On reading Stephen Baskerville’s view of Brexit and its wake, I hear the sound of an axe grinding. I can’t tell what the axe is, but its grinding is loud and unmistakeable: it sounds through a relentless lack of charity. Quite what’s hounding Dr Baskerville, I do not know and will not presume to speculate. But the distorting effects are right up-front, and I must gainsay them.
But first, let me lay my own Brexit cards on the table for all to see. I voted—just—to keep Britain in the European Union. I continued to have concerns about excessive EU interference in national law and domestic policy, and to be sceptical of imprudent attempts by zealots to construct a federal European state before a European nation or demos had come into being organically. I had reservations about the unprecedentedly high levels of immigration in recent years, about half of it from elsewhere in the EU, and our impotence to control it within the single market. I also had no desire to see Britain exchange its continuing, post-imperial sense of responsibility for international order, and of the need sometimes to use of hard power to sustain it, for the naïve, virtual pacifism of a German-dominated EU.
Nevertheless, I voted to stay in the EU. Indeed, I wagered a lunch and a dinner on a 52/48% victory for Remain. (I got the figures right, but not the bias.) My reasons were these: (a) that the economic benefits of leaving were neither clear nor certain; (b) that most of the complaints about judicial interference relate to the European Court of Human Rights, which is independent of the EU; (c) that many important European leaders (e.g., Mrs Merkel, if not Mr Juncker) recognise that there simply is not the popular trust and support for further political integration; (d) that the EU’s future shape is indeterminate and open to be shaped (by, among others, the UK); (e) that an important part of the UK’s international diplomatic clout derives from the combination of a leading role in NATO and membership of the EU; (f) that the UK’s leaving would severely unbalance the EU, increasing its dominance by a reluctant Germany, and damage it at a time of fragility; and (g) that an unstable and weak Europe would be bad for the UK and the West. In brief, as a good disciple of Edmund Burke I tend not to believe in the Bright New Futures promised by revolutionary breaks, and I thought that Britain still had room for fruitful ad hoc manoeuvre in the EU and that it should stay in and strive to shape things the way it wanted, issue by issue.
However, as a somewhat reluctant Remainer, I am not dismayed to find us on the way out. (Actually, I’m a little excited.) We were always going to be on the outside of the inside of the EU; now we shall be on the nearside of the outside. We don’t intend to retire from the world: just after the referendum MPs voted overwhelmingly in favour of renewing Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Scotland probably won’t break away from the UK. We’ll be happier with greater sovereignty restored to parliament and our courts. The economy will suffer in the short-term, but hey, we’re four times richer than we were in 1945, so we’ll cope. The negotiations with our EU partners will no doubt be fraught, but things will be settling down in about five years’ time. The world as we know it is really not about to end.
So that’s where I am. Now let’s return to Dr Baskerville.
It is clear that he dislikes the EU, though not for any of the reasons that moved most Brexiteers. He objects to what he calls Brussels’ surreptitious and innovative ‘sexual agenda’. Quite what this is he doesn’t spell out, but his essay effectively associates it with gay marriage and gender equality. I don’t know enough about EU policy in these areas to make intelligent comment, and so I won’t make any. I will say, however, that on another moral front—public policies regarding the treatment of the human embryo—the EU’s effects have often been conservative, thanks to the Catholic convictions of the Christian Democratic tradition and German memories of human experimentation during the Nazi period.
But even more than the EU, Dr Baskerville seems to have it in for our new Prime Minister, Theresa May. He accuses her of a coup d’état, defying the result of June’s referendum by composing a government mostly of Remainers and by hobbling the Brexiteers within it.
Well, there are at least two reasons why Mrs May’s government has got lots of Remainers in it: more Conservative MPs voted to stay than to leave, and most of the governing that needs doing in the next few years will have nothing directly to do with Brexit.
And it is surely a very odd way indeed to ‘hobble’ the Brexiteers by giving them charge of the Foreign Office, the Department of International Trade, and the Department for Exiting the European Union. This gives them a very high degree of control over the rejigging of Britain’s relations with Europe and the rest of the world. If they manage things well, they’ll get the credit; if they don’t, they’ll get the blame. And why not? They helped persuade the country to leave the EU without any agreed plan for what should happen next. So why shouldn’t they be made to carry the can for working it out now? And can you imagine the hollering that would have ensued, if they’d been denied the power?
Although she was a very reticent supporter of the Remain campaign, Mrs May has made it crystal clear from Day One that—and I quote—“Brexit means Brexit”. And although no one yet knows what Brexit means apart from formal divorce, she has also made it clear—in direct response to a leading concern of Leave voters—that Brexit will have to involve Britain’s recovery of control over its borders. So for Dr Baskerville to claim that Theresa May is intent on subverting the declared democratic will of the people, as expressed in the referendum result, not only fails to reach charity; it doesn’t even touch justice. And then to say that she’s planning on “turning Westminster into an offshore Brussels” is truly bizarre.
Another bee in Dr B’s bonnet seems to be Mrs May’s inaugural commitment to govern for all the people, and not just for the privileged few. One would have thought this quite difficult to quarrel with, at least for a Christian, but Dr Baskerville manages it, claiming that it’s “reminiscent of the soft Marxism that emanates from Brussels”. Anyone who has thought hard about the current revolt against the mainstream political parties and political elites in the UK, in Europe, and in the US will have noted that it is fuelled by widespread resentment among the unskilled working class, who have not benefitted from the globalisation of capital and labour. In her first speech as Prime Minister, Mrs May showed that she understands that much of the popular support for Brexit was an expression of this resentment, and she bound herself in public to do something about it. Already there are signs that this will involve using Brexit’s greater control of immigration to press British employers to invest more in the training of unskilled Britons, instead of importing cheap labour from eastern Europe. For those of us who recognise that not everyone who succeeds in life pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps, that some are dealt a seriously disabling hand in life, and that it’s the job of just government to strive to enable those at the bottom of the social heap to make a decent living, this seems a deeply encouraging move. And whoever wins the race for the US Presidency in November had better have something similar up their sleeves, if social resentment is not to turn politically toxic. Beware Weimar.
Finally, Dr Baskerville complains that Mrs May’s main rival, Andrea Leadsom, was the victim of a vicious media campaign, “centering almost entirely on her Christianity and family values”. Well, I’m a Christian, I was here, I read the press on both the Right and the Left, and I would have noticed any virulent anti-religious bigotry. But I didn’t. What I do remember is that Mrs Leadsom was reported (correctly) to have had very little experience of government, that she over-egged her CV, and that she was held to have performed badly on a number of occasions. It also struck me that, given the resentful mood of many working class voters, it would have been absolutely crazy to elect as Prime Minister someone whose main claim to the job was her experience in the City of London’s world of high finance.
Oddly, Dr Baskerville didn’t mention that, before her election as PM, Theresa May’s Christian faith was also widely broadcast in the media: she’s the daughter of an Anglican vicar and a regular church-goer. I cannot recall any adverse comment.
Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral & Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford and Director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, & Theology.
Photo Credit: UK Prime Minister Theresa May on an official state visit to Berlin for talks and a working dinner with the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. On her first foreign visit, the Prime Minister spoke about the UK’s relationship with Germany after leaving the EU. By Tom Evans for the Prime Minister’s Office, via Flickr.