Micah chapter 4 (one of the readings for the morning prayers on September 5th) speaks of a time when nations “beat their swords into ploughshares, their spears into pruning-hooks” and do not “learn war and more”. In his book “Beyond Brexit” Vernon Bogdanor points out that the wars of the first half of the twentieth century convinced Continental Europe that national sovereignty could be a dangerous threat to peace and must be curbed (so reviving the failed and now half-forgotten attempts by some politicians in the 1920s, and even before 1914, to achieve the same ends.) What has now evolved into the European Union began as a logical response to that conviction. By contrast, in 1945 Britain concluded that national sovereignty was a prize worth fighting and dying for- and was shocked to find itself swept up by the Continental logic of closer political integration, in an association that many in the 1970s had thought was merely a framework for freer trade.
The newspapers persist in reporting this as a bitter and irreconcilable conflict, in contrast to the Parliamentary debate, which those who watched it on TV felt was making a genuine attempt to find a way forward. But even today’s Supreme Court ruling (that it was illegal to send Parliament home) does not alter the fact that 2016 introduced into British politics a question of what is democracy: is it by Referendum or by Parliament? Slogans of “the will of the people against that of Parliament” are likely to make this a contentious issue for some time, and not only over Brexit, but over crime and punishment, and other questions which provoke fierce public reactions easily inflamed by media reporting. Is this what the Secretary of the Wesleyan Conference, Jabez Bunting, might have meant when he (allegedly) declared in the 1830s that “Methodism hates democracy as it hates sin”?
Britain’s “first past the post” electoral system inevitably builds a “winners and losers” style into our politics, in contrast to Continental proportional representation, which more often forces political parties into negotiation and compromise. “Strong and clear Government”, which first-past-the post usually creates, can work well enough when there is a general consensus about the aims of politics, and disputes only about the methods and practical policies (such as was the case in Britain for some years after 1945), but seems to work less well now.
Those who support Brexit pin their hopes for Britain’s future prosperity on trade deals with the rest of the world, unhampered by EU regulations. But some (for example, many of the former African colonies of the British Empire) appear to see relationships with the EU as far more reliable for their development than trade with a much diminished Britain. Will others think the same way? And if that is so, will a recovery of “national sovereignty” satisfy the needs of future generations of Britons (or perhaps of the English alone)?