I was warned when being interviewed to stand as a candidate for the Brexit Party that I would be accused of all sorts of horrible things. Indeed, one of the key moments in the interview came when I was asked to imagine that I was being interviewed on TV and the first question was, ‘The Church of England is against racism – how then can you stand for a racist party?’
So I cannot claim that I have not been forewarned that these accusations would come. Still, the sheer extent of the claim has been surprising.
To be accused of racism is a serious charge. It would for example, if proven, lead to my being (rightly) dismissed from my present work – and I’m sure that is true for other candidates. So there is a lot at stake.
To make such a serious charge flippantly is highly unethical (and certainly unChristian). It is not an accusation to cast around casually, but to avoid flippancy means assembling evidence. I am open to there being evidence that I am a racist – not least because I understand the nature of ‘unconscious bias’ – and if there is such evidence it would mean that I need to do a lot of work on changing myself, for, be assured, I believe that racism is a very great evil and a blasphemy. More: if I was led to the conclusion that the Brexit Party was racist then I would leave it, immediately. (I wouldn’t be on my own, of course – in fact I strongly suspect that there wouldn’t be a single PPC candidate left.)
To make the charge seriously also involves considering counter-evidence, in order to reach a fair judgement. So here I would point out that all PPCs are required to formally renounce racism (and other prejudices) and work to the highest standards of public life. I would also point to the very wide diversity of ethnic representation amongst our PPCs. If you look at the list of Brexit party candidates, it reflects the diversity of modern Britain in terms of race, gender, sexuality, religion and so on. It would seem a little odd, to put it no more strongly, that none of this diverse range of people are aware of the alleged racism of the Party that they support. On the surface, this diversity of PPCs would seem to accord with what the mainstream claims to value. It is the wide space between what the mainstream claims to value and what it actually does in practice that I think we need to pay attention to.
I do not believe that the Brexit Party is racist – actually, that is too bland. I believe that the Brexit Party is consciously, explicitly and intentionally anti-racist. I believe that this anti-racism has been embedded within its structures from the very beginning and is a thread running through all that we do. As I said above, if there was someone who was genuinely racist hidden within the system, I think the system would move incredibly swiftly to excise such an individual upon discovery. The onus is upon those who are accusing us of being racist to demonstrate how and where.
As I see no such evidence myself – and see so much counter-evidence – I am forced to speculate on an alternative explanation for this phenomenon, an alternative explanation for the great heaps of moral opprobrium dumped upon the heads of Brexit Party supporters.
What we are seeing in this political conversation is what happens when one side (the Westminster bubble, as disseminated through the mainstream media) sees the other (Leave voters, those who are excluded from the mainstream conversation) as irretrievably morally compromised. We Brexit supporters are “a bunch of fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists” as Mr Cameron so memorably phrased it.
It strikes me that what has happened is that a dehumanisation has taken place.
The actual people who support Brexit, who are standing for or supporting the Brexit party in all their glorious diversity, we are no longer seen as people. We are no longer seen for who we are, with all our varied beliefs, hopes and fears. We have become signs, sigils, icons – we represent something other than ourselves, we have come to represent that which the mainstream most despises. We are ignorant, or racist, or poorly educated, or prejudiced in countless other unacceptable ways. Furthermore, as this representation carries such an immense amount of rage with it, it is clearly psychologically loaded. It is part of a fixed belief system in which the mainstream have invested a very large part of their sense of identity. See Ben Habib’s interaction with Oliver Kamm for a very clear example of this.
I speculate here, for I am sure that there are many different varieties of projection involved, and it is certainly not the case that every critic of the Brexit party is guilty of what I am describing, but there seems to be a sense of the self as righteous, which is formed over and against a sense of the other as unrighteous. When the other challenges the righteous self, this is profoundly threatening, and destabilising. If this other is not wholly evil, does this mean that my self is not wholly good? To entertain such a notion is a profoundly disturbing thought. If we truly do live in a culture of narcissism then to threaten the beloved self-image is to invite a reaction of rage…
There seems some initial plausibility to this. It would explain the polarisation of our politics, and the digging of trenches, and the failure to actually engage with the other. Of course, this dehumanisation also has frightening historical antecedents, which we need to become conscious of and keep prudently in mind. Obviously, these are just the beginnings of a line of thought that needs so much more careful and prayerful consideration.
So, if there is even a little bit of truth in my speculations, how then are we to respond?
I think that the only way forward, for each of us personally and for the nation as a whole, is to attend to the need for friendship, most especially to consciously and actively cultivate friendships across the partisan divides. A real friendship is only possible, according to Aristotle via Aquinas, when there is a shared aim. I believe that Leavers and Remainers share many aims in common – that actually we do all want to live within a decent society, within which the vulnerable are cared for, children are encouraged to reach their full potential, and we are all enabled to share in the joy of this creation. It is what Christians call the Kingdom.
If we can articulate those shared fundamental values – and if we can restrain ourselves from recklessly accusing others of not sharing those values (and that applies both ways) – then perhaps we can start rebuilding a sense of mutual trust, and a civilised framework for working through our differences, and we can move beyond our current imbroglio.
In other words, Brexit no longer just means Brexit. This staggeringly chaotic process also gives us the opportunity to renew our national conversation, to refresh our deepest values, to learn more about each other – and, dare I say, to love more about each other? We as a people, as a community, as a country: we can do so much better than this. I, for one, am going to try.