The real Brexit issue: Where does authority come from?

Theresa May

The real issue which underlies the entire Brexit debate is, where does authority come from? By authority I mean not just power but legitimate power: who has the right to rule?

In one sense this is obvious, because the Brexit debate is of course over the government of the United Kingdom. Of course there are plenty of other factors in that debate, many of which have little to do with the narrow question of the mechanics of government. I am not arguing here that these don’t matter, nor that there isn’t a legitimate range of opinion over those other factors and therefore over Brexit itself. But these questions are not the core issue of Brexit.

The way in which the issue of legitimate authority has presented itself has shifted during the debate. It has been framed as the authority of the UK Parliament vs. the authority of Brussels; or of the Government vs. Parliament; or (as in the Prime Minister’s speech yesterday) of Parliament vs. the people.

The reason Brexiteers are incensed by what has been done by Theresa May’s government, and by what is happening in Parliament, is that they believe that true authority lies with the people. Legitimate power comes up from below. The people have spoken, and that is the end of the matter; elected representatives must do as the people have chosen. Of course there are other, less savoury, reasons why some supported and support Brexit; but I am speaking of the best representatives of the Brexit position, not the worst.

But fascinatingly, despite all the rhetoric, Remainers do not fundamentally disagree. They do not believe in an intrinsic authority of the European Commission. Well, maybe some do, but again I am speaking of the best representatives of the remain position. Few, if any, Remainers see their position as opposing the will of the people. rather, they see it as seeking to express and combine the wills of a much larger people than those of Britain alone, seeking to moderate the will of the British people in line with the wills of the people of the other nations of Europe too. Whereas Leavers believe sovereignty should be delegated upwards by the people to the UK Parliament and no further, Remainers see no need for, and significant dangers in, that upper limit. Rather, it is good and right for national governments, deriving their authority from the people, to delegate some of it upwards further to the supranational institutions of the EU. To fail to do so is, for supporters of EU membership, to fall back onto the dangerous ethnocentric nationalism which has damaged Europe so much in the past.

Viewed this way, the difference between Leavers and Remainers which is tearing the British government – and, to some extend, people – apart, is not over the fundamental question of the origin of authority at all. Both agree that authority originates with the people. (Of course, the accusation of some that office-holders in London and/or Brussels believe themselves to have an intrinsic superiority and a consequent right to rule on their own authority must be considered on its merits; but we should at least observe that none on either side claim such an authority for themselves). Both agree that civilisation requires it should be delegated upwards, to parliaments and institutions which wield that authority on their behalf. The disagreement is over what land areas and people groups that upwards delegation should happen in common, and therefore how high that upwards delegation should go. There are of course other differences – profound difference, and many of them – in the outlook of many leavers and remainers. But on this basic issue of the origin of authority they are divided by the application of their basic conviction, and not by the basic conviction itself.

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If there is one thing that the Bible takes for granted from beginning to end, it is that of the authority of God. Not only that his power is absolute, thought that is clear too, but that his authority is absolute too. His absolute power is a legitimate power; he not only rules, but he has the right to rule. Creatures not only must do what he says, in that all that God has decreed, comes inevitably to pass; but that creatures should do what he says, in that he has the right to require that our actions are in line with his good, perfect and holy nature. That, indeed, is the origin of morality. We can only say that we ought to do something because it is grounded in the rightful authority of God our creator and ruler. Christian morality maintains that ‘God’s goodness is good’; anything else must boil down ultimately to ‘might is right’.

So true authority emanates from the perfect creator God, revealed in Jesus Christ. Indeed, God the Father has invested all authority in heaven and on earth in his Son, enthroned over the rulers of the earth. Any other authority-claim is a usurper.

This is one of the clearest and most consistent teachings of Scripture. For example:

Why do the nations rage, and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together,
against the LORD and against his Anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds apart and cast away their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord holds them in derision.
Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,
“As for me, I have set my King on Zion, my holy hill.” (Psalm 2:1-6)

‘All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me’ (Matthew 28:18)

Now this does not mean that there are no authorities other than God, and the risen Jesus Christ. What it means is that all real authority on earth has authority only because it has been bestowed by God.

‘For I too am a man under authority, with soldiers under me. And I say to one, ‘Go’, and he goes, and to another ‘Come’, and he comes, and to my servant, ‘Do this’, and he does it.’ (Matthew 8:9).

The centurion who said this understood that he only had authority because he was a man under authority. And there is only one source of authority, and that is God. Human rulers rule by his delegation of authority.

‘For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed.’ (Romans 13:1)

Now this is true of all human authorities, whether or not they realise it. If it was true of the pagan Roman emperors (1 Peter 2:13) then it is certainly true of the governments of Brussels and/or London. Whether they recognise it or not, such authority as they have is only such because it has been delegated to them by God. In other words, their authority is delegated down to them by God, not up to them by the people.

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The question of authority was in many ways the central question in the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. The Christian view that authority comes down from God was unquestioned throughout the mediaeval period and remained untouched through the Reformation. Indeed, the biblical concept of sin is all about the defiance by human beings of God’s authority; whether that is encountered in the direct form of his moral law, or in the delegated form of human authorities instituted by him. The two, of course, coincide in the fifth commandment, to honour your father and mother. The human authority is to be obeyed for God’s sake.

The Enlightenment can neatly be summarised as an exercise in the rebranding of sin. What was previously called God’s authority, the Enlightenment called human immaturity; what was previously called sin, the Enlightenment called liberty. To believe God is in charge is to remain in infancy. To believe that we are our own masters is the mark of maturity. This rebranding is the point of Immanuel Kant’s famous essay ‘What is Enlightenment?’. The effects of this rebranding on politics were most clearly proclaimed by Rousseau in ‘The Social Contract’. Rousseau argued that the authority of governments is not derived from above, by God’s delegation, but upwards from below, by the consent of the people. Man is the measure of all things; true authority derives from the individual man. God is not the original authority, but a usurping one, who threatens the authority of the individual. The individual henceforth must be the only deity. The Christian God will only be tolerated if he is reduced to nothing more than a personal choice of individual people. He has no business being involved in government.

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The connection between this view and belief in the moral imperative of democratic government is, I hope, obvious. Every call to fall back on the sovereign will of the people finds its origin here. And so the terms in which the Brexit debate has been conducted by both sides depend profoundly upon the same Enlightenment conviction. Leavers and Remainers may disagree on whether the upward delegation of authority by the peoples of Europe should be to their national governments and no further, or should continue all the way up to Brussels and Strasbourg. But they do not disagree on what authority is and how a government acquires it.

The irony is that the British constitution, perhaps uniquely, does disagree, though most of our political class seem ignorant of the fact. This was picturesquely demonstrated in December when MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle seized the mace in the House of Commons, protesting that ‘the will of parliament to govern… has been removed’. The irony is that the Mace is not a symbol of Parliament’s will to govern. It is a symbol of the fact that Parliament only has authority by delegation of the Queen.

The British constitution works on the principle that God has invested authority over this realm in the Monarch; and being a Christian monarchy, which recognises that divine source of authority, it is an authority which must be wielded sacrificially for the good of the people by upholding justice and mercy in due measure. And to seek to achieve this her authority is in part delegated downwards to the Lords and Commons, who rule in her name, with a duty to use that delegated authority for the good of the people. Strictly speaking, members of both houses are advisors of the Queen; which is why, of course, those with governmental responsibility are ministers. Servants, that is; not of the people, but of the crown.

The purpose of elections is to choose those who will represent us to the Queen, and who will exercise her delegated authority in our interests. Note, exercise her authority, not ours. That is the critical difference between a constitutional monarchy and a republic. The difference might seem trivial to many, but the implications are in fact vast. What is the task of MPs? Are they there to execute the will of the people, or to frame laws according to the revealed will of God, for the good of the people? The former has proved repeatedly in history to be a route to tyranny, either of the majority, or of a dictator initially chosen by the majority; something the British system has managed to avoid for two centuries and more. But more importantly for Christians, however imperfectly, the latter attempts to honour God as the true authority over all, while the former denies his authority at the most basic level.

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Which leaves us with the question, what should Christians make of the Brexit debate?

First, we should realise that falling back on an appeal to the sovereign will of the people – whichever way you believe that that argument cuts – is not an acceptable Christian argument. We claim to believe in God the Father, creator of heaven and earth, and Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. There is something very odd therefore in claiming that ultimate, original authority to govern lies in us, not in him. Rousseau–style social contract politics sits very ill indeed with those who confess the Apostles’ Creed. For that reason we should be uncomfortable with the main arguments made on both sides of the debate. The task of the church is to proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord, not that the peoples of either the United Kingdom or the EU are.

Second, the accusation on both sides that ‘elites’ – whether located in London or Brussels – believe in their own superiority and therefore their intrinsic right to rule, is a serious one. But it is not to be answered by claiming that the people are their masters. It is to be answered by proclaiming that God, and his Anointed, are their masters. The arrogance of rulers is not primarily a sin against the people, it is a sin against God. The servant who beat his fellow-servants in his masters’ absence did indeed wrong the fellow-servants; but his sin was primarily against the master (Matthew 24:48-51).

Third, we should be far more concerned than either side has been about the question of the structures of power and what they say about the origin of authority. This should indeed make Christians very wary of uncritical championing of the EU, the constitution of which (rebranded as the Lisbon Treaty) explicitly identifies itself with the Enlightenment and distances itself from Europe’s Christian history. Christians may of course legitimately hold the opinion that it is wise for us to choose to put ourselves under the EU’s authority, just as ancient Christians were not wrong if they preferred Roman rule to living under barbarians. But we should not do so uncritically and without praying for a more Christian form of government to one day be established. And to the extent that it is in our power to speak in favour of, and work for, a government which recognises the triune God as the sole origin of authority, we should do so.

By the same token, we should be very wary of supporting Brexit in a way which in fact reinforces the view that power comes from the people, not from God. Our Queen, by God’s grace, remains clear in her Christian convictions, but the same can hardly be said of many of her ministers or of her government, considered collectively. If we end up with a government independent of the EU but just as secular in its outlook then it is not obvious that the nation will be better off. Even as Brexit dominates the news, our (London) government is forming and passing laws on education, hate crime, and identity which pay no regard to the laws of God. Our police – managed not at all by Brussels – are treating truth-telling as a crime and gospel preaching as an arrestable offence. Brexit will not help these things, if the church does not proclaim the Lordship of Christ and call on our government which rules by his permission to recognise that fact; to insist repeatedly that the loyalty of all those in power is owed to Jesus, and not to us. Those who wish to support Brexit should make sure they do so secondarily to doing this.

And fourthly, we need to repent of how much we as British Christians have given in to the Spirit of the age in this matter of authority. Whichever side we find ourselves sympathising with (if either) we are all guilty of not believing that God alone rules his world, and he has placed his anointed king on his heavenly throne. We need to warn the rulers of the earth of that fact (Psalm 2:10), but let us start by repenting of how much we ourselves have forgotten it. The church is Jesus’ kingdom on earth, awaiting his return. The world is unlikely to recognise his kingship if we do not. Let’s start with ourselves.

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