THE leadership of the Church of England no longer speaks with authority, at a political level, for the nation’s poor and working classes. This became painfully evident during the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union (News, 1 July).
The Legatum Institute, which is advising the Government on its exit negotiations, published research last summer that examined the 52-48-per-cent voting split. Its data shows that less well-educated and poorer voters backed Leave. If you lived in a council house, depended on a state pension, or had an annual income of less than £20,000 per annum, the chances are you were a Leave voter. Legatum’s interpretation of their motive is that it was “a cri de coeur from millions of people who feel Westminster no longer knows, or even cares, how it feels to walk in their shoes”.
The world’s most powerful forces backed the Remain campaign: the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Bank of England, President Obama, the World Bank, and the IMF. Britain’s most senior clergy, too, overwhelmingly rallied to the Remain cause (News, 17 June). That the poor and working classes unitedly dismissed them reveals the gulf between the socio-economic beliefs of those at the top of society and the lives daily lived by those at the bottom.
For senior clergy, this is catastrophic, because they claim that their “prophetic” politics has a “bias for the poor”. Supporting Remain exposed them, ironically, as part of the very elite whom the poor and working classes now reject. We must ask how the Church’s most senior clergy became so disconnected from those whom they claim to serve and what can be done to reconnect with them. Offering a hopeful vision of Britain’s EU exit is our opportunity.
ALTHOUGH the Remain campaign went nuclear in its immediate post-referendum forecasts, its fears have not materialised. Employment remains high, the latest Labour Force Survey conducted by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests; the Confederation of British Industry says that British manufacturing is “firing on all cylinders”, as the weaker pound drives competitiveness in non-EU markets.
The pound did drop in the aftermath, but many economists argue that it was over-valued to begin with. Indeed, the FTSE is hitting record highs. The Bank of England is revising its growth forecasts upward and downgrading its risks: in January, the Bank of England Governor, Mark Carney, told MPs: “Having got through that night [of the Brexit vote] and the day after, the scale of the immediate risks around Brexit have gone down for the UK.”
Companies such as Google and Apple are now making enormous capital investments in the UK; and many of the biggest economies of the world, such as the United States, Australia, Canada, and Singapore, are lining up for bilateral trade deals.
From immigration to the justice system and the regulatory environment, new possibilities can be imagined that make life better for the poor. For example, the think tank Economists for Free Trade estimates that lowering UK tariffs, designed by Brussel to shield EU economies from global competition, will create an additional four per cent in GDP, leading to higher employment and wage increases as businesses demand labour to meet our growing economy. They also estimate an eight-per-cent fall in consumer prices. More jobs, lower prices, and higher wages make life better for the poor.
With national controls over immigration reinstated, policies can be implemented that represent the felt needs of local communities. This issue, more than any another, energised low-income communities to vote Leave, because they experience the highest levels of immigration.
Although the evidence is inconclusive, the Church cannot ignore the perception that cheap labour from Eastern Europe has reduced local employment for low-wage earners and overburdened schools and the NHS; nor can it dismiss fears that high levels of immigration will Islamise beloved communities, and increase crime and terrorism, as it has done in Germany, France, and the Netherlands.
Calling Leave voters “selfish” and “racist”, and treating them with the sneering contempt that some clergy have, is extremely insulting. It exposes their self-righteousness and lack of empathy. The result is not to shame the poor into thinking like the clergy; rather, it drives the poor towards illiberal forces willing to speak on their behalf.
SINCE the referendum, new opportunities to tackle global poverty are being discussed. Legatum’s Special Trade Commission views the UK’s new relationship with the world as an opportunity to increase market access for the poor in developing nations, encourage property rights, write stable and predictable rules, lower barriers to trade, and create jobs.
Likewise, the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Trade Out of Poverty has acknowledged that post-Brexit trade agreements provide “an opportunity for the UK to lead the world in structuring pro-development trade policy with Africa that will genuinely boost growth, jobs and incomes of ordinary people”.
The Church must listen to what the poor are saying. The referendum revealed that senior clergy have not been listening well. Britain’s exit from the EU is a time for them to speak with the poor and not just for the poor. It is time to talk up the freedom, security, aspiration, and wealth creation that it offers to those who need it the most, in the UK and around the world.
Brexit, as the Legatum Institute puts it, “is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to reshape public policy so that it genuinely helps those who feel they have little stake in society and respond directly to the concerns that were surfaced in the referendum”.
The Revd Dan Stork Banks is Assistant Curate in the Cheswardine, Childs Ercall, Hales, Hinstock, Sambrook and Stoke on Tern Team Ministry, in the diocese of Lichfield. He was a community police officer for ten years. He is a presenter on the TGI Monday Show on YouTube. www.tgimonday.show.