UK EU Referendum ballot paper

We get the governments we deserve, it is said. This may be unfair on those countries whose democracy is too thin and fragile (if it exists at all) to make this possible.

But in the case of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the EU referendum vote begs certain questions in regard to the seriousness of the issue of governance and to the way we, the governed, do politics.

Our free society owes its existence to an evolving process which encompasses a punishing civil war which ended in the middle of the 17th century and, when combined with the Industrial Revolution, led to a tumultuous process of social and political change. The conflict and the ensuing and ongoing political process (we have a constitution by convention) has brought about the democracy we now take for granted. Further and more recent resistance to tyranny and anarchy came with the sacrifices of our people in two world wars. Subsequent generations carry the memory of all of these sacrifices within their political DNA.

Sacrifice is not a particularly popular word these days, whatever context it is used in, because our society, and thereby the politicians who serve it, is essentially short-termist and narrowly self interested. Much that passes for good legislature is, on closer inspection, a response to the mood and interests of the moment, despite the fact that some of these policies could decide whether there will be a future for us at all. Think only of those related to the environment. Similarly, the long term effects of this referendum on what is still the majority of the population (the under 65’s) are muted in the minds of voters who feel they have lost out, but have not thought about the significant good they receive from their membership with the European Union. They, at least, should have learned wisdom from having perhaps had first hand experience of the harsh and immediate effects of broken promises and lies typical of bad governance. The referendum is an abdication of responsibility for governance primarily by politicians, but also by the voting public.

If we get the governance we deserve, it suggests that the fault lies with all of us, politicians and electorate alike. We have dishonest and self interested politicians, some of whom are also weak and incompetent, serving (if that is what they are doing) a politically apathetic and individualistic public. These complement each other well. The ones who are being hoodwinked spur on those peddling delusion. It is almost a win-win situation, as has emerged in the run up to the referendum and in its outcome. Almost, but not quite. The lies are beginning to be revealed for what they are.
Good governance which stems from competent and visionary leadership might yet save the day. It almost certainly will for Scotland. But even if Scotland, through no fault of its leader, fails to somehow drag the rest of us with it to higher ground, it will have taught us something about the kind of leadership which brings good governance.

Words from the prophet Isaiah spring to mind ‘And the governance will be upon his shoulders’ (Isaiah 9:6). Those who govern carry the weight of the cross upon their shoulders. The cross is the example given to us in Jesus of the kind of governance which resists power, so that others can be empowered, or freed to ‘inhabit’ their full humanity. This has nothing to do with misplaced ideas of ‘sovereignty’.

There is a gentle, but strong, single mindedness about the way Nicola Sturgeon does politics, especially at the moment. It echoes the firmness of purpose with which Christ carried the cross. Even when he was physically too weak to bear it, his handing it over to another symbolized the strength we have when we relinquish control, or power, in the right way and for the right reasons. The referendum was an example of the consequences of relinquishing control in the wrong way and for the wrong reasons. Contrary to what many were led to believe, its outcome has not empowered anyone.

It has fragmented us, revealing divisions which are far more deep rooted than many of us realise. They are the result of decades of a growing mistrust in the political system and in those who govern us, or who might yet govern us if we do not take responsibility for the system itself and for the way we think of ourselves in the world. In other words, if we do not take responsibility for carrying the cross of governance.

The cross of governance entails more than putting a mark on a ballot paper, especially if this is done merely as a ‘protest’ vote. As with a general election, there is a price to pay for such irresponsibility and for not thinking about the issues at stake beyond those which proceed from our own impatience, personal grudges or self interest. In all of these cases, we lay ourselves open to lies and misrepresentation. In the context of the referendum, one of these misrepresentations, and perhaps the most significant, has to do with who we think we really are. The referendum suggests that we either don’t know or can’t remember who we are. Some of those who voted ‘leave’ have appealed to the spirit of the Second World War, as if ‘being governed by Germany’ (or anyone else), is really what our membership of the European Union is about.

I believe it is about something far more significant for our times. It is about facing our political responsibilities as a once Christian nation. Somewhere in our political DNA lies our identification with the Cross of Christ. Somewhere lies our memory of having walked the walk to Golgotha with him, in wars and depressions, in struggles for justice, in compassion for the refugee.

These are the things which bind us to one another. They are also the things which bind us to our European neighbours. Thank you, Nicola Sturgeon, for reminding us of this fact.