When Theresa May gave her Lancaster House address in January, outlining the objectives the UK would pursue during our Brexit negotiations, she suggested that we should “[take] the opportunity of this great moment of national change to step back and ask ourselves what kind of country we want to be.” The negotiations begin today, yet a lot of water has passed under the bridge since the speech was delivered. The election campaign alone has left the prime-minister with her personal authority eroded to a point where she is a “dead woman walking” to use George Osborne’s phrase. Equally the nation has been thrown into shock, not once, nor twice, nor thrice, but now four times, through domestic terrorism, and the attacks on London Bridge and Borough Market, at the Manchester Evening News arena, the awful disaster at Grenfell Tower in Kensington and yesterday in the attack on Finsbury Park mosque. These shocks have taught us perhaps more than we cared to look for about what kind of nation we are living in, yet they also point us towards some salutory lessons that we should be mindful to heed.
I have been surprised how quickly tragedy or disaster has been used to fit into a chosen narrative, and indeed how angry a response it has elicited when this is challenged. The political discourse seems to be at such a fever pitch that we are unable to stop for even a moment to give space around a human tragedy. And this disturbs me since it fits a broader pattern.
There is a basic want of empathy in the society we have chosen to create, and most disturbingly we seem to be comfortable with this.
I grew up in a Britain that I would find it hard to live in now. I remember, albeit hazily, the street parties around the Queen’s silver jubilee in 1977 or Charles and Diana’s wedding four years later. I remember being passed around and brought up in common with the other children in the neighbourhood and the multiple ‘aunties’ we all had. I remember the nonegenarian across the street who would would be invited over to share soup with us. This Britain was very different to the one I live in now, where I know my neighbours only well enough to nod hello to, when I should encounter them when leaving in the morning or arriving back at night. And the change is more than being a commuting worker than a stay-at-home. It is how we have chosen to remake our social network, based on the nuclear family unit as the ultimate focus. We still have friends and colleagues and neighbours, but we have relegated the importance they have in our lives to that of bit part player. As stated, I am too accustomed to this form of living, to be able to easily accept a deeper, broader sense of community, and the social anxieties that it might bring in tow. Yet, I am surprised how fully we have embraced the idea that we can marginalise others, or how fully we choose to do so.
We have embraced a Britain where some are very much richer than others, and there is no greater monument to it than Grenfell Tower. We should wait until the public enquiry happens, but where else is the Tale of Two Cities better illustrated? Yet when we talk of what our future trading relationship should be with Europe, we talk about it as if we will all be better or worse off if it is a ‘good deal’ or a bad one. When Phillip Hammond appears on Peston on Sunday and informs us that his party could have made more play on the 1.8 per cent growth that we have made last year, we are made to feel that this 1.8 per cent growth is something we might all cherish. Yet if we put a figure on it, and it is about 50 billion US dollars give or take, you may be sure that this largesse will make its way into some pockets and not others. The trickle down effect, thoroughly discredited, is still the only story in town. And when we are told what is good for Britain or what is not, we should know that in a Britain in these terms, some are very much more equal than others.
Yet we have accepted it completely. We British are a nation of good sense, and we are suspicious of the demagogue whichever side of the political debate he or she sides with. Thus have I seen it mourned that the centrist position in British politics has been squeezed. Yet while the right still adheres to the Washington consensus, the centrist position changes as we move towards it, the halfway distance we are continually electing to close between it and ourselves.
Within this narrative then, Jeremy Corbyn might be a good campaigner, he might have surprised everyone by appearing to lead his party to an election result that comes somewhere between a numerical defeat and a moral victory. Yet he is still a dangerous leftist, who wants to create a society where others are not marginalised, but that we collectively accept responsibility to improve the lot of others less fortunate than ourselves.
If the latest Credit Suisse report tells us that the 1 per cent now own 14 per cent of total global resources, this does not seem any more odd to us, than if we were told the figure was 5 per cent, or 50 per cent. We are used to the idea that there are haves and have nots, and we have redefined our own position in relation to others simply to move along the scale with no thought that we have responsibility for anyone else at all.
Human empathy works such that we most readily empathise with those who are most like ourselves, and if the residents of Grenfell Tower seem sufficiently different, we can write off their story as awful, truly awful, but just one of those things. We can despair at the process of thought that leads to London Bridge or the MEN, and our faculties scream that the same is true of Finsbury Park mosque, but deep within us there is a voice that whispers “…but they are ‘the other’”. And our empathy will evaporate, like the overspill from a paddling pool during a spell of hot dry weather. And we will continue to sanction a world where we no longer see evil, so long as it is not done unto us.
It is why the most resonant message across a weekend of more politics and more turmoil was the one that Jo Cox left for us, when she made her maiden speech in parliament, little knowing that all too soon it would become her epitaph. The first step on the road to building the kind of country that we wish to live in is to realise that we have much more in common than divides us. If we do nothing else, this realisation is already a good enough start.