The Brexit ‘debate’ has become a national obsession: on the one hand loathed by many; on the other a compelling, addictive drama in which the travails of a parliamentary democracy have been played out.
In 2016, before the referendum, four BPS boys and I attended a Brexit debate in the heart of metropolitan London, at The London Palladium. On stage were speakers like Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg, arguing passionately for ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ respectively. At the end of the debate, the 2000 members of the audience were asked to vote and, much to my surprise, a majority supported ‘leave’. The following weekend, I had a long drive to the West Country and was equally surprised to see how many banners supporting ‘leave’ were hanging from motorway bridges. Both these encounters with the Brexit debate ran contrary to the political rhetoric and polls which suggested ‘remain’ as the likely outcome of the referendum. On the morning of June 24th, 2016, the day after the nation voted, I remember waking Mrs Wenham up with a cup of tea and being surprised to listen to a radio report announcing the U.K.’s decision to leave the E.U.
Over the Easter holidays, I was invited to sit in The Members’ Gallery in the House of Commons with a friend whose wife is a M.P. We had intended to listen to an hour or two of debate, but ended up hearing almost 3 ½, much of which linked to indicative votes aimed at resolving the impasse over the form of departure parliament wanted from the European Union. It was fascinating to see the actors in the drama delivering their lines. Behind the antiquated conventions of debate in the chamber lay genuine passion combined with clear frustration. I was struck by how well the debate was managed by The Speaker, John Bercow, ensuring as many M.Ps as possible had their say, whilst quelling more fractious moments with deft humour. It was wonderful to witness the spectrum of views from the more right wing points made by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg to those representing the staunchly left wing. The Public Gallery, to our right, was crammed with people, like myself, privileged to be able to sit at the heart of democratic government. The impression I gained was of a messy, somewhat dysfunctional institution, but one likely to deliver outcomes broadly aimed at improving people’s lives. With all its short-comings and frustrations, the parliamentary model of government is infinitely preferable to the sterile limitations to be found in undemocratic systems in places like North Korea.
There are those who argue that the public who voted on June 23rd, 2016, were ill-informed and exposed to ‘fake news’ about the potential consequences of leaving or remaining in the E.U. In order to support the future of our parliamentary democracy, we must ensure evidence based facts inform decision making. This is a skill I attempt to develop in History lessons I teach Bickley Park boys, encouraging them to understand how looking critically at the provenance of sources helps to determine their reliability and usefulness. In an age when we are bombarded by partial or false news, the capacity to get to the heart a matter is more challenging and crucial than ever. It was fantastic to see the quality of debate on show in the finals of the Bickley Park/Bromley High debating competition last month. My experience is that children love to understand and debate the important issues of our time. Brexit, or no Brexit, I have no doubt that our pupils will contribute intelligently to the important matters that will affect all our futures in the years to come.