The Daily Telegraph

To un­der­stand Leavers, look to Angli­cans

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

- READ MORE at tele­graph.co.uk/ opin­ion TREVOR PHILLIPS

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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