The referendum on 23rd June is important. In former times, the issue would have been decided by great statesmen persuading Parliament by reasoned arguments in thorough debates. All those who would have to decide would be there to listen, to speak and to have their views tested in rigorous argument. A true statesman would look dispassionately at the world as it actually was and decide, having heard the debate and applied his experience to it, what, on balance, was in the best long term interests of the country and the stability of the world.
The way this issue is being decided is different. However, the criteria for making the decision and the responsibility of each person contributing to the decision has not. We are all being asked to be statesmen now. As Christians that should engage our consciences profoundly.
The purpose of this document is not to argue for ‘in’ or ‘out’ but to suggest a way that a Christian, conscious of his or her Christian civic responsibility might approach the referendum.
The simple question when one is in the voting booth seems to me to be: which option can I say with a clear conscience before God is, in my honest and properly informed opinion, in the long term best interests of the country and the peaceful stability of the world.
That question seems to me to engage at least the Christian virtues of humility and generosity of spirit. It requires reflection on at least the following things:
(a) Am I satisfied that I have properly informed myself of the facts? That is to say, can I honestly say that I know what I am talking about? The referendum involves taking into account considerations that even the most clever and successful of us may not, if we are being honest, have really thought about in any depth before. This requires humility and there are places to go to obtain independent information. The Chatham House (the Royal Institute of International Affairs) website is just one example;
(b) When I am hearing or reading the opinions of a public figure or a piece of journalism, have I really examined whether the views expressed should be taken into account (or discarded) by me. Does that person have the real experience to make his or her views reliable? If I think that the person may be motivated by personal, political or commercial interests, do I have a basis for such an accusation? If I do, does that undermine the credibility of what they say ? Am I influenced by whether I like (or dislike) them or by whether they are from my political party or in the newspaper I usually read rather than by whether they might be right?
(c) When I am looking at a campaign, how is it being conducted ? Is the campaign genuinely attempting to grapple with the facts and inform the public or is it simply labelling and name calling. As the Archbishop of Canterbury (and the MATT cartoonist) has pointed out ‘fear’ of something detrimental is a reasonable reaction and accusing someone of promoting ‘fear’ without saying why the person is wrong does nothing to debate the issue. Allegations of ‘ambition’ or ‘bias’ are similarly unhelpful in the absence of any engagement with the issue the opponent is attempting to address;
(d) If I am considering voting on the basis of the strength of my views on one or two particular issues, have I asked myself two questions ? First, have I listened to the public figures with real experience of those issues before coming to my conclusions. We are in the very healthy position that many such figures have expressed their opinions on where the national interest lies in this referendum in speeches and in print (although not all have always reached the headlines) and these speeches and articles are mostly freely available on the internet. Secondly, have I properly assessed how important those particular issues are when balanced against the other issues in the debate. These questions require both humility and generosity of spirit;
(e) Is my decision based on my like for or dislike of particular aspects of the European Union or is it genuinely based on my honest assessment of whether as a matter of principle being a member is in the long term interests of the country and the peaceful stability of the world? On any view the decision to leave or remain has very substantial implications. It would not be right to take that decision on the basis that you disagreed with some of the rules or some of the structures (even where you were satisfied that you were properly informed as to how those things actually worked in practice), unless the disagreement or the rule or structure were really substantial. Would it be rational to vote for Scottish independence on the sole basis that you disagreed with an unelected House of Lords? Is there a danger of an ‘easy divorce’ mentality creeping into these decisions? That is to say are we leaving because things are not perfect when we should be getting stuck in, speaking to the other parties and trying to improve the situation ? Similar considerations apply in reverse, have I got too rosy a picture of the EU, am I blind to its flaws ? Have I adequately considered whether any of these flaws is really fundamental such as to outweigh the benefits I perceive in remaining;
(f) This decision will engage the head and the heart. It will raise emotions and prejudices as well as self interest. Have I examined my motivations in humility and generosity of spirit? Is my decision as dispassionate and realist as I can make it?
(g) Finally, but by no means least, in light of my Christian duty to consider my neighbour, have I considered how the outcome of the referendum one way or the other will affect other countries and international institutions and, as already said, the peaceful stability of the world? Have I considered which option will really lead to the UK’s ability to influence world affairs for the good? Have I considered what kind of country and world my decision might help create for my children and grand children ? None of us, alone, can possibly answer those questions without properly taking into account the views which, objectively, could be regarded as having some credibility on them (again, they can be found on the internet).
This is a genuinely important event and one we cannot approach except with seriousness. Our Christianity demands no less.