by John Milbank
Thursday, 22
April 2021
Review
11:55

Are Christians more eurosceptic?

We are guided more by inherited totemic beliefs than class
by John Milbank
Is she a Nigel Farage fan? (Photo by Niklas HALLE’N / AFP) (Photo by NIKLAS HALLE’N/AFP via Getty Images)

Did religious belief have any significant impact upon the vote for Brexit? A new book, Religion and Euroscepticism in Brexit Britain, by Ekaterina Kolpinskaya and Stuart Fox, argues that it did have a small but significant influence, given that a narrow majority of British people still claim religious affiliation as one aspect of their identity.

The authors come to some interesting conclusions: notably that the unusual distribution of political allegiance across the Left-to-Right spectrum among British Christians has diminished, just as it has in the United States. Catholics have switched from Labour to Conservatives in large numbers and Nonconformists have increasingly deserted both Labour and the Liberal Democrats. This approximates the Anglo-Saxon world more to the Continental one, where Left and Right has often corresponded to secular versus sacred, and raises the prospect of the British Conservative party becoming more like a Christian Democratic one, at least in terms of its social make-up.

Kolpinskaya and Fox clearly imply that the reasons for this shift among the religious laity are the increasing desertion of small ‘c’ conservatism by the parties of the Left: of respect for traditional institutions, symbols and rituals, of concern for cultural cohesion (including largely unspoken worries about Islam) and for marriage and the family. They also make it clear that a relative increase in Euroscepticism among religious people is only a sub-set of this more general shift in perception.

Despite this overall change, the continuing influence of an ethical internationalism ensured that actual church-goers still voted in the referendum by a large majority for Remain. The authors nonetheless make much of the fact that Anglicans and Presbyterians, members of ‘national’ churches, voted considerably more heavily for Brexit than did Catholics or Nonconformists. However, since this figure comprises mostly those with a rather nominal church allegiance, religion might be an insignificant element of a general patriotic attachment to national tradition.

In consequence, the conclusion of the book appears to be rather thin.

It ignores something far more striking: the apparent geographical survival of sectarian allegiances that once, at least, had a strong religious component — a secular echo of bitter past conflicts among British Christians. Thus, the most traditionally Tory and Anglican areas of the South East, Central South and South Midlands were the strongest for Remain outside London. Besides Catholic Liverpool, old Recusant areas in the North West and around York also went for Remain, in contrast to the old more Nonconformist areas of the North in general.

The traditionally Roundhead East was the most heavily pro-Leave, while Leave also won out in previously Dissenting Cornwall and South Wales.

This would seem to confirm Robert Tombs’ view that British politics is often more guided by inherited post-religious ‘shibboleths’ than by class or ideology. For these regional demographic differences to a degree overrode those of relative prosperity, or of rural versus urban. A fear of ‘Popery’ and Continental tyranny still seems to resound in the subconscious of the Eastern littoral, as in the far West where the Anglican church was also less dominant.

Both Catholics and Anglicans have drifted more towards an anti-EU stance over the past thirty years, but this is part of a general drift away from the liberal-Left and its globalising liberalism. That is largely due to the historical tendency of both Catholics and middle-of-the road to high Anglicans to be less suspicious of the Continent and Catholicism than lower church Anglicans and dissenters are.

But this drift surely does not include, as Kolpsinskaya and Fox allege, a general embrace of ‘Right-wing economics’: it is rather an expression of a conservative communitarianism, both economically and culturally, among people who feel more obviously marginalised. This attitude, understandably — if debatably — is causing an increasing number of religious people to be wary of the EU as today being mainly a liberal monetary and technocratic project.

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
1 year ago

If anything, it is belief in the EU that is religious i.e. based on nothing substantial and worshipful full of a distant, amorphous and all powerful deity.
That aside, the final sentence says exactly what I was going to say here in the comments, although I would also have featured the word ‘tyranny’.

Last edited 1 year ago by Fraser Bailey
Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago

Original founders of the EU (and they envisaged ever closer union from the outset) such as Jean Monnet were practising Catholics, inspired by Catholic social teaching – as reflected in slogans such as subsidiarity and solidarity. Ian Paisley believed the EU was a project to create a Catholic superstate (the Treaty of Rome – proves it!). Whatever truth may have been in this – and I doubt that there was much – certainly no longer applied by 2007, when the EU’s declarations to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the Treaty of Rome excluded any mention of God or Europe’s Christian roots. Pope Benedict described this as ‘a unique form of apostasy’. “If on the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome the governments of the union want to get closer to their citizens, how can they exclude an element as essential to the identity of Europe as Christianity, in which the vast majority of its people continue to identify,” he said. I think that’s when a lot of Catholics and Christians saw the EU for what it really was, or had become.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew D

“Ian Paisley believed the EU was a project to create a Catholic superstate (the Treaty of Rome – proves it!). Whatever truth may have been in this – and I doubt that there was much”

But Valery Giscard-D’Estaing specifically said that the original EEC was an attempt to produce a new Europe-wide Empire ‘in the spirit of Charlemagne’.And said Emperor was certainly not Protestant.

Last edited 1 year ago by Arnold Grutt
Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago
Reply to  Arnold Grutt

I don’t doubt the imperialism. It’s just that along the way Christianity (of any flavour) was jettisoned

Ann Ceely
Ann Ceely
1 year ago

Anti-technocratic politics seems in vogue these days. As with Tony Blair’s “progressive” politics, EU politicians, and a large number of UK ones claim to be able to know what would be best for us mere subjects of the Queen!

I prefer natural evolution as a process. Leave lots of people free to order their own lives.

J StJohn
J StJohn
1 year ago
Reply to  Ann Ceely

If the Lockdown demonstrates nothing else, it shows that your proposition to ‘Leave lots of people free to order their own lives.’ is dead in the water.

Chris C
Chris C
1 year ago
Reply to  J StJohn

But freer than the 127,000 who have died from the virus. Free to benefit from the discovery of the vaccines rather than having their lives cut short. And how many tens of thousands died unnecessarily because Boris delayed in March 2020, and rejected the advice of the sciientists in mid-September 2020 and waited until the disease was out of control at the end of October 2020, when he instituted a longer lockdown than the two week circuit breaker that the scientists had recommended six weeks earlier?

David Hartlin
David Hartlin
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris C

Then there is all those who will suffer and die because of the economic and negative health impacts of lockdowns.

James Rowlands
James Rowlands
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris C

Interesting balance….

Save say 50 or so 90 year olds from flu but thereby lose 10 or so under 90 from depression, cancer etc…..

Brian Dorsley
Brian Dorsley
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris C

I daresay if it wasn’t for the lockdowns this whole coronavirus thing would be over by now.

Duncan Hunter
Duncan Hunter
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris C

You casually ignore the ONS’s admission that deaths were overstated by over 23% or around 31,000 in absolute terms. The true margin of error is perhaps even greater. I guess that is inconvenient to your ‘narrative’. On this basis Britain is not the worst affected in Europe, merely the most overzealous in attribution of mortality.

You’ll doubtless be citing New Zealand, Australia and Taiwan as exemplars next.

The data underwriting your particular point of view is receding like a spring tide.

Carl Goulding
Carl Goulding
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris C

If you had lost your job or closed down your business and were living on benefits perhaps you would have a different outlook

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Carl Goulding

I think that is a fair point but is then an argument about how lockdowns were managed, in terms of support to businesses and individuals.
There is an argument that if restrictions were in place earlier, with greater support for people isolating when infected and functioning testing and tracking, then they would be needed for less time and fewer people would become ill or die. And fewer businesses close and jobs be lost. And fewer Covid cases in hospitals displacing other patients.

John Hancock
John Hancock
1 year ago

The parallels between Brexit, and the Reformation in the British Isles and its long historical aftermath, have long been apparent. Not least in that an upsurge of religious reformist ideas from ‘bottom up’ in society met political impetus in the succession imperatives of Henry VIII.

Andrew D
Andrew D
1 year ago
Reply to  John Hancock

There was a lot of ‘bottom up’ resistance to the Henrician reforms, eg the Pilgrimage of Grace

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
1 year ago

The congregations may have been drifting slowly to the Right but it’s a long time since the Anglican clergy were “the Conservative Party at prayer”. As Giles Fraser, of this parish, can confirm.

Chris C
Chris C
1 year ago

I wonder whether the analysis removes the influence of age and education, both factors being strongly linked to Leave/Remain, and the former (age) in particular being strongly linked to religious belief?

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago
Reply to  Chris C

No psephologist has ever bothered to examine the question of ‘religious background’ (as opposed to current expressed beliefs) in the context of Brexit. Yet I predicted that any large town or city with large Catholic populations would vote Remain. I then checked Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester. All had.
During the Brexit campaign in Scotland, I could predict in advance which side an interviewee was on solely by their surnames (I knew nothing about any of them at the time). I was not once wrong.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
1 year ago

“However, since this figure comprises mostly those with a rather nominal church allegiance, religion might be an insignificant element of a general patriotic attachment to national tradition.”

No, not religious practice or current beliefs. Religious background. And Remainers are overwhelmingly Catholic by background in my view.

Last edited 1 year ago by Arnold Grutt