Brexit

I was dismayed by the result of the referendum. It is bad for us all, for the UK, for Europe and for international relations generally. We have been seen to turn our backs on Europe and to say foreigners are unwelcome here, whatever some privileged Brexiteers may say to the contrary. Facing major global challenges that respect no national borders, we have rejected the world’s greatest project in international co-operation.

Sadly, the reason why Brexit won seems to have had little to do with the EU itself. Rather it was the result of widespread disaffection with the political establishment in general – a protest born out of feelings of powerlessness and neglect.  The EU is an easy target of blame, but it could just as easily have been Westminster (as it is for many Scots), and the real underlying causes are much more complicated.

There should not have been a referendum at all. David Cameron was under pressure to grant it, and he believed that presenting the evidence would ensure the result he wanted. He was wrong, failing to realize the strength of dissatisfaction in the country and how it would affect the vote. Emotion, not evidence, was the driver.

Partly, the damage was done because of the way the campaign was conducted.  People’s fears were played upon and exaggeration, insults and prejudice were the order of the day. Dire warnings were thrown around with little in the way of positive vision on either side. Commentators in the media like dramatic confrontations; they distrust politicians as a matter of course and love disaster. Many of the key players in the debates tried to use this to their advantage, engaging in personal attacks and misleading slogans, if not downright lies. Some were no doubt at the same time victims, sucked into a style of debate they profoundly disliked.

More profoundly, the whole event reveals a malaise at the heart of our politics and our social relations. Political institutions and practices determine the way we are governed. For us in the UK, this means Parliamentary democracy. When most people reject what is said by the people they elected on such an important issue as this, it shows it’s not working terribly well.

A broken politics inevitably reflects problems in society in general. Politicians and the media have an important part to play in that, of course, but it touches us all. Global challenges such as population growth and climate change need international responses, but as far as the UK itself is concerned, there are obvious issues to be addressed. These include the widening gap between rich and poor, an education system which encourages social division and the vigorous protection of access to privilege and power by those who possess them. Effective democracy cannot be a reality under such circumstances.

The repercussions of the referendum will continue for years, no doubt. Politicians will argue; civil servants will draw up reports; the press will criticise; people will complain. But if things are really going to have a chance of changing for the better, and if we are to avoid retreating into despair or indifference, we must do something positive.

On a political level, a serious attempt to counter economic inequality, stronger regional government, a degree of proportional representation and meaningful reform of the House of Lords would help.  Equally important, and probably more easily addressed for most of us, are less directly political steps. Good relations with our European neighbours need to be fostered through cultural and educational contacts, and co-operative ventures supported. Increased understanding and trust between different social, religious and ethnic groups within the UK need to be encouraged. We can and must all play our part in one way or another to work for these things.

For most of us the biggest contribution we can make will be on a personal level, in our relationships and conversation with other people. We should not underestimate the significance of these. Qualities such as refusing to go along with destructive cynicism, reaching out to people who are not like us, generosity of spirit, humility and a willingness to forgive have a powerful effect, and are bound to help create a good society. Being genuinely committed to such a way of life is not easy, and requires courage and inner spiritual resources, especially in the face of the kind of society the referendum has revealed.

Peter Shepherd (June 2016)

The Twilight of the Gods

We have just had our first live experience of Wagner’s Ring. Opera North is putting on a series of fabulous performances in different parts of the country under the baton of their Musical Director and conductor Richard Farnes. Gods, dwarves, giants and heroes sing their hearts out to the accompaniment of a large orchestra, producing a total of about 16 hours of music in four operas over a six day period.

The whole cycle was first performed in 1876. Wagner wrote both libretto and score, starting this hugely ambitious project in 1848. He believed that the mythology of ancient Greece and Northern Europe, when combined with his emotionally charged music, could convey humanity’s timeless desires and conflicts in new and powerful ways. It was a period of tumultuous change politically in his native Germany, as well as emotionally for him personally, and this no doubt had its part to play.

The ring, around which the drama revolves, offers its owner unlimited power over the lives of others. For many, the desire for such power is all-consuming, in spite of a fatal curse the ring carries. Deceit, murder and despair are its constant companions. But there is an even more powerful force at work – love, with its own passions, longings and griefs.

The climax comes with the love that binds Siegfried and Brunnhilde, the two central characters, to each other. It is a love which faces deadly obstacles and threats from every side, leading in the end to their deaths, but is ultimately triumphant, even as a great funeral pyre consumes their bodies on the banks of the Rhine. The ring is returned to its place of origin in the great river, no more to plague the earth. The old gods who ruled the universe are overthrown and a new age dawns. This coming together of tragedy and triumph is typical of other great works of art – Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and King Lear for instance.

Wagner originally entitled the fourth and final opera Siegried’s Death., but this was changed in the final version to Twilight of the Gods. The whole project is about the passing of old ways of existence, represented by the ancient gods, not just about the tragic death of a hero and his lover. The funeral pyre destroys not only their bodies, but also Valhalla, the home of Wotan and the gods. As this occurs, and the final chords are heard, questions about the future remain. Is this a genuine new beginning, or is humanity destined to repeat the same old struggles in new ways? It seemed to many in Wagner’s lifetime that religious belief itself was dying, and perhaps this lies behind the way the story unfolds.

The Ring is full of religious imagery. Not only is Wotan, the king of the gods, always in the background of the action, even when he does not actually appear, but also there are frequent references to such themes as judgement, sacrifice and redemption. The conflict between good and evil, both within individual characters and between them, is ever-present. The whole experience of listening to the intense musical drama unfolding has something of a spiritual character.

It is interesting, then, to think about the relatioship between Wagner’s great achievement and the Christian Gospel. Does the message of Jesus herald the twilight of religion as a list of doctrines, obligations and rituals? He refused the temptation to exercise control over others, rejecting the way of political or military power, preferring the way of love and service. Can we see anything of him in the final sacrifice of Brunnhilde for the sake of love?

The Ring does not explicitly carry a Christian message. Its multilayered and complex imagery is capable of many interpretations. Some, no doubt, would say that its themes are profoundly unChristian. Wagner’s personal anti-Semitism and his later association with Nazism has does it no favours. Reactions to it vary widely, but there can be no doubt it is a monument of European and human culture. As with all great artistic creations, it has the ability to move us, provoking us to reflect on our own experience of life. For those who see in Jesus the key to life’s meaning, it opens up new ways of thinking about his relevance.

Peter Shepherd (14 June 2016)