Brexit musings around hope, fear, loss & what we value, in Germany, France, London and Grimsby

Note: If English subtitles don’t activate automatically, go to YouTube page for film, and click the wheel at bottom right.

This post appears on the day of the People’s Vote march in London, where upwards for 600K were pushing for another act of democratic determination over whether the UK should leave the European Union. So it seems helpful to profile some new studies that try to listen carefully to populism, both here and in Europe. What are the deep concerns and stories that drives both sides? How can they be compassionately and mutually heard?

“Political abandonment” in Germany and France

Let go to Europe first - and a study from the German think tank Das Progressive Zentrum, titled Return to the Politically Abandoned: study in right-wing populist households in Germany and France. (The film at the top of the post accompanies the report). Based on 500 doorstep conversation and surveys, in areas which they identify as suffering from “political abandonment” elements of the summary may be familiar to UK readers (though perhaps seeing the EU as a solution is a clear difference):

There is a considerable discrepancy between the issues that people view as the ‘biggest problems’ facing their country (which are immigration and the economy) and the challenges that they face in their everyday lives (precarious working conditions, worries about money and declining social infrastructure).

Media and politics at the national level are criticised for not having properly adopted this ‘citizens’ agenda’. This problem also results in a sense of unfairness and disadvantage. As such, when people in these regions devalue others, especially migrants, they do so as a reaction to their own experiences of devaluation... Importantly, the interviews demonstrated no intrinsic patterns of xenophobia.

The central narratives employed by the populists are far less prevalent in their strongholds than is generally assumed. When people are asked to describe political contexts in their own words, issues such as Islamisation, Euroscepticism, sweeping criticism of the media and the emphasis on national identity hardly ever crop up. 

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Instead, more often than not the European Union, for example, tends to be viewed as part of the solution, not the problem.

Nationalist clamouring or demands that include a ‘Germany first!’ approach, are ultimately based on the view that politics sets the wrong priorities and focuses on issues that do not reflect the realities of people’s everyday lives. However, the interviewees did not necessarily view measures aimed at tackling the refugee crisis, or foreign policy commitments, as fundamentally wrong.

Nevertheless, the interviewees often believed that a focus on immigration and foreign policy tended to result in less investment and fewer policy measures at the local level that would help tackle the tangible challenges that these people face in their everyday lives. This includes increased economic pressure faced by people on low incomes and the gaps in public services.

Finally, many interviewees believe that politics has withdrawn from certain social and geographical areas. Importantly, this feeling has led to a strong sense of abandonment.

Full report here.

Fear, Hope and Loss in Brexit Britain

Anthony Painter is a powerhouse at the Royal Society of Arts, most recently driving their program on Universal Basic Income. In this blog, though, he recalls the most recent incarnation of a report he wrote in 2011, originally titled Fear and Hope, which presciently charted the rise of a new “politics of identity”.

The current version of this report has added another word to the title: Fear, Hope and Loss (full report PDF is here). It’s the consequence of 6 years of polling, contacting 43 thousand houses, by the organisation Hope Not Hate. Added to this is some deeper research in two contrasting towns - Grimsby and areas around Bristol.

Here’s an excerpt from their summary, which overlaps a lot with the Das Progressive Zentrum findings:

Perhaps unsurprisingly we find that those communities with the greatest anxiety to immigration and multiculturalism are also the ones which has lost most through industrial decline. Those who have been able to have moved out, leaving older populations least equipped to compete in the modern global world. 

When you have communities where 61% of over 16’s do not have a single educational qualification, it is hardly a surprise that new industries seem reluctant to move there. And that’s even before the poor transport and tech infrastructure, which adversely affects these old industrial towns, are taken into account.

Perhaps the biggest single finding we should take away from this report is that political parties will not reduce anxiety or even hostility to immigration and multiculturalism by cracking down on immigration alone. Given that the areas with the most hostile attitudes are those with some of the lowest levels of immigration in this country, reducing numbers of immigrants alone will have little impact of the attitudes of these people.

Immigration has become a totemic emblem for the many grievances people feel in modern Britain. It is the most visible indicator of a changing Britain. The liberalism, vibrancy and multiculturalism of our cities is contrasted with the sense of loss and abandonment in our former industrial towns.

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Immigration is seen as a consequence of globalisation, jobs moving abroad and foreigners coming in and taking our jobs here. And, which is often ignored, the strong view in many of these communities that they have been abandoned and left to rot by the political establishment in preference to addressing the needs and wishes of new arrivals in the cities.

Lurid media stories about newcomers getting benefits that they have not earned, politicians worried about hate crime as though the needs to others come before them and to criticise is to be attacked by the politically correct thought police, only increase anger and their sense of grievance.

The Hope Not Hate report goes on to note how broken these communities relationship is with political parties - and particularly the Labour Party, who seen to have betrayed most of their historic promises.

No doubt the parties have their work cut out. But this also confirms A/UK’s interest in the potential for localities to realise their own powers and assets first - to rekindle a hands-on citizenship that builds itself from concrete acts of social making, and silo-busting. A “politics of belonging” (as George Monbiot might put it) must be prior to any “jam tomorrow” offers made by national political parties. 

Painter also points out in his blog the shift in some social types identified by his original report. The proportion of those who were fiercely defensive of their “English” or “British” “native” identity has stayed constant at 23% - but the opposing identity, those claiming to be strongly cosmopolitan, has gone up from 23 to 37%. If so, it’s more an indication of how polarised the country has become, than a shift in values, says Painter.

Our own take would be that is also indicates how vital it is that local areas - often themselves encompassing different socio-economic and cultural conditions - try to “map” their assets. The challenge is to dream of new ways of acting together (as, for example, “South Devonites” or “Plymouthians”). How might the architecture/art school interface mutually and equally with the housing estate and voluntary sectors? What’s a new and original “citizens network” that might arise from this?

[We also note that our friends at Compass have brought out a significant new e-book The Causes and Cures of Brexit. It’s too dense and rich for us to cover this week, but we will return to it subsequently, when we’ve explored and digested.]