European Union

Bishops divided on Brexit Bill: moral obligation and ethical liberation

Will the Bishops vote for Brexit?‘ was the question posed a few weeks ago. Yesterday the House of Lords voted on an amendment to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, namely that:

Within three months of exercising the power under section 1(1), Ministers of the Crown must bring forward proposals to ensure that citizens of another European Union or European Economic Area country and their family members, who are legally resident in the United Kingdom on the day on which this Act is passed, continue to be treated in the same way with regards to their EU derived-rights and, in the case of residency, their potential to acquire such rights in the future.

It would have been pleasing to have had episcopal unity, but these are the Lords Spiritual where there is no agreed line to take and no whip: each of them is accountable to their conscience and to God. And those consciences and apprehensions of divinity were divided: two bishops voted for the amendment, and three against (the other 21 members of the Bishops’ Bench wimped out were absent for genuine and legitimate reasons of ministerial priority).

The Archbishop of York (a Remainer) was adamant that the Bill must be passed with all haste, unamended; to simply let the Prime Minister and Government get on with it. He said:

My Lords, Uganda was referred to by the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham. It was regrettable that Idi Amin kicked out two types of Asians—British citizens and Ugandan citizens. My opposition to him was over the Ugandan citizens, who were the largest number. He kicked them out and my coming here in 1974 was as a result of my opposition to such behaviour. So I know how minorities can feel in a place. I know that we need to reassure our European friends who are resident here and want to remain here.

However, I have one great difficulty. Your Lordships’ House can scrutinise and revise legislation, but this simple Bill is simply to confer power on the Prime Minister to notify under Article 50 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union that there is an intention to withdraw. It is giving her the power which I believe only Parliament—not the royal prerogative —can give her. At the meeting of the Lords Spiritual before all this came about, I questioned her right to simply use prerogative power because of what had gone on way back in 1215 in Magna Carta. Clause 39 says:

“No free man shall be seized or imprisoned, or stripped of his rights or possessions, or outlawed or exiled, or deprived of his standing in any way, nor will we proceed with force against him, or send others to do so, except by the lawful judgment of his equals or by the law of the land”—

and by “man” of course we now mean “woman” as well. Clause 40 says:

“To no one will we sell, to no one deny or delay right or justice”.

I think that is still enshrined in the rule of law in this country.

As far as I am concerned, until we have done the negotiation two years down the road, European citizens who are living here now will have every right to be here, like anyone else. People want to give assurance, but I think the assurance will be when the big Bill comes and we begin the debate. Remember, the European Union has free movement of people, free movement of goods and free movement of services. All that this little Bill is doing is starting a race: on your marks, get set, bang—and then they take off.

It will take two years to run this race. During the running of the race, we want to be sure that the concerns that are raised in this debate will come back. If, as I do, we want to see the Government take this decision on behalf of all of us—that EU citizens should be given a guarantee to remain—the best way to do it is to call the bluff of Angela Merkel by saying that we have now triggered Article 50, we will talk about it and unilaterally give the guarantee. It will be much quicker than the three months proposed in this amendment. I want it to be quicker than three months.

The other thing is that if the Government are about to start negotiation, we do not want to legislate piecemeal. Those rights can only be guaranteed not by the Government but by Parliament. We will have to go through another Bill in the middle of other matters. So as far as I am concerned, we need to scrutinise and revise the legislation. I do not want this little enabling Bill, which gives the Prime Minister power to say that we intend to get out, to grow into a very big Christmas tree with many baubles put on it. This House is aware of the concerns of EU citizens. I want to say, “Trigger it”, and then for the Prime Minister to return to the EU and say, “We want to guarantee as of today”, without waiting three months for more legislation, more proposals and more ideas. I do not want to do that.

I voted remain. I wrote in the Telegraph:

“It is sad that one issue has not emerged in the referendum debate: the keeping of promises. The campaign’s two sides seem to agree that the world began yesterday and we are faced with a clean slate and may position ourselves to greatest advantage. But the world, our European neighbours and we ourselves all have a recent history”.

I argued about the need to keep promises about the things we have entered into. Well, that fell on deaf ears and 52% decided to vote to leave, in spite of all the promises we had made and the things we had entered into.

I want to suggest that we leave the Bill as it is. Pass it as quickly as possible and, after all the speeches about guaranteeing European citizens their right to remain, let us do it as quickly as possible—but do not attach it to this Bill. As far as I am concerned, that is not revising or scrutinising the Bill. It is simply adding material which I do not think is very helpful.

At this point, the Archbishop was interrupted by Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, who challenged him as to whether he understood the moral obligation on the Government. “These people are not bargaining chips,” she chided. “If we say quite freely that they are free to stay, that gives the moral high ground to the Government in their negotiations.”

As Sir Humphrey Appleby once observed: “It’s interesting that nowadays politicians want to talk about moral issues, and bishops want to talk politics.” The Archbishop responded:

I never want to see any human person used as a bargaining chip. They are made in God’s likeness and as far as I am concerned, they are people and must be treated according to the rule of law in this country. The Prime Minister tried to give a guarantee. Angela Merkel did not want it before Article 50 was triggered. My suggestion is to trigger it and go back to what you promised.

I may be a Primate, but thank God I am not in captivity. The other Primate is definitely in captivity, because he is unwell and his legs have just had an operation—but I am not. I suggest that the sooner this becomes law, the greater the challenge we can give the Prime Minister on what she attempted to do but was prevented from doing because Article 50 had not been triggered. As soon as it is triggered and the power is given, we shall shout as loudly as we can and campaign as much as we can for her to go back to what she originally suggested.

People such as me were shocked, after being here and having to travel round on a travel document and pay huge sums for visas to visit the rest of Europe, to suddenly discover that when naturalised—that is the word that is used—as a British citizen we could suddenly visit the whole of Europe without a visa. That was great stuff, and I applaud it—but, please, this is a very limited Bill and we should pass it as it is.

I have one more suggestion for our Minister: to set up a truth and listening commission in every one of our four nations, so that the divisions which we are seeing at the moment can be healed and to listen to the truth and to what the people of Britain and Northern Ireland are looking for, rather than simply locking it in the Government. For those reasons I will vote against any of the amendments, as I do not think they are revising or improving the legislation. They are simply adding on and adding on.

His arguments clearly persuaded the bishops of St Albans and London (he’s still there) to vote with the Government. The bishops of Leeds and Newcastle, however, took a different moral high ground. Neither was called to speak, but (helpfully) the Bishop of Leeds blogs something along the lines of what he might have said:

When it came to the division, I felt conflicted. I heard clearly the plea not to frustrate or delay the progress of the bill – or to compromise the Government’s freedom to negotiate once Article 50 has been triggered. However, I eventually voted for the amendment because I think the Government has not explained the reciprocal linking of the situations of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU. We have some power in the case of the former, but none in the case of the latter.

His argument is worth more than a cursory glance, not least because of this nugget of wisdom:

Two other elements of the debate are worth moaning about, too. (a) The ‘moral high ground’ was claimed repeatedly. Yet, there is never any definition of what makes a position moral in the first place. What we usually mean is that the ground I stand on is moral, whereas the ground you stand on is not. This is a poor – and rather grandstanding – way of conducting a moral argument. (b) The language of ‘moral gesture’ was used by several speakers, and I know what they mean. But, Parliament is there to do moral good, not to make gestures. This way lies trouble.

When Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb (she wasn’t the only one) berates the Archbishop of York for not understanding the Government’s moral obligation, and he refutes this with appeals to the image of God and the sanctity of a political promise, it becomes clear that +Nick Baines articulates the nexus of the episcopal schism. The bishops of Leeds and Newcastle believe the greater moral good is to be found in binding the hands of the Prime Minister in her Brexit negotiations to ensure that she does the moral good that they have prescribed; that is to grant three million EU citizens swift and unconditional rights of residency. The bishops of York, London and St Albans believe the greater moral good is to be found in giving the Prime Minister maximum freedom to ensure reciprocity; to guarantee that UK citizens living in EU member states are not disadvantaged.

Leeds and Newcastle bind and doubt; York, London and St Albans loose and trust. Both factions are undoubtedly scrutinising and interrogating; doing their legislative-episcopal duty. But it is interesting to observe the division through the lens of liberation, the image of which has become Brexit normative. If Theresa May, the daughter of a High Anglican vicar, is imbued with the New Testament’s ethical witness, she will be neither blind nor deaf to Bishop Nick’s reasoning; indeed, she will embrace it, because she seeks to loves her neighbour, as Christ commanded, being sensitive and attuned to the social and economic realities of EU citizens who have made a home in the UK, and the UK’s dependency upon their contributions.

But +Leeds and +Newcastle seem to incline to the view that the Prime Minister’s path of Brexit liberation is purely political, or more immanently political, with the danger (if not likelihood) of losing touch with the hope and freedom of Christian morality. So she must be bound by an amendment to guarantee this. As Lords Spiritual, their primary task is to remind temporal politicians of the power of and their accountability to God; to ‘save’ legislation from iniquity and injustice. But it seems that ++York, +London and +St Albans are prepared to trust the vicar’s daughter unreservedly with her Brexit eschatology.

The ultimate liberation for EU citizens in the UK is inseparable from the liberation of UK citizens from the EU. Their moral right to remain is contiguous with the Government’s ethical responsibility to secure a true and just liberation. The Archbishop of York optimistically grasps the urgent conviction of a new creation of love and freedom: the Bishop of Leeds hears groaning and sees bondage. The true moral vision is probably perched somewhere in between.