Brexit divisions need healing — but not yet

by
31 January 2020

Church leaders should be wary of heeding the PM’s hasty calls for national reconciliation, argues Brian Castle

“LET the healing begin,” the Prime Minister proclaimed from the steps of 10 Downing Street the day after his General Election victory. He was appealing to the whole country to move on after the “increasingly arid argument” of the past three-and-half years.

As the UK leaves the European Union today, many — especially in the Church — will heed this call for the healing of Brexit divisions. Would that it were so simple.

For countless people, such as my family, the UK’s departure from the EU cuts to the core of our identity and culture. My family’s British identity has been shaped by exposure to wider European and international cultures. My wife and I met on a course in Switzerland; my son has a Czech wife who, since the referendum, has been made to feel unwelcome in the UK; and my two grandchildren are bilingual, fitting effortlessly into both Czech and British environments.

Politicians are here today and gone tomorrow: economies with their ingrained pattern of boom and bust will ebb and flow as regularly as the tide. The one constant is our European rootedness (mediated through EU membership), bringing colour and depth to our British identity. Remove that and, notwithstanding the EU political machinery’s need for a radical makeover, we are impoverished. Furthermore, open doors into Europe open even more doors, and have brought my family confidence to move beyond this continent into other parts of the world. The loss of all this would be devastating. This should not be glossed over in a rush to “heal”.

 

STILL, one might say, we are where we are, and we need to move forwards. But, for healing to take place, reconciliation is required — and there is good reason to believe that the country is not ready for it.

First, it is doubtful whether anyone who has been instrumental in bringing about the toxic atmosphere in the UK — namely, Mr Johnson — can be trusted with the task of reconciliation.

Second, reconciliation cannot happen while the battle is still raging and pain is raw. To try to bring about reconciliation now would be like placing a sticking plaster on a septic wound. The poison may be contained for a while, but eventually it will break out in a more venomous form than before.

In addition, there are three requirements before reconciliation can begin and long-term healing be addressed. First, issues of justice need to be taken into account; second, all parties need to feel that their view is being heard and valued (there can be no victims in reconciliation); and, finally, all parties need to be willing to move from their stated views and positions.

So, what is the way forward?

Two countries that have worked hard towards reconciliation provide models for the future from which we can learn: Northern Ireland and South Africa.

There was a miraculous change in Northern Ireland when the former enemies Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness became close colleagues and governed the country together after the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. Both had inflicted harm on their people, but their working closely in the same administration sent a powerful signal to their communities that former enemies could become close colleagues.

An event that showed the UK Government’s commitment to peace and reconciliation was the willingness of the Secretary of State, Mo Mowlam, to meet Loyalists held in the Maze Prison who had threatened to walk away from the peace process: this personal intervention made a huge difference. The willingness of enemies to become friends is an important feature in reconciliation.

In South Africa, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), made up of people respected by all parties in the conflict, was established. While its overall success is a matter of debate, it made a significant contribution to the country’s future, and the principles behind it have been copied around the world. One of the TRC’s successes was to provide the opportunity for both oppressed and oppressor to tell their stories and speak honestly without fear of retribution, thereby demonstrating the importance of safe spaces where people could be open and vulnerable.

 

MR JOHNSON’s important appeal for healing will have little effect unless the significance of culture and identity are acknowledged, and measures to enable healing to happen are put in place.

If the Government is to be in the forefront of this, it would need to listen deeply, respecting and working with people across the political and cultural spectrum. Another way would be to appoint a commission of widely respected representatives to create environments for listening, consulting, and advising on how healing, and eventually reconciliation, could come about.

Meanwhile, I shall go to bed tonight a sadder person, hoping and praying that the UK will not become a diminished country.

 

The Rt Revd Dr Brian Castle is an Assistant Bishop in Bath & Wells diocese and an honorary research fellow at the University of Exeter. His book Reconciliation: The journey of a lifetime is published by SPCK at £12.99 (Church Times Bookshop £11.70).

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