So the votes are counted. The result was close but is for ‘Leave’ which has created a sense of shock and disbelief with whiff of crisis. What follows is my own reaction to events rather than a thought through roadmap for progress.
The trouble with a referendum is that it is a blunt instrument. At a General Election people vote for parties who put forward policies. We chose who to vote for based on a range of factors which includes the recognition that parties themselves are a coalition of ideas and values. And we have an expectation that whoever forms the government will seek to enact some of their manifesto promises. I say ‘some’ because we also recognise that things are not always clear cut, opposition to certain measures makes it hard to get them agreed and events overtake plans. This is often decried as ‘broken promises’ but is also about real government having to make real choices. By contrast a referendum asks a straight question with little nuance. It’s result is not an agreement to back one political party but one particular idea. In this case an idea that’s not part of the policy of any political party. All of which now creates confusion. No one knows what is next, nor how we agree a way of processing what is next.
Politics is often a brutal business so it is no surprise to see David Cameron announcing his intention to resign and may yet see Jeremy Corbyn lose his job. But it is also a complex business. Vote leave won because a significant number (a third) of Labour voters voted leave. We’ve known the Conservative party and voters have been split on this for decades. But what were the vote leave people voting for? The leading ‘vote leave’ voices (Gove, Hannan etc) are right of centre politicians and one would expect them to argue from that perspective, especially since they will have a greater say in government policy. Yet it would be fair to assume that the labour voters were not voting leave in order to have a purer right wing government or country. But that is a likely outcome, particularly if it results in Scottish Independence. If, as seems plausible, many labour voters choose ‘out’ because of a sense of dissatisfaction with politics and government; their frustration will only grow in the years ahead.
Polling also suggests growing divisions between London and the rest of the UK (which may be part of the Labour parties woes) and between young and old. The exact figures may change but it appears that the over 65’s voted in large measure for leave, the under 45’s in large measure for remain.
Once the shock has died down attention will need to turn to finding ways forward. And there are positive possibilities for the UK. When the UK economy had the seismic shock of Black Wednesday it went on to lead to a time of economic boom. The possibility of more open trading with some of the world’s most dynamic economies promises opportunities for us.
We have the opportunity to build a strong independent nation, based on trade and cultural ties rather than projecting power. We can seek to be internationalist, building ties across the world to insure that independence doesn’t mean isolation.
This will not be easy. The future depends not solely on the UK but on our European neighbours as well. How they respond may well have a bigger impact than how we do. The first instincts, particularly of the European Commission may well be to rally the wagons, stop the rot and ensure that there is no contagion. In time this will give way to something else, the question is what? A desire to punish the UK is likely to damage both us and the remaining EU members, but maybe seen as a price worth paying to keep the European project moving forward. A negotiation towards a different type of Europe, with a larger outer tier is a possibility and whilst it seems unlikely giving that ‘two speed’ options have been largely rejected in the past it may gain traction, especially if the economic fallout damages the Euro further.
Negotiations might also lead to another referendum. The EU has history of enabling countries to have a second referendum when things didn’t go as planned. However, this would require the UK government to negotiate to bring one about; possibly by negotiating the terms of exit and putting that to the electorate. It is far from clear that anyone wants to try this.
As Christians we have something positive to offer. Our experience of Church Meetings and of seeking unity offers lessons in the need to listen to one another and build consensus where possible.
Our worship gives us practices which can express shock and enable us to lament what this process has said about our country. This referendum has opened up rivers of bile and unleased the dogs of hate; things which are corrosive to our public life and common good.
Our experience of God’s grace teaches us to be hospitable and compassionate to others and we can express this to those who voted differently to us in the referendum, those from foreign countries who now reside in the UK and those refugees who are fleeing war.
We need to pray and denominational leaders are making that call today, but in our praying we need to be willing to engage in the public square, take part in the political process and seek to work for the common good, not simply of the UK but the good of Europe and the wider world.