I’m trying to take Brexit in my stride. It’s no use panicking, emigrating or having a duvet day.
The world hasn’t actually ended. Sure, there’s uncertainly in spades, but this isn’t a new phenomenon, especially in local government. So, let’s do what we do best: fill the vacuum.
There’s much to occupy us, especially the social consequences. I’m as alarmed as anybody about what looks like a significant increase in hate crime. Actually, why we don’t we just call it out for what it actually is? It’s the manifestation of ignorance, xenophobia, racism and bigotry.
I am a product (although not entirely) of the punk generation. My social consciousness (‘we mean it maan!’) was forged in the second half of the 1970s. “How much longer will people wear / Nazi armbands and dye their hair?” asked Mark Perry in 1977. The Clash, Black Slate, The Specials, Steel Pulse and many more implored “just because you’re a black boy / just because you’re a white / it doesn’t mean you have to hate them / it doesn’t mean you’ve got to fight”.
I went to school with boys who joined the British Movement. I asked one of them why they signed up and the gist was that it gave him a sense of fellowship, based on what came across as a shared ignorance and suspicion of the implications of the rich tapestry that we now call a diverse society.
So, forty years on, what’s to be done?
Of course, it’s complicated. But it’s also very simple. Using the incomparable power and influence that is the democratic mandate, councils need to hit the streets challenging every lie, half-truth and misconception based on our beautiful difference that might put a wedge between us.
But local government needs to go further. It has the right and responsibility to tackle those sensitive and controversial issues that bedevil society. Everyone has the right to their identity, as an individual and part of a collective. I truly cherish my heritage and worldview and those who relate or even associate with it but this must not be allowed to nurture, let alone justify, a supremacism that leads to separation or, worse segregation and, consequentially, intolerance.
Councils, after all, are all about inclusivity. We work on behalf of all those in our communities. We seek to encourage mutual understanding and respect and take a leading role in a discourse about a society that is characterised by the richness of difference, fairness, openness, tolerance and even-handedness.
I don’t for one minute subscribe to the view that Brexiteers are all anti-diversity and Remainers are all sweetness and light; not at all. What I’m concerned with is the impression that Brexit has left with some; namely, that it is now legitimate to seek to homogenise society (as if we were ever this way): ‘If you’re not like me, then you must be someone I should be worried about.’
Post-23 June, it is the role of local government to get out there and make the undeniable case that our differences unite us. These differences highlight what is so fantastic about the human race; that is it both one and many things at the same time.
Here in Birmingham, prompted by the Humanist Society, but picked up by both the faith and non-faith communities, a campaign called Love Your Neighbour is underway. Launched by the Bishop of Birmingham on the day of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme, this initiative is focused on asking people of different backgrounds to unite by sharing what makes them distinctive.
We hope, through simple acts of neighbourliness and the exchange of aspects of our lives, that the good people of the city will see that in all being different, we are also all the same: simple human beings.
I don’t know how much impact it will have but I do know it is worth backing because anything that seeks to debunk myths and generate curiosity and empathy must be a good thing: leave and remain replaced by love and reconciliation, as David Urquart put it. Or, in the immortal words of Jimmy Pursey: “if the kids are united / then we’ll never be divided”.
Mark Rogers, chief executive, Birmingham City Council