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Reuniting the UK looks harder than ever

06 November 2020

As the end of the transition period nears, the wounds of Brexit are being reopened, says Graeme Richardson

THREE years ago, I described in these pages how Brexit had turned the lives of EU citizens in the UK upside down (Comment, 20 October 2017). Families of mixed nationality like my own (my wife is German) were dogged by continual uncertainty. I wrote that piece in despair.

The Church’s response to the 2016 referendum result hadn’t helped. Overwhelmingly Remain-voting, some bishops feared attack as being part of the “metropolitan elite”, out of touch with “ordinary” people. Three of them voted in March 2017 to trigger Article 50 without a clear plan for negotiations — even voting against an amendment to ensure continuity of rights for EU citizens.

These days, the coronavirus has replaced Brexit as the nation’s preoccupying woe. But, as the end of the transition period arrives, the wounds of Brexit are being reopened.

Brexit “ultras” such as Sir Iain Duncan Smith are now telling the Government to renege on the Withdrawal Deal that he himself promised, only months ago, would “Get Brexit done”. Remainers may be quieter, but they have not forgotten these “gaslighting” deceptions. And the Archbishops’ open letter on the Internal Market Bill last month (News, 23 October) was another limp intervention from the Church — too little, too late. The tactics of the Johnson Government “could” undermine “trust and goodwill”? Where have they been for the past few years?

Last year, bishops reflected the weariness of many around this issue. They called for “reconciliation”, and for the 2016 vote to be “honoured”. The Archbishop of Canterbury even went so far as to tell Remainers to “stop whingeing” and “do something about reuniting the country” (News, 30 August 2019). But reconciliation and reuniting the country seem unlikely.


DESPITE Boris Johnson’s election victory last December, attitudes to the 2016 referendum have remained static. With a General Election’s first-past-the-post system, the Tories won an 80-seat majority. But the vote share was only 43.6 per cent. Very few people — even after everything that has happened — have changed their minds. The latest YouGov poll found 38 per cent of respondents wanting to leave and 50 per cent to remain. The nation is still, in the words of Professor John Curtice, “deeply divided and largely entrenched”.

It is not just polling that hasn’t changed: geography hasn’t, either. Even without the UK, the EU will be one of three global trade superpowers, and the only one 20 miles away. All successive UK governments will have to negotiate on aspects of the separation every year for the foreseeable future.

They won’t just be negotiating with powers to the south. In Scotland, the Tory vote share in the General Election was 25.1 per cent. The Johnson Government is pushing through a policy that maybe three-quarters of Scots do not support. Reuniting the United Kingdom looks harder than ever.

This is partly because it is still — still! — not clear exactly what the consequences of Brexit will be. Four years on, with only a few weeks to go until our exit is complete, the true picture of what Brexit means for international trade and the borders of our country remains obscure, especially given that much of it will be subject to pandemic restrictions. But we do know that there will be a customs border in the Irish Sea, lorry parks all over Kent, changes in food and farming standards, delays, inconvenience, expense, and red tape.

As these truths emerge, they have been camouflaged, re-badged, massaged, or flatly denied. And all these deceptions are undertaken in the service of one big lie, made explicit by David Davis, the then Brexit Secretary, in 2016: “There will be no downside to Brexit — only a considerable upside.” The costs of Brexit have been downplayed for so long that you would be forgiven for not knowing what to believe. But it is clearer now: this is a long, complicated, divisive, exceptionally risky, and costly process.


IN THE same month as the Archbishop’s “stop whingeing” remarks were reported, I left my wonderful parish and moved with my family to Germany. It was the most painful decision of my life. But, in the end, “we” couldn’t “honour” the vote because “we” hadn’t voted: I had, she hadn’t. “We” couldn’t play a part in reuniting the country: the country had tried to divide us. The “we” of bishops’ statements and prayers around Brexit was just another falsehood to be added to the pile.

Perhaps, with the coronavirus, things have finally changed. Mr Johnson has tackled the pandemic with the same methods as he used to “deliver” on Brexit: optimistic speechifying, simplistic slogans, and false promises. But the virus, like the realities of global trade, cannot be pushed away with lies.

Throughout the post-referendum years, I was haunted by a particular question, which I hope that the Church will grapple with, whatever deal is struck. As Christians, we don’t lie to each other, because we’re being renewed in the image of God (Colossians 3.9-10). That renewal means that we join in the work of God, a work of love and reconciliation. But if our work is reconciliation, how can we be reconciled to a lie?


The Revd Graeme Richardson is a former incumbent in Birmingham diocese and a former Chaplain of Brasenose College, Oxford. He now lives and works in Germany.

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