The cure for Brexit hypertension

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Britain collapsed into Easter, exhausted by our broken politics. Easter was a strange lull. Whole news bulletins went by without any mention of Brexit. Laura Kuennsberg had a holiday. John Bercow cleared the lobbies. Christians humbled themselves before their crucified Lord, and then celebrated his resurrection, even as we mourned the senseless murder of Sri Lankan Christians. In our church, one of our much loved members died of cancer in the early hours of Good Friday, and my daughter’s church mourned the death of a young Christian couple on holiday. These are the really great things of life and death.

Then after Easter, with a six month delay in place, and all combatants hanging on the ropes battered and bruised, we tried to build up for the next round, but it was all about St Theresa leaving the ring – when, and how soon. April and May have been the Brexit phoney war, but our national identify crisis is soon to be back upon us.

Can I then make a plea, to myself and to all my friends, to listen, and to try and empathise with the other side?

The leave and remain camps are arguing their cases for different reasons. Both do so sincerely. Where the argument goes wrong is where they try to explain the other side.

The leave argument is a constitutional case. Leave to take back control of our money, laws and borders, to renew the parliamentary life of government and shift power back from Brussels. It is to do something wholly new, radical and risky – to run ourselves, even when that is out of step with the international consensus. It is not fundamentally an economic argument, except in regard to being free traders. The bus slogan was not what it was about. It is a revolt against globalisation and a desire to pursue nationhood.

I may be wrong but I think the Remain argument is mostly an economic one. Leaving will damage the economy, which is on the precipice, jobs will go on a large scale, EU tariffs will destroy our exports. The current system works for us pragmatically so why chuck it all in the bin?  It is a view expounded by captains of industry, the CBI and the TUC. Many academics fear it will threaten their academic links with continental universities, and cut research funding. We never seem to hear any remainers saying they want to stay in the EU to gain some great influence at the heart of Europe, or because the EU is the great guardian of democratic accountability.

Is there any point in either side pounding each other with these arguments? They leave the other saying ‘So what, but….’ and flinging their counter-argument back. It is like listening to two grown men comparing football and rugby. What’s the point?

How should Christians negotiate this divide? Can I suggest we take hold of two virtues – humility and contentment – and rediscover a biblical idea we lost at the Enlightenment – a biblical understanding of nationhood.

The problem is that we are being pulled two ways, by nationalism and globalism. Nationalism idolises our nation above all others, sees us as being blessed by some kind of exceptionalism and the rest of the world ought to admire us. Classic examples are imperial Britain, Apartheid South Africa, Jim Crow American white supremacy (though the American Dream is still nationalism), not to mention the BJP in India, or the new attitude in China.

Globalism fights against nationalism, but is equally doctrinaire. In the name of progress, especially economic growth, we need to supersede borders and pursue a world order, or should that be ‘our world order’ in the west,  because globalisation looks very different if you come from Peru or Burkina Faso. Imperial languages and cultures dominate, multinational corporations overpower developing governments, or indeed any government that wants to stand up to them. Towers of Babel are built by oppression and domination, but the globalist says ‘That is the way things are now. If you can’t beat em, you’d better join em!’

Nationalism lacks humility, but so does globalism. Both of them are possessed by the same ‘but we know better’ attitude. Nations should live under God with humility, esteeming other cultures as rich and diverse compared to their own, at ease with the fact that they are just one nation of many, that nations rise and fall in God’s providence, and that we have much to learn from each other, that we are small and just passing through. ‘The Lord looks down from heaven. He sees all the children of man. From where he sits enthroned he looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, he who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds.’ Ps.33:13-15.

Both nationalism and globalism lack contentment. Nationalism will blame the other for all our woes, without realising that the nations of the earth have been exploring and trading with each other ever since the sons of Gomer climbed into a boat and sailed down the Mediterranean in search of other coasts (Gen. 10:3-4). Nationalists are possessed by a discontented hatefulness towards other nations that so often spills over into war. If we could only live at ease with ourselves under God, and recognise that Germans will build better cars, Italians will perform better operas, Guineans will grow the best mangoes, Indians will grow better spices and Filipinos will make better Kleenex, we could contentedly trade our whisky and Land Rovers and costume dramas and play our part in the world. But does that require us to be bound into some regional or global power block purely for economic reasons? Must we be part of the globalist juggernaut because economic growth is all that matters? If it gives us oceans filled with plastic and skies filled with CO2 vapour trails, because we think secular western wealth is everything, what have we missed? We have missed the truth that every nation should live ‘under heaven’ with humility and contentment, where our first duty is to love and worship God with our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to seek justice, live mercy and above all walk humbly with our God.

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President Macron’s Armistice speech – is nationalism the only evil?

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On Sunday 11 November 2018, President Macron of France gave a powerful speech at L’Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Before him were gathered leaders of the allied powers, including Presidents Trump and Putin. The UK was represented by David Lidington as First Secretary of State. There was no member of the Royal Family present. The Cenotaph ceremony in Whitehall is a bigger focus in the British mind.

Those gathered in Paris heard Macron launch a stinging attack on nationalism:

Let us remember: do not deprive anything of what was purity, ideal, superior principles in the patriotism of our elders. This vision of France as a generous nation, of France as a project, of France carrying universal values, was in those dark hours exactly the opposite of the selfishness of a people who look only at their interests. For patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism: nationalism is treason. By saying “our interests first and what do the others matter!” we erase from a nation what is most precious, what makes it live, what brings it to be great, which is the most important: its moral values.

These words were obviously intended to hit out at both President Trump’s ‘America First’ policy, and at the manoeuvres of the Putin regime. But we need to define nationalism carefully. Nationalism is not ‘the opposite of patriotism.’ Patriotism is an essential part of our cultural identity and, as Macron explained, is to be lived according to moral values (but which ones?) Nationalism is the perversion of patriotism, because it takes love of one’s own nation one step further by idolising our nation and fearing all others. It does not take much to make that step, because the human condition is sinful, arrogant and inherently proud, and if that is true at the personal level, it is magnified at the national level. Patriotism easily descends into nationalism, a danger we must always be aware of.

But here is Macron’s bigger mistake, even to the point of subtly re-writing history. The First World War was not caused by nationalism, so much as imperialism. True, it was a Serb nationalist who lit the touch-paper by assassinating Crown Prince Franz Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. But the explosion this caused came about because Europe was in the grip of huge rival empires, so powerful that some of them were clubbed together in security pacts to stand against the threat of the others. Britain, France and Russia were tied together by treaty, and Russia felt a close affinity to Serbia as another Slavic nation so they went to her defence. Germany stood with Austria-Hungary against Russia, and so Britain and France came into the war. It was a clash of imperial powers. At the heart of the imperial mindset is hubris, expressed so well in the French word Superieur. We know better, and because of that we have the right to rule other nations and extend our empire. The honour of the empire must not be threatened, and war is justifiable if the empire’s repute is in some way impugned. The primary issue that caused the slaughter of millions in the First World War was imperialism, not nationalism.

At the end of the war, President Wilson of America outlined his fourteen points that would form the basis of the post-war settlement. Being convinced of the right to national self-determination, he had no desire to perpetuate any empire, but the British and French governments steadfastly stood by theirs, while watching the German/Prussian, Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman empires crumble, waiting to grab the spoils of war to extend their dominions, particularly into the Middle East as well as Africa. At the same time, several European nations used Wilson’s speech to justify their own claims to self-determination, and countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland, the Baltic States and Finland claimed their freedom through the peace settlement. Empires had been vanquished, and in their place came bitter nationalisms that led to the Second World War.

President Macron praised ‘the United Nations, a guarantor of a spirit of cooperation to defend the common goods of a world whose destiny is indissolubly linked and which has learned the lessons of the painful failures of the League of Nations and of the Treaty from Versailles.’ I agree with these words. But his enthusiasm for ‘the European Union, a union freely agreed, never seen in history, and delivering us from our civil wars’ is more worrying. He is a true believer in the EU, but does not realise that his vision is an imperial one. The European project must not be challenged. Those who want to leave are presumed to have hostile intent by doing so, and must not be allowed to do so easily. He spoke of the danger that others want to ‘ruin this hope by their fascination for withdrawal, violence and domination [which] would be an error that future generations would rightly take on historical responsibility.’ [Forgive google translate here please!]

But that is precisely where he is wrong. Withdrawal from the EU does not mean a resort to violence and domination. The seeds of domination are already sown in the ever closer union that the EU elite insist upon, that brings down governments and overrides the will of the people in order to preserve the wider EU ‘project.’ Such imperialism is the very thing that will cause nations to feel the EU’s oppression, and make them want to tear away from the EU. Suppress that desire for independence, and you could end up in another European war.

There is a deeper problem still. In the final part of his speech he spoke of the dead, standing as he was in front of the French tomb of the unknown warrior. He said ‘That on the tombs where they rest, flourish the certainty that a better world is possible if we want it, if we decide it, if we build it, if we demand it with all our soul.’ Expressed in those words is the modern secular mindset, that there is no God, and that we can build our own destiny if only we have the will. Surely, in reflecting on what two world wars have done in Europe, this hubris is utterly misplaced.

We should rather be looking for a different road, neither the imperial road that leads to war and domination (and eventually defeat) nor the road of nationalism that idolises our country and hates all others. Rather, we should be following a road where our national life is lived out under God, where we confess our national sins and personal hatreds, where in war we love our enemies and do good to those who hate us, and where we know that we do not have anything as a nation that we have not received from the hand of a good and gracious God. It is my hope and prayer that as we reflect on the war that killed so many, our desire will not be just to rail against nationalism but also against empire, and to follow a third way, the biblical road of nationhood lived out in humility under the sovereignty of God.

 

In Brussels and Strasbourg – a Brexiteer on holiday

IMG_20180728_151138In any disagreement, it is good advice to go and step into the other person’s shoes. Our summer holiday provided the perfect opportunity, as we based ourselves first near Brussels and then in the Nord Vosges west of Strasbourg. We’ve had more holidays in Eastern France and the Low counties than anywhere else, because we love the culture and history of each nation, as well as the manifest beauty of each landscape. Yet I am convinced that Brexit is right for the UK, and increasingly sure that something similar would be good for many EU countries. But have I missed something? Why do dedicated Europhiles love the EU? Seeing things from the perspective of the heart of the EU might be helpful.

When you visit the Parliamentarium in Brussels, the visitor centre at the EU Parliament, you can have the whole raison d’etre of the EU explained to you. The EU exists because of Europe’s history. It is a fear of the past that drives the determination to integrate into an ever closer union. Set into the wall in a darkened room in the exhibition, screen after screen narrates the sad story of early 20th century carnage. Europe was laid waste by war, and only in the ruins of the late 1940s did a new Europe begin to be fashioned.

It is important to realise that for continental Europeans this experience goes much further back, to Napoleon and beyond. While Britain played a major part in defeating Corsica’s most famous son, we kept out of the conflicts that followed, particularly the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, because we were too busy fighting colonial wars elsewhere and were more concerned to extend our expanding empire. For the French, their war with Prussia was yet another bloodletting between neighbours, so dreadful that when it was over they commissioned a great monument to the fallen, the basilica in Paris known as La Sacré Coeur. It was completed in 1914! The killing fields of the Western Front in WW1, in which my Gt. Uncle died, another Gt. Uncle was wounded and my Grandfather also served, were yet worse for the French, especially on battlefields such as Verdun in the centre of France. In January 1918 President Woodrow Wilson made a speech setting out a new doctrine in international relations, his ‘fourteen points’ that established the principle of national self-determination. When the armistice was signed in November 1918, this let loose a wave of nationalism. The old empires of Europe – Russia, Germany and Austria Hungary – gave up territory to make way for new states such as Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and Poland re-emerged. Empires were to be a thing of the past, at least for the vanquished.

What Wilson had not reckoned with was the growth of National Socialism, in Germany, Italy, and Spain, and the success of Bolshevism in the Soviet Union. All these countries practiced a cult of religious nationalism, idolising their leaders and their nations with rituals and parades that seem utterly absurd to us now, but which people obviously believed at the time. When such nationalism had laid Europe waste again, in a total war that killed civilians as deliberately as it killed soldiers, there was a new consensus to build something bold and new.  The Parliamentarium exhibition is filled with quotes from the founding era of the European movement, and it is fascinating to see how they explain themselves. One that struck my notice was the Geneva Draft Declaration (II) on European Federation:

‘During the lifetime of one generation Europe has twice been the centre of a world conflict whose chief cause was the existence of thirty sovereign states in Europe. It is a most urgent task to end this international anarchy by creating a European Federal Union.’

Two world wars were blamed on the existence of ‘sovereign states’ across Europe! Independence and national sovereignty must always lead to war – a claim no doubt challenged by countries like Sweden and Switzerland. For a more recent voice expressing the same view, turn to Liliane Maury Pasquier, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe.[1] She said:

‘As an organisation that brings together almost all European states on the basis of common values, principles and legal standards, the Council of Europe is today best placed to help meet the challenges raised by growing nationalism and avoid the building of new walls….upholding multilateralism as an essential weapon against sovereigntist attacks on our shared values.’

Do you see the same idea being expressed? The problem with Europe is ‘sovereigntism’ and ‘nationalism’ as the inevitable causes of war, while the only way to break that is to achieve what the EU calls ‘ever closer union.’ Indeed, the European Parliament’s other new and grander home in Strasbourg is built to look like a work still in progress, its circular walls intentionally unfinished to convey the idea of a single Europe still being constructed. There is in the EU psyche a genuine conviction that they are the only means by which Europe can be spared again from another appalling war. For that reason, they see Brexit as potentially unleashing the dogs of war. If it can be frustrated, and if necessary governments that support it can be destabilised so that the British change their mind, the European project can continue on its way.

Yet I believe that the European Union is fast becoming the most likely cause of another war in Europe. The EU is becoming an empire, concentrating power at the unaccountable centre, fighting to protect its own interests, bending its own principles to ensure that it stays together at all costs. This way of going on is nothing new. It was how every empire operated, and alienated and oppressed those it dominated until they rose up against it. It happened with Napoleon’s France, and in the British, Russian, Prussian and Austro-Hungarian empires, and you can see the new empires of the US, China and America learning the same character traits.

Wars are caused when empires and nationalisms collide. Both are evil. The view I seek to express on this blog is that the biblical understanding of nationhood avoids both extremes, and seeks to plough a third way, the way God intended us to live. Nations are to live together peacefully, side by side, each rejoicing in its own national conversation, cherishing its own language, culture and history, but also rejoicing in the culture, language and history of its neighbours and relating to them peacefully and generously. Each nation should be humble enough not to think of itself more highly than it ought to think. It ought to recognise that national borders are porous, not least because of marriage and migration, and thus every nation is always in a rich process of change and development. When a nation idolises itself, it always ends up hating and distrusting its neighbours. When a nation thinks so much of itself that it feels the urge to dominate all other nations around it, it has started to form an empire, which can only be achieved or maintained by oppression.  There is a close connection between nationalism and empire. One often leads to the other.

Empires caused the First World War. Woodrow Wilson saw national self-determination as the antidote to empire, thereby giving rise to nationalism, and the kind of self-obsessed idolatrous nations (Nazi and Bolshevik) that went out to build new empires by aggressive force. Empire will never be the antidote to nationalism, because idolatrous nationalism always leads to empire, given the opportunity.

At the centre of the carnage of too many European wars sits the city of Strasbourg, a city in France that sits next to the Rhine, and whose tram system crosses over into Germany. It has changed hands several times, and as a visitor one is not quite sure whether it is German or French. Staff who can tell you are not French may greet you in German then be confused to find that you are British. It is entirely understandable that the people of Strasbourg and Alsace never want to see war again. But what can keep them, and all Europe, from war? Two independent nations, humbled by the follies of the past, ought to be able to live alongside one another without ambitions that lead to war. Instead, I fear that an empire with its Parliament in Strasbourg will only serve over time to make other nations hate the place.

There are several aspects of the EU that already have the hallmarks of an empire. The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg can override national legislators and tell them to think again, thereby challenging the will of the people. The rules of the Eurozone were bent to get Italy and Greece into the Eurozone, and then when it proved unsustainable, everything had to bow to the survival of the Euro, even if that meant bringing down elected governments in Athens and Rome. The Schengen treaty is also seen as essential to European unity, even when a migration crisis makes such open borders seriously questionable. The EU is also good at colonising institutions that operated quite happily without it. The European Space Agency existed separate from the EU for many years, and has member states who are not EU members, such as Switzerland and Norway, as well as relationships with Canada and Israel. For years ESA operated free from EU interference, but since 2004 the EU has been taking a closer involvement in the running of ESA, and would like it to be considered an agency of the EU. Not only that, the EU Commission is determined to prevent the UK using ESA’s Galileo GPS satellite system post-Brexit, even though the UK has chipped in £1.4bn. What this means is that the EU has colonised another institution, and is determined to push out member states that will not toe their line. Imagine what it would be like if the EU created a European army, thereby undermining the cohesion of NATO.

I understand the fear of another European total war, and why people would be motivated to pursue any grands projets to try and prevent it. However, the answer is not another European empire. Empires have done as much if not more damage in Europe that nationalism. Neither will keep the peace of Europe. There are plenty of other ways for independent sovereign nations to cooperate together peacefully without surrendering their sovereignty, and so to live together on this war-scarred continent with humility and respect.

[1] Don’t confuse the Council of Europe with the European Union. The Council of Europe is a gathering of MPs from the national parliaments of 47 European states, as a ‘pan-European forum for inter-Parliamentary dialogue’, which keeps a focus on human rights through the European Court of Human Rights and is not part of the EU. It meets in the old EU parliament building in Strasbourg.

Murder, race hatred, and nationalism

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The tragic death of Jo Cox MP has had a cauterising effect on political debate over the last couple of days. Politicians seem embarrassed for the way they have been treating each other in the referendum debate. Perhaps now, cooled tempers can allow us to think respectfully and with humility about the great judgement we each have to make this week. So far the debate has focused mainly on three issues: the future trajectory of the economy, democracy, and immigration. You can read the tea leaves how you please on the first, have a reasoned argument about accountability on the second, but it is immigration that really raises the blood pressure. So let me here make my contribution to the debate as a Christian who believes passionately in biblical nationhood, but who is appalled by racism and nationalism.

Is it true that the opposite of internationalism must be racial hatred? Is the only way to avoid racial hatred to have open borders and not to care about our own culture, language and history? Continue reading “Murder, race hatred, and nationalism”