I have not yet written anything about Brexit because volumes have been written and I think most people are highly unlikely to read yet another article. However, having spoken to people about it on occasion, at least one kind person asked if I had written anything, so here it is.
Some of you who will read this live outside the UK, so you might wonder why we think this is so important. Why would it be important enough for Barak Obama, when he was President and visiting London, to urge the UK to stay in the EU? Why would other heads of state line up to condemn the results of our democratic process whereby the citizens were allowed to choose to stay in our leave? Why would they vote, by a narrow margin, to leave in spite of a massive campaign, funded by tax revenues, to convince us to stay?
To my mind, Brexit is not primarily about any of the most commonly cited themes.
It is not about race and immigration, though I do believe that national borders are necessary, and immigration must be managed. More than ever, it is possible and relatively easy for millions of people to relocate to another nation where they imagine that life will be easier. As a result, mass movements of people have destabilised international relations and economic policies. EU authorities are very uncomfortably aware of the phenomenon of uncontrolled movements of people from poorer and less stable nations to wealthier and more peaceful nations. Britain could and should, even though we are leaving, work with other European nations to develop, implement and enforce workable immigration policies and reasonable limitations on freedom of movement within the EU and bordering nations. There is no compelling need to leave the EU to address this problem, though it should be easier and quicker to address the issue as a sovereign nation. (The concept of freedom of movement within the EU has been undermined by the EU itself, having been so committed to expansion that it bypassed its own economic guidelines for membership. Once poorer nations with minimal social safety nets and very high unemployment were integrated, it was inevitable that their citizens would move in very large numbers to the nations where social benefits were more extensive and jobs more readily available.)
It is not because Brits do not consider themselves to be Europeans. Very large numbers of British citizens live in other parts of Europe and many continental Europeans live in Britain. As far as I can tell, there is no significant wish to reverse this growing trend, especially since the younger Brits feel even more European than the older generations.
It is not because of some resurgent nationalism or protectionist tendencies in Britain. Though I was born in the USA, nearly 50 years of life in Britain has made me sensitive to and suspicious of nationalistic fervour. Seen from this side of the Atlantic, nationalistic politics and aggressive patriotism in the USA seem to be at least unwarranted, if not dangerous. Britain on the other hand, seems to have very little patriotic passion and could probably use more. Patriotism and nationalism are closely related. Brexit is not driven by nationalism.
When the media and commentators write or broadcast about Brexit, the overwhelming majority of what is said and written is about economics. But I believe it is a secondary issue and greatly outweighed by the bigger, long-term issues. My guess is that the economy in the UK (in this article I am using Britain, Great Britain and the UK synonymously) will suffer from leaving the EU. I think it is likely to be a three to five-year down turn, but it will be worth it. When the process of negotiating bilateral trade agreements with other nations is well down the road, there is every chance that the UK will become more prosperous than it would be if it remains subject to the protectionist policies of the EU.
There are two issues that far outweigh all these other considerations.
The first one is about foundational values. Though the EU had significant input from Christian thinkers at its inception, it has drifted a very long way from those foundations. The EU is defined by a progression of treaties with each one aiming to restate the values and policies they wish to carry forward. The values that are not restated in the latest treaty are left behind. So, though we can find Christian foundations, they have now been replaced by the values of “humanism and the religions of Europe”, as stated in the Lisbon Treaty.
What is meant by this phrase? No one can think that there can be easy harmony between the “religions of Europe”. Are we suggesting that they all share the same values? What harmony of values can be found between Christianity and Islam when it comes to separation of Church/Mosque and State? Christianity took a long time to work out what is clear from the New Testament, that the authority of the State and the influence of the Church are different and should never be conflated. Islam is not there yet and, because of their origins and history, probably never will be. When the Treaty of Lisbon cites the “religions of Europe”, do they include Paganism and the various expressions of New Age beliefs?
That phrase, “the religions of Europe” can only be seen as a sop for “religious” people. Humanistic thinking has become the final arbiter, supplanting the early foundations. With humanistic thinking, comes the idea of evolving values. Nothing is absolute or fixed; the opinions of those who shape opinions have the final say. That, in turn, is a license for those in power to steer society in the direction they want values to turn and that is nothing more than a sophisticated form of tyranny. When rulers do not acknowledge a higher power, they are dangerous.
The nature of tyranny brings me to the most important issue at the heart of Brexit. In Western nations we have lived a long and glorious period of three generations free from tyranny. That is our “normal” but is a rare exception in human history. The decisions of tyrannical men have killed more people than any other cause. Understandably, political philosophers have concentrated on how to keep political and military power in check. We need to pay careful attention to the principles that have been developed by that thinking, which grew in the context of Protestant Christianity. The superiority of democratic, open, limited and accountable government is underscored every day with the statistics of immigration and asylum seeking. The massive flow of millions of hopeful people is all one way—towards the nations with Protestant Christian history.
Citizens of these Protestant-based countries have benefits that were unknown for most of human history. The post-Constantinian (337 AD), but pre-Reformation (16th century) era, considered the primary institutions to be more important than the individual. Those institutions, whether Church or State, were inevitably oppressive, looking after the well-being of the powerful but trampling on ordinary people. With the Reformation came the emphasis on the importance of personal faith in Christ and gradually, our institutions were reformed with a view to protecting the rights of the individual. Where the Roman Catholic Church or the various Orthodox hierarchies prevailed, individual rights were not enshrined in law. Generally, that meant, and often still means, that individuals who are charged with a crime are tried before a representative of the State, a judge, rather than before a jury of their peers. In other words, the State is both prosecutor and judge. This can be tyranny.
A close friend recently pointed out that the moto on our British passports reads, ‘Dieu et Mon Droit’, “God and My Right”. In other words, I am significant and have inalienable rights because I am an individual created in the image of God. As individuals, we comprise a society that decides its laws and gives such powers to the state as we deem fit and necessary. As an individual I am considered to be innocent until proven guilty. Unlike most Roman/French law, I do not have to prove my innocence before the state, rather, a jury of my peers must assume I am innocent until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt.
The clear thinking about limiting power started at least 1000 years before Christ, when the prophet Samuel warned the people of Israel that if they chose a king for themselves, they would end up regretting it when they laboured under his tyranny (1 Samuel 8). God had set Israel up with a loose form of government based upon families, clans and tribes. You might say that this Biblical pattern was an expression of subsidiarity. That is the name given to the idea that power should be kept as close to local communities as possible. The natural tendency is for powerful men to draw more power to themselves. But the application of the idea of subsidiarity runs contrary to the hubris of powerful rulers. Subsidiarity was built into the foundational documents of the European Economic Community, but it has been forgotten. And that is dangerous.
What started as a free trade area has evolved into something much more complex and more dangerous. The logic of its evolution is clear. For trade to be both free and fair, the rules governing trade and production must be harmonised. This logic leads to the exercise of more and more power by the body overseeing trade. When the logic is mixed with the reality that powerful men seek more power, then it results in ever more centralised, and distant, rule over the member nations.
That power is probably best expressed in the European Commissioners. They are appointed by the member nations, not elected. In other words, there is no direct accountability to the people they rule. They have complete and exclusive authority over what issues are brought to the European Parliament for legislation. They also have control over the European budget. This is a powerful concentration of authority in the hands of a few appointees.
I am not claiming that there is no democratic accountability in this structure, but I am claiming that it is too distant from the voters to be effective. To illustrate, if you were to ask a European citizen to name their MEP, I would be confident to predict that less than 20% would be able to name, let alone say they know, their MEP. If you were to ask when the next election for European Parliament is due, I doubt that 5% would know. Why? Because it is all too distant and complex for the voter to think they have any real voice. They know intuitively that their vote makes no difference.
And yet the leaders of the EU are calling for ever closer union and more power to the supranational institutions. They are now calling for a common foreign policy and a common EU army. This should serve as a warning sign that we are well down the road to tyranny.
I am so grateful for the 70+ years of peace in Europe. (Though there have been some significant exceptions, especially in the Balkans.) The EEC, followed by the EU, has played its part in assuring that peace. Nevertheless, it would be a serious mistake to think that the current and growing bureaucracy of the EU will make that peace more likely. On the contrary, resentment against the distant, but powerful authority of the EU is contributing to deep resentments between European nations. European economic and immigration policies have led to anger and growing social unrest, especially in the southern nations. An ever-more-powerful central European government is not likely to lead to ongoing peace and its reputation for corruption is the cause of deep suspicion among European citizens.
Finally, a brief word about the global picture. It is quite likely that the EU is seen by many of the most powerful political figures in the world as the prototype for other trade blocs. Each of those trade blocs then represents a means for harmonising the laws and institutions of every member nation within that bloc. When those blocs encompass the majority of the most powerful nations in the world, then the only thing that remains is to harmonise the various blocs. Providing that there has been good consultation between the trade blocs as they take form and become more powerful, the final harmony should not be difficult to achieve.
If I were a very bright and powerful secular humanist, it would seem perfectly clear that this would be the best way to order the world. We could have global trade with few, if any, tariffs. Once all the nations became completely interdependent at the economic level, then surely dangerous disputes could be more readily resolved, and we could see an end to conflict and war.
Surely the brightest and most powerful people in the world could order all of humanity in a way that would be to the benefit of everyone. What could go wrong?
The oft quoted statement from Lord Acton is probably the most relevant warning:
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Everything could go wrong!
The landscape of Brexit shifts daily so this article will be out of date very quickly, but as it stands today, I am glad that the UK is attempting to leave what the EU has become and what it is intent upon becoming. Perhaps Brexit will be a reforming influence, encouraging other nations to demand a change of direction. Maybe it will be a loud enough voice to finally get the attention of those in power, convincing them that they must decentralise and stop the aggregation of power. Many have suggested that the best way to bring about reform would be to remain an EU member, but Britain has had little or no power as a member state. Though Britain has attempted to use its power of veto on many occasions, it has never been successful. In spite of the theoretical right of veto accorded to members states, there is no real power there. In spite of that, the Commissioners have announced that they plan to do away with the right of member states to veto EU law.
Someone once referred to modern secular humanist leaders as “squatters in the house that Christianity built”. Squatters usually destroy the squat they invade. Is it possible that the squatters might vacate and let the original designers and builders reclaim the fruit of their labours? Probably not. But Brexit could be a step in the right direction.