Britain’s vote to leave the European Union is a social earthquake that will define the next generation of politics in this country.
It has exposed the deep divisions between Scotland and England, the young and the old, London and the rest of England, cosmopolitans and provincials, non-White British and White British, progressives and social conservatives, etc. Although all of these issues were bubbling beneath the surface for some time, now we have a form of open ‘culture war’ on our hands.
The challenge that it reveals is that of finding a way to share a nation between people who have profoundly different visions about what it means to be British—or a member of one of the UK’s constituent nations—and for our destiny within the world.
Amidst the triumphalism and the recriminations, the demonization and dismissal of persons on the opposing camps, we must begin to wrestle with deeply conflicting values and priorities among well-meaning people in our nation, values and priorities that often correspond to radically different ways of life, forms of community and senses of place that our nation sustains.
This referendum was not simply about economic or administrative questions, but came to represent the deeper question of what we imagine Britain to be. The answer to this question proved to be very different in cosmopolitan places like London than in many other parts of England in particular.
In London, the seat of British government and the centre of gravity of power and wealth in our nation, Britain has historically turned its countenance out to face the world. In our capital, however, only a minority of the population is now White British. The fact that many in London have responded to the Brexit result by calling for a city state of London, independent of the rest of the UK and still connected to the EU, illustrates the scale of the breach and disconnection that exists between cosmopolitan and more provincial areas of Britain. As a world city increasingly populated by persons born outside of the UK, London now probably has a deeper affinity with Paris or New York than it does with many other parts of the UK.
By contrast, in a place like Durham, where I live, over 90% of the population is White British. Here the population has profoundly deep historical and regional roots and a strong ethnic and genetic identity, which has been relatively stable for about 1400 years. While the young cosmopolitans in the university here strongly favour remaining in Europe, many locals feel unsettled by the loss of power from the UK and the steady erosion of traditional communities through immigration.
Those who chiefly value the abstract liberty of the “free movement of labour” and the boon of economic prosperity can often be tone deaf to the concerns of people for whom the particularity of local identity, communal continuity, and the preservation of a sense of belonging are far more salient concerns.
Both of these sorts of places have unique characters, yet they require very different conditions to sustain themselves. The challenge Britain faces is that of creating a country that permits radically different sorts of place to thrive, neither subjecting us all to the extremist rigours of a nativist provincialism or those of a deracinated cosmopolitanism.
Many have accused older people of scuppering younger people’s future for their prejudices and blinkered values, pointing out the huge disparities between the length of time elderly Leave voters will have to live with their decision over the younger people whose destiny they have determined.
While this is an important point, it can easily be forgotten that a country is an intergenerational bequest. Older voters have invested so much more of their lives in our country and completely merit their say in its future destiny. While younger voters may be more preoccupied with their immediate interests and futures, older voters may often be more concerned about securing the legacy of their own and previous generation’s sacrifices for the country.
Our country does not just exist for present expediencies, but also as the faithfully rendered fruit of past sacrifices and a gift held in trust for future generations. It is never simply the possession of the merely living, but also belongs to the dead and those yet to be born.
The referendum also reflects an opposition between different sets of social values, between progressives and social conservatives. Those opposed to multiculturalism, social liberalism, immigration, and globalization dramatically preferred the Leave over the Remain campaign. We must ask ourselves whether we have no choice but to fight a zero sum battle between such sides for the destiny of our country, or whether we can together craft a future that is accommodating for all of us.
There are things from which Remain supporters can take heart. Although the Leave campaign won, it won’t primarily be Leave supporters who determine how Brexit plays out. The consequences may be mitigated, perhaps through EFTA/EEA membership, leading to a softer form of exit (though achieving this would probably be difficult). Some leading commentators are more sanguine about Britain’s economic prospects. We can’t change what has happened, but we can work together to create a future that is much better than some of the possibilities that we face.
The challenges are immense, though. We need to wrestle with the genuine tensions between the relatively deracinated globalized cosmopolitanism to which many of us belong and the profound regional rootedness and the cultural and ethnic distinctiveness that characterize many of our compatriots’ sense of their British identity and find ways to protect and celebrate both.
We need to find some way positively to address the challenge of navigating tensions between nation state and market state visions, tensions that are certainly not exclusive to the UK. We urgently need to address those disaffected by globalization and the marginalization of indigenous national populations in our world cities. We need to tackle the isolation of our political classes and address the political alienation and paranoia felt by many.
We need to oppose the profound demoralization of our politics in an age of mistrust, where candidates like Trump and causes like Brexit can advance through lies and bullshit (the manifold falsehoods, misrepresentations, inaccuracies, and distortions of the Leave campaign were an especially concerning feature of the referendum).
In Britain right now, we are witnessing cultural struggles that are replicated across the globe, as increased globalization and social integration place the interests of very different forms of life and sets of values in direct competition. The challenge here, as elsewhere, is that of finding ways of making space for the healthy coexistence and mutual tempering of social visions and realities that are increasingly antagonistic and totalizing.
We all need to reach out to each other, across these yawning social and cultural divides, to acknowledge our common stake in the future of our nations. We must ensure that our governments have an equal stake in the well-being of each of their citizens or subjects. We must strive to believe the best of each other and to ‘steelman’ each other’s concerns. We must work to form and maintain friendships with people who hold profoundly different values from ourselves.
We must commit to pursuing common cause in concrete and local matters, where we are somewhat sheltered from the vicious winds that wail over the vast plains of abstract ideology. We must reject the politics of sabotage, schadenfreude, zero sum games, demonization, and polarization.
If we fail to do this, the future of the UK—the future of the West—is a fearful prospect indeed.
Alastair Roberts is a blogger and an editor who writes the regular feature on the politics of Scripture for Political Theology Today.