The UK is fractured by Brexit. The arguments, both for, and against, are largely tribal and intractable. And of one thing i am sure: whichever side ‘wins’, it will also lose. Unity is not something that can be imposed. And without unity, we simply remain divided.
A nation acts as a beacon: it can be a beacon of fairness, inclusion, and hope, or it can be a shadow for war, dissent, and oppression. Perhaps it is time that we reframed the debate to be about what type of beacon we wish to be. What do we stand for?
Much of our divisions sit upon a foundation of inequality: wealth, opportunity, and the rewards of the post industrial revolution, are not evenly distributed, and nor does power sit equally across the system. We are a country where opportunity is increasingly tied to wealth, and generational power, and you can be disenfranchised by birth, by geography, by status.
I am becoming increasingly convinced that the solution to these issues lies in our underlying models of representation and democracy itself: as pioneers of the art, we should also lead in evolving it. The Social Age is a time of radical connectivity, currently held in starkly opposing visions, but we may choose to engage in debate instead.
Disenfranchisement is best countered not by dogma or vision, but rather by engagement and opportunity. And unity is achieved not by colonisation, but often by listening.
We will not find a common space to agree, but we may be better able to understand our differences and, it’s quite possible, find the space to live with them. Even thrive by embracing them.
Perhaps part of our challenge is that so much of our experience of the UK is held in the currency of money, and yet the fabric of our culture is built out of so much more than that. Perhaps the fabric of our future will be woven from fairness, inclusion, and equal opportunity.
If we crash out of Europe, we will lose. But possibly if we remain within it, but divided, we also lose. When nether option A, nor option B, can bring us together, perhaps we should dispute the validity of the frame itself.
What kind of beacon do we want to be?
Brexit is not the end of a journey, it is the beginning of a new one. How will we evolve our politics, what kind of politicians do we need, to exist beyond partisan?
What kind of society do we want: to address the challenges of poverty, of division, of mistrust, of fear.
There is space in a nation for difference, but we have to find the edges of our dissent, and that will only come through engagement.
We are trapped in a battle that nobody can win, and it feels like time to reframe the narrative. By now it must be clear that no hero will emerge, because there simply is no unifying vision. There is no hill to climb, no flag to claim, that can give unity.
Instead, it is the process of debate itself, in the better understanding of our division, that can drive us. And part of the solution must be to address the underlying architecture of inequality.
A lack of fairness drives division, and it is only through finding fairness that we can unity: but we do not need to give much away.
Everyone can retain their views, their identity, and their pride and purpose. But on top of those things we must create spaces, and conditions, to welcome difference, and respect dissent.
A beacon throws light in every direction: it is not one focussed beam. We can be different, and yet still united. We can be a United Kingdom even in dissent. If we can reframe our cultural fragmentation as simply the start of a new journey.
Whichever side of the Brexit debate you sit on, perhaps now is the time to negate the division, and focus beyond. In victory, or in loss, how will you reach out, with humility, to find out what type of beacon we will be?
If we remain in opposition, we will be rich and comfortable, but disunited. If we can connect across our differences, we may find hope.
Nice piece Julian. First, it needs resolution and synthesis. Then we can reframe. I’ve been a robust defender of Brexit, as that’s the way I voted and was genuinely angered at the accusations around racism, xenophobia, being stupid, ill-educated and deluded. I fear there’s something deeper at work here, informed by the brilliant The Road to Somewhere and books like Poverty Safari – that we have genuine fractures that are difficult to heal, north-south, rich-poor, graduates-non-graduates. I’ve sat astride these divisions all my life and have friends on both sides. What do you suggest?
Hey Donald, i thought i might be fielding a reflection from you on this: thanks for sharing your thoughts. I too found ‘Poverty Safari’ one of the more powerful books i read last year, and i will check out ‘The Road to Somewhere’.
I am not sure i have suggestions, beyond that notion of a ‘beacon’. Much of the argument seems ill framed, and collapses down to arguments about ‘us’ and ‘them’. Perhaps we need a parallel debate about what we wish to become: at the risk of hyperbole, in a world that some would say is collapsing to partisan divide, and greater inequality, how will we stand.
I have found the reaction to Jacinda Ardern, and her response to the Christchurch shootings, to be fascinating: the media, in some parts, are picking her out as being exceptional, demonstrating leadership, which perhaps shows how far we have allowed our view of ‘normal’ to be distorted. She seems to me to be reacting as a decent person would.
Possibly it’s this very conversation that is needed at scale: we are so focussed on the finish line, that we have not allowed ourselves time to consider what we will become. Or, worse, what we have become, which is divided, and resentful. I can see no outcome of the current process that will affect that. Every option is a loss.
I may be naiave, but to me, power, be it economic, or military, is not the ends: it’s the means to an end, it’s a platform. What we do from that is what is important. I think our underlying social structure is more disrupted that we care to admit: these protestations are not dissent within a stable system, they may represent new flows of power, and fragmentation of old ‘norms’. If we will not find a new place of stability, perhaps what we need is the cultural coherence to navigate the storm, with humility. Which will start by connecting across differences, and should really be outward facing. What will we become.
Julian, I agree with much of what you say, inequality, inequality of wealth, disenfranchisement, disinformation, a lack of hope an inability to better one’s position in society have all contributed to where we are today in the UK. However, I do not understand part of your conclusion “If we remain in opposition, we will be rich and comfortable, but disunited.” My view is that if we remain in opposition a few will be rich and comfortable and the majority will still be suffering all the issues that brought us to where we are now. Can you explain how you arrived at this element of your conclusion because I do not understand it? Thanks in anticipation.
Hi Steve, thanks for stopping by and sharing your reflections: yes, you are right, i misphrased it in that part. What i meant to say is precisely what you say: those of us who are already rich and comfortable may remain so. Ironic perhaps that something deemed ‘monumental’ in scope of change may deliver almost no change, whichever outcome we see.
As you know, my work is shared as part of #WorkingOutLoud, so in these primary articles, i am often finding my way with the thinking and writing: i appreciate you taking time to provide the feedback. With best wishes, Julian
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