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Room for more: let’s not turn inward

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Spend any time walking in the Dales and the frequently vaunted claim that ‘Britain is full’ can start to look faintly absurd.  Of course, it’s not as simple as that but even a cursory analysis of a map of these islands reveals that only a tiny proportion is built over, the rest being taken up with agricultural land and semi-natural wilderness.

The other side of the coin is of course that for the vast majority of people in the UK, their everyday experience is lived out in densely populated urban areas, using what seems increasingly creaky transport infrastructure to move between cheek-by-jowl homes, bustling workplaces and crowded shopping centres.

Then there’s the economic challenges preoccupying both government and households – skyrocketing house prices, high education fees, under-investment in public services.  It all seems like we’re barely coping as a nation.  Just about managing perhaps.

Yet the UK still boasts the fifth largest nominal GDP index in the world; and per head of population we have more financial resources than just about any medium sized country on the planet.  They’re a long way from being evenly distributed but that alone ought to give pause for thought about what ought to be possible for us to achieve as a nation.  It should surely be a matter of choice.

But something is wrong, and not just with the country’s economics.  While we’ve been mesmerised by government efforts to fix the deficit and arrange an orderly exit from the EU, a change of political culture has slipped by almost unnoticed: one which lays the responsibility for economic failings not at the door of those who manage the economy but at the poorest and most vulnerable in society.  One which identifies an idealised corpus of acceptable hardworking Brits around whose aspirations everything should be designed whilst casting the unemployed, homeless, long-term sick and immigrant as feckless and deserving of little or no support.

I want to tell you about someone I recently met.  Born in a Commonwealth country, she arrived in the UK legitimately with her parents fourteen years ago when her father was invited into a mid-management position by a UK employer.  The family established their life here, her and her siblings attended university (she took both an undergraduate degree and a masters) and she began to work.

After such a long time in this country, the UK is to all intents and purposes her home.  She has no ties to her country of origin, little understanding of how to get by there and no prospects of employment.  Yet recently owing to a technical change to her father’s visa, all of his children were served notice to quit the country and their right to work was rescinded.  Naturally they each appealed but with mixed success.  In the case of my friend, she was told earlier this year by the presiding judge that although he agreed that she ought to be allowed to stay, he had no choice but to refuse her leave to remain.

A few weeks later, on a routine visit to a reporting centre, she was detained, her mobile phone removed from her and she was locked in a cold room for several hours with no access to food or drink.  She was searched, bullied and threatened with immediate deportation.  Mercifully, she had been quick-thinking enough to send a panicked text to her parents before her phone was taken, so they contacted her lawyer and were able to put a stop on proceedings.  But the incident left her terrified, convinced that she will be plucked from her home and sent to a country of which she no longer has any meaningful understanding.

This is the outworking of the ‘hostile environment’: a brutal, inhumane system designed to purge the country of anyone who doesn’t fit the precise criteria that the Home Office see fit to impose on our national hospitality.  It is cruel, mean and scandalous.

This is not the Britain I recognise, care for or am proud of.  My country is one – has always been one – that welcomes guests, celebrates diversity and enables meaningful integration between cultures.  It’s a nation that stands up for, not persecutes the weak.  It’s a country that knows how much there is to gain from engaging the skills, energies and aspirations of people from all around the world.  Finally, it could be one that takes responsibility for its past misdemeanours in the form of empire to offer mutually supportive relationships with parts of the world that need assistance with their economic development.

Could be, but as things stand, the UK seems to be disappearing in a hall of mirrors of its own making, turning inward, jealously guarding its borders and baring its teeth to neighbours and friends, like a wounded, cornered beast.

The question is, how do we break our collective conscious out of this spiral of erosion and restore a more constructive, positive mindset?  I suggest by looking to the most vulnerable members of society – the homeless, long-term sick, elderly and yes, immigrants – and designing our administrative responses to their needs as humane, compassionate and adaptable to individual circumstance.  Not easy, and not without contradiction.  But please let’s dispense with nastiness, treat people with respect and never, ever, attempt to strip them of dignity just because they haven’t yet received their official welcome from the state.

Look in, look out!

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Airton in the snow

In the spectacular landscapes of the Dales, the eye is constantly being drawn in every direction, pulled between the far distance and the nearest objects, fascinated by exquisite details and overwhelmed by the sweeping grandeur.  A covering of snow brings new clarity, revealing contours previously veiled under the dun colourings of grass and stone, so that it looks like the earth is newly born; and for a short, silent moment of amazement, all the rough edges and muddle of the world is forgotten.

The time seems ripe for such a moment.  After the noise of 2017, peppered with fearful and appalling events, as well as the compassion shown by the ordinary people who responded to them, we need to catch our breath.  Christmas always feels to me like a collective pause (at least once all the shopping, singing, decorating and cooking are over!) when the noise stops all too briefly and we each – consciously or unconsciously – look around to see what our world looks like today.

It can also become rather exclusive: a time when families gather, yes; but when those on their own become even more isolated.  This year, the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness has collated evidence from a range of organisations researching the prevalence and effects of loneliness in our society.  The results are worrying: people in all age groups and in many different situations experience loneliness, impacting on health, happiness and productivity and placing a burden on public services.  Loneliness can be physically painful – a continual knot in the stomach – like the faint echo of a bereavement for something that was never there.  For those on their own Christmas often doesn’t help.

But in the space that Christmas can at its best create, there is opportunity to reach out and include isolated people.  The family ‘unit’ beloved of back-to-basics politicians really is a modern invention, on its own a fragile thing; put it in a community, make it porous and outward facing and it becomes resilient, nurturing not only itself but the community at large, and receiving nurture from that community.  There are 52 weeks and 365 days in the year; having people from outside the immediate family round the table at Christmas can contribute to making that one meal the special celebration of community that Christmas has always been.

Can, but not ought.  It’s also right that each of us decides how to celebrate and whether we want to be together or to enjoy this time as a pause in our everyday proceeds and simply stand and take in the view.  Look closely enough and we might see something remarkable.  Listen and we might just hear the faint cries of a small baby inviting us to love for love’s sake and in that invitation, lead us simply to the surest hope available to our broken and confused world.

A joyous Christmas to all!