Church of England

Brexit and Gibraltar: Bishop bashes Government for issuing “bland statements of optimism”

The Bishop of Leeds isn’t happy. In a speech to the House of Lords on Brexit and Gibraltar, the Rt Rev’d Nick Baines censures the Government for being optimistic. It seems that looking on the bright side of life isn’t good enough: “Where is the realism that comes from looking through the eyes of those who do not hold the best interests of the UK as their priority?” he asks, demanding that all worst-case scenarios be “stress-tested” to ensure preparedness. And so he asks on behalf of Gibraltar and its people:

What if the Spanish hold out sovereignty, play a long game and say, “We’ll just sit this out. We won’t give equivalence”? What if the EU does not give us equivalent status? What if Spain wants to use sovereignty or cross-border access and frontier issues as a bargaining chip? We cannot simply stand there and say, “Well, you can’t”. I want to know that we are stress-testing this. Who has the power? After all, we have spoken of having a clean Brexit; what if the Spanish take us at our word? That has to be thought through and our response to it considered.

“The government keeps issuing bland statements of optimism,” the Bishop despairs upon his blog, “but neglects to articulate clearly the fact that it has little or no control over delivery of a desired outcome.”

Bland statements of optimism?

<cough>

mutual flourishing

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good disagreement

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radical new Christian inclusion

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Bland statements of optimism are the bread of democratic polity and the wine of fruitful diplomacy. It isn’t that worse or worst-case scenarios haven’t been envisaged or prepared for: it is simply that there is little or nothing to be gained by constantly articulating robust statements of pessimism. Imagine if the Prime Minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Governor of the Bank of England went round making doom-and-gloom speeches about the economic outlook and prospects for growth. These things must be ‘talked up’: by words they are inspired and created. Negativity costs jobs. Hesitation and uncertainty breed company closures and heart attacks. We need “bland statements of optimism” to grease the general political discourse: they are as crucial to democratic civility as a handshake is to social intelligence.

The Bishop is of the view that “The referendum result has dumped Gibraltar.” How, exactly? Does he think that our long EEC/EC/EU membership somehow placated Spanish claims to the rock? Has he not seen or read about the past four decades of Spanish threats, blockades and illegal incursions? Gibraltar is more British than Ceuta and Melilla on the north coast of Africa are Spanish: an historic treaty is a legally-binding treaty. Sovereignty rests with the people of Gibraltar: they have not been dumped by anything or anyone, and Theresa May has reiterated her commitment to defend their liberty. That is an expression of her innate optimism, which is borne of her Christian faith.

The alternative to “We will get a good deal” is “We will (/might) get a bad deal”. The antithesis of “We mustn’t compromise on sovereignty” is “We will (/might) surrender sovereignty”. We know it looks like rain, Bishop Nick, but what’s wrong with focusing on the odd beam of sunlight? You can certainly carry your brolly, but we don’t all need to know the detail of how the metal ribs fan out from the metal handle.

“Gibraltar is not a bargaining chip in these negotiations,” states chief minister Fabian Picardo. “Gibraltar belongs to the Gibraltarians and we want to stay British,” he insists. Faced with this, the most robust statement of pessimism has been articulated by Lord (Michael) Howard:  “Thirty-five years ago this week, another woman prime minister sent a taskforce halfway across the world to defend the freedom of another small group of British people against another Spanish-speaking country, and I’m absolutely certain that our current prime minister will show the same resolve in standing by the people of Gibraltar,” he told Sky News.

Of course it’s an option, but isn’t it preferable to hear “bland statements of optimism” rather than stress-tested warmongering? Isn’t it a little more sophisticated and politically mature (not to say loving and Christian) to remind each other that we are friends, neighbours and NATO allies, rather than rant on about the Treaty of Utrecht and gloat about the fate of the Spanish Armada?

The Bishop of Leeds has also been asking questions “in respect of the environment, agriculture and the ending of subsidies for farming in parts of (his) diocese”. These are all very important matters of great concern, and he is wholly justified in seeking answers for his flock (and other bishops’ flocks). The point, he says, “is that we need all scenarios stress-tested – including the worst-case ones – in order not to feed people with false promises that we cannot deliver”.

Promises that we cannot deliver?

Has the Church of England stress-tested all of its worst-case scenarios? What if it can’t deliver on those “bland statements of optimism” such as “mutual flourishing”, “good disagreement”, and a “radical new Christian inclusion” when it comes to those thorny issues of gender, sexuality and same-sex blessing/marriage? As Bishop Nick writes, “We need to know the best and worst options that lie before us.” Surely, then, we also need to be reassured that the worst-case scenarios are being stress-tested by the Bishops “in the way that they were not before we went into this business in the first place”.

Don’t they owe it to the people of England, not to mention the Worldwide Anglican Communion?