Latin Mass Society

Chairman's Blog

18/06/2016 - 10:00

What to do about Catholic marriages

Pope Francis' words about 'the great majority' of Catholic marriages being invalid have, it appears, been redacted, in the official transcript of his press conference at the Lateran on Thursday, to read 'some' Catholic marriages. Assuming that the Holy Father had a hand in this, or at least allowed it to happen, we should understand it as his second thoughts. He acknowledges, in some sense, that what he said the first time was not right, or not wise. This ought to mean that the people criticising us for disagreeing with the Pope should now eat their words, since he agrees with us in disagreeing with what he said, but I don't suppose many of them will look at it that way.

What we can all agree about is that there is a crisis of marriage. I would also like to draw out one aspect of what the Pope said, or implied, which I also agree with: that the problem is not that people simply don't know, intellectually, what marriage is, but that, deep down, that understanding is not part of them. 'They say it', the Pope says. But in some sense, they don't grasp it. The problem, then, is not, as many people have suggested, a deficiency of marriage preparation. A course of talks could catechise couples; it cannot give them a culture or virtue.

The problem is one of formation, not knowledge. That problem manifests itself not in the nullity of marriages, but in their failure.

Of course good marriage preparation would be a good idea. What would make even more difference would be if the couples made a good confession immediately before the wedding. Getting married in a state of grace is necessary to receiving the graces of the sacrament, in marriage as with Holy Communion and Holy Orders. Perhaps bringing couples to confession should be a priority for marriage preparation. What that means, of course, in the context of couples who are mostly cohabiting before marriage, is that the marriage prep. should not be about catechesis so much as about bringing about a conversion of life. Not patting them on the back and saying, we don't condemn, and anyway you are getting married now, but rather saying: if you are to form a Catholic family, you need to straighten your lives out.

Something else worth saying is that if we suspect there is a crisis of invalidity in marriage, the Church must react as she would to a crisis of invalidity with Holy Orders or Baptism: not by bewailing the problem, but by making the sacrament valid. Call in the couples and get them to go through a conditional form of marriage with the right intentions; don't just wait for them to divorce and say, oh well it was probably invalid. The fact that this option is not being discussed suggests to me that the idea of invalidity is not being used, in this debate, in a serious way, to mean what it actually means. Invalidity is not just a handy excuse to get remarried. It is a defect in a sacrament which means that it hasn't worked. If it's not worked, it's not had its good effects. In that case it should be - and could easily be - sorted out. If, that is, we care about Catholics' marriages.

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17/06/2016 - 12:46

The Pope is wrong about Catholic marriages being invalid

Yesterday Pope Francis gave a press conference at St John's Lateran.

NBC News:
"Young people say 'for life,' but they do not know what it means," he said. And because they get married with the philosophy that a marriage can be ended if it becomes an "inconvenience," their marriages are "nulli," he said, using an Italian word that can be translated as "baseless" or "invalid."

“It’s provisional, and because of this the great majority of our sacramental marriages are null. Because they say “yes, for the rest of my life!” but they don’t know what they are saying. Because they have a different culture. They say it, they have good will, but they don’t know.”


Pope Francis attributed the marriage crisis to people who “don’t know what the sacrament is” and don’t know “the beauty of the sacrament.”

“They don’t know that it’s indissoluble, they don’t know that it’s for your entire life. It’s hard,” the Pope said.


He said that in Argentina’s northeast countryside, couples have a child and live together. They have a civil wedding when the child goes to school, and when they become grandparents they “get married religiously.”

“It’s a superstition, because marriage frightens the husband. It’s a superstition we have to overcome,” the Pope said. “I’ve seen a lot of fidelity in these cohabitations, and I am sure that this is a real marriage, they have the grace of a real marriage because of their fidelity, but there are local superstitions, etc.”

I can't find anything approaching a full and chronological transcript, but the audio is available for those who speak Italian. There doesn't seem to be much doubt about what he said or what it meant.

(Update: there is a transcript in Italian, but that's a story in itself.)

It fits in not only with what Cardinal Kasper said about the Pope's views on this subject a while ago, but with the reform of the annulment process which Pope Francis promulgated last September. This created a fast track process for granting a decree of annulment for supposedly easy cases, and the architect of the reform remarked at the time that it should be used by large numbers of people. This idea, that a huge number of Catholic marriages are invalid, seems to be floating around at the highest levels in Rome.

Pope Francis' latest remarks are not, of course, magisterial in form. There is no question of his invoking his teaching authority. It is important to say, nevertheless, that they are wrong, and the spread of this idea in the Church would be a very negative thing.

What Pope Francis is saying is not that couples are marrying with explicit reservations about the commitment to marriage, such as would traditionally satisfy a marriage tribunal ('the bridegroom told his friends the day before the wedding that he would divorce her if the marriage became difficult': things like that). He does not say that they pronounce the vows insincerely, or with cynicism. He says that they are incapable of understanding the notion of permanence, because of cultural factors.

Perhaps what the Pope has in mind, to borrow a line of argument from Amoris laetitia, is that while intellectually understanding the teaching of the Church, they do not grasp it deep down. I can understand this line of reasoning, and it may well be true. People who have been brought up in the culture of cohabitation and divorce do not have those habits of mind, those expectations and patterns of behaviour, which are so important in making a permanent commitment stick, and which (in an Aristotelian way) can be described as necessary at a complete grasp of a moral concept. However, this does not undermine the validity of their marriages.

Validity is not dependent upon such 'deep down' virtues, or a deep down 'grasp' in this sense. It depends on a relatively superficial, intellectual comprehension, and the assent of the will to that comprehended idea. We all capable of understanding what a life-time annuity is, a life-time driving ban, or an indelible tattoo. There is nothing hard to understand about the indissolubility of marriage, either. Young people may be poorly prepared to live it, but they know what it is. Furthermore, they have a right to marry, and the rest of us have an obligation to respect the validity of a marriage, unless it is shown to be invalid.

I am reminded of Pope Benedict, who remarked, on this subject:

We run the risk of falling into an anthropological pessimism which, in the light of today's cultural situation, considers it almost impossible to marry.

This is not all, however. As well as suggesting that sacramental marriages are invalid, Pope Francis suggests that de facto unions which are neither sacramental nor civilly formalised are 'real marriages' with 'the grace of a real marriage'. However, this is not so. They are not real marriages in civil law, in canon law, naturally or sacramentally, and the couples are not in a state of grace, and do not receive the sacramental grace of marriage. It is possible that the couples are acting in good faith, but you can't receive the grace of a sacrament which you haven't bothered to receive. Pope Francis' explanation for their refusal to marry is not helpful to their cause: the 'husband' is afraid of the commitment. So in these cases there is an explicit refusal of a life-long commitment. Even among non-Catholics, not obliged to follow the Church's form, such a union could not be sacramental. Even among pagans, this could not constitute a natural marriage. It may have a measure of fidelity, but it lacks the intention of permanence.

Pope Francis is down-grading at least most putatively sacramental marriages, and up-grading at least many co-habitations. The way he talks may even suggest that the 'real' marriages of the co-habitees are better than the 'nulli' marriages of those who've tied the knot in church, but I don't suppose he means that. Rather, they may meet in the middle somehow. Such a view is wrong, however, because it implies that there is no advantage to getting married after serious reflection and with sincere intentions, over co-habiting. There are advantages: married couples get the sacramental grace and have the chance, within their union, of living in a state of grace; co-habiting couples do not.
Many people are writing on this subject; I recommend Edward Peters, who approaches the matter from a canon law point of view. I don't see this as a conservative or traditional Catholic vs. liberal issue. I can't see liberal Catholics wanting to say that their marriages are invalid; even divorced and remarried couples sometimes resist that conclusion about their first marriages. This is an issue on which Pope Francis has developed his personal views, and is wrong.

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17/06/2016 - 10:00

Juventutem at World Youth Day

English-speaking young people who want to attent World Youth Day in Poland in the context of the Traditional Mass, can go with Juventutem for £299, plus travel to Krakow, which is very good value.

They will get to see Cardinal Burke, Bishop Athanasius Schneider and others.

See here for full details.

For pilgrims from the UK, America and anywhere else: deadline for booking: 26th June
Arrival in Krakow: Monday 25 July
Departure from Krakow: Sunday 31 July
Daily Mass in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite
Daily talks on the Catholic faith by well trained clergy
Confessions and Eucharistic Adoration
Visits of splendid Krakow & Official WYD events
Included in the £299.00:

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16/06/2016 - 10:54

Vespers for St Barnabas in Merton


Last Saturday evening the Oxford Gregorian Chant group, the Schola Abelis, sang Vespers in Merton College Chapel in Oxford.

Fr Richard Biggerstaff, the Director of the St Barnabas Society, officiated.

We don't often do services in Anglican chapels, but Vespers is a rather different proposition from Mass. It was an opportunity for the Schola to tackle the somewhat different challenges of the Divine Office, compared to Mass, and to sing in the wonderful acoustic of Merton's historic chapel, as well as to honour St Barnabas and beg his interecession for the important work of the St Barnabas Society.

IMG_8964This supports Anglican and other ordained ministers who become Catholic, frequently losing their livlihoods in doing so. Go and support them through their website here.

The Schola Abelis is the only choir in Oxford focusing on Gregorian Chant. And though I say it myself, we sounded very good at Vespers. Anyone, from Town or University, who is interested in singing with us should contact us ( We don't expect previous experience singing chant - or anything else. I should mention that it is an all-male schola.

These days we are being looked after, in the capacity of cantor and trainer, by Will Dawes, a professional singer based in Oxford with an excellent knowledge of chant. Amusingly enough, he also directs an all-female liturgical choir. There is something for everyone in Oxford!

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15/06/2016 - 17:27

Pontifical Vespers in St Mary Magdalen's, Wandsworth, 8th July

The speaker at the Latin Mass Society's Annual General Meeting will be Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, Nuncio to Switzerland and former Nuncio to the Ukraine.
The evening before the AGM, Friday 8th July, he will be officiating at Vespers in St Mary Magdalen's, Wandsworth, at 5:30pm.
Saturday's feast, of SS Thomas More and John Fisher, is of such importance that this Vespers will be the 'first Vespers' of it. Vespers will be offered, however, for the repose of the soul of Evelyn Waugh, who's 60th anniversary is this year. Waugh was invited to be the first President of the Latin Mass Society, but decline; he was to die the year after the Society was established. Until his death he was the acknowlegded lay leader of the movement for the preservation of the ancient Catholic liturgy, and we owe him a great deal.
Matthew Schellhorn will lead Cantus Magnus with some polyphony for the occasion:

Giammateo Asola (1532–1609): Sanctorum meritis
Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (c. 1525–1594): Magnificat primi toni
Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934): O salutaris hostia; Ave verum

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14/06/2016 - 10:10

LMS AGM & Mass in Westminster Cathedral: 9th July

The Latin Mass Society's Annual General Meeting (which is open all LMS members) is taking place as usual in Westminster Cathedral Hall, behind the Cathedral (entrance on Ambrosden Avenue), at 11am on Saturday 9th July. It will be addressed by Archbishop Thomas Gullickson, Nuncio to Switzerland. Until recently he was Nuncio to the Ukraine, and will speak about the persecution of the Church today.
This will be followed, at 2pm, by High Mass in the Cathedral (open, obviously, to everyone). This will be celebrated by our National Chaplain, Mgr Gordon Read. We are offering this Mass for the good estate of the Queen, since we have just celebrated her 90th birthday.
We have some interesting music from British composers at this Mass: see the poster below.

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13/06/2016 - 10:35

Will gays be told not to provoke Muslims?

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre, it looked like the whole world--except Barak Obama--rallied to the cause of free speech.

Obama was already getting ready for the next stage in the process of adjustment to the atrocity, however. This is to say that, really, free speech shouldn't be used to criticise Islam. At any rate, he has never used his own right of free speech to do such a thing.

A number of Catholic commentators, including Pope Francis, were roundly criticised for taking a more nuanced view. While the massacre was a terrible crime, the things published by Charlie Hebdo should not be supported or encouraged, and countries which have restrictions on that kind of thing (including most western democracies) are not entirely wrong. On the other hand, it is a quite different question whether we should be free to criticse Islam as a religion.

The secularists seem to swing between saying that depicting Mohammed having unnatural sex is a good thing, to be protected at all costs, and saying that no-one should be allowed a rational discussion about the contents of the Koran. A sensible society would do the second but not the first. One reason why there is a market for the first is that the second is neglected.

How are reactions to the Orlando shootings going to play out? First, of course, a whole lot of people will double down in their support for gays and public displays of the gay lifestyle. But in a world where wearing Mexican hats is not allowed because of the offence which might be caused to entirely fictitious hyper-sensitive Mexicans concerned about 'cultural appropriation', how long is it going to be before gays are told not to kiss in public, to avoid the rather more real possibility of scandalising Muslims?

One -- not the only -- reason gays kiss in public is, of course, precisely to annoy people who don't approve of the gay lifesyle. Gay Pride events take this principle to extremes which would appear to infringe standard public decency laws. It is perfectly reasonable to ask that these laws be enforced, and if necessary strenghened, not as a response to terrorism, but just because it would be the right thing to do.

Are the secularists now going to join the dwindling band of Christians asking for this? It will take a little time for this to happen, but I wouldn't be surprised if it did in the end.

Just to be ready for this when it happens, please note: it is reasonable to restrict public displays of affection and nudity, because these (according to the gravity, the time and place, the context etc.) can be objectively offensive; it is not reasonable to restrict public symbols of the Christian religion, like crosses, because these are not objectively offensive. The problem with the secularists is that they don't want to appeal to this distinction.

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10/06/2016 - 10:00

'War on boys': people are starting to notice

Policy-makers have actually been worrying about 'failing boys' for a while. Pope St John Paul II noted the absence of men from church back in 1988 (Christifideles laici 52). But the debate and the facts are now becoming mainstream.

As I have noted before, the connection between what I've called the 'secular' man-crisis and the Church's 'man crisis' must be taken into account. It can hardly be a coincidence that boys and men are falling short in school, university, and marriage, and also in vocations and in church attendance.

This little video is about boys in school. It is welcome, and the remedies are welcome too. The more fundamental issue, however, is not addressed. What used to motivate young men and, by their influence, boys down the age-range, to put in the hard work at university and school was the prospect of being a bread-winner, and being respected for it. The very term 'bread-winner' is regarded as tantamount to a profanity today, but the incentive must be restored or replaced if men are going to pull their weight in society.

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09/06/2016 - 09:29

A Rabbit's Lament

Today I am reposting this response of mine from January 2015 to the Pope's notorious aeroplane quip that Catholics need not breed like rabbits. Since this is one of the few times (the only time?) that something looking a bit like a public peddling-back by the Holy Father followed such an airborne remark, I don't want to make a meal of it. But it does serve to illustrate an important point about the presentation of the Faith to outsiders.


Update: at today's (Wednesday 21/1/15) Pope Francis said this at the General Audience: 'It gives comfort and hope to see many families that welcome children as a true gift of God. They know that every child is a blessing.' 

The Pope's remarks on contraception on the aeroplane back from the Philippines were an extreme example of what has become a characteristic of this papacy. Without his words moving one iota from the teaching of the Church, and indeed reaffirming it, what came across was something appearing to undermine the actual living out of that teaching. Contraception is not just bad, it is - says the Holy Father - reminiscent of the ideological endeavours of the Hitler Youth. The example of a mother for whom some kind of ethical avoidance of pregnancy would be sensible is so extreme that it is impossible to argue with it. And yet somehow the take-home message is that large families are a bad thing. 'Catholics need not breed like rabbits.'

It is always good to put things in their context, so let me attempt to do so. For the last half a century or more the rhetoric of many of those charged with proclaiming the Gospel has been directed to the task of distancing the Church from the pious ideal, in order to make the Church more acceptable to those who reject the pious ideal. 'Oh, we don't spend all our time on our knees!' 'We don't believe all that nonsense any more!' You know the kind of thing. This strategy was based on two truths and one falsehood. The two truths are, first, that the pious ideal in the minds of those who reject the Church is generally an amalgam of misunderstandings and anti-Catholic propaganda, and second that the the pious ideal in the minds of those actually trying to lead good lives can itself be immature or unbalanced. The falsehood involved in this strategy is the idea that it is better to join in the attack on the ideal from an anti-Catholic perspective, than to correct, if necessary, and explain and defend the value of the ideal.

The theory is that by joining in the attack, one could wrong-foot the anti-Catholic attackers. Suppose a whole lot of people say that the Church's position on something - the use of lace surplices, Gregorian Chant, the condemnation of pre-marital sex -whatever you like - is silly, old-fashioned, and uncool. Instead of making himself a target of their barbs, a priest might say: 'Oh I agree! What a lot of silly nonsense.' The priest hopes to make the anti-Catholic mob to stop and think: 'Oh, perhaps we were attacking a straw man after all, perhaps the Church isn't so bad.'

They don't, however. They have the feeling that medieval armies must have had when their battering rams brought down a section of the enemy's defensive wall. The euphoric, energised feeling that the remaining defences just need a good bash to bring them down as well.

I remember a old monk talking to a group of adolescent boys about vocations to the religious life. 'It's not the pious ones, you know, the ones always popping in to church, who tend to end up joining the community.' The old monk thought he was opening up the possibility of a vocation to those in the group who didn't think of themselves as 'pious': oh how clever he thought he was being! But the implication was that there was something wrong with the pious ones. Anyone in that group who was in the habit of popping into church to pray or attend the Office was left feeling pretty foolish.

A contrasting case: a young monk, of a different community (in a different country), told me how he had dealt with a group of similar young men. They had told him that one of their number, who was evidently a bit embarrassed about it, might have a vocation. The young monk responded: 'Well, I'm not sure any of you have what it takes to be a monk.' They bridled at this. They immediately switched from regarding a vocation as something a bit sissy, something that one should be embarrassed about, to being something difficult, something one might be proud of.

Can you guess which community has had more vocations?

What the young monk was onto was the value of being counter-cultural. Instead of trying to fit in with a secular ethos which will never accept the Christian religion while it has anything recognisably Christian about it, you stand up against it and say: yes, what we are doing is difficult, it is demanding, and the only explanation for our doing it is that it has value. Those outside the Church may not understand its value - indeed, to a large extent those outside the Church can never understand its value - but our devotion to it is a witness to it. The outsider can, similarly, never feel the adrenaline rush of the extreme rock-climber or the satisfaction of a champion chess-player, but he can at least be intrigued, enough to want to know what the fuss is all about.

It may be that the Holy Father's choice of words should be explained by his Argentinian background or something like that, but the reason it has struck such a chord is that it fits right in with what many Catholics have been saying for 50 years, though less so Popes. The message is that you don't have to be mad to be a Catholic. You can still pretend to your secular friends that you are quite normal. One of the quickest ways to be thought abnormal is to have more than three children, but listen! that's not necessary, that's not even an ideal or an achievement we recognise any more.

This is a tempting approach but in the end it is part of the auto-demolition of the Church. It may be formally consistent with the teaching on contraception, but there is more to the Church's teaching than that, and the rejection of the good of children is in the end a rejection of life.

Of course you can limit your family size by abstinence if there is a serious reason, but what we desperately need as a nation and as a planet is an affirmation that children are not an expensive commodity, but a precious gift from God. If the secularists think we are mad to think that, then we need to show them by our devotion to this ideal, by the sacrifices we are prepared to make for it, that perhaps there is something of value here which they have missed out on.

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08/06/2016 - 10:31

Annoying arguments about the EU

For some reason I wanted a picture of Charlemagne to go with this post.

I like the fact that the Traditional Catholic movement in the UK and the Latin Mass Society are politically (as well as geographically and socially) diverse, but I get the impression that it tends to swing towards 'Brexit' in the current referendum debate. This is not surprising, as being governed by the laws of our own nation-state (or four-nation state, depending on how you count) is in accord with the kind of human tradition which we Catholic traditionalists understand is important in maintaining stability, consent, and the kind of dense political culture which only stability and consent can bring, over centuries. What I mean is the kind of instinctive understanding of parliamentary democracy, and many other aspects of our political institutions, which come from it being part of the fabric of national life since, well, the Middle Ages.

Obviously human customs and customary ways of doing things can and should be changed for a sufficient reason. So there is a sensible debate about possibly sufficient reasons to consent to the progressive destruction of British political institutions as bearers of real power. The importance of environmental legislation covering the whole of the EU, the need for a common response to various other challenges - this is what we need to talk about. The difficulty many have with these arguments is that it is precisely the continent-wide problems that the EU seems too often to have made worse, or even created, the refugee crisis and the euro/financial crisis being Exhibits A and B.

On the other hand, I have been frustrated by the debate I've seen in the media, and above all the social media, by totally irrelevant, confused, or counter-productive arguments. Most of all is the argument constantly made that the UK government after Brexit will be bad: it won't do the good things the EU is currently doing for us with our own money which, obviously, a future UK government could do if it wished to do. This is suspicion of the political elite which seems to eating itself. Most people suspicious of the political elite want to have some way of holding them to account, and the best and, for practical purposes (at the current stage of the development of EU institutions) the only way of doing this is by national elections. What the anti-elite Remainers want to do is to override national elections, because they don't trust the results, and give power to much less accountable elites in the EU. Haven't they noticed that the elite in the UK which they don't trust is a paid-up component of the elite in the EU which they do trust? And what would happen if the EU elite's wishes began to diverge from their own preferences? The idea that we can trust the EU because we are 'progressive' and the EU elite is 'progressive' is not only anti-democratic, but treats a long-term question as if it were a short-term one. By all means vote in the government of your choice. But don't give them perpetual and unaccountable power: that's just a silly thing to do to any government, however enlightened.

Another strange argumnent is about the possible break-up of the UK. With the Scottish referendum we came very close to an independant Scotland. If the UK leaves the EU, the argument goes, Scotland and perhaps other parts of the UK will want to break up with the UK to re-join the EU. The problem with this argument is that it is precisely our membership of the EU which created the movement for Scottish independance in the first place. Yes, obviously: since the EU undermines the ability of national governments to govern as the population wishes, since it encourages regional autonomy as a matter of policy, and since leaving the UK is vastly less scary if an independant Scotland and the rest of the UK remain members of the EU guaranteeing free trade, free movement, and heaps of subsidies to poor regions.

The crucial argument of the Scottish independance campaign was whether Scotland would make a smooth transition to membership of the EU as a separate state. It was EU officials saying 'no' to that which proved decisive.

It may be that, as the UK negotiates withdrawal from the EU, the Scots may make a bolt for the door. If that's what they want to do, good luck to them. But the door for which they will be bolting is a door which would be closing. Leaving the UK in order to join the EU will become a very different prospect once the UK is established as a non-member. The possibility of border checks and taxes on cross-border transactions leaves the realm of fantasy at that point. To say that the Scottish economy and people are closely tied to England would, of course, be an understatement. Leaving an independant UK would be a very scary prospect indeed.

Something similar needs to be said about the UK's relationship with the Commonwealth and the English-speaking world. We are appreciated, the Remainers say, because we in the EU: we are their door into the EU. Some of these countries may see it that way. But the reason our ties with all these countries, ties of centuries of culture, language, and shared history, have been getting progressively weaker over the decades is precisely because of our membership of the EU. Above all, we have not been able to use trade policy to maintain and develop these ties. No wonder India and the US see us in many ways as an irrelevance. When they want to talk about trade, they don't talk to us, they talk to the EU. The EU of course is not very friendly, because it is dominated by people who don't have our ties to those countries. Today we have perhaps the last chance to revive our connection with this vast and rapidly growing region of the globe, before these connections wither away completely.

After Brexit, we will remain a part of Europe: obviously. Our geographical location is not going to change. Furthermore, we will remain the overwhelmingly largest English-speaking country in Europe, and the one with the biggest defence budget, as well as the one with by far the most open attitude to free trade. These characteristics mean that we will continue to be a bridge between many parts of the world with the European continent. Our trade with the EU, even in the least-rosy scenario, of 'WTO rules', will be generally and by historic standards pretty free.

What will change is that UK policy will no longer be coordinated with those of the other EU states, in the detailed way it is today. Remainers should spare us the horror-stories, and tell us why that would be a bad thing.

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