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The great British public has spoken

Posted: 24/06/16, Author:

The great British public has spoken – and it looks like we are leaving the EU. For the issues and interests that NDTi works on – rights, equality and community, that is not good news.

The great British public has spoken

Whilst there are clearly many faults and problems with how the EU works as an institution, the EU has generally been a positive supporter of a more socially-just Europe. For example, numerous disabled activists, campaigners and academics highlighted the benefits that have arisen from EU membership.

However, whilst the decision to leave is concerning, I am even more worried by the possible consequences of how that decision was achieved. The Leave campaign focused all its attention in the closing period on immigration. From stoking fears about Britain being “swamped’ by millions of people from Turkey, through to using a direct copy of a 1930s Nazi poster about Jewish refugees, the leaders of the Leave campaign sought to win by creating division between people. 

The narrative was simple: ‘You are concerned about your economic well being and also the funding pressures on public services. The cause of this is people coming into the country who are not British. To keep them out, we have to be able to take decisions that only consider British people’s interests, and so we must leave the EU’.

Putting to one side for now the counter arguments to that approach and the question of what ‘British people’s interests’ might actually mean, the underpinning mindset behind this is one of running society by creating division. For the EU debate, this was primarily based on birthplace, nationality and race. However, behind this is the concept that some people are not entitled to the same life opportunities, place in the world and behaviour from us, as the people who we define as being the same as us. They are different. They are ‘other’.

This is the attitude and philosophy that has been faced for generations by disabled and older people. Because people look different, experience mental health problems, are losing their memory, cannot understand things quickly or cannot walk, they are seen as being ‘other’ – not the same as me. Therefore, sometimes consciously and sometimes subconsciously, people, services and society treat disabled and older people differently and their rights and life opportunities are constrained. Whether that is in relation to getting a job or finding a place to live, or more explicitly their experience in a Southern NHS Trust A&T Unit or a mid-Staffs hospital bed – we can see the consequences of this attitude of ‘otherness’.

So what worries me is that a campaign based on dividing human beings between ‘us and them’ has been successful. Some politicians and other leaders will therefore believe that it legitimises other actions, policy decisions and behaviours that replicate this mindset. What will happen next? A return to institutionalisation? An acceptance that some forms of discrimination are legally acceptable? We already know that the Human Rights Act is under threat.

There is a further concern I have about the referendum result. The different voting patterns between younger and older people have been well publicised. Around two-thirds of people under 25 voted to remain whilst around the same proportion of people over 65 voted to leave. A social media narrative has already started that is critical of the older generation and is implying they have less right to have a say in this matter because they have less of a future stake in it. This argument just creates another internal division.

One of my mantras is that reality is socially constructed – people understand the world as they have experienced it. My parents (were they still alive) would be of that older generation. They were virulently anti-EU. I recall my first ever vote was in the original EU referendum and involved my mother and I walking to the polling station together to cancel each others’ vote out – she voted out and I voted in. They had few positive experiences of “foreigners” as they called them. Memories of the war resulted in negative views of Germans and Japanese and considering the French and Italians to be lacking in ‘spine’. They had never travelled abroad to experience overseas culture and people. They lived in an almost totally white area and had no experience of different cultures. I never agreed with them on these things, but I understood how they had come to hold those views. Some older people took the war experience to understand the importance of interdependence. Many more did not.

The world has changed dramatically in the last thirty or so years and it would be wrong to be too critical of those for whom those changes are challenging. There is already a narrative building up that is setting generations against one another – ‘the older generations have their pensions and have benefitted from house price rises whilst younger people have neither’.  We should not use these different voting patterns to further create division.

The consequences of leaving the EU are going to be bad enough for those of us working towards social and economic equality. If that is compounded by a shift in societal culture that legitimises divisions and separation between people, be that through the actions of political leaders or by people themselves turning on one another, then we really are in trouble and the challenge facing NDTi and many similar organisations becomes even greater.