Lord Bates: Brexit's court room battle has become toxic - I'm quitting as a minister to search for common ground

Posted On: 
24th April 2019

The former international development minister explains why he has taken the decision to step down from his role in government and step out on a walk.

Lord Michael Bates hikes through Maschpark with his wife Xuelin
Credit: 
PA

I have decided to step down from my role as a government minister and step out on a walk in search of common ground on which we can move forward together as a nation.

Serving in the government and in the House of Lords is both a tremendous privilege. They are public roles and a decision to walk away from them requires a public explanation.

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In recent months it has become clear to me that the greatest problem facing this country is not how and when we leave the European Union, but rather how we heal the divisions which have opened as a result of that process.

A Survation opinion poll published in the Daily Mirror on 17 April found that 82% of people questioned felt that our country is divided, with 73% saying that the divisions had got worse since the referendum.

I have been in politics a long time and realise the limitations of building a case on a single opinion poll, but these findings struck a chord with my own experiences. There is an aggressiveness, intolerance and incivility which has emerged in our public discourse which is doing our country immense long-term harm.

Brexit has become for us a kind of toxic court room divorce battle in which the hatred of the parents for each other, and their refusal to concede ground to the other, has all but obscured their shared love and responsibility for their children. It is time to seek selfless solutions that put the happiness and well being of all the people first.

So far, we have been unable to find an answer to the question of how we leave the EU, but sometimes it is not the answer that is wrong, it is the question. What if the question before us were, how can we rediscover the common ground between us, how can we start a process of coming together and finding a common purpose we can agree upon, how we can repair relations with our closest European friends and neighbours?

We all try to do what we believe in, in our own way. For my wife Xuelin that has been through the simple act of walking. Over the past eight years we have walked over 8,000 miles in twenty-five countries promoting peace and reconciliation, including from London to Derry in 2013 when we finished at the Peace Bridge across the Foyle connecting the previously divided communities of that great city.

That is why I have taken the decision to step down from my role in government and step out on a walk. To listen and to think for ourselves how there might be a process of a process of coming together and rebuilding that unity of purpose at home and close friendships abroad.

My wife, Xuelin, and I set off on Good Friday from Belfast, heading initially to Dublin and then to Brussels (hopefully connecting with a couple of ferries on the way).

We are strengthened in that desire by another finding of the Survation poll mentioned earlier. The poll found that 82% want the United Kingdom to be more united and a further 60% would like to be able to chat with someone of an opposing view without anyone shouting.

It is probable that our walk will fail either to identify common ground to move forward or to begin a process of national coming together, but we believe it is right to try and find a different path from the one we are currently on, one which will bring us closer together rather than driving us further apart.

Michael Bates (Lord Bates) is a Conservative peer and a former Minister of State at the Department for International Development. He is currently 80 miles into his walk, and will arrive into Dublin on Wednesday