The heart of the matter

Someone said of the legendary Italian maritime explorer, Christopher Columbus: “When he started out he did not know where he was going; when he got there he did not know where he was; when he returned he did not know where he had been.” The comment referred to Columbus’ visits to what later became known as the West Indies. Contrary to popular belief, Columbus did not discover the continent we now call North America.
The comment on Christopher Columbus could be aptly applied to the British Government over the past few years. The government’s Brexit voyage is very much like the sea voyage of the Italian explorer.
When the government called for an election on membership of the European Union it had little idea of where it was going with the matter; when the referendum took place the government had little idea of what to do with the result; several years on from that infamous referendum the government seems as confused as ever as to where it has been and to where it is going with Brexit.
Historians have sorted out the matter of “Columbus’ discovery of America”. What future historians will make of the 2016 Referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union remains to be seen!
In relation to the present situation of Britain and Brexit, it is appropriate to turn to the German idealist philosopher, G.W.F. Hegel, who wrote: “Amid the pressure of great events, a general principle gives no help. The pallid shades of memory struggle in vain with the life and freedom of the present.” These words can be applied to the tortured relationship of the UK with the rest of Europe and how quickly and at what cost we can forget the lessons of history.
It is an eloquent testimony to the state of contemporary British politics to reflect on the fact that there is little greatness that can be attached to either present political processes or politicians. As the debate as to whether the UK should remain within the EU nears the climactic moment, it is noticeable that the government has been most susceptible to a variety of influences – including the power of the conservative press, pressure groups within the Conservative Party, sectional public opinion and a variety of individual political persons.
It is to state the obvious when saying that public opinion can be fickle and that the national and regional press is a major shaper of public opinion, with the power to direct public opinion and debate. In the UK the press is predominantly anti-European – though there are some notable exceptions.
The influence of the Fourth Estate should never be under-estimated, however, and the part it has played in the debate over the UK and the EU is significant and continuous. There have been few at Westminster who have been willing to challenge what one politician has labelled “the constant negativity of the press or even to question whether men who pay no taxes in Britain should have the power to dictate public opinion.”
One of the constant cries of the pro-Brexit press has been that a second referendum – a so-called “Peoples’ Vote” on the matter of the UK leaving the EU – would be anti-democratic. The underlying presumption of this position is that, in giving the people of the UK a referendum in the first place, the result of that referendum should then be adhered to. Little consideration is given to the fact that, faced with such seemingly intractable problems over leaving the EU and the additional fact that the politicians themselves seem unable to agree on the deal underlying the UK leaving the EU, the British public might well wish to change their mind.
Theresa May, the British Prime Minister and the one primarily responsible for the deal by which the UK would leave the EU, is quite willing to put her idea of a deal before the House of Commons not once, not twice but, possibly, three times in the hope of her deal being accepted by Parliament. When, however, it comes to a “Peoples’ Vote” on the matter of the UK leaving the EU, it is considered an affront to democracy to allow the people a second chance at a decision.
Mrs May’s position is contradictory, one-sided, self-serving and not in the interests either of Parliament or the British public – especially those younger people who will be required to live the fulness of their lives with the ramifications of Brexit. Clearly, Mrs May shows little awareness of Hegel when he says that “Whatever is reasonable is true; whatever is true is reasonable.” To say that a second EU referendum is undemocratic is to misunderstand democracy itself.
Democratic states have only ever existed as an ideal, even in its state of origin – ancient Greece. It has been said that “Democracy is an abstraction more malleable than is often acknowledged”. The situation whereby, in a constitutional parliamentary democracy, it is permissible for a Prime Minister to hold multiple determinative rounds of votes but permit the public only one on a similar constitutional decision, is to echo another of Hegel’s philosophical sayings; “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”
Before closing the folio on G.W.F. Hegel, it is instructive to learn that “Nothing great in the world has ever been accomplished without passion”. This is hardly a description for Theresa May’s words and actions with respect to Brexit – words and actions that have been strong on stubbornness, wilfulness, ambiguity and surrender to the powers of money and ideology, but weak on genuine passion.
More than once during the entire debate on Brexit the question has been asked of the UK, “What state are we in?” It has been said that the first condition of democracy is for all citizens to be sceptical about what those in power do. The truth of this has been all too evident in the history of the UK in recent years, and not only with respect to Brexit.
We are living in a world of constant and rapid change – social, economic, political, military and moral. This change does not happen in a vacuum. It is informed, even engineered by specific interests, outlooks and objectives. Behind each of the categories are human beings – politicians, priests, press barons, educators, generals and royals, and more. Not all of these are benign – witness the rise of terrorism (of which the outrage in Christchurch, New Zealand is the latest manifestation) and global conflict, moral absolutism, climate change detractors, social and economic inequality with the concentration of wealth, and the dilution and diminishing of democracy.
To ask the question, “What state are we in?”, and the corollary question “Who benefits from this state?”, is to believe that what has been written about in the above is not always preordained or inevitable, or to be adopted or adapted. To ask these questions is to relentlessly question and hold to account what we are all too often encouraged, even cajoled, into accepting in an uncritical manner. To ask these questions is to unreservedly believe in and act on the realization that circumstances and situations, possibilities and processes, can be changed.
To ask these questions is to favour the greater good and not the narrow interests of the few. They are questions which exist at the very centre of any democracy. As such, they are at the very heart of the matter – the Brexit debate – and the answers are crucial for the outcomes of that debate.


About stewculbard

I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary. In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.
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