This should hardly be surprising given that the movement was driven by Nigel Farage and UKIP together with Tories like Ian Duncan Smith, Bill Cash and John Redwood, the Michael’s Gove and Howard, Nigel Farage - and George Galloway (worrying bedfellows) - many of whom carry extreme political views in their baggage. And, despite his popularism Boris Johnson, that other leading Brexiteer, can hardly be described as having much of a social concern. And should we also beware Zac Goldsmith’s tousled hair?
I find it deeply sad that this appeal to our self-interest appeals to so many. But the campaign has at least identified the matter of whether we are called to simply satisfy our own self-interests or whether, as David Miliband recently pointed out, “The British question is not only one of what we get out of Europe. It is also one of whether we want to shore up the international order, or contribute to its dilution and perhaps even destruction.”
In an article in The Sunday Times (‘Brexit now and we will only have to Breturn to save a disintegrating Europe’: 21.02.16), the conservative historian Niall Fergusson recalled our history from the time of the Reformation and pointed out the dangers of being focussed on our relationship with the Continent and the way we have – literally at times – torn ourselves apart and ignored wider and more fundamental threats. He noticed that our future seems to be caught up in an emotional reaction to matters such as how long a ‘Polish plumber will not be entitled to claim UK benefits’ and wondered why we had not learnt from Henry VIII’s refusal to listen to Cardinal Wolsey’s recognition that in the face of the threat from the Ottoman Empire, Britain belonged in Europe. It is arguable that history is repeating itself in a worrying way.
So, at heart, is this the latest example of the existential struggle between whether it is better to stand alone or whether we are better together? Are we simply individuals who have to co-exist or are we part of each other? Was Margaret Thatcher right in saying that ‘there's no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.’ (interview in Women’s Own, 1987) St. Paul faced that question and answered it quite robustly when he observed: ‘For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. … Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.’ (1 Cor. 12:14) And so, in spite of the worst excesses of the Reformation, Catholic Christianity has always proclaimed the importance of community. As the great Bishop, Michael Ramsey, observed: “Individualism” …. has no place in Christianity and Christianity verily means its extinction.’ And he went on to perceptively observe: ‘Yet through the death of “individualism” the individual finds himself.’ (‘The Gospel and the Catholic Church’: 1936 reissued 2009)
Behind Ramsey’s assertion lies a theology which is Catholic, not Protestant, in its understanding. He stands in the tradition of another great Anglican, John Donne, who famously wrote (1)
No man is an island entire of itself; every manis a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
It seems we have not moved on from the 16th century Reformation when individualism the cry went up: ‘The bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England’ (Article XXXVII). Yet the world is a very different place to that in which the Reformation occurred although the struggle between Catholic and Protestant – those who wish to be part of the whole and those who want to go it alone – appears to lie behind much of the current debate.
We are always better together – even though it comes at a cost. Perhaps John Donne’s poem should have been sent to all households …..
(1) MEDITATION XVII: Devotions upon Emergent Occasion