After the Brexit vote, Britain's politicians are scrambling around for ideas. They should begin with Pope Leo XIII's masterpiece Rerum Novarum

It wasn’t very long ago that the European Union was denounced as a “Popish plot”. If only. True, the Treaty of Rome of 1957 marked the high tide of Christian Democracy, a political movement based on Catholic social teaching; and yes, five of the six signatories went from the Capitoline Hill to the Vatican for a blessing from the Pope.

But it was sadly not Catholic social thought that provided the framework for the transformation of the European Economic Community into the European Union. It was not the face of St Thomas Aquinas that looked east after the fall of communism, but that of Friedrich von Hayek in the form of free-market shock therapy. It will not work out well, and we’re better off out of it.

And now that Britain has voted to leave the EU, we have an opportunity to put Catholic social thought at the centre of our politics.

The tragedy of the EU was precisely that it moved away from a sublime form of Catholic social thought based upon subsidiarity, the balance of interest in corporate governance, regional banks and support for small farmers towards a demented marriage between Napoleonic centralised directives and Thatcherite free markets.

Partly as a result, we face a moral calamity similar to that which confronted us in 1891, when Pope Leo XIII wrote Rerum Novarum, the first of the social encyclicals.

The encyclical has a special meaning for me. I first read it as a confused secular Jewish left-wing academic who was trying to understand the post-war German economy. I was stuck: no secular economic theory could answer the questions I had. Then an Italian friend suggested I read the papal encyclicals. Through John Paul II’s Laborem Exercens and Centesimus Annus, and then Rerum Novarum, my understanding of politics was transformed.

Leo began his analysis with a simple premise: that human beings and nature are not commodities. Leo, and the popes and other Catholic thinkers who have followed him, argued that creation is not a commodity to be exploited and used as a thing, but rather a sacred inheritance that needs to be nurtured and loved. The two great looming perils were capitalism, which wished to own all of creation and use its power to dehumanise the poor and exploit the world’s resources, and an over-mighty state that wished to replace society with a centralised bureaucratic domination. Both market liberalism and statist socialism were hostile to society. Both gave incentives to vice rather than virtue, undermining the relationships and sense of place necessary for sustained human civilisation.

We have lost and need to rediscover the idea that sacrifices and accommodations are required to earn and belong, to be part of something enduring and good. This concept is carried still in the working class, but is at odds with the utility-maximising individualism that still pervades the definition of what it means to be modern and progressive.

It is not the only way in which progressive modern thought fails us. This mindset also has no understanding of tragedy, because, in its view, people are good and things can only get better. They also have no understanding or acknowledgement of their own sin, so that people who simply disagree with them are demonised as racist, nationalist xenophobes who are at best stupid and at worst wicked. Thus did the progressive left respond to the Brexit vote in which the poor overwhelmingly voted to leave the EU. After the referendum, it felt as if the left wanted to give the poor everything – except the vote.

Those of us who believe in the intelligence and leadership of the poor should not be beguiled by such an approach.

By contrast, it is one of the great strengths of the Catholic tradition of political economy that it begins with the first tragedy, that of the Fall, and recognises that both forms of labour – childbirth and work – are characterised by pain and difficulty. Labour is a result of the Fall. As Leo XIII wrote: “To suffer and to endure therefore, is the lot of humanity, let men try as they may, no strength and no artifice will ever succeed in banishing from human life the ills and troubles which beset it.”

There are many ills and troubles in our society, but the Catholic tradition shows how to respond to them. Take three examples: the impoverishment of regions such as the north-east, the crisis of skills and productivity, and corporate greed.

First, Catholic social teaching recognises the economic reasons for the hollowing out of our faraway towns. Catholic social teaching grasps that capital centralises every bit as much as the state and can only be resisted by regional banks that give substance to entrepreneurial energy.

An example of this is the Northern Counties Permanent Building Society, founded in the north east in 1850. It grew steadily over the years, an institution founded by local people for local people.

The building society became that most precious civic inheritance, a trusted financial institution, because it truly belonged to the people of the area. During the miners’ strike, for instance, it suspended mortgage payments for striking miners so they could keep their homes.

In 1997, it demutualised and became Northern Rock, the fifth biggest lender in the UK market – and quickly ran into financial turmoil, before being nationalised. Those who used to be served by a great local institution now have nowhere to go except Wonga and the Money Shop. The people of the north east have been abandoned and dispossessed. No wonder the region voted for Brexit.

Second, our current crisis of skills and productivity comes from a misunderstanding of the nature of work. Catholic social thought understands that we need a sense of vocation embedded in institutions.

Germany has shown how to do this, with its guilds and apprenticeship system which controls access to the labour market.

Third, Catholic social teaching also realises that without a form of corporate governance that does not claim all advantage to one side, that can restrain cheating, greed and avarice through having workers on boards and a form of relational accountability, there will be corruption and deceit.

That is why it is significant that the first statement by Theresa May as Prime Minister was in support of workers on boards of companies. This is an unprecedented move by any Prime Minister, whether Labour or Conservative. The fact that it is a Conservative Prime Minister should stir in our more sceptical friends a renewed faith in miracles. This move is born of a simple recognition that the scales are balanced too far towards the owners and those that have, and that they have pursued their advantage without regard for others.

Pope Pius XI put it well in his 1931 encyclical Quadragesimo Anno. He wrote that capitalism “violates right order whenever capital so employs the working or wage-earning classes so as to divert business and economic activity entirely to its own arbitrary will and advantage without any regard to the human dignity of the workers, the social character of economic life, social justice and the common good”.

Catholic social teaching understands that human beings are neither altruistic nor egotistic and neither individual nor collective. It recognises that we are social beings yearning for love and relationships, who find meaning in human scale communities and in the passing on of an inheritance to the next generation. In that sense, we are covenantal people who are not defined exclusively by where we are now. Rather, we are part of an intergenerational society in which tradition is part of that inheritance.

Regional banks to reverse the centralisation and domination of capital; the vocational tradition to give people meaning and a sense of mutual dependency; the balance of power in corporate governance – all these Catholic ideas could flourish in post-Brexit Britain. We can move beyond an aggressively secular conception of European unity based on the subordination of institutions and particularity to the unmediated movement of capital and labour.

For all the talk of our nation being divided after the Brexit vote, the most profound division in our nation – the Reformation, and the split between Catholic and Protestant – has taken a substantial step towards reconciliation. This is because under the leadership of Justin Welby, Anglicans have recognised the importance of the Catholic tradition of political economy and its centrality to confronting the problems that beset our country.

The Anglicans are right: mainstream national politics needs to rediscover Catholic social thought because of the extreme polarisation we face. We need a politics of the common good that can reconcile estranged interests and traditions.
It is vital not only that the Catholic voice is heard but that it takes a leading role in shaping this moment, so full of promise and peril for our country. It can lead us in the direction of the common good and reassert one of the fundamental teachings of the papal encyclicals: that the old is the new. It is the Catholic tradition that can redeem England’s promise.

Maurice Glasman is a Labour life peer and director of the Common Good Foundation.

This article first appeared in the July 29 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.