Who Are We?

Its been a challenging 24 hours. Not just for the nation but for me personally. I’m still processing what it means to have left the EU. Aside from the political jockeying, the absence of leadership from the now silent Leave politicians (where are you Boris? Did you choose now to go on holiday?), the crash of sterling, the departure of Scotland, uncertainty in the markets, etc, etc something much bigger has happened in this country.
We woke up to find that half of us don’t know who the other half are.

Its pretty easy for the 48% who voted to Remain to dismiss the Leave advocates as racist or uneducated, but that does a massive disservice to over half the nation and I don’t believe that it’s true. 52% of this country felt strongly enough about change that they were willing to gamble with an uncertain future to force the agenda. In a TV interview I saw today one woman said “we have nothing now, what do we have to lose?”. If you’re struggling with austerity, being demonised for taking benefits or trying to get a low paid job, 21st century Britain is not a great place to be. Especially when you see the rich getting richer and the government piling on the sanctions against the poor with every successive budget. I can begin to understand why an influx of young energetic Europeans would be threatening. When decades of underinvestment mean there are no new affordable homes, when the pound in your pocket buys you less food and waiting lists for a Doctor’s appointment mean you can’t see a GP for a week there is only so much that people can take. This referendum allowed everyone to have a say in a way that a general election can’t.

Because economy aside, the result highlighted a fundamental question we have not fully addressed as a nation. Who are we? We can talk all we like about the benefits of successive waves of immigration, what we don’t talk about is how it shifts the conception of what it means to be British. For many people this is destabilising. It was not something they asked for and due to decades of neglect, it is not something they have been able to embrace. I live in Brighton, alongside Scotland and London we voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU. But then we would. We’ve got it good down here. We’re a wealthy city, buoyed up by a vibrant cultural scene and a booming digital industry. We have a large population of Spaniards, French and Italians and we’ve prospered by our links to Europe and proximity to London. We’ve profited hugely from being part of an outward facing country. But that can make it easy for us to ignore the reality of life for people in the rest of the country. And indeed in our own back yard – in the surrounding towns and our own poorer communities. Poverty in this country is a reality. No wonder people resent an open door policy that allows anyone to come in and enjoy the same benefits as those who are already here.
Immigration has taken away our certainty about who we are, and therefore our entitlement to what we have.

I believe that people function best when they know who they are and how they fit in the world. Take that away and people begin to feel scared. When people are scared they start to act out and when enough people act out, then you have problems. Societies destabilise when they fragment. You only need to look at nations like Syria and Iraq suffering from internal violence and civil war. As soon as the national agenda changed from the concept of citizenship to tribe (the concept of Syrian or Iraqi to Sunni or Shia), both countries began to fall apart. We have been building just such a tribal split in the West for decades. Here its been about Rich and Poor. In real terms statistics show that the most underperforming and deprived group in the UK (and the USA) is the white working class. You cannot marginalise, demonise and stigmatise an entire section of society for decades without facing a backlash at some point. In the USA that backlash has been the rise of Donald Trump. Here it has been the rise of UKIP. The rest of us have ignored that at our peril.

In the UK our tribes have lost sight of each other. We have lost sight of the humanity in each of us. We step over the homeless sleeping in shop doorways, we exclude the “problem” child at school, we negate the jobless by making it harder and harder to get state support. And to make us feel better we call them lazy, defective or drunken. Those of us who enjoy the benefits of open borders, European trade and city breaks, forget that there are many people in this country for whom those benefits are out of reach.

The In/Out debate capitalised on this. It exploited our differences and made lies about the causes of our disaffection. As at many other times in history, those who want power for themselves exploit the fears of the masses to get what they want by blaming the “other” rather than taking responsibility for homegrown failures. Today it’s EU migrants. 80 years ago it was the Jews.
The silence from the Leave campaigners this weekend just shows how empty their promises were.

Whichever way you voted we all want the same things. A well funded and functioning NHS, affordable homes, good education, a future for our kids. Both camps believed that their option would bring those things to us. We were both wrong. The EU has been the most successful and far reaching mechanism for peace and prosperity the world has ever seen, and yet it did not address the widening poverty gap in richer countries, it did not curb the power of the markets or support a social agenda, it did not take seriously the rise of nationalist movements from the UK to Austria. 52% of the British people clearly did not believe that it would do any of these things.

So where does that leave us? For better or worse Britain finds itself alone. This is a pivotal moment for us. As I said in my last post, the sliding doors have closed and we have been left on the platform deciding which route to take forward. Will we fragment or will we find a way to come together so we can take that route in strength? In the act of severing our ties to the EU we must open our eyes and really see each other. We can no longer allow our society to be split into tribes that have and tribes that have not. To build the nation we want we must support each other and send a clear message to our leaders that business as usual is no longer an option.
To move forward we must re-establish what it means to be British in a way that includes all.

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