Brexit alternatives proposed by MPs and peers
Steven Bray, an anti-Brexit campaigner, outside the gates of the Houses of Parliament in Westminster on 18 December
RELIGIOUS leaders, including a former archbishop, have joined members of Parliament to call for alternatives to a no-deal Brexit.
A citizens’ assembly, a people’s vote, and a second referendum, were among the ideas mooted in newspapers, online, and in Parliament this week, as the Cabinet agreed to accelerate preparations for a no-deal exit from the European Union on 29 March.
The Prime Minister survived a no-confidence vote within her own party last week, having postponed a parliamentary vote on the EU Withdrawal Agreement, which had been heading for defeat by a “significant margin” (News, 14 December).
Theresa May has since confirmed that MPs will not be invited to vote on her Brexit deal until 14 January. A debate will be held the previous week. In a statement to the House of Commons after a “robust” European Council meeting, on Monday, she said: “Of course we have prepared for no deal, and tomorrow the Cabinet will be discussing the next phase in ensuring we are ready for that scenario.
“But let us not risk the jobs, services, and security of the people we serve by turning our backs on an agreement with our neighbours that honours the referendum and provides for a smooth and orderly exit. Avoiding no deal is only possible if we can reach an agreement, or if we abandon Brexit entirely.”
The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, headed by Michael Gove, has already advertised for 90 staff for a no-deal Brexit crisis centre to respond to emergencies. The Department for International Trade is also expected to build up a £2-billion contingency fund to manage a no-deal outcome.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams was among the 21 authors of an article in The Guardian on Tuesday which called for a citizens’ assembly to stop the UK “falling apart in constitutional chaos” over Brexit.
A citizens’ assembly is described in the article as a “randomly chosen representative group of up to 500 members of the public” who meet to hear and debate the arguments surrounding an issue of national importance, before making recommendations to political representatives. It takes eight weeks to organise.
“Citizens’ assemblies operate around the world to create a neutral forum for evidence-based, participative decision-making,” the article explained. “In recent years, they have been used in Ireland, British Columbia and Iceland, and in national and local government in the UK, as democratic ‘circuit-breakers’ on contentious and complex issues.”
This was what the UK needed, it argued: “People talking and listening to each other, not shouting and arguing on or offline, to find common ground. Not superseding MPs by judging the outcome, but offering recommendations on how Brexit should be decided, to help break this deadlock and start to heal the nation’s bitter divisions.”
The article warned: “Anger and resentment are growing, splitting families, communities and our country. Without a new intervention, the toxic culture which has infected public life will irrevocably damage democracy and the future for us all.”
Other signatories to the piece include the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, and the novelist Ian McEwan. “We are not MPs and we respect the important work they do,” the article states. “Yet we also recognise that there are important ways to help heal this rift and involve the public in deeper and more meaningful ways.”
Meanwhile, Frank Field MP, a committed Brexiteer, has tabled a motion asking for a Commons debate “very early in the New Year” on the Withdrawal Agreement and each of the potential alternatives.
“The public has a right to know how the House of Commons would vote on the different Brexit choices facing our country,” he said on Monday. “I am trying to ensure we have an opportunity as soon as possible to register our vote on a range of options, including a reformed Northern Irish ‘backstop’, leaving the European Union without a deal, extending Article 50, entering into a future Norway- or Canada-style relationship with the EU, and holding a new referendum.
“The results of voting on each scenario wouldn’t be binding on the Government. But they will test opinion to see if any way forward commands a majority amongst MPs. This could act as a powerful guide to the Government during its ongoing discussions with the EU.”
On Tuesday, Downing Street dismissed a motion from the leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, which called on MPs to declare “no confidence in the Prime Minister due to her failure to allow the House of Commons to have a meaningful vote straight away” on the Brexit deal.
A letter in the Daily Telegraph from 52 business-people, including Ronald Rudd (brother of Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions Secretary), said that Mrs May did not deserve personal attacks.
“However, the Government’s own figures show that the Prime Minister’s deal would be bad for the economy, jobs and business. It puts us in a weak position to negotiate a future trade pact with the EU and continues the uncertainty that has already made our economy weaker.
“Government figures also show that every version of Brexit will make us worse off. . . If Parliament cannot agree on any form of Brexit urgently, we, as entrepreneurs and business people, writing in a personal capacity, call on the Prime Minister to take her deal to the British people.”
A statement on Saturday from the House of Bishops, who met in London last week, called for a change of tone in the Brexit debate. “It is time to bring grace and generosity back to our national life.
“At the heart of the Christian message is Jesus’s command to love our neighbour. This includes those with whom we agree and disagree — at home, in Europe, and further afield. We urge everyone — our political leaders and all of us — to bring magnanimity, respect and reconciliation to our national debate.”
The bishops promised that, whatever happened in the New Year, the Church would continue to be at the centre of communities across the UK.
It came after the Archbishop of Canterbury, introducing a debate on reconciliation in foreign policy in the House of Lords, last week, noted: “This has been a week of deep division, and reconciliation will be something that, although applied to foreign policy in this debate, must become central to our future in this country, as well.”
The intervention by Religious Leaders (e.g. the ABC; Rowan Williams; and Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner) on the Brexit issue in the U.K., is signal enough to alert the U.K. Government on the seriousness of the situation – vis-a-vis the division of the British public on a matter which concerns everyone in that country.
Ironically, Prime Minister Thersa May was, together with many of her government, against the prospect of Britain leaving the E.U. – despite the obvious loss of sovereignty that was gradually becoming more obvious with the homogenisation of the rule of Law between the countries making up the European Union membership.
One cannot help thinking that the opposition to membership of the E.U. could be a symptom of the isolationist politics that has more recently overcome U.S. foreign policy under President Donald Trump. In a world where individual nations seem to be shoring up their own defences against foreign partnerships – in trade and foreign policy – Brexit seems to be Britain’s own individual striving for independence.
From the point of view of world trade and diplomatic interaction, these assertions that insist on nationalism rather than international cooperation seem counterproductive to any polity of world togetherness that, alone, can help to prevent the proliferation of current and future strife and war in our world. In such a climate of separatism, the function of the United Nations and its allied organisations is severely limited in scope and effectiveness – a sad commentary on the prospect of World Peace and Prosperity.
At this time of anticipation of the reign of the Prince of Peace, what the world needs is cooperation rather than a more highly isolationist political stand-off – such as Brexit and other issues like the Mexican Wall seem to be pointing towards. God save us all from any structured isolationism based on fear!
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand