Britain, how could you do this to me?
When I woke up on Friday morning to the news that the UK had voted to leave the EU, I shared the feelings of 48% of the voting population: shock, disbelief, fear, and yes, betrayal.
Like a 20-year marriage ended by an extra-marital affair: I thought I knew you Britain. Where did this come from? Why didn’t I see it coming? How could do this to me?
Like many people out there, I am fearful. There are EU nationals in this country I hold very close to my heart, and I don’t want to see them shouted at and intimidated in the street. I don’t want this country to face another recession, thousands of young people leaving school and university with no jobs to go to. And I don’t want to bring children up in a country where far-right racist politicians are welcomed on Radio 2.
But, sadly, the majority of our problems were here last week too. It’s just last week, we could ignore them. Like the unsuspecting husband or wife blindsided by an unexpected affair, we have looked anywhere but at our problems, ignoring them until they erupt, furiously. Yes, this election has escalated racist incidents by making the small racist minority feel they have a mandate. But that anger has been building for a long time.
As Will Davies has noted in a very perceptive analysis of Brexit, the Leave campaign had very high levels of support in the North East and in South Wales: mining and ship-building communities. Thatcherism destroyed working class industry, working class lives, and working class independence and self-respect. Labour created a shadow welfare state with its tax credits and trickle of public sector jobs, but failed to deliver the self-respect of self-sufficiency. As Lisa McKenzie has clearly pointed out, being afraid of immigration is about the precarity of being working class in the UK today, when people’s basic needs are no longer secure. Working class people did not always have to worry about finding jobs and earning enough to feed their families and pay their rent.
All trickle-down capitalism with its twin pillars of consumerism and the media ever offered the working class was a slim chance of not being working class anymore. We have felt overwhelmed and powerless; unable to stop the relentless march of neoliberalism we have disengaged, and turned away from our problems. We blame the rich for exploiting us, and more recently, we began to blame the working class too. Too long has laughing at ‘chavs’ been an acceptable middle-class past time. No wonder we were blindsided when they finally stood up and tried to make a change in their lives.
Unless we open ourselves up to the grievances of the 52% we will not heal the divide in this country. Whether we actually leave the EU now or not, our society, whether that is England or the UK, will have to survive together. We won’t make it divided.
We said: where did this come from? They said: how long did you think we would live like this?
So why am I hopeful for the future, amidst all the heartbreak and fear?
1. Political engagement of the working class. According to Lisa McKenzie, working class researcher and academic, last year working class people were overwhelmingly uninterested in politics, “because they’re all the same”. Since the Scottish and EU referendums, a much greater proportion of the population – including young people – is politically engaged. And this can only be a good thing in the long term. Anger that is not expressed in the voting booth will find other ways to come out. They may not have voted the way we wanted them to, but they voted. They are listening. The far-right are not the only ones who can speak to them.
2. A shock to the middle-class system. We have begun to realise that we do not understand the people we live with, or the communities we live in. Perhaps we have realised that our Facebook and Twitter accounts are echo chambers, reflecting back to us exactly what we want to hear, and that outside our doors, and down our streets, there are people living very different lives to us.
There is only one way this country can move forward: together. To put it bluntly, we are stuck with each other whether we like it or not. One big dysfunctional family. We either work together to heal the problems we face, or we let power-hungry politicians rip us apart for their own benefit. Blaming each other will not help.
To quote Will Davies again: Farage’s political strategy was to take seriously communities who’d been taken for granted for 50 years. But he is the not the only one who can take them seriously.
Who among us is brave enough? Who will look honestly at their community and say, life here is hard for a lot of people. Alcoholism, addiction, obesity, abuse, unemployment, marginalization, isolation. No one chooses these things. It’s hard for us to empathize because empathy requires us to make ourselves vulnerable. It requires us to say you know what, I also fear for my family in this society. I also feel insecure as more layers of our social security are ripped away, and our democratic powers are devolved to shadowy corporations and international trade deals that I don’t really understand. In this society vulnerable feels dangerous. How much easier to point at someone else and say you are responsible for this.
We know what we need: dignity, security, democracy and self-respect. Rewarding lives for everyone, and a social safety net that works. I’ll tell you what we don’t need: never-ending consumerism, capitalism, and isolation within our communities.
Mary Pipher said: “Social change is a million individual acts of kindness. Cultural change is a million subversive acts of resistance.”
So: Do Not Disengage.
Engage with your community. ALL of your community, not just the easy bits. What can you contribute to make it a better place? We all have skills. I’m a terrible artist, but I’d love it if there were more public spaces for art in deprived areas, and more opportunities for kids going to over-stretched schools to get creative. I am however interested in local, affordable organic food. So I’ll go that way. Even if you feel you have nothing to contribute – sadly, this consumer-mad creativity-smothering society makes a lot of us feel that way – you still have your voice. If we have learned anything this week it is that we all have a voice!
Now more than ever we need Labour and the Green party to step up and deliver for everyone, and particularly for those who have been ignored while their way of life disintegrated.
So: Do Not Disengage. Keep reading the news, the opinion pieces, the blogs and the analysis. Keep talking to your friends, and try to get out into your community and talk to the people that aren’t your friends too. Contribute whatever you can. It’s a very big mountain that we need to climb. But everything we do as individuals takes our society either towards the mountain or away. The choice is ours. It’s in our hands.
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