quarta-feira, 30 de novembro de 2016
Class, race, wealth: Britain is a nation blighted by divisions
Class, race, wealth: Britain is a nation blighted by divisions
With a new report expected to trigger fresh concerns on integration, Theresa May has a duty to rise above the outrage and lead a serious debate
Tuesday 29 November 2016 20.35 GMT
Communication is stilted as a gaggle of listless teenagers assist a group of disabled adults on an art project. But nervous shoe-gazing gives way to more confident engagement and, after a couple of hours, something close to natural socialising. By the time the glaze is applied to pocket-sized ceramic snowmen and the awkward silence replaced with lively chatter, the visit is over. Farewells are made; hugs are exchanged. The teenage delegation moves to an adjacent studio for a session of “reflection” on their experience.
“When I heard we were coming here, I started to panic,” says one young woman. “But it turns out they are just like us.” This feels partly like a classroom effort at the “right” answer. The group has been brought from nearby Sandwell College, in the West Midlands, by The Challenge – the leading charitable provider of courses that form the National Citizens Service (NCS). The participants want to demonstrate their newly acquired citizenship skills, whatever that means. But there is no doubting the underlying sincerity. Many of the group say the prospect of an afternoon outside their generational comfort zone had provoked feelings of dread.
The fear dissolved quickly, but it took an act of social engineering. Without the NCS intervention, the presumption that “they” are not like “us” would persist. The superficial differences are stark, even setting age aside. The older clients of the council-run art project are all white; most of the young people are from black and Asian communities that have transformed the demographics of the region in recent decades. NCS alumni speak enthusiastically of unexpected friendships struck up across cultural boundaries.
Critics of the scheme query how far teenage horizons can be broadened on a taster course. I’d say a taste of something is better than starvation. And the effect of inaction is accelerated segregation and the dissolution of any sense that Britain is a shared national endeavour.
That prospect will be the focus of heated debate next week with the publication of a report by Dame Louise Casey, who was commissioned in 2015 to lead a review into “integration and opportunity in some of our most isolated communities.” Casey has worked in this field for governments of different stripes since the late 1990s, giving her ample opportunity to upset people across the spectrum. She is no mincer of words.
In a speech earlier this year, Casey warned that the review would demand “brave conversations” on a range of issues: the educational underperformance of white working-class children; misguided squeamishness around “causing offence” that inhibits efforts to support women and girls held back by “patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes”; the normalisation of Islamophobia; and social conditions that incubate jihadi and far-right fanaticism.
There will be something to ignite outrage wherever dry ideological tinder is stored. On the left there will be sparks of fury when it is suggested that some communities nurture insular habits of self-segregation. Tricky cultural questions will be overlooked in the rush to locate social exclusion as a consequence of discrimination, inequality and austerity.
On the right the muscle memory of finger-wagging blame will kick in: open borders as the root of national decline; the lazy conflation of religious conservatism and terrorist sympathy; the demand that minorities demonstrate commitment to “British values”, which will be ill-defined and muddied with a presumption that civic virtue is the automatic inheritance of an indigenous culture to which less enlightened newcomers must swear fealty. Those precooked positions will emerge as vituperative charges of racism and counter-charges of potty political correctness.
If the past is any guide, there will be a ferocious exchange of fire across the old trenches followed by a return to political stalemate. It will take a formidable effort of imagination to avoid that outcome, and the prime minister must lead the way. The long delay in releasing a report that was complete months ago suggests she does not relish the prospect.
It will be tempting to narrow the focus through a counter-terrorism lens, treating segregation as a precursor chemical in the manufacture of extremism. That is an argument where Theresa May, as a former home secretary, feels comfortable. But if that is the nub of Downing Street’s response next week we will know that the challenge is being ducked. Extremism is part of the story, but the route by which a tiny number of individuals turn alienation into murderous intent is one crooked alleyway on the periphery of a labyrinthine problem that affects everyone. Terrorism was not the reason those Sandwell teenagers dreaded an afternoon volunteering in unfamiliar company.
Britain is strangled by barbed-wire fences of class, region, wealth, faith, age, the urban, the rural, leavers and remainers. This is a national disease for which there is no remedy in singling out a specific group of people and issuing the vacuous imperative: “Go integrate!” Into what?
The test for May is whether she connects segregation to her declared interest in social mobility. She claims to understand stagnating living standards and economic insecurity. She says government must more actively restore ladders of opportunity that have fallen away over decades. Does she understand how the problem of immobility also operates on the horizontal axis? Confinement by monoculture is the enemy of aspiration and prosperity. Segregation breeds mistrust of neighbours and of national politics in a vicious cycle. If government is not seen as representing the collective interest in the broadest terms, people deposit their hopes with politicians who offer the narrowest, most divisive sectional agenda, peddling them-and-us rhetoric.
May must explicitly reject that tone. No one expects her to have all the answers, but we will know next week if she has understood the question. We will know it by her readiness to eschew the admonishing tone, by her willingness to make integration sound like a collaboration and an invitation not an order or a rebuke. The noisy artillery of polarised debate will start up quickly. But a prime minister’s voice carries. She must raise it in the service of tolerance and unity.