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Unintended consequences

01 July 2016

ONE of the most poignant parables told by Jesus is that of Dives and Lazarus. The rich man is tormented in hell for neglecting Lazarus when he used to beg at his gate. He asks Abraham to send someone to warn his brothers to amend their ways before they, too, end up in torment. Abraham refuses: “They have Moses and the prophets.” On occasions such as this, being wise after the event is no pleasure — not least because, as money drains out of the British economy, hitting jobs, savings, pensions, and government spending, the parable is being reversed: the post-Brexit torment will be felt most keenly by the poor, many of whom voted for it.

When Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, and Gisela Stuart gave their muted victory press conference on Friday morning, they stood behind a slogan that read “#takecontrol”. The contrast between that idea and the uncontrolled events of the past week could not be more striking. To list just a few: the resignation of the Prime Minister, the likelihood of a Scottish secession, the absence of any Brexit plan, the prospects of a new border with the Republic of Ireland, the sense of urgency among European leaders, the lack of it in the British Government, the internal combustion of the Labour Party, Spanish moves over Gibraltar, the fall in the value of sterling, the drop in global stock markets. . . A rocky period is to be expected after any change of direction, but this verges on chaos — and for the next few months at least, there is no one to take control.

It is usually wrong to blame a system for a failure, but it is certainly true that the referendum has exposed the gulf that has developed between the Government and the governed. This is not a new discovery: that gap has often been welcomed as a buffer to prevent the more outrageous opinions of the public from becoming law, such as its perennial support for the death penalty. This undemocratic democracy can be beneficial when appeals to the greater good compete with self-interest. The preservation of the overseas-aid budget has relied on this. But this is lazy democracy when no effort is made to convince the electorate to approve of the good being done in its name. If the gap increases substantially, the legitimacy of Westminster is undermined, with the sort of consequences we are now seeing.

In the widespread expressions of grief at the result, what tends to be forgotten is that the vote was not swung by 1.27 million people but by 17.41 million. Within that number, there are, of course, those with obnoxious views about foreigners and outdated fantasies about England’s greatness. But Remain voters make a mistake if they write them all off as such. Twenty-eight per cent of graduates voted leave; 38 per cent of under 35-year-olds; 38 per cent of Scots; 44 per cent in Northern Ireland; 40 per cent of Londoners. None of these elements quite fit the narrative of Britain’s having committed an ignorant, reactionary error — just as they fail to support the triumphalist claim made in the European Parliament on Tuesday that Britain “had voted to leave the EU”. Only about 38 per cent of the British did; the rest voted Remain or failed to vote. The truth of the matter is that Leave voters chose to blame the EU for its many current failings, just as Remain voters chose to overlook them. It was a judgement call for everyone. Such thoughts should give those calling for a second referendum pause.

This, combined with the awfulness of the referendum campaign, means that it is, perhaps, unfair to charge Leave voters with all the consequences we are beginning to see. But whether or not the economic ills could have been predicted, there is one element that was wretchedly likely, namely the rise in xenophobic and racist acts in the past week. The pronouncements of the Brexit leaders — “Oh, we didn’t mean you” — have done little to reassure the third-generation British Poles whose cultural centre was daubed with graffiti last weekend. And if anything could be more troubling than the anxiety inflicted upon the millions of newcomers to Britain, all with a legal right to be here, it is the encouragement that the UK vote has given to right-wing parties on the Continent. The ripple effect of last week’s decision threatens the well-being of many millions of people deemed by what has been hitherto an extremist minority to be living in the wrong place, not least those fleeing from the turmoil in the Middle East.

Turning to the Church, we are unconvinced by the Bishop of Manchester’s argument that it was necessary to remain neutral during the campaign in order to help with reconciliation afterwards. No MP feels unable to represent a constituent just because he or she expressed opposing views during an election. Better to test the degree of respect and warmth felt towards the Church by acting openly. This would have been hard, admittedly, in such an acrimonious campaign, but the attempt was worth making, and might have made a difference to the level of discourse. More widely, the Church must accept its part of the blame for the hostility to foreigners which was manifested in the campaign. Attempts to help assimilate newcomers into suspicious communities demand a unity of purpose and a depth of familiarity which many churches fail to achieve.

Above all, though, any sort of reconciliation process must be primarily one of action. A serious effort should be made to tackle the economic and social malaise that prompted many to vote against what they saw as a distant and disregarding Westminster/Brussels axis. The worry is that prominent Leave campaigners — in UKIP and on the right of the Conservative Party — have shown little interest in addressing inequality hitherto; and the Remain sections of the Conservative and Labour parties are in disarray. Those whose suffering is likely to be increased as the economy struggles are right to ask “Whence cometh my help?” At such a time, the words of the Prayer Book seem apposite: “Give us grace seriously to lay to heart the great dangers we are in by our unhappy divisions.”

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