Well, not really. I don’t wish anyone real harm of course – not for a second, though I might well have momentarily sympathised with the apostles James and John when they wanted to bring down fire from heaven on their opponents! And I had intended, and started, a rather different article for this Newsletter about the importance of rest and recreation in human lives! But the events of the European Union Referendum in Britain have overtaken this intention, and although it would seem that there is no likelihood of going back now, there are lessons to be learnt for the future, both of British politics and European political life. Underlying these lessons is the important reminder that democracy is a right that has responsibilities. The responsibility to use our ability to shape our country’s future both with intelligence and even more important with conscience. I fear that these have been in rather short supply during the recent referendum campaign in the United Kingdom. And they have been singularly lacking, sad to say, from both sides of the divide over Europe.
Perhaps the first lesson to learn in Britain for the future is about political expediency. There are no short cuts in politics. David Cameron knew perfectly well what he was unleashing when he spoke of a referendum on Britain’s EU membership and he did it to ensure an election victory in 2015 for a Conservative party that at best has been semi-detached from the European project since its inception and at worst apoplectically opposed. There has been over the years a fermenting poison in the right wing of the Conservative party, and in fairness to him, David Cameron tried to eradicate it. But his vision of middle-ground Conservatism with reforms (which no one denies are necessary) to the European Union and at home to the welfare benefit system has been blown apart by the extremists in his party. And not for the first time in recent history. On his resignation, the increasingly dis-United Kingdom will almost certainly be left with a right wing Prime Minister whom the electorate could not have foreseen at the General Election of 2015. Hardly democracy in action, then!
The second lesson to learn is that the politics of fear convinces no one. A last minute ‘fear attack’ on the Scottish electorate in 2013 was later seen for what it was, though on that occasion the voters perhaps were taken by storm. This time there has been recognition of the tactics earlier on. Both the Remain and Leave campaigns were guilty of this scaremongering. And whilst it is understandable when dealing with such a complex matter as our continuing membership of the European Union, it unforgiveable to make an appeal only to the worst possible of human self-interests. So it is not surprising that there was such focus on money and immigration. Let’s call this what it really is – greed and xenophobia. Do we really want to be part of a nation that makes its decisions on such a basis?
The third lesson to learn is one of responsibility. First, governmental responsibility. For fifty years I have watched a progressive abrogation of governmental responsibility. Britain has one of the oldest continuously functioning democracies in the world. But it relies upon electing people to responsibly govern. And yes, sometime this means difficult and painful decisions have to be made and then have to be painstakingly explained so that they may be owned by the people. This takes time – something that has been, I believe, eroded by media pundits demanding two word answers to complex problems with an assumed authority which they argue is ‘The Public Interest’. But responsibility does not stop with governments. The electorate has its responsibilities to exercise the vote wisely and, dare I say it, virtuously.
The fourth lesson must be about generosity. The Leave campaign focussed entirely on negative spin and sometimes complete untruths about the European Union. Alas this was not countered by the Remain campaign, who ran a lack-lustre campaign focussed largely upon fear and appealing to some of the worst possible of human motivations. Of course it is important to have and maintain a sound economy – no one doubts that. But although there are some in Britain who still persist in referring to the European Union as the Common Market there is much more to the life of the Union than trade agreements. There is a whole culture of inter-relationships which bring enormous benefits to all. There are in effect no net-providers or net-receivers in the Union. The dynamic is and should be one that benefits all. Britain, as I mentioned before, has one of the longest uninterrupted experiences of democracy in today’s world. Many of the member states of the Union do not have such an experience. They are not helped by the departure of Britain. Despite the ‘semi-detached’ attitude of many people in Britain to Europe, the European Union will be poorer without Britain in many ways. And sharing always makes us richer in spirit.
The fifth lesson surely is about the dangers of politics becoming too personal – infected by the so-called celebrity cult. In the later stages of the referendum campaign, there was little debate and plenty of mud-slinging, far too much heat and very little light, and much came down to individual personalities. And whilst we may all like cheerful rogues on television, do we really want to commit serious governmental responsibilities to them? Much more tragically, this all contributed to the death of a much-loved and respected standing Member of Parliament, killed by a fanatic inspired by xenophobic hate.
Others far better qualified than I will be able to add plentifully to these basics. But what now?
I know that many of us are in a state of shock at this result. The implications could be massive. It is too early to say, and in fact the Referendum in itself has no legal force whatsoever. All it does is tell us that the people of Scotland and Northern Ireland by large majorities wish to remain in the European Union, along with many people in London. It further tells us that a sizeable number of people in England and Wales do not. How much moral force this has is another matter. There is a process for withdrawing from the Union, but David Cameron has said that he will not trigger that. Most European leaders want to give Britain time to consider the way forward, and time is necessary.
In my home country, the situation is clearer. The Scottish Parliament has a devolved power enabling it to block withdrawal under certain circumstances, though this may still depend upon what happens in the Westminster parliament. And of course it could mean that Scotland withdraws from the United Kingdom, a move that increasingly I believe will be widely supported. Scotland voted overwhelming in favour of remaining in the European Union – not least because Scotland welcomes immigration, and from long before the time of union with England has had deeper roots of identification with our closest European neighbours and indeed the wider continent as a whole. Pace those who suggest that all Scotland has as economic assets are whisky and North Sea oil, in fact Scotland has a thriving economy, not least in the financial sector, and one that would fare well independently within the European Union.
We must wait and see. Whatever else, this ill-judged Referendum has split the United Kingdom. Maybe forever. Whatever happens though, there is the need for much healing. People feel betrayed – especially the young, many of whom see the vote as being an attempt to put back the clock to a time that they have never known, nor wish to know.
In the event of the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, the world will be without doubt a less secure place. The sharing of resources, particularly those of intelligence services, is very much a necessity in today’s global village. We should be doing much more together, not less! The really big problems in our world today are issues that need co-operation and action in solidarity, not stupid whimpers for ‘national sovereignty’. The big problems – those of poverty, radicalisation, and the environment – are global problems, not just European ones, but nevertheless we have a Union of States which has achieved a very great deal in a very short space of time, and which should have been a shining example for the world. Now it is broken – perhaps irretrievably. And yes, there are many reasons for that.
But unlike the Remain campaign, let’s not forget the distance travelled. Let’s not forget the real benefits – particularly in the securing of peace and peaceful co-operation. Starting from a specifically Christian vision. A vision of resurrection after the crucifixion of Europe in two world wars, which had led to the most horrendous slaughter of millions of people. Many of us at Holy Trinity Church grew up in the immediate aftermath of those years, and some of us lived through them. We know what they were like. And Christian people said that enough was enough. And began, not just to pontificate about it, but to do something about it – first with the European Coal and Steel treaty. And later with the European Economic Community which ultimately became what we have today.
Has the rejection by much of Europe of the Christian faith that inspired the possibility of resurrection after such suffering and death also led us to this moment when we give up on the political vision too? Give up because we prefer greed and suspicion to generosity and welcome? Prefer Vice to Virtue? If it has, then maybe there is much soul-searching to be done in many places now. Including in the Household of the Faith.