The Monday after the referendum in the UK that voted by a margin of 1,269,501 to leave the European Union (with 72% turnout) and the only certainty is chaos. Political, economic, and social chaos. People are scared, angry, cynical, and bewildered. That’s on all sides, and in many countries, by the way. No one group ‘owns’ this. Both the vote and reactions are, I think, a rather spectacular explosion of what’s been bubbling for a long time. And economic and political chaos breeds more social chaos, and on it can go. And then there is the US elections and the potential for even more shocks.
I spent most of Friday and the weekend grappling with what this all means. To sort out the causes and from that try to work out what to do. I am by no means the only person doing that, even though it’s actually impossible because it’s too big and too complex. There is no one cause we can identify and then fix.
At base we are talking about the fundamentals of human behaviour and how we think – Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow is an essential read if you want to understand what I mean (Rolf Donelli’s The Art of Thinking Clearly is a pretty good summary of Kahneman’s observations and arguments in easily digestible format).
The desire to fix blame somewhere else, to generalise and demonise, to do something – whether it be ridicule, insult, abuse, assault, or even kill – is compelling in our rage born of uncertainty and fear. It’s easier to do these destructive things than really stop and try to think about it, to analyse it in its complexity, to set aside our inherent biases, to recognise our own role in perpetuating destructive approaches, and act in a consistent and ongoing way to genuinely make things better. There is no easy quick-fix; it’s a hard slog to be constructive. We make mistakes. No one is perfect. We are human.
Fans of the West Wing will recognise the title of this post as a catch-phrase of the fictional US President Josiah Bartlett. I’ve been re-watching the series and over the weekend had reached the episodes when loved characters are caught in a terrorist bombing in Palestine, and our surviving protagonists need to make some difficult decisions. Apologies for the spoiler, but we need to be Bartlett taking the difficult road to conciliation and stop giving in to the rage and making things worse for all the short-term relief it gives. I have seen some complain that it’s too late to challenge ‘soft racism’ – I reject that. There never was and never will be one magical point that could have stopped this. Stopping racism and other forms of bigotry is a long-term and constant effort.
The UK’s relationship with the rest of Europe has always been complex and multifaceted. That’s not unusual in international relations, by the way. Like every connection in human society, culture and history are not mono – multiple and diverse strands interweave. We like our history to be an easy to digest narrative of absolutes, but events really aren’t those things. Even when people are fully honest their interpretations differ, and misunderstandings abound, even when people speak the same language. That situation worsens when players and observers are less than honest. I say that only to point out to be wary of any commentator identifying one thing as a cause or way to fix things.
To understate this, Europe has a fractious history and that hasn’t gone away. The EU is one mechanism to keep that fractiousness from escalating into armed conflict, and it functions through a complex political, legal, and bureaucratic set of structures set up through negotiations and compromises. As with every democratic system in the Member States, including the UK, there are rules. Some are clear, some aren’t, and all depend on how they are interpreted. There are people who have spent their lives studying them and are skilled at explaining them. Three I find useful are: David Allen Green, Joshua Rozenberg, and Jo Maugham QC. Hansard and Civil Service World are both useful, too. As is Full Fact.
Politics beyond clearly articulated policy points is messy. I think it is safe to say that the main established UK parties are in crisis. There is no easy out, either. I see a lot of people calling for a general election, but firstly I’m not sure the requirements are actually met under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, and secondly I’m not sure a general election would change what needs to be changed anyway.
To serious observers, the chaos has actually been evident for a few decades, and it’s not unique to the UK. While the systems are different, some of the key points outlined in this long Atlantic article about the US political system apply to the UK. I think the EU referendum has ripped open some of these fractures. Just as in the USA there has been a long lead in, and multiple causes, and I’m not entirely convinced there was ever a time of when it all worked perfectly.
I don’t think all is lost. While imperfect I believe the British parliamentary system of government is in practical terms worth working for. I am a civil servant and when I return to work from annual leave I will be one of many doing my bit to ensure that government keeps functioning as best it can in this time of chaos.
I know people think that government is distant and they can do nothing to change it. That’s not true. Beyond voting for your Member of Parliament (MP) in elections you can seek them out and engage with them. Remember that politics and effective democratic government is about compromise for what’s best for as many as possible. Communication – which is listening as well as talking, by all parties – is this process. Venting on social media or heckling at a public meeting may make you feel temporarily better, but ask yourself have you actually achieved anything that isn’t ultimately destructive? Your MP works for you, they represent you in parliament. Party politics complicates it a bit, but if you educate yourself on how that all works then you’ll be surprised at what you can do.
Party politics is another way you can get involved. Check out the parties and what they really stand for. Look at the history of each – what is the case now has not always been the case. There are newer parties out there just starting out. Look at their rules. Work out which one suits you best. Maybe even consider standing for election with one of them. Remember – parties are collections of people.
Petitions, protests, demonstrations – they all have their place. They can be powerful symbols, but have a limit to their effectiveness. All these methods of being involved in big picture politics are limited, but the longer term ones always have more lasting effect.
The Fourth Estate
The news and opinion media play a large part in UK life, like it or not. There is so much to be said about this, but I shall resist wasting too many words here on it (I’m linking to this because again while mostly to do with the US situation there is a lot of relevance for the UK). I will say: be aware of the political allegiances of the paper you’re reading (online and other versions), the operating procedures of the television and radio you watch/listen to. Be really wary of articles/pieces that only or overwhelmingly refer to other media sources or unnamed sources. Try to check original sources. I’ve linked to Hansard above.
If you have concerns about the way stories are presented, there are mechanisms to complain: IPSO for the press, and OfCom for TV, radio and video on demand (if they don’t cover it, they’ll refer you to where you should send your complaint).
Reports of racist attacks and abuse are up, and it’s not hard to draw direct lines from certain campaign materials and rhetoric to these reported incidents. Clearly the politics of recent months surrounding the referendum is a component, but we are kidding ourselves if we think that it didn’t happen before, or has nothing to do with the various extremist narratives circling the globe. Sometimes the media seems fixated on it (it is newsworthy) and the situation can seem a hopeless and endless march of bigotry. Remember, please, that the media needs to sell copies and ad space and horror sells; and the media focuses on the odd and unusual rather than the everyday (that’s a human thing, by the way). Also, statistics on incidents are imperfect – not everything is reported, and offences change over time.
It’s the job of the police in the UK to protect the public. They have the training, and the legal backing.
Find out your local police contact details and put them in your phone. If you have a smart phone then include their notes about who is best to contact in what situation. I shouldn’t have to say this, but the emergency numbers are for emergencies only – if you see an assault in progress, then use it. For other matters use the other numbers or methods.
If you’re travelling, then contact the British Transport Police. Again useful to save their contact details and advice in your phone if you can.
While I wish it wasn’t the case, sometimes the police response can be far short of what it should be. Go here to the Independent Police Complaints Commission for advice and how to make a complaint.
If you have more general questions about how your police deal with hate crimes, or want to be a bit more involved in community policing, then contact your local police to find out. Check their websites first for the best contact point. You can also find out more about your local Police and Crime Commissioner and engage with them.
Don’t be a Bystander
Stonewall launched a campaign in 2015 to combat bullying behaviour against LGBTQIA* people. It has some excellent resources worth looking at, but be aware that it doesn’t apply to each and every situation.
It’s Not all about Them, It’s also about Us
This is the most difficult and challenging thing: reflect on your own behaviour. As I said at the top of this post, the desire to fix blame elsewhere and to attack a generalised conglomeration is strong and entirely human. But, we also have the ability to self-reflect and learn from our mistakes and the mistakes of others.
Just one example: if you find yourself railing about all the old people, or all the young people, or all the people in eastern England, or all the working class – please stop. No geographic area and no single demographic voted 100% one way or the other**. All you’re doing is setting up barriers to the conversations that need to be had.
Yes, It’s Personal
I am a migrant to the UK. I was born and raised in Australia – a migrant country – to a Dutch father and an Australian mother (whose background is mostly Cornish, Irish, Scottish and Scandinavian). I migrated to the UK on a Dutch passport I obtained through due legal process. I applied for and was granted British citizenship through the naturalisation process, and I rescinded my claim to Dutch citizenship. I currently retain my Australian nationality for family reasons.
I won’t lie – some of the rhetoric used hit me hard. I recognised the ignorance behind it, and whenever it was spoken in front of me I corrected the speaker. Did what I could to educate them. But, I’m lucky. I’m white. I have never had a broad Aussie accent. My surname can cause a bit of a pause, but I have never had any abuse hurled at me because of it.
A Final Little Note
If you have been justifiably caught up in all this political, social and economic chaos, you may have missed some other things that happened over the weekend. Things that actually give me a lot of hope, and hope is vital to keep working to make the world better for as many people as possible.
LGBTQIA Pride events occurred in various parts of the world. As if we need another reminder of how much work needs to done, the Turkish authorities abused those brave souls refusing to stay cowed. It those who march who give me hope.
The events in London and New York City were the total opposite. In the UK, multiple buildings flew the rainbow flag or lit up their facades in rainbow colours – they included the Royal Military College (Sandhurst), the Home Office, the Welsh National Assembly (Senedd), Thames House (MI5), and a multitude of others. London’s Pride march included large contingents of all the armed forces branches, the civil service (including a few Permanent Secretaries – that’s the heads of major government departments), and the police – I was proud to see a bunch of my NCA colleagues with them.
A UK government minister and member of the Conservative Party came out on Twitter and rather than cause a scandal, she was congratulated by an otherwise absent Chancellor of the Exchequer (George Osbourne) and Prime Minister (David Cameron).
Presumptive Democrat candidate for the President of the USA, Hilary Clinton, tweeted in support of LGBTQIA rights – both from her personally, and from her campaign.
US President Barak Obama announced that the Stonewall Inn and Christopher Park would become the USA’s first national monument for LGBT people, and that the ban on trans people serving in the US military would end.
That last point has massive implications on so many levels.
I am not saying, ‘hurrah, we’ve won!’, and I acknowledge and share some of the concerns from many about ‘militarisation’, but I am pointing out what we have achieved. What we can do with persistent hard work. Two years ago I marched with the police in Manchester’s LGBT Pride and I will never forget how much of an emotional lift I got when I realised the symbol we sent to the people of Manchester as our joyous shouts and whistles drowned out a group wanting to wipe out LGBTQIA people. I am old enough to remember the reasons why some older LGBTQIA people fear the police.
There is so much work to do to consolidate and keep protecting our legal rights, but it’s work we must do, and what each one of us does matters. I know people are scared that one possible outcome is a total withdrawal from the EU and its human right protections – a valid fear, but one we can start to work against by engaging in each and every facet of public and private life to challenge bigotry in all its forms.
*A note – I use this one to mean lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, intersex, and asexual. I realise that others use different orders and letters, and I apologise if I cause any offence through omission.
** Gibraltar was the closest with 95.9% voting to remain in the EU, with a turnout of 83.7%.