Wednesday, 30 March 2016

The Referendum: in defence of campaigning with conviction

In the 1980s the broadcaster Bernard Levin wrote a booked called Enthusiasms. It gave him an excuse to write about all the things he loved in life: music, landscapes, food, cities, books, friends... In it he writes: "To be passionate in a cause provokes widespread embarrassment...[which is] to set off the squealing and tittering of those whose motto is 'surtout, Messieurs, point de zèle'."

In today's Guardian*, Jackie Ashley laments the lack of passion on the part of those campaigning to keep the UK in the European Union. She accuses them (us) of being lacklustre, taking our cue from a Prime Minister who has famously said that he doesn't "love Brussels". "The repetition of the very vague 'safer in' message isn't cutting through. It's too bland; frankly too boring." 

She is not wholly correct, but right enough. The Remain message has largely fallen into the trap set for it at the Brussels summit (how long ago that seems). The renegotiation of the UK's membership was hailed as a game-changing triumph, but of course its scope was pretty narrow. All along the message of the UK's special status was: "what's best for Britain, what's best for you the voter". That was an invitation to pander to self-interest. And those have largely been the rules of engagement in this campaign: will we be better or worse off as a result of Brexit? will our global trading position, our employment prospects, the security of our borders be disadvantaged one way of the other? The discourse has been largely utilitarian and pragmatic. What's been lacking is real conviction that the EU project could be a Good Thing with ideals that are worth believing in for their own sake. 

This very English (rather than Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish) way of thinking is not altogether unworthy: self-interest is natural enough, and best of all when it is enlightened and not merely self-serving. The PM's issues are important and aren't to be dismissed as of no consequence. We all know that there is a lot wrong with the EU. But a utilitarian politics can lack vision and ambition. Laodicean luke-warmness doesn't touch the imagination or fire the soul; it doesn't stimulate our aspiration to help build a better world. It doesn't have anything to say about the huge challenges that face the human race such as climate change, terrorism, peace-making and the global economy. It doesn't raise questions about governance and democratic participation. And it risks falling at the first hurdle for people of faith which is: how shall we build a more compassionate and socially just world where we ask "who is my neighbour?" - or, as Jesus turns it round in the Parable of the Good Samaritan, "to whom am I required to be a good neighbour?"

Well, I am one of those who wants to campaign for Remain with conviction and, yes, enthusiasm. It's partly a political and cultural conviction that I have. For as long as I've been alive, I've felt European in my bones. I owe a lot of it to my German-born mother and grandmother who had both suffered under the Nazis, and instilled in me a mistrust of thinking merely nationally about my identity. They taught me to love Bach and Rembrandt and Voltaire and Dante as much as Virgil and Shakespeare because they all belonged to my birthright. They encouraged me to learn foreign languages. They helped me travel and see the world. So now, when I am in continental Europe, I feel virtually as at home as I do in my native country. Because that's what it is to me, my native country. I'm proud that my passport has European Union emblazoned on the floppy Burgundy cover. I don't want my European identity to be stolen from me against my will.

But the other side of my conviction about the EU is related to my Christian faith. Religious belief is not just a matter of cognitive assent. The heart matters as much as the head. I am a Christian because I have been touched by something that is bigger than I am, that has transformative, life-changing power. Therefore, what flows out of my Christianity - its intellectual, ethical, social and political consequences - is also a matter of conviction. I believe we should do the right thing, or the best thing, out of loyalty to our faith. And in the case of the EU, that means for me the appeal to our nation to participate for the sake of the common good, take a lead in a community of peoples whose aim is the betterment of life for its members. This includes solidarity with the disempowered, voiceless and needy. It includes our resolve to be part of a family whose achievements in peace-seeking, reconciliation and environmental change have given real hope that together some inroads against these challenges can be made. And it has to be together. To revert to pragmatism, there's no room in today's world for nations to go it alone when the threats we face cross every national frontier. We can't afford to be without the EU and other alliances that will help safeguard us all. 

Our movement "Christians for Europe" believes that the tag #StrongerIn reflects not a depressing preoccupation with self-preservation so much as what the EU as a family of peoples can become, and the contribution our nation can make to the EU. It's heartening to be told by our EU partners that our country is the second most influential member of the Union after Germany. We shouldn't underestimate what our membership means to them, and the possibly catastrophic effects a #Brexit might lead to across the continent, maybe its eventual dissolution. The ill-feeling and resentment would last for decades. But Britain is famed for its fairness, its neighbourliness, its care of those who most need help, its kindness, its breadth of outlook, its tolerance and generosity of spirit. And its perseverance in not walking out on commitments when things get tough. These are virtues we can be proud of because they can and do make a real difference to our friends with whom we share our common European home. I don't think it's a coincidence that the Britain that has nurtured these qualities is an historically Christian nation.

What are the rewards for the UK if we vote #Remain, as I hope we do? I won't rehearse the material or cultural benefits, though I think they are real enough. No, for me, as an IN-thusiast, the best reward will be to think that we are committed to being a leading player in a unique family of nations. It will be the recognition that we have as much to give as to receive. It will be the reassurance that we the British people have once again understood what is required of us as respected players on the world stage. It will be a sense of gratitude that once again, we have found it in ourselves to love our neighbour.

That's my fervent prayer. Hence my determination to do what I can to support #Remain. Yeats sounds a warning note in his poem "The Second Coming": "The best lack all conviction, while the worst / are filled with passionate intensity." As to the first, we must raise our game and learn from the best Brexiteers how conviction should play a part in what we are doing. As to the second, we must eschew sloganising, vacuous rhetoric and demonising those who differ from us, and try to cultivate, not passionate intensity but an intelligence and wisdom that is both passionate yet courteous. We need good information and reliable evidence. We need rigorous argument. But let them be undergirded by conviction. Let's not be afraid to campaign not just in prose but in poetry. Brexit doesn't have all the best tunes. We don't have to commit the mortal sin of being boring.

Alors mes amis. Bon courage! Et beaucoup de zèle svp! 


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