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Bridging the Brexit divide

There is no denying that Brexit has deeply divided the nation. In the 2016 Referendum 51.89% voted to leave the European Union and 48.11% voted to remain. That result has dominated the subsequent debates about the terms for leaving in the negotiations with the EU. The Prime Minister has repeatedly expressed a commitment to fulfil the wishes of the 52% and ignore those of the 48%. Anyone who challenged this was dismissed as undemocratic.

This polarisation has been reflected in the House of Commons. Three times May’s proposals for leaving have been rejected by MPs. In January they voted against them 432 to 202, the heaviest defeat inflicted on any Government in Parliamentary history.  A second vote in March, on a slightly different motion, was similarly rejected 391 to 242. The third vote was defeated 286 to 344.

The politicians are not the only ones who can’t agree. For months now large numbers of supporters and opponents of Brexit have stood and shouted their slogans outside Parliament, sometimes mobbing MPs who don’t vote the way they want. Some MPs have even received death threats if they were known to oppose Brexit. A peaceful march of those wanting a “People’s Vote” saw a million people march from Park Lane to Parliament. A petition to revoke Article 50 has already attracted 6 million signatures.

There is more to this issue than anyone’s opinions about Brexit. New data from the National Centre for Social Research reveals that 80% of Leave voters and 85% of Remain voters think the Government has handled Brexit badly. Ironically, the Prime Minister argues that she is doing what the people voted for in 2016. That raises a basic question about what we understand democracy to mean.  Historically we have had a system of representative democracy whereby the people elect MPs who vote for what they believe to be in the national interest.  The Prime Minister apparently rejects that view in favour of direct democracy, doing what the voters chose in 2016.

The problem with that view is that it only seems to apply to this one issue. It also takes no account of the people changing their minds. If the polls are to be trusted they are reporting significant changes in public opinion. They reveal that 63% think the May deal is a poor one and that includes Leavers (66%) as well as Remainers (64%). That is the justification used to call for another referendum, which the Prime Minister rejects.

To try to bridge the Brexit divide, MPs led by Sir Oliver Letwin have voted to take control of the House of Commons business for long enough to hold a series of votes to find which deal with the EU has the support of a majority of the House. This has never happened before in parliamentary history. MPs voted on all the options, including Theresa May’s and the Labour Party alternative, as well as a ‘no deal’ Brexit and four others. None of them obtained a majority on 27th March but one, moved by Ken Clarke MP, came within six votes of doing so. Today (1st April) a second round of votes will be held and it is possible that Clarke’s option might be supported by a majority. This would lead to renegotiation with the EU for a ‘soft’ Brexit.

Whatever our views on this divisive issue we should be praying for grace to disagree respectfully with those whose views we do not share. Constitutional lessons have also to be learnt from this damaging experience. If we want a more direct form of democracy the voters need to be better prepared with adequate information.  It is also apparent that both our major parties are divided and a new Independent group of MPs has emerged, formed by eleven MPs who have left Labour or the Conservatives. Demographically the electorate is also changing and the youngsters gaining the vote appear to be more positive about our relationship with the EU than their elders. We pray that God’s kingdom may come and His will be done and that spirit of humble dependence is the ultimate way of bridging the Brexit divide.

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