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.”