Posts Tagged Brexit
Way, way back, in 2015, I wrote a piece responding to the outcome of a general election, with the same title. Things seem to be immeasurably worse today than they were then. (If you’d told me then about Brexit, Trump and a Labour Party poisoned by anti-semitism I would simply not have believed you.) But somehow we have to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves down, and start all over again. We have to decide what’s important now.
We go into 2020 with a Prime Minister who is devoid of integrity and principle, an Opposition that is (perhaps irrevocably) divided and even weaker than its numbers would suggest, and the certainty that we will be leaving the EU, quite possibly without a deal. It’s hard to find hope in that.
I can hope (though my hopes have been not just dashed but stomped on and the crushed fragments stomped on some more and then set fire to so many times since 2016 that I hardly dare) for a Democrat victory in the US elections. I don’t even know what to hope for, for the UK.
One day, somehow, we may be back in Europe (but let’s not start thinking about that now). One day, somehow, we may have an Opposition that will be willing to sacrifice ideological purity in order to gain power, so that they can actually do something about the things they claim to care about, other than shouting (usually at the wrong people) from the sidelines. Perhaps.
If we’re concerned about the impact of a rampant Tory government and a potential hard Brexit, not necessarily on ourselves but on others, what are we going to do about that? If we now feel politically homeless, how are we going to engage with politics over the things that really matter? If we despair at the mendacity, the bigotry, the contempt shown by too many politicians for the electorate or sections of it, and the overt bigotry faced on our streets by those whose accent, skin colour, or dress proclaim them to be different, how do we stand up for each other? I can’t answer my own questions, not yet.
My friend Mike Press doesn’t claim to have the answers either, but he’s asking the same questions. He posted this on Facebook, but it deserves a wider readership. It gives me a little, just a little, glimmer of hope. With enough thoughtful people, with enough kind people, with enough people who give a damn whether or not it’s their turn, maybe we can do this.
In the twelve years that I lived in Stoke-on-Trent there was a recurrent joke that did the rounds at election time – there’s no point in voting in Stoke, so the joke ran, they may as well keep all the Labour votes in the cellar of the town hall and take them out to weigh them every few years, such was the certainty that being a Potteries Labour MP was a job for life.
Clay runs in the veins of all Stokies, so it was suggested, on account of their passion for their craft, industry and identification with it. If it did then that clay was the same deep crimson as their politics. Nowhere else in Britain had swept Labour to power so decisively and swiftly as Stoke in the elections of 1918 and 1922. In the 1997 election – my last while living there – Labour was returned with 66% of the vote. We believed we were about to build the New Jerusalem. Since early on Friday morning all of The Potteries’ constituencies have become safe Tory seats.
I have voted in twelve general elections and in none of them has the defeat been as disastrous as this one. We have to go back to 1935 – the age of mass unemployment and Nazi Germany – for an election as catastrophic for Labour as the one we’ve just experienced. Our reactions to this have been perhaps understandable. After venting our anger on Boris Johnson and the Tory Party, we turn our barrels on the electorate itself. I’ve read comments from people here on Facebook and on twitter that described the English as “swinging to the far right”, that people who vote Tory are “stomach churning” or “just plain thick”. I’ve read comments that wish increased child poverty on Tory supporters “because they’ve just voted for it”.
The people of Stoke (and Blyth, Darlington, Redcar, etc, etc) have not swung to the far right, they are far from thick and they – along with all other folk – should never have child poverty wished upon them. There is serious thinking to be done to understand why people voted (or did not vote) in the way they did, and what is needed to build a new politics of hope. Because as progressives, we never lose hope. Out of every disaster comes hope. After Labour’s calamity of 1935, the party needed to rebuild, so it elected a little known new leader – Clement Attlee.
But a politics of hope requires empathy and kindness – despite the shock, anger and grief many of us currently feel. It also requires that we look very carefully at the data.
The English have not swung to the far right. The increase in the Conservative vote in England was 1.2% – a small increase on their lacklustre 2017 election performance. While many former Labour voters did vote Tory, more of them simply stayed at home. The demographics of age and education (and identity) are clearly reshaping political allegiances and replacing the old certainties of class. An interesting (and hopeful) phenomenon is a significantly reduced tribalism in politics. According to the Ashcroft poll, around one third of voters for all parties are now ‘tribal’ – the rest make up their minds as the campaign develops.
People vote for a whole variety of reasons. Along with 25% of SNP and 43% of Lib Dem voters, I voted for a party that is not my first choice, but I did so for tactical reasons. People voted Tory for three main reasons (according to the data): Brexit, the economy and leadership. None of the Tories I know support the party because they wish child poverty on others. A vote for Brexit and Scottish independence? Well the data also shows that 53% of UK voters supported pro-remain parties, and 54% of Scottish voters backed unionist parties. Those figures in themselves don’t tell us very much, apart from the need for a root and branch overhaul of our parliamentary democracy.
But looking at the data remains challenging given the distortions of the stultifying and dangerous bubbles we have created for ourselves. Social media has served to provide us with instant validation for our biases, assumptions and prejudices. As a consequence we do not engage with views we don’t agree with. We do not debate, we do not argue, we assert and feel validated by the ‘likes’ our assertions attract. We don’t need to empathise because we keep within our bubble of largely like minded people.
A few weeks ago my friend Adam StJohn Lawrence sent me a video he filmed on the streets of Hong Kong minutes after a riot. He was there to run workshops with government workers and citizens – not on the conflict, but on other issues. He recalled one of the people he was working with who gave their explanation of the crisis. They’re stuck – he suggested – they’ve run out of vocabulary, and this is the consequence.
It’s the same here. We’re stuck. There are no words that can bring us together – we’ve run out of them. We are in a state of continual conflict. How the Scottish question will be resolved by two governments that cannot find common ground, is very uncertain. Unlike European models of modern democracy that require negotiation and compromise, the British system is built on conflict, on “opposition”.
Now, let’s suggest an alternative – based on empathy and kindness.
There are two reasons that this is possible. First, because since Friday the majority of Labour and Lib Dem MPs are women, and that will necessarily bring in new values and behaviours both to those parties and to political discourse. Second, because Scotland has already placed kindness at the centre of its National Performance Framework. As Leslie Evans, Permanent Secretary to the Scottish Government, has said (not of this election, but in terms of public policy): “We need to recognise that the challenge ahead is not primarily a technical ask but a behavioural challenge and a reflection of the relationships we nurture. And if we can succeed in making this shift to instil kindness within public policy, we will succeed in improving lives.”
Politics is not an indulgence to prove a point. It’s no gladiatorial combat to entertain TV viewers. It’s not a game: “You can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services or with their homes.” Politics is “a behavioural challenge and a reflection of the relationships we nurture” and we either behave with kindness and respect, despite our differences, and at times actually relishing those differences, or we descend into a form of barbarism.
The UK and Scotland may well be on different paths to different futures. The task of all of us is to find a way into our respective futures based on empathy and kindness – understanding and respecting each other. With that foundation then we can empower citizens to make their own futures – to be active participants in democracy and in the public domain.
Despite all I’ve written about kindness, I still feel angry, still raw. I’m angry with Corbyn and the infantile disorder of the left who gave some folk no choice but to vote Tory. Above all, I’m angry with Johnson, Gove and the others for their lies, for their disrespect, for their self-serving and misplaced sense of entitlement.
But the folk of Stoke I feel no anger towards at all. They lost the steel works, then the mines, just before most of the potteries closed and as a consequence their sense of identity has been bulldozed. How do you think it feels to vote for one party for your whole life, and then switch to its arch political enemy? How do you think it feels to spend over a year on strike in a forlorn attempt to keep your mine open then decades later to use that stubby pencil to put a cross against Conservative in an election?
I don’t know either. All I know is that empathy and kindness might take us beyond this. And I know that getting angry with people just trying to get through life and make the best choices they can isn’t really on. We can and should be angry with those who lie and mislead. But for the rest, let’s just try to listen and understand.
Well, over there, there’s friends of mine
What can I say? I’ve known ’em for a long long time
And, yeah, they might overstep the line
But you just cannot get angry in the same way
No, not in the same way
Said, not in the same way
Oh no, oh no no
‘I never thought I’d need / So many people’David Bowie, ‘Five Years’
Seems to be where we’re heading. I do try, really I do, to retain some optimism, some faith and some hope. I think I’m just weary now, of hoping that some coherent opposition will emerge, hoping for evidence of a truly significant shift in public opinion (here and in the US), hoping that the bad guys won’t win this time.
That doesn’t mean I’ve given up – I’m at a low ebb for personal reasons, and that’s sapped my capacity to muster up some positive thoughts.
(The other thing, of course, that militates against my traditional end-of-year musings on the state of the world, is that by the time I have drafted anything events will have moved on, for better or (more likely) for worse, and I’ll have been left behind by them.)
To paraphrase Brando in The Wild One: “What are you despairing about?” “What you got?”
Brexit (obvs) – is it even going to happen? I desperately want it not to happen but so much damage and division has already been created that it isn’t a straightforwardly comforting thought that there might yet be a way that we can Remain.
If it does happen, there will be, I believe, a very great deal more long term damage, and much more profound division. It’s not the consequences for me personally that concern me, it’s about the consequences for all of us. But most particularly for European citizens in the UK, for anyone ‘foreign’ in the UK, for my kids’ generation whose opportunities will be so curtailed, for the poorest who will be hardest hit by recession and tightened austerity, for the sick who will suffer as the NHS runs out of resources.
I am fearful, and I’m sad. I recently travelled up the Danube on a cruise ship – our hotel manager and tour managers were from Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary respectively, our tour guides were from Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Bratislava. All of them mentioned Brexit, and the tone was one of bafflement, of regret, of hurt (‘You don’t want us any more’).
I’m also angry because this whole mess could have been so easily avoided. If the referendum had been clearly and publicly stated to be advisory (as it legally was), if under-18s had been enfranchised (as in the Scottish independence referendum), if EU citizens resident in this country and UK citizens long-term resident in Europe had been able to vote, then the outcome might well have been what the majority of MPs and Cabinet members hoped it would be. If, when the result was known, the powers that were had said, ‘OK, we weren’t expecting this and we haven’t exactly planned for it, but now we know that is the view, we will put together a cross-party team of the very best minds we have (yes, ‘experts’), and work out how we can do this without damaging the country. If we conclude there is no way, we will revisit the outcome, having made our findings known to Parliament and to the nation’… But that would have taken courage and integrity, qualities in woefully short supply.
Instead, those tasked with negotiating our exit have demonstrated no understanding of the issues, no aptitude for negotiation. They’ve faffed and fannied about for two and a half years. They’ve been smug and arrogant and dishonest. The only consistent thing has been the way in which everyone is to blame other than them, the EU, the ‘unapologetic Remoaners’, the business community, everyone. And at this late stage, our hapless and hopeless PM is reduced to desperate pleading with EU leaders, and – because she really can’t help herself – pronouncing even in those last ditch meetings, as if it means anything at all, that ‘Brexit is Brexit’.
That’s just us. But wherever we look we see the same, or worse, sometimes much, much worse. Where do we look for comfort and hope?
As always in dark times there are people striving to bring light. As always when the haters are out in force there are people speaking truth and love. As always when there’s mess there are people who will move heaven and earth to clean it up. The light-bringers, the truth-sayers, the open-hearted, the problem solvers may not hold power but we have to hope they have influence, that their voices will be heard, in all the parts of the world where they’re most needed.
It’s been a while since I posted anything here at all, and I’d really rather that I could have broken the silence with something stronger, something more uplifting and positive. But that’s all I’ve got, folks, right now.
“Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day.”
― E.B. White
Funny how swiftly a mood can change. I wrote a fairly despairing piece about Brexit, just over a month ago. It was a bit of a rant, an expression of my deep frustration at not seeing a way forward, a way out of the mess.
And suddenly, just in the last few weeks, the thing that I didn’t dare hope for, that I want so badly, is being talked about openly.
It’s not straightforward, obviously. The loss of face for May & co. will ensure that they set their faces against it. And, sadly, Corbyn seems unlikely to come out as a Remainer and lead the charge against the government. I also know that if it is stopped, damage will already have been done, and recovery will take a long time.
But the tide does seem to be turning. Surprising numbers of people who want Brexit to happen, as well as people who want to ensure it doesn’t, are now saying ‘if’ rather than ‘when’.
Those of us who voted Remain have been told, over and over again, to shut up and accept it. To get over it. We’ve been called whingers, ‘snowflakes’, ‘Remoaners’. We’ve been accused of being traitors and saboteurs, of betraying the Will of the People. Some of us had death threats.
Funny kind of snowflake, that withstands the vitriol, the hate, the threats and keeps on keeping on. Because we had to call out the lies that tricked people into voting for Brexit, and the incompetence and ignorance that characterised the government’s attempts to negotiate with the EU.
We didn’t do that out of pique. We’ve kept on about it because we believe that Brexit is an act of national self-harm, and that whilst we will all pay dearly for it, those who will suffer its consequences most acutely are the most vulnerable in our society (the poor, those most in need of the NHS), and the young. We’ve kept on because we care about and love this country.
Whilst I do get tetchy about the assumption that it’s my age group that landed us in this mess, statistically there is some evidence for Brexit appealing particularly to a generation that can remember the old (blue? black? who knows/cares) passport, pre-decimal currency, imperial measurements, and all that nonsense. The people who got terribly agitated because Big Ben’s bongs might briefly be silenced. The people who want to return us to some fantasy version of the 1950s – post-rationing, pre-counter-culture.
But, to put it somewhat brutally, many of those who look back with such fondness to the past won’t be around by the time Brexit really kicks in. Whereas the generations that will have their freedoms curtailed by this ‘taking back of control’ will be losing so much and gaining what, exactly? A different coloured passport. Perhaps a crown crest on their pint glass.
I want freedom of movement, for myself and for my children and their children.
I want the economic benefits of EU membership, for myself and for my children and their children.
I want our nation to continue to be diverse, to embrace people from Europe (and beyond Europe) who can contribute to our economy, our culture, our health service, our education – and those who need asylum. I want those Europeans who have made their homes here to feel secure, to feel that they are indeed at home, and welcome.
I want to be part of Europe, part of that group of nations forged after horrific conflict, based upon shared values, facing shared challenges. The greatest challenges we face are global – terrorism, climate change, the flow of refugees from war zones and famine. Our best hope of dealing with them is to work closely with our neighbours, not to shut them out.
I am convinced that there are many people who voted Leave – for a wide variety of reasons – who now regret that choice. Many must have been horrified by the open racism that followed so swiftly on the vote, the abuse offered to anyone who appeared to be ‘foreign’, the glee with which they were told they didn’t belong here any more. Others have been dismayed by the disparity between what they were promised and what the government now says about what might be delivered, and the obvious disarray of those who are responsible for negotiating on our behalf. I am also convinced that there are many who didn’t vote, maybe because – like so many of us who voted Remain – they assumed Remain would win. If those who voted Leave and now regret it, and those who stayed at home on polling day and wish they hadn’t, were to join forces with those who voted Remain and still believe it was the right choice…
So, strengthened by the solidarity of on-line communities that are pressing for an exit from Brexit, I will not only not shut up but will go on, and on, and on, relentlessly, until we find a way of stopping this madness.
And my vote – at local and national level – will go only to those who are pledged to the same cause.
The EU was built on the words of Winston Churchill. It was founded on the same values that we recognise as British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect.
The European Union has enabled neighbouring nations to overcome historic differences, create new alliances and build bridges where previously there were walls.
For the past 70 years, the United Kingdom has enjoyed peace, prosperity and enhanced standing in the world as a result of its role at the heart of the European Union.
- In democracy and the rule of law.
- In the sovereignty of the UK Parliament.
- That the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union amplifies the rights, freedoms and interests of the British people.
- That UK and EU law underpin our economic, social and political rights.
- That the UK can only be truly global and outward facing as a fully committed member of the European Union.
- That the life prospects of young people and future generations of British citizens are augmented by continued UK membership of the EU.
- That the four nations of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are stronger when united as a sovereign country, and as a member of the European Union.
- That continued UK membership of the EU is necessary to ensure the UK is relevant and effective in tackling global challenges such as climate change, terrorism, the displacement of peoples, and global economic adversity.
- All forms of hate, racism and xenophobia that have been exacerbated by the referendum campaign and ballot.
- Nationalist protectionism, imperialism and isolationism.
- Treating EU nationals, EU member states and the EU itself as our enemies rather than our friends
A strong, free and united European Union, with Britain at its heart, is capable of facing up to the challenges of today and tomorrow, and of playing a leading role in championing international peace and prosperity.
… but that never stops us hoping that some things will change, making plans and resolutions, wishing and wondering.
Another tough year for so many of us, for so many people around the world. Another year of preventable tragedy, of hatred fanned into violence, of brutal terrorist murders, of desperate poverty alongside profligate consumption. Easy to despair, easy to give up.
I’d rather hang on to hope, and faith in humanity. So rather than reiterating all of the evils and the horrors that this year has brought, and that we fear for in the next, I’ll remind myself that women are speaking up as they have never done before about sexual violence and harassment. That the resistance is making its presence felt, here and elsewhere.
In the face of lies we have to keep speaking and showing truth. In the face of hate we have to keep speaking and showing love. In the face of the horrors that seem to happen daily – in Kabul, in Las Vegas, in Manchester, in Mogadishu – we have to keep speaking and showing faith.
Keep on keeping on.
Sometimes things don’t go, after all,
from bad to worse. Some years, muscadel
faces down frost; green thrives; the crops don’t fail,
sometimes a man aims high, and all goes well.
A people sometimes will step back from war;
elect an honest man, decide they care
enough, that they can’t leave some stranger poor.
Some men become what they were born for.
Sometimes our best efforts do not go
amiss, sometimes we do as we meant to.
The sun will sometimes melt a field of sorrow
that seemed hard frozen: may it happen for you.
Sheenagh Pugh – Sometimes
Hang on to your hat. Hang on to your hope. And wind the clock, for tomorrow is another day
Theirs is a land with a wall around it
And mine is a faith in my fellow man…
Sweet moderation, heart of this nation
Desert us not, we are between the wars
Billy Bragg, Between the Wars
We are building up a new world.
Do not sit idly by.
Do not remain neutral.
Do not rely on this broadcast alone.
We are only as strong as our signal.
There is a war going on for your mind.
If you are thinking, you are winning.Flobots – We are Winning
The simplest and most important thing of all: the world is difficult, and we are all breakable. So just be kind.Caitlin Moran – How to Build a Girl
If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if … nothing we do matters … then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. … All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.Joss Whedon – Angel
Never be cruel, never be cowardly, and never, ever eat pears! Remember, hate is always foolish. and love is always wise. Always try to be nice, but never fail to be kind. … Laugh hard, run fast, be kind.The 12th Doctor, Twice Upon a Time
Love is wise, hatred is foolish. In this world, which is getting more and more closely interconnected, we have to learn to tolerate each other. We have to learn to put up with the fact that some people say things that we don’t like. We can only live together in that way, and if we are to live together and not die together we must learn a kind of charity and a kind of tolerance which is absolutely vital to the continuation of human life on this planet.
Bertrand Russell, Face to Face interview, 1959
The government doesn’t know the economic impact of leaving the EU, and doesn’t want to know. Some of the leading Brexiteers do not even seem to care. That might prove the most damning assessment of all.
(Jonathan Lis, deputy director of think tank British Influence, which researches the impacts of Brexit)
No one who reads this, or knows me at all, will be unaware that I’m a Remainer. I voted for Britain to stay in the EU and nothing that has happened since has made me regret that at all.
I found it extraordinary and shameful that before the vote blatant lies were being presented as truths, that the electorate were being sold the highly improbable story that we could leave the EU, contribute nothing more to it, and have any of the benefits of membership that we happened to fancy.
I found it extraordinary and shameful that no one in Government appeared to have thought through what would happen if the vote went to Leave.
I find it shocking and alarming that those of us who voted to Remain are told daily that we ought to shut up because the Will of the People is that we leave the EU, and anyone with a dissenting view is a saboteur or a traitor.
I find it shocking and alarming that we have seen such an increase in racist harassment and assaults on our streets as ignorant xenophobes believe that they have been vindicated.
And I find it, frankly, embarrassing to witness the disarray, incompetence and lack of transparency in our negotiating ‘team’ and the obvious bafflement and disdain of competent politicians in the EU who are wondering how on earth the UK got itself into this mess.
So what happens now?
The truth is, I haven’t a clue. I have no faith in those at present heading up the Brexit process, not enough faith in the rebels within the government or (sadly) the Opposition to take a stand and refuse to allow them to lead us off the cliff edge. It seems to me that there are no truly good outcomes now, only marginally less awful ones.
I’m channelling W1A’s Tracy Pritchard these days…
I’m not being negative or anything, but this is only gonna get worse.
Can I just say, not being funny or anything, but I’ve got a feeling in my bottom about this and not in a nice way.
I’m pursuing two strategies to cope. Firstly, the sensible strategy. I’m reading the updated version of Ian Dunt’s splendid analysis of the situation:
Your man Dunt knows his stuff, expresses it clearly and without bullshit, and if anyone can help me to understand trade agreements and the like, it’s him. None of this cheers me up. But on the whole I prefer to understand the shitstorm we’re heading into. The better we understand it now, the more chance that at some unspecified point in the future we can start to undo the damage.
On the other hand, there are times when kittens and otters are the only way to go.
It’s been a funny old year. Not so much of the ha ha, either. Is there anything to be said that hasn’t already been said, better probably? I doubt it, but I can’t write about the books, films and other cultural pleasures of the year without acknowledging the seismic changes and alarming portents that it has presented.
Reasons to be Miserable:
Daesh initiated or inspired terrorist attacks clocked up more deaths and more terrible injuries than the mind can encompass. As always, most of these were Muslims, in Muslim countries, although our news media inevitably foregrounds the attacks in France, Belgium and the USA. As appalling as those murders were, on my very rough calculations, Iraq was the worst hit, with over 450 deaths, followed by Pakistan. I tweeted the names of the dead from Brussels, Nice and Orlando, but will never know the names of most of those murdered in Kabul, Istanbul, Jakarta, Baghdad, Ouagadougou, Quetta, Grand Bassam or Aden.
According to the UNHCR, the number of migrants dying whilst crossing the Mediterranean reached 3800, a record. Fewer are making that journey, but they are making it via the more perilous routes and in flimsier boats. Worldwide, over 65 million people are forcibly displaced, over 21 million are refugees, and 10 million stateless. The vast majority of those displaced are hosted in neighbouring countries in Africa or the Middle East. Six per cent are in Europe. Over half of the world’s refugees came from just three countries – Afghanistan, Syria and Somalia.
With regard to Syria, anything I say here may be outdated before I press Publish, but there can be no doubt that we are seeing one of the greatest tragedies of our times unfold, and that war crimes are happening there which will be remembered with shame and horror.
I’ve been told to shut up about Brexit, that the people have spoken and they’ve said we must leave Europe and that’s that. As if democracy means that once the votes are counted, those whose views did not prevail must be silent or be regarded as traitors, as if, had the vote gone the way everyone (including Farage and Johnson) expected it to, they would have shut up and let ‘the will of the people’ prevail. Firstly, whilst a majority of those who voted said we should leave Europe, that is all they said. They were not asked and so they did not vote on whether we should leave the single market, what should happen about immigration controls, what trade agreements should be in place outside the EU, what would happen to EU citizens based in the UK or vice versa, what would happen to those employment and wider human rights and other legal provisions currently under the EU umbrella. And so on. All of that has now to be negotiated and worked out, and that’s a job for Parliament. How else could it possibly happen? If anyone thinks they understand how the EU works and thus what are the implications of hard or soft Brexit, they need to read Ian Dunt’s book – Brexit- What the Hell Happens Now? Dunt isn’t talking about the arguments pro or con Brexit, but about what could happen now, what the options are, what the most likely consequences of each option are, and so on.
The US election outcome was described to me by an American colleague recently as ‘somewhere between a mess and a catastrophe’. I am (for once) holding back from comment – I know how deeply this is felt by US friends, some of whom are now seeing fault lines in their families and friendships as some support what others find inexplicable and irrational. We’ve seen a bit of that here since June. A left-wing Brexiter said to me recently that his view was that the EU was so compromised and corrupted that we had to break it in order to fix it. My fear is that some things that get broken simply can’t be mended. Something of the same feeling seems to have prevailed in the US – and that’s one of the reasons why the arguments against Trump failed to stop him winning.
This is the year when I’ve felt closest to despair, for all the above reasons, and because the Labour Party, which I’d thought was my natural home politically, has been so ineffectual in opposition. I took the hard decision to resign my membership – I doubt that I will join another party, perhaps I have to accept that there is not, and never will be, a political party to which I could sign up without caveats and qualms. In that case I have to be led by my principles and values and be willing to back, vote for, work with those politicians and activists who seem closest to them, whether they be Labour, Green, Lib Dem, Women’s Equality or any combination of the above.
On the other hand…
The Hillsborough inquests returned their verdict, and concluded that planning errors, failures of senior managers, commanding officers and club officials, and the design of the stadium, all contributed to the disaster. The behaviour of fans did not. Thus the tireless, dignified campaign fought by the families, survivors and their supporters, was finally vindicated, fully and unequivocally. Read Phil Scraton’s Hillsborough – The Truth, updated in light of the inquest verdict, and Adrian Tempany’s account of that day and what followed, and his excellent book exploring the broader picture in contemporary football, And the Sun Shines Now.
Too early to say whether Standing Rock will turn out to be a victory for the Native American and other environmental protestors – but it was truly remarkable to see the army veterans who had joined them on the site asking for and receiving forgiveness for the long history of oppression and genocide against the indigenous peoples.
Too early to say, too, whether Gambia has taken a historic step towards democracy, or wheher the defeated dictator will be successful in his attempts to overthrown the result of the election. (Meantime in Ghana another peaceful general election brings about a change of government ).
Too early to say whether hard right parties in Europe will prevail, or whether the tide will turn against them before people go to the ballot, but at least the Austrian electorate rejected the Freedom Party’s presidential candidate in favour of a former leader of the Greens.
If 2016 leads us to expect the worst (after two nights spent sitting up waiting for election results which delivered the outcome we feared most, against the predictions of the pundits), then we have to remember that this does not mean that the die is irrevocably cast.
So, reasons to be anxious, reasons to be angry, reasons to be sad – but not reasons to lose all hope.
I’ve tried, throughout this hard year, to hold on to my own brand of faith. It’s not been easy, and it won’t be easy.
In all of this, though, I have found joy in family and friends, in working for Inspiration for Life and in our extraordinary 24 Hour Inspire, in books and film and music and theatre and opera and TV, in my PhD research, in walking in the lovely countryside on our doorstep. I’m bloody lucky, and I do know it.
If I’m going to sum up, somehow, what I want to say about 2016, I think I will leave it to Patti Smith, singing Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain, at the Nobel Prize ceremony. She stumbled, apologised, and began again. In her performance, and in Dylan’s song, there is humanity and hope.
I’m glad I waited a bit before blogging about the outcome of the Referendum. Anything I wrote on Friday would have been an incoherent outburst of grief and anger. Not that I’m in a position to write a more informed and balanced piece now – we still, on day 7 of our ‘independence’, know nothing, and it appears that those who purport to lead us are no clearer than we are. We have neither government nor opposition, we have voted to leave the EU but have taken none of the necessary steps to set that process in motion.
In this vacuum Nigel Farage presents himself as the voice of Britain, jeering at the MEPs, taking his revenge for having been laughed at for so long. In this vacuum those who voted Remain earnestly debate whether to sign the petition for a re-run of the referendum, or to lobby for a General Election, or whether we’re worrying about nothing because nobody will actually press the red button, since nobody (other than Farage) actually wants to. In this vacuum those who voted Leave are frustrated that nothing is happening, that the Remainers are still whingeing on about the result, and that the leaders of the Leave campaigns are rowing back vigorously on the promises made during the campaign. Some of them are saying that they didn’t really mean it, that they’d vote to Remain if there was a re-run. Some of them are saying that what they meant by it was that all foreigners should get out, now.
Meanwhile our European erstwhile partners are shaking their heads, and reminding us that freedom of movement is inextricably linked to trade deals and that we can’t have one without the other. They’re reminding us that our membership of the EU is as the United Kingdom and therefore that if Scotland and Northern Ireland want to honour their population’s vote to Remain, they would have to break away from the UK which, overall, has voted to Leave. Marine le Pen, of course, is rejoicing.
I’m not going to speculate about what happens now – there are people far better informed than me who are doing that and I’ll leave them to it. And I’m not going to rant about or criticise those who voted Leave – they did so for many and various reasons, some at least of which I might respect and understand, however profoundly I disagree. My response is a personal one – now that my emotions are less raw, I can begin to explore why I felt such grief, as well as such anger, and why I felt, and feel, afraid.
In the early hours of Friday, having felt increasingly pessimistic as the results came in with such dismaying consistency, I saw that Sheffield had voted Leave. That was when I felt that we’d lost, not just the referendum but so much more. That was when I wept, and despaired.
I have always felt at home in this city – I’ve lived here for over forty years, and since I got here I haven’t wanted to live anywhere else. I’ve always loved it – its hills, its greenery, its culture, its friendliness. But in the light of that decision I felt as though I didn’t know it after all, wasn’t as much a part of it as I had believed.
Of course, the vote was close – Leave and Remain were separated by just 6,000 of my fellow Sheffielders. But what it confirmed is that the city is polarised, more so perhaps than some of the other big northern cities. We have one of the wealthiest political constituencies in the country – but nearly one-quarter of the local areas used to assess deprivation are in the most deprived 10%. This polarisation has increased since 2010. My Sheffield voted Remain. But my Sheffield is dark blue.
I don’t have a detailed breakdown of how different areas of the city voted. But a new article by Charles Pattie, Professor of Electoral Geography at the University of Sheffield, has looked at data on the proportion of graduates, amongst other indicators, in different areas of the city.
All of this paints a picture of a city deeply divided; a city where class, education and opportunity have shaped the political understandings of its people. And although we’re still waiting on a demographic breakdown of the results, it’s highly likely that such divisions will have cut through the rest of the UK, too. The case of Sheffield shows that the fracture lines in British society do not just run between north and south, Scotland and England, or rural and urban areas. They run through every community in the country.
It’s still my city, my home. Burt I forgot those fracture lines. Those fracture lines are dangerous. People like me tend to live next door to, work and socialise with people like me. People like me hear from our social media contacts and our colleagues the echo of our own views. We can be oblivious to how the world looks when employment is hard to find or insecure and when your wages aren’t enough to support your family, when debts are unmanageable and creditors importunate, when housing is inadequate and schools are failing, and benefits are sanctioned – and when the party in power tells you that you are a skiver not a striver, a scrounger rather than a hard-working tax payer. We can be oblivious to how tempting it is to find scapegoats, the scapegoats offered up daily on the front pages of the Mail, the Express, the Sun (people like me don’t read those papers, of course). We can be oblivious to how easy it is to believe that this daily struggle is the result not of austerity but of immigration, that others are not struggling but are being given an easy path to housing and jobs and prosperity. If we’re to heal we need to stop being oblivious, stop listening just to people like us.
What that does not mean, however, is to continue with the mealy mouthed refusal to challenge racism. Gary Younge makes this point powerfully:
Labour tends to condemn outright bigotry before clothing it in the cosy blanket of understanding and concern for the bigot. It protests and then it panders. It routinely points out that racism is bad, but is rarely brave enough to make the case for why anti-racism is good. This leads to the worst of all worlds. Racism and xenophobia are condemned but never challenged, which leaves those who hold such views feeling silenced and ignored, but never engaged.
Some of those who have been silenced, ignored but not engaged now feel legitimised and emboldened by the referendum result. Everyone but Farage may have been insistent that the referendum was not about immigration, but the sub-text was often clear, and in the Mail, the Express, the Sun, it was not sub-text, not even text, but screaming headline.
Of course the recent spike in racist abuse may be in part down to more of these incidents being reported post-Brexit. But the accounts have something specific in common – the assertion that ‘we’ won, that ‘we’ have our country back now and that therefore ‘they’ should be packing their bags because ‘they’ will have to go. No distinction is made between those who have lived here all their lives, whose families have lived here for generations, and recent arrivals. No distinction is made between those who have come here thanks to the EU’s freedom of movement and those who have Tier 2 sponsored posts here. Because of the hostility to white European immigrants, no distinction is made on the basis of colour (although of all groups facing this viciousness, hijab-wearing Muslim women are probably the most at risk). Either they have not yet realised that Brexit could never mean that EU nationals already here would be expelled, let alone that British citizens of non-British ancestry would be deported, or they do not care, their narrative is suddenly dominant, they have got their moment and are seizing it.
Why this sudden explosion? Paul Bagguley, a sociologist based at the University of Leeds, points to the gleeful tone of the racism: “There is a kind of celebration going on; it’s a celebratory racism.” With immigration cited in polls as the second most common reason in voting for Brexit, “people are expressing a sense of power and success, that they have won,” he says. “People haven’t changed. I would argue the country splits into two-thirds to three-quarters of people being tolerant and a quarter to a third being intolerant. And a section of that third have become emboldened. At other times, people are polite and rub along.”
It is this ‘celebratory’ aspect to the racism that is particularly horrifying. It didn’t start with Brexit, of course, but those who might always have felt this way now feel they can express it.
It may die down. Or, if one wished to take a less sanguine view, as people realise that Brexit is likely to mean no reduction in net migration, that it will not result in anyone being ‘sent back’, they will be bitter and angry and rather than blaming the politicians who allowed them to believe such things in order to win their votes, they will continue to blame the migrants and the refugees in their communities.
And so we find ourselves talking about how we can counter racism on our streets, in our schools, on the tram and the bus, in the pub. We wear safety pins in our lapels to indicate our support for those who are under attack and our willingness to stand with them, to stand up for them.
Will this do any good? Who knows. But when someone launches a tirade of racist abuse on the bus, if I’m wearing my pin the first thing I will do is to look around to see if I have any allies. If two of us stand up, I believe others will follow. As to what we might actually do, that depends upon the situation. The aim must be to defuse rather than to inflame, focusing on the victim rather than the aggressor, making them feel safer, letting them know the hatred is not shared by all of us. But we do also need to speak, to let not only the victim but the aggressor and those who are fiercely staring at their newspapers or their phones and pretending they can’t hear or see what’s happening know that this is not right.
The thing is, I want my country back too.
I want to wake up tomorrow in a country where people are kind, and tolerant, and decent to one another. A country where people – all people – can feel at least a little bit safe. I want to rub the sleep of neofascist nightmares from my eyes and find myself in a country where we do not respond to the killing of a politician by voting against everything she stood for. A country where we are polite to our neighbors. A country where we have dealt like adults with the embarrassing fact that we once conquered half the world, instead of yearning for a time when our glory was stolen from enslaved people a convenient ocean away and large parts of the map were the gentle pink of blood in the water. I want to go back to a Britain where hope conquers hate; where crabbed, cowed racism and xenophobia don’t win the day; where people feel they have options and choices in life and are less likely to press the big red button to bring the house down on top of us. I want my country back.
The country that Laurie Penny wants back is, she acknowledges, fictional. But so is Farage’s – and which would we rather live in? The country I want back was conjured up memorably and brilliantly in the opening ceremony to the 2012 Olympics. Funny, celebratory and bonkers, it gave us a vision of ourselves now, not as we used to be, and it set the scene for our collective joy and pride as a succession of medals were draped around the necks of our athletes, who themselves represented Britain now, in all its rich diversity.
That seems a long time ago and very far away. But we have to try to find it again. In Europe or out of it – we may not be able to reverse that decision, but we can work to make things better now, here, for all of us. Meantime, remember: