“Things aren’t always what they seem in this place, so you can’t take anything for granted.” – Jim Henson’s Labyrinth
For someone who normally has very little to do with social media, I was not able to keep my brain off it this weekend. Sad and resentful and furious and scared; feelings I had staring at my EU cartoon map on the wall of my classroom wanting to – very nearly throwing a tantrum in front of my form on Friday morning (managed thankfully to pull myself together and remember to be a responsible balanced adult); seeing family; visiting the First World War memorial poppy display at Lincoln Castle on Sunday. Sad and surreal.
Why and how would we throw away the legacy of a united Europe? Though the true nature of what the referendum has simultaneously unveiled and catalysed is still unfolding, and yet to be fully understood, I have some thoughts about the way the vote turned out and some ideas for where next. It’s just my little drop in the ocean, but something I just need to say right now.
Test to Protest
So I voted Remain, emphatically. So did many of my friends; a phenomenon nicely summed up by my friend, Gilby as the ‘echo chamber’.
But I think I get Leave. It seems pretty clear that Brexit was a protest vote about the way things have been unfolding in this country. For a long time now, the voices of the people across the UK have not been fully explored or heard by those making the big decisions; by this I mean asked, talked with in ways that are engaging, non-directive and qualitative: what do you think? What do we think? What’s important to us right now? And why?
My criticism of our politics is that too often it tries to either prescribe views to the public (a problematic blanket term in itself for the plethora of individuals and communities that make up this country), or outright tries to tell them what they should think, and the public have to select the nearest fit. To me, that is not true qualitative democracy and it does not acknowledge people’s agency and their capability to have some authority and insight in the mechanisms of their own lives and communities. For me, our systems also don’t look to engage people to come together on a local basis and share and debate ideas which affect them locally and nationally in real terms. We are told: you should care about your family, your job, and your shopping trolley. Oh and maybe a holiday now and again – if you care about anything bigger, the economy’s worth your time: spend and make some more money”; just look at the remain leaflet the government distributed to the public. Greater questions have been left to the ‘professionals’ to deal with; those issues are someone else’s remit.
For me, these problems have been inherent in the zeitgeist of Britain’s political intellect; they speak to people’s personal beliefs and sense of disempowerment about how much knowledge or influence they have over the way this country operates. I would note, that I don’t necessarily think it is the intentions or the aims of the individuals acting in government that are at the heart of this issue; I think they don’t see it, but the system and its inherent socio-political biases and assumptions which do need problematising.
So for me, our political landscape has done anything but enable open well-informed conversation which reflects the nuanced and challenging lived experiences of the British public. It is of course easy enough to brush us as a nation of politically uninformed bigots and xenophobes (or half that and half privileged and/or optimists and economic realists). And there have without question been very harrowing instances of intolerance in the wake of this, which undoubtedly need addressing; every member of our melting pot needs support right now; and we have to find ways to talk about and dispel the fear; the safety pin campaign and other movements are heartening.
When it comes down to it though, for those voters who weren’t just confused and now regretting it, this was a vote of feeling, against an establishment which has serially undermined, oversimplified and patronised. What I am seeing now, I think, is that this vote was never really about Europe. And while yes, there is an argument that ignorance is self-inflicted, that really is but a fragment of the story.
The Postcode Patchwork
We are getting report after report of the divided state of the nation; ongoing indicators of political and economic chaos / general confusion; and an onslaught of political debate; who needs Game of Thrones? But we have a choice whether to buy into divided Britain, or whether to take this as a wake-up call, to come out of our comfort zones, and get talking, supporting and sorting this shit out.
Looking at the stats published on politico, as much as I can understand the need to analyse and deal with the generation divide, what seems as interesting is the regional. I am a Teach First participant, and along with many friends, I’ve spent the last two years getting a sharp insight into the ingrained inequality and chaos of an education system trying desperately to deal with the society wide injustices which boil down to decisions directly impacting the often underprivileged (and/or contextually varied) many being made by the standardizing, centrally-dictated policy of the privileged few.
It’s complicated, and messy, but again and again in reading and experience, I keep hitting the fact that if we want a happy, socially just society, we need a system which listens and enables rather than which undermines and dictates. And for this to happen, we need to become more active and open in our communities. For me, a top-down London centred lens on policy and planning has led us down a deeply unfair and ineffective path. We have been desperately needing the reclaiming of regional agency; we just hadn’t realised this was how the message would come through. Where our political agenda serves only the aim of growing GDP, it misses the point. It is not simply how much money we have in the pot which is the issue, it is how effectively we are employing and deploying our resources to enable people across the country to live informed, engaged and happy lives. In response to this disillusionment, I look at loved ones, colleagues, friends, and I see people shutting the door on society to look after their own. And our problems just keep exacerbating. And an unhappy, misinformed electorate need a scapegoat. Europe and the immigrants? Fine. Whatever will cause the most stink for the people at the top.
The Spirit Level
I would say the landscape in education is a good barometer for the landscape across the country. The picture? Gross inequality, competition culture, and neoliberal values simplifying people into numbers. Planning for a lesson on prejudice and equality to my year 9s last week (oh the irony in a school in the middle of an enforced ‘restructure’), I came across “The Spirit Level”, a report collating data across the major wealthier countries of the world and examining the relationship between income inequality across the population and social problems. The relationship between measures for these shows a clear correlation. Big gap between poorest and richest? Wellbeing and health and social problems eat your heart out. Following in the footsteps of the USA, the UK picture does not look good. I was reminded of a documentary by Robert Reich called “Inequality for All” which draws very similar arguments about issues with the US economy.
I encourage anyone who’s interested to visit the page and check out the slides on the website. The data is getting old now (2009) but I wouldn’t suggest things have improved a great deal since then.
Where do we go from here?
So, we have voted out of an international union which stood for equal opportunities and rights, and which streamed funding into areas where it lacked from our own government (perhaps masking issues which needed addressing long ago) and we are left with a disintegrated government who simply have not had their ear to the ground. I guess the feeling is, if the government are more interested in looking after international interests, than looking at the picture at home, then cut off the link and force our eyes inwards.
Many of the British public felt their vote wouldn’t count for anything. But the thing is, it did. Brexit will not solve our homemade problems. But maybe it has woken us up to them. So we can make change. So what now? Do we cave into fear culture? One thing I’ve learned from the classroom: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. It may be overused, but I think it’s time to buy into the “be in the world what you want to see in the world” line. Where do we go from here? Here’s my ten pence piece (to quote your blog, Tim, if you happen to read this).
If we have an election coming our way, then for me, any legitimate campaign needs to recognize the need to address the underlying social issues at the heart of this vote. For me, our leaders, and our people, need to work together now. Competition time is over. I have no interest in standing back as politicians and the media spend their time invested in one-upping each other rather than actually doing their job.
We have an opportunity to look our problems in the face, and propose genuine solutions, rather than blaming and finger pointing. I for one would like to see any negotiations for Brexit include an opportunity for those of us who wanted to remain a part of Europe to be able to apply to maintain their EU citizenship. I know I am not alone in feeling I’m not going to be giving up my citizenship without a fight.
But equally, and more importantly, we need to look at the reasons why many people in this country have no time or use for their EU citizen status, because life is about getting from one moment to the next, one pay check to the next, and we should be asking what can be done to alleviate the injustice of the fact that it is even possible for 15 British people to have 4 billion to lose between them when so many others are struggling to feed their kids and keep a roof over their heads?
So I am listening to music and thinking. Thinking it’s time to talk and know each other, to address the imbalances; the unvoiced. Any campaign now needs to take care and to listen. That is the government that I will vote for. A listening one. And to be heard? We need to rise up. Speak out. Stop. And talk to each other. We need to open our doors and look at ourselves and others in the face. We need to forget Thatcher’s “no such thing as society” rhetoric and give a shit about people outside our family as well as in it. This is the age of information sharing, let’s ride the shift to share the responsibility for our communities and our futures. I won’t believe we can’t make a difference.
And for anyone sick of all the political chat, well done for reading this far. Needing the fun injecting back into things? …I can highly recommend reruns of Pokemon Indigo on Netflix 😉 Peace.