U.K. Decides and Divides

Postcard from London

By John Martin

Early Wednesday evening I left my local rail station, Ealing Broadway, and was greeted by a phalanx of campaigners handing out leaflets and canvassing support in the once-in-a lifetime referendum on whether the U.K. will be an island of, or an island off, Europe. The first face I recognized was that of our local MP, Steve Pound, a Roman Catholic layman I know quite well because he takes a keen interest in local faith communities. “Good evening, young man,” he said with a broad grin. Good humour seemed to be at the fore, but I sensed underlying tension.

Ealing Borough, one of the most racially diverse in the capital, voted 70 percent in favor of staying in Europe, a vote significantly out of step with the majority of the U.K. electorate. With the result now known, anger and pain are not far from the surface. A mother in our parish who came to the U.K. from New Zealand was wondering if her children had a future here. A friend phoned to say his 9-year-old grandson had broken down in floods of tears about the result. And this morning our usually placid street echoed to a loud shouting match between neighbors venting different views.

The Archbishops of Canterbury and York have called on citizens to “act with humility and courage” after the narrow vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. “As citizens of the United Kingdom, whatever our views during the referendum campaign, we must now unite in a common task to build a generous and forward-looking country, contributing to human flourishing around the world,” they said in a statement issued this morning.

They said the vote to withdraw from the European Union “means that now we must all reimagine both what it means to be the United Kingdom in an interdependent world and what values and virtues should shape and guide our relationships with others.”

Both archbishops had made a passionate plea to voters to stay in the EU. In fact where serving bishops spoke publicly they almost unanimously supported the Remain side. “We each have to make up our own minds,” Archbishop Welby said. “But for my part, based on what I have said and on what I have experienced, I shall vote to remain.”

“The vision for our future cannot be only about ourselves, he wrote in The Mail on Sunday. “We are most human when we exist for others.”

Writing in The Yorkshire Post on June 14, Archbishop Sentamu said he would be voting to remain. “For me, it’s a matter of principle, based on commitment, consistency and conviction. Back in 1975 I voted Yes to join the European Economic Community.” He quoted John Dunne’s “no man is an island” and added: “We may live on an island, but no one is an island. We are interdependent, needing one another and especially our European neighbours.”

“The referendum result has not changed the facts of geography,” the Rt. Rev. Richard Chartres, Bishop of London, wrote in an ad clerum soon after the results were clear. “There will clearly be a period of turbulence and I am very conscious of the fact that the large majority of those under the age of 25 voted to Remain. We shall have to work hard for national unity under these circumstances. Meanwhile, we in the Church will continue to cultivate our already-close relationships with Christians throughout Europe, and indeed throughout the whole world.”

Of those serving bishops who expressed an opinion, by my count nearly 20 expressed their preference to stay in Europe. In Wales the bench of bishops, meeting in St. David’s, made it known that they would all vote in favor of remaining in the European Union. The Bishop of Durham, who added his name to a statement from business leaders supporting the case to remain, criticised both camps for what he called “confusing” and “deeply unhelpful” use of statistic and trade figures.

The two former Archbishops of Canterbury entered the debate on opposite sides. Lord Rowan Williams supported Remain, joining a long list of faith leaders and academics in a statement that said “so many of the challenges we face today can only be addressed in a European, and indeed a global, context: combating poverty in the developing world, confronting climate change and providing the stability that is essential to tackling the migration crisis.”

Lord George Carey likened the situation to the Exodus. “In the Exodus story, voice of God cried: Let my people go,” he wrote in The Daily Mail.

“For the British in particular, it is the loss of sovereignty and the inability of Britain or indeed any member state to reform and restore the democratic freedom of the nation state which have made the impositions of the EU such a running sore for many people,” Carey wrote. “The choice is therefore a frosty and semi-detached relationship within the EU, or that of a strong and warm friend, ally and neighbour on the outside.”

Several bishops who supported Remain warned that the tone of public debate was bad. The referendum created a “poisonous political climate,” said the Rt. Rev. Nicholas Holton, Bishop of Salisbury. “I am convinced that remaining in the EU offers the best future for the United Kingdom. One example for me as the Church of England’s lead bishop on the environment, is the care of God’s creation, our common home: pollution does not stop at national borders. Britain in Europe has made a big difference in international negotiations. A bloc with half a billion people can do that. A country of 60 million on its own can’t.”

The murder on June 16 of Yorkshire MP Jo Cox cast a shadow over several days of the debate. The mother of two was shot and stabbed repeatedly near Birstall Library, West Yorkshire, where she was scheduled to hold an advice surgery. “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain,” said her accused killer, Thomas Mair, when asked to identify himself in court.

The Rt. Rev. Donald Allister, Bishop of Peterborough, wrote that he would neither advise people how to vote or indicate his intentions. He said there was a danger of national disunity in the wake of the vote but his chief concern was that Prime Minister David Cameron had called a referendum in the first place. “We elect a government and it is their job to govern,” Bishop Allister said.

“Tribalism will continue to dominate and threaten the future of the European Union, as a Tribe of Tribes,” said Patrick Dixon, a Christian futurist and founder of the global AIDS charity ACET. “There is no common language or shared culture, and national interests are fiercely defended. The EU has muddled along, avoiding many tough decisions, but struggles to respond rapidly in a crisis, so will continue to be vulnerable to global or regional shocks. Just one such shock has been recent chaos in Syria and the overwhelming size of refugee movements.”

This debate leaves the U.K. deeply divided. It opened fissures on many fronts. The majority of Parliamentarians said they wanted to remain, but that is a long way different from the rest of the country. The Labour Party, which was expected to be decisive in support of Remain, failed to carry many of its traditional working-class heartlands.

Support for Remain in Scotland was high at 62 percent. It signals the possibility of another round of moves by Scottish politicians to leave the U.K.

London’s support for Remain divided it from much of the rest of the U.K. About 2.26 million votes in the capital, just under 60 per cent of voters, supported Remain. Another serious divide was between young and old; under-25s were 60 percent in favour of Remain.

Church leaders will ponder what it means that when they were substantially in the Remain camp, while 52 percent of the population took the other route. Most of the church people I know are stunned by the result.

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