It isn’t the Archbishop of Canterbury or York (unfortunately), but the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Southwark, Peter Smith, who heads the Bishops’ Conference department for Christian responsibility and citizenship. He made his remarks in an interview with Vatican Radio, which they title: ‘Catholic bishops call for “informed debate” over Brexit vote‘; which the Catholic Herald titles: ‘Archbishop criticises George Osborne’s Brexit “scare stories”; which the Spectator titles: ‘Catholic bishops split over Brexit as Archbishop accuses Osborne of “ludicrous” scaremongering‘.
It is stretching his words somewhat to conclude from this interview that Archbishop Peter Smith supports Brexit and thereby ends 40 years of Roman Catholic episcopal europhiliac consensus. Certainly, he criticises the euro and rails against centralisation and EU bureaucracy, but so do the Anglican bishops, who all agree (or those who have spoken agree) that the EU isn’t perfect, but believe that leaving would not assist it in the pursuit of perfection, so far better to remain a member in order to nudge, guide, collaborate and compromise with our European family in pursuit of the common good, as caring neighbours ought. Neither the euro nor the immigration/refugee/economic-migrant crisis is sufficient to justify leaving the EU: we need Europe, they would say, but not this one, which is the apparent view of Archbishop Peter Smith.
Far from advocating Brexit (“There are risks on both sides”; “I’m not sure which way to vote”), the Archbishop calls for a mature, informed debate – and then warns of the dangers of leaving: “If we pull out there could be… a chain reaction” which he doesn’t want to see because “we need solidarity with the European countries, all of us together, because if we work together, whether it’s economically or in other ways, it gives us stability and a strength which we wouldn’t have if we were all divided again.” His manifest concern is the re-fragmentation of a 500-million-strong continent, with each of the 28 member states reasserting their national identities and self-defining their individual relationships with the whole. He doesn’t want to see that at all.
Without wishing to rain on anyone’s Catholics-for-Brexit parade, this doesn’t sound very much like an argument for UK secession from the EU. Christian Remainers would all talk of the need for solidarity and of the virtues of working together – “economically or in other ways” – which is the source of national stability and strength. The Archbishop explicitly refutes a break-up of the EU and a return to nation states (“..if we were all divided again”): for him, supranationalism nullifies nationalism; the UK’s stability and strength is irrefutably fused with unification, but one based on common values rather than political-bureaucratic coercion. In this, he stands exactly where most Church of England bishops have planted their mitres: for an EU (“Europe”) that looks to the dignity of the human person rather than the belligerence of national sovereignty.
It is on the question of sovereignty where the Archbishop scratches many itching ears: “There’s an awful lot of work to be done on the political side to try and make the whole of the European Union more cohesive without it overtaking the legitimate sovereignty of each of the countries.” Read and understand: there is in that “legitimate sovereignty” a thesis of political philosophy, for one person’s legitimacy is another’s authority and justice. It was Ted Heath who gave the assurance that EEC accession would not entail the erosion of “essential national sovereignty”. For some, this was a lie. For others, it is a simple matter of disagreement on what of sovereignty may be deemed “essential”. Clearly, for Heath, it wasn’t a very great deal. For Archbishop Peter Smith, sovereignty isn’t (or ought not to be) a Brexit battle cry: he wants a “cohesive” European Union which accommodates members’ “legitimate sovereignty”. Well, so do all the Anglican bishops, who would be quite happy to meditate and pontificate on the thresholds and limitations of legitimacy until two cows can be conjoined in holy matrimony. Rather than emitting ‘Leave’ signals, Peter Smith is doing as he says Roman Catholic bishops customarily do during elections: raising “some of the issues (he) might think about before (he) come(s) to vote”.
But where the Archbishop speaks eloquently, forcefully and prophetically is in his condemnation of the Chancellor of the Exchequer (and putative Conservative leader) George Osborne. His economic forecasts, the Archbishop says, are “all over the place”; “very often the Chancellor is wrong”; “he doesn’t know”; he is resorting to “scare stories” and “ludicrous” economic projections in order to instil fear into the people.
Frankly, both George Osborne and David Cameron have disgraced their offices of state in this referendum campaign, with their lies, hyperbole, disinformation and deceit. Whether or not the UK takes the first step toward leaving the EU on 23rd June; whether or not it becomes our Independence Day or is confirmed as the day we resigned to plod inexorably toward becoming an offshore regional council of a United States of Europe, David Cameron and George Osborne will go down in history as Tory charlatans, cheats and political frauds. They have successfully re-toxified the Conservative brand and made it impossible for many to support a party led by either. You cannot call a referendum on something as crucial as fundamental identity or the determination of national destiny, and then collude with corporates and conspire with other elites to feed the electorate a diet of blight, pestilence and woe. It’s enough to make a man never trust a Tory again.