Alternative Editorial: Can We Change Channel Please?

BBC Headline: Alastair Campbell told to 'shut up' during Newsnight Brexit debate

BBC Headline: Alastair Campbell told to 'shut up' during Newsnight Brexit debate

by Indra Adnan, Co-initiator A/UK

Brexit is quite a spectacle. On the TV, in our newspapers, on Twitter and Facebook, we can observe the public debate on the perilous ‘state of the UK’ which is currently hovering between different forms of relationship to Europe. In this media arena, those who can be heard – still a relatively small group - compete in their claims to be speaking on behalf of ‘the people’. 

Parliamentarians insist that ‘the people spoke’ in an election that gave them a choice of two badly defined options which split them almost down the middle. Within that, another division. One side of the House speaks for ‘the people’ who have been disadvantaged by the globalised growth economy. While the other side for ‘the people’ who are ‘fed up’ with ‘political correctness’. 

And, as we know, within both of those sides are more splits and claims. 

Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not mocking the debate. I’m fascinated by the state of play, and how it reveals the immense complexity of our various positions. Brexit in particular is compelling for how it challenges the Left v Right divide – both Labour and the Conservative parties are in danger of splitting on this issue. But even the Remainers can’t agree.

Here are two - high profile - Remainers arguing about who knows best what the people want. Jenni Russell, columnist for The Times – a newspaper associated with economic privilege - tries to make important points about who ‘the people’ are. In her conversations with Leavers, she identifies the deeper issues of ‘sovereignty, independence and community’ as legitimate needs to be met.  

She is constantly interrupted by Alastair Campbell, formerly political correspondent of The Daily Mirror – a newspaper associated with the economically deprived – who describes her representations of people as ‘cartoons’. There may also be some gender dynamics present there (another divide). Newsnight host Emily Maitlis is left to comment that they should really be agreeing - which should make mainstream media critics grimace. The business model of our mainstream media is built on high emotion, not calm.

However, what is really being said and felt in the hearts and minds of Britain’s population is anyone’s guess. There are no genuine mechanisms for finding that out (given the poor reputation that polling organisations have gathered for themselves in the last few years). Our current instruments of democracy are woefully inadequate - one might say the whole of A/UK’s rationale stems from that. 

But is that any one government’s, oligarchical group’s, or even dominant gender’s fault? Don’t all these fault lines between the powerful and powerless add up to a growing awareness of social complexity that cannot be easily addressed? It certainly won’t be in a public space that continues to prize antagonism over consensus, fear over hope. Nor will it come from the top down, by politicians or any custodians of the old power that have simply betrayed our trust. And if you doubt that, witness a planet about to expire from lack of attention and care.

Better to talk about a growing awareness of complexity. That might be key to understanding that what’s changed is not simply that our personal, social and global development continues to accelerate through technology. But also that our awareness – our ability to understand the facts, ourselves and each other – is also developing. Our access to information, our ability to connect and mobilise, the learning we get from sharing and witnessing others’ lives means that we are living our days in very different mental and emotional landscapes than our parents did.

Yes, much of this is experienced in bubbles of ‘people like us’. However, at the same time, we are all constantly challenged to break those bubbles by actions and events we couldn’t predict. The phenomena of Brexit, Trump, the yellow vests in France, the Extinction Rebellion – they all appear as saboteurs of other peoples’ cosy space, that demand new understanding.

The upside is that this could add up to an exponential increase in agency for people who have historically seen themselves as powerless. Yet until now, that has only materialised in small pockets of people who can use the tech to self-organise: entrepreneurs, social groups and movements, friendship groups and festivals. The future, as William Gibson says, is here but not yet evenly distributed.

Despite the plethora of tools and evidence of new practices, there are many reasons why people are finding it difficult to use what’s available to solve the big problems. One is the lack of relationship – and therefore trust - between people living side by side in their communities. This is as much to do with our work culture that leaves us so little time to create community, as it might be to do with long-standing divides. It’s well known that Brexit, for example, split not only neighbourhoods but even families. 

The culture we have built prizes the amplification of our differences rather than overcoming them. This is exacerbated by the lack of free time or attention we have to considering issues or deliberating with others – particularly as societies get more complex. Not to mention the shrinking number of spaces we have to congregate in. It adds up to a lack of trust in each other and an increased vulnerability to the grand narratives of those who seek to instrumentalise us for their own interests

Until now, frustration is the dominant emotion that seems to be accompanying the revolution that we are in. Now that I know so much more than before, why is no-one listening to me? Now that I can see better what needs to happen, why can’t I make it happen? Now that I know what I want, why can’t I have it? Having been brought up in a relationship where all the power lies at the top, it’s hard to stop demanding answers from the bosses.

Yet our daily realities are defined as much by what happens in our communities as anywhere else. Whether the streets are clean or the homeless are housed are issues that can be solved at municipal levels. More than that, finding clean sources of power or the right choices of food can also, increasingly, be within our local grasp. 

Perhaps more difficult - but most important for our wellbeing - is whether or not we can move through our streets at ease, comfortable with the people we meet, feeling safe in our environment. If we feel threatened by any random young man in a hoodie, or any random young woman in a hijab, how can we begin to thrive? The quality of meaningful relationship between people living in the same community will shape the future of that community and its ability to flourish.

This is not something that Parliamentarians or pundits can fix from their chairs in the spotlight. But it is something that those active in communities – whether civil society organisers or parents, café owners or football club managers (both professional and amateur) – can work together to address.

If communities took it upon themselves to create opportunities for the diverse people within their locality to meet each other and build trust, some of the obstacles to flourishing would instead become the engines of change. Hull’s commitment to Restorative Practice for example, is a great example of that. Here is how they describe it: 

Restorative Practice enables the building, maintaining and repairing of relationships.  The philosophy embodies a set of values and principles and a way of working with people that provides a common language and approach and enables the practice to be taught. 

And here is what it looks like in practice

Healing is a large part of what needs to occur in those communities. If we abandon that task, then social injury could sabotage any good idea we might have at national level to solve the mess we are in. However, that stress-induced vulnerability does not define such communities. As Hull demonstrated through a parallel project, Hull City of Culture, that same community can source and incubate immense creativity – giving rise to all kinds of industry, for business and pleasure. There might even be a profound connection between the historic deprivation of a place and its creative potential.

So is this a call-out for full-scale anarchy in the UK (to coin a phrase): people rising to take charge of their own affairs and put the old-style leaders out of business? Maybe sometime - in a future when politicians have been replaced by Citizens Assemblies and we have made the full transition into a post-carbon, caring economy - it will be described that way by historians. 

But for now, it might be safer to think about it as citizens stepping up to ‘take back control’ of their own futures, at a community level. And if politicians want to play a role, why not make more funding available for them to do that? Not in exchange for votes for their own party in the coming election, but in whatever way they can that can enable all the people in a community to come together, irrespective of their party allegiance. For the sake of their well-being, you might even think of that as a democratic right.

That’s a political spectacle you could bear to watch.