N.B. This was written on 2 July, the anniversary of St Swithun’s death, but his feast day is 15 July, the date on which his body was re-buried.
Images have been streaming in from London today, where friends and others in the thousands have gathered to demonstrate their love for Europe, their solidarity for the immigrants among us – both of which I share. And then, among the happy faces, a photo of a Muslim community centre in Leeds that went up in flames last night. My first thought: Another attack – how did I miss this? How many were hurt? Why am I only hearing about it a day later?
But a swift click reveals my over-reaction – according to the news item the cause of the fire is not thought to be suspicious; no one was in the building; inquiries are on-going. I am left with my own hair-trigger reaction. Across the past week reports of attacks on immigrants have begun to arrive with alarming regularity. German and Polish friends report uncomfortable encounters; one of them, a university lecturer has had a rock through a window. Friends from the Asian and Muslim communities are trying to keep track of a rising tide of harassment, much of it violent or threatening violence.
It is hard to imagine that this change of atmosphere could happen so quickly; ‘we have woken up in a different country’ one journalist wrote last Friday morning, as the result of the Brexit referendum was just becoming known.
Much has been written in the mean time about the spell-bindingly ghastly situation engineered by a few staggeringly irresponsible politicians. A referendum was called without anyone knowing whether or how its mandate would be carried out; lies were told about who would benefit, with the regions most desperately dependent on EU funding being the ones most easily duped by ‘criminally irresponsible’ promises, for example that money ‘saved’ by not paying into the EU kitty would be handed to public services. A number of fine writers have tried to make sense of the sense of grievance reaching back to the Thatcher years which has led white working-class voters to be easily prey to false promises. And mixed in with it all, a confused feeling that if only ‘we’ were allowed to express racial and religious bigotry more openly, the ‘old days’ would be back in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. Which simply isn’t true – but the political classes are perfectly happy to have you believe it.
The problem, of course, is that working-class whites have learned from rich whites that they should aim their understandable anger toward those more vulnerable than themselves, even though by rights the anger is caused by the political classes who so often cheat or trick them (I am thinking here of the despicable false promises and insiunations of the Leave campaign). This triangle of misplaced resentment is one of the oldest tricks in the historical book – it was as valuable to the landlords of Roman Britain in dealing with the free peasantry as it was to the slave-lords of the nineteenth-century Carolinas in dealing with whites of modest means.
It should come as no surprise if workers who have been lied to again and again have lost all trust for the political classes, and yet still instinctively fall into the ‘divide and conquer’ position they have learned to adopt. They have been taught to resent the influx of workers from other places. And they have trained by the tabloids to believe that the European bureaucrats (who are sending hundreds of millions every year to subsidize the hardest-hit regions) are distant and faceless overlords who do not have the interest of the worker at heart.
The logic here is admittedly hard to follow, since it is those same bureaucrats who have put in place many of the protections that British workers enjoy. Retreat from the EU will leave the British work force far more exposed to unchecked exploitation, and with no chance of gaining the kind of investment that is needed to re-build opportunity in devastated areas.
Yet the main intent of the working-class ‘leave’ vote seems to have been a simple declaration that things can not stay as they are; SOMETHING has to change. For the most part it is the honest voice of despair. But despair can easily give way to restless anger, and anger almost always wants a target. It becomes more and more volatile, a force harder and harder to control. The political parties seem, at the moment, to be far more concerned with their own survival than with making sure this anger doesn’t have destructive consequences.
What they are most decidedly not doing is hearing and responding to the voice of despair, or explaining honestly what they can and can’t offer in terms of solutions. Meanwhile, the rift between the hopeful young and their hopeless elders grows
So what does any of this have to do with St Swithun?
It was on this day in 862 St Swithun died, and though churches all round the country are named after him, almost no one knows who he was or why he is remembered as a saint. Little is known about him with certainty. He was bishop in the royal city of Winchester in the Anglo-Saxon Kingdom of Wessex; beyond this, what we know about him derives from miracle collections compiled two or more centuries after his death.
Of the miracles he is remembered as working during his life-time, the best-known and most important is a perfect encapsulation of the mystery of sainthood. One day in Winchester a poor old woman was carrying a tray of eggs which she meant to sell, on which her livelihood depended. While crossing a bridge, she met a group of workmen who teased her and jostled her, and in the commotion she dropped the tray, and the eggs were broken. Angry and aggrieved, she made her way to the Cathedral, where she told the bishop how she had been insulted, and her livelihood stolen.
Now Swithun was a miracle-worker, and when he heard her complaint, responded by doing what no modern bishop would be likely to do. When he gave her his blessing she saw that her eggs lay unbroken on the tray, just as they had done before she crossed the bridge. The miracle was important to medieval people because it captured the fragility of honest people and their honest work, and because it reminded the medieval clergy of how powerless they often were – unless they too were miracle-workers – to simply ‘put things together again’. It takes far more than easy promises to do that.