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Beyond Brexit

Jessica Metheringham reflects on how the call for 'leaders of integrity' applies to us as well as to politicians.

There needs to be more work to build consensus. Image: David Hold on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
There needs to be more work to build consensus. Image: David Hold on Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

The current political crisis is a failure of leadership right across UK politics. In both Parliament and Government we have seen a lack of forethought. Each move appears to be in reaction to current events, not a pre-considered strategy. We needed leaders with integrity and courage, and we found leaders prepared to gamble with the wellbeing of the country.

For more than two years, the date of 29 March 2019 has been fixed as the date on which the UK leaves the European Union. We now know that we won't be leaving tonight, but the certainty ends there. I am sure that Quakers across Britain will continue to work with the Quaker Council of European Affairs, and continue to build bridges with Quakers from around the world.

By the time Quakers meet at our Yearly Meeting on 24 May, one of three things could have happened. The UK could have left without a deal (probably on 12 April, but don't rule out a no deal exit on 22 May). The UK could have left with a deal, whether that means the Prime Minister's current deal, a customs union, or something similar to the Norway model. Or the UK could be staying in the EU for a little longer, long enough that we elect new Members of the European Parliament. If it's the third answer, then there are a number of other possibilities – perhaps a confirmatory referendum, perhaps a citizen's assembly.

Political drama


Brexit isn't a game. It is an expression of political privilege


I see the media caught up in the drama of the crisis. Except that Brexit isn't a game. It is an expression of political privilege: if the country is worse off, if medicine is rationed, if the Northern Ireland peace process is damaged, if jobs are lost, if austerity bites harder, then who will lose out? What type of Brexit we have matters.

When I think of Brexit I think of those I know who are directly affected by the uncertainty. I think about how this will change families and communities. I think about how political discourse continues to be shaped by Brexit, and the impact this has on wider society, on the UK as a nation, on how we treat each other and how we see ourselves.

I know that it is hard to speak truth to power when we feel such different expressions of truth, and when power is fragmented and shifting. It is hard to build unity amongst Friends and within the UK as a whole when we disagree on both the cause and the cure.

The last three years have divided people and increased hostile discourse. I know from speaking to many Quakers that we do not underestimate the fragility of peace. I know that Brexit has asked us to look at the importance of tariffs and trade to our everyday life. But we have not built the bridges we looked for in 2016, and I think that's because we have not known how to start.

Building bridges

To build respect and to seek consensus takes both time and courage. The scale of the challenge seems immense, but it's only by chipping away at it that we make a difference. Can we support our neighbours, speak out against inequality, and work for positive change? Can we listen without seeking to dominate, be authentic and speak of our experiences without devaluing others? Can we avoid the siren voices of over-simplification, accepting the nuances and the flaws?

If someone comes to Quaker meeting full of hurt because the UK did not leave the EU when promised, can we uphold them? If someone comes full of fear at the uncertain future, can we uphold them too? And if we are one of these two people, can we forgive and embrace those who feel differently?

I think the challenge is to be bold leaders in our own communities. It's for us each to consider what little extra we can do, and not to feel overwhelmed by the scale of the divide. I know some of us have started these conversations. Tonight many Quakers will be joining an online meeting for worship to mark the planned Brexit day, and out of the stillness hope to find a way forward for themselves. Remember that prayer is inseparable from action, and that out of worship comes witness. Let's start by opening our hearts and seeing what love can do.

What can Quakers offer?