The first dust has settled from the EU Leave vote, but it feels as if the earthquake has only just begun, and there is no telling what foundations it has yet to disturb. David Cameron has resigned; George Osbourne is likely to follow soon. Jeremy Corbyn faces a vote of no confidence, and already Nicola Sturgeon has put a Scottish independence referendum ‘on the table’. If reaction from world leaders is anything to go by, there could well be a wider impact across the EU.
And the back peddling has also begun. Nigel Farage, within an hour of the result, admitted that it was a ‘mistake’ to claim that £350 million a week would be spent on the NHS if the UK backed a Brexit vote, and Daniel Hannan, a leading Brexit commentator, said last night on Newsnight that there was ‘little prospect’ of really reducing net immigration. But one thing you can be sure of: whatever of the forecasts of ‘campaign fear’ come true, there is no chance of anyone being held to account one way or the other.
I voted Remain, but I was always clear that the arguments were quite finely balanced—much more so than the simplistic, misleading and inflammatory rhetoric from both sides would have had you believe. My view was quite close to that of my friend Chris Green:
The economic arguments are decisively ‘in’; the constitutional ones decidedly ‘out.’ If the free movement of peoples means the free movement of missionaries, then that means ‘in’. ‘Out’ has correctly diagnosed some critical problems, but nostalgia and optimistic bluster are not policies. ‘In’ is reversible, ‘out’ is irreversible. And, though this is the hardest to quantify, the cost of being wrong on the consequences of ‘out’ is far higher than the cost of being wrong on the consequences of ‘in’. On balance, fine balance, I’m ‘in’.
This might seem an odd time to promote a Grove booklet on the issues involved in voting, but if you voted Remain and you are scratching your head to make sense of the result, it is worth revisiting the comments Andrew Goddard makes for Leave, alongside the case for Remain:
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.
One of the most disturbing features of the whole campaign was the aggressive and divisive rhetoric. A low point was the exchange between Bob Geldof and Nigel Farage which was widely distributed. Geldof pointed out that Farage had only attended one out of 42 meetings of the fisheries committee, and then complained about European policy on fishing and lack of democracy. In reply, Farage denounced Geldof as a rich person ignoring the needs of working people, and called it ‘disgusting’. The real venom in the way he spat out the word, whilst failing to actually address the issue, took public discourse to a new low. A similar but less unpleasant example of this occurred in a television interview with Boris Johnson. The interviewer challenged him about the £350 m a day claim, and in reply Johnson simply mocked the interviewer, poking his finger at him and making silly noises. As one commentator put it, factual analysis bounced off these claims like peas being shot at armour plate.
This lack of serious debate was exacerbated by the division of the popular print press into Leave and Remain camps, so that people reading one particular paper were shielded from the difficult questions each side could have put to the other. I am struggling to see why the print media are exempt from the demand for a fair and balanced account of issues that applies to broadcast media; this is one shake-up that we really need.
Much of the comment so far has understandingly focussed on what the vote means in terms of economic or political consequences. But we now need to think about what it means as an act of communication on the part of the 52% of the UK who voted Leave. As this analysis helpfully shows, the divisions between Leave and Remain were fairly stark, and revolved around three axes: old versus young; more versus less educated; and in England and Wales, between London and the regions. The most likely Leave voter was a white, working class male, over 60, living in East Anglia. The most likely remain voter was a young, graduate female living in London or Scotland.
The first is the question of social stability and identity. The area which voted most strongly Leave was Lincoln and the area around the Wash. It is a region with a high proportion of older people—but one which (like East Anglia) experiences a high level of migrant labour. In a moment of crisis in the Big Bang Theory, one of the main characters Sheldon Cooper cries out: ‘Everything is changing—and I don’t like it!’ This is the kind of cry we have heard in the Leave vote. My street, my town, my culture is changing; no-one consulted me about this, I don’t like it, and without a referendum I am powerless to do anything about it. I am told it is the ‘inevitable’ result of globalisation.
It is easy to write off such a view as either stick-in-the-mud, or hopelessly nostalgic, or even xenophobic. But we need to recognise that lack of social stability is not a neutral thing. One of the great ironies here is that businesses long for economic stability and predictability, and if social structures and values need to be thrown to the wind (perhaps through economic migration) then that is a price worth paying. The problem is that the price is paid by one group, whilst the benefit is accrued to quite a different group. Economics trumps everything. And those on right and left politically don’t help. The right tell me we need economic stability; the left tell me I need to welcome the foreigner. But the Leave vote asks some pertinent questions: Do I have the right to live in the local culture I grew up in? Do I have any say on whether that changes?
Change is great when you are young, and your focus is on whether life is exciting, varied and unpredictable. But as you get older, different concerns come to the fore, and constant change starts to bring unwelcome demands.
The second issue is the policy of ‘free movement of people’ as part of the EU commitment to free movement of goods and services. This is quite distinct from the question of immigration, which might happen for all sorts of complex reasons. But free movement of people, as I have hinted previously, is just insane. It might work well within an area of similar cultures where there are not great differences in economic situations, just as a single currency needs economic convergence to work well. But just as water finds a level, so free movement will create a steady stream of movement from less-well-off regions to the better off regions. The moment that the EU started to expand into the East, the commitment to free movement became a disaster. If we were to continue with it, then there would be steady net migration from the poorer countries into the wealthier ones until the wealth disparity was eliminated. It is not difficult to see how challenging and culturally unsustainable such a policy is.
The additional question for the UK is: with whom should we allow free movement? This movement testimony came from another friend:
I have just returned from working voluntarily for a few days in Bulgaria. This is an EU country where so many have so little. I visited a community with 50,000 people living in squalid conditions. This community has the same life expectancy as people living in the Sub-Saharan Desert. Now, I am left wondering how easy it will be in the future to be able to help these people and others like them? I seriously hope that Brexit will not change the opportunities to be able to offer charitable support to other human beings?
The EU has allowed us to share culture, work and prosperity with some—but has restricted that happening with others, particularly in Africa and in the Commonwealth of (mostly) former colonies. This raises a question of with whom we have the strongest natural, and historic, connections. In theological education, the free movement of EU citizens severely restricted our ability to recruit foreign students from the Anglophone world, and cut off a vital link with parts of the world and parts of the church with whom we had had fruitful partnerships.
The third issue picks up on the education divide amongst voters: the lack of transparency and clarity of decision-making and regulation in the EU. An oft-visited example is the question of how much of UK law is determined by the EU. The BBC’s Reality Check analysis comes to the conclusion that it is such a complex question that no single answer is adequate.
So what is the true figure? More than 13% but less than 62% – it depends what you count in and what you leave out. It is safe to say that EU law does have a very significant presence and effect in UK law.
But that is not enough for campaigners, who on both sides have made simplistic and unsupportable claims.
“This is one of many areas in the EU debate where both sides describe meaningless nonsense as facts,” says Sir Paul Jenkins, a former Treasury solicitor.
In response to this, both David Mitchell and Richard Dawkins argued that we shouldn’t be having a referendum at all—Mitchell on the grounds that this decision was the job of politicians, and Dawkins on the grounds that ordinary people are just too stupid. But I agree with Thomas Clark’s ‘angry voice’ in disagreeing with both views, for a whole range of reasons.
He’s wrong because the Westminster establishment are just as deeply misinformed about fundamentally important economic issues as the man on the street (if not more so because they live in an insulated bubble of wealth, power, privilege and influence).
No wonder that those who are older, working class and less educated, who have felt marginalised by the educated elite of the political classes, seized the opportunity to reject their direction with alacrity. And what has happened to our political and economic life where the most important decision we need to make as a nation appears to be too difficult for most of us to understand?
It seems to me that the voices that voted Leave are voices are calling for protection against unwanted change, transparency of political processes, and some sense of stake in the project. Michael Lakey puts it like this:
Partly, I think that the result indicates the dependence of political and economic arrangements upon social and anthropological realities. This is basically to say that a political project commands assent based upon its capacity to inspire loyalty at 1. the level of ideas (the US and socialist aspiration), at 2. the level of extended kinship (the more ‘tribal’ model at play in local European identities) or at 3. the nation state level which attempts to mediate both.
In none of these models is the pure pragmatism of ‘better off’ in/out decisive. If European belonging had been held as the great positive idea of the time by the majority of people in the country, then one suspects that people would have voted for it even if their immediate economic interests were less well served by membership.
This is to say that the present vote does not cause the failure of the the European idea in the UK, it reveals the failure of the project at the level of the cultivation of a shared transnational identity. Effectively, the project was sold to the people as a pragmatic monetary calculation of interests, and it is no surprise that it failed to inspire loyalty. A political project requires a ‘demos‘—a people—and at the level of identity the case for the peoples of the EU being a single demos had yet to be cogently made. It is little surprise that such an etiolated project failed to command assent.
Democracy allows people to do very stupid and unwise things. But at least it allows them to do it—and, after all, isn’t that part of treating people as mature adults?
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