Peter's Blog

Who are we?

Written by Peter Johnston on .

Last night I had the proceedings from the UK Parliament on one of the screens on my desk as I finished up some work but the car crash that was the unfolding divisions (votes) down in Westminster kept drawing me away from what I was trying to complete. Brexit is getting in the way of everything!

What the world and I witnessed was a parliament which has been banging on and on about its sovereignty and right to be involved in such a momentous decision for the country given multiple opportunities to grasp that right with tangible amendments that would create the space for parliament to debate and find a cross party consensus on what the country should do next. And one by one those amendments, the most crucial being those moved by Dominic Grieve and Yvette Cooper, were voted down.

Instead the majority went for the Brady amendment. My heart sank. This is a piece of nonsense created to keep the Tory party together and allow the DUP to side with them, but has no concern for the future of the country. It is pure politics. As policy it is nonsensical. What it is asking is absurd. It is intellectually and logically impossible. Hence the language of fantasy, fairy tales and unicorns deployed by those in the media who are trying to report reality rather than wish-fulfilment.

It is asking Theresa May to go back to the EU to seek to dismantle and rebuild the now infamous backstop. The backstop is the safety net that protects the participants should their high-wire walk of finding a future agreement fail. It prevents the crashing out that would by necessity result in a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. All of my childhood and teenage years were taken up with the news filled with what was happening in Ulster, the troubles, I remember the long nights in London trying to get home from work with the stations all closed because of bomb alerts, and the sense of relief when the Good Friday Agreement was signed.

The Brady amendment seeks "alternative arrangements" that can be deployed without a hint of what these might be. It is notable that the already agreed Withdrawal Agreement currently has provision for future alternative arrangements and will adjust as necessary, but acknowledges that these do not currently exist - hence why in the debate last night when repeatedly asked for clarification Stephen Barclay, the current DExEU minister, could offer nothing in response. These alternative arrangements do not exist, this is the fairy tale. The whole point of the safety net backstop is to provide stability in the event of failure to find an outcome that works. Who would set foot on a high wire with only the assurance that the safety net will be installed once a magical new rope is created? May is being asked to go back to the EU to rehearse the same arguments that she and her team have spent two years exhausting with the EU negotiators. No wonder the EU is exasperated.

Sabine Weyand, the EU's deputy Brexit negotiator, gives a perfect insight to this situation in these comments. 

The end result, I am sure, will be that Parliament will be in the exact same position in another two weeks, nothing will have changed except the clock has ticked further down and there is even less space for reasonable, adult discussion. 

Over lunch as I type with Prime Minister's Questions ongoing today, it is painfully obvious that we are struggling in our adversarial system of parliament to really grapple with what underlies the whole Brexit mess - what kind of country we wish to be and how we see ourselves in an interconnected and interdependent world. We have witnessed the difficulties over these last few years of mixing forms of decision making, in particular direct democracy via referendum and representative democracy via parliament. The former was incomplete as the question on which the country voted was not the final decision as there was no final plan in place at the time of the vote, and now the latter is torn apart because that referendum did not provide, despite what the Brexiters claim, a clear outcome for the future. As the discussions have gone on the goal posts of the Brexiters have moved relentlessly to a no deal stance, as an example.

The capitulation of our Prime Minister, Theresa May, to those on the far right of her party, the extreme Brexiteers, is crushing for those who are trying to navigate these turbulent waters to alleviate the pain that Brexit will bring, particularly to those who are most vulnerable. It will unleash, I fear, another wave of austerity that will further erode public funding of the great social institutions, such as the NHS, of which most of us Brits are justifiably proud as a symbol of our social contract with each other that we will support and look after one another.

Speaking of extreme Brexiters, I know something about trying to engage with fundamentalists. It is, in my experience, an almost impossible task because ultimately someone with a fundamentalist disposition is living in a worldview that subordinates reality to their fundamental beliefs. We are seeing the same pattern of behaviour played out here.

At the moment at Ferryhill Kirk we are looking at various of Jesus' parables. These are some of the stories that Jesus told to his listeners. Some are funny, often they draw on local examples of daily living, others are pithy critiques, some are longer narratives. But all of them, in their own ways, and usually addressing a specific question or issue, have at their heart an illumination of what Jesus understood of God's kingdom. Jesus uses these stories to help his listeners think about what it means to be a part of a society in which the values that Jesus speaks about are foundational. So we have parables about justice issues, about grace and forgiveness, about how we treat our neighbours (and other nationalities), about how different generations all have value, and so on. They are illustrations of Jesus' vision for a kind of community which is not motivated by power nor greed, neither by wealth nor domination. It is a different dream, but one that is possible should people choose to make it so. 

Last Sunday I talked a little about what motivates us and provides our foundations as we talked about the parable of the two house builders: one building on sandy ground without thought for the longer-term future, and the other building on firm rocky foundations. The parable is a mirror being held up to us begging as to think about the foundations on which we build our future.

There is no mistaking the nationalistic and jingoistic anti-EU sentiment that is lapping around our country's feet at the moment. It is frequently given airtime on TV News such as Mark Francois this week lambasting the German CEO of Airbus, Tom Enders, by bringing up the war and how his grandfather had been a D-Day veteran. This is 2019. The German nation is one of our closest friends. And yet this is what our law makers are doing on TV news. What kind of country are we?

When we look in the mirror, who do we want to be?

On Sunday night our youth group got into some excellent discussion about some big issues and lots of views were expressed. But what really hit home like a gut-punch was when someone offered the question "What do you think the future will be like?" And the immediate response around the table was filled with negativity. I asked one of the young people about that later and she said, "We're not naive, we know what is going on." 

Again, what kind of country and world are we modelling when that is the response of our young people to an open question of that nature? 

This is important stuff. Sadly that importance does not seem to be reflected in the failed attempts to grasp reality by our political class who led us into this mess, keep churning the mud, and now can find no way out of the quagmire.  

As I have said before, all the while through this chaotic mess the one's who will benefit most from the chaos - the wealthy, the powerful, the corrupt, Putin and his ilk, who have used technology to churn that mud themselves as much as they can - are laughing behind our backs at what they have helped to create.

Where do we go from here? Will reason and sanity return in a fortnight to Westminster? How can we engage in the discussions we need to have about who we wish to be as a society? We need to keep asking the questions and seeking ways to engage. The thing we cannot do is to wash our hands of it, to turn our backs. It is too important.