It hardly needs stating that we live in turbulent times. As yet more deadlines come and go and the UK increasingly becomes the focus of incredulity, hilarity or pity across the world, it is opportune that Wychwood Circle has two speakers in the next couple of months to help us think through a moral (and inevitably political) stance on the Brexit divisions.
The Times journalist Janice Turner (in an article expressing exasperation with the People’s Vote marchers) wrote that
Brexit has flung 65 per cent of the population, according to research by BritainThinks, to two opposing poles. … So the minority in the centre, what I call “Brexit non-binary”, … have endured three years of roiling, upset guts.
It has been hard hearing our communities caricatured as duped and bigoted. (“I’m glad my constituents aren’t as stupid as yours,” said a Remain area Labour MP to another with a Leave seat.)
I don’t suppose that ‘non-binary’ minority are alone in having had their digestion or even their psychological stability upset by the madness of this recent period. Commentators (including our next guest speaker) have written about underlying anxieties, families divided, mental health damaged (64% reported this in the same survey), vital decisions postponed, non-British EU nationals struggling to confirm their ‘settled status’, etc. And all this on the basis that 37% of the electorate voted one way in a Yes/No referendum three years ago!
‘The European Tribe’
Back in the 1980s Caribbean-born writer Caryl Phillips described being brought up in mid-20th century Britain and, in a book entitled The European Tribe (Faber, 1987), set out to explore the ‘European’, and thence his own, identity. Of 1970s Britain he says:
It lacked the buoyant optimism of the 1950s, the liberal freedoms of the 1960s, and seems to have been characterised by tasteless and ephemeral fashions, third-rate music, and a long and tedious preparation for the industrial decline and depression of the [early] 1980s.
I wonder what someone writing in the 2020s will make of the subsequent three decades that we have lived through. Ironically, the same author, his own view coloured by what he calls ‘the cultural confusions of being black and British’, wrote in the final chapter:
It is no longer possible for a European to dismiss Fascism as the grandiose dream of a lunatic fringe: there is good evidence that right-wing extremism is on the rise again all over Europe.
… which sounds eerily familiar in 2019.
The new tribes shaping British politics
Today we might turn to David Goodhart’s book The Road to Somewhere (Penguin 2017). What he described as ‘the coming backlash against the political status quo’ was widely predicted and did not come out of the blue, he says, writing just as the Trump and Brexit phenomena happened on either side of the Atlantic. In continental Europe, the rise of populist parties and in Britain the Scottish National Party and Corbyn’s Labour success were signs that the ‘double liberalism’, social and economic, that had dominated politics for several decades was under threat. In Britain, of course, our two-party electoral system has never given other parties a chance and so the groundswell of dissatisfaction that came to a head with euphemistically named ‘austerity’ as practised by the then government was perhaps bound to lead, in a typically binary and therefore unrealistic referendum, to the political division and the cultural chaos we face now.
Goodhart’s book is subtitled The New Tribes Shaping British Politics and is about the divergence of interests and values between the liberal ‘Anywheres’ (highly educated and mobile) and the more socially conservative ‘Somewheres’ (more rooted and less educated), particularly in developed democracies like Britain and the US. He says in his concluding chapter:
The philosopher Isaiah Berlin said that people want many of the same things: security, recognition, love, meaningful work, sufficient wealth and freedom to live the good life in the many ways that can be conceived. And to achieve those things for the greatest number of people requires politics to be informed by aspects of both Anywhere freedom and Somewhere rootedness. They are always in tension but have recently got out of balance in Britain.
Which tribe are you?
Broadcaster, columnist and former Canon of Christ Church, Oxford Angela Tilby was one of the people to speak out about the division of the country into ‘two tribes’ a year or so ago. It seemed slightly exaggerated at that time to ask our second speaker, South African academic and priest Peter Silva, to speak under the title ‘Truth and Reconciliation’. One year on, it seems anything but extreme to imagine we might have to hold some sort of similar process to try and bring the country together again. The Archbishop of Canterbury has suggested that church people invite those of opposite views to tea on a Sunday afternoon; it may take more than that.
ANGELA TILBY will join us on May 12th in Milton Village Hall to speak about ‘People like us’: are we now two tribes?
PETER SILVA will speak at the same venue on June 9th on the topic Truth and Reconciliation, including a survey of the South African experience and its relevance to the UK and US today.