Chris Baker, Director of Research for the William Temple Foundation, argues that Brexit has already happened psychologically. It is time, he says, to follow William Temple’s lead and work on re-imagining our national future.
As I write this blog, it is clear that the UK is about to enter the most momentous period of political and constitutional upheaval in its life for 50 years. Our future place and role in the world is profoundly uncertain. Most scenarios promise economic and political isolation at least in the short to medium term, even if Mrs May manages to get her version of a ‘softer Brexit’ through Parliament, which, at present, looks unlikely.
Although it seems to have come upon us from nowhere, Brexit has had a long gestation, built up over many years of complacency and lack of vision, both nationally and across Europe. The last decade of ideologically and economically misjudged austerity by successive UK governments, on the heels of the 2008 financial crash, has exacerbated regional and financial gulfs, and steadily extinguished hope and opportunity outside the London bubble. As the latest Joseph Rowntree report on poverty highlights, 30% of our children and 16% of our pensioners now live in poverty, whilst 47% of working age adults on low incomes spend more than a third of their income on housing costs. These are truly horrendous statistics that have been allowed to creep ever further upwards as we have become embroiled and fatalistically entranced by the whole Brexit sideshow.
But beneath the technical outcomes and debates about the ‘sort of Brexit’ we will have to confront, there are deeper fissures and ‘leavings’ that have already taken place. The damage to our national and local sense of wellbeing has already been wrought. We have already, over the years, psychologically ‘exited’ the country that we thought we knew—a country that we understood to have worked reasonably well. We have already Brexited the UK, never mind Europe or the rest of the world. We have lost touch with who we once were, and we no longer have a sustaining vision of the sort of society and nation we aspire to be.
To that extent, the technical dimensions of Brexit are actually less potentially damaging to us and our European neighbours than the psychological ones. By which I mean that if and when we manage to lurch to a more stable economic equilibrium at some point after March 29th, if we have not addressed the fundamental question of who we are, what we aspire to be, and what our sources of inspiration are, then we will be doomed to live out the toxic legacy of Brexit far longer and at much greater cost to our psychic and national wellbeing.
Given the severity of where we are at as a nation, it is not at all fanciful to remind ourselves of what William Temple did in 1941, at the height of the darkest days of the second world war. He dared to imagine, even then, a process of national debate about the sort of nation that should be rebuilt out of the ashes of an old order that was bent on propagating violence and fear in the form of totalitarianism. In 1941, he convened the Malvern conference which drew together, in the blacked-out landscape of threatened aerial bombardment, artists, writers, scientists, economists as well as the serried ranks of the Church of England. Entitled ‘The Life of the Church and the Order of Society’ the conference met ‘to consider how far the Christian faith and principles based upon it afford guidance for action in the world today’; to ‘encourage Christians to think about the general implications of these fundamental Christian principles in relation to contemporary needs,’ and via middle axioms, ‘to think out actual political programmes or support those drawn up by others which in their judgement give effects to these fundamental principles’. (1941, viii). Temple’s six middle axioms addressed issues such as life-long education and decent housing and working conditions, and, as we know, became the basis of the universal and comprehensive welfare state (a term coined by Temple himself) that was developed by Beveridge and implemented by the post-war Labour government of Clement Atlee.
The purpose of reminding us all of Temple’s great work at a time of national crisis nearly 80 years ago is not to wallow in pointless nostalgia, but to highlight two things that seem particularly pertinent to where we are now. The first is that Temple didn’t think or act sequentially: he didn’t wait for the crisis of the Second World War to pass before he undertook his critical and strategic re-imagining. He took control of the narrative and the process in the midst of the crisis; and we must do the same now.
Second, the idea of a national conversation focusing not on technical solutions, but on fundamental questions of moral purpose, identity and imagination could be helpfully resurrected. Today, of course, the style and constituency needs to change: we need all faiths and none, all walks of life and experiences, and especially the perspectives of the young whose future is so directly impacted by the narrow-sightedness of current debates. Mrs May has mooted the possibility of a new Festival of Britain in 2022 to restore the narrative of hope and energy that the 1951 attempted to do after the long and meandering recovery following WW2. But we need to sow the seeds of a new narrative now if this festival is to be a success.
Who should curate such a conversation and where will the large resources needed come from? The Archbishop of Canterbury, very much in the spirit of Temple, has begun the conversation decisively in his book published earlier this year entitled Reimagining Britain: Foundations for Hope. Its title echoes a Malvern-type colloquium that the William Temple Foundation hosted at St Georges House, Windsor in 2017 (albeit on a small and experimental scale). We are delighted that Archbishop Justin Welby will continue the debate at our next annual lecture on 13th May 2019 at Lambeth Palace entitled Reimagining Britain: Faith and the Common Good.
These are important first steps. But we need to build the momentum over the next 12 months if we are to turn the pain of our self-imposed exile from ourselves, epitomised by Brexit, into a new opportunity for rebirth and renewal for the sake of the many and not the few.
Read more on the Malvern confrence…
How the Malvern Conference of 1941 Set the Scene for Malvern 2017 by Barbara Ridpath
More blogs on religion and public life…
Sacred Secularity by Stephen Edwards
Remembering Utopia? by John Reader
Preaching truth to power by Hayley Matthews