Brexit - The new dividing line in British politics
Dr. Charles Reed (Foreign Policy Advisor, Church of England)
Britain's referendum decision of 23 June 2016 to leave the EU is the single most important decision the UK has taken in more than 40 years. It will have far reaching implications for the machinery of government and for Britain's place in Europe and the wider world. It also represents the biggest administrative and legislative challenge that government has faced since 1945. It is likely to be an all-consuming task for many Whitehall departments for years, if not decades, to come. The consequences for the EU are no less marked. Britain's decision to leave the EU raises existential questions as to the EU's own future trajectory. These then are unchartered waters for both the UK and the EU. No country has ever left the EU. The 262 words in the Lisbon Treaty that will dictate the talks - and shape the UK's ties with Europe - looks like a bare skeleton, but it is the only formal structure for what will amount to one of the world's most complex set of negotiations.
Brexit is not a single act but consists of a series of interlocking negotiations that will proceed according to different rules and timeframes and involve a diverse array of partners. Beyond the formal A50 divorce proceedings, which should - if the government has its way - be completed by March 2019, Britain and the EU of 27 member states will need to negotiate a new relationship. All the pointers suggest some sort of free trade agreement (FTA), probably similar in scope to that negotiated by Canada and the EU. How long this will take remains an open question, but even if these negotiations run parallel to the formal divorce proceedings, the experiences of CETA suggests it will be a drawn out process. Britain and the EU will therefore need to negotiate a transitional arrangement. Beyond these specific EU negotiations, Britain will also need to negotiate its membership of the World Trade Organisation. Britain is currently a member via the EU. It will also have to negotiate trade deals with the 53 countries that have FTAs with the EU. The day the UK leaves the EU these FTAs cease to apply to it. The UK will therefore have to scramble to secure is own bilateral deals. It will also want to seek out new markets for itself.
All these negotiations will take place at a time when the benefits of globalisation are being questioned and governments are adopting more protectionist measures. International politics will also come to play. Russia or Argentina could easily stall Britain's membership of the WTO. The Prime Minster will undertake these negotiations at a time when Britain's political landscape has never looked more febrile and the country so divided. A majority in the referendum prevailed for the principle of Brexit but there is no consensus, even among supporters of that position, on the terms that Britain will present in these negotiations or what the government's aim should be.
The Prime Minister has said that Brexit means Brexit but numerous positions are compatible with that position. It may mean a bid for continued membership of the single market or for a free trade agreement or a reliance instead on the existing rules of the WTO. With the Labour Party in continual disarray and the Liberal Democrats facing political extinction one would expect the position of Theresa May's Government to be assured. Far from it. The Government might enjoy a double digital lead in opinion polls but it has a slim parliamentary majority of 12 and the majority of parliamentarians voted Remain. MPs might now accept that the referendum should be respected, but they do not think the referendum gives the Government a free hand to determine what Brexit means. Even the process by which Article 50 is exercised is contested with legal challenges in the High Court and appeals in the Supreme Court. Brexit has become the new dividing line in British politics superseding the old class divisions of left and right. Outside the Westminster bubble, the divisions and inequality revealed by the referendum remain as marked as ever. Britain has been a country ill at ease with itself for a very long time, with all sorts of divides, including those based on geography and wealth. Brexit has thrown it into stark relief. Britain is going to have to stand back and take a long and careful look at itself. The problem through for the government, as in any democracy, is that the electorate is both fickle and impatient. Those that voted Leave are impatient to be led to the promised land of tighter immigration controls but they are likely to punish the government when they will be poorer next year as household incomes shrink and inflation surges to almost 4% after the Brexit induced collapse in sterling.
These are not easy time to be British. Negotiating Britain's exit from the EU is likely to invoke political dissent and popular protest that will challenge Britain's political system in untold ways. Britain's unwritten constitutional will need to demonstrate its legendary flexibility to help navigate a safe passage through the Sirens.
These are also difficult times for the Church. The referendum revealed a gaping chasm between the liberal and cosmopolitan views of Church leaders and those in the pews. One post-referendum survey indicated that 56% of Christians voted to leave the EU. This figure would be considerably higher for churches in England and Wales than it was in Scotland or Northern Ireland. At the same time Churches need to confront the reality that despite the long arc of secularisation protest movement are seizing on religion as part of a renewed nationalistic narrative. This has involved steps to rediscover the country's Christian roots and traditions - but sadly not its values - as a marker of identity. This separation needs to be corrected.
The challenge though is not just for the Church to find ways of shadowing with credibility the Brexit negotiations ahead, but to encouraging strategies that respond to the underlying grievances that fueled the Brexit vote in the first place. That involves trying to reshape the public debate away from the relative merits of the Norwegian, Swiss or Canadian model, to looking afresh at how we develop a Brexit for the common good. How does Britain make Brexit a good news story for the poor, the unemployed and those whose wages and living standards have been falling? The Church has a role here to play in provide a space for Christian reflection and debate on the presenting issues and in trying to model ways of disagreeing well that might invite and in time sustain a wider national conversation as to the kind of society we are and the kind of relationships we want in the world. Britain might have an entered an age of uncertainty but such uncertainty, where worlds are in flux, can be particularly creative times and can lead to a renewal of the body politic. All is not lost, but everything is at stake.