Monday, 20 June 2016

If you value your country, it's time to reclaim it

We've heard a lot in the last few weeks about "taking our country back".

It's not the kind of thing that would generally resonate with me. After all, I care far more for people than I do lines on maps. Patriotism doesn't really shape my politics, or my personal identity.

But what I do have in common with most people is an identification with my community and the society in which I live. As a liberal, and a Liberal Democrat, I naturally want that society to be open, tolerant and inclusive.

All this talk about "taking our country back" has got me thinking. Firstly, about where such people intend to take it (apparently, a romanticised view of the 1950s that only exists in selective memories). And, perhaps more importantly, what to they want to "take it back" from?

You only have to read the comments pages of the Daily Mail to see how hateful and intolerant some people have become. It's also impossible to escape the effect that the kind of inflammatory language used by some on the Leave campaign is having on social cohesion and community relations. Others have covered this is some detail following the tragic and utterly senseless political assassination of Jo Cox last week, and there is some merit to what they say. You cannot simply stoke up intolerance with inflammatory language and then absolve yourself of responsibility - at least for the wider problem of increasing racist and xenophobic feeling.

When people express the desire to "take their country back", they generally mean from those who have a liberal and internationalist worldview, who promote tolerance and acceptance and who favour collaboration over isolation. They may wrap this up "pro-democracy" language (ironically overlooking the undeniable reality that the EU is far more democratic than the UK) but their purpose is pretty clear. More often that not, such expressions of a need to "take back" the country involves assumptions about the erosion of undefined and non-specific "British values", and inevitably focus on fears that immigration is out of control and destroying our way of life (again, something that's generally undefined).

They may not all see immigration as being at "breaking point"; they may not all condemn those who think differently as "scaremongers" while simultaneously threatening that foreigners will rape British women unless we withdraw from the EU; they may not all identify Islam with ISIS. But the sentiment informed by misconception is undeniably real and, if allowed to flourish, represents a very real danger to our communities.

Those of us who belong to the LGBT+ community will need no reminding of the rights we've had to win in the last two decades - and the role the EU has played in facilitating better rights for LGBT+ people across the continent. We also recognise that while laws often change quickly, social attitudes take somewhat longer to follow. Can we trust a UK government, led perhaps by Boris Johnson or Michael Gove to build on what's been achieved? More seriously, should we be concerned when anti-human rights rhetoric is on the rise, promoted by a man whose party has a history of saying (to put it mildly) rather silly things about LGBT+ people?

And, even more importantly, what about the kind of work Jo Cox was so keen to champion - with refugees and asylum seekers? Last Thursday morning, I was speaking with a Salvation Army officer about the kind of xenophobic language I'd heard from intelligent people, and asked where it all would lead. Inevitably the conversation led to the Salvation Army's own work with immigrant families and refugees and she was as concerned as I was about the growing intolerance and the "inexplicable" rise of a thinly-veiled racism. She experiences it every day, especially from older people. "But how do you change people's minds?" Ah...

In spite of what they claim, people wanting "their country back" generally are uncomfortable with British values as they have evolved. They see little value in remaining part of European community that has overseen the longest period of sustained peace in European History (you see, Jacob Rees-Mogg, nothing like the Holy Roman Empire). They want it "back" from progressives who do not fear multiculturalism, or do not find simplistic solutions in scapegoating minorities.

There are some who say we cannot know with certainty what the result of a Leave vote will be. But, on the basis of probability, we can point to likely outcomes. Scotland will almost certainly stage a second referendum on independence, with the smart money being on Scotland going its own way within two years. Ireland is more complicated, but an increase in tensions caused by border controls and other political questions is hardly going to improve matters.  Surrendering our influence in Europe at a crucial time, when Putin's Russia is steadily increasing its threat to global security, would be unwise - and for what? Abandoning others hardly seems in the "British" way of doing things.

And what will the next two years hold? We don't know, but I'll guarantee one thing: whatever the government negotiators manage to obtain from their discussions with the EU and others, UKIP and other right-wing Brexiters will be condemning the deal and accusing the government of selling the country out and betraying the British people. It's all very predictable, as what most Brexiters appear to want isn't something that's actually possible to deliver. The political climate in what remains of the UK in two years' time is likely to be even more toxic than at present. And in the meantime the economy will inevitably unwind.

We have to ask ourselves this: what kind of UK do we want to see after Thursday's vote? Economics aside (and I'm genuinely concerned about our economic future), do we want to live in a country divided against itself, in which the politics of hate find increasing expression? This vote has very real human consequences that must be properly considered.

Let's make no mistake about it. The Scottish Independence referendum saw a fair amount of fear and intolerance being peddled. But, on the whole, people felt engaged and empowered by the campaigning. Most positively, it saw hundreds of thousands of people meaningfully becoming involved in politics for the first time. And while the conversation on Scottish independence did, at times, become quite aggressive and adversarial at least it wasn't characterised by the same toxic hate that is so obvious a feature of some of the campaigning from Leavers.

Neither Vote Leave not Remain have covered themselves in glory. But the description of Remain as "Project Fear" is more than a bit disingenuous coming from the likes of Nigel Farage. Sure, the predictions of economic Armageddon from the likes of Osborne and Cameron are embarrassing. But they are nothing compared to the barefaced lies (£350million, Turkey, bananas) and the inherent nastiness of the "enough is enough" rhetoric.

Yes, I want my country back. I want to take it back from those who are responsible for creating a toxic political dialogue on immigration. I want to take it back from those who deliberately play the racist card for political gain and take us back to the 1960s in the process ("The Turks are coming! They're evil, I tell you. And they'll be living next door to you if you vote Remain!" is no more responsible a slogan than was "If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour"). I want to take my country back by those who either incite violence, or suggest it as a solution (A party leader saying "if people feel voting doesn't change anything then violence is the next step" is, again, little more responsible than a former government minister predicting "the River Tiber flowing with much blood"). As you may have gathered, I want to take my country back from those who seem determined to relive the political discourses of the 1960s.   I want to take my country back from those who believe British values are exclusive and narrow-minded. I want to take my country back from the inverted snobs who are utterly intolerant of expertise and learning.  And I want to take my country back for those who exchange the politics of openness for the politics of hate.

Because that is what it is. As Dan Hodges wrote in the Daily Mail (yes, the Mail!) Brexit has opened Pandora's box. He said: "The time has come to talk about Project Hate. Three weeks ago we all woke to the following quote from a pro-Brexit MP: 'I don't want to stab the Prime Minister in the back – I want to stab him in the front so I can see the expression on his face.' One week later Nigel Farage said that British women risked being raped if we didn't vote for Brexit. At the same time posters began to circulate from the Vote Leave campaign – replete with shadowy footsteps – warning of 55 million migrants entering the UK from Turkey.

"This followed a warning from Gove that if Turkey were granted access, 'extremists everywhere will believe that the West is opening its borders to appease an Islamist government'. They know what they are doing. Farage. Gove. Johnson. They have always known. That they were opening a Pandora's Box. But it glistened before them so brightly. Project Hate has brought us to the brink. Britain – the country we live – stands on the edge. This time next week it could all be gone. Our economic security. Our national security. Our international security. Imagine if it works. The overt racism. The overt demonisation of refugees. The graphic threats to stab the Prime Minister in the chest. Imagine if that is what constitutes a successful British political campaign in 2016...

"The voices of moderation have fallen silent. Actually, it's worse than that. They have not fallen silent, but actively joined the chorus of anger and hate."

What Hodges doesn't mention within his referencing of Pandora's Box is the one thing to remain in the box after all the evils were unleashed: hope. There will be hope so long as those voices of moderation, of reason, of tolerance, are brave enough to speak out. The toxic political discourse that has framed the EU debate does not have to be permanent. We have an opportunity on Thursday to stand up to the hate that has so driven much of what passes for political conversation in recent months.

Enough is enough! It's time to reclaim our country.


Ian Clark said...

Good article.

Now here's the first 'but'. Putin is certainly somebody we should be concerned about, but any threat to global security is mainly coming from the actions of the USA - and its allies in Western Europe - who are provoking Russia by fomenting Ukrainian nationalist and fascist sentiments on the Russian border.

Here's the second. Britain might be your country but it’s not mine. My country is Scotland. And the state which controls the country I live in is the United Kingdom. Are you treating Britain and the UK as being synonymous (which may be reasonable given the result of the 2014 referendum)? If this is the case then exclude me from those included in reclaiming OUR country. I detest the your country and want it diminished. However the first two paragraphs of your article suggest a more nuanced understanding.

Patriotism means even less to me than it does to you. Like you, I think it's better to talk about communities and societies and locate (at least partly) our sense of identity therein. Like you I am concerned about the destruction of the British society I live in, but - since too many people in England (South East mainly?) for too long have freely chosen the selfish, life denying side of human nature - I am not willing to sacrifice Scottish independence to save it. In passing, I claim no special virtue for Scots; perhaps some of us have only lacked opportunity to be as selfish etc., but it’s a long time since the Tories ever held a majority of UK parliamentary seats in Scotland.

Even after Scottish independence I will still be concerned about the ordinary people, especially the vulnerable, poor and powerless, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Talk of reclaiming our country means nothing to me. On the other hand trying to reclaim one of the societies in which I live - i.e. the British one - for most of the reasons you gave - even if just until independence - is something I can endorse.

To finish the sh*t sandwich, I want to say that, even though I have disagreed with some of what you have written over the last couple of years, I’ve really enjoyed reading the articulate, insightful, thought provoking and balanced articles you have produced. Thanks.

Andrew said...

I was expecting a comment like this!

After all, I don't often speak about "my country", so it would inevitably be interpreted in a particular way.

I don't identify as British. I'm a European firstly, and I happen to be culturally Scottish. All my criticisms of the Union expressed in the last few years haven't changed. I still regard the UK as being essentially dysfunctional.

But this is a UK referendum, and like yourself it's the communities and societies across the UK I'm concerned about. I recognise the distinction between Britain and the UK, and I also realise that for many people reading this "their" country may be Scotland, Wales, England or even Northern Ireland. Which is why I haven't specified what "our" country is (although I do ask the question what kind of UK we want to live in; I think that's something we should all ask ourselves whether we see ourselves as British, Scottish, English or Welsh as we're going to have to live in it - and, even if Scotland gains its independence, will continue to have a relationship with it).

However, the UK is "my" country in the sense I live in it, and ultimately I'm attempting to appeal to people for whom "taking back their country" might actually mean something. For me, I hope we can stand up against the destructive language of UKIP and others who seem to feel they have a monopoly on patriotism and "British" values. They don't...although for me good values are good values, irrespective of how we culturally dress them up.

As for Scottish the event of Scottish voters firmly supporting Remain while the rest of the UK votes Leave then I think it is absolutely right to have a second referendum. I also know how I would vote in such a referendum, as the EU means more to me than does the UK. However, I would prefer not to have this against the backdrop of the inevitably poisonous and political conversations that rUK would be having in the event of a Leave vote. I'm not too concerned about Scotland, but I'm genuinely worried about the potential for re-opening the Irish question.

I hope we can reclaim our societies and communities - which is really the basis of my appeal here! - although that means far more than voting Remain on Thursday. It will take some time to remedy much of the damage that has already been done in some areas, and to turn back the tide of anti-politics feeling and xenophobic sentiment.

Thanks for the thoughtful and obviously genuine compliment at the end - much appreciated!