The Blog

Christian Responsibility for BREXIT

The Prime Minister in his resignation speech presented the referendum as a matter of pride in our British democracy. It is a matter of shame.

After mass this Sunday morning, parishioners - including the local MP - gathered outside church, animated, angry and upset by the Leave vote. Almost two thirds of the British Christian community put a cross next to "Leave" last week. Not, perhaps, so surprising when its elderly age-range is considered, thus more of a reflection on the sharp and disturbing differences between young and old voters, those with high income and higher education and those without. The initial vision of what was to become the EU was firstly mooted during the war by Polish and Czech resistance in London, fearful of the Soviet Union, and then by its founding fathers, mainly European Catholic leaders. Has Catholic leadership given enough guidance?

The bishops' call for reflection, due consideration of gospel values, did not amount to very much. Which particular Gospel values? What about solidarity and, of course, subsidiarity - that old Calvinist concept of Church order, with Holy Water sprinkled on it - made Catholic social teaching? There was little sense that Catholicism might have something to contribute. It was a far cry from the 1940s.

During the Referendum campaigns the cross-Party nature of the opposing sides freed the Church from the usual accusation of meddling in Party politics. Maybe this was why the Archbishop of Canterbury made a courageous decision to say how he was voting. Much more likely the bishops' reason for reticence was that, with British public opinion and Christian communities shaping up to split down the middle, and the bishops themselves unsure, the question of fostering division in the Church loomed large. But that division is even larger now.

The bishops could have said a lot. For example, that democracy needs an informed public opinion if citizens are to be given important choices about a nation's future, particularly in the direct democracy of a referendum. Instead the British public was lied to and misinformed by the leadership of the Leave campaign and their allies in the press.

There now seems to be a consensus that much of the Leave vote was an expression of anger and resentment at growing inequality in society, at "us" experiencing grinding austerity and insecurity clearly not shared by "them", at not all being in it together. There was the perception that ordinary people, "we", had lost control of over our lives and that "they" were to blame. The main political protagonists for Leave and Remain were drawn from what had become known as the political elite, who might have been held responsible for this anger and resentment. "They" were displaced and discovered offshore in Brussels. "They" were the EU. The Labour Party leadership who might have refocussed the roots of the social question back on social policies in the UK failed miserably to do so.

The debate became essentially reduced to one that people felt most anxious and strongly about: immigration and the economy, with utilitarian arguments, skewed to fit the spin of each opposing side. The irony was that there was no great popular clamour to hold a referendum about membership of the EU. It was forced on the Prime Minister by the divisions in the Conservative Party and against the background of the rise of UKIP.

So one approach Church leadership might have taken would have been to talk a little about lying. It is not entirely a black and white question. I remember the kindliest of Dominicans in the Mayfair priory in Johannesburg who absolutely refused ever to tell a lie. At the worst period in the apartheid struggle the security police would ring up asking if young Mr. X was staying at the priory (the place was full of Mr. Xs on the run), and everyone would leap to reach the phone before the priest took the call and replied "yes he was". Then again in wartime lies and half-truths are told to keep up morale, disguise defeats and to serve a patriotic purpose.

This referendum was an extremely important moment but it was not a matter of life and death. Systematic lying or misrepresentation, aimed at people poorly equipped to see through them, the art of the confidence-trickster, is a different matter in political life. It seriously undermines one of our fundamental British values: democracy. Those who advocate "voting with your heart", knowing full well that the hearts targeted have been filled with justifiable anger and resentment and are searching for scapegoats, have a name: demagogues. Their behaviour should disqualify such advocates from high political office.

The Prime Minister in his resignation speech presented the referendum as a matter of pride in our British democracy. It is a matter of shame.

Before You Go