Bringing peace to our divided society

This week there was a short break in the dark clouds of division in British politics and society. It was caused by the death from brain cancer of the former Labour politician and Minister, Tessa Jowell.

Tributes came from across the political spectrum. Two quotes from the Evening Standard show the respect, even love, for this exceptional woman. “For Tessa, people came first, ahead of tribal politics or stale thinking.” “To Tessa every day was a fresh opportunity to put her beliefs into action. Countless lives were improved.” Conservative Lord Coe, who worked with Tessa in bringing the 2012 Olympics to London, summed up her significance like this.” It’s very rare in politics that you hear that level of personal affection for someone. People say nice things about people in such tragedies but, from everyone, this is truly heartfelt.” We need more people like Tess Jowell.

The prevailing climate in British politics and society is one of division and anger. Nicky Morgan, the former Education Secretary, is not the only Remainer to have received a death threat. Opponents to Brexit, including senior Judges, who were just doing their job, have been called traitors in the press. The Cabinet is so divided that the negotiations with the EU are making very little progress and there appears no openness to compromise. The House of Lords has been threatened with abolition by Conservative MPs because the Upper House has dared to amend the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.

It is not just the politicians who are at loggerheads.  A series of polls conducted by the think tank The UK in a Changing Europe have found evidence that the country is divided too. Older voters are more likely to support Brexit whilst 73% of 18-24 year olds back staying in the EU. The better educated are more likely to back Remain whilst those with only a basic education tend to favour Brexit. Those comfortable with globalisation are more likely to be pro EU whilst Brexiteers tend to be hostile to it.  A Bishop, speaking this week, concluded, “This Brexit process has been very divisive in Parliament and in the nation. Brexit, and not just Brexit, has ripped the veneer of civility off our public discourse. Sometimes the Brexit debate has become very sharp and difficult.” 

 A traditional response to this type of situation would be to invite a distinguished, neutral person to help the conflicting parties find a compromise. That was how the ‘troubles’ in Northern Ireland were settled after 30 years of conflict and killing. But the very suggestion of compromise seems to be unthinkable in the current situation. The Cabinet is so intractably divided that the negotiations with the EU are hampered and the deadline for leaving comes closer. What can be done to break the deadlock and restore civility and openness to compromise in our politics and government?

The Bishop quoted above believes the Church has to be one of those agencies that can create a different language of civility in the nation. He says “Christians should be praying for wisdom as to how to model a different way of speaking to one another, whichever side of this divide we’re on. We have to be articulators of hope that will go beyond the practicalities and pragmatics of what actually emerges.” Christians are well placed on both sides of the Brexit divide but will hopefully remember St Paul’s invocation that “if it is possible, as far as it depends on you, lives at peace with everyone.” (Romans 12:18) We will also be aware that peace is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).

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