Quasi-religious support for Brexit

One of the recurring themes in commentary on support for Brexit is that some of it is “religious”. That offers a way to think about some of the anxieties leading people to support it, even if Brexit itself is not the answer, and would harm more of its supporters than it helps.

Front page of The Sun, 13 June 2016

From the Leave side, Aaron Banks has spoken of “true Brexit” and Nigel Farrage accused Theresa May of “not believing in Brexit” after the General Election. Jacob Rees Mogg has accused other members of the parlimentary committee on Exciting the European Union of being “high priests of Remain”. From the Remain side Rafael Behr has written of the dangers of following the “scriptures of Rees-moggery”, and it’s not unusual to hear support for Brexit dismissed as “religious” when it seems to ignore economic reality.

There are a range of attitudes among Brexit-supporters I’ve spoken with, but the more strident support for Brexit is coming across as having a religious quality.

Some will want to bracket together religion and support for Brexit as irrational, and leave the argument there, but this short-changes both religion and what the support for Brexit. This matters because winning a “People’s Vote” on the terms of Brexit needs some who voted Leave in 2016 to vote the other way, and avoiding the damage that would come from alienating a substantial minority needs a large number of people to change sides. For people to switch sides means they need to feel that their concerns have been heard.

In Western society today, Religion gets a mixed press, which is why there is an appeal in dismissing strident support for Brexit as “religious”. But religion is a lot more complex than that, and provides a way of dealing with things that are otherwise hard to express. A sense of that comes from visiting societies where most people follow the same religion. The sense is usually that its stories and ceremonies give meaning to life, helping people to express thoughts and feelings that are hard to articulate to navigate the milestones of life and death, and to bear hard parts of life.

People sometimes get in a tangle over whether religious stories or scriptures are “true”. The story of the world being created in seven days is not something that needs to make sense as objective fact – but it was the way an ancient people described the experience of themselves as being created. It’s “truth” doesn’t lie in whether it can be “proved”, but in whether it helps people make sense of their lives.

Leave claims as “religious”

In these terms, the “lies” from the Leave campaign start to look interesting. People were offered stories that made sense of what they were seeing. Michael Gove’s infamous “People have had enough of experts” struck a chord because made sense to felt they were being told that the stories they used to describe their reality were untrue – with the implication that their reality was being denied as well. It chimed in with people voting Leave as an attack on “elites” or “establishment” because it gave people license to ignore what they were saying.

The world’s major religions have all been around for a long time. They have become rich repositories of stories and ways of making sense of life. They are also sufficiently complex to mean nothing works perfectly. Scriptures contradict and ceremonies are experienced in different ways by different people. For the most part the effect is that, if something doesn’t quite work, people both know that nothing works perfectly (so the scripture is not dismissed as wrong) and there’s scope to look elsewhere in scripture for something else to fit the spot. There’s a strength and a rootedness in being in the faith of one’s ancestors. The flip side of that, very visible in the West, is that it also means religion changes slowly and can come to look conservative, and can become a natural home for people uneasy with the rate of change. The upshot is that all religions have understandings and practices passed on because people have found them helpful over the centuries, and ways of dealing with what happens when prayers or hopes go unanswered, woven in with spiritual practices that go a great deal deeper than simply “getting God to do what I want”.

Faith in Brexit doesn’t have those checks and balances. The “Leave lies” believed because they make sense of people’s experience haven’t got wriggle room in them for complexities, which invites a sort of religious fundamentalism. It’s interesting that one of the very effective ways of combating religious extremeism is a process called “integrative complexity” – not attempting to tell religious extremists that they are wrong, but instead putting them in touch with the complexity in their own faith tradition, which puts the fundamentalism in balance.

Instead the things clustering around support for Brexit include powerful issues around identity and survival. Those are key things in the dynamics of many religions, and being expressed in very contemporary terms.

Examples of this include the claims that leaving the EU would provide £350 Million a week for the NHS, or that Turkey was about to join the EU and 70 million Turks would suddenly want to move to the UK. If either of these stories were people’s actual reasons for voting Leave, there would have been anger in the immediate aftermath of the referendum when it became clear that they were untrue. But if the stories were believed because people needed to believe them, then we are in different territory. What’s being expressed is the life-and-death fear that the NHS won’t defend us from illness and mortality, and a fear of invasion by foreigners.

With the NHS things are complex. New treatments mean we live longer, but they cost more. People have grown used to pressure for lower taxes, but longer life expectancies mean we need to find significantly more money. Once-upon-a-time stories of resurrection or reincarnation would have helped people cope with sudden and early death. That’s been replaced with a belief that the NHS will protect us, and a reality that “the rich” are not paying substantially more tax. No wonder the image of “nasty Europeans” taking money from the NHS was appealing. I met someone on a street stall in the referendum campaign who was disheveled and for whom life seemed to be going badly – he’d heard it was £350 Million a day, and the sense that “someone” was taking all the money fitted how he felt.

In the case of Turkey, there was never any evidence of 70 million Turks wanting to come to the UK. But the maps on posters showing a big arrow from Turkey implied a clear threat. It reminded me of the arrows on the opening credits of Dad’s Army, showing invasion forces heading to the Channel and itching to cross. Gods delivering people from invasion, or fear of invasion, by their enemies is woven into many religions – it is a basic fear. Leave mobilised that fear. It’s just that it has nothing to do with the reality that Turkey’s accession talks have been stalled for ages, so the only circumstance under which it could join the EU is if it’s showing enough European values to mean there is no problem.

In both cases, these have mobilised some very raw fears, and provided a story to make sense of them. The snag is also that the stories are wrong. Brexit would actually make the NHS weaker, not least because of the number of people from other parts of the EU working in it, and the degree of European co-operation over medicines. Brexit wouldn’t reduce the non-existent threat of Turkish immigrants, but would leave the UK at the mercy of foreign powers less sympathetic than the EU. Sophisticated argument doesn’t address the raw fears at work.

Abuse of religion

The raw and hard-to-name fears that are processed by religion do mean that religious leaders can mis-use their power. With well-developed religions the sense is usually that the power comes from God (in some form), which acts to balance this. But Marx was right to warn that religion can become the “opiate of the people”, using those fears to keep people acquiescent.

Dominic Cummings’ essay on How the Brexit referendum was won gives an alarming example of this in the way the Leave campaign worked out that the slogan “take back control” would resonate for people. They supplied the story to catch the anxiety that things were out of control. It was loosely pinned on the EU, but much more sharply on the sense that leaving the EU would take control back. In reality it is the wrong target — control is changing because of the global change that brings gas from Russia, cheap clothes from Bangladesh, as well as much more profound changes as China and India emerge as major powers.

The interesting corollary is that Europe in general, and the EU over the last four decades, has been an important container for British political life. If there are raw anxieties, it is possible to dump those on the EU without doing too much damage – much as a teenager might dump the disorientating emotions of adolescence on their parents precisely because the parents are a source of stability. In mobilising these anxieties to great support for Brexit, Leave were showing how important the EU has become for the UK.

Religious scriptures

The stories that make up religious scriptures is to use stories safely located in the past. A Welsh chapel calling itself “Bethel” or “Ebenezer” is drawing on what its people associate to stories in the Hebrew scriptures. Someone using the story of Noah’s ark is using it to say something about the present: its “truth” lies in the usefulness of the story now, not in what might have happened thousands of years ago. The psalms are a particularly extreme example: they have been used and re-used across the millenia to express people’s stories of their own lives and situations. The texts are contradictory, and the way they have been used is even more so, but there is a richness in the heritage. Something is hallowed in the way people have struggled and found something in the text over so many generations.

It’s been said that the Authorised Version of the Bible, and Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress are the two texts that formed the backdrop to the English language from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. There is a stability in what the stories hold. Many war memorials have the phrase “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for his friends” (or just “Greater love hath no man”): the words hold something, though its link back to the story of the crucifixion of Jesus is rather more complicated.

Here Brexit as a religion is problematic because the stories are too fresh. Myths like “foreigners taking control” or “immigrants taking our jobs” are too easily shown to be untrue by a Brexit that doesn’t deliver a sense of control, or more jobs, or a better NHS. When the reality doesn’t match the stories the emotions are left without a story to express them. The obvious explanation will be that someone (or some group) is to blame. Sadly, the well-worn path there is one of scapegoating. But this won’t be the religious ritual of driving a sacrificial goat out into the desert: this threatens either aggression towards Remainers, or aggression-turned-inward and manifest as depression among Brexiteers. Both should be worrying.


One of the functions of religion is to keep hope alive in dark times. Prayer or sacrifices can offer a sense of being able to change things, while scriptures and stories hold the memory of difficult times survived in the past. Both give a sense that survival is possible, despite present reality.

From this perspective it’s been fascinating and horrifying to hear people on the doorstep say that Brexit “will be difficult, but we’ll get over it”. Sometimes that sounds like the language people use to describe the Second World War but often it sounds like something else, as if hope is being kept alive by the promise of change. Some of those conversations have been with people for whom life is clearly very difficult, and clinging to a whisker of hope feels really important. In well-functioning religion, keeping hope alive matters because things often do improve, if people don’t give up. Here it is feeling more like the longing for a deliverance, which has echoes of dark times in Christian history where the hope has been that difficulty is the birth pang of a new age, often linked to the “second coming” of Jesus. Critics of religion will see this as escapist. They have a point, especially if it stops people acting to change their situation. Normally saying prayers or making sacrifices doesn’t actually make life worse: in this case the price of the hope in Brexit is actually to make people’s lives worse.

The tragedy here is that this also works at the level of self-harm. A textbook description of self-harm is that it is what people do to get a pain they can control, as a way of dealing with an emotional pain that they can’t control. Most religions find a way to stop self-harm becoming too destructive, such as balancing asceticism with talk of a “God of love”. But Brexit is too new to have developed that balance. Instead it leaves people very vulnerable to being manipulated.

An alternative religious

In my mind, the best historical precedent for the EU is the Holy Roman Empire which provided a stable more-or-less federal framework for a great swathe of Europe over more-or-less a millennium. The religious aspect was partly to do with what religion holds for a society, and partly how that sets limits on leaders – whether you see God as an active force, or the sum of people’s projections, the idea acted as a constrained on rulers. The EU has picked up the idealism of that, balancing the powers of governments and people, and offering means of support for the more deprived parts of Europe. People complain about European “bureaucracy” but that looks rather different when it is seen – as in the Holy Roman Empire – as a set of checks and balances, which stop leaders getting too much dominance.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there seems to have been a proliferation of novels and films about the Reformation in England. People have drawn what seem to be stretched parallels between Brexit and Henry VIII’s break with Rome. That’s a dysfunctional recycling of religious rhetoric — the brutal reality is that Henry VIII’s actions make more sense as a powerful King protecting his power at all costs regardless of the consequences for his people. That has un-nerving parallels with some of the leading Brexiteers, and be something from which we need European wisdom to rescue us.

The take-away message

What this is highlighting is an urgent need to look at what is going on in the quasi-religious appeal of Brexit, not because delivering it would be a good thing, but because listening to what is being said in the stories offers a way to engage with the wounds it has exposed. For each of the Brexit claims, the question that needs to be asked is “Why do people need to believe this?”. There’s little chance of people changing their minds until this has been engaged with, and a wise leader would hear and heed people’s pain, rather than behave as if it doesn’t matter.

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