What was the referendum about, anyway?

I went to bed on Thursday night, fully expecting that when I got up on Friday morning, the main headline would be that Britain had voted “Remain”. After all, that was what the experts were saying. However, the experts, it turned out, were wrong. Just as they had been about the last UK General Election, just as they had been about Britain joining the Euro, just as they had been about the state of the economy just before the 2008 financial crisis hit, and apparently, just as they had been about full cream milk.

They were not actually that far out – they reckoned that it would be about 52 to 48 in favour of Remain; it actually turned out to be 52 to 48 in favour of leave. What’s a mere 4%? Though of course it must be said that for many people, that 4% was the difference between joyfully celebrating, and weeping, wailing and gnashing one’s teeth.

The results, however, were interesting. And what was particularly striking was that it was immediately obvious that the UK was divided into three. There was Scotland, where the Remain vote was 62% ; there was Northern Ireland, where the Remain vote was 55.8% ; and there was England and Wales. Yes, there was a difference between England (46.6%) and Wales (47.5%), but it was pretty small.

And, as I looked at the results, two things struck me.

First, there was a massive difference between the way that traditional urban Labour areas in the North of England voted, and the way that urban areas in the central belt of Scotland (which traditionally supported Labour) had voted. The question I asked myself was “These areas are, on the face of it, very similar. Why then was the ‘Remain’ vote in Sunderland 38.7%, when the ‘Remain’ vote in North Lanarkshire was 61.7%?”

Second, when one compares the results of the 2016 EU referendum with the 1975 EEC referendum, there is a huge difference. In 1975, Scotland had been one of the most Euro-sceptic parts of the UK. While England had returned a “Yes” vote of 67.8% to remaining in (and Wales, 64.8%), in Scotland, only 58.4% had voted “Yes”. (In Northern Ireland it was 52.1 %.) Today, the opposite is the case: Scotland is apparently much more enthusiastic about the EU than England.

On the face of it, Scotland hasn’t changed that much. Just as the SNP was doing well in the mid-1970s, so it is today. And the economic history of the central belt of Scotland over the past 40 years has been pretty similar to that of the North of England. So why have Sunderland and North Lanarkshire gone in opposite directions? Why has the situation flipped around?

The more I thought about this, the more I became convinced that this isn’t really about what people think of the EU. Or, to be more precise, what people think about EU membership is strongly affected by other factors.

What do you think of this flag?

The results of Thursday’s referendum in Northern Ireland illustrate this perfectly. The most pro-Remain constituencies were Foyle (78.3%) and Belfast West (74.1%), while the most anti-Remain constituency was North Antrim (37.8%). That is a big difference. What it tells us, broadly speaking, is that Unionists were much more likely to have voted “Leave” and Nationalists to have voted “Remain”.

Thus, in Northern Ireland, the underlying question seems to have been “What do you think of the Union Jack?” If you really don’t like the Union Jack, you probably voted “Remain”. I suspect that was a huge part of it in Scotland, too. Why did North Lanarkshire vote so differently from Sunderland? Because hardly anyone in Sunderland has a problem with the Union Jack, whereas in North Lanarkshire, there are a lot of people who do. And that does sort of fit with the way that in England, love of the Union Jack seemed to be a big part of the Leave campaign.

So while, economically speaking, one would reckon that the interests of Sunderland and the interests of North Lanarkshire are fairly similar, and one would think that if leaving the EU was good for one, it would be good for the other, either this isn’t about economics – or the voters of North Lanarkshire differ from the voters of Sunderland in their views on economics.

Of course, one might say that a lot of people in Scotland reckoned that voting Remain was a good idea largely because the SNP said so, and that similarly, in Northern Ireland, a lot of people voted remain because Sinn Fein said so. But I don’t think this is very different to saying that for these people, the referendum was basically about the Union that is the UK.

What do you think of this poster?

That, of course, is not the whole story. There were other factors which are very similar. One of the most important factors – and this is something that probably affected England and Wales more than Northern Ireland and Scotland – revolves around two closely related questions. The first is “What do you think of immigration?” The second is “What do you think of the anti-immigration people?” (Or “What do you think of the ‘Breaking Point’ poster?” Or even just “What do you think of Nigel Farage?”)

Indeed, one gets the impression that a lot of people voted “Remain” simply because they believed it was a way of being positive about people from other European countries, whereas voting “Leave” was a basically a sign that you were a racist – or at least xenophobic.

And following the murder of Jo Cox, it seemed to go even further. The word hatred started to be used. For example, Wes Streeting, the MP for Ilford North, told the Guardian:

The hatred that cut down our friend in the prime of her life must be rejected, but the current climate also requires us to ask a bigger question: what sort of country do we want?

As a new generation of Labour MPs who entered parliament with Jo, we want to honour her memory by fighting for what she stood for. She was a relentless campaigner for equality and human rights in Britain, and around the world.

Against the backdrop of the toxic and febrile atmosphere in our political life, it’s time to bring out the best of Britain: a country that is socially just, open and inclusive, and that looks to the world with optimism, confidence and leadership. As Jo said: ‘we’ve got more in common than that which divides us’.”

There is no mention of the referendum or the EU – but it is difficult to believe that the words “a country that is . . . open and inclusive, and that looks to the world with optimism, confidence and leadership” were not intended to be associated with remaining in the EU.

And that became explicit in a Remain campaign leaflet: “The Leave campaign’s anti-immigrant rhetoric has stoked the British public’s fears to the point that we now find ourselves in a country riven by hate. History tells us that scapegoating those we think are not like us always has terrible consequences. Jo Cox’s tragic murder is possibly only the start.

Under these circumstances, one suspects that for some people, the referendum went beyond questions like “What do you think of the Union Jack?” and “What do you think of immigration?” and “What do you think of the Breaking Point poster?” – to the more basic questions of “Where do you stand on hatred?” and even “Are you on the side of love?” For these people, voting ‘Remain’ was being on the side of love, voting ‘Leave’ meant being on the side of hatred.

All of which led one commentator to suggest that there was something very strange about saying that the definition of love is “allowing a lot of unelected unaccountable bureaucrats to dictate to your country”.

I’ve given my thoughts about what I think the referendum was actually about elsewhere. But I will say that I think that to believe that it was mainly about immigration or about the unity of the United Kingdom is incorrect, and to think that it was basically about racism*, xenophobia, or even hatred is so mistaken as to be positively worrying. But many people are under the impression that these were the main issues at stake in the vote.

So not only is the UK split down the middle about whether to remain in the EU or not; it is actually completely divided about what the question is actually about. In fact, one could say that not only is the country not sure what the answer is; after months of discussion and debate, the country isn’t even sure what the question is.

And that is frightening. It makes one wonder about whether holding referendums is a good idea. In fact, it makes one wonder about democracy. Winston Churchill famously said, “The best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter.” Sometimes it’s hard to disagree.

Wouldn’t it be better if the decision was made by people who actually knew what the question is? At first sight, that might seem like a good idea. But what that would mean, of course, is that the decision would be made by the experts. And that is even more terrifying than throwing the decision open to the whole country in a referendum. There are some things that are scarier than democracy, and one of those is being ruled by the experts.

* Addendum: On the subject of racism and the referendum, Brendan O’Neill’s comment is worth repeating:

Just about had a gutful of Remain commentators saying the masses’ vote against the EU has sanctioned racism. These Remainers voted for an institution that discriminates against African and Asian migrant workers in favour of white European ones. They voted for an institution whose Fortress Europe policies have contributed to the deaths of thousands of Africans at sea. They voted for an institution whose agricultural policies have pummelled food industries in Africa (causing thousands of people in Swaziland to lose their jobs and Mozambique to lose £100m a year on its GDP, for just two examples). They voted for an institution whose restrictions on GM products has prevented African nations from creating a plentiful food supply: such “hypocrisy and arrogance comes with the luxury of a full stomach”, as one Kenyan scientist put it. And they voted for an institution that has *paid* African dictators to keep their horrible, pesky peoples from coming to Europe. Racist much?

Please, stop with the racism stuff. Your beloved EU is not some happy-clappy multicultural outfit. It is discriminatory . . . and it forces non-white migrants into the most degrading, life-risking situations. You voted for that, and we voted against it, so come down off your high, white horse.

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Orlando and the Kirk

A response from Scotland may be stranger than it seems.

I believe that the killing of 49 people in Orlando was evil. I use the word “evil”, but I could have said that I believed it was wrong, or wicked, or sinful. In the end of the day, there isn’t really any difference.

In saying that, and believing that, I am not alone. In fact, a lot of people have said it publicly, and many who have not felt any obligation to speak on the subject feel the same way. But I also suspect that there are some people who do not believe that it was evil. Perhaps there are some moral relativists out there who don’t think that there is any such thing as good and evil, who believe it is all a matter of perspective, and that while it was rather unfortunate for the dead, the injured, and their families, it can’t really be called evil because there is no such thing as evil. No doubt there are ISIS supporters somewhere who think that the killings were a good thing.

But I believe the killing of these 49 people was evil. I believe that there is such a thing as objective morality. Some things are right and some things are wrong and it isn’t simply a matter of opinion. And this was wrong.

So – what makes me believe that going into a club and killing a lot of people is evil? It’s not simply the fact that this is the generally accepted view in the country I live in. I often find that I’m in a minority in what I believe about right and wrong. It’s not the fact that the killing of these people has caused pain and suffering and grief. Punishment, for example, can (and usually does) cause pain, suffering and grief, but that doesn’t mean that punishing people is evil. It’s not simply about consent. Those who are punished don’t always consent to their punishment.

No. I believe that going into a club and killing a lot of people in the way that Omar Mateen did was evil because the Bible teaches that murder is evil. (Or sinful. Or wrong. Whatever word you choose.) Not everyone who believes that murder is wrong holds this belief because it is what the Bible teaches, but I, as a Christian, do. For me, the teaching of the Bible is the guide to what is good and what is evil. And that is basically the Christian position. The Bible tells us what is right or wrong in the eyes of God, and since God is the maker of our world, our world belongs to him, and it is up to him to say what is right and what is wrong. I admit that sometimes it isn’t easy to discern from the Bible whether something is right or wrong – but it seems to me pretty clear that murder is wrong, and what happened in Orlando was murder.

Now, imagine for a moment that some public figure – perhaps a leading politician, or a religious leader – was being interviewed about the Orlando massacre and refused to say that it was wrong. Suppose the person said that one would have to take different factors into account, or that we shouldn’t rush to judgement, or that we needed to be more broad-minded about killing people – or that while most mass-murders were undoubtedly wrong, there were some that might be right. Any person saying such a thing would be described (correctly) as an apologist for evil. And you can imagine the reaction.

Meanwhile, in Scotland . . .

Which brings me to a response in Scotland, as reported by the Glasgow Herald:

A group of evangelicals within the Church of Scotland has apologised over posting a statement about gay rights among ministers the day after the Orlando massacre at a gay club in which 49 people were killed and dozens injured.

The Covenant Fellowship Scotland, a protest movement set up in 2014 to stand against allowing ministers in same-sex relationships, said its statement was in response to the Kirk’s latest move towards ministers in same-sex marriage at its annual gathering last month.

The timing of the posting on its website, which has not been taken down, was described as “utterly incredulous”.

A senior clergyman connected to the liberal group OneKirk, formed by congregations who support same-sex marriage among ministers, said he was astonished the statement had been put up 24 hours after the Orlando atrocity when a gay club was targeted by gunman Omar Mateen”

The words to notice are these: “congregations who support same-sex marriage among ministers.” The group OneKirk is described as supporting same-sex marriage among ministers. In other words, OneKirk believes and proclaims that sexual relationships between people of the same sex are not wrong, but are quite acceptable.

Is this correct? Well, if one doesn’t believe that there is any such thing as right and wrong, that is a reasonable position to take. And it is also a reasonable position to take if one believes that what is right and what is wrong is to be determined by the prevailing culture, or if one believes that what is right and what is wrong is determined by whether it causes grief and pain, or whether there is consent between the individuals concerned.

However, if one believes that what is right and what is wrong is determined by what the Bible teaches, OneKirk is simply incorrect. Just as the Bible teaches that murdering people is wrong, it teaches that having a sexual relationship with someone of the same sex is wrong. The Bible is clear in its teaching on murder. And it is also clear on its teaching on sexual relationships between people of the same sex.

In other words, OneKirk is involved in publicly condoning what is wrong. Or, to put it another way, they are apologists for evil. From the perspective of the Bible, they are in the same position as someone who publicly condones the Orlando shootings.

Of course, from the point of view of modern western culture, it doesn’t look that way. If one takes one’s view of what is right and what is wrong from what the leading figures in our society say, and what the newspapers say, and what our neighbours say, then what OneKirk is doing looks quite acceptable; it looks very different from publicly condoning the Orlando shootings.

But we in the Christian church are not supposed to take our views on good and evil from political leaders or the press or contemporary culture. We are supposed to base what we believe on the teachings of the Bible.

In the Church of Scotland today, doing what OneKirk is doing is, apparently, seen as being perfectly acceptable – and indeed, mainstream. But as I read the New Testament, and consider the church in New Testament times, it seems to me that the apostles would see things very differently. And it it’s not just the church in New Testament times. For most of the past 2,000 years, this open condoning of evil would have been seen as unacceptable – as unacceptable as condoning the actions of Omar Mateen.

The story in the Glasgow Herald shows that the modern western world has a completely different set of values from that of New Testament Christianity. The big story there is that people were horrified because the Covenant Fellowship issued a statement on ‘the wrong day’ – and that Covenant Fellowship apologised. I honestly wonder what the apostles would have made of that.

Of course, nobody expects the Glasgow Herald to take its values from the teaching of the Bible, any more than Christians in New Testament times expected the Greeks and Romans among whom they lived to share their beliefs about what was right and what was wrong. But it is still interesting to see just how big the gulf is between the values displayed by the Herald and the values of the Bible. And it is more interesting still to see how an act of evil in Florida should bring forth a response from those who are apologists for evil within the Scottish church.

Remain or leave: the real John Mann speaks out

I was surprised this morning that one of the main news headlines on the BBC website declared that John Mann was to vote for Brexit. I looked again and discovered that the headline was not about me, but about a Labour MP with the same name.

These days, it seems like everyone is telling the world what they think of the question of the moment: “Should the UK remain in the EU, or should it leave?”

For what it’s worth, here are my thoughts on the matter.

The Economy

A lot of the debate has been about whether leaving the EU would be good or bad for the economy – in other words, jobs and GDP. Personally, I don’t believe that this is a particularly important consideration. Why?

First, because we simply don’t know whether leaving would be good or bad for the economy. Dan Hannan’s entertaining little video “Wrong Then, Wrong Now“, illustrates this perfectly. A few years ago, many respected political and business leaders warned that it would be a big mistake for Britain to stay out of the common European currency. Nobody is saying that now. Why should we believe the warnings of dire economic consequences for Britain if we vote to leave the EU?

Second, it probably doesn’t make much difference. Andrew Lilico, an economist who seems to me to know what he is talking about (though I realise that my opinion on the merits of different economists isn’t worth much) has looked at the arguments and done some calculations, and the conclusion he came to was “by 2030 one should expect the economic consequences from Brexit to be roughly balanced – somewhere between a loss of 1% of GDP and a gain of 2% of GDP “. That’s not a big difference.

Third, whether leaving or remaining is better for the British economy depends mostly on the economic policies followed by British governments and the EU in the future. If Britain leaves and follows wise economic policies, leaving will probably lead to greater prosperity. If Britain leaves and follows foolish economic policies, Britain will probably be poorer as a result of leaving. And that will largely depend on how we vote at general elections.

Open Britain or Fortress Britain

For a lot of people, the referendum is not so much about economic prosperity, but about how they see the rest of the world. Should Britain be open to the rest of the world, or should we be protecting and policing our borders? Is the rest of the world a threat, or is it an opportunity? For many people, this is pretty much a gut instinct. Yes, it is related to the question of economic prosperity – but it is even more basic than that.

What is interesting is that for some people, the problem with the EU is that it makes the UK too open to the rest of the world – while for other people, the EU cuts the UK off from the rest of the world. In other words, some people support leaving because they want Britain to be more protected, and others support leaving because they want Britain to be more open.

An example of someone who supports Brexit because he wants more protection for Britain is John Mann, the MP for Bassetlaw. Writing in “The Sun“, he says

At the heart of our problems, we have at all times now one arm tied behind our back by the European Union and there is nothing we can do about it. Nowhere is that clearer than with the free movement of people, which has, is, and will continue to undermine pay and conditions in working class communities. It is not sustainable to have 300,000 new people added to the population every year. It has created two kinds of people in this country: the people who gain from this and the people who lose out. If you live in London and you want a cheap nanny, and a gardener and a cheaper plumber you can get really nice, really good people cheaper than you could before and you can go to a different restaurant every night and eat a different kind of food. In the North of England, in the Midlands, in South Wales, people do not get those benefits. They get the problems. . . . So the speed of change is worsening inequality in the country. . . . the poorest in society are the ones who have been hit by agency workers and zero hours contracts already. They are the ones who have been hit by labour flexibility with so many workers coming into the country.

My comment on that is simply that the MP for Bassetlaw says a lot about “inequality in the country” and about “the poorest in society” – but completely ignores the fact that a lot of the workers coming into the country (because of this free movement of people) are poor by British standards, and are seeing their standard of living improving a lot by coming into the UK. The free movement of people may increase “inequality in the country”, but it decreases “inequality in the world”. What hits the poorest in British society may well help the poorest in the world.

Similarly, he speaks about how it is good for Londoners to be able to get a cheap nanny or a cheap gardener or a cheap plumber, and how people from the North of England, the Midlands, and South Wales lose out because they cannot – but he doesn’t mention the fact that the nanny, the gardener and the plumber are all benefiting from being able to move freely.

In short, this other John Mann doesn’t really seem particularly excited about helping the less well off, unless they are British.

But while this Bassetlaw chap wants to leave because he believes the EU is too open, Liberal Leave (a LibDem group who support Brexit) want to leave because they think it is too closed:

“Liberal values are global – and should not be limited just to one continent. The insularity of the European Union has meant that Britain has turned its back on the rest of the world, especially the Commonwealth. This is reflected in our immigration policy, where it is almost impossible for people to move to the UK from outside the EU. We believe the liberal principles of free and open trade are the best way of increasing prosperity in developing countries. But far from promoting trade, the EU imposes punishing tariffs on countries in places like Africa and Central America, seeking to sell their goods in Britain. We believe ‘Fortress Europe’ has failed to respond humanely and effectively to the refugee crisis. “

Will Britain be more open or more closed if it leaves? That will depend on the policies it chooses to follow if it leaves – and also, to some extent, to the policies followed by the EU. And we simply don’t know what policies the British government and the EU are going to follow over the next 20 years. About the only thing that can be said is that if Britain leaves the EU, it will probably be more open to people and goods from Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, and less open to people and goods from Europe.

Ever closer union

If it is difficult to know what effect leaving would have on the UK’s prosperity and on its openness, is there anything we can know about the consequences of leaving? I think there probably is one thing that we can be pretty sure of.

The trend over the past 40 years has been in the direction of ever closer union. The EEC gave way to the EU in 1993; the European Central Bank appeared in 1998; in 2002 member states that adopted the Euro ceased using their traditional currencies. There is talk of a European Army. Ever closer union seems to be happening, and it seems likely that this trend will continue, with member states slowly but steadily giving up their independence, and the EU becoming a de facto sovereign nation. There is nothing particularly unusual about this; 200 years ago Germany and Italy were collections of several small states, which gradually came together over the course of several decades to form Germany and Italy as we know them today.

Would it be good or bad for the UK to lose (even) more of its independence? Would a united Europe be a good thing?

I think that a lot of people are attracted to the idea of being part of a large union because it feels ‘safer’ – remaining outside feels risky. This way of thinking believes that big is good – or at least that it is good to be part of something big – that a united Europe would be secure and strong in the big wide world out there.

I have to confess that I am uneasy with that view. In my opinion, the worst possible political arrangement for the world is a world with one central government exercising political control of the entire planet. It simply concentrates far too much power in one place. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

And it seems to me that the second worst option is a world divided into a small handful of powerful blocks. Again, far too much power would be concentrated in only a handful of places. What I would prefer to see is a large number of independent countries – the more the merrier. That would share power out, and provide diversity instead of uniformity.

And that is basically why I would like to see Britain leaving the EU. Which puts me on the same side as my namesake in parliament (and also with David Robertson!)

Interestingly enough, this brings us back to the Biblical account of the Tower of Babel, which I wrote about a few weeks ago. And in particular to words of the builders of the tower: “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth. ” What is interesting is that the Biblical account describes an attempt by the people of the world to form a unity. It doesn’t describe it explicitly as a political unity, but that is what it was.

God clearly did not believe that this unity project was a good idea:

“The LORD said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another’s speech.” So the LORD dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.

The words “nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” suggest that God did not think this huge amount of (political) power concentrated in one place was a good thing. And so he scattered them over the face of all the earth – in other words, into many smaller political units.

And if God thought that was a good idea, who am I to argue?