Saturday, 25 June 2016

No, no, no, no, no... yes...

"A decisive result". "The people have spoken". "A victory for ordinary people over the establishment". "Democracy in action". "We must unite". "We must listen to what the people are saying"...

Well, in the words of Jim from 'The Vicar of Dibley', "No. No. No. No. No... Yes..."

No, 52% to 48% (even of 72% turnout) is not a decisive result. It is a narrow majority, with a very significant minority voting in the opposite direction. And so no, 'the people' have not spoken. If the vote says anything about 'the people', it is that 'the people' are deeply divided.

And no, this is no 'ordinary people vs establishment' victory. Many 'ordinary people' may be feeling happy, at least temporarily, that their vote has been one of the 17 million that 'won' in this particular referendum. And while it's true that a whole load of the rich, powerful 'establishment' were advocates for 'Remain' (including the Prime Minister and Chancellor, the IMF, a whole load of big business, alongside the rather different bed-fellows of economists and political scientists, church leaders and educators)... well, welcome to the 'post-establishment' world of Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage, Michael Gove, Iain Duncan-Smith and the like... Truly a revolution of the 'ordinary people'.

Which makes the 'democracy in action' point all the more interesting. Really? Democracy, the 'rule of the people'. The decision of a narrow majority to 'Leave' imposed on the almost-half-the-UK who voted to 'Remain' - is that 'democracy'? A decision shaped profoundly through appeals to gut feelings, through lies and misinformation, by the powerful forces of a couple of multi-millionaire newspaper moguls and their mates? A decision that has come at the end of a so-called 'debate' with very little light (facts, for example; policies and plans for the next stage, perhaps) and far too much heat (not to mention hate, division and suspicion), on both sides? And a 'debate', if we can call it that, that was largely conducted in a 'stage-managed' way in TV studios, and much less often, in any meaningful sense, in the pubs and clubs and village halls and churches and mosques and schools and the like, that was so impressive in the lead-up to the last Scottish independence referendum. If these last few weeks have shown us 'Great British democracy', then I would suggest it's profoundly broken (and I can't claim any moral high ground here - we might have organised a hustings in Hodge Hill before GE2015, but we didn't do anything before this momentous vote).

And then there are the calls to 'unite'. Calls not just from the victors, but from the outgoing Prime Minister and from the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, among others. It's seductive language. Unity's a good thing, right? The decision's been made, we must pull together, rather than pull further apart. But it's cheap, far too cheap. It's rooted in a lack of critical examination of the false assumptions above. 'Democracy has done its thing, the people have spoken - so the minority should stop moaning that we didn't get the outcome we wanted, and unite behind the decision that has been made'.


'Stop moaning' can very easily become a repression of political dissent and protest, as well as a repression of the simple, human necessity of grief and lament after a shocking sense of loss. 'Unite' can be a very convenient call from those who continue to hold the reins of power to get behind them and their agenda - an agenda that goes far beyond 'Remain' or 'Leave', and that has a whole lot to do with a tiny minority preserving their own privilege, and grabbing further power, resources and control for themselves - not to mention further marginalising, disempowering, excluding and scapegoating of minorities who are already vulnerable and fearful: it is one thing to say that all who voted 'Leave' are racist (they're clearly not), but another to highlight the frightening increase in racist attacks (verbal, physical and, yes, murders) that people in the UK are experiencing as directly connected to the language of the 'Leave' campaign (the tiny steps from "we want our country back" to "pack your bags and go back to where you came from" that are already being witnessed).

What's also pretty clear is that we've not just woken up to a 'divided country'. Our country has been divided long before the EU referendum campaign kicked off - and not just on this issue. Just think how little traction language of 'the common good' seems to have in public debate. Geographically, we're divided: not just between the nations of the UK, but between North and South, between rural and urban, between London and everywhere else. Economically, we're divided: not just between 'the elite' and 'ordinary people' (the 1% and the 99%), but between house-owners and house-renters, between 'middle-class professionals' and 'working-class', between the 'just-about-OK' and the 'deeply-precarious', between employed and unemployed - both in terms of our ability to access and participate in something we call 'society', but also in the way media and politicians have framed our language and labels. Culturally, we're divided, between libertarians and authoritarians (as one perceptive bit of post-referendum analysis by the Fabian Society highlighted), between feminist, environmentally-concerned multiculturalists and those who still believe such trends are signs of unnecessary 'political correctness' (as one of Lord Ashcroft's pre-referendum polls showed with frightening clarity).

So what's the 'Yes', however qualified? We must listen. Listen to what people are saying. Listen to the people who celebrated on Friday, and listen to the people who were disconsolate. Not speculate on what the result means, on why people voted like they did - that's not 'listening'. One of the great fallacies of democracy is that people 'speak' through the ballot box. People don't 'speak'. They put a cross in a box - in one of only two boxes, on this occasion. That's not 'speaking'. So let's go and listen to what people are actually saying. And let's not just listen to the surface conversations. Let's dig deeper. Let's listen for the fears, anxieties and insecurities underneath. Let's listen to the best hopes, ideals, longings underneath. Let's listen for difference as well as for agreement. Let's listen, particularly, to those who are articulating experiences very different to our own. Let's listen in places where we are uncomfortable, where we are the strangers, the out-of-place. Let's listen, especially, to those whose voices are less-heard, muffled, indistinct, silenced, incoherent, faltering. Let's listen, to help them be heard, help them speak things for the first time, things they've never dared say before, help them find some coherence amid fragmentation and fragility. And by listening to people, let's help them (and us) listen to each other.

The political theorist Albert Hirschmann talks about 'exit', 'voice' and 'loyalty' as the three strategies for dealing with conflict. We can 'pull together' (loyalty), we can speak up (voice), or we can get out (exit). There's been plenty of focus on all three of these in the last few weeks, and no doubt much more to come in the weeks and months that follow. But they're not the full story. Because 'speaking up' without learning to listen to others just increases the volume, the cacophony. And 'loyalty or exit' doesn't account for the possibility of travelling - physically moving, and opening ourselves to be changed by encounters with people in different locations, geographical, economic, cultural, political, to our own - a 'to and fro' where we learn both to be more hospitable on 'our turf' but also take the risk of being strangers and guests in other people's territory.

Some of us this might be picked up in the Archbishops' post-referendum language of 'reconciliation' - but the danger is that we seek reconciliation too cheaply. 'Being with' our neighbours who differ from us is no easy process, no easy achievement. There's a whole load of divesting ourselves of power, of many of our defences; a whole load of patience beyond our usual busyness; a whole load of courageous 'leaning towards' others whose surface views we might dislike, even sometimes find viscerally disgusting; a whole load of resistance and blocking of those power-strategies (deployed both by the obviously powerful, and the relatively powerless) that seek to close down conversation, hide behind parroted cliches, shout louder, deflect responsibility, or retreat into a 'benumbment' that will not listen to anything anyone says because it's all become overwhelming. There will also need to be an acceptance that harmony, unity, are illusory and unhelpful goals. The best we can seek - and it is truly the best - is creative tensions, constantly reanimated tensions between social goods that resist any easy reconciliation.

So I want to say No today. No. No. No. No. But also, tentatively, the beginnings of a Yes...


  1. Thank you, very close to how I'm thinking. It is totally wrong to be told I must now change my views to accord with a majority (a slim one at that). I profoundly disagree with using referendums to make decisions. It is possible to use them properly but none of the 3 we've had since 2010 have done that. This one asked the wrong question - "Leave" is not an alternative policy to "Remain" - we really don't know what the Leave voters have voted for. Now I'm being asked to agree with them. Yes, we all need to listen and we need to find leaders who listen too.

  2. “We both believe that the church is called … to stand alongside the poor…. [this involves] listening with real attention to those whose voice, humanly speaking, counts for little and is often bitter and disquieting. It means having a proper respect for the God-given knowledge and intelligence of many people who have been excluded from the normal life of the city and its institutions. It can mean at times trying to make those unheeded voices and attitudes more coherent and more widely noticed; or intervening as partners to try to help provide resources which will enable people to help themselves” (Sheppard and Worlock, Better Together, 1988: page 75)

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