According to a recent Sky/YouGov poll, trust in journalists is at an all time low. In the results of the poll, which surveyed 1652 British adults, journalists fared the worst in terms of public faith, with TV journalists receiving a net score of minus 40 and newspaper journalists, minus 55.
The issue of public trust in journalism is certainly complex. There’s clearly a massive debate to be had about the limits of this data (extent), where the data is and isn’t pointing in this direction (demographics), why people are thinking this way (cause) and why all of this matters (significance).
But in the face of this story, I want to focus on an example of journalism that I have greatly appreciated. In all of this, I have been most impressed by the coverage of the lockdown offered by the team at Unherd. Unherd’s approach is deceptively simple and effective. They seek to give voice to views that one normally wouldn’t come across while also challenging ideas that have unquestioningly become de rigueur. There isn’t a single “line” that all their writers follow, even though there is a broadly (though by no means monolithically) post-liberal flavour to their authors and their contributions.
Here have been some of the pieces I have appreciated from the Unherd team on the subject of the Covid-19 lockdown.
To begin with, I have been immensely challenged by Freddie Sayers’ interviews for UnherdTV. For those who’ve missed it, Sayers has interviewed various kinds of scientists who differ on their approaches to the virus. He has written all of this up in a provocative piece that explores the different worldviews that underlie the various public health recommendations. He’s interviewed Swedish epidemiologist Johan Giesecke who with bluntness and brevity advocates a policy of protecting the old and frail, while allowing social distancing measures for the rest of the population. He has also spoken with Neil Ferguson, one of the scientists responsible for Imperial’s Covid-19 report which has heavily influenced the strategy of the UK government thus far. Perhaps somewhere in between these two figures (at least in terms of the IFR or Infection Fatality Rate he has reached) is the German virologist Hendrik Streeck. He suggests that lockdown measures were introduced too soon and that, because the virus is endemic, we need to think about how we can live with it in the medium to long-term.
Tom Chivers offers a position that looks more favourably upon the lockdown. His piece today (Is the Lockdown doing more harm than good?) contains his usual combination of epistemological humility and careful reasoning. Chivers is broadly behind the lockdown now and in the near-future (“It’s better to lock down when you don’t need to, than not lock down when you do need to”) but is open-eyed to the deaths and death-like existence for many suffering from unemployment and mental-health conditions. “Lockdown is coming at a cost”, he rightly asserts. It’s one of the more open-eyed pieces that backs the lockdown policy. Also in its favour is the emphasis on the uncertainty about our conclusions because of the lack of data (which, he stresses, isn’t the same as saying that we have no data). As he writes:
In short, we need to work out what the cost of the virus would be, if left unchecked; then we have to work out what the cost of our response to it would be; and then use those two factors to decide whether the lockdown is worth the cost. The trouble is, we don’t know either of those things
The one potential blindspot in Chivers’ piece is the lack of discussion around herd immunity, which I would have liked to hear more him speak more about (no doubt he has elsewhere). To be fair, it seems we don’t know enough yet to say how the virus will interact when we come out of lockdown and, in the absence of mass testing and tracing, whether or not one becomes immune having had the virus.
In addition to covering the lockdown, UnHerd has also featured articles that touch on a wider set of issues raised by the pandemic. In this vein, two pieces have provided some much needed realism surrounding our cultural attitudes towards risk and death.
With her characteristically dry humour and wry take on things, Timandra Harkness discusses the need for us to consider risk when it comes to our approach to lockdown. She questions whether the government should have spoken more of risk mitigation rather than risk elimination. She writes,
we would have done better to talk about Covid-19 more like road accidents, as a risk that can’t be eliminated altogether, but can be mitigated. Instead, the Government invoked the language of existential threat, in the face of which no measure is too great. Now, weighing the risks of resuming more normal life against the risks of continuing in suspended animation, they are struggling to coax a fearful population out of lockdown.
Instead of trying to frighten us all into staying at home, the Government should have harnessed our altruism, inviting us to join a grown-up conversation about risk. That would have left the door open to invite us all, now, to weigh the risk of Covid-19 against the lost opportunities of continuing to hide from the world.
Of course, there is a risk, to use that word again, that with all of this talk of quantification and QALYS (the measurement used to determine the value of a life) we become bean counters of souls. Giles Fraser wisely warns us about this approach. And yet, when push comes to shove, difficult decisions need to be made about whose lives are saved. If this seems cold and utilitarian, perhaps even libertarian, then we need to remind ourselves that the UK government is not, as is often asserted, simply trying to balance human lives and the economy. Chivers cautions against this comparison.
It’s really important, by the way, that we don’t get wrapped up in the idea that it is “the economy” vs “human life”. The economy consists of people’s lives, in a very direct way: if you stop people working, you make their lives worse; their businesses go under, they fall behind on rent or mortgages, they can’t afford to buy the things they want or need.
From attitudes to risk, we turn, lastly, to conceptions of death, where Mary Harrington makes a very important contribution. Harrington takes to task the implicit assumption among high-income societies that “everyone will live forever”. The title of Harrington’s piece, “Not Every Death is Tragic”, is rather unfortunate and I imagine will cause many not to read it. I’d recommend not making that mistake. It is a provocative read, but the title has little bearing to the article which is a sensitive, personal and realistic take on death. Her point about herd immunity is interesting and one wonders if this should be the way forward (“Unless a vaccine is discovered, any relaxation of lockdown will result in a new spike in infections, followed by further lockdowns, and so on until we reach — yes — herd immunity”). Perhaps less controversially, Harrington also discusses the fact that in less affluent societies where “death is already a familiar presence, the risk calculus of virus transmission looks very different”. This point has been repeated elsewhere in discussions of a “white collar quarantine” (and I discussed it in this piece over a month ago). Harrington’s comparative point is one that resonates with me, having spoken with family living in middle-income countries outside of Europe, as well as with friends working in blue collar jobs here in the UK.
Harrington delivers some hard-hitting truths on the way we as a society think about death (“our culture treats death as abnormal, even outrageous — not the inevitable fact it still is”). I suppose the only thing I would add is that while inevitable, death for the Christian does not have the last word (see my reflection on hopeful realism here). Regardless of whether it is someone dying at the peak of their powers, or after a long life, death is not how things should be, though we recognise that it is how things in reality are. It is something that we will all go through. Setting semantics aside, Harrington’s piece implicitly reminds us that we might wish to reconsider recovering a common vocabulary for speaking about death that draws on religious traditions in general, and Christianity in particular. I, for one, would welcome this re-development in our public discourse.
As Britain prepares to leave the European Union, we would do well to consider our alliances, especially as other more malignant Empires loom on the horizon.
We need to talk about empires.
As today we begin the complex process of untangling ourselves from the European Union, this is more important than ever.
Integral to the movement for leaving the EU has been the strong desire for national sovereignty and the rejection of a perceived European empire. Britain’s laws and borders remain, in the final analysis, under the control of the British people.
At the same time, I think we might be losing sight of the foreign-policy implications of Brexit. An important part of striking out on this new path is the relationships we will have with other nations. And I’m not sure we’re talking about this nearly enough as much as we should.
Even in the month of January, as we prepare to leave the EU, we have already seen the importance of Britain’s cultural and military alliances emerge twice.
First of all, there was the US killing of Gen Soleimani in Iran. Amid rumours that the UK wasn’t consulted prior to the attack, serious questions were asked of the state of the Special Relationship.
Even as post-Brexit Britain celebrates its freedom, then, it cannot escape the urgency of its global relationships.
Because while the nation-state rises, empires aren’t going anywhere.
Who, in the end, will we call our neighbours? Countries that share our values or countries that do not?
The Rise of the Nation-State
Since the referendum result, there has been a fairly understandable focus in the UK on our relationship to ourselves.
We’ve begun to consider how the different parts of the UK relate to one another. And this is no bad thing.
This internal focus is largely the result of the fact that the nation-state has risen once more to the fore of Western politics.
2016, with the EU Referendum and the election of Donald Trump, was a cataclysmic year for national sovereignty. Of course, there have been a wave of national populist movements both preceding and following Brexit and Trump. But these two moments constitute a watershed which signalled that a profound change in the geopolitical landscape was afoot.
Among other things, the Brexit vote heralded a victory for the Somewheres. The Brexit vote was a revolt of those who benefited the least from globalisation against those who have benefited the most.
Rather than longing for imperial greatness, a majority of English Leave voters don’t even care if the Union breaks up. Leavers are not generally keen on foreign intervention, either; if anything, as Tom Holland put it, they’d just like to go back to the Shire and smoke pipe-weed.
There are legitimate fears that an empire without borders has already overrode national sovereignty and the freedom of nation states to determine their own course. The Brexit project is the rejection of a new world order and the full embrace of the free nation-state.
A World of Empires
At the same time, I’m wary of the fact that we might be ignoring the rise of other empires that are far more dangerous.
For all that the nation-state has been making a come-back, we still live in a world of empires.
Assuming that we are never going to get rid of empires, shouldn’t we seek to ally with like-minded powers against the rise of such dangerous regimes? My fear here is that in focussing purely on freeing ourselves from the European project (or, as some would see it, empire), we are naively blindfolding ourselves to other empires with extremely malignant and despotic designs.
A Modest Proposal
Very few Leavers are talking about this, however. British parliamentary sovereignty appears to trump any concerns over the rise of the Chinese empire.
And this does make sense. After all, Brexit is about focussing on levelling up all of Britain. On reaching out to those left-behind places. In post Brexit-Britain, the national takes prominence. As Danny Kruger put it so well in his maiden speech this week, “our first loyalties are to the people we live among”.
But we can’t forget our global ties, particularly to other long-standing allies who share our values.
Ultimately, I happen to think that these two points are not mutually exclusive—we can uphold national sovereignty by exiting the EU while still actively seeking out partnership with those states who stand for democracy and freedom.
There are two important questions here, though, that must be faced with open-eyed realism:
1) First, will other like-minded nations always want to interact with us?
The Huawei debacle has imperilled our relationship with an important ally. In Global Britain, we must not risk losing friends over the need for short-term, pragmatic, economic and technological gains.
2) In the wake of rancorous debate over our state as a nation, will our government give enough consideration to issues of foreign policy and our alliances with other nations around the world?
I welcome the swift actions taken by the government to level up all parts of the UK. At the same time, if we are to become Small Britannia, with a strong commitment to building a better Britain, we risk overlooking the part we can play in having a positive global influence.
I am not primarily talking here about being an economic powerhouse, as important as that is. Sadly, in those instances when politicians do consider “Global Britain”, it is invariably in economic terms. To only think about our role in global markets is short-sighted. After all, man cannot live on spreadsheets alone.
Nor, when I mention global influence, am I talking about intervening militarily at every possible juncture, as necessary as that is in certain scenarios.
I am speaking rather of the role of persuasion. In reducing our global influence to the military or markets, we lose sight of the various forms of soft-power that we possess. What of the cultural heritage which we can humbly but firmly offer to those willing to engage with us? I believe that when invited, we have a duty to convince others of the virtue of the values we have tried and tested over hundreds of years and which now form the bedrock of our constitutional democracy—the rule of law, the universality of human rights and the accountability of parliament. While we far from perfectly embody these values, we have a lot to offer.
Something good and important will be lost if we do not consider how we support those (for instance, in Hong Kong), who seek similar freedoms under totalitarian imperial regimes.
National interest and global influence often represent competing priorities but they need not always be mutually exclusive alternatives. While the balance is rightly shifting towards the national, in post-Brexit Britain we must not lose sight of our role in the world, and those in it that we would call our neighbours.
Here is my review of four of the biggest events that happened in 2019.
1. Climate Activism
2019 saw the issue of the climate rise to the forefront of UK politics in a major way.
Of course, it had been there throughout the decade in election manifestoes and government policy.
But I think it’s fair to say that 2019 brought with it a more vocal, more active set of actors on the environmental scene.
The most vocal of the climate activist protest groups was Extinction Rebellion who called for the UK parliament to accept that the globe is facing a climate emergency. “The Truth”, as ER see it, is that we are on the brink of a mass extinction.
Among their demands are for the government to recognise this emergency, and, in light of it, to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2025 (a mere 5 years from now).
Foremost among the climate protest movements was the now-famous, teenage Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. This unlikely hero projected herself to fame by leading and inspiring waves of young protesters across the globe to take to the streets on Fridays. One of the moments of the year was her impassioned speech before the UN Climate Action Summit, in which she levelled her frustration and anger at the inaction of world leaders.
Let me begin with what I take to be the positives from the climate activist movements in the UK.
We need to acknowledge that we are in a significant period when it comes to our future as a planet. Just have a read of the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report on Global Warming and you’ll see what I mean. When it comes to climate activists, more specifically, there is a fearlessness and a desire to tell the truth regardless of how horrific it appears. I find that impulse brave and commendable (even if I disagree with the 2025 target that is being proclaimed).
At the same time, the ER movement has not taken enough care both in terms of the claims it has made and the means by which it seeks to achieve its ends. This is a movement that has, frankly, overstretched itself.
Let’s start with its methods.
This is a movement that has frequently employed questionable means to meet its ends.
I found this out personally over the Summer. Bus routes were not operational due to the protests resulting in tube stations filling to the brim. Faced with no other choice, I taxi’d across town.
Disruption to major producers of fossil fuels, I can at least understand, even be sympathetic towards. But to obstruct the lives of ordinary citizens (sometimes with tragic results) doesn’t induce my sympathy. To be quite honest, and I know others that I have read and spoken with with feel similarly, it can induce the opposite.
All of this might be excusable if we were facing imminent death. In fact, one would have to applaud ER for its consistency—faced with global mass extinction, the least we could do is endure a bit of mild discomfort to our daily consumption, a scaling-back to our ordinary travel habits, right?
Except, we aren’t.
Which takes us back to to that crucial IPCC Report. Full disclosure: I am not a climate scientist. But I trust this report. It represents an international consensus of expert climate scientists. Importantly, it advises that governments seek to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050.
The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.
IPCC, Summary for Policymakers of IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C approved by governments (Oct 2018)
Some people, of course, get off on hellfire. But it can frighten or alienate more than it energises. So when we look at what Thunberg claims and compare it with what we know of the science of climate change, we have to conclude that she exaggerates.
Most importantly, and as Peter Franklin has argued, we need to begin discussing solutions. More to the point, we need to start discussing realistic, economically sustainable ways of reducing our carbon emissions. William Hague has compiled a list which will be required reading for policy-makers
Fast-forward to the end of October (a lot happened in between of course–May finally stood down, Boris Johnson won the leadership race, faced a series of parliamentary defeats, moved for parliament to be suspended, successfully got a new deal) and we faced a Christmas (or Advent?) Election.
The results were persuasive (at least as far as England was concerned). Johnson got his “stonking majority” and with it the largest Conservative majority since 1987. Labour crumbled, and nowhere more so than in the northern heartlands. You can read more about that important election night, here.
What I want to dwell on, though, is the fact that this election represents a re-alignment of British politics. As Matthew Goodwin, David Goodhart and others have argued, the Conservatives skilfully read the public mood which, in general, leans slightly left on economics and slightly right on issues of culture.
What it means to lean left on economics is fairly transparent; a commitment to public spending on NHS and the various components that make up the safety net of the welfare state.
The meaning of “leaning right” on culture is less apparent. Cultural conservatism doesn’t equate to Victorian social mores, or an illiberal backlash in terms of civil liberties and freedom of choice.
In fact, both assumptions unhelpfully conflate social conservatism and cultural conservatism. Peter Franklin helpfully distinguishes between them in this way:
social conservatism concerns matters of personal responsibility, while cultural conservatism concerns matters of collective identity — i.e. the former is about behaviour and the latter about belonging.
On social matters, most would agree that each individual is deserving of fair and equal treatment, irrespective of their race, sex or sexual orientation. As Matt Singh points out,
on the specifics, there are points where reasonable, non-bigoted people disagree. Besides the prioritisation there’s the question of what equality means in practice (is that formulation racist, is that advert sexist, and so on), to what extent equality has or hasn’t been achieved, what (more) should be done to achieve it, what happens when the interests of different protected groups conflict, and so on.
Leaning right on culture is similarly nuanced. It often constitutes not a resistance to change but a desire for a slower pace of change. On immigration, to take one issue of culture, this is not a drawing up of the drawbridges, but a plea for a system that takes greater care as to who enters one’s borders with a view to limiting the number of people that do.
The 2019 General Election resulted in an emphatic victory for those who lean right on culture.
One of things this means moving forward is the need for bridge figures on the (cultural) left and the (cultural) right. From personal conversations with those on the cultural and social left, I sense that it is important for those who are culturally right to assure the socially left that we will not be witnessing a backlash against hard-fought civil liberties for minorities. How one acts when in power is absolutely key, here. And the burden lies with those in the political ascendancy to offer important assurances in this regard.
With the cultural and social left, on the other hand, what is required is a greater attentiveness to the trends that have got us to where we are as a nation, and careful consideration of the nuances of the positions of those who have voted differently.
What 2019 (and the three or four years previous to it) have shown us is that issues of culture and belonging urgently require discussion. So far, we have as a nation collectively flunked this test. But there is still the distinct possibility of rapprochement. Conversations across difference are difficult, but the alternative—bitter division—is far worse.
2019 was, as far as I can remember, the year that the transgender debate came to my attention.
I first became aware of the issue when noticing trans women’s presence in women sports (I suspect that sports is the entry point into the issue for many men). I was and am persuaded by the evidence (see, for a start, here and here) showing that even with hormonal treatment, men who transition to become women possess a variety of advantages that come from the skeleton as shaped at puberty. I fully expect this issue will be one that is discussed at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.
At this point, I won’t comment any further, except to say this: the problem isn’t in Forstater’s assertion of biological reality (which seems so obvious as to be banal). Rather the problem, as I see it, lies in arbitrary, erroneous and harmful gender stereotypes promulgated and perpetuated by those on the Petersonian right and the trans-activist left.
Or, as former Olympic athlete Sharron Davies, more positively puts it:
“Whereas gender today is a social construct, an ideology, a feeling, totally changeable, I believe we cannot change sex but can live happily expressing ourselves outside of any stereotypes.”
Objective reality not only took a hit on the issue of biological sex. Donald Trump, a man who has endowed us with phrases like “fake news”, is on trial for requesting a probe into Democratic Presidential nominee, Joe Biden from Ukrainian President Vladimir Zelensky (in return offering him a state visit to Washington).
My take on the whole issue is that Trump appears to have well overstepped the boundaries of his office. Whether that constitutes an impeachable offence will obviously be a matter for the Congress. So far, the House has ruled in favour of impeachment. An overall positive impeachment verdict looks extremely unlikely, however, as the Republican controlled Senate looks set to vote against it sometime in early 2020. With this is mind, the Democrats would do best to reflect on how they might go about winning the hearts and minds of Trump voters ahead of November 5th.
To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come? Can we say with a straight face that abortion is a great evil that cannot be tolerated and, with the same straight face, say that the bent and broken character of our nation’s leader doesn’t really matter in the end?
The response from Trump was swift and revealing. Christianity Today was branded a “far left” periodical. “They would rather a radical left non-believer who wants to take away your religion and your guns”. The President’s reference to “your religion” was, I thought, chilling.
The response from Trump-supporting evangelicals was yet more revealing. Franklin Graham, son of Billy Graham (a founder of the journal) and hardline Trump supporter, revealed that his father had, in fact, voted for Trump. The very thing Galli had warned evangelical leaders of—the uncritical hitching of the evangelical wagon to that of the Trump administration—was playing out before us.
As Tim Costello of the Australian-based, Centre for Public Christianity notes, “the burning question is, does faith shape one’s politics or does politics capture and determine one’s faith?”
None of this is to deny that Trump has achieved important domestic and foreign policy objectives—his tough stance on China, to take just one example, is admirable and has proven effective so far. To fail to grant that Trump has scored some important victories for, among other things, the US economy and religious freedom is to be severely unbalanced in judgment.
What I find most disconcerting, however, is the uncritical support “rendered” to Trump by the leaders of the evangelical churches in the States. To fail to even feel even a twinge of inner conflict about the character of President Trump is to be equally unbalanced in judgment.
As Mike Bird puts it, such an ideology—such a Trumpology—is lamentable indeed
because it presents a God with partisan mercy, who expects men and women to ignore their moral compasses, to call the wicked good and the good wicked, in order to keep themselves positioned in the court of earthly power.
The 2019 General Election has come and gone and my oh my was it a seismic one!
In the months leading up to the vote, most polls were steadily forecasting a Conservative Majority. But then a day or so before the vote, YouGov published its MPR poll showing that while a Conservative majority was likely, a hung parliament was within the margin of error.
The exit poll swiftly put paid to that. As the clock struck 10, an 80 seat majority was forecasted with Conservatives taking 364 seats.
Then the results came in, thick and fast, with traditional Labour seats one by one turning blue. It was staggering to watch. Labour heartlands in the north east England yielded Conservative seats, many for the first time in 50, 60 even 70 years…and some for the first time ever. An emotional Ian Levy, the new Conservative MP for the former mining community of Blythe Valley, scarcely seemed to believe that he had won as he delivered his victory speech.
By dawn the results were there for all to see: Conservatives with 365 seats, Labour with 203.
The scale of the victory is breath-taking. The largest Conservative majority since Margaret Thatcher in 1987. The worst Labour performance in terms of haul of seats since the Second World War (oustripping Michael Foot’s 209 seats in 1983). Lewis Baston has rightly referred to it as a landslide.
But what are we to make of all this?
Here are my four big take-aways from the 2019 UK General Election.
1. An End to the Parliamentary Gridlock
First of all, with a Conservative majority in the House of Commons we have an end to the deadlock that has plagued Brexit negotiations the past three and a half years.
Throughout the campaign, three words dominated the Conservative airwaves: “Get Brexit done”. A poll by Unherd suggests that these were the three words that won the election.
We asked a representative sample of 2,000 voters on the day of the election how they had voted and why. Of those who said they voted Conservative, 85% put ‘to get Brexit done’ in their top three reasons. That was also the choice of almost nine in 10 of the people who voted Conservative for the first time yesterday.
James Johnson, Unherd
To be sure, there remains a heck of a lot of work to be done for Boris Johnson and his MPs “to get Brexit done”.
But there is now light at the end of the tunnel after months, years even, of uncertainty. And Johnson appears to be wasting no time, holding a vote on the Withdrawal Agreement next week which will secure the UK’s exit on 31st January. That of course is only the beginning. We then have the transition period during which parliament will thrash out (or square the circle of?) a variety of complex post-Brexit issues, including most prominently, the Irish border and a trade agreement.
Crucially, though, with the mandate this election has brought, there is finally some much needed clarity about our fate vis-a-vis the EU.
2. Corbyn Defeated and the Hope of a Credible Leader of the Opposition
Perhaps the biggest story of the night was the Conservative gain of stronghold Labour seats, particularly in the Northeast of the country (as this graphic makes clear). Commentators spoke of a “red wall” falling in Bishop Auckland, Durham North West, Sedgefield (Tony Blair’s old seat) Darlington, Stockton South, and Redcar (which Johnson quipped had now become “Bluecar”).
As much as the promise of “getting Brexit done” seems to have worked to great effect for the Conservatives, the spectre of Jeremy Corbyn greatly aided for the Tory cause.
There was the ever-present scourge of deep anti-Semitism. Then the betrayal of Labour Leave voters with the promise of a Second Referendum.
The most revealing moment of the night came as Alan Johnson berated Jon Lansman, the head of Momentum (the Corbyn pressure group within Labour), for turning his back on the working class voters who voted Leave. It is a must watch.
The results in the Northeast raise the question: was this election more of a victory for the Conservatives or a loss Labour? A YouGov poll suggests that the general population perceives the result as more of a Labour loss (51%) than a Conservative victory (37%). It is a question that will continue to be asked and pondered in the months and years to come.
For my part, I hope that Labour think long and hard about who their next leader will be. Corbyn was simply toxic for vast swathes of the population and it is a wonder Labour stuck by him for so long. Moving forward, Britain will need a credible opposition to hold the government to account. This election has hastened that process.
3. The Union Looks in Doubt
While the reality of Brexit is now a certainty, big questions have been raised about the state of the Union. Both Scotland and Northern Ireland voted in nationalist parties in large numbers.
The Scottish National Party (SNP) swept Scotland, taking 48 of a possible 59 seats and claiming 45% of the share of the vote. In line with her party’s manifesto, Nicola Sturgeon has already called for an IndyRef2, severely testing the unionist credentials of the PM.
Across the Irish Sea, there were changes in Northern Ireland as nationalists made gains and unionists lost seats. The Social Democratic and Labour Party (moderate nationalists) earned two seats while the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) lost two of their own including, most notably, that of Nigel Dodds, their deputy leader. Talk of an Irish independence referendum looms, even as the status of Northern Ireland’s relationship to the UK in Brexit negotiations remains uncertain.
I will admit to the state of the Union being my greatest source of anxiety stemming from this election. A crucial year or two lies ahead.
4. The Great Realignment of British Politics
Perhaps most significantly of all, though, the results of this election signal a seismic shift in the way we map British politics. The Blue Dawn in the northeast shows this realignment in particularly clear terms. Kent-based political scientist Matthew Goodwin has neatly summed up this shift as being “left-wing economically” and “broadly conservative socially”.
This realignment-of-sorts will, in itself, raise important questions. How will Johnson, an instinctive social and economic liberal, appease and retain voters who instinctively lean a little Left on the economy and a little Right on culture? Reflected in our changing political geography is a new Conservative electorate that will be looking not only for a meaningful break from the European Union, a tougher stance on crime, reform of immigration and a general slowing of the pace of change but also a more interventionist or even protectionist economic regime. Boris Johnson might be about to inherit a Conservative electorate of whom 86% want to see immigration reduced and 40% rail renationalised.
In the eyes of many, Johnson appears to have squared this circle. His victory speech (bar the odd reference to anti-socialism) appeared conciliatory, magnanimous, even at points humble. He recognised that many would have voted for him for the first time. That many of them were Labour voters. Then, in his speech outside Downing Street, he spoke of the need to heal as a nation and his willingness to listen to those who felt an affinity to the EU.
So Johnson seems to tapping into something here. Here’s Goodwin again:
Johnson and his team are clearly aware of the dilemma. They already stand a little to the Left of where David Cameron and George Osborne were, revealing how it is the centre-right, and not the centre-left, that has a stronger grasp of where most voters instinctively are. Those who have spent recent months shrieking about Johnson’s desire to build a ‘Singapore-on-Thames’ — a libertarian settlement fixated with deregulation and financial services — are today struggling to make sense of a Conservative manifesto that advocates higher public spending, a higher minimum wage, more money for the National Health Service, more money for infrastructure, more redistribution, more action on regional inequality, state aid for failing businesses and a buy-British procurement policy.
If Goodwin is right, and we are seeing a shift that is “left-wing economically” and “right-wing socially”, then this has some significant implications. Perhaps most importantly of all, this election suggests that those that live in places that are (or would describe themselves as) “liberal left”—socially liberal and economically liberal, or free-market—need to wake up to the fact that they are at odds with the pervading ethos of the country.
Whether or not we agree with this trajectory, we first of all need to acknowledge its explanatory power and seek to understand it. Judging by my social media feed, and the number of conversations I have had today with people in Cambridge, I’m not sure that many people have woken up. In the anger and hurt, the results are hastily blamed on racism and xenophobia. The urgency of stepping back, asking questions, getting out of our bubbles has never been more pressing.
In the wake of the EU referendum, many of us have had to “wake up” to the prevailing sense of public opinion. I know I’ve had to wake up.
This doesn’t necessarily mean agreeing with the public opinion; what it does mean is trying to understand it so as to better engage with it.
My own story is that this process has been one of transformation and richness.
As the dust settles, I am cautiously optimistic. There are big opportunities and dangers ahead. We will need all the critical powers, all the grace at our disposal to meet these head-on, together.
In this 30 page treatise, Graham Tomlin (Bishop of Kensington) somehow manages to breathe fresh life into how I think about Brexit. He does so not by focussing on the Brexit debate itself as a set of complex political or economic issues. Rather, he looks at how we might begin to heal and move forward as a nation post-Brexit. For my money, three things make his short book worth reading.
The Historical Parallels to the English Reformation
“‘Britain goes it alone’. It’s a headline that could have been written nearly 500 years ago”. Tomlin is speaking, of course, about the English Reformation.
English Christians in the sixteenth century vigorously and often violently debated whether the Church should break away from a different pan-European project—not the EU in Brussels, but the Catholic Church headquartered in Rome.
At the heart of the debate was the tussle between the local and the universal, the decision to create a national church or continue to identify with its centre in Rome.
The English Church, Tomlin explains, took the decision to exist independently of Rome. The Church of England was the result (though the journey to the Elizabethan settlement was by no means a smooth one). Crucially, this national church sought to balance the local and the universal. It did so through the parish system. Here, churches were both local and universal. They were local since they existed as relatively independent congregations tied to a geographical location. And they were universal (or at least national) by dint of sharing creeds and a common form of worship as well as allegiance to bishops and the Monarch. Tomlin emphasises that because congregations existed with relative autonomy, each parish was free to embrace either Protestant or Catholic styles of worship.
It is important to place this mixed form within the context of the Reformation, more generally. On the one hand, the radical reformers sought to establish completely independent parishes with no ties to other structures. These existed almost like independent communes. At the other extreme, the Catholic church existed as a universal project with power centred in Rome and decisions taken and dictated from that centre.
Enter the Church of England. In Tomlin’s words,
The emerging Church of England, tried to hold together the local and the national, the Protestant and the Catholic. There was no attempt to blend them, to make a composite of the two that would blur their identities, but rather a search for unity that would embrace both, allow space for each perspective and expression, and yet hold to a set of common values, hard though it might be…
I found the historical parallel between the English Reformation and Brexit extremely illuminating and helpful. So have others. Giles Fraser has commented lucidly on the English Reformation as a positive case for Brexit, here and here. Diarmaid MacCulloch takes the opposite view to Fraser, here, arguing that the Church of England was a part of the great internationalist religious movement of its day. Both authors are worth reading. They represent exemplary cases that engage critically with the past which they use as a resource for thinking about the present and future.
Tomlin belongs firmly within this group as well. What he offers is something slightly different to Fraser and McCullough, however. He’s not using history to argue for Leave or Remain (which I have no problem with, by the way, so long as it’s done well).
For Tomlin, the English Reformation, and the Elizabethan Settlement in particular, offers a way to think about how we might begin to heal, how we might come together to form a common life after the great decision has been made.
How convincing is Tomlin’s use of this historical example? I agree that the the Church of England was both a movement with strong continental ties (and so universal), while at the same time possessing a strong national identity*. The ties between Cranmer and Calvin (and indeed Edward VI and Calvin, who were pen pals) are well documented. What these links show is an independently functioning national church with an international flavour.
What does this mean for Brexit? For what it’s worth, I think it means that it is very possible for us to be independent of the structures of the EU whilst still sharing links (whether that be trade or security) with nations on the European continent. Just as with the English Reformation, so also with Brexit, it is possible to be independent of a large super-structure whilst at the same time being connected to other like-minded entities existing within that super-structure.
More important is Tomlin’s insightful point about pursuing a common life at a time of great national division. I think he is right in suggesting that the English Reformation offers one example of compromise in a messy world. It’s a realistic model, even if (or perhaps precisely because) it can be extremely difficult to achieve.
*On the point about national identity, and as a slight side note, I would have loved to hear more about English vernacular translations of the bible (Wyclif, Tyndale, Coverdale, Geneva Bible and so on) and how this reflected the desire to render the scriptures in the language of the man and woman in the field.
2. The Local and the Universal: What Both Sides Rightly Affirm
I’ve already touched on the local v universal issue but it’s worth a discussion in its own right. Tomlin incisively draws on David Goodhart’s useful heuristic of “somewheres” and “anywheres” (*Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics remains one of the most useful and convincing analyses of the Brexit referendum and the rise of Trump).
As Goodhart explains, anywheres live portable lives and possess “achieved” identities. They tend to pass school exams, attend residential universities before moving on to jobs in London or even overseas. Somewheres, meanwhile, belong to particular places and tend to have lived there most of their lives. They possess “ascribed” identities (identities given to them by the place and family in which they grow up). In very general terms, somewheres tended to vote Leave, with anywheres casting their ballots for Remain.
Here’s the crucial point: Tomlin argues that both anywheres and somewheres are right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny.
Somewheres stress rootedness in a place with distinct customs, sense of humour, culture, norms, commitments and stories that give that place meaning. As Tomlin explains,
Every society needs to value what makes it distinct. We are born to particular parents, into a specific family and neighbourhood at a certain time in history…we need a common sense of our underlying common bonds.
If a society loses its particular cultural memory, people begin to feel rootless and life can appear shallow.
At the same time, the emphasis on the local or the national can turn poisonous if this is all there is. A lack of cultural or political diversity can lead to the fossilisation of a particular nation or an overweening sense of national pride.
Meanwhile, we find the universal impulse channelling itself into the celebration of other cultures and their achievements and customs. This typically expresses itself in university education, connections with other parts of the world through foreign travel and networks of colleagues and friends. As with the local, so also can the universal impulse turn poisonous and erode a unified sense of identity as it crowds out the distinctive customs of a given place.
Where does this leave us? Tomlin reasons that,
Both are necessary. Every healthy society needs a careful balance of these two impulses. A loss of identity and rootedness leads to a fading of cultural memory, a lack of belonging and a diminishing sense of who we are as a nation…Yet what if we close ourselves off from other cultures, shut the door to neighbours (especially when they are in trouble), fail to play our part in wider conversations about the global future, and show reluctance to change? Such behaviour is dangerous…
Whether or not we like to admit it, and hard as it may to acknowledge due to the heat generated by the arguments of the last few years, both sides of the debate have a point.
And yet, as Tomlin goes on to note, in the referendum we were forced to make a choice between these two impulses. While one impulse might be dominant at any given time, Tomlin is right to note that this choice, insofar as it was permanent and irrevocable, was in many ways a false one.
3. Practicing Love…Even for Our Enemies
The Brexit referendum, Tomlin concludes, also involved “competing loves”. We can either love our nearest and dearest—those “like us”. Or, we can love and treat with dignity those unlike us.
The Christian tradition meets these competing loves head on. For Christians, to present these as competing loves is to offer yet another false choice. At the heart of the Christian tradition which infuses much of Western culture is Jesus’s command to “love your neighbour as yourself”:
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor[a] and hate your enemy.’44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
Tomlin categorises the loves in this passage into four types:
1. Loving yourself: we are to assume responsibility for ourselves by making sure we obtain adequate food, sleep and maintain good health. But if this is all we aspire to, we are narcissists.
2. Loving the one like you: We are also called to lavish the same benefits we have enjoyed on those immediately around us (family and friends). But this comes naturally to us since we surround ourselves with those “like us”. Even the tax collectors do that, Jesus says.
3. Loving your neighbour: the neighbour is the one you come into contact with whom you do not necessarily choose and whom you do not necessarily love or have any reason to love.
4. Loving your enemy: Jesus goes beyond neighbourly love to include our enemies.
This is being capable of loving those who make life hard for you…Loving your enemy feels a stretch. It demands much of us to love the person who is after our job, or changing our neighbourhood or nation into something unrecognisable, or taking the opposite view from us on everything—including Brexit.
This is a hard saying! I think I would want to add (and I’m sure Tomlin would affirm this as well) that we can resist those seeking to change our neighbourhood into something we don’t recognise whilst still doing so lovingly and respectfully.
Indeed, Tomlin notes that these are not necessarily competing loves. That we do not need to choose between them. We can love those around us, those like us and that this ‘natural’ love should not be taken for selfishness (or racism), “but as the first stage in learning to love the stranger”. And yet, if we love only those like us, our love is deficient. At the same time, there are times when love for the immigrant or stranger can lead us to ignore the needs of those closest to home. This too, is a failure to love.
Tomlin’s short book ends with a plea for the future in the form of 5 things the nation needs to heal. I won’t end with these (buy the book!). Instead, I want to leave you with his important reminder that the Brexit divide is not simply a political or legal or economic challenge. Of course it is no less than these things. But at heart, it is a spiritual challenge which leaves us with lingering spiritual questions. How can we love our neighbour? How can we love even our enemy?
One final question which is perhaps the most important of all: Will we rise to this spiritual challenge?