Brexit Fallout Reminds Us That Peacebuilding Begins at Home

08/07/2016 14:33 | Updated 08 July 2016

The diary of my grandfather Percy Lamb, as he joins the First World War, bubbles and crackles with the joy of a good-looking teenage officer. He is walking the ramparts of French castles, having tea parties, and flirting with the daughter of the French farmer with whom he is billeted. Oh, what a lovely war indeed. Then the Battle of the Somme lets rip.

He has ripped out all those pages. The torn edges speak down the century of unspeakable horror; perhaps disgust and anger, and a fear he wants to hide even from himself.

This July we remember all those who died in the bloodbath of Europe's past. 'Lest We Forget' was quietly mouthed at many a ceremony laying those sad poppy wreaths last week. But we do forget. Just a generation later my own father went off, fresh-faced from school, to fight for a better Europe. We so easily forget that Europe's history is not a pretty one, with an absolute failure of political and military leaderships that continued to send so many men to their deaths. And we in Britain often forget that the European Union was created in part to stitch together a very different future from the bloodshed and genocides of two world wars and their causes.

In our forgetting, we overlook the quite amazing achievement that is the EU: 28 sovereign states struggling to forge a future together, with delegated authority over many major issues. The USA, China or India are vast countries and economies struggling with their own challenges to run smoothly and coherently. Imagine then the problems for the EU - its challenges multiplied 28-fold by being a collection of nation states, bursting with different nationalities. No wonder that the clock ticks on and on before we can all come to common agreed policies on deeply complex issues. So we should never lose our sense of wonder at the vision at the heart of the European project: countries working together to tackle huge issues such as climate change, or mass movements of people seeking a better life - all issues way beyond the reach of any one nation.

Of course the EU has a myriad of faults. It is too focused on global liberalisation and can be blinded to the consequences for those at the margins; it stands accused of money wasting, snoozing bureaucracies and of gaping democratic deficits. London Underground's call of 'Mind the Gap' could apply to the deep sense of disempowerment felt by people across Europe, from Greece to the North East of England and their resentment that someone else is in control. For them the EU can symbolise a much deeper loss of control over our economies and trade, and our own policies - changes which in fact have been driven forward not just by the EU itself but also by the worldwide love affair with globalisation and ever freer trade.

Britain is a far better place today than in the patrician past of my grandfather's Edwardian era. But along the way, we have also lost so much. We have lost in past decades our mining and our industry, and in what was Britain's industrial heartland people feel left behind. There are now vast gaps between them and the wealth of the few, of the companies and the banks, and such inequality absolutely matters. And while new forms of community and protest are developing, sometimes at a healthy pace as seen in on-line petitions and single-issue campaigns, more traditional symbols of community - churches, trade unions, the local pub and working men's clubs - are often disappearing from our social landscape at the very time that they are most needed to cope with globalisation.

Instead people feel ignored and pushed further to the edges. So they have few ways to kick back, or to disagree or to trial new ways of running our economies and our societies. As a result, some people in deprived parts of Britain finally got to kick back in the only way left open to them - by voting to leave the EU. And, for some, by turning against 'the other', in this case immigrants.

But concerns about loss of social cohesion started long before the Brexit debate. In 2011, a series of riots that broke out across England were linked to social exclusion. And in a report published two years ago, International Alert noted that growing inequalities between rich and poor, the rise of divisive narratives and a crisis of faith in political institutions were putting a strain on social relations in the UK and other EU countries.

For years, people have been working quietly in response to help bridge divides across the country, to encourage dialogue and create alternative spaces for those with a sense of alienation and lack of economic opportunity; spaces where they can ask questions about issues that matter to them.

Abdul Rahim at the Centre for Good Relations, an associate of International Alert, has long worked in the North East and other parts of England promoting dialogue between communities. But gradually, all funding for such reconciliation work has been cut - first by central Government and then by cash-strapped local authorities. He explained: "The economic and social issues have a knock-down effect on communities. The policy-makers have not had their eye on the ball."

He continued: "Many in the towns and cities where the Centre for Good Relations have been involved voted heavily to leave the EU, because they are strongly against immigration, and the perceived negative impact of a growing Muslim population (e.g. the building of mosques). Authorities have become nervous-to-talk-to hardliners on all sides. They are nervous to engage with those with extreme views, be it from the Far Right - or radicalised Muslims. But we must do that."

Certainly, we need to respond to people's very genuine concerns about not getting their kids into the local school and about queues for housing, just as we need to respond to the needs of refugees coming newly into a community - we need to work at the level of the street and the housing estate, the school and the sports centre, to bring people together; and we need to talk with those who have not suffered as a result of immigration but do fear it. We know that when people have time to meet and talk they discover how much they have in common.

Now more than ever, the peacebuilding community needs to be knocking on the doors of local and central Government to re-energise work at a local level. And we all need to nurture a more inclusive economics and politics. In Alert's work across more than 25 countries we see such a startlingly clear pattern: conflict is caused when the politics and the economics shut out some of the people.

So too here in Britain, we can only build support for a more international vision if, at the same time, we include those who feel pushed out the door of our economy and our society.

Gradually, it has become more acceptable in Britain to speak out against others, to be openly racist. We have to challenge every such instance - when an MP is shot down in our streets for her views, or when people are abused or attacked for being Polish or Jewish. Otherwise, every time an act of aggression or racism goes unchallenged, those with such views feel strengthened.

Our experience around the world clearly tells us that peacebuilding often begins locally, with community actions and dialogue. We must recognise the issues that create divides across the UK, and we need more conversations in communities about such issues, on all sides, to counter the scapegoating, inflated statistics and hate speech playing out in politics and the media.

The more we work at a local level, the more we have the strong base on which we can confidently raise our voices loudly for an international vision, articulating an inspiring alternative to the rampant globalisation that so many reject. People right across Britain have always been proud of our role in the world, of being an open society. London positively dances forward with its heady mix of people from right across the world. And London voted strongly to Remain.

By working across communities, we can identify and shape ways that can generate positive narratives and actions, and build a more cohesive Britain - one that engages confidently with the world because we are also reaching out to those who feel left behind. A Britain that our grandfathers would be proud of.