Women Suffer as Sexism and Populism Drive the Brexit Debate in Politics and Religion


Dr Esther McIntosh



Male voices dominated in the lead up to the UK’s 2016 referendum on EU membership, both in political and Christian circles, and have continued to dominate in the Brexit negotiations. Women’s voices have been largely absent and, yet, women are more likely to suffer from the impacts of post-Brexit austerity and religious hate crime.


Before the vote, in the political sphere David Cameron and George Osborne emerged as the most vocal remain campaigners, and they were largely drowned out by the most vocal leave campaigners: Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson.


Mainstream Christian voices on the remain-side included the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, Justin Welby and John Sentamu; the Bishops of Durham and Guilford, Paul Butler and Andrew Watson; and Cardinal Vincent Nichols, President of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales. Their input on the debate consisted mostly of hand-wringing at the prospect of leaving the EU, which left a vacuum ready to be filled by a populist leave campaign.


On the political side, the leave campaign will be remembered for Farage’s ‘Breaking Point’ poster, which, whilst featuring Syrian refugees fleeing a war zone, fuelled a rise in racist hate crime. Religious leaders on the leave-side also contributed to the anti-immigration rhetoric. Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, equated pressures on resources, such as schools and the NHS, with ‘an unasked-for experiment in uncontrolled immigration’, and he connected the threat of terrorism in Europe with the freedom of movement in the EU.


Fringe evangelical leaders painted a picture of the European Union as unchristian and gave the impression that a vote to leave would result in a revival of Christianity in Britain. For example, Peter Horrobin, founder of Ellel Ministries in Lancashire, which has spread across the globe to twenty countries (including South Africa, India, Colombia, Singapore and Rwanda), referred to the UK’s membership of the EU as ‘an ungodly alliance’, claiming that ‘it was not what God wanted for this Christian nation’. Horrobin’s blog links the survival of soldiers at Dunkirk with a British nation at prayer, and he laments the acceptance of the differing religious beliefs of migrants. He suggested that the referendum was ‘an opportunity for the whole nation to repent’, insisting that it would be outside of the EU only that a British government could ‘bring the UK more in line with God’s laws’.


Horrobin’s opinion could be dismissed as an outlier railing against advances in multi-faith understanding, human rights and sexual freedom, but his view was supported by well-known evangelical leaders in America. Franklin Graham, President of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, whose festivals are attended by millions, referred to the outcome of the vote as a ‘glorious opportunity’, borrowing the phrase from Boris Johnson; this is the same Franklin Graham who is widely criticised for his homophobic and Islamophobic remarks.


Similarly, Jerry A. Johnson denounced the ungodliness of the EU constitution and suggested that the vote to leave represented an opportunity for ‘a spiritual awakening’ in the UK. He blamed the EU for forcing the UK to ‘admit large numbers of migrants’ and ‘massive numbers of Muslims’ across its borders. Johnson is the President of the longstanding evangelical association of Christian communications, the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB). The NRB lays claim to reaching ‘millions of viewers, listeners and readers worldwide’; its mission is ‘to advance biblical truth’ and fight against what it perceives to be the ‘emerging threats to the rights and freedoms of Christian broadcasters’. Christian freedom of speech, according to Johnson, is being curtailed by homosexuality and Islam; he is referring to the fact that broadcasters can be penalized for homophobic or Islamophobic comments.


Despite the ordination of women being approved by many Protestant denominations decades ago, the Christian voices most frequently cited by the media are male ones. Likewise, despite having a female Prime Minister and some improvements in the numbers of women in politics, the Huffington Post revealed that men have dominated ninety per cent of the Brexit debate in Parliament.


None of the political or the religious leaders mentioned above have analysed the impact of Brexit on women. Yet, an independent report published by the Fawcett Society warns that a post-Brexit fall in economic growth will have negative consequences for already disadvantaged women. Cuts to public sector jobs, welfare benefits, affordable housing, reproductive healthcare and refuges for survivors of domestic violence, reduce women’s financial independence and increase women’s vulnerability to exploitation and abuse. Austerity measures have a disproportionate effect on women, because women ‘are more likely to work in the public sector and to need public services’.


In addition to the economic impact, the rhetoric that characterised the leave campaign irresponsibly stoked up anti-immigration sentiment, blaming migrants for the global financial crisis and the underfunding of essential services. This reactionary brand of populism encourages ‘natives’ to turn against ‘foreigners’ and pits ‘British values’ against what it deems to be the restrictive political correctness of the EU, harping back to a mythical time of prosperity and sovereignty when Britain supposedly had a monolithic culture and a single religion. The unwanted others in this scenario are the minorities who look or sound different from the majority, and who practise a religion other than Christianity. Hence, given the visibility of some women’s Islamic dress – the hijab, the niqab or the burqa – Muslim women have become the primary targets of racial and religious abuse.


When Boris Johnson makes insulting and derogatory remarks about women wearing face veils, he normalises the abuse and attacks against Muslim women. When evangelical leaders criticise the secularity of the EU and speak of Britain as a ‘Christian-nation’, they leave Muslim women exposed to nationalistic rage. When Brexit negotiators drown out women’s voices, they leave the door open for further cuts to women’s services. Church leaders and politicians need to consider the gendered impact of any Brexit plan; they need to protect women’s rights and the freedom of religion.  



Dr Esther McIntosh is Director of Theology and Religious Studies and Senior Lecturer in Religion, Philosophy and Ethics at York St John University. She publishes in philosophy and theology, and is especially concerned with feminist ethics.