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We Need to Talk But Not About Brexit

Author: Simon Duffy

I cannot remember a time when political differences have led to such extreme personal conflict. The Brexit-debacle has revealed deep and underlying differences in perspective that cut across typical political divides. For instance, an old friend recently told me he was considering joining CUK. I was astonished and asked him “Which is worse: Austerity or Brexit?” “Brexit,” he replied “because Brexit is a generational change.”

I do not agree on both fronts. Brexit is a self-inflicted wound, but Austerity is a crime. Also I do not think Brexit is forever. The UK joined the Common Market in 1973, and has been a troublesome member of this complex political and economic venture for 46 years. If it really does leave then the UK will not step into some brave new world of “increased lethality” and independence; instead it will be forced to choose between a junior relationship with Europe or an even more junior relationship with the USA. The voice of those who prefer a European destiny will not fall silent just because of this political catastrophe. We will be forced to keep talking about Europe, whatever happens next.

Whether or not we do leave the EU, Brexit has already unsettled the constitutional settlement of this Disunited Kingdom. Pulling away the threads that bind us to 26 other nations in the EU only reminds us of how loose are the threads that bind together the 4 countries of the UK. When the moment is right Scotland will try to leave the UK again and many of the arguments used last time cannot be repeated. Republicans in Northern Ireland were persuaded that the existence of an increasingly integrated EU could help close the wounds of a divided Ireland. After Brexit this pathway to peace will have been closed down by English Conservatives who dream of restoring Imperial glory. This is not likely to end well.

The issue of European identity, and our own complex national identity, will not go away, and it will continue to haunt UK politics, whether or not we leave the EU. If we are to build a more hopeful and peaceful future then we must start to talk about other things. We must find things we can work on together, change together and improve together.

We can see this radical hope emerging in the proud City of Sheffield. This month sees the launch of the Festival of Debate which is the biggest political event of its type in the UK. It is a non-partisan city-wide festival exploring, debating and discussing the key political and social issues of our time. Brexit can scarcely be found in its programme of over 90 events, instead the big themes are: democracy, the planet, social justice and personal identity.

In fact, away from Westminster, and right across Yorkshire, increasing numbers of people are starting to consider the advantages of a Parliament for Yorkshire and of further devolution right down to local communities. This is of course is what democracy means: people making decisions together, at every level, within a constitutional framework of rules, rights and responsibilities.

The UK proudly claims that it is a democracy; but we’ve barely scratched the surface of what democracy means. We may be dimly aware that the Athenians invented democracy and that they expected all citizens to make all political decisions. But most people do not realise that Athens was also divided into over 100 demes, where citizens also met to make their own more local decisions. Moreover the whole assembly only made decisions after issues were debated by the Boule - which was a body created by randomly assigning citizens to the job of running the country. This is why many of us want to see a Citizen’s Assembly or Constitutional Convention that can explore the deeper constitutional reform that the UK so badly needs.


Democracy is a sophisticated business - far more sophisticated than anything we have in the UK today - but in Sheffield and communities across Yorkshire, like Barnsley, you can sense a growing awareness that politics must be restored - and from the grassroots up.

View the complete programme for this year's Festival of Debate, from April through to June 2019 here.

Facebook: @festivalofdebate

Twitter: @FestofDebate #FofD


The publisher is the Centre for Welfare Reform.

We Need to Talk But Not About Brexit © Simon Duffy 2019.

All Rights Reserved. No part of this paper may be reproduced in any form without permission from the publisher except for the quotation of brief passages in reviews.