For all who are Christians, and I hope for many who are not, Christmas is a time of peace and good will. I think it is fair to say that there has been little of that in our politics over the last few years. 2019 came to an end with the third General Election in 4 years and the after effects of the 2016 Referendum on our membership of the European Union are still being felt. Britain feels more divided than it ever has in my lifetime, with strong feelings of anger and resentment held and expressed by both sides of the Brexit argument, and by many for whom that argument is a crystallisation of much wider frustrations with politics and politicians. Politics itself has been paralysed by the ongoing Brexit process, complex enough as we arrange to extricate ourselves from 40 years of being intertwined with European rules and processes, but made immeasurably more difficult by the lack of political consensus on what to make of the Referendum outcome. The rest of the world has watched this national nervous breakdown with mounting amazement. In my experience, whatever they think of our decision to leave the EU, what those in other countries really find surprising is our apparent abandonment of the qualities and conventions they most admire in the UK’s political constitution. We seem to have replaced pragmatic clarity with sometimes hysterical tribalism, imperilled established conventions of Cabinet Government and the accepted independence of the Speaker of the House of Commons and the Monarch, and even questioned the ‘loser’s consent’, vital for the enactment of democratic outcomes themselves. And we have seemingly justified all this with the claim that the Brexit question is more important than any of it. I profoundly disagree. I believe that those much admired conventions, hard to establish but easy to erode, are what make our system of government work better than most others, and that they are vital to preserve in the independent nation we are leaving the EU to become. They are, I would argue, more important than Brexit, and we should repair the damage Brexit has done to them.
The first thing that is needed is a period of calm. You cannot counter the instability of the last few years with more instability, so the clarity of direction the new Parliament will provide is in my view welcome. We need a Government that can govern. Second, you cannot reunite families, friends and communities divided by their views on Brexit by perpetuating the Brexit argument. We need to settle the argument about in or out now and move on. We should have done some time ago. Most importantly though we need to create the space, both in time and temperament, for proper discussion on other things that matter. Whether they are domestic priorities like the urgent reform of social care or the moral and diplomatic leadership the United Kingdom should be providing around the world, they have all been starved of oxygen by the raging inferno that has been Brexit. That needs to change now, and a calmer period in politics needs to bring with it greater willingness to work with political opponents to find solutions which will take longer than the term of any government to implement.
We all need a rest from political conflict. Let’s try to extend the peace and goodwill of Christmas well beyond January 6 this year. I wish you a happier, calmer and more harmonious New Year.