The Referendum and its Fallout – A Personal View
I have been asked at short notice by a journalist on a French Reformed Church magazine to let her know what I think about the referendum. It is something that was enormously important to me personally. And I am aware that colleagues are very concerned now about what will happen in all sorts of ways. I am also sure there will be people reading this who voted to Leave – yes, I was on the losing side – and they will have their good reasons for doing so. But there are also stories of lots of people already regretting how they voted and of people not making their mind up until they actually entered the Polling Station and their booth. So much for an informed decision after all the issues have been thoroughly debated.
Claire asked me for my point of view about Brexit, as a British person and as a Christian. I don’t think the two differ. Part of my work is about encouraging people to make the connection between what they do on Sunday (other days are available to worship on) and what they do the rest of the week. I do not need convincing of the wisdom of doing this, so I think I can say that my views as a Christian and as a Brit are inseparable.
I felt angry and ashamed on that Friday morning when it was clear what the result would be. Angry because of the nature of the debate – lies, scaremongering, deceit, nastiness, vitriol on both sides. The Leave battlebus driving around the country with the message about the £350 million per week it costs us to belong to the EU, even though that figure had been roundly and publicly rebuffed, including the Chair of the House of Commons Finance Committee stating on national radio that it was “probably barely a third of that”. But the lie was not removed, and people believed it.
The role of the press – or rather certain sections of the press – in it all might in extremis bring one to wonder whether the “Freedom of the Press” is something to be celebrated. While the main accusations of “scaremongering” were around the forecasts of the economic and financial disaster which would unfold after BREXIT, it was the Daily Mail which, on the morning of Referendum day, had a front page which carried 4 reasons to vote Leave. The first of these was that talks with Turkey were due to start “within the next few days” about their accession to the EU. I would very much wish that they could be challenged to substantiate that claim, of which the implication is that we would be inundated with Turkish immigrants within a very short time.
And that is mostly why I am ashamed – because of our inability to have a full and reasonable debate about the real issues, but mostly because of the racism which is so obviously a mover for some of those who voted Leave. Concern about levels of immigration is one thing, but in the Guardian this morning there is a picture of a man in Romford wearing a T-Shirt which carries the legend “Yes We Won. Now Send Them Back”. I don’t know who the “Them” is supposed to be – illegal immigrants who made it here last week, or third generation West Indians whose family came across on the Windrush, but it’s all part of the same thing when expressed like that. There are already stories of Polish people being sent notes describing them as Vermin, and of Muslims and people from the Indian sub-continent being shouted at in the street. My wife, a historian, has long compared what has been happening in this country over the last few months as comparable to Germany in the 1930s – the demonization of the foreigner. I am now utterly convinced that she is right.
What is the reaction of other Church people around me, Claire asks. I have not had that many conversations about it since Referendum day, but I have had numerous conversations over the last few weeks with people who were convinced that staying in Europe was the right thing to do – one valued colleague said that the Christian thing is to co-operate. But the whole European thing was also founded, way back in post World War Two Europe, on the notion of avoiding further conflict when many people had real fears that such conflict might erupt. Most Church people I know would agree that the best way of dealing with the refugee crisis would be as a part of Europe – 27 nations dealing with it together is better than each one individually. But instead of that, Mr Farage chooses to unveil a poster a week before voting day of a large queue of Syrian refugees with a caption: ”Breaking Point”. To be fair, the rest of the Leave campaign condemned that fully and immediately, but many people will have listened and been influenced by it. But we as Christians would hopefully think of Jesus’s answer to the question ”Who is my neighbour” and the story of the Good Samaritan.
Claire also asks: Churches were involved in the debate but the vote is for Brexit. Does it mean churches were not able to convince? The Archbishop of Canterbury came out roundly in favour of a Remain vote. I am not aware that any of the other Churches came out so strongly. There was a “Resource Pack” put together by the Joint Public issues team on behalf of the Methodist, United Reformed and Baptist Churches – “Think, Pray, Vote”. It did not tell people how to vote. It was more about asking questions and guiding people’s thinking about how they would vote. It was the most difficult resource pack they have ever put together, apparently. I personally, with the IBEX website, was very reticent to cover anything about the Referendum, just trying to point people towards quality information, fearing accusations of bias. How wrong I now feel I was.
What has this vote actually sanctioned? On one level, my colleague Cliff and I had a conversation on Friday morning, fearing that this would legitimise in some people’s eyes the harrying and bullying of immigrants to this country. THIS IS ALREADY HAPPENING. One of my daughter’s long term neighbours and friends was in tears most of Friday – she is Polish and now fears what the future might bring, as well as being concerned that people don’t “love” her. On another level, there are numerous noises being made about the possibility of overturning the result, the real threat of Scotland, which voted solidly to Remain”, holding another Independence Referendum.
On a final note, I have read numerous comments over the last few days about the Churches needing to act as bridge builders and conciliators in the light of the referendum and the conflicts it might bring. I would also maintain most strongly, however, that the prophetic role of the Church must also be to the fore. If people are being bullied just because of where they come from, that is wrong, with a capital “W”. If the forecast economic doom comes to reality and austerity needs, in the eyes of our political leaders, needs to plumb deeper depths, we will be challenging any measures which unfairly target the poor, who may well, ironically, have voted for BREXIT because of quite justifiable feelings that they have not been “listened to”.
Whatever else happens, there is a great deal of uncertainty around at the moment, a great deal of apprehension, distrust and fear. Who knows where we will end up, but there is certainly a multi-faceted role for the Church in all of it.
Contact David Wrighton, Team Leader, E-mail: email@example.com