I HAVE come to believe that Remain deserved to lose the 2016 EU Referendum because it failed to articulate a positive European identity and mission that the UK would be foolish, reckless, and culturally impoverished to leave.
I suggest, however, that the Brexiteers have now had four years to articulate a renewed UK identity that it was worth all this trouble to reassert, and I see no sign that they have made any progress at all.
The referendum, and almost all the foregoing and subsequent debate, have concentrated on economics and politics — but the real issue is one of identity.
This nation had a part to play in upholding Protestantism, and subsequently a part in advancing Christianity, commerce, and civilisation in the British Empire. After the Empire, it chose to become part of the European project. Now, it has chosen to cease to be part of that project. What might its new part be?
I want to offer a brief, immodestly titled “Manifesto for a United Kingdom”, in six steps.
1 We need to start by saying we’re a bigger and better people than we have been amid the ugly and bitter squabbling of the past four years. We may, indeed, recognise that profound divisions have been laid bare, and that talk of healing is cynically premature. But the least that we can do is to stop speaking and acting in ways that evidently exacerbate those divisions.
Those who feel passionately need to try at least as hard to portray the arguments of their antagonists in the best possible light as they do to find well-chosen words to validate their own stance. The problem with war is that you become as bad as your enemy. We need at least to declare a ceasefire.
2 We need to tell a truthful story about our past. The pilots who won the Battle of Britain were indescribably brave and sacrificial. But a lot of them were Polish. (One fifth were foreign nationals.) And the Second World War was won because Hitler overreached himself in Russia, and American forces eventually overwhelmed Germany and Japan.
The recent film 1917 has been lauded for its cinematography, but its history is truly terrible: it underwrites a story in which the British were plucky in ingenuity and superhuman in initiative, while the Germans were beastly and duplicitous and deserved everything they got.
3 We need to take active steps to recognise publicly the flawed and complex history of our nation. The theologian Andrew Shanks talks of our vocation to be a pioneeringly honest ex-oppressor country.
We have behaved as if we needed only to talk up our successes and deny our failures, and everyone would be convinced. But Neil MacGregor’s magnificent Radio 4 series As Others See Us demonstrated time after time that nation after nation regards the UK as a country that consistently overpromises and underdelivers, with a mouth perpetually bigger than its trousers and a truth much humbler than its official history.
The problem with the Windrush scandal is not simply that people were ungraciously and unjustly treated in 1948, or even that people have been even more unjustly and ungraciously treated in recent years. It’s that we are treating this as an unfortunate and out-of-character blunder, rather than the tip of a very deep iceberg.
We have told ourselves that we were the good guys in world and European history, and shouted down anyone who maintained otherwise. It’s not true. Only the truth will set us free.
4 We need to make the most of this confused and, in some cases, bewildered moment in the life of our nation. Out of crisis and dismay come discovery and renewal. I would like to see Brexit marked not with a bong but with a full array of public displays of lament, celebration, and rededication.
Lament means extolling the glory of God, contrasting it with the plight of creation, and asking God to address the gap; it can also involve repentance for mistakes and for complicity in wrongdoing. Celebration affirms life, creativity, joy, and collaboration. Rededication synthesises lament and celebration with a commitment to a shared future.
That is what Westminster Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral exist for; but it would need to be a truly national rather than Londoncentric endeavour. If you doubt the power or possibility of public sacred or secular liturgy, consider the effect of the 2012 Olympic opening ceremony, and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding, in capturing and reflecting the public mood.
5 Once, Britain was the global leader in taking control of other cultures and introducing its own gospel of Anglophone institutions, extensive communications, education, health, and exploitative commerce based on extraction of local minerals. It now has the opportunity to become a global leader on the two most pressing issues of our day.
Most obvious is the climate emergency. The UK has a reputation for ducking and diving on European legislation, dragging its feet, and constantly complaining to the referee. What if it seized this moment of global rabbit-in-headlights paralysis and put its commercial, institutional, and governmental weight behind becoming the blue-ribbon post-carbon society? Then it could truly claim to have seized the Brexit moment.
What the terror of nuclear war once was, the ecological movement has become: a quasi-religious quest to save humanity from itself. Britain could transform itself almost overnight from the skulker in the corner of multilateral partnership to the gold standard.
6 The other most pressing issue of our day is, paradoxically, how we are to live with one another across profound differences of religion, race, conviction, and class, and amid painful legacies of hurt, hardship, oppression, and injustice.
The Brexit civil war sets an unpromising precedent. But if the UK is so wonderful that it should shrug off the European yoke, that must surely be the UK of the present and future, not a constructed UK of an imagined past. My fundamental theological conviction is that God gives us everything we need to fulfil our calling to be a flourishing society, fully alive. If we experience our lives as scarcity, it is because we refuse to receive the abundant gifts that God is giving us.
God is giving us abundant gifts in those on whom society is inclined to turn its back: those with disabilities, asylum-seekers, those with a criminal record, those whose gender and/or sexuality lies outside a real or imagined norm. Historically, our culture has struggled to see past such labels to perceive the glory of what lies beyond and within. This is a moment when we can realign our country to release the talents of all its people, especially those so long excluded or neglected, and rejoice in the blessings that ensue.
LET us become a pioneeringly honest ex-oppressor nation. Let us welcome the gifts of every person in society. Let us embark on a process of lament, celebration, and renewal. Let us rejoice that God gives us everything we need. And let us seize this moment to discover a future that is bigger than the past.
Canon Wells is the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, London. This article originated in a dialogue at the church last week with the Revd Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch.