Learning from the EU referendum
I expect most GC members and supporters felt the same sense of shock that I did on the morning of Friday June 24th, as we listened to the radio or TV announcer: ‘the United Kingdom has voted to leave the European Union’. The EU that has brought us progressive employment, environmental and food safety regulation, that has protected us from warfare for the last 60 years, that by and large provided and continues to provide, a voice for stability, sanity and humanity in an increasingly chaotic world. The EU that protected us in Britain from the extremes of Thatcherite economics, and in a sense took over from the fairly progressive post-war governments (of both parties).
Some of us are experiencing a form of bereavement. As if a sibling had rang us up to say that a beloved older sibling has had a diagnosis of a terminal illness… We don’t know how long it will be until Article 50 is invoked – but it will be invoked.
Now you may say that this intro is ‘a bit over the top’. And you will be right. Because our politics, like art, springs from the emotions but should be governed by the intellect. So first of all I’ll try to analyse why those 17 million people – or rather the majority of them – voted ‘Leave’. Secondly I’ll look in a bit more depth at particular features of the EU that I think contributed to this outcome. Lastly I’ll attempt some policy solutions. Throughout looking at the role of the churches in contributing to the current situation and in potentially contributing to solutions.
Why did Brexit happen?
‘Creative destruction’ is the starting point. ‘Creative destruction’ is a key characteristic of modern globalised capitalism and its underlying neoliberal economic philosophy (discussed by Tim Jackson, 2011, Prosperity without growth, Earthscan). Dynamic innovative entrepreneurship is always seeking the new, improved washing powder that washes whiter than white. This ‘creativity’ and ‘dynamism’ often manifests itself in the deliberate promotion of obsolescence – either in the design of the product or in the mind of the consumer (through fashion or model changes – for example, getting people to buy new mobile phones or computers that are only slightly different from what they already have.)
It also means sourcing the most ‘cost effective’ labour from whatever corner of the globe. In other words paying the lowest wages they can get away with for producing the goods to their required standard.
This contributes to migration pressures. People from the declining industries and fringe areas move to the more affluent new industry areas. Compounded in Europe by migration from even poorer and/or politically unstable areas outside the continent.
One consequence is destabilisation of communities: English midlands areas lose their engineering industries, the Rheine-Ruhr area of Germany has suffered de-industrialisation, French regions lose their wine making; traditional farming and fishing, local craft industries etc all lose out. But the impact is more extreme in the economies on the fringes of Europe.
The schools in Streatham and South Lambeth where I now live are expanding very rapidly – whereas the village schools in my native West of Ireland are closing down.
There tends to be less trust and mutual understanding in destabilised communities. A friend of mine told me about the women who did not want to give their names at a tenants & residents association (TRA) meeting. This argument is developed by David Goodhart http://www.demos.co.uk/files/apostliberalfuture.pdf and by Maurice Glassman https://www.lwbooks.co.uk/sites/default/files/freebook/Labour_tradition_and_the_politics_of_paradox.pdf .
One implication of this is that (secondary) schools in some of the more affluent societies devote less of their resources to teaching ‘practical’ subjects like woodwork, metalwork, cooking, needlework & sewing etc. (‘Why bother? What we cannot buy in from China we can get Polish or Bulgarian or Philipoino to do – and our kids can all be knowledge workers’.) Resulting in the less academic young people leaving school with less skill and confidence than their parents and grand-parents had, as both Goodhart and Glassman discuss.
Compounded by technological changes as IT-based industries and services expand at the expense of more traditional industries and crafts. Which means that skills requirements are higher and the unskilled/ lesser educated have reduced options.
So even with progressive policies on minimum income, employment protection and welfare service provision we have the ingredients for serious conflict in the poorer communities within the affluent countries. Migrants coming in, seeking a better life, often with good practical skills but sometimes with different customs and speaking other languages. Local people feeling their few job opportunities are threatened, feeling ‘swamped’ by the newcomers in their communities, in its schools, shops and health clinics.
Add in the far from progressive policies of the current UK government and some rabble-rousing politicians to get a really toxic mix. But the brew does not taste too good even before adding these poisons.
So we have created lots of ‘communities of decline’: decline in skill levels and job prospects, decline in friendship networks, community activity and level of trust, decline in their public services; fearful of ‘the other’ be they from Bulgaria or from Turkey – hordes of whom, they were told, are about to arrive soon to worsen their plight further. So they listened to Gove and Farage.
The European Union – and the liberal agenda
But while we grieve the impending loss of the EU and all we believe that it stands for, perhaps there is another side to the EU that we need to reflect on. And I’m not referring to the top-heavy bureaucracy which is fairly inevitable in a supra-national institution.
There are ‘Four Freedoms’ enshrined in EU policy. These are: the free (i.e. tariff-free) movement of goods, freedom of movement of labour (which ‘guarantees every EU citizen the right to move freely, to stay and to work in another member state’), the freedom to provide services and the free movement of capital. http://www.europeanpolicy.org/en/european-policies/single-market.html.
I find it very helpful to view these freedoms within the framework on liberalism developed by David Goodhart. He distinguishes between social and economic liberalism. Social liberalism he claims is espoused mainly by people on the left. He traces it back starting to the 1960’s personal and minority group rights movement. It emphasises freedom from most social constraints: freedom in the flow of ideas, in religious beliefs, in social relations (including sexual relationships). Social liberals tend to be ‘citizens of the world’ rather than of one country – i.e. anti-nationalist . So the second EU freedom – movement of labour – clearly appeals is to social liberals.
Economic liberals also go along with the free movement of people in the sense of free movement of labour, as it enables firms to access a wider choice of cost-effective labour. Economic liberals are people mainly ‘on the right’ who believe in minimum state interference in economic affairs. Typically supporters of Milton Freedman or Thatcher for they tend to be keen on tariff-free trade across national borders and so on all EU ‘fundamental freedoms’.
Goodhart argues that these liberalisms have been taken to extremes, that as a result many people are been left behind: those whose jobs, whose communities and even whose families need some form of social protection. The effects of extreme economic liberalisation may be well recognised. Less recognised are some of the impacts of social liberalism: ‘… an atmosphere that has made it easier for people to break contracts with each other has also created much misery and sometimes left children and older people adrift and neglected. The (1960s onwards) reforms were felt as a liberation by some people and an abandonment by others.’ (p3)
Goodhart adds: ‘Moreover, the two liberalisms have taken the creation and maintenance of ‘social glue’—a sense of interconnection and mutual interest—too much for granted. ….community and identity and the social glue, the semi-conscious trust and mutual regard that underpins all well functioning societies from simple tribes to complex, diverse, modern market democracies.’ (p4)
The role of the churches
Traditionally the churches were not in favour of either economic or social liberalism – especially the latter. Christianity was socially conservative and emphasised duties and responsibilities to family, the community, the church and generally to the common good. Traditionally the churches did not engage that much on economic issues. But was there not a strong emphasis on the responsibilities of employers, in some Christian traditions at least (such as the Quakers and the Methodists).
Generally most churches are now more prepared now to challenge the extremes of economic liberalism – Archbishop John Sentamu (see On rock or on sand, 2015 SPCK) is just one of many critiques. But where are the churches now in relation to individual rights and the personal vs. the common good? I think the picture is very confused. Some sections of the churches are still very intolerant of gay rights for instance. Whereas in our more liberal churches would anyone feel they had the right to challenge a father who left his young family to set up house with a mistress, to take another example?
Going to wider community considerations and combining the economic and the social/personal: I came to London as a young teacher in the late 1960’s. I recall being challenged by our local parish priest when I visited my native west of Ireland in the holidays: ‘I hope you will come back soon to contribute to our national education effort, Tony’. Would a priest now remind a parishioner about their responsibility to their community in this way? I doubt it.
Bishop James Jones in his Thought for the Day 25/07/2016 construed recent terrorist atrocities in terms of the threat to freedom http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p042mvbk rather than say gross inhumanity and violation of the love thy neighbour commandment? We need a clear theology of community, emphasising the importance of community at all levels – family, locality, county or district, country, continent, the world and the universe. Freedom is important – but not at the expense of social responsibility.
What needs to be done
Even if we cannot reverse June 23rd we need to tackle the underlying problems. Here are some suggested policies. These are designed to help both indigenous and migrant cope with migration, while the latter two should help in reducing the pressures to migrate:
1. Most obviously progressive policies on minimum income, employment protection and welfare service provision – the latter especially in the areas of high migration so that schools, health services etc can cope. While the higher taxes on the rich required to fund the service provision and the minimum incomes will also help reduce inequalities.
2. Less obviously: active encouragement by the state, by the churches and faith groups and by civic society generally of community organisation that will engage both local and migrant. TRA’s a good example, school parent organisations – and local football clubs! (CF Dulwich Hamlet, community football club of the year! http://www.brixtonbuzz.com/2016/05/dulwich-hamlet-fc-win-community-club-of-the-year-for-their-outstanding-community-work/)
3. A big increase in prioritising and investment in technical education: a much bigger role for the ‘practical’ subjects (referred to above) in secondary schools, so that girls and boys, academic and less academic (especially the latter) leave school able to do things with their hands. While the further education sector needs to have equal status with the universities, and funding on the same scale. So that we produce far more skilled plumbers, cooks and gardeners, less lawyers and public relations practitioners! See 2015 report https://www.gov.uk/government/news/technical-and-professional-education-revolution-continues
4. Even less obviously: some form of new contract between net inflow (richer) and net outflow (poorer) countries/regions: to shift investment to the latter and thereby reduce extreme migration pressure. And a process to ensure that migration is managed in the interest of both migrant and local – for instance some form of migrant induction programme on the lines of employee induction in a firm? One consequence of such an induction programme requirement would be a slower rate of migration.
The last point suggests a very major but a different role for the European Union. EU leaders now tend to see the promotion of the single market and the free movement of labour as their essential guiding principle. In other words economic policy is supreme. I’m arguing that the EU should essentially be about the common good of all its nations, and contributing to the common good of all people and all of creation. Any political economic policies it adopts should be subservient to that aim of promoting the common good.
In other words, the economy needs to be subservient to wider societal considerations and not the other way around, as Dan O’Neill and other ecological economists argue (see Deitz, Rob and O’Neill, Dan (2013) Enough is Enough, Earthscan).
We need an EU, a continent-wide body, more than ever now: to promote the common good and to help stabilise our world; to challenge the extremes of global capital and of fanatical political or pseudo-religious tyrannies. We need to get back into the EU as soon as politically possible to campaign for the employment and welfare policies, the community development and the migration contract policies (or something like it) and such common good-directed reforms from within.
The churches will and should continue to strive for both personal freedom and the common good – but the latter needs to be given greater priority.
Tony Emerson July/Aug 2016
I’d like to acknowledge the helpful feedback and ideas I received from Mike Levin, a retired Goldsmith University politics lecturer. But I’m responsible for all the imperfections on the above. This article does not in any way reflect Green Christian or Joy in Enough policy.
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