“Politics,” someone is supposed to have said, “is the art of the possible.” Religion, however, is about faith and belief. The seemingly impossible can come true if you adopt the correct patterns of behaviour, including some that seem irrational to non-believers.
The first statement held true throughout most of my adult life, at least in what has come to be known as the developed world. As recently as last year the notion of state-backed policies and laws based on religious belief has continued to be overturned by, for example, changes in the law regarding same sex marriage in many jurisdictions.
And yet we are, today, faced by certain political beliefs that, whilst not having their roots in religion, are held to as determinedly by their devotees as the religious dogmas espoused by the followers of fundamentalist religious sects. Sometimes to the point where opponents become the object of hate speech, are called traitors, and are subjected to death threats.
This is certainly the case when it comes to the debate in Britain about membership of the EU. On both sides there are large bodies of people who believe their version of the future, in or out of Europe, as tantamount to Gospel truth. The fact that some such beliefs on one side of the argument are polar opposites — the EU is too Socialist, according to those on the political right, or a right wing conspiracy that benefits only the wealthy, according to those on the left, for example — does not seem to matter.
On the remain side, too, there are contradictions. Some see the EU as the best possible defence against globalisation whilst others welcome it as a step towards closer worldwide integration.
Add to that the fact that, within the EU, there are differing visions of the future course of the “Project” and it is easy to see why there is so much confusion.
I have always held that the middle course in politics is the best. The danger with that, of course, is that in trying to please everyone you can end up pleasing no-one.
When it comes to religion, there is no middle course between, say, Catholicism and Protestantism, Christianity and Islam and, within Islam, Sunni and Shia. And yet Catholics and Protestants can unite in their belief that Islam is a perversion of “God’s Truth”. I dare say that Sunni and Shia share similar views about all strands of Christianity. There are those, I know, who argue that throughout the Judao/Chistian/Islamic tradition “we all worship the same God”. It is an argument that few devotees of either religion would view with anything but scorn.
Similarly, there is no middle way to solve the Brexit conondrum. Whatever the outcome you can be sure that few will be satisfied. Anything that falls short of leaving without any agreement about the future relationship, trading with the EU and the rest of the world on WTO terms, will not satisfy the most ardent anti-Europeans on right or left.
And anything that does not permit us to continue to enjoy the many benefits of EU membership will be opposed by those who believe that breaking the 4 decades long relationship between the UK and its near neighbours is the most extreme folly imaginable.
As a child I lived a long way from the nearest Anglican Church. There was a Primitive Methodist chapel just half a mile away. The family attended the latter quite often and the former on special occasions, like Easter Sunday. As a teenager, when we lived nearer the village, I rang bells in the Anglican Church and accompanied my young sisters to Sunday School in a Baptist chapel. I was, it should be clear from this, not brought up to be strongly religious.
I was pleased to discover, on arrival in Ireland a dozen years ago, that Catholic Priests, Anglican Vicars and Methodist Ministers together attended civic occasions. But I knew, too, that in the past, and still today in some parts of the Island, Catholics and Protestants do not mix. You are either one or the other. A true Catholic is not supposed to participate in Protestant religious observance and vice versa.
The sad truth is that, just like being a member of a Church, there is no possible position that is not either in, or completely out of, the EU; no possibility of having a foot in each camp. And that makes politics in Britain today, far from being the art of the possible, an exercise in pursuing the impossible.