Brexit Blog: The past is another country

Added about 8 years ago by Stephen Cherry

In our Brexit Blog series, authors reflect on how, as a Christian nation, we can respond to the challenges and opportunities of leaving the European Union.

Note: Sacristy Press is politically – as well as doctrinally – neutral and does not necessarily share the views expressed here.

Stephen Cherry – Dean of Kings College, Cambridge

If a week is a long time in politics, then three weeks might be a very, very long time. I was in South London on the day of the referendum in a borough where 80% voted to remain. My home is in Cambridge where 75% were on that side. All the talk I heard was about whether it would be 54% or 55% in favour of the status quo. Even Nigel Farage was saying that he thought that the country had just voted to remain.

All that changed when the Newcastle vote came in, and by early the next morning the past was indeed another country. We were leaving Europe – so to speak – and letting go of a set of networks and connections that had, for many of the younger generation of adults, been part of the woof and wharf life. Things had changed, but not at all as had been expected or promised. Those hoping that Brexit would bring clarity were the first to be disappointed. But those hoping for a crisp fresh start are going to be unhappiest for longest.

Reading these events through the lens of time, I have a few observations to make that I hope might light a few bulbs of time wisdom in people’s minds.

First, when the referendum was proposed it was imagined as a way out of what now seems a minor difficulty. Lesson 1: “Don’t push your minor problems into the future – they will probably get worse”.

Second, it is quite easy to sell a new future that is like the best bits of the past as a decisive bold and courageous step; as you can peddle the fantasy of a new world without the reality of today spoiling things too much. However, real wisdom combines the perspective of history with the reality of the present and a modest sense of how the future might be different. Lesson 2: “Don’t go head to head with people’s fantasies for a better future”.

Third, one of the best pieces of time wisdom that I ever came across was a proverb told to apprentice carpenters – “measure twice, cut once”. This might be something that the Bregret community might like to think about. In any case, lesson 3 is the equally proverbial, “Decide in haste, repent at leisure”.

But fourth, I think that the only response to the referendum that makes any sense is to reimagine and reignite a passion for proper, and patent, politics. Some of my colleagues signed the petition for another referendum. This I believe would be a huge mistake, even if the decision was – as in my view it was – a big mistake. You can’t unsay what you have said or undo an action, however foolish. To continue in proverbial idiom, if you don’t want to know the answer, don’t ask the question. We can only move forward from the place we have arrived at. The decision has been made, we must embrace the future, uncertainty, opportunity and all. Lesson 4: “The clock never goes backwards”.

Stephen Cherry is author of the Beyond Busyness Time Wisdom books, and founder of the campaign to give up busyness for Lent at

What do you think? Have your say by commenting below, or read our other Brexit Blogs.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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