What happens to a country that loses hope? Nothing good in the short term. What about in the long term?
Imagine hope like liquid gold in your veins. Emily Dickinson called it ‘the thing with feathers.’ It’s light and flowing, the feeling that makes you smile for no reason as you walk along the street. What happened to all our hope? We used to have so much of it for our future but over time that liquid gold has dried up like an old river bed. We have replaced it with anger. What happened to us?
The first time I voted we ended up with Margaret Thatcher, years and years of her. My memory of election nights was usually that it ended with too much beer and lots of tears.
‘How could the electorate get it so wrong when so many people would suffer?’ Sound familiar? Hell yes!
On May 1st 1997 I was flying to New York for the first time, but first I needed to vote. I had hope. We had hope. So much hope we could taste it. As I walked to the polling station at 7am under a bright blue sky, people were smiling at each other. White van man beeped and gave me a thumb’s up because I was wearing red. We knew change was coming and it did.
Before Iraq, there was Blair all new and shiny and all those months of policies that rained down hope, where there had been little before. Tax credits and Sure Start. A Minimum Wage. Funding for the NHS and Education. More staff. It went on and on. They were heady days.
Then came 9/11 and our liquid gold calcified with fear. People were trying to kill us and just for being us. We couldn’t go through airports without taking off our shoes and bagging up our liquids. We responded with force. Threat was everywhere. Afghanistan then Iraq. We watched war on our tv sets like it was a computer game. Actual bombs falling in real time. Afterwards we felt dirty and soiled by it so we looked to blame. We held inquisitions in the media amidst accusations of dodgy dossiers. We left Blair and we lost hope and so it has continued.
You can tell we have lost it because we can’t elect a government. We have gone from one hung Parliament or tiny majority to another. We have no faith in any of them. They all lie. Nobody cares. It’s all the same. You hear this over and over.
In times of trouble people hate uncertainty. When fear has become internalised, and solidified our hope into dreary drudge, we turn to easy answers. We all want someone to blame. There are always politicians for such a time. Up pops millionaire banker masquerading as man of the people, Nigel Farage. He provides a hopeless people with a target: the European Union. It’s like an old Monty Python sketch. What have the European Union ever done for us?
Well, apart from the growth spurt in our economy since 1975 and peace, the ability to live and work and retire in 28 countries you mean? It gave us hope. During the hard years of recession under Margaret Thatcher, it was our young men that left their families and went off to work in other people’s countries. Builders and welders and carpenters packed up their tool bags and off they went. Nobody called them migrants or enemies of the people. They went to European countries. They made good money. They brought it home to their families. They had hope for a future.
Nigel Farage wants us to hate the European Union and he has been successful. We have created something so complicated that most ordinary people don’t understand how it works, and so it’s easy to grow suspicious about bureaucrats growing fat on our tax money.
And then came the Brexit vote. Cameron may have hoped it would solve the internal divisions of the Tory Party once and for all, but he bargained wrongly, and when the Leader of the Labour Party took his annual holiday rather than campaign strenuously to Remain, we all knew that hope for our future was fading quickly. Fear was winning the battle over hope on the doorsteps. Fear of chaos. Fear of refugees marching across Europe, of things we could neither understand nor control, and people wanted control. They wanted to lock the doors, build bigger walls around them, batten down the hatches and secure all borders. Britain was using all its creative energy to build the world’s largest Keep Out sign.
In the days that followed the referendum result, a man from Sunderland was interviewed.
‘How could this happen in Sunderland?’
‘Did people not realise that Nissan would go and that would have grave implications?’
His answer was typical of the many hopeless. There was nothing now for them and most of them don’t work at Nissan, so who cares? It couldn’t be any worse than it is now.
People say this but it’s never true.
These opinions were mirrored this week in research carried out in South Wales by Professor Roger Scully. Life is hard. They feel hopeless. What has the EU ever done for them really? And so it goes on.
This is the problem. We have lost real hope of a future for people that they can recognise, and access for their families. Years of austerity as a political choice after the financial crash, have driven families to ‘just about managing’ which is fine for a few months, but when it stretches to years, it wears people down. The constant struggle. The no end in sight of it all. They want to lash out and change things but instead of real lasting hope they are offered junk food solutions:
The Nigel Farage Burger: Cut off our most important trading partner and hope in vain that life gets better.
The Mogg Fries: A kind of Handmaid’s Tale with less favourable trading terms.
The Corbyn Fillet o’ Fish: All the free tuition fees you can eat without lifting the benefit cap and waving Brexit austerity through.
The hard Left and the hard Right have this in common, nobody votes that way out of optimism. It’s always a vote to hurt somebody else. We need something more.
People crave hope. It’s only when we have become hopeless that we realise how angry we are about that. The Brexit vote has taken from the hopeful, and given (temporarily) to the hopeless.
People who had hope of a life as European citizens have had that ripped away from them. Those who have worked all their lives to retire somewhere nice and sunny, will have to make do where they are. Students who wanted to live and study in Paris or Berlin will have to change their plans. The angry and the dispossessed have kicked the hope out from under everyone who loved being part of Europe.
Now the Brexiters say they do have hope finally. They have their country back, but they don’t seem like people full of the ‘thing with feathers.’ They are still angry. They can’t bear dissent. Only this week a Tory MP was demanding that universities tell him who and what they are teaching about Brexit. We are all traitors if we say that now, we too are hopeless, because Brexit cannot make us better off. It is just not possible.
What happens to a country that loses its hope? Nothing good in the short term, but in the long term we can’t live that way. We need hope like we need water. We will have to find something to believe in. The spasm of hate, anger and blame that has accompanied Brexit won’t be enough. We will need to reach out to the world again. We will need to believe in something bigger than ourselves and our little island. It is inevitable. It may not happen quickly but I am deeply hopeful that we will.🔷
(This piece was originally published on 27 October 2017.)