Cohesive Societies: Faith and Belief
This report explores the different ways in which faith and belief interact with societal cohesion. (2020)
This year’s ‘fantasy football’ fever seems to have infected the political realm, writes Ben Ryan. 28/08/2019
The football season is back, and with it the annual “fantasy football” bonanza that sees friends and colleagues vying to out–do each other with make–believe teams that bear little or no relation to sporting reality. This year, in an added twist, the fantasy fever seems to have infected the political realm. Apparently bored with the nitty–gritty of policy and the reality of Brexit negotiations, huge energy and enthusiasm is instead being dedicated to fantastical visions of imaginary governments who will ride into Westminster and save us all.
Caroline Lucas set the ball rolling (see how I effortlessly keep this tortured sporting metaphor going) with a proposed all female cross–party cabinet. Jeremy Corbyn kept it going with a letter to the other opposition parties (or most of them anyway) and the Tory Remain rebels, proposing a government of national unity to stop a conservative no deal Brexit. This proposal was met with an overwhelming apathy in which everyone other than the Labour left seems to be in agreement that they would love national unity and to stop a no deal Brexit, but not with Corbyn in charge.
Instead, subsequent proposals have strayed ever deeper into the fantasy world. A few cry out for Ken Clarke to take on the mantle of Prime Minister; a game he’s been at so long he first lost a leadership bid to Pitt the Elder. Others call for Harriet Harman, seemingly on the basis that she’s about the last Labour politician standing that no Labour faction has denounced as the devil (admittedly no mean feat these days). People who really ought to know better keep pitching for the Queen to get stuck in, which serves only the purpose of uniting everyone on both sides in the conviction that we’re all losing our collective minds. Given the near total lack of plausibility attached to any of the plans it is disappointing that no one has bothered to go a bit more radical. The UK’s most trusted voice on Brexit, for example, is by a margin Martin Lewis, the money saving expert. Why is no one holding out for this obvious expression of the will of the people?
The detachment from reality is not my biggest issue, however, which is more simply the transparent dishonesty of the whole situation. There is not the slightest hint in any of these suggested routes forward that there is any sincere, substantial vision for unity, compromise or reconciliation. This is about finding enough of a majority to defeat the opposition unilaterally, not a meaningful effort at attempting the increasingly urgent task of defusing an increasingly tribal conflict. For an astonishing proportion of Leavers, “no deal” has gone from a worst–case scenario clearly inferior to, say, a Norway style deal (as Farage, for example, persistently promised in the referendum debates), to the only Brexit that is not a betrayal of the people. In the highly unlikely scenario that this opposition unity government were to happen does anyone seriously believe that, having finally and presumably at great struggle ousted the Conservatives, such a government of committed Remainer parties would not simply seek to revoke Article 50 and remain? As the sides have become more entrenched, the extremes have become the only visions left standing.
Yet for all that, there is a genuine need, now or in the near future, and almost regardless of what happens on October 31st, for a real attempt at societal reconstruction and reconciliation. After years of tearing ourselves apart, some sort of effort to put the British Humpty Dumpty back together again is required.
If we were to have a genuine effort at national unity and reconciliation, and we certainly do need one, then at its core would need to be a radically different approach, one that does not prioritise victory and the defeat of the other side, but which starts instead from a position of vulnerability, humility and surrender. In this, the Christian theology of reconciliation (a sacrament in the Catholic tradition) has more to teach us than political science as a model for rebuilding a national community. The end goal of the Christian model is to re–order relationships and restore them to the right state. Accordingly, it is a requirement for Catholics to go to confession at the very least once a year, on the basis that the restoration of the right relationship with God, through penance and forgiveness, is an essential part of what it is to be human.
Taking this model into the political realm would require a radically different approach than those suggested so far. It would have to genuinely include both sides of the divide, for a start. It would need to begin with both sides being prepared to concede the harm they have inflicted on the other, and with a firm commitment towards restoring the right relationship between communities and parties. It would need to embody a commitment to restoring a situation in which political decisions can be made without condemning one side or the other of treason, anti–Britishness, or a host of other bad faith positions that are so paralysing the contemporary situation.
Is it plausible? Not at all, even less than the current ludicrous proposed cabinets, because this would require political parties to own their own vulnerabilities and be prepared to concede something to the other side. But if we’re going to be proposing these fantasy governments, we could at least put up a fantasy which has got its heart in the right place for resolving the current malaise. If there’s going to be a true resolution it’s not going to be from a strong heroic leader uniting a faction and riding in on a white horse to save us. A doubting, humble and sincere approach to repair what has been damaged; well that has a much better chance of real success.
Ben Ryan is Head of Research at Theos. He is the editor of Fortress Britain? Ethical Approaches to Immigration Policy for a Post–Brexit Britain (JKP 2018) and the author of Theos reports on chaplaincy, the EU, the Catholic charity sector, mental health and ecumenism. He holds degrees in European politics from the LSE and in Theology and Religious Studies from Cambridge. Outside of Theos he is a trustee of CSAN (Caritas Social Action Network).
Posted 27 August 2019
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