Society will develop a new kind of servitude which covers the surface of society with a network of complicated rules, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate. It does not tyrannise but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America
I’ll be honest, I voted to Leave but I did not expect us to win. I don’t ‘Begrexit’ I just assumed from listening to the media, my peers and even senior figures in the Church of England that Remain would win the day. Yet I am shocked and saddened both by the reported spike in racism and simultaneously the antagonism that has come about from my largely young and urbanite peers towards those who voted to leave. Theres an almost masochistic mood in the country currently that is revelling in the division, trying to explain away and wallow in our collective discontent. I’m uncomfortable stating my vote publicly, not because I regret the decision but because of the venom it would inevitably invite on myself. It is unmistakable that this vote has exposed very deep and serious fault lines in our society at a time where we are lacking the leadership to act in any decisive manner in any direction.
The thing that I think has shocked everyone is the distinction between the more rural, older generation and younger, urban generation. The vote isn’t as simple as this distinction, but it is noticeable. Yet I was surprised when in the weekend following the vote I travelled to the midlands, through Birmingham and saw an unprecedented amount of Union Jack and St Georges flags flying from homes, businesses and pubs. The atmosphere was palpably different to that of London which was despair bordering on hysteria in places. There is something in this distinction and it was the flag waving of the pubs in particular that stood out to me.
I wonder if the racist sentiment reported in the media is the cruel and violent edge of a ‘blood and soil’ nationalism rooted in the collective loss of community in a lot of the less urban, less individualistic communities of the UK. People feel lost and so cling to the idea of a country as the only thing greater than themselves that they believe in. Nationalism is all we have when our communities are broken apart by a government that at times has seemed positively antagonistic and apathetic towards the majority. This vote was in large part carried by a sense of disenfranchisement on the part of a large swathe of the population (that has rarely voted at all) that has largely been ignored by the movers and shakers in our country for a long time. This post on Brexit by Anna Rowland has some really powerful insights.
Despite collective (cosmopolitan) surprise at the prevalence of such a complex sense of loss and aspiration … there is not much new about this. These are pan-European (now global) trends that Tony Judt, left-wing public intellectual and self-described Euro-pessimist, wrote about two decades ago. He believed that European elites were failing to grasp that the narrative of “Europe” stood increasingly for the winners, the wealthy regions and sub-regions of existing states. The losers were “the European ‘south’, the poor, the linguistically, educationally or culturally disadvantaged, underprivileged, or despised Europeans who don’t live in golden triangles along vanished frontiers.” It turns out much of the post-industrial English North feels rather like the European “south.”
Anna Rowlands, The Fragility of Goodness: Brexit Viewed from the North East
The issue in Britain is a cultural one as large parts of the population have been left behind by a top down, arguably neo-liberal corporatist, approach to both the media and government. One that has subsequently blown up with the ‘abdication’ of David Cameron and the ‘insurrection’ against Jeremy Corbyn, with no real alternatives on offer and both major parties in uproar. We are told what our country stands for, by various talking heads, but we do not really know what it stands for. Many people identify with particular ideas or subcultures more than nations today. So when we are asked to vote in such a way that is likely to define our nation in such a dramatic fashion, something so many think so little about generally, these ideological distinctions have erupted in ugly ways.
I do not know what the future holds, but I worry that this referendum is a watershed moment when we realise that our country doesn’t have a core anymore. Its been carved out, deconstructed and hollowed, in its place we have tried to manufacture something different along the ideological lines of those with power. Like an X-Factor winner in the hands of Simon Cowell. We’re a nation of strangers scowling at each other across any number of divides. Nationhood is an illusion, we are only individuals now who happen to share an abstract political union on a patch of earth we bear no connection to. At best we have our tribes. Maybe society was always like this? I doubt it, but it feels particularly appropriate now. I fear that Democracy is in danger as a result from both sides of this referendum.
As a Christian I can take comfort that God is sovereign irrespective of our present circumstances, that I am a participant in the ‘Kingdom of God’ more so than the ‘United Kingdom’. I pray the Church and its formal representatives doesn’t get sucked into partisanship and that we can disagree amicably within the church if we do so. More so I am grateful that many Christians I know personally have been some of the most gracious towards those who have voted differently to themselves despite the abuse they might of received at the hands of the enraged or emboldened elsewhere. I feel now more than ever that the church needs to rediscover what it means to make a public declaration of faith as a source of unity. Christianity is a public truth that was once a part of our national Character and it might one day be so again as a unity which can curb the excesses and dangers of nationalism and simultaneously bind us to an identity larger than any nation (or indeed anything else on this earth).