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KLICE Comment April 2017

KLICE Comment

Brexit: restoring Self Governance

Richard Bauckham is Emeritus Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of St Andrews and Senior Fellow of Ridley Hall, Cambridge.  

I voted to leave the EU primarily because I think the EU institutions are a bad form of government. So did a lot of people. The single most important reason people voted to leave was the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken within the UK. This should not be seen as isolationism or narrow nationalism. Rather it expresses the wish that government be directly elected, accessible and accountable. Despite the European Parliament, the EU is not. How many people, even among those who take a strong interest in politics, can name any of the European Commissioners other than Jean-Claude Juncker? The EU institutions are ‘remote’ from the people they govern in much more than a geographical sense. Good government is owned by those it governs. In the UK, at least, the EU manifestly is not, even by many of those who voted to remain. (Many who voted to remain did so because they judged it best for the UK economy, not because they thought well of the EU institutions.)

No doubt the particular history of the UK’s relationship with the EU plays an important role in this lack of ownership, but the rise of so-called populism in other EU member states indicates something similar there too. The EU Commission is not at all like the sort of national government that emerges from a democratic election (even though this happens differently in different democracies). It is not unfairly perceived as a technocratic oligarchy. Problems of remoteness and ownership beset even democratic systems (we need recall only the ‘Trump is not my president’ protests after the recent US election or criticism of the ‘Westminster elite’ as out of touch with the British people). But in the case of the EU such problems are very much harder to tackle because of its history and ethos, as well as its institutional structures.

Within the UK in recent decades power has been significantly decentralized by devolution to the parliaments/assemblies of three of the constituent nations. The principle invoked has been that decisions that can be taken at a more local level should be. This continuing trend to devolution and localism runs in the opposite direction from the ideology that inspires policy and legislation in the EU, which so far from devolving powers has been steadily accruing powers. The EU project has envisaged a process of ever closer union occurring through centralization and harmonization. Much of the discontent with it has been due to a sense that Europe-wide policies and regulations are imposed on national or local situations where people do not feel them to be appropriate and, importantly, where they do not feel there is any way for their voice to be heard. (Opposition to the EU’s principle of free movement of people needs to be seen in this context.)

The European project is still wedded to integration by centralization and harmonization because of the elitist ethos that has characterized it from the start. The founders of the EU did not put much faith in democratic processes (of course, they recalled that Hitler was elected in a democratic process). Their aim was to create European unity by a top-down process directed by a wise and expert governing class.

Brexit does not make these issues irrelevant for the UK. Brexit itself is taking place in a European context in which dissatisfaction with the EU is making its own future quite unpredictable. It is not about to disintegrate, but, if the political landscape in Europe is increasingly defined by a mutual antagonism between ‘elitism’ and ‘populism’, turmoil is certainly ahead. The political elites need to recognize that, if more and more people vote for right-wing nationalist parties, it is not because they are right-wing nationalists but because reasonable discontent with the EU has nowhere else to go.

As for the UK, we are leaving the EU but we are not leaving Europe. A different kind of association between European states is conceivable. It would be based on collaboration and recognition of diversity, rather than centralization and standardization. It could pursue common cultural and economic goals without imposing a supra-national level of government. It could even foster a kind of European identity that would not supplant the national, regional and local identities that matter a great deal to most people. Such an alternative to the EU might develop through the growth of specific collaborative projects in which the UK can participate because they do not depend on the EU institutions. In the long run, Brexit could pave the way for a better sort of European neighbourliness.

Anywheres and Somewheres

It is important to recognize that, while the referendum debate was about staying in or leaving the EU, the vote was about more than Brexit. It revealed, more clearly than ever before, a great fissure dividing the nation. (In Scotland and Northern Ireland there are special factors that made for different divisions.) It revealed that we are divided along lines that no longer correlate with the old political allegiances to left and right. Moreover, the division is not only an economic one between those who have done well out of EU membership and those who have not, which was the standard analysis soon after the referendum, though that is certainly a key factor.

David Goodhart’s1 recent book offers an insightful analysis. He divides us into ‘Anywheres’ (c. 20%) and ‘Somewheres’ (c. 50%) (with c. 30% ‘In-Betweeners’), distinguished by different sets of values. The Anywhere worldview he calls ‘progressive individualism’. Anywheres are university educated, value autonomy, have social concerns focused on equality and human rights. They are mobile and embrace change. Life and work for them are about individual self-realization. The worldview of the Somewheres Goodhart calls ‘decent populism’ (distinguishing most of them from the small minority of ‘Hard Authoritarians’). Somewheres are less educated and much more rooted in place and in group identities (local and national). Their values are communitarian and family-oriented. They tend to experience change as loss.

According to Goodhart, three or four decades ago the Somewhere worldview was dominant in Britain, but more recently Anywhere values and goals have dominated government policy and politics in general. Hence the sense of disenfranchisement and being left behind that many Somewheres expressed in voting for Brexit, whereas the core of the Remain campaign and the pressure now for a ‘soft’ Brexit embody Anywhere values. Goodhart sees Brexit as the first step in a necessary redressing of the balance. He regards both worldviews as legitimate and argues that political developments need to take both into account.

Of course, I have given a highly simplified sketch of his analysis. But it is interesting to note that much Christian comment on Brexit has aligned itself with an Anywhere perspective. Most church leaders and Christian commentators are more or less Anywheres. They are well educated, mobile and identify with many (though not all) aspects of the social objectives favoured by Anywheres. They too easily share the uncomprehending denigration of Somewheres as xenophobic (if not racist) and backward-looking. Many have seen the Brexit vote in terms of a conflict between, on the one hand, ‘closed’ nationalism (perceived as a kind of corporate selfishness, like Trump’s ‘America First’) and, on the other, ‘open’ solidarity with European neighbours.

Goodhart’s analysis ought to shake up this facile moralizing of the debate. The generous openness of Anywheres comes at a price: the pursuit of success by rootless and autonomous individuals. Somewheres deserve, not just patronizing sympathy for their ‘left behind’ situation, but recognition of the importance they give to place, community and family. These things will not be fostered if ‘more Europe’ is replaced merely by ‘more globalization’, which seems to be the vision of a certain sort of Brexiteer politician.

Beyond the discussion of how a post-Brexit UK will relate to Europe and the rest of the world, we need a wider debate about what sort of society we would like a post-Brexit UK to be.

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1. The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics (Hurst, 2017).

Thinking about Brexit after Article 50

Nicholas Townsend is a KLICE Research Associate and a Visiting Scholar at Sarum College.

In the year of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, the UK has formally triggered its departure from the European Union. These two events, so distant in time, are inherently connected in a specific way that we all need to recognise. 

The great historian of Christian thought, Jaroslav Pelikan, called the Reformation a ‘tragic necessity’. Catholics, he argued, take the tragedy of it for granted but tend not to recognise how necessary it was. Protestants take the Reformation’s necessity for granted but at best downplay the tragedy: the legacy of deep division and conflict, and so of woefully weakened Christian witness.

The UK’s departure from the EU is neither necessary nor a tragedy.  We could be staying in and continuing to thrive; we are leaving and will continue to be an affluent, stable and culturally rich country. If our departure is momentous, this is less because of its impact on the UK than because it marks a reverse in one historical trajectory of movement beyond the Reformation’s divisive legacy. This is the connection we need to understand.  

The history in question is of relations between political power and nationhood. Central within this story is nationalism, which makes the clearest and simplest claim about how power and nation should be related: each nation ought, as a matter of principle, to be a separate sovereign state. Nationalism emerged in the late 1700s and is arguably the most successful political ideology of modernity: in 1800 there were fewer than 20 recognizable nation-states; now there are more than 150.

The seeds of what became overt nationalist doctrine were sown earlier. The Reformation was followed by a century or so of war – Europe’s ‘wars of religion’ between dynastic powers defined in part by confessional difference. While some scholars, such as William Cavanaugh, argue that religious identity was much less a factor in those wars than a liberal conventional wisdom assumes, one reason for them was no doubt the belief held by most that civil peace was a practical impossibility without shared religious confession. In other words, they assumed that religious freedom was not a political option (just as we assume the opposite).

Against this background, the 1648 treaties of Westphalia that marked an end to those wars rested on one pragmatic formula: cuius regio, eius religio – to each country its own religion. This was a kind of giving-up. Neither Catholic nor Protestant powers were going to prevail everywhere, so all needed the modus vivendi this formula provided. As international relations students all learn, Westphalia was pivotal in bringing into being the modern world of sovereign states that we still inherit. A century or so after Westphalia, early nationalist thinkers, such as Herder, began to theorise this political order, not merely as a practical way of resolving conflict, but as an inherent part of God’s created order. The ideology of nationalism gave a rationalization for the post-Reformation division of Europe into separate states. 

But nationalism was problematic, to say the least. Nationalist practice has contributed to some peoples under imperial subjection gaining freedom, but it has fostered innumerable wars. This is especially in places where there is no neat coincidence of national identity and territorial boundaries, of which there have been many (think, even now, of Israel/Palestine, the United Kingdom, the parts of the Middle East where Kurdish people live and the Ukraine). Both the First and Second World Wars were in large part generated by nationalism, the latter by an explicitly racist version – nationalism does not itself contain resources to prevent a slide in that direction.

It was especially these world wars that provoked a powerful reaction against the nationalist doctrine. Theologically, Karl Barth demolished the Herder vision of the world’s people as divided into nations by ‘nature’; rather, nations are phenomena only of history: they rise and fall in accordance with God’s inscrutable providence (Church Dogmatics, III.4, Sec. 54). Nations are just one of various forms of cultural community made possible by the rich potentials in the created order: family, tribe, neighbourhood, city, region, nation, even continent; Yorkshire, London, England, Britain, Europe... We can celebrate and love them all, even as we are aware of the pervasive ways human sin corrupts them. In contrast, by rationalizing ex post facto a political order that happened to emerge after conflict, nationalism privileged just one level of community and produced a kind of zero-sum picture of political order.

After 1939-1945, it was Christians in Europe who took the lead in seeing beyond nationalism, in practice and theory. As Chaplin and Wilton’s recent book brings out, it was in the light of their faith that Buchman, Schumann, Adenauer and de Gasperi, pioneers of the project that became the EU, recognised that sovereignty needed to be shared among different levels of government. The way to lasting peace and future prosperity depended on moving beyond the nationalist myth. In the whole post-Reformation period, this project was unprecedented. It had pivotal importance and has moved towards realization of its promise to an astonishing extent. 

But in recent decades the European project has also gone wrong in certain ways; these even threaten to end it and to take the continent back to unmediated nationalist competition. The EU is supposed to embody not just solidarity but subsidiarity, and, in a parallel way to justice, subsidiarity needs to be both upheld and seen to be upheld. However desirable the Euro and the free movement of people might be, how are they consistent with the principle of subsidiarity? How can the economic vision incarnated in the German social market economy be sustained in a European economy that now appears virtually indistinguishable from a neoliberal paradise? Such lines of critique have been well made by, for example, Gisela Stuart (pro-Leave) and Adrian Pabst (pro-Remain). 

More generally, have EU leaders (so many still Christian, especially Catholic) lost sight of the very great practical wisdom in Thomas Aquinas’s observation that law can effect cultural change only very slowly? If people are not ready, they will be ‘unable to bear such precepts’ and will ‘break out into yet greater evils: thus it is written “He that violently bloweth his nose, bringeth out blood”’ (Summa Theologiae, I-II 96.2, citing Prov. 30:33). 

How should we read the signs of the times? I have argued that Brexit is a reverse in a long-term development of post-nationalist political order. But it can be also a sign that provokes people across Europe to reconnect the astonishing enterprise that is the EU with its original vision. Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, surely should, as a matter of principle, support this historic project we call the European Union, even as we also can and should take the lead in pointing to its failings. That the EU survives and flourishes matters far more than whether the UK is a member, especially if we are all to continue to move, slowly, beyond the tragedy of the Reformation’s legacy of division and conflict.

KLICE 10th Anniversary Celebration

Podcasts: 

The First Ten Years, with Dr Jonathan Chaplin

Panel discussion on Christian Ethics and the Future of Society

Looking Ahead, with Revd Dr Craig Bartholomew

You can read a transcript of Craig’s talk here

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