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Reform Magazine | December 7, 2023

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A good question: What can we learn from Brexit?

A good question: What can we learn from Brexit?

One question, four answers

‘Don’t let it happen again’

The question, mercifully, says ‘can’ rather than ‘have’; an article on what we have learnt from Brexit would, I fear, be a short one. ‘Can’, at least, offers so many responses. Here are ten, aimed at PMs, politicians and people.

First, don’t ignore public concerns about immigration levels or, worse, dismiss them as thinly-disguised racism. The build up of high levels of immigration and disregard of widespread public concern laid the foundations for this whole affair.

Second, don’t call a national referendum to solve a local, party issue. Cameron’s reckless gamble was born of his desire to shoot the Ukip fox. Spoiler alert: it didn’t work (even for the Tories, let alone the country).

Third, don’t plunge into a plebiscitary democracy if you live in a representative one unless you put in a huge amount of preparation work first. National referendums shouldn’t be entirely off limits for democracies like ours but they need to be very carefully managed, with clear guidelines about acceptable majorities, and a prolonged process of national consultation in order to obviate the inevitable criticisms that ‘the majority isn’t big enough’ or that ‘people didn’t realise what they were voting for’…

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at the religion and society thinktank Theos


‘The simple question led to simplistic answers’

The Brexit process has revealed some serious flaws in the way that we talk about politics. We have learned that referendums are a really bad way of trying to sort out complex questions. The simple ‘in/out’ question of the referendum led to simplistic answers, and encouraged people on either side of the debate to caricature the ‘other’.

On a more complex level, that binary question exposed chasms in our society which party politics had perhaps disguised. It revealed differences between the experiences and expectations of old and young. Differences between those people who felt they had prospered and others who felt they had nothing to lose. Between our different identities. These are complex fractures in our society and they needed more than a simple answer.

We were not well served by how we talked about politics during Brexit, and this is a wider problem too. Politics is not just ‘party politics’. Politēs, one of the Greek words at root of our word ‘politics’, means ‘the person of the city’. So politics is about the kinds of complex decisions which the people make, that help the city (or the society or country) to work. Brexit has shown how bad we are at talking this kind of politics …

Rachel Lampard leads the Joint Public Issues Team of the United Reformed and Methodist Churches, Baptist Union and Church of Scotland

‘Jesus’ teaching implores us to reconcile our differences’

Parliament has been wrangling with Brexit for almost three years. The nation voted to leave the EU, yet still we remain a member state. As this state of limbo persists, divides in our country widen. Families are split and the integrity of the UK is threatened. The arguments of the referendum campaign go on unresolved.

Although I supported it at each opportunity, time and time again, the Prime Minister’s deal has been rejected by parliament. It seems that there is no prospect of agreeing a deal with the support of only one party. Both Labour and the Conservatives are deeply split. For the Labour party, the big question seems to be whether there should be a second referendum. For the Tories, there is great disagreement over whether the country should leave the EU without a deal.

There are strong views on all sides of the argument. While most MPs have voted differently to me on the Prime Minister’s deal, I do not doubt the sincerity of their reasons for doing so. I may not agree with them, but I appreciate their legitimate concerns that any Brexit deal must deliver for the people they represent. I hope that, as the debate continues in parliament in the weeks ahead, consensus will be reached. …

Caroline Spelman is Conservative MP for Meriden and Second Church Estates Commissioner


‘Winning a barrier-free Brexit is crucial’

As a remain-voting trade unionist and equality campaigner, I am deeply worried about crashing out of Europe without any real plan. Many hard-won employment rights, guaranteed if we remain as part of a single market, would be at risk – such as the right to paid holidays, rights for part-time workers, time off for working parents, equal pay for women and limits on working hours.

If we end up with a no-deal Brexit, it will be workers and ordinary people, not big bosses, who will pick up the tab. Stopping a job-destroying no-deal Brexit, winning a final Brexit deal that offers tariff-free, barrier-free, frictionless trade with the rest of Europe, guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens working in the UK, and those of Brits working abroad is absolutely crucial.

But what does this mean in practice? It’s about protecting important public services like our beloved NHS, that often relies on EU and migrant workers – the very same people who are continually vilified in headlines, blamed for our housing crisis, for longer NHS waiting lists, for the collapse of our social security system, for foodbanks and people forced into homelessness. But are they really the ones to blame? Or is it the Tory austerity programme, a political ideology, not a necessity, that has led to services being cut to the bone? …

Shavanah Taj is President of the Wales Trades Union Congress and an equality campaigner

These are extracts from an article that was published in the May 2019 edition of Reform

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