Book Review: Looking Beyond Brexit

Looking Beyond Brexit Graham TomlinBishop Graham opens this short book with a simple dedication:

To all my friends who voted
either Leave or Remain

Looking Beyond Brexit: Bringing the country back together is a short (around 50 pages) book is a concise and focused piece of writing that engages with a political and social question that, in my view, no-one outside the Church has an ultimate answer to. This little book attempts to learn from church and European history around the Reformation, and offer some suggestions for us today. Graham writes that “What has less often been remarked on is the long and difficult task of bringing a divided society together after the split from Rome. 1534 was not the end of the process of creating a new Britain; it was the beginning“. The parallels between Brexit and the Reformation come into focus as Graham notes that “at the heart of the Reformation was a tussle between the local and the universal“.

Writing as an Anglican Bishop, Tomlin is not unaware of the way in which the parallel doesn’t always quite work:

The emerging Church of England tried to hold together the local and the national, the Protestant and the Catholic. There was no attempt to blend them, to make a composite of the two that would blur their identities, but rather a search for unity that would embrace both, allow space for each perspective and expression, and yet hold to a set of common values, hard though that might be (it’s not much easier now!)

Tomlin is also at pains to observe that his little book: “is not to offer a view on Brexit. It is to suggest that if we are to learn anything from our history as a nation, it should be the dangers of allowing divisions to harden into irreconcilable hostility: we have been through civil war before“. He notes the importance of David Goodhart’s book The Road to Somewhere for understanding the divides that the Brexit debate has exposed. Writing as someone who voted Leave (I know, I know, try and ignore that), I found his observations on the debate and its aftermath(s) to be accurate: “Whether or not we like to admit it, and hard as it may be to acknowledge due to the heat generated by the arguments of the last few years, both sides of the debate have a point.” This might actually be the most helpful thing about this little book. We can still believe that ‘the other side’ is wrong or right, but as in many debates it is one where the two sides both want ‘the good’, and differ on how that can come about.

With reference to Jesus’ great command in Matthew 5:43-47, Tomlin writes about the love that we are commanded to have for God and for one another. Tomlin is surely right when he writes that “As many texts in the Bible suggest, and Jesus liberally demonstrates, love in Christianity is not primarily a feeling. It is a set of actions.” This is not an amorphous, ‘love means love’ description of what it means to love others, but a measured map for Christian discipleship, and, as a result, Christian political activity. These actions are summed up in Tomlin’s ‘five things’, which give shape to his conclusion. The first and the last of these are the most helpful, in my opinion. Firstly, we are invited to be in this for the long haul – in a way that is decidedly counter-cultural. The fifth of these is to share a common story – and Tomlin draws on the recent work of Tom Holland to argue that the Christian faith and this alone offers a meaningful vision with which a society can come together: “Such a vision of society could give us a reason to learn to love not just ourselves and our nearest and dearest, but also our neighbours – in the same street or town, in
Europe or beyond, whatever their colour or origin – and even our enemies. If we can do that, then we may just be able to bring the nation together beyond Brexit.“.

This little book is not perfect – I would have liked to have gone deeper into some of the things Tomlin touches on, and the reasons why different people believe different things – but it is successful at resetting the conversation about what it might mean for a country to come together after a divide. Certainly, for Christians wondering how on earth they can get along with brothers and sisters with opposing political views, this is a helpful conversation starter. For those who wouldn’t call themselves Christians, this little book would, I imagine, be quite thought provoking. I’d recommened it to anyone – Tomlin writes graciously and firmly, and there isn’t too much jargon or jingoism.

You can get Looking Beyond Brexit from SPCK, the publisher. SPCK Group owns IVP, who I work for, but I hope that doesn’t cloud your view of my review.

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