A Buddhist Brexit – A Response

by Michael Hoey

I am grateful to Stephen for the opportunity to respond to his Tricycle article on the UK ‘Brexit’ referendum, now that it has been translated for Buddhismus Aktuell .

I would like here firstly to outline some of the reasons why a British Buddhist like me might make a principled case in favour of Brexit for those who may have assumed that such a case did not exist! Second, and as important, to reflect a little on what this might tell us about ourselves and our practice of the Dharma.

I am untypical of Buddhists in the UK in having decided to support the campaign for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union. I have not been involved in any political campaigning for many years: I generally take a ‘quietist’ attitude and am suspicious of the vogue for ‘socially engaged Buddhism’ with its simplistic solutions to generally complex human problems. The results of political action are unpredictable and the emotions they engender can be a huge distraction from the task of developing mindfulness and compassion. However when a referendum was announced it somehow seemed appropriate to work out where I stood and align myself with one side of the argument. This while adhering to my Buddhist values of non-harm, goodwill and non-clinging awareness. It helped to remember that there are generally two sides to any argument.

Though supporters of Brexit come from diverse political orientations (including many on the Left) my own political outlook tends to default to what I would style old fashioned English pragmatic conservatism, tinged with Green anarchism. Founded on Burke’s revulsion at the excesses of the French Revolution this conservative current has been highly effective in enabling the UK to adapt and respond to events in a non- doctrinaire way. I see it as a Middle Way between the extremes of naive utopianism and harsh realpolitik. It encourages us to view the world (and people) as we actually find them. The world has suffered enough from totalitarian and collectivist ideologies.

As to the position of the UK within the EU: well, this issue has been a running sore in UK politics since our accession to the ‘Common Market’ in the 1970s (which as a young man I enthusiastically supported). Following the Second World War it made obvious sense for the democracies of Western Europe to put aside past animosities and create institutions for economic, cultural and industrial cooperation. However there were always tensions between this ideal and the fact of independent national entities (many of which were recent and fragile creations). Over 40 years or so an increasingly federalist vision has been developed (generally without the consent of the affected populations) aiming at the creation of a unitary ‘superstate’. Whilst this might work as an ideal if developed over maybe a century ‘ever closer union’ has so far mainly benefited institutional bureaucracies, banks and large corporations with their political muscle and lobbying power. Power has inexorably moved towards unelected officials and decision making structures have become ever more sclerotic, wasteful and remote.

The climax of this process has been the euro currency project, which attempts to force-fit divergent economies into a dysfunctional whole: it has produced painful inequities across the continent but is proving extraordinarily difficult to reform. It has created massive levels of unemployment in the less developed regions, particularly among the young. And it has exacerbated tension between nations within the bloc. In the UK we have been spared the devastating effects of the euro but this very separation has increased the sense of disconnect from the ‘European Project’.

Further tension has been created by the free movement of people. Large population inflows into the UK are felt by many to have unsettled local communities, where ordinary people feel isolated and ignored. There may be some economic benefits but, when hasty and uncontrolled, immigration can produce massive pressures on housing and services, as well as depressing salaries for many workers. In more subtle ways it undermine the feelings of well-being among existing communities who feel bonds of solidarity through language, through long evolved customs and traditions, consensual codes of manners and a shared sense of humour.

I see this resistance to excessive immigration as an entirely understandable and universal phenomenon. I know my thinking this puts me at odds with some of my Dharma friends but I see no inconsistency between healthy patriotism and internationalism.

From a global perspective the EU is in any case a protectionist bloc which is highly discriminatory against poorer and developing economies so there is no reason for a true internationalist to be especially positive about it.

Eventually doubts about the EU led to calls for the UK to renegotiate its terms of membership. When this renegotiation failed to produce much of substance it reinforced the doubts: the Union couldn’t be flexible towards a major player and net financial contributor. Its monolithic complexity appeared as institutional dysfunction. At the same time threats from the Eurocrats that a departing UK must be punished to deter further acts of secession fed a mood of growing Euroscepticism. It began to feel like a failing marriage from which one partner might feel obliged to leave, even at the cost of some disruption. Rather than be an unruly tenant in an unstable building many came to think it better for us as a country to move out and just be good neighbours. It was this feeling that the UK could do better on its own (as well as make the most positive contribution to the wider world) that led the majority who voted to opt for ’Leave’.

I was both surprised and pleased by this result but was quite unprepared for the levels of animosity which it has engendered. The referendum seems to have fed a civil war mentality. It was quickly forgotten that all the main political parties had supported a referendum and vowed to abide by its verdict: there have been a series of attempts to reverse the result through legal subterfuge. This is a great pity when what is needed above all now within the UK and across Europe are voices for compromise and reconciliation. The honourable concerns of the 48% who voted to Remain need to be addressed and by and large this is what the UK government is trying to do.

The referendum has revealed a clash of world views common in developed countries. The political writer David Goodhart has expressed this clash as being between the ‘Anywheres’- educated, mobile and not identifying strongly with their geographical origin, and the ‘Somewheres’ – the remaining majority who feel an identity rooted in place. Most of those drawn to Buddhism in the UK are Anywheres who have adopted a rights orientated, ‘no borders’, anti-capitalist view of the world and assumed it is somehow the only ‘spiritual’ attitude. This view is horrified by any sort of attachment to one’s own country of origin. Ben Cobley of Free Left Blog writes: “ It is a political stance of not wanting in any way to be tied down to the land. territory and people of Britain; it is an urge to sameness on a higher, more abstract level…casting off those embarrassing connections of national identity, which are derided as ‘parochial’, ‘provincial’ and ‘nativist’…it has an extraordinary hold. It is not just a case of ideas being approved of, but (the proponents) are wedded to these ideas which become a core part of their personality. It is visceral and emotional.”

Now I understand this ‘internationalist’ orientation well: I’m an Anywhere too! But I would like to draw a parallel with the evolution of self. The Buddhist insight of anatta can only be apprehended by an individual who has achieved a level of individuation and maturity to function as a coherent self in the world. I found this to my cost as a teenager: a few drug induced ‘Enlightenment’ experiences did not alter the sad truth that I was not a very mature adult! Likewise a premature identification with an abstract notion of Humanity does not impress if we cannot even find any appreciation of the community and nation which has nurtured us. We have all met people who love Humanity but are quite unable to get on peaceably with their next door neighbours. The nation state, like the self, may be a contingent aggregation of impermanent phenomena but that doesn’t mean we can therefore just disregard it! And without functional and stable nation states it is highly unlikely that we can ever develop solutions to the pressing problems now facing our species. Of course ultimately these identities might be transcended but the Singularity may not be reached for some time!

Perhaps the clash of outlooks on Brexit is inevitable as both embody important truths and values. From a Buddhist perspective the problem is that we become attached to our own opinions as objectively true and are disconcerted to the point of anger if others do not validate them. When the monastics at Kosambi got engrossed in their dispute the Buddha wryly noted that they could neither persuade nor be persuaded by each other. Once we identify with a particular opinion any piece of data is twisted to suit our own arguments: ‘confirmation bias’ sets in.

What I have observed is that a kind of groupthink emerges within which only certain views are permissible. For example a laudable compassion for victims of the current refugee crisis is quickly translated into the view that ANYBODY claiming refugee status should have the automatic right to settle in their destination of choice. Even a moment’s reflection reveals the unfortunate truth that this could cause devastating instability throughout Western Europe and North America if taken to its logical conclusion. Naivety is not a virtue! But to express this reservation risks accusations of racism. Similarly any criticism of Islam leads to accusations of Islamophobia.

I am finding a lot of groupthink around the EU issue. It is assumed that if you are a Buddhist you would not side with those idiots and bigots who supported “Brexit”. This from people with an almost total ignorance of European history or the institutional structures of the EU! Paradoxically it is just this kind of censorious ‘political correctness’ which has fed the current wave of what is styled populism. Ordinary people get fed up with their ‘liberal’ superiors taking the high moral ground and telling them what they are allowed to think.

In Stephen’s article there seems to be an unwillingness to entertain alternative points of view. Assertions are made on the basis of subjective speculation about unpredictable events, with the assumption that the Brexit process is a calamity which can only bring harm. Stephen admits that he hasn’t met (or even spoken to) a Brexit supporter. In that condition it is easy to demonise one’s opponents and impute the worst possible motives to them. Actually talking to some Leave supporters might have shown that they are not all hell-bent on sowing division and retreating into a selfish and narrow isolationism.

This all raises the question of how we apply the Buddhist speech precepts when approaching contentious political issues. I would commend the British writer Vishvapani on this subject. We need to retain goodwill towards those we disagree with and actually try to find out what they are saying, respecting their integrity and good intentions. We need to avoid exaggeration and stereotyping. In the secular democracy that Stephen espouses freethinking individuals are bound to differ. Diversity includes conservatism.

Now that the UK is about to commence the formal process of exiting the EU, I see the best hope being for a sensibly negotiated deal which will retain the best aspects of economic and political cooperation. And that is how the debate is increasingly being framed. There is no reason why an independent UK could not freely cooperate in all manner of ways, as it has done consistently in the post-war era. It could even be that UK departure acts as a catalyst for the evolution of a more humane, realistic and sustainable European model. Who knows, Brexit might serve as the salvation of the European Project rather than its nemesis. Only time will tell.

Thank you again for this opportunity to comment.

Michael Hoey
East Sussex, UK
March 2017
Email: michaeljhoey@nullgmail.com

Michael Hoey

Michael Hoey is a past Committed Practitioners’ Programme graduate and a long-time Dharma practitioner.