“I’m so glad we’re having this referendum” tweeted a friend, a week before the vote. “It’s really brought out the best in Britain, don’t you think?”
While commentators have focused on the uncertainty of our relationships with our European neighbours, it is surely the deep divisions in our own nation that require immediate attention if we hope to remain a United Kingdom.
In Herefordshire, where I live, anger has given way to grim satisfaction. The vote was empowering, a chance to hit back at a remote, metropolitan elite unaffected by the consequences of their decisions. In London, where I work, there is incomprehension tinged with contempt. Who were these people? What were they thinking? Such divisions are repeated across the country, nowhere more strikingly than between England and Scotland.
Overlying this is the generational divide, with those under 25 who overwhelmingly backed Remain feeling abandoned and betrayed by their elders.
Our movement has long-standing history of working to build trust across the world’s divides. We seek to inspire leadership based on integrity and to offer people the tools they need to create change for the better in their own communities. Surely now our task is to concentrate our efforts into creating an environment for dialogue and reconciliation, before the divisions in our country widen beyond anyone’s ability to bridge them.
So what are the practical steps that each of us can take and offer to others? Here are five suggestions, rooted in the principles and practice of Initiatives of Change.
- Everyone loses in the blame game. We might gain some fleeting satisfaction from blaming those whom we believe to be responsible for this debacle, but ultimately there is nothing to be gained from it. If our situation stems from years of not listening to each other – and there is plenty of evidence that this is so – then we are all to some extent accountable. It’s time to stop perpetuating our victimhood. Only once we take individual responsibility can we move on.
- Mutual respect - the cornerstone of successful societies. Misunderstandings can quickly lead to conflict and resentment, whether in politics, in the office or within families. The only way to move towards a more harmonious society is for each of us to cultivate humility, tolerance and the willingness to listen without judging.
- Active listening without preconceptions. Let’s create spaces where people can consider each other’s perspectives and begin to understand what has led to today’s situation. You don’t need to agree with a person’s point of view to be able to empathise with their situation and learn from them. The key is listening to what they say and how they say it, to their words and their unspoken feelings. Now is the time to park our preconceptions and approach conversations with a more open and compassionate mindset.
- Act constructively to create trust. The referendum campaign has seen acts of generosity as well as small-mindedness, of courage and dignity as well as cynicism and betrayal. The two images that will stick in my mind are Nigel Farage in the European Parliament, bombastic and insulting in victory, and Brendan Cox speaking after the murder of his wife Jo, brave and dignified, urging the nation to live by her values of kindness, compassion and love. Day by day, through our choices and actions (and equally through inaction) we can either build trust or reinforce division.
- Build on the values that unite us. As Jo Cox said, “we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” There are values that supporters of both sides share and that define our country at its best: fair play, kindness, good humour, courage, resilience and perseverance. It is for each of us to ensure that we live by the values that we want to see reflected in our country.
Both campaigns played on our fears. For Remain, it was fear of the unknown and of being cut off from markets on which our prosperity depends. For Leave, it was fear of a loss of control and national identity. Let’s acknowledge those fears in ourselves. Let’s take time to listen to the fears of others and accept that they are genuine. Then let’s move on.
The current chaos offers an opportunity for self-reflection and a chance to turn turmoil into harmony. Individually and as a movement, could we demonstrate new ways of living and working together based on mutual care and forgiveness? Rather than just hoping for the best, why don’t we each take that first step to make it happen?
Francis Evans is Chair of the Executive Committee for Initiatives of Change in the UK.
NOTE: Individuals of many cultures, nationalities, religions, and beliefs are actively involved with Initiatives of Change. These commentaries represent the views of the writer and not necessarily those of Initiatives of Change as a whole.