Referendum reflections

euLike many people I was disappointed at the result of the UK referendum. I had wanted the UK to remain part of a Europe which over the decades was part of a world I felt I belonged to. The arguments against staying in the EU became increasingly, to my mind, shrill. The most absurd one was the claim that £100 million a week would be released for the National Health Service, once we stopped paying anything into the EU budget. Spending public money is a political decision taken after a great deal of careful thought. No one today has the right to make promises of behalf of politicians of the future how the national budget is to be allocated.

I am anxious not to allow this blog to become a political rant. But there are issues that I see as pertinent to our blog’s concerns in what happened on the 23rd June. Many commentators have noted that the vote to leave the EU had to do with, in part, a protest vote on the part of people who have been left behind by the forces of globalism – the unemployed, the disabled and those who fall outside the orbit of what many would describe as ‘successful’ lives in the eyes of others. Chris is often reminding us of this so-called ‘underclass’. One description of this group would be to refer to the fact that many in this category feel they have no real stake in the world of property ownership and accumulated wealth. This is counted of great importance to the capitalist value system of the West. Because this section of the population contributes less to the pot of material wealth that makes our capitalist system work, they are often side-lined or ignored by politicians. Traditionally the least wealthy and exploited sections of society have been supporters of the UK Labour party. This link has often been taken for granted by Labour politicians. They like their Tory opponents have also been sucked into the need to grapple with the existence of the wealth creating capitalist system and making it work successfully. Thus large numbers of people in our country have been left outside the political system and their voices have had little possibility of being heard by those in power.

The Referendum question was whether we as a nation want to stay in or leave the European community. The question was heard in a whole variety of different ways by different groups of people. Some judged the question on entirely rational grounds as an argument about whether the nation would prosper more within Europe or not. Others including the group I have described above saw the vote as an opportunity to express their displeasure at a system supported by politicians of every type and which seemed to have little to offer to them. For many people low wages, poverty of housing and ill-health caused by stress have been a constant reality. This struggle against poverty is unrelenting and draining. At the same time the sight of politicians and celebrities effortlessly, or so it seems, increasing their wealth and ability to spend enormous sums creates a deep visceral anger in those who have little or nothing.

In the Britain of my youth there was a real feeling that, although some people were rich, most people, middle and working class, were part of the same society. Nobody earned vast sums of money and GPs, to take one example, were paid modestly. The years after the end of the Second War were a time when it could be said that we were all in it together. It may not have been completely true but there was a far greater sense of social solidarity rooted in the common memory of together getting through the hardships of war. The real change seems to have taken place after around 1970. That was when the wages of an elite group, from bankers to industrial chiefs, started to take off. This is the thesis of a book that I read a year ago which suggested that an unequal society creates enormous unhappiness and stress to everyone. Once the pay of a few becomes disproportionate to what the bulk of working people earn, there is a reaction. The people at the bottom of the pile finding it difficult to articulate their sense of social exclusion in words, nevertheless have strong feelings of rage, resentment and bitterness towards anyone or anything they can blame for their struggling state. The 1% group, those who earn vast sums of money and have done well out of a massive increase of wealth are clearly in favour of a system which the European experiment favours. These are going to be the first targets of resentment on the part of the less well-off. Another target of dislike will be any immigrants who, correctly or not, are perceived as taking British jobs and pushing down wages. These two perceptions on the part of large numbers of our citizens will, if we had really thought about it, have made Brexit a highly likely outcome. The poor and the disadvantaged have for some time turned into the disenfranchised because their voice is no longer heard by politicians. This unheard sector of our population had wanted desperately to be listened to and heard by society as a whole and the only way they felt their feelings of anger at the system could be heard was to vote against the EU. No one was able to explain to them that their lives had in any way been improved because of it over the past twenty or thirty years.

Chris my blog partner has a lot to say on the topic of the Church also failing to listen to the poor in our society. The few churches that do appear to appeal to the disenfranchised are churches that offer, as I would put it, candy floss religion which does little to improve the lot of the poor or that of their communities. What is needed of course is a new political deal that seeks to improve housing, health and education. The church, if it were properly listening to the poorest, would be saying that to government on behalf of these communities. Instead of this the Church of England is fighting internal battles over the status of ‘gay marriage’. At this point we find ourselves talking about the complete opposite of what we normally address, the abuse of power in the church; we are talking about the empowerment of people with the help of churches who want to better the lives of those in their communities. We have spoken a lot about abuses of power in the Church, institutional and individual, and the ways that are needed to counter that abuse. But as I reflect on the aftermath of the Referendum of 2016, I see an even more reliable way to counter the misuse of power in the church. It is for the church to prioritise the idea of service and empowerment and put it at the heart of ministry. It is important to talk about power abuse to show that we understand it as a problem but then we need to go on to say how ministers of all the churches above all be taught to empower others. This, I believe, is the heart of ministry. If this empowerment, political, spiritual, social and personal, started to be a reality as well as a priority in churches up and down the land and people could see it, then power abuse would indeed wither on the vine. Jesus spoke about being among his followers as one who serves. May this be a reality for all in positions of leadership in the church. To misquote John’s epistle. There is no room for abuse in true service and empowerment. Perfect service and empowerment casts out abuse.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

9 thoughts on “Referendum reflections

  1. Oh, well done, Stephen. Absolutely spot on, and so many good points. I may come back to a few over the next few days, as is my wont, but a brilliant and thoughtful post.
    I think the vote was partly to do with many years of saying that such and such is the fault of the EU, as well. Plus the racial prejudice, because the people who are badly educated (my hobby horse) and disenfranchised (cause and effect in my view) are Conservative in outlook, but Labour voting! So they didn’t have to vote Labour in this case. The cases of people being abused have gone up. And many people seem to think we’ve already left. It’s very sad.

  2. I voted to leave. Not because I am a member of any underclass, except if you consider ordinary middle class working people to be an underclass. I am not inarticulate, unintelligent, uneducated, not even moronic, although I will admit to being, apparently, 2% Neanderthal (lower than many). I am an immigrant to the UK and have mixed race family (black, white and mainland European). I did not spitefully, in my dotage, vote for the destruction of life on this planet so my children and grandchildren would have to suffer hardship and want the rest of their days.
    The reason I voted to leave was ultimately as a response to the sinister, threatening, bullying noises coming from the EU if we should dare to do so. Now, in the aftermath, listening to the threats and the vitriol pouring our way from our erstwhile ‘comrades’ in the European Parliament – calls to punish us and to act quickly before anybody else throws off the shackles of this vile and corrupt organisation via a legitimate democratic process – I do not regret the outcome for one moment.
    We must stop thinking the EU and Europe are one and the same thing. They are NOT. Europe is still Europe. I will say again – the EU is NOT Europe! We can still cooperate with any other nation to our mutual benefit, and indeed enjoy their cultural diversity and share our own, but the EU system needs to see the end of its days, and the decision making which intrudes into the very minutiae of life, and its relentless drive towards unification and eventual homogenisation must cease.
    You speak on this blog of abuse. The rise and rise of the EU has long practised abuse of governance over the peoples of Europe. It is secretive, opaque, unapproachable, disrespectful and manipulative – corrupt, financially irresponsible (they can’t even manage their own accounts), undemocratic and unaccountable. It has always been a case of imposition, and had they had the welfare of the peoples of Europe at heart, they would not conduct their affairs with such arrogance and intransigence as we have seen in their dealings with Greece, for example, or the migrant crisis, or Britain’s appeals to be able to control the movement of huge numbers of people in and out of this country.
    I feel sad for those who feel that this vote to leave the EU has somehow robbed them of their future, or who are afraid of a change of direction – particularly the young, who have been trained in school to believe the EU is their mother. However, the nations rage, and the people imagine a vain thing!
    Once again, the EU is not Europe. Europe is still there, just across the channel. The future (obviously) hasn’t happened yet, and it is up to us to determine and work towards a prosperous one and a generous, welcoming, cooperative one. Perhaps we could even allow the continent of Africa to pull itself out of poverty by offering them better trade opportunities.
    Government by globalisation, in the pursuit of money, is robbing all European nations of their uniqueness. I hope they all can find their freedom from the clutches of this raging, bullying, blood-sucking, incarcerating monster, and begin to find new ways to cooperate and communicate between sovereign nations for mutual benefit and enjoyment.

    1. The continent is there across the channel. Europe is not “there”, it’s here – Europe includes us, it’s not “them”. I think part of the problem is the refusal of so many in the country to understand that Europe is not something separate from us. It’s very hard though as this use of the word “Europe” to mean the continent is so entrenched.

      I agree with you that the EU is not the same as Europe and it’s very unfortunate that this is another use of the word Europe which is deeply entrenched and hard to shift.

  3. Europe IS separate from us – culturally, geographically and historically divergent. Europe is a half a large landmass full of different people groups. To say we are part of Europe and we should be governed by one central government makes as much sense as saying Africa is one continent and should also have one central controlling government.

  4. It’s good to read this piece and the comments as it’s such an unsetting time. Thank you everyone.

    The racist speech is shocking and our internal worries are sad – the possible break-up again of the Union, parties in turmoil and young people at loggerheads with their parents. We’re a divided country and everything feels unstable and more like late autumn than high summer. I pray we’ll pull together. Clearly neither the Remain camp nor decent Brexit voters are racists but, still, there’s been a lot blaming on both sides and a lot of hatred. I hope we never lose sight of our civility, democratic heritage and the ability to disapprove of what others say whilst defending to the death their right to say it (Voltaire mishmash, sorry!).

    Politicians are elected to make complex decisions on our behalf so I’m not really in favour of referenda, and feel this one was an abrogation of responsibility – but the challenge to EU governance and expectations is good, and thinking about the EU project as inherently flawed, as Anon says, is a helpful perspective. Personally I feel the vote has been as much about chickens coming home to roost as mistrust of the EU and its governance. Much of Leave’s heartland is in areas of economic deprivation – where communities have lost their livelihoods to the policies of successive neo-liberal governments closing down the mines, the steelworks, the car plants and the shipbuilding and favouring import over local industry, privatising the service industries, selling off the council houses, decimated the fishing and farming industries and so on – and the anger is still there. Some haven’t recovered. Peace, peace, there is no peace,

    Brushing hurt and anger under the carpet is surely dangerous when there’s no ready mechanism for registering and dealing with hurt – to me that’s the connection between the Brexit vote and this blog. If the church puts service and compassion first and in the process gets its act together about justice under its roof that will be very very powerful indeed.

    1. I’m not sure I understand the use of the word “neo-liberal” in the context of deprived areas. To me, this is rich people not caring, which is surely not liberal in any sense. I’d think of myself as liberal, in several senses, and I used to work, voluntarily, in an Urban Priority Area. So I’ve seen the levels of poverty and disempowerment. I think it’s about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer. Large differentials in pay. This so called strong economy only benefitting some people, and certainly not those in yer average slightly grotty estate. As Christians, we can surely do something about this, whether we are in or out.

  5. Sorry for any confusion on this English Athena – I’ve been interested in the term “neo-liberalism” recently as I didn’t know what it referred to, and as it’s a term I’ve heard bandied about quite a lot. I’d imagined it was to do with helping poorer communities by creating opportunities, as I thought “liberal” here referred to traditional left or centre-left concerns and the sort of empowerment you mention – ie greater freedoms for people with little choice or opportunity. But reading around, it seems to mean more or less the opposite – i.e. “liberal” meaning the freedom to engage in competition free of constraints, and an ‘easing up’ on conflicting responsibilities like workplace rights or environmental concerns etc. Hence “neo-liberalism”, or the “new” liberalism – traditional liberalism turned on its head! From that point of view it seems the term would apply to all policy-making concerned with the free market, privatisation, selling off of this and that – viz all policy from Thatcher onwards, give or take an oz., including Labour policy under Tony Blair. I found an article on the Guardian website recently about it that talks about the phenomenon as an invisible ideology – very interesting indeed (and also quite worrying):

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