Tuesday, June 07, 2016

Referendumb

I'd like to offer some intelligent analysis pertinent to the EU Referendum that is creeping up on us.  Sadly, I'm not sure I'm able.  I mean, I know how I'm going to vote, and I can tell you why - but I'm painfully aware that this mostly comes from the gut and not from any particular argument that I could advance.  Let me explain my thought process, or lack thereof.


First off, it has to be acknowledged that I don't identify with the European Union at any level.  Its institutions, goals, political culture, history - none of it really resonates with me.  I'm sure there are reasons why this is the case, and the reasons would most likely have as much to do with me as they would with the EU.  My guess is that this will be the case for many people beyond myself: I don't feel like I belong to the EU now, let alone the referendum result.

Secondly, I'm aware that I am an idealist rather than a pragmatist.  That means that arguments about sovereignty, accountability, and governance all play much louder in my head than discussions about economics, immigration, and the like.  Obviously, one could be an idealist about the EU project, but as mentioned above I'm not.  And I tend to be fairly oblivious to risk when I think the principle is right.  That also plays into a tendency to vote, as it were, leave.

Thirdly, I know that I have a tendency toward nostalgia, and would love to believe that Bagehot's constitution was still alive and well, or at least might be resurrected.  There is a small part of me that thinks, maybe, outside the EU...

There are some of my prejudices - I frankly acknowledge them all.  I suspect that everyone on all sides of the debate is driven more by this sort of stuff than we'd like to admit.  My prejudices tend to make me a leaver, or as I believe we now have to call ourselves, a Brexiteer.

Recognising how non-rational this stuff mostly is (not irrational; there's a difference), I want to be a bit careful.  I don't want to be swept away by this stuff without thinking.  And there are three things that give me serious pause for thought.

For one thing, I know that one of the reasons I can afford to ignore practical arguments about the economy, jobs and the like and pursue my idealistic bent is that I'm relatively well-off.  It's all very well for me to be willing to take a financial hit in order to regain national sovereignty (or whatever), but have I thought about what that might mean for other people?  I hope I have, or at least I've started to.  Suffice to say, I don't find the scare stories all that convincing, and I even wonder whether there might be the possibility to roll back some of the negative effects of globalisation here.  Bottom line, I think we would take a hit, but it probably wouldn't be huge, and some of it - for example, reductions in house prices - could be of long-term benefit.  Still, I freely confess my relative ignorance here; I've done my best with the resources I've got.

A second thing that raises questions is the implicit, and sometimes explicit, racism of parts of the Leave campaign.  It's not that I subscribe to guilt by association in any way: people can support good causes for bad reasons, after all.  But you have to ask questions about the culture that is driving the campaign, and whether it is the sort of culture you want.  I think I'm right in saying that what we're suffering from here is just 'empty vessel' syndrome, as in 'empty vessels make the most noise'.  We hear more from people making populist, and to me very unpleasant, arguments, but I hope they don't characterise the majority.  I hope.

And the third thing that bothers me is the potential for 'Little England-ism', a desire for cultural isolation based usually on a firm and misplaced belief in the superiority of one's own culture.  Here I think we would be wise to listen to Gildor Inglorion, despite his being both an elf and clearly fictional: "The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out."  Maintaining an openness to the world is so crucial.  Still, again, I'm not sure this bad attitude follows necessarily from a vote to leave the EU; you could even argue that membership of the EU has in some ways closed us off to the wider world.

Although this has caused me to really think about my motives, it hasn't changed my mind.  For the record, here are a few reasons (other than my gut feelings) why I will vote Leave.

Firstly, there is political philosophy.  How obscure is that?  I am a convinced disciple of John Locke in most political matters, and I can't help seeing Msr. J.J. Rousseau as the enemy.  It is no secret that Anglo-Saxon political development has largely followed Locke, in maintaining a liberal opposition to overbearing government; continental political philosophy tends to go along with Rousseau in seeking 'the will of the people' as the foundation of governmental sovereignty.  I think that is a dangerous idea - there is no 'will of the people' at the end of the day, and of course Rousseau was open to the idea that people ought to be 'forced to be free' when they themselves didn't quite understand what their own will was (i.e. they disagreed with the majority or at least the government!)  I think I see this political philosophy at play in the EU project at several levels, not least the cavalier disregard for the expressed will of various national electorates which put the project at risk.

Secondly, there is good governance, or the absence of it in the EU.  I think it is just too difficult to hold people to account within the system, and I am convinced that it is wasteful and prone to massive over-reach.  Indeed, even the proponents of the EU recognise that this is a problem.  I am unconvinced that it can be fixed, unless we go in for full federalism, with powers reserved to what used to be national governments in a written constitution.  That might work, but nobody is proposing it, and I can't say I'd vote for it if they were.

Thirdly, and this is what swung it for me in the end, I've watched the EU response to various crises, and especially the Greek debt crisis, and what I've seen has not been benevolent.  A project and an elite committed to self-defence and the perpetuation of the system is what it looked like.  I don't want to be part of a club that plays that way.

When all is said and done, I wouldn't necessarily encourage anyone to follow my lead in voting!  I'd just say this:

  1. Check your prejudices - we all have them, but it's helpful to be honest with ourselves and be sure it isn't only our prejudices that are motivating our decisions;
  2. Think about others - it's easy to think about what would be best for me, but more difficult to get into other people's shoes - but the effort is worth it;
  3. Be irenic - one of the problems with a referendum is that it whips people up into holding strong opinions about things they had previously barely thought about, and can lead to really bitter exchanges - we can avoid that if we remember to be kind;
  4. Consider your opponents' best arguments - and give more time to this especially if their best arguments aren't of a sort to immediately appeal to you - they probably have more force than you're able to recognise at first;
  5. Consider the weaknesses of your own side - are they inherent or incidental?  Are you implicated in opinions and actions that are just wrong?;
  6. And finally, make up your mind and vote - knowing that you could be wrong.  It helps to remember that the future of nations is not ultimately in our hands, but God's!

11 comments:

  1. Thanks for this Daniel, really great to have this call to remember to maintain some humility about the whole thing, and to assume and acknowledge we have our own prejudices. What a relief that none of this nor any choices we make will scupper God's plan!

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    1. A great relief indeed - the whole business would be frankly terrifying if that were not the case!

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    1. But not, I suspect, reflective of your own leanings..!

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  3. For Christians, I think the fact that the EU explicitly seek to build a secular new world order (search for the term on the EU parliament website) is enough to make it clear that they are not for us, but against us.

    Of course, we're stuck with a secular government at home, so leaving will merely reduce the possibilities for evil - and we may well end up joining back again anyway.

    In addition, it seems to me that the church needs to recognise that the nihilism of liberal democracy has helped to create the general mess in the first place, and that instead of encouraging such a system ('It doesn't matter how you vote, just vote!'), not voting at all is called for.

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    1. I think a good Christian case could be built for a version of liberal democracy that embraces a principled pluralism, personally. What other system would work if you have a society that is itself pluralist and doesn't share a story or a set of values?

      One of the things that worries me about both the EU and our own current gov't is that they seem to want to move away from liberalism towards saying 'everyone must accept our story and values' - which is something we obviously can't do.

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    2. In brief:

      1) Democracy presents us with an arbitrary and senseless mechanism for making decisions - there is no reason to suppose that a majority vote will give us a good (ethical) or even correct (utilitarian) outcome. Rather than decisions made at smaller, local levels through persuasion, wisdom and compromise - perhaps through genuine personal cost and struggle - we entrust decisions to which pre-determined option gets the most numbers, largely through propaganda and misinformation. It can't even be about 'the will of the people', because that would entail strictly proportionate voting at every level and decision - an obvious impossibility.

      2) Because of this, liberal democracy as a system can never be about seeking 'the good'. We see this when people (of whatever political persuasion) complain about the result of a vote. But if democracy is the best system (or the best of the worst), shouldn't we trust that it has produced the best outcome? That we don't is evidence that democracy is not about finding the good for society, but about perpetuating the ideal of individual, autonomous choice as the chief good - regardless of the outcome. This is liberalism's own particular 'story', which we must implicitly accept for participation. As you note, to prevent descent into anarchy certain incoherent values ('consenting adults', 'equality', 'diversity', 'rights') and favoured groups have to be chosen to provide a semblance of shared values so things don't fall apart completely. But we already accepted a toxic story before that.

      3.) Of course, it is the illusion of freedom that democracy creates, as we are presented with options that all operate on secular metaphysics and assumptions. We can only vote for parties that perpetuate evil and create new evils (contra Psalm 2). In addition, because societies built on liberalism are eventually chaotic, because they are ultimately united around autonomous choice as the only shared value, the growth of a totalitarian bureaucracy is required to keep things under control, as Ivan Ilyin suggested. In addition, Carroll Quigley, a sympathetic insider of the elite, detailed how democracy has been used as a tool by the banking elites who hold our governments in their debt in order to destabilize societies towards their own ends - one world government. The Freemasons have often been keen on 'universal education and democracy' for a reason!

      4) The nihilistic metaphysic of democracy and liberal ideals in general is clearly not a Christian one, which grounds goodness in God rather than autonomous human will. I think we need to take Jesus' words to heart that whoever is not for him is against him, no matter how well-meaning. Our priority should be to seek spiritual transformation of the great majority of our nations before any political good can happen. Only then will people actually want what is good and will want a system that exists for good purposes, rather than necessarily bad ones. Otherwise we are simply furthering the slow poison that has placed such nihilism at the heart of Western civilization.

      I'll stop rambling there!

      Footnote:

      https://souloftheeast.org/2013/12/26/ivan-ilyin-on-formal-democracy/

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    3. Hi Ben, apologies for slow reply, but I wanted to read this properly, partly because on a first reading I found your comments a bit disturbing. I'm afraid my reaction hasn't improved on a more leisurely reading!

      I think my response in brief would be: whilst there certainly is something of the nihilism you discuss in modern liberalism, the roots of liberal thinking are in Christianity - compare John Owen's writing on religious toleration with John Locke on political toleration to see the parallels. The Christian liberal position is founded on two insights, firstly that only God is Lord of the conscience, and second that the kingdom of God is not, and need not be, represented by the present political order. Obviously that only makes sense on protestant soil, and would be particularly abhorrent to the caeasaropapist tendencies of the east - but I'm okay with that!

      I also think it's helpful to think of freedom in two different ways (a la Berlin). 'True freedom' does come only from following Christ, but it is impossible for any state or human institution to impose or create this freedom. Therefore, the state should opt for the limited freedom of acknowledging each person's autonomy (from the state, not absolutely). Far from contradicting each other, the two freedoms reinforce each other: knowing that only the Son can truly set us free, we Christians should not try to impose our (true!) values on the world, or tolerate the absolute imposition of particular (British?) values on others; knowing that the Son does set us free, we should be glad that the limited freedom from the state gives us space to proclaim and live his kingdom.

      What this does mean is that the state can't hold together a society - it can't create or enforce the necessary shared value system. That's why we're in a mess - it's the general death of a culture, which has exposed a good political and economic system to chaos because the values that underpinned it have collapsed. I don't think that's the fault of liberalism; if anything, it's the fault of the church...

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    4. No worries - I've been on holiday anyway.

      It's not often that I disturb people a bit! I may not have been clear enough: I've revised my comment as a blog post, which may help you see how I'd answer your concerns if that would be of interest.

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  4. I agree the official campaigns for both leave and remain are pretty crazy and I don’t really want to be associated with either of them (with the notable exception of Patrick Stewart’s excellent Python tribute). I think both campaigns try too hard to convince people by means of fortune telling, and since we have no idea what the future holds, either by staying or leaving, the arguments are pretty baseless.

    However I would argue that the principles of the EU are worth holding on to, even despite its failure to live up to them sometimes. The reaction to Greece was pretty poor, but in the end its intentions were to prop up a failing economy and rescue them from economic collapse. It may have been badly handled, and its strict adherence to the totem of austerity may have been more damaging than it should have been. But it was better than leaving them to collapse.

    Mutual support and solidarity, even if we’re bad at it, is always better than conflict and competition in my opinion. Europe is stronger together, divided we have historically been wracked with conflict, and the cause of significant suffering. Together we have pledged ourselves to principles that are benevolent in purpose, even if not perfect in practice. I want Britain to be a part of those principles of solidarity, support, and cooperation, and I think that rejecting them and returning to an position where we compete with Europe and try to be better than our neighbours is a step backwards, not a step forwards.

    Just my two pence!

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    1. Yes, the bad fortune telling has been particularly unfortunate on both sides - along with some statistics and figures on both sides which the people deploying them must know to be untrue or at least highly questionable. Such is political life in modern Britain, and I suspect to a greater or lesser extent always and everywhere.

      I get where you're coming from, and I have some sympathy for both your main points (about good intentions, and about solidarity). For me, they don't overcome the negatives, but I can understand the attraction.

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