I was quite irritated this evening to find an old hostile report by Nick Gutteridge in the Express re-peddled on the web about Mrs May’s general comments regarding Sharia law. Clearly, the Express was trying to stir up some sort of Islamaphobia and it is wrong.
It describes Sharia law as “drawn from the Koran and various fatwas”, and suggests about 100 such lawcourts are active in the UK today. The use of the word “fatwa”is designed to provoke fear, because for the readers of the Express, the word “fatwa” means only one thing. It is what happened to the man who wrote “the Satanic Verses” Salman Rushdie. And, I wonder how many readers of the Express have ever bothered to read “the Satanic Verses”?
The Express has a long history, founded by Pearson and passed to Beaverbrook during the 1st World war- in the past was the paper of choice for many. Today, it lurks in the gutter with the Star and the Sun and, of course, is known to have supported the baser elements of UKIP. But when it was first launched in 1900, it was revolutionary in cutting advertising from its front pages. It was the news that was wanted and that’s what the Express provided. Bravo!
Lord Beaverbrook admittedly thought of it as little more than a broadsheet for promoting propaganda, often for the Government- so it enthusiastically embraced Appeasement in the run up to 1939.
Still, I am also very fond of Rupert Bear and Giles both of which were launched by the paper and Andrew Marr was a former columnist.
By the 1960s, it had taken on a slightly aggressive stance and the Duke of Edinburgh was apparently quoted calling it “a bloody awful newspaper. It is full of lies, scandal and imagination. It is a vicious paper”. It has done the same thing more recently, launching a crusade against East Europeans- “Britain is full and fed up. Today join your Daily Express Crusade to stop new flood of Romanian and Bulgarian migrants”. Horrible!
Anyway, this is how the Express quoted Theresa May,
“Many British people of different faiths follow religious codes and practices, and benefit a great deal from the guidance they offer.
“A number of women have reportedly been victims of what appear to be discriminatory decisions taken by Sharia councils, and that is a significant concern.
“There is only one rule of law in our country, which provides rights and security for every citizen.
“Professor Siddiqui, supported by a panel with a strong balance of academic, religious and legal expertise, will help us better understand whether and the extent to which Sharia law is being misused or exploited and make recommendations to the Government on how to address this.”
Now to Sharia law:
Feirstly, Sharia is derived from the Koran and the Hadiths. Not from Fatwas as the Express claims. There are a variety of schools of interpretation – Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Jarafi and Hanbali. It stretches from specific rules instituted by the Prophet to Urf, or customs which may well be in conflict with primary texts and open to debate. Urf is what we would regard as “common law”.
We already have a limited use of Sharia, as we have a limited use of catholic canon law in the UK, particularly with reference to divorce or annulment, but the religious ruling does not and cannot replace the civil act.
Theresa May is talking about the positive influence of Religion on the lives of many people in the UK and across the world. The express is whipping up Islamophobia by referring to the appalling treatment of women in certain societies- certainly not imposed by the Koran, but possibly covered by local customs, Urf. The Express should be careful in what it says.
I think we should be positive about Sharia, while respecting its limited use within our society. Of course, we cannot allow people to abuse others under the excuse of following some interpretations of Sharia and I doubt most imams would advocate this.
I despair of the way politicians believe they must make binding statements about things! Today, not that surprisingly, David Davis has weighed in against the admirable Nicola Sturgeon to rule out her proposition that it might be possible for Scotland to remain in some form within the EU while yet also remaining within the UK. I had been saying the same thing actually since the referendum result so of course I think the First Minister’s idea is both sound and clever.
Mr Davis loves to be negative. I think what he says does not quite do the the man justice, because I know he has shown a lot of personal kindness to gay MPs in difficulties with the media while yet maintaining a defiance about the repeal of Section 28 and also voting against the gay marriage act. I think, in that strange gurgling voice that must be an imitation of the great, late Daniel Massey, he likes to sound decisive. (he even goes on record supporting the death penalty)
I think, however, that politics is about being ready to change our opinions. If this were not the case, then there would be no point debating stuff in the Commons. We might as well just read out speeches from some grand podium instead. Our British democratic tradition is based on our capacity to adapt to realities. The reality now is that the BREXIT decision has been made in England, though the same is far from certainly the case in Scotland, Gibraltar and Northern Ireland where an overwhelming majority voted to Remain. A clever politician recognises this tension and moves forward. Theresa May did just that (she is a unionist) in her first speech and then, more directly, (she would listen to any options) when she went up to Edinburgh. I was optimistic – until Davis started to pontificate.
Because Davis feels he still needs to win the referendum debate. To quote the great Healey, “What a silly billy” he is being! He has been dealt an Ace and he is still fiddling around with his Knaves. We have heard his points before. They were all made in the Referendum debate- which he won! We now want to hear something else. We do not expect a Minister to be a trained parrot and certainly not one peddled by Farage pet supplies.
This spurred the First Minister to declare that a second referendum could be as early as Next year. Especially if at the point of triggering Article 50, the first Minister is not “on board”:
“I will have an independence referendum if I come to conclusion that is in the best interests of Scotland. I’ve always said that. It would be up to Scottish people ultimately to decide if that is right way to go.”
She told Andrew Marr,
“I think the positive outcome of the meeting I had with the prime minister on Friday was that she said she was prepared to listen to options that the Scottish government would bring forward to give effect to how Scotland voted and we will certainly bring forward options. Let’s see what progress we can make.” Don’t you love this woman!
I hope to God that the wise women here win this discussion, because the testosterone-driven declarations of Davis do no one any good.
I was due to give a talk at a conference in Ankara yesterday. I made a video for the conference, finishing it just a few hours before the attempted coup.
I have now posted this online and added a brief introduction. I am pleased it has attracted some attention, and one particularly brilliant person added the following:
The military coup was not handled with a precise hand. It was a sloppy grab at power and hopefully Turkey won’t forget the collateral damage. And instead of letting it justify more death and destruction, will use it as a motivator for peace and civility.
I kind of want to get some things about debate off my chest. I don’t mean to be pessimistic, but modern debates often suffer from a type of information overload. I should probably point out that I am from the USA, so I have a very limited perspective on European events. I think if you asked any common person in any system, they are well aware that politicians shift focus and are masters of rhetoric designed to conceal any information they desire to conceal. But this isn’t really what I mean by information overload.
It seems to me that any “viral” idea or claim can become popular without any evidence or relevance in a post internet era. I see this constantly on social media and have been both a victim and a perpetrator of spreading some of these fallacious and incorrect views.
It was interesting to see that happen with the EU referendum. Claims that could not be substantiated and debate that was more nationalistic than informative spread much quicker because people got more caught up in the message rather than the truth.
So debates often end up being events where experts try to clarify why certain ideas or views lack evidence. But in these modern debates the side with the confident leader that recapitulates their views with impunity often ends up being more popular. I guess what I am trying to say is that people are more concerned with how people perform, in a sort of theatrical way, instead of challenging ideas and views.
This ended up being more of a rant than I wanted it to be, but I would love to see you do a video on effective debate as mentioned above. And thanks for the great content.
He is right in so many ways. How Erdogan deals with the army will determine the rest of his Presidency and the future of Turkey, but it will also send out a message to other states controlled by a powerful military. Personally, I see no real distinction between what happened on Friday night and what happened in Nice- both events seem to me to be a form of terrorism and innocent men, women and children mindlessly killed.
The New Prime Minister makes it very clear that she is efficient- she had appointed the key members of her cabinet within an hour of kissing hands in Buckingham palace. One of those appointments, Boris Johnson, has sent shockwaves around the world but I think I have already explained for a Turkish outlet precisely why Boris over-egged the “Leave” omelette and why that was such an important thing to do if he was to deny Farage his place at a future Cabinet table- to me, Boris will always be the man who took one for the team, and he did it with a panache no one could ever rival.
Boris is not just the thinking-man’s Farage, he is quite simply, “thinking man”. Farage, once thought necessary to anyone’s plan for Brexit, like any unwanted ingredient, like rancid butter, has been consigned to the bin of history.
Mrs May also makes a stab at a smile, but it all looks a bit forced. For that reason, I hope she will find room for Andrea Leadsom on her team. Andrea demonstrated last weekend that she is deeply human and the mistake she may or may not have made in no way disqualifies her for high office. I think she could show the humanity of the Cabinet. We need a few tears and we need someone to gleefully explain how to vote twice, or, indeed, to observe that getting a room to meet a Telegraph interviewer at the local hotel might perhaps be misinterpreted. I do not share many of Mrs Leadsom’s views but I have grown to like what she stands for more and more over the last week.
I was asked to give out prizes this year, and this is the text of the speech I gave. I also had projections and the accompanying images give an idea of these though they were also animated.
I want to congratulate all those who won prizes today- and also, as Fr President observed this morning, those who did not- but who clearly have been working very hard. And Anna- I don’t want to sound like Simon Cowell but this afternoon, you have made that Sondheim song entirely your own. Congratulations one and all!
Now, I want to talk about change.
We often find it hard to adjust to demands for change. But we are all as any mathematician, – or indeed as Heraclitus or Pocahontas might have said, in a state of flux. We cannot step in the same river twice. You know the song, “Once more round the river bend” – frankly, Disney says it just as well as the ancient greeks.
The demand OF constant change is uncertainty. Check out the Maths which is appearing on the screen to my right! Maths might help us understand what is happening but it is often experiences from the past that can help negotiate this uncertainty.
So, I hope you will indulge me, if I talk about an event when I was a boy here at Ratcliffe. When I was doing the Oxbridge exams and in the same week a production of Merchant of Venice, and I was caught shouting at the cricket pavilion. This was not an architectural statement. Rather, a pointless and a slightly loud display of fury and the then headmaster, Fr Anthony Baxter, took me into his office and suggested I should accept as providential things that I could not control. (Incidentally, I cannot quite control the projection of the maths – those of you who have just finished the Maths A level will agree that maths happens at its own pace. We must be patient.)
Fr Baxter urged me to follow the example of Rosmini, the man who imagined setting up this school in the first place. Antonio Rosmini was really a tremendous writer who incidentally had irritated Vatican bigwigs and had made powerful enemies. but it was the march of history that was his chief adversary. A few years before his death, he was due to be created Cardinal secretary of state by Pius IX but even as he received a set of buttons specially embossed with his family coat of arms, The pope went into exile and Rosmini’s preferment went up in smoke. Now this is the point: and I checked it yesterday with Fr Ted but neither he nor I could remember the exact words of the account, so here is the gist, in Fr Ted’s words, Rosmini took a little time time getting his head round it and then he moved on – and it is that time for pause that is important. So is the fact that he accepted the reality of the new situation. Over the next few years, it simply got worse, by the way, and his his life’s work, his writings were condemned, yet at the end of his life he says, “Be still, adore and rejoice”.
a cloud of suspicion hovered over Rosmini’s work until Vatican II. Today, He is accorded the respect he is due, and even quoted in Papal encyclicals. But it took a century, at least, for his ideas to be accepted. It takes time. Change takes time. A phrase we will get very familiar with in “post referendum”.
So, I was told to accept things that did not go to order. “Be still, adore and rejoice!” Well, I was far from rejoicing, and, by the evening, I was seething. I explained this to another one of the Rosminian priests, a man called Fr Basil, who made me a cup of tea, listened very politely and then gave me a book with a bookmark on which he had hastily inscribed the words “Ephesians 4.26”. I looked it up the following morning: “Never let the sun go down on your wrath.” So, that was a bit late! Here were two principles- to accept providence and curb anger. Let’s put that another way- to work with reality and to do it with kindness.
Nurture your own talents because that is what you will be good at. Think of Rosmini- his writings: two of his books were placed on the INDEX, the list of books no good Catholic should read, (these books- his life’s work) were forbidden and yet he never stopped writing. We are not meant to bury our talents but to develop and use them – as we heard in Church this morning St Paul says we must fight the good fight, or as I recall the wonderful Doc Orton used to point out- and some of you received prizes today in his name – Winston Churchill simply told the country during the dark days of world war 2 to “keep soldiering on” (or words to that effect).
There is a danger to determination, of course. Some years ago, I was directing Hamlet and had this insane idea that fish should play a major part. I would like to think I was inspired by the old baldicchino in the church here which was covered in fish- But we did a deal with a salmon farm and every night, the stage manager’s last job was to defrost a fish, put it in a bucket of cold water, for the following day. It all came from the line, “you are a fishmonger” (act II, sc 2) which had a slightly different meaning for Shakespeare. Anyway, the fish made its first appearance when Hamlet was feigning madness, and he produced the fish and slapped it around Polonius’ head; he dissected the fish in the big “To be or not to be” speech and then later the fish was brought on stage on a dog-lead by the mad Ophelia. We won’t do anything new unless we are prepared to take a risk. But being prepared is a key part of the process!
Sadly, one day the stage manager forgot to defrost the fish so it was hastily done with a kettle of boiling water about 10 minutes before it was due onstage. and that meant that the fish was not so much defrosted as cooked, and it fell to pieces, bits of fish here and bits of fish there. The place stank of fish and I had to spend much of our profits paying for the theatre to be professionally cleaned. Sometimes, we take unnecessary risks – just as fish seemed a great idea before it was cooked and scattered around on stage, so it’s always good to pause before a risky decision.
In other words, our understanding of providence needs to be active rather than passive. We must do our best at everything- Providence is no excuse for indolence- we must work at our future; we must be prepared, we should throw our hearts into it (some of you are looking a bit sleepy: I nevertheless want you to throw your hearts into life) whatever you do and however many hearts you may have! I think there are no “Time Lords” here, but do you know that a worm has more than one heart? (It has five) and can anyone tell me how many hearts a cockroach has (This is one of those useless bits of information that I promise you will remain with you for the rest of your life!) It has 13 hearts! That is why it is such a survivor I suppose. You should be as cunning, as determined and as resilient as a cockroach!
Exams are one way we can test the value of what we have learnt, but we also test our ideas every day simply by discussing them with our friends. Believe me, I would rather hear a friend tell me that I have a really loopy idea before I act on it. That is real kindness. And, frankly, it was fairly kind back then to tell me to stop screaming at the cricket pavilion.
Let’s go back to Rosmini for a moment, because even at the end of his life, Rosmini is talking about action- rejoice is something that we have to do fairly actively. We could bring Rosmini’s words into everyday usage- “stop, be kind and be creative.” Indeed, Providence without kindness is simply fatalism.
Kindness is something I remember about Ratcliffe. and I know that Mr Lloyd today sees kindness as a great feature of this school and a great tool for communication. “Be still, adore and rejoice”
To be still is very important. I worked for a director of an animated film who thought we should all work in silence. He went around the studio unplugging people’s radios. I thought he was wrong then. I think he is right now.
Stillness is something that can be encouraged in school, but the place where it is also needed is back at home. You cannot listen unless you are silent, and – you know I have been setting up an educational faculty in a University in Moscow, and I do occasional lectures, in English. My Russian is execrable, so they started to provide me with a translator and then gave up. These days I just vigorously wave my arms around – but I noticed that when students of any age put up their hands, they tend to stop listening. They are only thinking of what they plan to say. The same is true in politics. I was at a referendum debate a few weeks’ ago and three fairly robust councillors in a row, all asked exactly the same question. They also happened to be in three different parties. Nice to know they were thinking the same thing, but interesting that they were not listening to one another.
We need to change that. We need to listen to each other much more.
Rejoicing or happiness is again difficult, particularly in times of crisis, and we need to practice it a lot for it to be natural. This is about positive thinking and creativity but it is also about discipline and about confidence. We need to keep alive a spirit of optimism and hope, in small things and in big. We do not need to rejoice just about the past- we should enter the future in that self-same spirit of optimism.
The role of parents at home is vital to the well-being of a school like Ratcliffe. we expect there to be Inspiration and discipline at school, but we also need it at home – there may even be a place for distraction, but in my experience, children are perfectly good at doing that themselves, beginning with Minecraft, then warcraft and even game of thrones or call of duty. We need to be ever encouraging, always rejoicing in what children are learning. The more they learn, quite frankly the more we learn too, and that is no bad thing.
For the last few years I have been an academic guardian, looking after children, often from other countries while they plough ahead with their education in the UK. Sometimes they make mistakes, and I think it is my job to try to keep them focused on the goal despite these mistakes. Frankly, if English is not your native language, it is very easy to get confused. I want to tell you about –let’s call him George- who is doing an exam this evening so even as I am speaking, I am slightly on tenterhooks. He badly wanted to study Astronomy for GCSE. The school said this was impossible, that his timetable would not work, that the subject was only available to a very small select number. George really wanted to do it, his parents said, and so I spoke to the housemaster and the director of studies on his behalf. After negotiations which might well put Mr Junker to shame, George got his way. However, it soon became clear that there had been a misunderstanding.
Fuelled by Harry Potter, George’s interest, it turned out, was rather more in Astrology than in Astronomy, and quite frankly, he would have been better off with a subscription to the Daily Mail. Still, to his credit, and with a lot of encouragement, he has persevered. That means, we have spent a lot of time discussing astronomy: and this morning, just after I got out of Church, he rang me for a last minute revision test- so as I speak to you, I am also still thinking of the dwarf planet Pluto, its twin Eris, and its moon Dysnomia – this was never a subject I expected to enjoy. But you remember the line from “The King and I”, “When you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.”
And more broadly, if we are teaching children the skills of analysis and evaluation, then maybe we should not forget that all forms of entertainment can and should be open to examination, and who knows, it may only be a matter of time before we see Assassins creed on an A level syllabus, but I trust and hope that this will not be at the expense of Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer. As parents, teachers and children, we need to practice celebrating the unexpected and we should perhaps reflect that an idea not worth examining is not really worth having.
I want to finish with a few words of praise in the same spirit – the past 6 years at Ratcliffe have seen great change and stupendous leadership. I have got to know Ratcliffe again under the robust headship of Mr Lloyd and we can all be very proud in what Mr Lloyd has achieved. I have mentioned the kindness which I knew in my day and I know that same kindness is treasured today. I have also mentioned providence and the idea of rejoicing both in what has past and rejoicing in what is to come.
This year, Gareth, as you enter your final year at Ratcliffe, you can be assured you will go forward in the sure knowledge that the ideals of the school are secure, that your future is sound and you will look back, I assure you, with great pride on your days as a Ratcliffian.
Now the Conservative Leadership campaign is to be fought between two women, there seems to be competition to look as much like Mrs Thatcher as possible. Last night, Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom both gave interviews and I did a quick drawing of each. This is the result, but look how much they resemble the Lady herself! I think Mrs May has the edge.
Here is a scene from my film, “How to be Boss” where I am quoting Mrs T’s famous dictum made to Women’s Own in 1988: “There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look after themselves first. It is our duty to look after ourselves and then, also, to look after our neighbours.”
Johnson, the charismatic former mayor of London, dropped out of the Conservative leadership election after his fellow “Leave” campaigner, Michael Gove, said he was not fit for office. In fact, I understand that Boris was stabbed in the back by his own manager, the MP for Stamford, Nick Boles, another Oxford man. I had been in touch with Nick Boles, indeed, a few weeks ago about an educational project, and I got the impression then that he had not been actively involved in the Referendum campaign. I was right. He was probably busy plotting political assassination. The day before he resigned, Boris had been besieged by telephone calls and texts and Nick apparently suggested he took away the mobile phone which Boris, trusting animal as he is, gave to him. In his possession, Boles had the power to send a number of deeply foolish messages in Boris’s name, one indeed to Angela Leadsom which Boris knew nothing about. This is what led to his decision to withdraw. The lesson is very simple: never lend anyone your mobile phone!
For weeks, Gove and Johnson looked like great friends, but it is now clear that although Michael Gove was underhand, is openly disliked and arguably dishonest, in fact, the groundwork for Gove’s brutality was actually laid by Boles who was a much closer friend. It is still not clear whether Boles’ telephone antics were stupidity or malice but they provided enough ammunition for Gove. The chaotic mess that surrounds Boris’s departure, however, does not lessen his achievement which has been spectacular. So, on Friday night, Boris made his own oblique reference to the Boles/Gove assassination when he spoke with some detachment about his success as Mayor in London bringing down crime levels- though he added, he had not quite dealt with “knife crime” in Westminster. Only a man as schooled as Boris in classical allusions could have got away with such a reference. Not only was Boris stabbed in the back, but it was done by one of his closest university friends.
in contrast to Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli’s twitter comments that Brexit would fragment the EU and that “Britain was the first to abandon ship,” Brexit may well heal Europe and at the same time, help Turkey’s EU bid. After dragging its feet for months, I expect the EU to finally pay up the cash promised on 18th March and also grant the visa-free access promised in return for discouraging irregular migration across the Aegean sea. Already, a week after BREXIT, the EU has opened a new chapter in Turkey’s accession talks, entitled “financial and Budgetary provisions”. The EU will be looking to replace Britain with another weighty nation and Turkey is a prime candidate. The “Christianity” claim is rubbished by the accession of Bosnia and the planned accession of Albania so the key objections to Turkish accession are fading.
We now face an exciting time as two women contend for the Premiership, and I hope as Andrea Leadsom adjusts to being in the media spotlight, there will be a real discussion about the way forward. I am personally very proud that we, as a Nation have put forward two women, without any attempt at an “all woman shortlist” or positive discrimination. Andrea and Theresa are there on merit.
In the meantime, as Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci has urged, we should be cementing our common interests as two countries on the edge of Europe and build up our mutual investments and trade.
Turkey has been variously criticised by the EU and pilloried in the recent Referendum debates, but as Ramadan ends, it has announced that over 3 million Syrian refugees are to get automatic Turkish citizenship: this goes much further than Merkel’s demands for harbouring returned migrants and it is a statement of solidarity with the dispossessed that should make the whingers in our own referendum debate hold their heads in shame.
The care for victims of warfare is a feature of all three of the great religions that come from the middle east and it has been shocking how slowly we have dragged our feet while still whittering on about Christian values.
As Ramadan finishes tomorrow, therefore, we can celebrate with some satisfaction that at last there is a proper response.
More worryingly, there is news coming from Athens that former German Transport Minister, Peter Ramsauer, part of a delegation headed by the German Vice Chancellor, and already linked to allegations of anti-semitism, apparently told a photographer, I understand, both in German and in english, “don’t touch me, you filthy Greek”. I suppose his bilingual effort was to ensure no one thought this was an accidental bit of racism.
Peter Ramsauer is known to want to refuse Greek any further bailout money, and he is also famous for making a fuss, rather like the French have occasionally done, about borrowed english words used in modern german, so it is odd he should have translated his bilious comments, if indeed he ever uttered them. He went on to facebook yesterday to claim that he had said nothing. It is all the fault of the photographer “who later appeared to be obviously Greek” and who had pushed him. I wonder how this photographer can have appeared so obviously greek at a later stage? had he not appeared so Greek earlier? The good Dr Ramsauer would be well advised to avoid using the word “obviously” in all instances- as a rule of thumb, if something is “obvious”, it does not need to be mentioned and if it is not “obvious”, then the word is inappropriate.
I had dinner a few nights ago with a German minister who is married to a Greek. Both deeply charming! I wonder how Herr Ramsauer deals with that couple in the vaulted corridors of the Reichstag? The story of this exchange makes some of our own British bigots look positively cuddly.
AC Grayling is the founder and first master of what Terry Eagleton earlier called the “odious” Independent university NCH which was one of the projects advanced by Anthony Seldon, now vice chancellor of University of Buckingham, and welcomed by Boris. Current academics at NCH include Peter Singer, Richard Dawkins Vernon Bogdanon Trevor Nunn and Christopher Peacock. Frankly, Eagleton who championed opportunity for all and objected to private education in principle was a bit rich making his comments as he was then teaching at one of the more expensive private universities in the US. The first students enrolled in 2013 and a wide range of scholarships and bursaries ensured a fairly broad intake, in Grayling’s words, “elitist” but not “exclusive.” These words are often interchangeable and I got into trouble once for using the term elite as a synonym for “best”. People can be very quick with their interpretation of words and there are fashions in the way they are used and abused.
Here is the text of Grayling’s letter to MPs:
29 June 2016
At the urging of many of my students – who come both from the United Kingdom and the European Union – and my own conscience, I write to you to express a respectful but strongly held view that, for the reasons set out below, Parliament should not support a motion to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. It is within your democratic remit and duty as a Member of our Parliament to vote on whether to initiate that procedure. By voting not to do so, you will keep the UK in the EU.
The non-binding referendum, its circumstances, and its slim majority achieved in those circumstances, is not an adequate ground for the UK to leave the EU.
The relevant factors and reasons are as follows.
In order for the UK to begin the process of leaving the EU, Parliament has to vote in favour of invoking Article 50. It is possible that complex constitutional issues might have to be settled in advance of such a vote, for example repeal of the 1972 European Communities Act. This is a matter that legal expertise is required to settle. But the key matter in the end is a vote on whether to initiate the Article 50 procedure.
Parliament as presently constituted has a substantial majority in favour of remaining in the EU. Given the following factors:
that the referendum was advisory only and non-binding,
that the majority for ‘Brexit’ was small (3.8%),
that there are major questions about the circumstances of the respective Remain and especially Leave campaigns regarding probity of information, claims and promises made to voters,
that a serious risk of break-up of the UK impends upon a ‘Brexit,’
that the economic consequences of a ‘Brexit’ are not in the UK’s favour,
that a ‘Brexit’ would damage our neighbours and partners in Europe,
and that the future of the young of our country is focally implicated in the decision,
For all these reasons and more, there is a powerful case for Parliament to use its discretion to determine that it is not in the UK’s interests to leave the EU.
No doubt this will cause anxiety among those MPs who think that a simple majority in a referendum confers a moral, even though not legal, obligation to treat the referendum outcome as prescriptive and binding. This is far from being so, for the following reasons.
First, in most jurisdictions major constitutional change requires a supermajority or two-thirds majority to effect them (as e.g. in the USA and Germany), whether in a legislature or in referendums. In Switzerland, which alone among developed nations employs frequent referendums in its ‘semi-direct’ democracy, major decisions require a double majority of the electorate and the cantons.
For a very major change such as exiting the EU, it is not acceptable to have matters decided by a small simple majority. So great a change requires a significant degree of genuine consensus, at the minimum such as a 60% majority would reflect.
Second, a referendum is in essence a decision by crowd acclamation. You will of course well understand that there is an excellent reason why most advanced and mature polities do not have systems of ‘direct democracy’ but instead have systems of representative democracy, in which legislators are not delegates sent by their constituents but agents tasked and empowered to investigate, debate and decide on behalf of their constituents. This reason is that rule by crowd acclamation is a very poor method of government.
Consider: suppose that every item of proposed legislation were decided by referendums, which would therefore occur very frequently. Bills on health and safety in manufacturing industry, on reform of higher education, on the use of chemicals in water treatment plants, on regulation of air traffic over the nation’s airports – bills proposed by government and drafted in detail by civil servants – would be presented to the public, who would then vote. Would that work?
Very obviously, not. The expertise, patience and time that most of the public could bring to the task would be extremely limited; the lack of expertise, especially, would be a serious, perhaps disastrous, handicap. And very soon turnouts in referendums would plummet to single figures, rendering their democratic value nugatory.
Now I beg: really do consider the implications of the foregoing thought. Referendums are snapshots of sentiment at a given point in time. Government by referendum is government by crowd acclamation: not democracy, but ochlocracy. That is exactly why we have representative democracy. If referendums would be a poor way to decide on health and safety, air traffic control, or education, they are an exceedingly poor way to decide a matter as momentous as membership of the EU. This is and should be a matter for Parliament, taking all factors into account.
Moreover: the circumstances of the campaigns and the consequences of the vote itself must be considered. There was a great deal of misinformation, distortion, and false promises, much of it quickly revealed in the immediate aftermath of the vote, and resiled upon even by those who had made those claims and promises. Tabloid urgings for Brexit were followed, in the very same tabloids, immediately after the vote by information on its consequences which shocked readers. We have seen much reported about the post-vote regrets of people who had voted for ‘Brexit,’ – including some high-profile individuals who before the vote had been urging it in their newspapers.
These factors add up to this: that there are grave doubts about whether the basis on which votes were cast, especially among many who voted for ‘Brexit,’ are good grounds for Members of Parliament to resign their competence and duty to consider whether the UK should leave the EU. On the contrary: these considerations make it all the more imperative that Parliament should exercise its sovereign responsibility in the matter.
There is a formal online petition requesting a second referendum. If this petition is genuine and not the result of fraudulent computer hacking, it is the most extraordinary phenomenon: as I write these words it stands, only a few days after the vote itself, at over four million signatures. However if Parliament were to exercise its responsibility in voting down a proposal to trigger the Article 50 procedure, no second referendum would be necessary.
Some have suggested that a following general election, in which each MP made clear his or her standpoint on Remain or Leave, would provide a definitive conclusion to Parliament’s decision on the matter. However this is not constitutionally necessary: Parliament is sovereign: an election would merely prolong uncertainty.
One of the most important reasons why Parliament must take a bold sovereign stand on the outcome of this small-majority advisory referendum, is the interests of the young. We know that the Remain and Leave votes divided along the fault lines of age, educational level, and geography. There is every reason to urge that the wishes and interests of the young – the younger, more aspirational creators of the country’s future – should be given most weight. Parliament should protect those interests and respect those wishes. Some say that any among the young who could vote but did not, have only themselves to blame. This argument will not do. Those young people might have legitimately thought that their elders would not be so foolish as to betray the future by a ‘Brexit’ vote. But punishing them with a ‘Brexit’ is not the right response. The sober judgment of Parliament should be on their side.
You might think that Parliament’s discretion not to trigger the Article 50 procedure would leave matters hanging in the air, with continued uncertainty and the instability and political upheaval that it would bring.
In debating and voting on whether to trigger the Article 50 procedure, it can be made clear that Parliament has noted
the outcome of the advisory referendum,
the small size of the majority of actual votes cast (thus, not the majority of the electorate),
the circumstances of the campaigns,
the consequences both already actual and in prospect, for the future interest, unity and prosperity of the UK,
and the impact on our neighbours in Europe:
and that it is exercising its democratic duty to take a view and to vote accordingly. If the vote is to not trigger the ‘Brexit’ procedure, our partners in Europe can be informed and normality can be restored.
The EU is flawed and has problems. But as a powerful member of one of the three great blocs in the world, the UK can do much to help it get better, and to work within it to help all its members realize the great ideals of peace, prosperity and co-operation for which the EU exists.
Let us not absent ourselves from this beautiful endeavour. Let us not injure it by refusing to be part of it, thereby also damaging ourselves and the hopes of our young.
Please – you have both the ability and the duty to use your own discretion in this matter. I very respectfully urge you to use the first and obey the second. The future truly depends on it.