Just over two-weeks ago 51.9% of UK citizens who voted in the referendum chose to leave the European Union. The aftermath has been cataclysmic for British politics. Both mainstream parties currently face leadership crises, each with their political credibility becoming more moribund on a near-daily basis. At the same time, the media portrays horrific outbreaks of violence in local communities, fuelled by racism and xenophobia. But the reasons behind Brexit are far more complex than either communal hostilities or political ambitions, although certainly these have played a part.
In total, 71.8% of UK citizens eligible to vote participated in the referendum, the highest turnout in the UK since the 1992 general election. If one were to look at this positively they might say that this signals the end of “political apathy”, albeit with a nationalistic protectionist tone. However, looked at through the lens of Catholic social thought (CST), the backdrop to the referendum smacks not of apathy, but of the disempowerment of communities, encroached upon by both the state and the market that ultimately break down the bonds of civil society. This is a question of power; this is a question of subsidiarity.
Within CST, subsidiarity serves as a guiding principle that deals with regulating power to the appropriate levels. This works in two directions, both upwards and downwards, to free the state from any superfluous duties so it can focus on promoting the common good, and to protect the individual person from the burdens of excessive state interference, thus preserving their freedoms. The principle, here articulated in a classic statement by Pius XI in Quadragesimo Anno, stipulates that
Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought of its very nature to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them. (no. 79)
Neither the European Union nor the British government are strangers to subsidiarity. The EU adopted the principle into the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 to guide relations between the official EU bodies themselves and member nation-states. The centralization of the EU, or at least the perceived centralization, threatened the principle of subsidiarity arguably leading to calls for the UK referendum. But in many ways Brexit is far less to do with the EU’s violation of subsidiarity and much more to do with the UK’s own. And it’s here that the principle’s Catch-22 can be seen.
David Cameron’s notion of ‘Big Society’ drew heavily upon the notion of subsidiarity (indirectly drawn from CST via John Milbank’s theology and Philip Blond’s rendition of this in his book Red Tory). Cameron’s “Big Society” initiative sought to devolve decision-making to local communities and foster the development of volunteer associations and cooperatives. At best, however, this can be seen as a bastardisation of the principle of subsidiarity. Importantly, CST makes clear that subsidiarity also involves state intervention in necessary measure when individuals or lesser bodies are incapable of protecting human dignity (part of its job in promoting the common good). Fundamentally, therefore, subsidiarity is not just about devolving power or localization but about ensuring power lies at the appropriate level for human dignity to be supported. It is worth here quoting Benedict XVI’s Caritas in Veritate at length:
Subsidiarity is first and foremost a form of assistance to the human person via the autonomy of intermediate bodies. Such assistance is offered when individuals or groups are unable to accomplish something on their own, and it is always designed to achieve their emancipation, because it fosters freedom and participation through assumption of responsibility. Subsidiarity respects personal dignity by recognizing in the person a subject who is always capable of giving something to others. (no. 57)
It is precisely this aspect of the principle, however, that Cameron’s government has neglected. Subsidiarity insists that the state should always be at the service of the human person, who is the source and foundation of society. Fundamentally, this subverts the logic of neo-liberalism, and in some ways Brexit can also be seen to do so. It is an affront to a system that promotes the interests of the state and market at the expense of communities themselves. (Look for example at the forms of nationalisms that have arisen post-Brexit. These are not about allegiance to the nation-state but rather stem from something far more tribal). And it is here where the failings of subsidiarity’s twin principle, solidarity, become so clear. Whilst subsidiarity functions to govern the vertical structure of society, solidarity acts horizontally. As Benedict XVI astutely stated in Caritas in Veritate subsidiarity removed from this integral relationship “gives way to social privatism” (no. 58).
Cameron’s policies portray a prime example of a grotesque miscalculation of the function of subsidiarity. By promoting a politics of “Big Society” that devolves responsibility to local communities under the guise of empowerment, accompanied with a programme of austerity that deprives communities of avenues to exercise their civic role, any form of governmental solidarity with communities has failed to materialize. The result has not been political apathy but rather a deep-seated feeling of powerlessness to bring about political change for certain majorities of the populace, and therefore disillusionment with political engagement. The irony within the “Big Society” model is that by arguing to undo the bureaucracy of the state, it is precisely through a top-down bureaucratic model that this is attempted, a point that Nathan Coombs makes in “The Political Theology of Red Toryism.” This is not about empowering people in any meaningful way and in fact further robs them of any easy avenue of holding the state to account. This is a superficial account of subsidiarity that may devolve responsibility but fails to devolve the corresponding power needed to enable true democratic participation. Is it any wonder then that when given the chance to express their voice certain groups inevitably use it to protest the current order?
Does all of this mean then that the UK would be better off within the EU? According to CST, the answer is a clear and resounding “yes.” In true subsidiarity style, the EU serves as a higher body functioning to facilitate tackling issues that simply can’t be dealt with at the level of the nation-state, such as environmental problems and global big business. Indeed, CST has long promoted the need for international bodies, such as the United Nations, to tackle global issues. This is not all to say, however, that there are no reasons to hope for Britain’s future relationship with Europe. Although the current turmoil the UK is facing post-Brexit may seem insurmountable, it is worth remembering that citizens have shown a real willingness to hold a political voice and role. (Just look at the popular backlash against MPs who have held votes of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn). Leaving the EU will not solve the feelings of powerlessness, or necessarily reformulate appropriations of power, but it is so important now more than ever that we as a nation learn how to use subsidiarity adequately if we want to move forward. The disenfranchisement and disempowerment felt by many needs to be addressed in order to promote the community building that is so needed, rather than endless factionalism. Whilst Brexit serves as an important lesson in understanding the dangers of subsidiarity being violated, it is essential that the response does not further this and any adequate resolution must not further disempower or isolate.
Anna P. Blackman is a Ph.D. Candidate at the Centre for Catholic Studies of Durham University.