The World Turned Upside Down

EU Parliament

 In the Brexit fall-out we've seen the status-quo be turned on its head, led by what was  originally a minority movement. What led the huge change in public opinion against a  socially-principled EU, and how can we recover our faith-driven political principles?

One of the hardest things to understand, when reflecting on the events of the last few weeks, has been the curious way in which history can be turned on its head and rewritten to match the aspirations of a specific group.  In a world of greater-than-ever access to knowledge, it is apparent that this rapidly expanding body of information available to all does not always convert into rational thought.  Indeed, the overload of information increases the likelihood that people become more and more confused and cynical about everything.  How often have we heard that people no longer trust the ‘experts’, and what does this mean in a society which generally has established itself upon the development of experts?  What is our reliance on local government, but an abdication of personal responsibilities to a central group perceived as more expert or equipped to undertake the role?  In a consumerist society we have become used to buying services from those we deem to be more proficient than us in a given area, so to then state that the opinions and views of those we have elected to lead us, or who by dint of their experience and knowledge have been elevated to senior position in whatever sector, are not to be believed, is an undermining of principals we have assumed were immutable.  Where does this leave us other than at the relative mercy of the most persuasive, which in the absence of rational thought or evidence plays upon our baser instincts and the weaknesses inherent in our human state?

A classical example of this has been the discourse that a Leave vote was a patriotic act that honoured those who had fought in the World Wars.  “We did not fight wars to let foreigners tell us what to do” is an oft stated sentiment, which seems to completely ignore the fact that World War 2 was entered into by the British as a result of our honouring a treaty to support Poland, and what became characterised as a gallant struggle by Britain standing alone against the evil Nazis was actually entered into because we were fighting for a stable Europe.  In many ways it would be more accurate to have stated that the conflict enabled and promoted the European Union, and it was only our own intransigence at its formation which prevented us being one of the founder members.  In the same way, we appear to have quietly accepted a subtle rebranding of the purpose of the European project away from its founding principles which were fundamentally socialist; based on solidarity and universal freedoms, to being an elitist plutocracy whose sole purpose is the generation of wealth for a privileged few.            

Leave campaigners

Our contribution to Europe ceased to be the resource we put in to enable the union to fulfil its social responsibilities and to assist member states to become stable contributors in their own right.  Instead it became a transactional process whereby we put X in and only get Y out as if it was a bad business deal.  Much has been written recently about the progressive undermining of confidence in the EU by the right and elements of the press, but surely it is unsurprising that those with a free market ideology should resent and instinctively oppose what was always a bastion of social solidarity, and frankly anathema to the ‘Britain for the British and Blow Everyone Else’ brigade.  What is astonishing is the way in which those who instinctively lean towards socialism have not only allowed the demonization of what has to be seen as the most significant piece of social solidarity collaboration in history, but in many cases have either contributed to it or, by their passivity, colluded with the story being formed.

Nicola SturgeonThere has been plenty of talk about the respective campaigns and whether they were too negative, overly optimistic or just downright dishonest, but I am afraid that the campaign was lost twenty years ago (at least) in the failure to embrace the Union and celebrate its values and benefits.  Instead when it came down to it, the classic British character trait of mocking anything ‘foreign’, and the tendency of successive Governments to utilise the EU as a scapegoat for everything they wanted but knew would be unpopular, created a deep-seated resentment across all classes which was easily exploited by populist manipulators.  I was wondering why Scotland was bucking the trend until I realised that of course Scotland traditionally blamed Westminster, not the EU, for its woes, which may explain the massive shift towards ‘independence’ but the equally significant lean towards ‘EU membership’. 

Sadly, we have also seen rifts appearing in the Christian stance with the usual plethora of end-times Armageddon hopefuls - Christian supremacists of various breeds - and prosperity theology proponents making claims about the EU being inherently evil and the cause of the spread of Islam into Europe.  You have to smile - the principle route for the spread of multiculturalism and other faith groups into Britain was and still is that much-lamented British Commonwealth/Empire, and the EU probably does more to ensure the rights of freedom of worship than most individual nation states.  Having worked for a while in the EU as part of an EU funded consortium of Christian NGOs and social care agencies, I can say with great confidence that I found more support for church-based social action in the corridors of Brussels than I have ever done in religion-phobic modern Britain.

I do not think there is a great deal of profit in endless postmortems; everyone has a view and it will be quite normal to see people backing away from the consequences of their actions.   What is required is a radical rethink about the principles upon which we base our political and social actions, because to think that we can continue to adhere to old philosophies and structures is to ignore the warning we have been dealt.  If the only politics which is engaging the public is one of self-interest or mindless anarchic opposition, then we are truly not just in political but also social meltdown.  My Christian faith impels me to care for individuals.  People matter, whoever they are and wherever they come from or live, and the teaching of Jesus makes it very clear; who is my neighbour? Everyone. 

If politics is ever to re-engage with the so-called forgotten people it has to be at local constitutional level, and its strategy must focus more on the welfare of the population and less on boosting the bank balances of the few.  We have to reject the mantra that you can only look after your people once you have a booming economy because it never quite works that way, does it.  The money somehow never quite finds its way into the hands of the poorest or the most deprived or marginalised.  The European Social Fund existed as a balance which meant that even when economies went silly, or political regimes neglected the neediest in their country, there was still some hope - some access to a lifeline.  That was what social solidarity did; it helped thousands of communities in Britain to survive when the Government of the day was prepared to let them go to the wall.   Well, we have just cut that lifeline – we will need something to replace it if we are not to watch whole communities wither.  There is the opportunity for positivity, there is the start of our expression of values, and I hope that in rediscovering the principles of our faith expressed in local action we can also find the beating heart of progressive socialism.  Who then is my neighbour?  Not a bad place to start I would suggest.


Alan Staff is a CotL member who worked in the NHS for much of his working life, up until 2006 when he moved to Scotland to work for the Church of Scotland. He has since also become CEO for APEX Scotland - a charity working with people with offenses or who are likely to offend. Alan serves on the leadership team at St John's, Linlithgow, and is currently working with the Scottish government on justice policy setting and penal reform. 

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commented 2016-09-07 17:03:18 +0100 · Flag
I’d like to suggest a different perspective on the Brexit vote.

Alan, you asked “What led the huge change in public opinion against a socially-principled EU, and how can we recover our faith-driven political principles?”
I suggest that what public opinion turned against was an increasingly neo-liberal EU. This is the EU that insists that poorer (European) countries benefit when their workers leave for a different country, and richer EU countries benefit when their citizens are undercut by citizens of other countries. In practice what appears to benefit most is companies who exploit non-unionised labour, as we see in Sports Direct, the meat packaging industry and social care (amongst others).
This is also the EU that, in seeking trade deals with America, proposes to lower America’s financial regulation to that of the EU, and lower the EU’s employment and environment regulation to that of the US – rather than raising them.
These are neo-liberal principles, not social ones. These are what many voters rejected when they voted to leave the EU.

You went on to say, “One of the hardest things to understand, when reflecting on the events of the last few weeks, has been the curious way in which history can be turned on its head and rewritten to match the aspirations of a specific group. In a world of greater-than-ever access to knowledge, it is apparent that this rapidly expanding body of information available to all does not always convert into rational thought.”
Given the context of your article, I assume you are referring to Brexit voters (rather than Remain voters) as failing to convert information into rational thought. From a Christian perspective, I am concerned that this has not been expressed in a way that seeks to understand the reasoning of those who boted for Brexit.
There is again an issue of perspective; how one is looking at this and where one is looking from. For example, after the referendum results much was made of the (on average) split between young/old and degree-level/less educated. The perspective commonly portrayed was that young people know better than old people do, and better educated people know better than less educated people do, when deciding what is good for a country.
I would like to suggest a different perspective. On age, perhaps those people who have lived longer and experienced more forms of government were able to use that experience and (on average) come to a different conclusion. Perhaps those people who can remember the time before neo-liberal economics took hold compared that time favourably to our current neo-liberal system, and do not want their children and grandchildren to be exposed to an increasingly neo-liberal EU. Perhaps these people also recall the difference between the Common Market (free movement of goods and services) and the Single Market (also includes free movement of people and capital), and in their experience consider that the Common Market served countries better.
On education, I suggest that part of the reasoning underlying the Brexit vote was demonstrated in Remain voters’ reaction to the educated/less educated split. Many of those ‘less educated’ people are the ones stuck in the low pay/no pay cycle; in deprived areas with limited opportunities for their children; with lower standards of provision in healthcare and education. For years, even decades, these people have felt that their experiences and opinions are being ignored by the ‘better educated’ politicians. When the ‘better educated’ told the ‘less educated’ that they had voted incorrectly, that simply reinforces the perception of a deaf ear.
When the global financial crisis hit, the banks were bailed out with over a trillion pounds. But when it comes to providing social security and enforcing an adequate minimum wage and employment rights, there was no interest. The passing of successive social security cuts effectively told people at the bottom that they were less important than those at the top, and that those at the top would not listen to them.
The EU, as a body perceived to favour deregulation and free movement to the detriment of the people at the bottom, is seen as part of this top echelon who are not listening. It should be no surprise that people voted against this. It certainly should not be a surprise that poor people, when told by rich people that their poverty is good for them, do not believe those rich people.
Certainly, some ‘top’ people (Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith, Nigel Farage) were recommending that we leave the EU. But given that the ‘top’ people who had implemented austerity for the past six years (Cameron and Osborne) were recommending we stay, it is not difficult to consider that some people may have voted out on the grounds that if Cameron and Osborne wanted it, it must be bad for the people at the bottom of society.

In conclusion, I suggest that it is important to listen to and understand the reasons why many people at the bottom of society do not believe that membership of the EU is the best way to promote their welfare. Having listened to their concerns, we should then be asking what these people do want, and then ensure that the national government provides what is required.

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