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Paul Vallely: After this election, healing is needed

13 December 2019

It could take decades to heal society’s open sore, says Paul Vallely


People go to vote at the polling station at St John’s C of E primary school, in Barnet, London, on Thursday

People go to vote at the polling station at St John’s C of E primary school, in Barnet, London, on Thursday

THE morning after one of the most divisive and fractious General Elections in living memory, one thing is clear. The politics of recent days, months, and years have turned an ugly bruise beneath the skin of British society into an open sore, which could take decades to heal.

For me, that sense was crystallised just before polling day in the report of an undercover journalist from Channel 4. He had spent several weeks with a hidden camera, pretending to be a campaigner for the Brexit Party in Hartlepool. There, Nigel Farage’s movement controls the local council and felt that it had its best chance of getting an MP elected.

Hartlepool is one of those northern towns that have struggled to find an identity after the destruction of the mining and other traditional heavy industries in the Thatcher era. It epitomises Left Behind Britain. For decades, it was always Labour; the joke there was that, if you stuck a red rosette on the legendary Hartlepool monkey, it would get elected. They could never vote Conservative, it was supposed, but Brexit was the ultimate protest vote.

The bilious racism against any foreigner with dark skin — and the casual prejudice against Muslims, with jokes about burying pigs’ heads in the foundations of the local mosque — was the kind of thing which might have been muttered by recidivists in the corner of saloon bars in the past. But here it was being aired by a man who, besides being a football hooligan banned from the local club, was an elected councillor — and his jokes being laughed at by a man who was a candidate standing for the British Parliament.

The unpalatable truth is that something deeply unpleasant has surfaced in British society. Perhaps it first donned a cloak of political respectability when the then Home Secretary, Theresa May, declared that “the aim is to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants.” Certainly it was fed by the jingoistic rhetoric of the Leave campaign before the 2016 referendum. Undoubtedly, it was worsened by the years of parliamentary argument over how that Leave vote should best be implemented — which large swaths of the electorate saw as the deliberate flouting of a democratic decision.

What is beyond doubt is that, over those years, as vehemence turned to vitriol, simmering levels of xenophobia were given a public legitimacy by those who ought to have known better. The bottle of civility has been smashed, and the acid within it has been splattered across us all.

Boris Johnson’s “Just get Brexit done” strategy was presented as an attempt to cauterise the wound. But it was just another of this election’s many false promises. Brexit is not done with. We face at least another year — and possibly many more than that — of tortuous negotiations with the European Union.

For some time, there has been, inside the Church, an awareness that Christians have a particular part to play in the business of reconciliation. But it has been unclear where we should start, and how we should go about it. The morning after the election, we need to apply ourselves to thinking harder about exactly where that process can begin.

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