THE outcome of the European Union referendum is no longer in doubt, but the debate and its aftermath have made evident painful rifts between segments of the UK which have benefited from EU membership and globalisation more broadly, and those who feel left behind. It is time to consider the steps necessary at governmental, educational, and community levels to help heal these divides, and enable the country to face a future that lifts all the people of the UK.
The political contest that is to come needs to play to the better angels of our nature, not the politics of fear, distrust, and isolationism. And yet it must also understand the reasons for the divisions within the UK, and find a way to begin to heal them.
Policies that raise up those who feel that they have been left behind by globalisation, and convince the youth of this country that they can create a brighter future, are vital. We will need to consider our relations with our neighbours near and far, and their implications for future immigration numbers and criteria.
The best outcome of the referendum would give this country a chance for a conversation about who we are, who we want to be, and how to build a nation where everyone can thrive. Internationally, that conversation must ask what we want our place in the world to be.
THE potentially long period of uncertainty to come is the perfect time to have that conversation. If the people of the country have spoken, then they need to be given a hearing on what they really want their country to be, and how to get there.
This conversation requires politicians to listen and to speak the truth about what is and is not feasible in today’s domestic, European, and global political and economic environment. It requires them to remember that the word “minister” derives from the word meaning “to serve”.
Such a discussion will be difficult while the country faces economic uncertainty, brought on by the referendum, regarding employment and investment. Sadly, the people who will be most disadvantaged by this will be many who voted to leave Europe.
In the medium term, economic uncertainty will affect both domestic and international willingness to invest in the UK, hitting job-creation and employment. Low-skilled jobs will not become dramatically more abundant as a result of Brexit, as long as the cost of labour in many parts of the world remains lower than here, and we are no longer the obvious gateway to sales in Continental Europe.
The poor traditionally benefit most from cheap imports of food and clothing, as these make up much larger components of their spending. They will suffer most as prices rise on imports because of a weaker currency, and perhaps future trade barriers.
Looking at long-term population demographics, we need younger immigrants to contribute to a workforce and to pay National Insurance to cover the state pensions of the nation’s retirees.
THE same issues that drive competitiveness within the European Union will become even more acute for trade with it and others, without access to the benefits of membership, such as EU research and investment funding, its testing regimes, and the skills and innovations of its citizens and companies.
This nation’s requirement for first-class education and training, IT infrastructure, and universities and research centres to generate innovation will be more vital than ever.
Such ambitions imply a need for significant domestic investment, not public-finance austerity. More importantly, however, they involve creating an improved sense of opportunity for the whole population. We need inclusive growth that values all the subjects of this nation.
At the local level, we must build community, and put a hand out to help our neighbour. We need to help develop the necessary skills, and match people to opportunities. This involves being with the long-term unemployed, the disadvantaged, and the disabled, to build solutions with them, not just for them.
At the parish level, many churches have set out to improve the use of the church buildings by identifying community needs, and thinking about how to meet them. This can be as simple as a noticeboard posting jobs, or it can be teaching IT competence, or matching those in the area who have skills and time with people who want to learn. At the ambitious end, it can be creating new social enterprises to build on local talent.
LET us consider the fundamental Christian commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves in its broadest application as encompassing those within and without our borders. We cannot lose our sense of welcome and inclusiveness, or the recognition that diversity is a core strength of this country.
Both religious and secular communities in the UK and other European countries have reached out to refugees to support them, house them, and help them with the linguistic, material, and bureaucratic challenges that accompany arrival in a new country.
We have not been so good at the integration of economic migrants, from the EU and elsewhere. We need to build bridges through play groups, welcome at worship, and the extended hand of friendship, to help us all to recognise each other as neighbours.
Voters need to engage with their elected representatives. They need a voice and a sense of their ability to effect change. Most of all, elected representatives must put the common good before the demands of particular interest groups. The language of fear and selfishness has to be challenged by the language of co-operation and mutual benefit.
The immediate future requires us to be our best selves. The challenge of rebuilding a genuinely united country that works to the benefit of all its people, and demonstrates compassion and aid for the less fortunate, domestically and abroad, is a tremendous amount to ask. Given what is at stake, however, we might as well set our sights high; for there is everything to gain.
Barbara Ridpath is the Director of the St Paul’s Institute, in the City of London.