional and social level”, he wrote, before emphasising a ministry of reconciliation.

“Our calling as Christian ministers is great at this time, and will be so in the years ahead, for the scars of this trauma will take long to heal,” he wrote. “We are ministers of the gospel — the gospel of reconciliation. . .

“Our first task is to pray, and to do so urgently, especially at this time for our politicians, for their protection and their wisdom, and all who hold positions in national life.”

Dr Cocksworth repeated the assertion made in the recent College of Bishops statement that the result of the referendum should be “honoured” (News, 4 October).

“The Churches — including of course the Church of England — are made up of people of a range of views on this matter, and that needs to be respected and the different Christian reasoning recognised,” he said.

His own view was that “Britain’s best future and its best opportunity to bring good to the world lies in its continuing membership of the EU”. He could not support a revocation of Article 50, but could back “a confirmatory referendum on the deal negotiated with the EU that also allows those who want to remain in the EU to express their view.

“That would seem to me to be an honourable resolution to the impasse facing our nation, though it is not one for which I feel at liberty to campaign as a bishop.”

He went on to outline a number of principles that, were Britain to depart, should govern its future relationship with the EU, including “that the poor must not suffer the short — or long — term effects of our departure”; that “we use the new position of the UK as an opportunity to work for greater justice in our economic systems”; and that “peace is prioritised always”.

Like Bishop Baines, Dr Cocksworth has personal links to Germany. In a speech in the House of Lords on Tuesday of last week, he spoke of his German daughter-in-law. who had given birth in Cologne the previous week to her first child (News, 18 October).

The Sunday before, the chairman of the German board of the Community of the Cross of Nails, had told him “how he could not help feeling personally rejected by the UK, and how troubled he was by the violence being done to language, with truth, he said, being bent for domestic political ends, releasing anti-German sentiment in popular discourse”.

The pair had agreed “that the work on European reconciliation, which we had thought was largely done, has become an urgent priority again”. Among Dr Cocksworth’s questions for the Government was: “How do we safeguard our commitment to friendship from erosion by our quest for economic advantage?”

He went on: “If Brexit has taught us one thing, it must be that the money god is an unreliable master. The EU has shown that it has higher ideals than money, and it has remained impressively faithful to them. People who want to leave the EU have shown that they care about more than money, and are prepared to bear economic cost for the gain of other prizes.

“Perhaps that sets a vision for our nation’s place in the world: to be a champion of goods and values, principles and purposes, that have a higher price than gold; to provide financial, legal and commercial services and manufacturing products of the highest income-generating capacity, but in a way that serves the common good of humanity by being a good neighbour and a reliable friend.”

The three Bishops in the diocese of Exeter have also issued a letter to their diocese.

“Our role as church leaders in this situation is not to take sides,” they wrote, on Thursday of last week. “The Church of England must continue to be the Church for everyone. There are leavers and remainers in every congregation in Devon; but as Christians we are united by our shared responsibility to work for the common good and to promote a culture of mutual respect.”

The letter went on to warn that foodbanks were likely to “come under additional strain” and that a no-deal Brexit could lead to temporary shortages of some food and a rise in prices. In addition to donating to these stocks, people should also “reach out hands of friendship to any EU nationals in our neighbourhoods, including groups of migrant or seasonal workers on our farms”.

The Bishops highlighted the potential consequences for both the farming and fishing communities. A no-deal Brexit could mean that farming was “badly affected by inflated tariffs and uncertain support mechanisms.

“It is highly likely that our beef and sheep farmers will be particularly badly hit if the Government does not step in to support,” they wrote. “And, of course, it is not only farmers who will be affected, but their workers, contractors and suppliers, and all the inter-related businesses in the rural economy.”

The letter included links to support services for farmers and their families. The fishing community, “where traditionally wages are low and the work dangerous” was facing uncertainty over quotas, export, and rules about access to fishing grounds.

Organisers of a “People’s Vote” march on Saturday claimed that up to one million attended. Among them was the First Church Estates Commissioner, Loretta Minghella, who tweeted: “On Piccadilly, marching for a Final Say.” She expressed agreement with a tweet which argued that “nothing is better than the arrangements we already had with the EU”.

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