A Few Thoughts on Brexit.
Given the political turmoil gripping the British nation at the moment, I thought I would set down a few thoughts that have been buzzing around my head in the last few weeks.
- The Perspective of Eternity.
What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
I said in my sermon that had Paul been writing to the British church of 2018 he may have added ‘Those who voted Leave should live as if they voted Remain; those who voted Remain, as if they voted Leave.’ This is certainly not my instinctive reaction to the various Brexit related news items I consume but I think it is almost certainly the correct application of what the Apostle says. What I mean is this: even if the worst nightmares of either side come to pass, whether Britain leaves the EU without a deal and an economic catastrophe that exceeds even the most fevered imagination in the Bank of England engulfs our nation; whether Britain is forced to become a kind of vassal state of the EU, with regulations imposed on it without any freedom to oppose or amend the laws of our land or whether Britain has to go, cap in hand to the EU, it morale and constitution broken by the attempt to leave, and ask to re-join a bureaucratic superstate, the eternal verities of the Gospel will remain undimmed in their truth. The Lord Jesus will still be on his throne, today will still be the day of salvation, the Lord’s will will still be done in heaven and, one day, on earth. Neither Brexit, nor the EU, nor even the Northern Irish backstop can change anything upon which our eternal future depends. We should see the end of days, apocalyptic feel around the Brexit debate for what it is, a moment of froth and foam on the crest of the great wave of God’s justice and salvation breaking upon time’s shore.
- The Sweetness of Liberty.
Nevertheless, equanimity should never be confused with apathy. We will have to live under one political system or another and it matters what kind it is. What, then, should Christian’s desire be for the outcome of the Brexit process? Last Christmas, I was very generously given the 3-volume set of Francis Turretin’s ‘Institutes of Elentic Theology’, one of the great, perhaps the greatest, Reformed theologian of the seventeenth century. I was struck that Christmas Day, by what Turretin wrote in his preface dedicating the work to the council of his home city, Geneva. Geneva, he says, has had many blessings ‘yet there are two illustrious above the others which commend its dignity: religion, than which nothing is more holy, and liberty, than which nothing is sweeter.’ We might not be surprised that Turretin, a theologian, prized true religion, but that he esteemed liberty so highly is notable. Liberty, of course, is not the absence of law. Nor is it the, always spurious, claim that the state can remove any obstacle to happiness from the citizen’s path. Rather, liberty consists in just laws equitably applied. It is the freedom to do good, ‘that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness’ as Paul puts it in 1 Timothy 2:2. It is this freedom that Turretin valued so highly and, Paul says, the end to which our prayers for those in authority should be directed. Thus, whatever the end result of the current constitutional wrangles, we should pray that they should serve the cause of liberty.
It is worth noting in passing at this point that liberty and democracy are not the same thing. Democracy has developed in this country to preserve and maintain liberty because democracy curtails the power of the executive and holds it to account. Yet democracy itself can be a form of tyranny, as the will of the majority is imposed unjustly upon the minority. Anyone who has read Thucydides account of Athenian democracy during the Peloponnesian Wars will know democracy can become the rule of the mob. The Christian argument for democracy is not vox populi vox dei, the voice of the people is the voice of God, but that democratic accountability restraints the power of the executive and increases the chances of liberty for all. It is, therefore, crucial that whatever legal structures emerge after the UK leaves the EU are responsive and accountable to the wishes of those that live under them.
- The Limits of Economics.
One of the most notable and regrettable aspects of the Brexit discussion is that the whole debate has been dominated by the question of economics. While it is true that the Bible affirms that constitutional questions do have an economic component and that just rulers should lead to prosperity, constitutional questions cannot be reduced simply to the economic. Throughout history, men and women have sacrificed comfort, wealth and even their lives for the sake of their national identity. This is because nationhood is ineradicably woven into human identity, hence the table of nations in Genesis 10. Human beings are not merely economic units making rational choices to maximize their economic well-being, but have identities shaped by a complex web of history, geography, community, ritual, tradition and worship. To make, therefore, an argument for any constitutional arrangement on purely economic grounds is to fall prey to the idolatry of wealth. A biblical anthropology should acknowledge the role of economics in shaping constitutional arrangements but also speak to a fuller, broader, more holistic anthropology. The problem is that contemporary politics has lost the ability to speak in these terms. We have fallen prey to a truncated view of humanity that sees every problem as economically driven (how many analyses have you read of Brexit that have rooted the reason for the vote to leave in falling living standards?) Understanding the problem as purely economic means that the solutions proposed are similarly narrowly focussed.
Indeed, one of the problems that the EU faces is that economics is insufficient as the centrepiece of its project of European integration. The Labour peer, Maurice Glasman explains,
The vision pursued by the founders of the EU was one of economic self-interest, (subsidies, protection and investment) and lofty aspiration, (peace, prosperity and justice). It was predicated on a Europe without borders where mutual economic interests would lead to perpetual peace. A soft Kantian Marxism underpinned the European Union from the start, in which economic interests and a legal order would displace local institutions and national politics.
The EU was designed as a supra-national engine of prosperity that would ensure that the national divisions that had caused so much bloodshed in the first half of the twentieth century would never be repeated. The reasoning was that the dismantling of trade barriers, beginning with tariffs but eventually currencies and borders, would create enough economic growth to inoculate Europe from the disease of nationalism. The architects of the European Union were, as Glasman puts it, ‘economists who shared an orientation towards thinking in terms of undifferentiated space with no history.’ Again, this represents a truncated anthropology, but of a slightly different kind to the one above. Economics was not so much the goal of the European Union but the means, the means that would bring the telos of continental peace. Yet, as the theologian Oliver O’Donovan argues in his book Ways of Judgement, peoples, that is nations, are not formed solely by economic relations but, ‘the use of a language, the observance of a religion, beliefs that are accepted as premises for discussion among strangers, a mythology, a literature…’ A sense of nationhood must be prior to the establishment of a political union, ‘Political authority does not “make” a people, O’Donovan argues, ‘it “finds” it.’ The danger of the European Union is that it does not ‘accord with the way the member-peoples actually conceive their practical engagements.’ This is because, as we have seen, the economic relations that are the essence of the European Union are not sufficient to create nationhood. As O’Donovan notes, ‘when a disease strikes the cattle, each state acts by itself and for itself.’
If the UK and the EU are to succeed, both must move beyond the question of economic loss and gain and ask, what does it mean to be a nation? And that question will require asking the fundamental question, what does it mean to be human?
- The necessity of virtue.
In the current crisis it is not uncommon to hear people lament the quality of our leaders comparing them unfavourably to those of a previous generation. Whether that is fair or not, what is notable is that everyone wants Britain to have leaders who possess virtue. The virtue of wisdom, the virtue of integrity, the virtue of courage, the virtue of compassion. Some may claim that we live in an age of moral relativism, but it remains true that presenting oneself as a foolish, lying, heartless coward is rarely politically successful. The recent scandals that have affected journalism, the police, social services, even our hospitals, have revealed an absence of, and a hunger for, virtue. But the question is, how do we, as a nation, produce it?
I have been inching my way through Augustine’s great work City of God where he defends Christians from the charge that they were to blame for the disaster of the fall of Rome because they neglected the worship of the pagan gods. Towards the end of Book II, Augustine makes the point that the finest Roman writers argue that what really makes any people great is not its material or military success but its virtue. That being the case, Augustine argues, when did the Roman gods ever do anything to promote the virtue upon which society depends? He writes,
Virtue is necessary for society but the Romans gods were never concerned with society’s virtue, how then can society’s welfare depend upon the gods?
Our current situation is similar. We are all agreed that we require virtue as a society but the things that our society holds as its highest values, self-expression and economic prosperity, transparently do not produce the virtue that we need. The necessity and the absence of virtue is a pressing social problem and all the PSHE lessons in the world will not succeed in producing it. Brexit is, for better or worse, a moment of national self-reflection. It has forced us to grapple with who we are and what we want. Can we have the society we want if expressive individualism is our highest value? Can consumerism and hedonism produce the kind of self-denial and self-sacrifice necessary to produce peaceful and welcoming communities? If it forces us to reflect on how we produce the virtue that our political system and our communities need, then Brexit may present a window of opportunity to speak to our nation once again of the Gospel of Jesus Christ which produces a people who ‘eager to do what is good.’ (Titus 2:14)