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

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

The Benefits of Brexit

Yes, you read that correctly. I want to write about the benefits of Brexit. It may be news to you that there could be any. Or at least, that I might imagine so. Am I losing my head?

I don't think so. For the avoidance of doubt, I've not changed my mind about Brexit. I believe it to be a disastrous decision for the United Kingdom. If you've been following this blog, you'll know that I've rehearsed the arguments ad nauseam. To me, it makes no sense either economically or politically. It cuts across the idea that I imagined was becoming mainstream opinion, that we are better off together than alone, that a world in which we collaborate to tackle the threats we face is more likely to be one in which we all live more safely and at peace with one another, care more effectively for the poor and vulnerable, share our resources in combating the climate emergency, and have more likelihood of flourishing. Pooling our sovereignty gives us leverage to achieve what is beyond the reach of any of our peoples separately. To me as a Christian, this comes down to loving our neighbour as ourselves. The best future for our world is based on relationships and community, not on isolation and self-interest.

I've not changed my mind about any of this. If anything, I believe in these (to me) self-evident benefits of EU membership more strongly than I ever did, the more I listen to the spurious arguments against them.

It's these very arguments, in fact, that lead me to think that Brexit could bring benefits after all. I have two in mind. The lesser benefit would be for the UK finally to rid the EU of the burden we have become to it. When you are a thorn in someone else's side, the kindest thing to do is to remove yourself from a relationship that is giving the other party so much grief. We don't deserve the longsuffering patience our European friends have shown to us British since 2015. And they don't need, and never needed, our foot-dragging, curmudgeonly, resentful attitude towards them as the EEC and then the EU, our reluctance ever to become fully-fledged Europeans who pull our weight in this family of nations.

The greater benefit would be that Brexit, hard or soft, would provide a response to David Cameron's endlessly repeated mantra before the referendum campaign, when he tried to renegotiate the UK's EU membership. "What's in it for Britain?" he kept asking, "What's in it for us?"

Here's my answer. What Brexit would (will?) achieve is quite simply to make it clear beyond any doubt that the UK has now become a very ordinary, very average, unexceptional middleweight nation. It no longer has a special role in the world, or at least a role that's any more special than any other nation. It has lost any credible claim to exceptionalism. It is one nation among many, better than some, not as good as others, a middling kind of power in global politics and economic strength that can expect to be overtaken in terms of influence, wealth and political clout by a dozen other nations in the next few decades.

Why would this be a benefit to Britain?

Simply because it would require us to pursue a more modest way of being in the world. From being a significant world power with enormous moral influence and reach across the globe, and with a strong sense of a unique British destiny, we would have to become used to a less exalted, more humble role such as we have not been had since at least the eighteenth century. We would have to learn to know our place.

All this would pose something of a spiritual and moral crisis for the United Kingdom. For if we were to learn true humility, it would require us as a nation to become a great deal more self-aware, more spiritually and emotionally intelligent, than we have been during this decade. It has been a national embarrassment to watch ourselves behaving as if we were suffering from some kind of corporate psychotic episode, a collective nervous breakdown. It's been instructive, if cruel, to read the commentary on Brexit in the overseas media, and see ourselves as others see us. We have become a source of bafflement even to our allies, and of scornful ridicule to our enemies. Brexit has already demonstrated its capacity to humble us in the sight of others. And this can only increase as the clock ticks down towards Hallowe'en and, as seems increasingly likely, we crash out of the European Unon without a deal.

The biblical and classical stories of what we tend to call a "fall" are essentially about how peoples, nations and individuals have to face the truth about themselves as a result of some tragic flaw or misplaced hubris, when grasp exceeds reach and we are toppled from some place of privilege or pride. This seems to me to be the crisis we are reaching in Britain. A crisis is literally a "judgment", and implicit in the idea of "fall" is that of nemesis, just deserts that are reaped not as a result of some external intervention but because of what we do to ourselves through our own presumption, how decisions and their consequences draw out of ourselves a hitherto unguessed potential for self-harm if not self-destruction.

In the case of Brexit, I think we can ascribe a good deal of this to the naked self-interest (not to say self-importance) that has dominated the EU debate for years. Instead of asking how our membership could benefit other members of the Union, all that has seemed to matter to us has been our own profit. And as the gospel says, if we strive to gain the whole world, we put at risk our own soul. This, I fear, is the condition Britain is reaching, may already have reached. Brexit has driven us to the brink of spiritual, ethical and moral bankruptcy. Appeals to collaborate for the sake of social justice, peace-making, security, the environment and the welfare of the most needy members of our society fall on increasingly deaf ears. The clamour is "do or die", Brexit at all costs, deal or no deal. If ever a nation was suffering a nervous breakdown that clouded judgment and common sense, this is it.

Which is why I'm reluctantly coming to the view that Brexit may actually be necessary if we are to come to our senses and be healed of this craziness. Could it be that to learn to see ourselves as a rather ordinary offshore island could be good for the national psyche? Could it be that this fall from perceived privilege could give us back our soul?  Could it be that the sheer shock of Brexit teaches us lessons we are incapable of learning in any other way. that it could bring us to our senses? I'm thinking of the prodigal son who lost everything in his far country, and only then began to find himself again and make the long journey home.

"He that is down need fear no fall; he that is low no pride" wrote John Bunyan in Pilgrim's Progress. I wonder what this quintessentially English writer would say to the Britain of the twenty-first century. I think he would tell us that humility is the first lesson we need to learn if we are to become truly wise and, in any sense that ultimately matters, truly great in our moral stature and spiritual character. St Benedict, patron saint of Europe, says the same which is why he devotes so much space to humility in his Rule. It's a principle we have forgotten in the shrill politics of our time. If "righteousness exalts a nation", then humility is the first step to it.

I'm resigned to Brexit now. I shall continue to resist it by any means possible, especially in its no-deal incarnation. But in my waters, I don't believe it can be avoided. I won't deny that I feel unutterably despondent about the prospect of waking up on All Saints Day no longer a citizen of the European Union. But something in me says that this could be a profoundly important moment in the history of our nation. If, after 1 November, we begin to experience buyer's remorse and ask ourselves, as I think we are likely to, "how on earth could we have committed such a foolish act?", it could lead to a new seriousness in public life that restored truth-seeking to the place it ought to have occupied all along. It could be a kind of conversio.

If that in turn helped foster a more realistic self-understanding on the part of the nation, a more sober perception of our place in the world, an altogether more humble view of ourselves and our destiny, that would have to be a good thing, wouldn't it? And if we were to find ourselves more free of our historic ambitions for power, hegemony, growth, influence and wealth, it might just bring about our capacity to become the best selves we have it within us to be. It would put us back on the path of healing and reconciliation after years of bitter division, help us be at ease with ourselves once again. That would be a vocation worth pursuing. We might well be a sadder nation, but I think we would be a better and a wiser one.

The hectoring, relentlessly upbeat Brexit rhetoric of Boris Johnson and his government doesn't encourage me to think that this will happen very soon. But in the longer term, under a leadership that is less in thrall to romantic notions of past greatness, and more realistic in scanning horizons and responding intelligently to events, change might be possible. And then we shall need to apologise - to our European neighbours whose friendship and trust we have abused, and to the people of Scotland and Ireland in particular who will find it hard to forgive the English for the forces of disintegration that we have unleashed. Indeed, saying sorry and meaning it is always important evidence that we have learned from our mistakes and can begin to tell the truth about ourselves once more.

Which is what humility, recognising our ordinariness and knowing our place are all about.


  1. This would be more positive if the whole Union had chosen its fate.
    The image of a nation learning its place in the world is too gentle when we think about the resentment and seeds for new conflict this will create in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.

  2. An excellent read Michael - sadly, however, the results of Brexit will be desperately painful

  3. From Phil Gardner

    We must always keep the door open for the possibility that people will turn around and change their attitudes and behaviour – but for that to happen I think we need someone of stature, wisdom and vision. Where is such a person in our present political or spiritual landscape?

    Sadly, the most likely scenario seems to me to be that when the severe economic consequences of a no-deal Brexit bite hard, the divisions and resentment in the UK will get even worse, and populist extreme-right parties will take advantage of it – I mean even more extreme than the present populist administration. Without meaning to (I hope), successive governments have pandered to the right and thereby legitimized its toxic nationalist xenophobic agenda, making the rise of neo-fascism easier and easier.

  4. This is a brilliant article, beautifully constructed and containing so much wisdom. As a Christian remainer long concerned that the great sin of the British has been arrogance I feel the appraisal is right on target. I am wondering how to pursude some of my diehard conservative Christian friends to read it.

  5. Having returned to the UK after working in South Africa for many years I am totally amazed at the lack of investment and improvements to the infrastructure of the country. When I left we were discussing a third runway at Heathrow - fifty years later it's still under discussion. Where I live there was a double track rail service which has now been reduced to a single line.
    Everywhere I see a lack of maintenance, of improvement and a total lack of forward looking joined up thinking. The country is basically a basket case and will reap the reward it deserves for this self destructive move to exit the EU. If our MEPs had done their jobs in Brussels then we might have avoided this catastrophe - of course people like Farage will make sure they benefit financially from it. As will I - my pension funds are not linked to sterling so everytime the pound falls my pension goes up. Ironic since I voted remain.

  6. Thank you for this post. I was deeply moved.