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A bad time

29 August 2019

THE idea of a citizens’ forum or assembly has been floating about for several months, but it was tethered on Tuesday with a firm invitation from a group of MPs to the Archbishop of Canterbury, asking him to chair such a gathering. Those who question the Archbishop’s credentials have clearly not heard about the five years that he spent curating negotiations about topics that were at least as intractable as Brexit, and often involved fatalities. The same has not been said of Brexit until now, but a growing body of critics has been revising this view.

The Archbishop spoke at the Greenbelt Festival over the weekend of his opposition to a second referendum on democratic grounds. It is a noble but misguided stand to take, when democracy is being smashed by what is essentially a sub-section of one political party, which, to enforce its will, is attempting to shut down Parliament. Most of those who had drifted into the “Just get on with it” camp, including some of the bishops, are now distancing themselves again. Anyone still wedded to a no-deal Brexit might consider the casualty figures. Another speaker at Greenbelt, Professor Danny Dorling, drew his audience’s attention to the UK infant and neonatal mortality rates. Already higher than in most other developed countries, despite having fallen for years, these began rising in 2014, when Brexit started to sap the Government’s energies and finances. They continued to rise in the three years to 2016, the last year for which figures are available. At the other end of life, Professor Dorling argued, the difficulty of staffing care homes, because of Brexit and the Home Office’s hostile environment, has reduced the standard of care experienced by vulnerable old people. No serious financial projection of life after Brexit — no-deal or deal, hard or soft — suggests that things will improve soon.

The situation is grave, therefore, and the idea of uniting opponents in a safe space is especially irresistible to Christians. The Archbishop is wise to be cautious, however, though not for the reasons that he gives. The right thing at the wrong time ends up being the wrong thing. Throughout the Brexit battle, church leaders have dived into foxholes of reconciliation; but there is still an argument to be won. Consequently, no one else has joined them in the foxholes. It will not be hard to persuade even unlikeminded people to attempt reconciliation, especially after the shock of Wednesday. But the Government’s present brinkmanship indicates no willingness to attend to other views. The repairs needed to restore civil society to anything like working order cannot be effected in the highway, or even in a lay-by. Time in the repair-shop will be needed to address damage that was not caused by Brexit but revealed by it. Another short, grudging deadline extension by the EU will not help. Revoking Article 50 is the most obvious step, and, under the present leadership, the least likely.

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