Monday, 27 June 2016

Brexit Storm: Where now for the UK?

In ancient times, natural phenomena were often taken for omens signifying a change of fortune - for good or for ill. In March 1066, Halley’s comet appeared over England and was taken as an omen. Later that year, the Normans invaded England, King Harold was killed in the Battle of Hastings and England was changed forever. The night before last week’s EU
Photo: John Fowler
Creative Commons License
referendum, violent thunderstorms lashed the capital and caused flooding; even some polling stations were put out of action. In times gone by, this might have been seen as an omen and a prelude to stormy times ahead. For once, the weather was in tune with events, for as the British people awoke on the morning of 24th June, they found themselves engulfed in the deepest and most serious political storm most of us have ever experienced.

The vote to leave the European Union came as a huge shock to many. Despite the momentum on the Leave side during the referendum, the British political classes, European leaders, the financial markets and many in the British population as a whole did not expect the seismic shock of a vote for Britain to leave the European Union.

The shockwaves from Brexit have been reverberating ever since the early hours of Friday morning. We woke up on Friday morning, not only to learn that Britain had voted out, but also to the news that we are a deeply divided nation. In fact, given the closeness of the vote and the subsequent political fallout, perhaps we should call ourselves the Disunited Kingdom. London, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU but England and Wales voted to leave. Industrial working class areas and the English shires voted out whereas most of the large metropolitan cities voted in. Younger voters tended to vote to remain but older voters tended to vote to leave. And while the Leave campaign won the referendum they only won by a tiny margin - just 4%. Roughly speaking it’s one half of the electorate on one side, the other half on the other.

What is worrying is that after a divisive and ugly campaign we’re seeing a hardening in division across the country. Brexit will more than likely spell the end of the United Kingdom itself. It is highly likely that there will now be a second referendum in Scotland and I’m fairly sure that given the divisions now between Scotland and England, this time we will see Scotland break away. The Labour Party is beginning to fracture at the seams as virtually all
David Cameron resigns
Crown Copyright. Photo: Tom Evans
Under Creative Commons License
of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet have resigned since Sunday. Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced his intention to resign following his defeat in the referendum so plunging the Conservative Party into what could be a bitter leadership election. People across the country are anxious and deeply troubled by the unknown implications of Thursday’s result. But most worryingly there has been a spate of racist incidents across the country linked to the decision to leave the EU.

There have been financial implications as well. The pound dropped to its lowest level against the dollar since 1985. Billions have been wiped off the value of stocks and shares across the world. People are worried about their jobs, the economy and what this means for Britain’s place in the world.

What we are seeing is an unprecedented political, economic, constitutional and social crisis being played out. Britain has entered stormy and uncharted territory, and no-one knows where it will lead. But what is even more worrying is that we have a political vacuum: the Prime Minister is leaving but we don’t know who his successor will be, and the Labour Party is in complete chaos. It does feel as though there is no-one really in charge of the country at a time when we need desperately need it.

I believe that the vote to leave the European Union was the wrong decision. However, what we all need to do now is accept what has happened and come together to rebuilt our divided nation. Each of us has a responsibility to reach out in love and with respect to those who voted differently to us, to tone down the divisive rhetoric, to stand up against racism and xenophobia, and to support our elected representatives as they seek to build a consensus for the negotiations to leave. What we also need to do is listen to the voices of the marginalised and forgotten who voted for Brexit. Large swathes of the country feel disenfranchised and that they have been left behind by modern Britain. Finally, for Christians, we also have the added responsibility to pray for our nation and our leaders, and to be a force for good and to foster reconciliation amid a divided nation. In a joint statement the Archbishops of Canterbury and York have called for us to ‘unite in a common task to build a generous and forward looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world. We must remain hospitable and compassionate, builders of bridges and not barriers.’

It is easy to feel a sense of panic or despair at a time of national crisis. It feels as though Pandora’s Box has been opened. There will be people hurting on both sides of the argument. Remainers who feel deeply disappointed and angry. EU nationals who no longer feel welcome in the United Kingdom. Leavers who have been subjected to appalling vitriol, especially on social media. A storm of this magnitude means that events will be out of our control. The British have a saying which was printed on posters in World War II in case of invasion but never used: Keep Calm and Carry On.

Yes, we keep calm and carry on, but as Christians we do so because of a different reality to the one we see played out in our nation. On Friday morning as I looked on Facebook I saw posts from despondent Remainders and posts by hurt Leavers, but one post caught my eye. It said this:

‘There is absolutely nothing to be worried about this morning because Jesus is on the Throne!

Amen to that.

Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Fear, Hope and the EU Referendum

I made up my mind months ago how I will be voting in Thursday’s EU referendum. 

However, despite the barrage of campaign literature through our letterbox and the wall-to-wall coverage on TV, the truth is that I feel very uninspired by either side of the argument; after all, the European Union was not something that I had ever spend a large amount of time thinking about. The conduct of the referendum campaigning hasn’t helped to fire my passion for either side. In fact, the way the campaign has been conducted could be argued to have shown democracy at its worst. 

Last week’s horrific murder of Jo Cox showed us all something of the common decency and dedicated service of many MPs, both through Jo Cox’s exemplary but all too short career as a parliamentarian but also through the way that politicians of all parties have shown their collective solidarity with her family and each other; indeed, yesterday’s recall of parliament to pay tribute to Jo was one of the most moving sessions I have ever witnessed.

However, the way that the referendum has been fought is in stark contrast to the way that politicians and the nation have come together to mourn the loss of Jo Cox. The referendum campaign has showed us the ugly side to politics, as J. K. Rowling has written about in a recent blog. She eloquently describes how both the Leave and Remain campaigns have resorted to fear tactics to try and win the day, and of how both campaigns have created monsters to win their arguments. Leave tell us of an EU that is corrupt, undemocratic and allows uncontrolled immigration into the UK, whereas Remain warn of an apocalyptic financial meltdown if Brexit happens. 

British and EU Flags
Photo: Dave Kellham. Under Creative Commons License
What I have found throughout the campaign is the lack of serious engagement with real issues. There has been claim and counter-claim. Remain will claim something and Leave will simply dismiss the argument by saying something along the lines of ‘well, they would say that, wouldn’t they.’ Or a high-profile figure comes out for Leave and Remain replies ‘well, we all knew that so-and-so supported leave all along.’ Then throughout the campaign, the claims on both sides have got wilder and wilder. David Cameron has suggested that a Brexit might lead to World War III and Boris Johnson has claimed that the EU currently prevents bananas from being sold in more than threes! If you ask me, the whole campaign is bananas. Then or course there is the more sinister side to the campaign. Nigel Farage’s Breaking Point poster, featuring lines of non-white migrants queuing up to enter the EU, was a particularly low low for the campaign, and if - and it is a big if - if the murder of Jo Cox really was an act of political violence stoked up by the referendum campaign then that would be a damning indictment of how the campaign was run. Read Alex Massie’s excellent article in the Spectator for more on the consequences of irresponsible rhetoric in public life.

What the British public needs is not rhetoric, name calling, half-truths and fear. Instead, we need a sense of hope. Whatever happened to the politics of hope? Eight years ago, Barack Obama was elected President of the United State claiming ‘Yes we can.’ Perhaps he couldn’t do all he hoped but the aspiration was there. Now, whether we’re Leave or Remain, we should cast our vote based on hope, not on fear. Sadly too many people will be voting Leave based on a fear of migration and too many people will vote Remain based on a fear of the economic consequences of Brexit. While these fears are real and should be addressed, I think we need a narrative of hope to rescue our politics.

So what I would have wanted to see during this campaign is the opposite of what we have seen. I would have wanted a far more positive case on both sides of the argument. I would have wanted to hear about the moral and social case for leaving and for staying. And I would have wanted the debate conducted with dignity, integrity and with grace. Sadly, it took the murder of a young wife and mother on the streets of Birstall for us to see the best of our politicians. Let us hope that, whatever the result on Thursday, our politics, our politicians and our nation will be able to develop a narrative of hope that transcends our fear.

Oh, and if you’re interested, I’ll be voting to remain.

I’m aware that the European Union is far from perfect, but no-one is truly an island - not even our island nation. We live in a world that is increasingly interdependent. Nation states should not purely be looking after their own self-interests and instead we should have genuine solidarity with other nations. The EU has many flaws and is in desperate need of reform but I think that Britain will be more of a benefit to a dangerous and unstable world from within the EU than without.

[If anyone wants to read more about what a reformed EU could look like then check out Ben Ryan's Theos Report 'A Soul for the Union.']