Artillery Row

Faith and apostasy in the gospel of Brexit

The theory that Brexit was caused by a religious fervour deliberately fostered by the Leave campaign is a case of the pot calling the kettle black

One of the key attributes of a powerful, but paranoid, faith is its treatment of apostacy – the deliberate and active renunciation of faith. The Qur’an has no explicit call for death as a punishment, but it is interpreted as such by many scholars and remains part of the legal code of ten Muslim majority countries. For Christians, Deuteronomy 13: 9/10 commands, “but thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die; because he hath sought to thrust thee away from the Lord thy God”. Yet, the more confident a faith, the less onerous its punishment; and Christianity, in all its variegated ways, renounced temporal punishment for apostasy centuries ago (though there is still the social penumbra).

Some extreme examples of political belief, including communism and fascism, have assumed quasi-religious overtones. But in more civilized times social ostracism has been the primary way that both religions and politics have expressed their displeasure.

Robert Schumann, the EU’s founding father, is only a miracle away from canonisation

In the case of the European Union, the attitude of true believers in the project has often resulted in social ostracism – especially for those who stray from the faith than for those who never held it. Famously, whistleblowers from within the Eurocracy were subjected to a classic process. First, their concerns were ignored by senior clerics (bureaucratic of course, not in orders). When frustration boiled into action, they would put their information into the public sphere. This was their act of blasphemy or apostacy. When this happens, one of the first acts of the European Commission would be to ensure the individual was seen by the EU’s internal psychiatric service. Of course, now that the whistleblower had been seen by the psychiatrist, their evidence could be discounted.

“You can’t take these people seriously,” was the clear message, “they’re bonkers, they’ve had to see the shrink. You can ignore them.” This process was exemplified by the extraordinary treatment of the economist Bernard Connolly, whose appeal case at the European Court of Justice in 2000 was thrown out by the Court with reference to blasphemy cases. His crime was being rude about his erstwhile employers in the European Commission.

Then, there is the none-too-subtle fact that the primary diplomat to the Court of the Berlyamont is the Papal Nuncio. The European Parliament building is explicitly based upon Breugel’s 1563 masterpiece of the Tower of Babel. Robert Schumann, the EU’s founding father, is only a miracle away from canonisation (perhaps his intervention could be requested to sort out the EU’s vaccine crisis – that would probably count). The EU’s principle of subsidiarity is a direct lift, from Roman Catholic, Thomian, social theory. The EU Treaties themselves very nearly included a specific reference to Christianity and, of course, the fact that those great Remainer marches were gathered under the explicitly Roman Catholic EU flag, which was lifted directly from the halo of the Virgin Mary.

In the light of all this, it is really with a beam in their eye that a couple of British academics published a paper this week that claimed the “Leave campaign created ‘new religion’ to support EU withdrawal.”

The study, by Stephen Kettell and Peter Kerr, argues that the NHS was set up as a sort of Holy Grail and the Brexit bus was its Sir Galahad, storming the ramparts of the Bruxellois version of Corbenic, the Grail Castle itself.

These two chaps with a history of rational discourse – it was Kettell who famously informed his students that “Brexit is Shit” in his lecture slides – have been waging an unconvincing war through published works as to why the Brexit vote should be, academically, rendered irrelevant. Their collective contempt for the result of the referendum, where they stigmatise the democratic result as in some way unsound, is simply because it references a mythical will of the people. This is like regarding the 17.4 million votes as no more important than 17.4 million communion wafers, ephemeral and politically irrelevant.

With imaginative leaps that would garner applause from Maurice Sendak, these two intrepid academics go deeper into their theory that the Brexit vote was caused by some religious fervour deliberately manipulated by the Leave campaign.

Though it is hard to read their prose without laughing, I must leave it to their conclusion to let you draw your own:

The discourse used to promote the idea of Brexit marshalled a range of quasi-religious and mythical tropes and themes, promising a form of national salvation for the British people. At the heart of the Leave campaign’s promise to ‘take back control’, the NHS, and social policy more broadly, were utilised as the Holy Grail that could be rescued from the clutches of the malign forces that laid siege to Britain’s unique historical place in the world.

Thus, the religious aspects of Brexit centred on a nativist process of othering, in which secularised theological concepts such as ‘sovereignty’ and the ‘nation’ were utilised to place the blame for Britain’s economic, political and social ills at the feet of the European Union. This was simultaneously aligned with claims about the exceptional character of the British people, leading to subsequent appeals around the need for them to regain their leading role in global affairs.

Such quasi-religious narratives worked to heighten the intense emotional fervour around Brexit and led many of its adherents to distance themselves from various facts or ‘truths’ about its potential future implications, effectively insulating claims about Brexit from any sort of rational critique. This emotional disconnect from expert advice, along with the willingness of true believers to accept various forms of ‘bullshit’, created the ideal conditions for the now famous NHS ‘lie’ on the side of the Brexit bus to play a pivotal role in securing victory for the Leave campaign.

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