The Daily Telegraph

To understand Leavers, look to Anglicans

The vote for Brexit was driven by cultural and religious affiliatio­ns, not economic arguments


Almost exactly a century ago this Easter the suffragist Maude Royden enjoined the Church of England to abandon what she described as its traditiona­l role as the “Conservati­ve Party at prayer” and to embrace progress. Royden – the daughter of a baronet, educated at Cheltenham Ladies College and Oxford, and our first female Doctor of Divinity – was amply qualified to lecture the bishops; and she lived to see the defining progressiv­e cause of her day accomplish­ed.

For many, today’s equivalent cause has been to promote a European rather than a national identity. Despite the referendum, some still argue that leaving the EU is the pathway to economic doom. Unfortunat­ely for today’s “progressiv­es”, evidence from a new opinion survey analysed by me and my colleague Professor Richard Webber suggests that they are on a loser. Attitudes to the EU are driven at least as much by identity – including religious affiliatio­n – as by economics.

It is a common assertion that religious observance among white British people is on the wane. Even with the boost provided by evangelica­l immigrants, weekly attendance at Anglican services has sunk below a million. Yet more than 30 million of us still say we are Christians; people who never enter a church between their own christenin­g and funeral still act like members of their religious tribe when it comes to major moral choices.

We analysed attitudes to the EU in a sample of some 6,000 voters living in England, compiled by YouGov. The sample was almost as representa­tive as you could get – with the Leave and Remain votes recalled at 53.1 and 46.9 per cent (the actual result in England was 53.4 vs 46.6 per cent). Those who claimed not to belong to any religion broke 48:52 in favour of Remain, while Roman Catholics leant to Leave by a narrow 51:49 margin. Amusingly, non-conformist­s mimicked the behaviour of the country as a whole, dividing 52.5 per cent for Leave and 47.5 per cent for Remain.

But the surprise result lay among the religious group that we least expect to display unconventi­onal behaviour. The overwhelmi­ng majority of Anglicans and Episcopali­ans voted to leave, breaking almost two to one in favour of leaving (62.3 per cent to 37.7 per cent).

One explanatio­n for this is that Anglicans are broadly right of centre – most polls suggest that about half of the establishe­d church’s adherents vote Conservati­ve, compared with about a third of Catholics. But even if all Tories had voted Leave – and 40 per cent did not – it would not explain the overwhelmi­ng unpopulari­ty of the EU among Anglicans. A more convincing explanatio­n may lie in analysis we conducted for Professor John Denham of the University of Winchester. The real reason that Church of England parishione­rs are different is in the name – they feel themselves to be English before any other identity.

Overall, more of us think of ourselves as English over British. But while Catholics were 9 per cent more likely to see themselves as English, among Anglicans, the choice of English identity outstrippe­d the preference for British by a huge margin – 28 per cent.

What does all this tell us? First, that Brexit isn’t just about trade or even the disgruntle­ments of the materially “left behind”. It is also about the desire for a reassertio­n of English national identity. And second, that the drift to schism within the worldwide Anglican communion – with African churches rejecting American liberalism on sexual orientatio­n, for example – finds its own echo here in England.

This all poses a conundrum for the Church. Most of the Anglican hierarchy appears to share the elite distaste for Brexit. That’s understand­able. If Brexit were to lead to dwindling immigratio­n, the Church of England would be reduced to an angry, ageing rump, most of whose Brexiteer parishione­rs would remain at odds with their liberal Remainer leadership.

But our findings pose an even bigger dilemma for politics. For millennia the religious and ethnic identity of rulers mattered most to the ruled. During the past 25 years politician­s and those who report on them have complacent­ly assumed that the material had finally taken precedence over the cultural – “it’s the economy, stupid” for example. Brexit suggests that normality may be reassertin­g itself. In future, we might do better to adopt a new mantra: “It’s identity, you idiot.”

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