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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in Northumberland. I have been a parish priest, theological educator and cathedral precentor; then Dean of Sheffield 1995-2003 and Dean of Durham 2003-2015.**** I blog on faith, society, church matters, the North East, European issues, the arts, travel and anything else that intrigues.**** My main blog is at http://northernwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.**** My sermons and addresses are at: http://northernambo.blogspot.com.**** Blogs during my time as Dean of Durham: http://decanalwoolgatherer.blogspot.com.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Which Way Will It Go? The Fears of a Remainer

Just over a week to go and I admit it: I am despondent about the Referendum. I wish I could feel more confident that the UK will vote to stay on the path of togetherness, integration and community-mindedness as a leading member of the European Union. I wish I could believe that British people are too sensible to fall for the nostalgic but dangerous illusion that we can go it alone in the modern world. I wish I could believe that if nothing else persuaded us, at least enlightened self-interest would prompt us into voting Remain.

However, I have a real fear of what we shall wake up to on the morning of St John the Baptist's Day. "We are 10 days away from making a terrible mistake" writes Matthew d'Ancona in The Guardian. He is right. We are walking on the edge of a cliff. Just a gentle nudge in the wrong direction will be enough to send us over. It could be thanks to the laughing buffoonery of a blond politician, the fluent syllogisms of a lawyer attired in a robe of high office, or the sweet reasonableness of a quiet man who never raises his voice. Just turn and look at the view, they entice us. Get a little closer so you can peer over the edge and take in how sublime the prospect is. Go on. See for yourself. It's beautiful. It's noble. It's to be desired. It's where your destiny lies. Surely it's worth the leap into the lovely fresh, clean, infinitely spacious air!

You'll have picked up the allusions to the Garden of Eden and the gospel story of Jesus in the wilderness. My point is that temptation, or "testing" to put it more accurately, rarely comes as a binary choice to do the wrong thing as opposed to what is self-evidently right. In both those biblical narratives, discerning right and wrong, good and evil, better and worse was a matter of considerable subtlety. That bears out our human experience of making choices. It's usually pretty hard, and what is obvious with hindsight is often opaque at the time. We always wish it could be simpler. 

How much more difficult it is when it comes to collective political decisions. How do we really know what's for the good when it comes to putting a cross in one of those two boxes in a few days' time? Richard Dawkins, with whom I don't always agree, said recently that he was appalled to be given the responsibility of making this decision about the EU. He said in effect: I am a professional in my field. I don't expect the public to have the grasp of the immense complexities of biological science. Why should the Government expect me, a lay citizen, to understand the immense complexities of political science? That's what we elect MPs for. How on earth can I cast my vote for or against the EU on the basis of real knowledge and understanding?

Yet that's precisely what most of us think we do know. The lack of self-doubt in the increasingly shrill rhetoric of this campaign is breathtaking. (For all I know, I may have contributed to it myself.) I've tried to listen to and learn from the arguments of serious Brexiters I respect like Giles Fraser, Gisela Stuart and Frank Field. I've been listening to IDS on the radio and he sounds plausible. But I've never seriously wavered in my belief that we should stay in the European Union. It's gone beyond the marshalling of facts and the logic of arguments. It feels more like an article of faith, just as my being British and belonging to the political union we call the United Kingdom does. And yes, my Christian Faith does have a lot to do with it, as well as my personal history and identity. I've written about all these things in a score of earlier blogs on this site. 

But if that's how it feels to me, that's also how it will feel to millions of other people on both sides of the debate. There is a quasi-religious fervour that permeates a lot of the discourse at the moment. I can see that it's dangerous for any of us to be intoxicated by our own arguments, whether we are conviction Europhiles or conviction Brexiters. I want humbly to say that I hope I could be persuaded that I'm wrong. Oliver Cromwell's words often haunt me in this as in other dilemmas I face: "I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you could be mistaken".  

The social psychology of decision-making comes into things of course. The views we hold have a lot to do with the company we keep. What do our families, friends, work colleagues, organisations we belong to, say about it? Or the newspapers we read, or our social media contacts? So yes, I'm comforted that all the Primates of all four British Anglican provinces have declared for Remain, so that while the churches themselves have maintained a neutral stance, their leaders have made their personal positions clear. The same goes for the vast majority of economists, health professionals, academics, educators, scientists, artists.... The list goes on and on. It could be group-think on a massive scale. But if I have learned to trust these voices in other departments of life, why would I not trust them now? 

That's all very well. I've no doubt at all that the intellectual argument has been won by Remain. The case for EU membership rests on many different premises, all of them by now stress-tested ad nauseam. But they are not winning the Referendum - that's clear too. I'd expected StrongerIn to be well ahead in the opinion polls by now. But that's not happening. If anything, the trend is in the other direction. You'd have thought the electorate would have seen through the falsehoods, discredited numbers, political naïveté, thinly disguised racism (let's kindly call it xenophobia for now) and sheer illogic demonstrated by some of the loudest Brexit campaigners. 

Which says to me: our relationship with the EU is not going to be decided by cogent argument and unassailable facts. It's much more a matter of visceral feeling, of an unacknowledged atavistic national attitude that has long sought the light of day. In the UK's collective unconscious, the "idea" of Europe is not a powerfully motivating factor as it is in some other countries. I'm one of those who thinks of myself as "European" and would gladly say so on formal application forms if it were an option. But I'm in a minority. It's nationhood that is seen as the primary claim on our loyalty. And given Leavers' worries about sovereignty, immigration, security and patrolling our borders, it may just lose us the Referendum.

Nil desperandum! There is still time for the tide to change. The public mood can still shift. But while we hope and pray for the best, we must prepare for the worst. If we Remainers have to face our own Project Fear on the day after the Referendum, let us at least plan to maintain an outward-looking global perspective and help our nation not to lose its historic identity in a narrow and ultimately fatal insularity. Come what may, we shall continue to be good Europeans. We shall help build societies where we are kind to strangers and embrace people who are different from us. We shall do all we can to save our planet for our children's children. We shall go on showing solidarity with the poor and the needy, and seeking the welfare not just of our own selves but of all humanity. 

This is what it means to love our neighbour. It's why we believed in the European Union in the first place. It's why I shall vote Remain with all the conviction I can muster.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, both sides are lying, and both sides are slagging the other off. Very edifying. I'm afraid I may well be voting to stay simply because I don't want Boris as Prime Minister. Do you think Ladbrokes would give me good odds? Boris in no10 by Christmas?
    Most people vote for anything on the basis of ignorance. Like the lass at work who hadn't even realised that there had been a referendum on Scottish independence. Many will believe foreigners are taking their jobs or their homes. They don't believe the arguments that that ain't so. Maybe we can hope that an awful lot of people with those opinions won't vote?
    What I do think we can be hopeful about, is I think we can cope which ever way it goes. I'm in the lower end of income, so more austerity doesn't appeal. But in the longer term, I guess we will survive. It may well affect the younger members of my family. Neither of my sons have jobs in their fields. Austerity will put that off for even longer. My nephew lives in Denmark. He might well have to move back to the UK, and he could, I suppose, lose his job over that. But we shall see. My guess is, the rich, and the Sun readers will vote out. Poor Guardian readers will vote in! In the end, there could actually be a great deal of indifference. At least in ten days I can stop muting half the news.