Guest blog for Counterpoints Arts
The senseless killing of Jo Cox MP is painful to bear today. I am finding it increasingly hard to comprehend our society, which seems to be in the grip of anxiety, mistrust and fear. The brazen UKIP poster unveiled yesterday implying that migrants are swarming into Britain is a malicious attempt to whip up these tensions. It is starting to feel like our humanity is unravelling.
For many years I have researched public attitudes to immigration. I have held focus groups all over the UK seeking to understand more about what drives public opinion about migration. I have listened to people say that we should put chips in migrants; after all we do it to our dogs, that European migrants should be made to leave because they take over the patch of the British drug dealers, that our country is so full that we are being driven into the sea. There is a seam of deep mistrust woven into our society and it does not take much to bring it to the fore.
How can our society pull back from this wave of resentment? Because, quite frankly, the elephant stomping about in the middle of the room is that we live in a society that has already been irreversibly changed by immigration. We need to be in the here and now, rather than dwelling on life in the past. We will never be able to turn back the clock. If Britain does leave the EU, we will continue to live in a country that is irreversibly culturally diverse. And, as Polly Toynbee writes earlier in the week, when this doesn’t change, where will all that anger, frustration and anxiety go next?
As my children are getting older they are increasingly curious about the world around them. They ask questions that are getting harder to answer, particularly when the radio comes on in the morning and the stories are about racial hatred and brutal acts of murder. But maybe thinking about the way we explain our society to our children is a good place to start.
So, why did Nigel Farage endorse that UKIP poster implying that other human beings who have been driven from their homes as a result of war are unwelcome and unwanted? Well, my response to my children would be to turn to stories that help to provide some form of explanation. So, in the words of Dr. Seuss, perhaps Nigel Farage is behaving like the Grinch:
“It could be that his head wasn’t screwed on just right
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight
But I think that the most likely reason of all
May have been that his heart was two sizes too small.”
And what do you do when someone’s heart is two sizes too small? Dr. Seuss tells us. You show them what it means to love. You openly unite and come together to bombard them with the strength of your compassion.
Our world-class British literature is rich with the narrative of love overcoming hatred, whether it is JRR Tolkein in The Hobbit:
“I found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay, small acts of kindness and love.”
Or in the truisms that JK Rowling weaves into her Harry Potter novels:
“Do not pity the dead, Harry. Pity the living, and, above all, those who live without love.”
It is these sentiments and our love for one another as human beings that is what makes our Britain great, not a small-minded superiority that blames migrants for our problems.
Our politicians should be leading the way in marking out our shared ground with one another – both the ground we share beneath our feet and the space we share in our minds. This was what Jo Cox did when she became an MP, proudly stating: “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
Whatever the outcome of the referendum on the EU, we need brave politicians like Jo Cox who are prepared to promote our shared ground with one another. We need a unifying, coherent narrative that celebrates our humanity, our kindness and our compassion. We need to introduce policies that foster integration and cohesion in our communities. This requires strong leadership, but it is our best chance of countering the bigotry and racial intolerance that is bubbling beneath the surface of our country.