In a context of confusion and flashy journalism, rigour becomes a precious value.
To claim that somehow Britain is morally superior to the other 27 countries of the EU is a dangerously arrogant position to take.
A few weeks before the UK’s Brexit referendum in 2016 a friend emailed to me and a number of others an article (which can still be viewed online) written by a prominent British Christian.
In it the author relates Britain’s membership of the European Union to the history of 2 Chronicles, chapters 17-20, where godly King Jehoshaphat got into serious difficulties through his disastrous alliances, by marriage with wicked King Ahab and by trade with his equally wicked grandson, Ahaziah.
When Jehoshaphat broke these ungodly alliances, he experienced the blessings of God in unexpected ways. Therefore, if Britain breaks its alliance with the EU, blessings are bound to follow. The implications of the comparison are clear: Britain is like Judah under godly king Jehoshaphat. The European Union is like the godless northern kingdom of Israel, under the wicked kings Ahab and Ahaziah. Just as Judah was led down a disastrous path by its alliance with Israel, so Britain has been led down a wrong path by its membership of the European Union.
It is undeniable that Britain has a unique Christian heritage, although it is sad that so few British churches see the open doors which the European Union offers for spreading the benefits of that heritage to other countries in Europe. However, to claim that somehow Britain is morally superior to the other 27 countries of the EU and is being polluted by being allied with them, as Judah was polluted by Israel, is a dangerously arrogant position to take.
It is a position which I often come across when talking to British Christians, though usually it is not expressed quite so starkly. It is also implicit in a good deal of the Brexit debate: Britain would be ‘better off’ if we regained our own sovereignty and were freed from the pernicious constraints and influences coming from other European countries, often labelled as ‘Brussels’. Britain has special capacities and would somehow be able to achieve on her own in the world what other European countries such as Germany, France and Spain could not.
I replied to the distribution list in these terms, and immediately received a message from a Belgian friend on the list, expressing his wholehearted agreement with my analysis; and I could sense the strength of feeling in his response. This led me to reflect that it would be worthwhile to take a step back and see what people from other European countries are thinking of us, whether they perceived arrogance in our attitudes.
As far as Brexit is concerned, the principal reactions which I have encountered on the Continent are puzzlement and sadness. Puzzlement that Britain would want to leave an organisation which has brought peace and unparalleled prosperity to most of Europe for the past 60 years; and sadness at the rupture in relationships which Brexit will inevitably cause. Other Europeans would like to see Britain as an integral part of the family of European nations, but that will be much more difficult if we have turned our back on the EU.
It is attitudes to Britain and the British which I have found most interesting. I spent 25 years living on the Continent, working with people from many different countries, and I often took the opportunity to ask them about their perceptions of Britain and British people. Sometimes it needed a few drinks together before they were prepared to be open and tell me, a Brit, what they really think of us, but their answers were often revealing.
On the positive side, Britain is widely respected as a country of fairness and decency, though this reputation has become somewhat tarnished as a result of the harsh immigration policies which the Home Office has introduced of late, policies which reached their nadir in the debacle of the Windrush immigrants from the 1950s and 1960s. There is still much goodwill towards Britain as the nation which stood firm against Nazi Germany and helped to liberate Western European countries in 1944-45, although the memory of this is definitely fading. British culture – films, TV, literature, art, humour – is generally highly appreciated.
Over and against this, there is a widespread sense that Britain has not yet come to terms with no longer being a world power with an empire, and is still trying to behave like a colonial power, telling other nations what is best for them. There are, indeed, perceptions of British people as sometimes stand-offish and arrogant, an arrogance which was captured by those quintessential Englishmen, Flanders and Swan, in their parody song: ‘The English, the English, the English are best. I wouldn’t give tuppence for all the rest.’ And that is exactly the attitude which equates Britain with Jehoshaphat, over and against wicked Ahab and Ahaziah.
We Brits might say, ‘Why should we bother to listen to what foreigners are thinking about us?’ Well, the person who refuses to listen to anybody outside his own circle is like “the fool whose way seems right to him, in contrast to wise people, who listen to advice” (Proverbs 12:15). Even Jesus was interested in what people were saying about him. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13), he asked his disciples, because this helped to define for them his role and mission.
Of course I am not saying that most British people are arrogant. Rather, that there is an arrogance which can easily creep into our attitudes towards Continental Europe. Any arrogance is highly dangerous: “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs 16:18). I fear that the haughty spirit which too often comes out in the Brexit debate could lead to a painful fall for Britain. I fear that we may discover the hard way the truth of Jesus’ words, “Those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Matthew 23:12).
How that humbling could come, I cannot say. It could be through a market or property price crash which forced reconsideration of EU membership. It could come through substantial unemployment, which would put intolerable pressure on already stretched public finances. It could come 10 years down the road, with Britain realising that she is lagging behind the rest of Europe because of her economic isolation. It could come through a security threat which could not be dealt with adequately because of her political isolation. It could come in some other way which has never occurred to me. But, if arrogance continues, a fall will certainly come; and as a person proud to be English, British and European, I take no pleasure in writing this.
“The Lord has a day in store for all the proud and lofty, for all that is exalted (and they will be humbled). … The arrogance of humankind will be brought low and human pride humbled” (Isaiah 2:12,17). Whether or not Brexit goes ahead, whether or not Britain ends up leaving the European Union, the customs union, the single market, or whatever, I pray that we as a nation may begin to eat a large portion of humble pie, before the Lord sees fit to humble us. Lord, have mercy on us.