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24 June 2016

A tale of two consensuses

A tale of two consensuses

Danny Webster is advocacy and media manager at the Evangelical Alliance.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way — in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only." - Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

I got the result wrong. I went with the consensus on this one, I thought that a safety first vote would mean a swing back towards remaining in the European Union. It didn't, and in the coming weeks I've no doubt we'll hear plenty about why the majority of voters in the UK opted for leave, but what interests me now is not why, but who.

Because we are a country divided. Fifty-two per cent voted to leave, and that means 16 million people are disappointed the vote did not go the way they wanted.

The surprise that I found when I crawled out of bed at 3am, was magnified as my slightly less political friends roused at more normal hours and almost unanimously shared their disappointment. What had I missed, and why were so many of my contemporaries so shocked? With disturbing frequency I saw posts along the lines of: "No one I know was voting leave, how could this have happened?"

Disturbing because it means that the clear and expressed view of more than half the country was out of sight for so many people. Two trends provide immediate explanation for this blind spot: your age and location are strong predictors of how you voted, and consequently how those you know voted.

Scotland and Northern Ireland provide their own fascinating dynamics, and contribute to the uncertainty of the future, but in England and Wales every region apart from London voted to leave, and roughly by a margin of 60/40 per cent. This margin was reversed in London, and especially concentrated in central London boroughs, Lambeth, Hackney and Haringey all saw more than 75 per cent backing remain.

On top of this was a clear correlation between age and likelihood to support leaving the EU: those aged over 65 were three times as likely back leaving than voters aged 18-24. Admittedly, these projections are from polls, which have been proved to be inaccurate, but I suspect the age discrepancy is among the least of those inaccuracies.

I can't help but be aghast that we are a country as divided as this. That where we live segments us into isolated communities; that when we were born means we think everyone else thinks the same as our friends.

The Church has to break down barriers and build bridges. It can't be a place that is immune to voices different to our own. We must respect people who think differently to us, but we must do more than that. In the final couple of weeks of the referendum campaign I found myself in two church contexts, one London and young, the other rural and older, and both reflected the expected trends, in each context it was difficult to articulate views challenging their consensus. But there were two consensuses.

The coming weeks and months require unity, even as the Conservative Party begin a leadership election that will inevitably see factions vying against each other, it requires the hard work of reconciliation. It can't be about whitewashing disagreement, it can neither be about ignoring anger, it means we must all acknowledge our brokenness and it's that which makes relationships hard.

In 1 Corinthians 12 we read that the church is one body but made up of many parts, and at this time our relationship with others comes clearly into view. We have a different relationship with our European neighbours, but they are still our neighbours. There may be challenges ahead for the four nations of the United Kingdom, and across our villages, towns and cities we need to see the differences that often go unnoticed.

If we want everyone to think the same as us, that's not unity, it's conformity. The challenge in the coming months and years is to provide a voice of peace and justice into our public debate, to provide a voice of unity, but to remember that we will frequently disagree. We know we vote differently so as we engage we should do so with conviction and passion, but laced with humility and willingness to cooperate.

The Evangelical Alliance's general director, Steve Clifford, responded to the referendum result today. You can read that here.

Image: CC0 Public Domain