Thought for the Week: Good neighbours

Ian Kirk-Smith reflects on the need to be both listeners and good neighbours

The result of the referendum has highlighted a difference between ‘direct democracy’ and ‘representational democracy’. More than seventeen million voted to leave the EU. No proposition has ever gained more votes in the democratic history of the United Kingdom – but the final result revealed a very Disunited Kingdom.

My country, Northern Ireland, voted to remain in Europe. So did our friends in Scotland and Gibraltar; but we will all soon be taken out of the EU. It is a recipe for trouble and Britain now faces a time of great uncertainly, unease and difficulty. The result threatens an historic union of countries and has exposed deep divisions within British society: geographic, economic, cultural, political and educational.

A woman from a Manchester estate was asked why she voted leave: ‘If you’ve got money you vote in’. It is perhaps not quite as simple as that, but her words touched a nerve. People with third level degrees mostly voted ‘remain’. Those with none generally voted ‘leave’.

It may be uncomfortable for some Quakers to recognise themselves as part of a disliked ‘privileged elite’. Disaffected people revolted against a perceived, remote, group. In this case it is not just bankers in London, politicians in Westminster and bureaucrats in Brussels. It is, for some, people who, for example, passed the eleven plus, enjoyed a university education and had a successful career, often in some form of public service, experienced social mobility, and who have a house, garden and a decent pension. A ‘have’ rather than a ‘have not’.

Was the referendum really about EU membership for all the people of Sunderland? Or was it, for some, a cry of rage – a desperate plea just to be listened to and to have their everyday problems and concerns acknowledged? Britain is a profoundly unequal society – not just in terms of income and wealth. In their brilliant book The Spirit Level Kate Atkinson and Richard Wilkinson presented a compelling narrative: that a highly unequal society is a less contented society. The referendum offers further proof.

In the New Testament the parable of the Good Samaritan tells the story of the man who helped a stranger on a road when others walked by on the other side. The Good Samaritan showed compassion, empathy and mercy. He was a ‘good neighbour’ to the stranger in need. This is the challenge now: to reach out, heal and build bridges.

The people of Sunderland, and in communities like it across Britain, need to be listened to with an open heart and mind – not talked about in a patronising tone and with an air of condescension because of how they voted. They need a good neighbour. The people who voted remain also need, for different reasons, a good neighbour at this time.

Above all, the people who came to this country with hope and who are simply trying to do their best for themselves and their families need a good neighbour. They need to know that those who daub slogans on a Polish Cultural Centre or make unkind and shameful remarks at bus stops are a dangerous and unrepresentative minority who betray the heritage and values of the people of these islands.

Many people today have feelings of despair, apprehension, loss and confusion. It is a time for Friends to be both listeners and good neighbours.

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