Strength in Uncertain Times
Uncertainty is pervasive in our politics at the moment. To the extent that it is possible to distance oneself from the magnitude of change that could result from a Brexit decision in either or any direction, it is interesting to observe the responses that this uncertainty elicits.
Some are worried, some are frustrated and angry, and many are unable to make important decisions about their lives, businesses, and organisations, because the future is unknown in a way that we are unaccustomed to.
This macro-scale uncertainty has an impact that cuts across boundaries of class, culture, economic sector, and geographical region. It affects market stall holders, farmers, families looking to buy a home, people reliant on particular medications, manufacturing businesses, health care professionals, local authorities, government departments – the list could go on.
This uncertainty is felt particularly keenly by those who have bought most heavily into the promises of our contemporary economic system: namely that freedom of choice and control over one’s destiny rightly – and predictably – accrue to those with the financial means to buy them.
Yet there are many people for whom our economic system has never worked in this way: those whose low wages underpin higher profit margins for businesses; those whose fluctuating shift and income patterns reflect our appetite to consume exactly when, where, and how we want; and those excluded from the labour market by ill health or caring responsibilities, for example. For some, this means navigating uncertainty on a daily basis, for others it means contending with ongoing and disempowering certainties, like being unable to afford safe and secure housing, or sufficient heating, fuel, or food.
It would be glib to claim that we are ‘all in it together’: income and wealth disparities mean that some people will be much better protected than others from economic and social shockwaves that emerge from the political fault line between Britain and the European Union. And yet there is, perhaps, a window of opportunity to get to know and understand one another better, in the midst of our differences, as we face an extended period of uncertainty together.
Trust is a vital foundation for any society. Trust between neighbours. Trust in government and key institutions. Trust between people of different ethnic, religious and socio-economic groups. Trust in democracy.
Sometimes trust is absent because of prejudice. Sometimes it breaks down because of actual damage done. Sometimes it evaporates through lack of contact. But relationships – and especially inter-personal, face-to-face relationship – are the context in which trust can be re-established, or even built for the first time.
Our experiences of life in contemporary Britain can be very different from one another’s. And our views about how best to move forward might be totally divergent. But it is hard to ignore the humanity of someone with whom we are in a real relationship. Their stories might lead us to ask different questions about the way our society is working. We might start to form fresh ideas about what it would look like to reconstruct our social and economic systems in a way that enables everyone to flourish.
Real People, Honest Talk is an initiative of the Near Neighbours programme that is bringing people together for just these kinds of conversations. It provides opportunities for honest dialogue about challenging issues in local communities. The conversations are not always easy, but they are greatly valued by those who take part, who are able to come to new understandings of one another’s experiences, sometimes hearing the perspective of the ‘other’ for the first time. As one Real People, Honest Talk participant wrote:
“No matter how bitter one's understanding or perception or even experience around a particular area of concern may be, once we sit and talk, we realise it is not as simple as we thought it is ... It helps us understand the issue better, which then helps us to 'respond' [rather] than to 'react'.”
And so, whilst politicians continue to grapple with the complex decision-making processes associated with Brexit, all of us can be involved in laying the vital relational foundations for a better integrated, better connected, and better informed society, whatever the political future may hold.
Heather Buckingham is Director of Research and Policy at Church Urban Fund.