Given how much is at stake, it is reasonable to expect Theresa May to sound confident that Brexit is the best available path for the country, but she cannot. She says instead that it is the only path, of which the best must be made. In an interview last week, she declined to say it would be “worth it”. She has never repudiated her vote for remain and refuses to say how she would vote in a hypothetical rerun.
A more devious politician would simply pretend to be more enthusiastic. But May is no actor. She is a devout Christian, a clergyman’s daughter, which helps explain, I think, her ability to sustain total devotion to a plan, regardless of its material impact on the country. She finds comfort in submission to duty on a plane above the grubby temporal realm of economics and trade. In that respect, May is in tune with the spirit of current politics.
The decline in formal religious practice in Britain over recent decades does not prove an equal slump in religiosity. I sometimes suspect (although it is hard to demonstrate) that the total volume of faith-based allegiance in society hardly changes over time. It just sloshes between different objects of belief. Or maybe clerical and secular candidates thrive in fluctuating cycles.
If so, we are deep in a devotional phase. Corbyn’s opinion on the divine is unrecorded, but the religious aspect to his support base is unmistakable. Not all Labour supporters fit the profile of the truest believers, but there is a phenomenal capacity among the hardcore for projecting absolute virtue on to the leader and unalloyed wickedness on to his detractors. The most common defence of Corbyn is that his critics are “smearing” him – a formula that rejects even the possibility that he is at fault. In this political cosmology, it makes no more sense to ask why someone might think Corbyn unsuitable to be prime minister than to ask why Darth Vader wants to control the galaxy. The Force has a dark side and a light side. That’s all you need to know.
Emphasis on motive is essential to the difference between religious and secular modes of politics. In the religious mode, purity of intent is much more important than outcome. For a hardcore of leavers – by no means all – the paramount virtue in…