With the bizarre events of the last few weeks continuing to unfold, I felt I wanted to write something by way of reflection on everything that has gone on. After all, it might be felt to be odd to have nothing to say from a theological or spiritual point of view on the political and national event that will probably have the most significance in our lifetime.
Yet there are some good reasons for holding back from commenting! For one, the whole debate seems to be mired in such complexity that it is hard to say anything useful that doesn’t sound completely trivial or simplistic. Secondly, it is very difficult to offer clear theological principles that have some bearing on the big questions that face us, since a slight change in understanding the complexities can easily push the theological reflection in a different direction. Thirdly, one of the dangers facing Christian leaders in commenting on this question is ending up sounding partisan. I agree with those who say it is of concern when the bishops of the Church of England appear to be almost uniformly convinced ‘Remainers’ when not only the regions in which they live but also the churches that they lead tend to the opposite view. Is the gap between the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘elite’ which has shaped this debate nationally simply reproduced in the Church? And, lastly, when Christian leaders have made comments, they have often been neither nuanced nor convincing.
And yet there are some dynamics around the current discussion that cry out for comment—and these are some observations that I think we need to reflect on and learn from, both within our national life and in thinking about our life as the people of God.
One of the striking features of the whole debate has been the way that language has been used, mostly in a very unhelpful way, and as this has trickled down into the crevices of social media it has become increasingly toxic. The simplification, the polarisation of views, and the slurs and slanders about people in the ‘other’ camp has been dismal and depressing. I am amazed, watching the continued sloganizing even during the last few days, as if this was still some school debating society competition.
In part, this use of language is result of the vice-like grip that PR advisers have over politicians; they are told that actually answering difficult questions will make them look awkward and unpersuasive, and that they need to stay ‘on message’ and simply repeat the core message. (Kenneth Clarke is the most obvious exception to this practice.) Hence the bizarre spectacle of Theresa May last year repeating the mantra ‘strong and stable’ ad infinitum without ever really explaining what she meant by it. (You can actually watch her repeating this for five whole hours if you want to—though the most entertaining part of this video is around 18 minutes in, where you realise that it sounds as though she is talking about wanting ‘tables’…)
But in this particular debate, the biggest problem has been the word ‘Brexit’. Apart from tripping speakers up (so people constantly talk about delivering breakfast rather than Brexit), the main concern is that the word has no actual meaning. Despite Theresa May claiming that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, she couldn’t say exactly what it meant, since the binary ‘In/Out’ referendum didn’t explain it, and people clearly voted ‘Leave’ with a range of different ideas about what that meant. Even on social media yesterday, I was involved in an animated debate with two ‘Leavers’ who disagreed on whether leaving the EU but staying in the Customs Union actually really constituted leaving.
The word was coined by Peter Wilding, who now regrets the term, and he had all but forgotten its origins himself until it was seized on with gusto by the main Leave campaign. The repeated use of the word achieved two things: first, it simplified the debate into a binary choice between two clear alternatives; and secondly, it then polarised both the debate and the nation into these two camps (note my use of the word ‘Leaver’ above, as if these two people have the same view, which they don’t). Simplification and polarisation are the hallmarks of the problems of debate in a social media age, and the whole ‘Brexit’ saga has this writ large over it.
Opinions seemed divided regarding the verdict that history will come to on Theresa May’s leadership. One view from the left (which I am sure will be disputed) argues that the ‘Brexit’ project was flawed from the beginning—but makes the interesting observation that May was dealt a bad hand, but played it as badly as was possible.
All of this merely distracts from where the blame truly lies: with the Brexiteers themselves. The problem is not that May has failed to deliver on the Leave campaign’s promises — the problem is that no prime minister could have done so. In 2016, the Brexiteers vowed to end free movement, retain the economics benefits of EU membership, withdraw the UK from the customs union and avoid a hard Irish border — aims that were inherently irreconcilable.
May has played a bad hand badly — she triggered Article 50 recklessly early, squandered her parliamentary majority in an unnecessary election and carelessly alienated EU leaders and Remain MPs — but a bad hand it always was. From the moment that she reaffirmed Leave’s pledge to avoid a hard Irish border, a softer Brexit became inevitable. None of the alleged “technological” solutions offered by Leavers have ever been credible. The dream of “Empire 2.0” — a buccaneering Britannia that strikes trade deals with the “Anglosphere” — has been thwarted by the legacy of Empire 1.0: the Irish border.
It seems clear that Theresa May prefers to work in isolation. She makes decisions on her own; she surrounds herself with people who will not question her or disagree; she fails to consult widely; she has refused to engage in cross-party conversation in order to address shared concerns. She appears to think that ‘strong’ leadership involves sticking to her position in spite of all the evidence, and refusing to engage with well-informed views that contradict her own. There is a strange rigidity in her approach, and one of the odd dynamics is that, having been a moderate ‘Remainer’ herself, she decided that the only way to have credibility as Prime Minister was to adopt fiercely a view at the other end of the spectrum that she was never convinced about. This effectively paralysed her in debate; she didn’t have answers to the questions she was asked, because she didn’t really believe in the position herself. (It is worth noting that this tendency to surround oneself with those who agree has also, disappointingly, been the hallmark of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the Labour Party, and these symmetrical tendencies has led to the creation of the more central ‘Independent Group’ drawing from the more ‘moderate’ wings of both parties.)
I have been in contexts in churches and Christian organisations where the leadership has failed to have a view or a vision, and has avoided making any decisions for fear of upsetting one group or another, and this is a serious problem in leading a community. But as I reflect on it, I have more often been in contexts where the leadership has isolated itself, stuck to its guns regardless, and even at times played a game of ‘divide and conquer’ with other members of the team in order to keep questions at bay. There is a great temptation for Christian leaders to surround themselves with people of the same view, and avoid difficult questions—since engaging with contrary viewpoints can be time-consuming and exhausting, and some ‘contraries’ are in fact aiming at sabotage rather than genuine engagement.
But, in the context of both church and politics, effective leadership needs to combine a sense of clear direction, beliefs and values with a willingness to engage with others and an openness to learn. That, surely, is why leadership in the New Testament is always plural. (I hope it is something that shapes this blog as well; I don’t think anyone would accuse me of not having clear views—but I hope that I combine that with engagement with different points of view, both in the content and in the discussion in comments.)
The most worrying thing is the way that vested interests in the preservation of personal power have come to the fore in this debate, most notably in the last few weeks. The idea that a deal which has been both decisively rejected in Parliament and roundly denounced in the most extravagant terms as a ‘betrayal’ can suddenly become acceptable when attached to the promise of Theresa May’s resignation is a clear indication of what is really at stake here. We have the undignified vision of a good number of MPs jostling for position at the trough of power, without noticing that the trough itself—indeed the whole farm—is teetering on the edge of a cliff. Once again, it seems to me that the same dynamic is at work on the other side of the House, with Labour policy being designed more with an eye to gaining and keeping power than with doing the best for the country or tackling the issues.
It would be easy to pick on individuals for whom this is true, and it sits alongside the ignominious spectacle of those who have left political office to step straight into highly paid roles where they very quickly rake in the millions. (This is not about the politics of envy; it is asking questions about the integrity of public service.) But it seems to me that the ill-fated rush to trigger Article 50 before really exploring the issues was driven by MPs as a whole fearful of losing power in their constituencies if they gave the wrong impression, rather than anyone having the courage to point out that the Brexit emperor didn’t so much have no clothes as appearing to be wearing four or five contradictory outfits as the same time.
I am not so naive as to think that MPs are all drawn to office by a sense of selfless service to the wider community—but a good number are, and I think my previous Labour MP, Nick Palmer, was one such. Part of the problem has been the shift in recent years to the domination in Westminster by career politicians, rather than people coming into politics from some other life experience. We need to recapture the spirit of the ‘amateur’ politician, who seeks to serve, and who brings significant expertise and perspective from having working in another context—and preferably not just the banking sector.
This last observation is inextricably connected with the previous one. Again, it would take too long to list the number of MPs who have flatly contradicted the views that they previously stated, on this issue but also on other subjects. There appears to be a constant jockeying for position, which seeks to express the view which is most helpful in getting to a desired position, so that values and analysis are entirely malleable, a means to serve another end. The opposite of this is not the kind of wooden rigidity which has been the problem with Theresa May’s leadership, but a sense of consistency and integrity which means that, sometimes, it is important to say what is not popular because you do not believe that the popular view is actually true. This can look disastrous in the short term (and British politics is beset with short-termism that refuses to think strategically), but is actually the most fruitful position in the long term.
One of the important things to pray for is Christians called by God into this vocation of service in national leadership.
There are other observations that could be made; I think that the binaries of a two-party system, bolstered by our first-past-the-post voting practice (the two go hand in hand) is a serious problem, and needs reform. (I am not sure there is much doubt that the new central group, today announcing that they will form a party called Change UK, cannot have a long-term future, since FPTP always penalises third parties.) And moving away from binary voting and binary politics might address many of the issues above. But surely we have something to say about these issues from a Christian theological point of view, without falling into the traps of being simplistic or partisan—so I wonder why national Christian leaders haven’t commented on this much? (Perhaps they have, and I have just missed it.)
There are some really good things, both practically and theologically, about the British political set up, the two most important being the independence of the judiciary from the executive (which I think derives ultimately from a biblical understanding of law and leadership, but is not the case in the States) and the accountability of the executive to the elected Parliament (which has not always been the case in Europe, and led to a little local difficulty in Germany in the 1930s).
On the question of Europe itself, it is worth reminding ourselves of the complexities and what I think are very evenly balanced arguments on either side. Andrew Goddard set this out well in his Grove booklet at the time of the referendum, and his comments are worth revisiting:
It Hurts To Go Away: A Christian Case To Remain
We should stay because the EU’s vision, shaped by Christianity, has led it to much good for its members and more widely. The proper response to difficulties in relationships is not to walk out but to work at them and influence others for the good by being present. The UK has modelled this through the EU after initially standing apart and we should persevere in that commitment. EU membership recognises the value of international co-operation and the need for many political questions to be addressed at a trans-national level. The UK and other nations benefit from our involvement in institutions working for justice. These bodies can never be as representative as local and national political structures but the EU ensures all nations are represented in its deliberations and respects their different histories and perspectives. Its commitment to subsidiarity gives a powerful basis for sustaining such distinctiveness.
To leave would diminish our input in conversations and decisions which will inevitably impact our lives and would isolate us from structures which bring us into regular political contact with our nearest neighbours. It would give credence to erroneous views, especially that national sovereignty is inviolable, and risk fuelling nationalistic or xenophobic attitudes. Voting to remain does not mean accepting the Euro or all other recent developments. Rather, it means being committed to working with our neighbours to seek our shared common good.
It’s Impossible To Stay: A Christian Case To Leave
We should leave because the EU, despite Christian elements in its vision, and past successes for example in relation to peace, is now failing and damaging members and others. It is increasingly captive to contemporary, particularly economic, idols as seen in the Euro, and is developing characteristics of an imperial project which do not adequately respect national integrity. Given its history, the UK is well able to discern and to alert the EU to these trends but attempts at reform have largely failed. Subsidiarity, for example, is honoured in word but not action as EU competences extend across so much of our lives. Particularly since the EU’s expansion, the possibility of representative political authority structures has diminished. There is even less—and far from sufficient—common identity uniting us and we should not seek to engineer or impose such an identity.
The principle of free movement of EU citizens denies the importance of our locatedness and does not do justice to distinct national identities. It is no longer enabling solidarity but increasing tensions and, as with other policies, leads to an unjustifiable preferential option for the EU rather than other, poorer, parts of the world. Brexit, though it will have costs, opens the possibility of creatively rethinking and reconfiguring this negative dynamic to enable the creation of a better situation not just for the UK but for the EU and wider world.
(See also the earlier Grove booklet by Guy Milton, on the history and theological issues in the EU.)
Let us pray for our leaders and our nation at this time, not simply in general terms, but in relation to right use of language in debate, good leadership, the right exercise of power, and a renewed integrity.
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