Saturday, June 25, 2016

Referendum, part III

Having spent months in the seemingly miniscule 'Dithering' camp before making a decision about the E.U. referendum, I now don't know what to feel about the result: on the one hand the unexpected exhilaration that anyone might feel as a wave of history breaks over them, and on the other anxiety about the country's mood.  And exasperation that the ugly word-phrase-pun-thing 'Brexit' is going to have years of use and end up in the O.E.D.  Am I the only person in the land who sympathises with both the victors' 'We've done it!' Orb-and-Sceptre jubilation and the Remainers' lament of 'What have we done?', a nasty feeling that we have forgotten how much easier it is to tear down than to build and thrown something away without really considering its value?  I don't think we have been very prudent, but neither can I tell whether this is necessarily a bad thing.  Either way, there is a sensation that the twentieth century has just been given a heavy shunt into the past, and the European Union's construction project a similar shove into the future. 

I don't think sudden shocks are good for the health of nations and I don't like revolutions: this, though peaceful, seems to have been one.  A referendum like this sounds the country out, like a hammer striking a bell, unmuffled by the ambiguity of a general election.  The note struck by Thursday's vote has not rung entirely purely, and I fear there are some cracks in the bell that were not apparent before.  Mark Easton of the B.B.C. has written a good article here about the divisions that it has laid bare.

Some of these are old divisions that the dazzling modern world, distracting us from our history, seemed to have papered over, but here they are again: the traditionally rebellious east of England which snapped up the Book of Common Prayer so enthusiastically, the North of England holding its own politically against London as it did when the industries thrived, Scotland (alas) setting her face against England.  What has happened feels both very old and very new.  It is new because it is unprecedented: no nation has left its membership of the European Union before.  By 'old' I mean the resurgence of regional differences and rivalries and old-fashioned, even patriotic instincts.  I think the referendum proves that we have spirit if nothing else, and the idea that nations have spirits has of course been scoffed at for decades.  This is certainly not the result of a nation limply and entirely in thrall to plastic modernity, as I have been believing.

I am not sure whether this is a good or a bad thing either.  I wrote yesterday about being less worried about the actual result than the motivations behind it; now I am realising that there is a lot of anger in this vote.   One thing that I admitted to myself before making my own decision was that I hadn't actually altogether lost patience with the European Union.  A lot of people have, however.  There is anger in the other direction, too, among my generation and in the universities.  I have spoken to only two other people in their twenties who thought we should leave, though being students from overseas neither of them was eligible to vote.  I am a hopeless curmudgeon as far as social media is concerned, but am told that people on Facebook are furious about the referendum, and saying so.  (Can we vote to leave Facebook?).  In an informal reading group of graduates all under thirty yesterday, I was taken aback by how some of them seemed to be trying to outdo each other in their disgust (not merely disappointment) in the result, and by their scathing remarks about the voters and their supposed motives.

Yet I think most of the seventeen million voters to leave have thought quite carefully about their choice, even if I disagree with some aspects of their arguments and sentiments.  Many have certainly felt disenfranchised and many are even angry, but the scale of this result compared to others is evidence that they do not allow anger to cloud their judgement.  Discontentment has not led even a fraction of these people to support far-right parties with whose names I won't deface this blog, though the implication by some on the Remain side is that they might have done.  They were not even tempted to vote in such numbers for the (surely now defunct?) UKIP: even though it offered what they wanted, they sensed its air of tackiness and did not fall for Nigel Farage's salesmanship.  Only when offered the possibility of a plain vote without party or  brand did they vote to 'Rebel'.

I am not under the illusion that this is simply an inversion of the 1975 referendum.  There will be no return to the past and this result, for all that it is supposed to 'take back control', will not necessarily bring back the old, gentle Britain where my loyalties lie.  I'm not at all confident about our national culture in general.  Are there any great statesmen or stateswomen in Parliament?  Who are our great philanthropists?  Who is the greatest engineer, the greatest novelist, the greatest architect of our day?  I can't name any.  Where is our Vaughan Williams, where is our Tennyson and where is our Constable?  (While I am on the subject, if she is at all worth her salt, or rather her sherry, we should have some words from our Poet Laureate on this of all occasions).  And although the E.U. is no friend of the Church, I don't see much of a reversal of secularism after our departure.  If this is so, the referendum will be in vain, as Joanna Bogle points out here, for 'at heart, the problems of Europe and all of the West are spiritual ones. Only a great re-evangelisation, a new flowering of the Christian faith, can really offer hope — for Britain and for other lands that are currently sensing a loss of their sense of identity and heritage. It will be a tragedy if this is ignored and a misplaced nationalism, albeit with occasionally Christian overtones, takes centre-stage'.  Here is the real challenge that as many of us as possible need to take as seriously as we can.  Non-churchgoers are not exempt: they can do their bit to build up the spiritual life of the nation as well.

Of course very few of us know how exactly we are meant to proceed now.  Fr. Alexander Lucie-Smith has written a very reassuring article here: the most important thing we need to remember is that 'it is the future that is important now, our common, shared future, and we need to put the divisions of the past behind us. Our European friends who live in Britain, and those abroad, need to know that friendships that have been important in the past are still important to us'.  This country has dealt with severer trials and blanker pages of history: let the 23rd June 2016 open a hopeful chapter in these islands' tale.


  1. Unlike yourself and Peter Hitchens, I actually LIKE the word Brexit!

    1. ...But will you still like it after two years or more of Brexit coverage (even if you have less)...?!


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