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We need counter-cultural politics

11 October 2019

A way out of the constitutional crisis requires compromise on both sides, says Angus Ritchie


The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, delivers a speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester last week

The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, delivers a speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester last week

CATHLEEN KAVENY describes the “prophetic jeremiad” as a form of “moral chemotherapy”. It is “a brutal but necessary response to aggressive forms of moral malignancy”. Yet, applied excessively, it weakens the whole body.

The tending of a healthy common life also requires empathy, patience, and a willingness to negotiate. In my new book, Inclusive Populism, I describe how churches and the other institutions in their neighbourhood cultivate those vital habits when they organise together for justice (Comment, 28 June).

Community organising certainly has its provocative and prophetic moments: such as confronting exploitative lenders, landlords, and employers. But it begins by drawing people together across deep differences to listen, negotiate, and build a common life. Through such encounters, I have learned about the costs of our increasingly toxic political climate — for example, from Muslim women who have been shouted and spat at in the street, and Jewish families whose schools and synagogues require ever-increasing security.

Last week, many on the Left who expressed outrage at “anti-Semitic tropes” in the conference speech by the Home Secretary, Priti Patel remained silent about the extent of the very same prejudice within the Labour Party. By the same token, many right-wingers attacked Labour for anti-Semitism, but had nothing to say about Islamophobia in the Conservative Party.


AS CHRISTIANS, we are being anything but counter-cultural if we condemn only the wrongdoing of our political opponents. The harder challenge, and the one that often has the greater impact, is to call out the harmful words and deeds of our political allies.

The Gospel reading set for 27 October — which may or may not be the Sunday immediately preceding Brexit — is the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax-Collector. It calls us to repentance: a truly counter-cultural activity. Instead of looking at our opponents and inwardly praying “God, I thank you that I am not like that bigoted Leaver (or elitist Remainer),” it invites us into humility and self-examination.

What might that involve for someone like me, who was a convinced and passionate Remainer in 2016, and still laments the EU referendum result? How have the mistakes of my “side” contributed to the current crisis?

Over the past 50 years, there has been a consistent pattern of subjecting major constitutional revisions to referendums. While governments with a majority in the House of Commons have implemented other policies with the support of a minority of voters, referendums have been held on proposed changes that would affect the framework of our democracy — such as devolution from Westminster to the nations and regions of the Union, and electoral reform.

The one striking exception is European relations. Since the initial poll in 1975, there has been no referendum to ratify any of the steps that transformed the Common Market into a European Union. This has been one of our greatest constitutional changes, with an increasing quantity of laws and regulations made at a supranational level.

If devolutions required a referendum, it might be thought equally important to secure popular consent for this supranational pooling of sovereignty. Yet referendums were repeatedly avoided — partly because those of us who supported greater integration feared that the public would reject it.


THE political crisis has been fuelled by popular frustration with a top-down, technocratic politics, in which many feel that they have no voice. More than 80 per cent of MPs voted for the Act that enabled the 2016 referendum. Although it was technically “advisory”, the public was promised that its outcome would be acted on. Those who propose another course need to explain how, after years of evasion of public opinion on European integration, this would not further fray the bonds of trust between politicians and people.

At the same time, a stable constitutional order requires the consent of the 48 per cent no less than the 52 per cent. To impose a no-deal Brexit, for example, would ignore both the promises made by the Leave campaign in 2016 and the need for a settlement that respects the range of opinions in the UK’s nations and regions.

Far from being counter-cultural, angry jeremiads against political opponents have become the norm. To rebuild a constitutional framework that can be respected across our fractured and angry polity will require everyone to make compromises. This will involve us collectively relearning the language of humility, empathy, and, indeed, repentance: not the prayer of the person sure of their own righteousness, but that of the humble tax-collector. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.


Canon Ritchie contributes his usual Sunday’s Readings reflection.

His new book, Inclusive Populism: Creating citizens in the global age, is published by the University of Notre Dame Press at £28.50.

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