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Healing a divided society

There is no doubt that the 2016 referendum exposed deep divisions in British society that will not be easily healed. In the highest voter turnout since the 1992 General Election, 72.2% voted on UK membership of the European Union; 51.9% to leave and 48.1% to remain in membership; but these numbers do not tell the whole story.

In the 1975 referendum on EU membership 64% voted and 67% backed membership but that vote did not evoke the deep hostilities we have seen since June 2016.  Until we understand these hostilities we will not know how to heal them and reunite the nation.

Membership of the EU has given us access to a market of 500 million. Yes, there are bigger markets but they are physically, culturally and economically less accessible than the EU single market. Remainers argue that leaving that market will damage our economy and lead to the loss of many jobs. The case for remaining was primarily an economic one but the case for leaving had other motivations. And the two sides have to understand each other if healing is to be achieved.

A primary case for leaving the EU was in order to opt out of one of the core values of the EU – the free movement of labour - and regain control of our borders. This is partly about reducing immigration and partly about making major decisions for ourselves, not having them decided in Brussels. Essentially that is about national sovereignty at a time when globalisation and multi-culturalism is felt to be eroding it. It is significant that this concern is more likely to be heard from the lips of older people, rather than the young. Curiously, one study found that those backing Brexit were more likely to also have strong views about the death penalty.

The divisions on Brexit have little to do with party politics. Right wing Conservatives have consistently opposed EU membership but popular support for Brexit also came from traditional Labour supporters who felt ‘left behind’. The centrists in both parties tend to agree that Brexit was a mistake but the referendum result has to be respected. Brexit backers criticise the democratic deficit in the EU but overlook the deficit in British democracy.

Conscientious MPs hold regular surgeries but the vast majority of voters want as little to do with politics as possible unless their self-interests are threatened. Apart from the referendum, a third of electors have failed to vote in every election since1997. The Edelman annual trust barometer in 2017 showed that only 26% of those sampled trusted the Government and each of the political parties. Ed Williams, CEO of Edelman UK said, “The virus that has understandably destroyed trust among those who feel let down by the system has now obviously spread.” The referendum campaigns are partly to blame for this. Prominent Brexiteers misled voters into thinking that a vote to leave would release £350 million a week for the cash strapped NHS when the net UK contribution to the EU was only £120 million. The Remain campaign focused on the economic harm that leaving would cause and failed to offer a positive vision for staying in the EU.

The divisions that Brexit has exposed run deeper than those caused by that issue alone so healing them will not be easy. A Christian diagnosis begins with Jesus’ teaching about loving one’s neighbour (Luke 10:27). St Paul echoes this, urging us to “Let no debt remain outstanding except the continuing debt to love one another”, (Rom 13:8). The challenge for each of us remains, ‘who is my neighbour?’ and it is morally bankrupt to answer that in terms of self-interest.  Those who want to close our borders and also cut our aid budget have fallen into that trap. Public debate in politics and the media needs to be refocused around a vision for serving others not ourselves. Winning the Brexit debate whatever the cost is damaging Britain to an extent that makes healing the nation impossible. That is surely not what we want our grandchildren to inherit.

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