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Neglected Communities, a Divided Country: What Next for Post-EU Britain?

28 Sep 2016

Guest blogger Andrew Bevan is minister at Littlemore Baptist Church, near Oxford, and a member of the steering committee for the Faith and Flourishing Neighbourhoods Network (FFNN).

In a seminar series the Faith and Flourishing Neighbourhoods Network has reflected on history and ideas about communities. This has been illuminated by listening to stories from neighbourhoods across England and exploring the role of faith in creating community. The forthcoming seminar in October seeks to draw together the threads of this process and offer some pointers towards developing neighbourhoods which reflect and sustain the diverse beliefs, values and aspirations of the people who live and work there.

Three months on from the EU referendum it has become clear that a significant factor in the result was the extent to which the social, economic, religious and cultural differences that exist within and between areas have affected people’s experiences of community. This blog argues that anxiety about threats to identity and even survival, in different groups of people, has arisen as a result of rapid geographical and social change. These changes, in aggregate determined the result of the referendum, and must be addressed locally, by communities in their own neighbourhoods.

According to research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the vote followed a fault line between people ‘left behind’ by economic change and those who earn more or have been to university. Irrespective of qualifications, voters living in areas with low skills ‘were more likely to have backed Brexit’. However, the fault line also runs through localities where neighbours identify with different communities.

The intensity and passion invested in the EU referendum, and events since, appear disproportionate to the presenting issue of the UK’s future political, trading and constitutional relationship with neighbouring countries. This plebiscite has crystallised anxiety about perceived threats to identity and survival, both conscious and unconscious, in groups of people and communities locally, regionally and nationally, and within neighbourhoods. Statements made to the BBC’s Panorama on why people had voted to leave include, for example, ‘community was a sense of all being part of the same thing, part of the same heritage’ and ‘[there is] a massive sea of anger’. One respondent offered their expectations: ‘I hope it does for the best, for my kids when they get older and they get jobs …. at the moment there’s no future for my kids …. we want to see changes, more help for poorer people, not rich’.

Analytical thinking about groups of people and the individuals that they consist of, first emerged in Europe out of the dislocation and suffering of war. In some ways, this was in parallel with the political processes which contributed to what is now the EU. The pioneers, who had themselves experienced trauma and dislocation, sought to harness the transforming potential of groups to offer healing to people affected by war and illness.

The disproportionate anger, hatred, and mutual incomprehension between the two camps is known academically as splitting, common in groups, this is when another, different group is demonised. This phenomenon indicates pressure on the whole group to address destructive forces that are denied or insufficiently acknowledged.

Such a process can go two ways: i) it can lead to disintegration and, ultimately, breakdown or, ii) it potentially leads to progress, if the destructiveness is recognised and owned. The possibility of growth and reconciliation, paradoxically though it may appear, might offer hope in diverse communities if the dislocation can be articulated at a local, neighbourhood level. The energy released may become a transforming resource if the people there so choose, and, in fact, only those people can affect the necessary change.

With regard to individuals, Wilfred Bion, one of the founders of the Tavistock Clinic, wrote: ‘We are constantly affected by what we feel to be the attitude of a group to ourselves, and are consciously or unconsciously swayed by our idea of it.’ The group mentality expresses a group’s will, to which individuals contribute anonymously (by secret ballot in a referendum?). Sometimes the influence of underlying emotional tensions within a group is so powerful that the group seeks a god-like leader to take responsibility (and several politicians stepped up to the mark in this way). Bion observed that a group in this state is not capable of achieving anything very useful!

While useful, research on group dynamics cannot simply be used to ‘explain’ the referendum result and the responses to it. Local communities have been subject to sustained retrenchment in public spending and relatively high levels of inward migration. Heterogeneous social and cultural groups are threatened by inequality of resources and opportunity. Alienation exists where individuals experience tension between their own experience and group mentality, including what is reflected in the media. This alienation cannot be addressed in a healthy way from within any groups while they remain dysfunctional. Only at a local level, where neighbours are willing to behave as equals, fostering a culture of tolerance, honest speaking and listening, and mutual hospitality, can transformation begin to take place.

With its discourse of reconciliation, transformation and love of neighbour, Christianity seems to be well placed to help with the polarised situation we face. The Church, and other faith groups, are embedded in communities and often in neighbourhoods. So the fault line that has been identified will probably run through them too. Those of us who belong to such groups have to begin rebuilding in our own place before reaching out to others.

Join the Faith and Flourishing Neighbourhoods Network for their next meeting ‘Re-imaging Community: What are the future possibilities for community and neighbourhood’ in Birmingham on Tuesday 18th October. Find out more >>

The views expressed are those of the author.

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