Post Referendum: Let the Healing Begin
by Barbara Ridpath
Posted: 21 Jul 2016
A version of this article was first published in the Church Times on 1 July 2016.
The outcome of the EU referendum is no longer in doubt, but the debate and its aftermath have made evident painful rifts between segments of the United Kingdom that have benefited from EU membership and globalisation more broadly, and those who feel left behind. It is time to consider the steps necessary at government, educational, and community levels to help heal these divides and enable the country to face a future that lifts all citizens of the United Kingdom.
The political contest to come needs to play to the 'better angels of our nature,' not the politics of fear, distrust and isolationism. But it must also understand the reasons for the divisions within the United Kingdom and find a way to begin to heal them. Policies that raise up those who feel they have been left behind by globalization, and convince the youth of this country that they can create a brighter future are vital. We will need to consider our relations with our neighbours near and far and their implications for future immigration numbers and criteria. The best outcome of the referendum would give this country a chance for a conversation about who we are, who we want to be, and how to build a nation where everyone can thrive. Internationally, that conversation must ask what we want our place in the world to be?
The potentially long period of uncertainty to come is the perfect time to have that conversation. If the people of the country have spoken, then they need to be given a hearing on what they really want their country to be and how to get there. That conversation requires politicians to listen and to speak the truth about what is and is not feasible in today's domestic, European and global political and economic environment. It requires them to remember that the word Minister derives from the word meaning to serve.
Such a discussion will be difficult while the country faces economic uncertainty brought on by the referendum regarding employment and investment. Sadly, the people who will be most disadvantaged by this will be the very people who voted to leave Europe. In the medium-term, economic uncertainty will affect both domestic and international willingness to invest in the UK, hitting job creation and employment. Low skilled jobs will not become dramatically more abundant as a result of Brexit as long as the cost of labour in many parts of the world remains lower than here and we are no longer the obvious gateway to sales in continental Europe. The poor traditionally benefit most from cheap imports of food and clothing as these make up much larger components of their spending. They will suffer most as prices rise on imports due to a weaker currency, and perhaps future trade barriers. Given population demographics, long-term we actually need immigrants to contribute to a workforce paying national insurance to pay the state pensions of the nation's retirees.
The same issues that drive competitiveness within the European Union will become even more acute for trade with them and others without access to the benefits of EU membership including: EU research and investment funding, their testing regimes and the skills and innovations of their citizens and companies. This nation's requirement for first class education and training, first class IT infrastructure, and universities and research centres to generate innovation will be more essential than ever.
To achieve such ambitions implies significant domestic investment, not public finance austerity. But more importantly, it involves creating an improved sense of opportunity and possibility for the entire population. We need inclusive growth that values all the citizens of this nation for what they can contribute. At the local level we must build community, and put a hand out to help our neighbour. At the community level, we must help develop needed skills and match people to opportunities. It involves being with the long-term unemployed, the disadvantaged and the disabled to build solutions with them, not just for them.
At the parish level, many churches in England have set out to improve the use of the church buildings when not at worship by identifying community needs and thinking about how to meet them. This can as simple as a notice board posting jobs, or it can be teaching IT skills or matching local people who have both skills and time with people who want to learn. At the ambitious end it can be creating new social enterprises both to use and build local talent and skills.
We must remember that we are asked to 'love our neighbour as ourselves.' Let us consider that fundamental Christian commandment in its broadest possible sense, to encompass those within and without our borders. We cannot lose our sense of welcome, inclusiveness nor recognition that diversity is a core strength of this country.
Both faith and secular communities in the UK and other European countries have reached out to refugees to support them, house them and help them with the linguistic, material, and bureaucratic challenges that accompany arrival in a new country. We have been less good, perhaps, at the integration of economic migrants, from the EU and elsewhere. In this case, we need to build bridges through playgroups, welcome at worship and the extended hand of friendship which help us all recognize each other as neighbours.
Citizens need to engage with their elected representatives. They need a voice and a sense of their ability to affect change. Most of all, elected representatives must put the common good ahead of the demands of specific interest groups. The language of fear and selfishness has to be challenged by the language of cooperation and mutual benefit.The immediate future requires us to be our best selves. The challenge of rebuilding a genuinely united country that works to the benefit of all its citizens, demonstrates compassion and aid for the less fortunate domestically and abroad is a tremendous amount to ask. But given what is at stake, we might as well set our sights high, for there is everything to gain.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of St Paul's Institute or St Paul's Cathedral.