Nobody knows what the Brexit vote will mean for the UK. People are reeling after a campaign marked by very poor quality debate, some deeply dangerous and divisive framing, a decision many didn’t really understand and an election where only 36% of young people, who are those most affected by the decision, turned out to vote. The result has led to an outcome some predict will turn out to be worse than the crash of 2008, and which is already creating heightened tensions between nations, generations, classes, North/South, with xenophobic attacks on the rise. It’s a scary time. A time, for me at least, for grief. The most troubling time I’ve ever known here. But I’m not going to write a long gloomy blog about how awful this is, there are enough of those out there. Believe me, I’ve read most of them over the last few days.
I feel Paul Mason was right when he wrote “we need a plan to put our stamp on the Brexit result – and fast”. If there is a General Election in November, and it is still an “if”, it will boil down to a choice between Boris Johnson/UKIP and a more progressive option. From a climate perspective, Gove or May/UKIP would be, as Noam Chomsky described Donald Trump, “almost a death knell for the human species”. Mason adds, in the first thing I read that started my being able to pick myself up after the Referendum:
“We can and must fight to place social justice and democracy at the heart of the Brexit negotiations. I call this ProgrExit – progressive exit. It can be done, but only if all the progressive parties of Britain set aside some of what divides them and unite around a common objective”.
After all, in reality, all the UK has voted for so far is an exit. It hasn’t voted for any particular kind of exit, or the values and principles upon which that will be based. And if, as looks likely, there will be an election in November, then we can still shape and define what a Progressive Exit might look like. And even if there isn’t, we will just continue building it anyway.
It could, after all, end up with England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland, in whatever permutations of independence or united-ness we end up with, as a model sustainable, equitable and resilient nation, showcasing a completely renewable energy grid, home to thriving and diverse food economies, meeting its housing needs through truly affordable gorgeous homes in community ownership, supporting each other through the long-overdue disintegration of neoliberalism, creating diverse thriving working communities. And if those of us fighting for a better world in the UK have lost the link to the EU, then we will need to find other ways of co-operating with our friends across Europe and around the world, working locally but sharing our learnings, overcoming barriers and tapping with greater vigour into the networks that exist. Well why not?
It is absolutely not a given that the only option is the profoundly loathsome Nigel Farage’s vision of Britain, of cricket on village greens, warm beer, casual racism and saluting the flag (as Michael Rosen reminds us, “fascism arrives as your friend”). I was very taken with Robin McAlpine’s words on the ‘Bella Caledonia’ blog:
“You may not like the result. You might be scared of what may come next. But on the other hand, can’t you feel a bit of the ‘thrill of possibility’? Can you imagine where we’d be if Remain had won, Cameron and Osborne were endorsed, Scottish independence was back in the filing cabinet and our collective agency was back to collecting signatures for anti-TTIP petitions. And isn’t there something energising about having real, achievable tasks to hand?”
As Glen Greenwald adds, “the West’s establishment credibility is dying, and their influence is precipitously eroding — all deservedly so”. It’s an opportunity, as George Monbiot put it, “to reject, connect and erect, to build from these ruins a system that works for the people of this country rather than for an offshore elite that preys on insecurity”. There are parts of what we are seeing happening that are, perhaps, inevitable. Integration and globalisation, huge states like the US and political and trade unions like the EU, are only made possible by the cheap and easily available net energy they require in order to function.
As net surplus energy continues to decrease, and energy costs become unpredictable, then it may be more and more likely that these vast structures will start to fracture and crack, and into the space rush the Trumps and Farages of this world. But at the same time, it opens up the space for an inclusive, bottom-up decentralised response, one built on foundations of compassion, a global empathy, an intentional localisation built on equity and kindness. Brexit is one of those shocks Naomi Klein refers to in ‘The Shock Doctrine’: unless we’re careful it will be used by nefarious characters for nefarious ends, but that’s not a given. In Argentina: Hope in Hard Times, a film about the economic collapse in Argentina in the early 2000s, one interviewee says “we got into this mess because we didn’t participate”. If we can participate, and inspire, there’s a huge opportunity here too.
So, into this vacuum, into the dreaming and imagining of this ProgExit, into this most volatile, uncertain and potentially ruinous moment of the UK’s recent history, what can our learnings from 10 years of this Transition experiment bring? Underneath this vote is, as Greenwald says, the rightful rejection of out-of-touch political elites, a rejection of the establishment (although those campaigning for Leave painting themselves as anti-establishment is a joke: as Caroline Lucas wrote, “The leaders of the Leave gang are about as anti-establishment as the Duke of Edinburgh”).
But go deeper than that, and a useful place to start is to ask what is it that the people we share this island with, live with, work with, and are related to, actually long for? It’s a big word, longing.
Dictionary.com defines it as “an earnest or strong desire or craving; to yearn”. Very few, in their deepest of hearts, are longing for a country that abuses migrants, concentrates wealth to elites, is inward-looking, closed and suspicious. That’s not who they are. Not really.
I know people who voted Leave. They’re good people, they work for the wellbeing of the places they live, they are respectful, kind, and like many of the things I do. They’re not the monsters the post-Brexit slanging matches might have you believe. We long for many of the same things, for beauty, for companionship, for feeling part of something, for their kids to have more opportunities than they had, for a sense of things being fair and our basic needs being met. For me it’s by basing a way forward, basing the Progrexit on speaking to real longing rather than to numbers and economic forecasts, that we can steer this outcome towards something uniting, something wholesome.
Change is something many would rather avoid, but it’s happening now, at pace, regardless, just as it has been for many years in other parts of the world (Syria, Greece, Brazil, to name just 3). Swedish Transitioner Pella Thieil, in a beautiful blog called ‘A Letter to You, Dear Transitioner’, wrote:
“Change, to put it simply, sucks. Nobody wants to do it — not real change, not soul change, not the painful molecular change required to truly become who you need to be. Nobody ever does real transformation for fun. Nobody ever does it on a dare. You do it only when your back is so far against the wall that you have no choice anymore”.
When we speak to our real longings, why would we vote for the mass roll-out of unaffordable, bland, identikit housing that channels money into a few hands when we could take a different model, through a mass uptake of community-led developments, in community ownership, using training and based on the actual needs of a place? Why would we support the vast bottomless money pit of Hinkley C (which now, thankfully, looks even less likely to happen) or fracking, when we could put clean energy in the hands of communities who could then benefit from it? Why would we allow what remains of our independently-owned economies, with their long history and webs of local families and culture, to be swept away by superstores and Starbucks when a more vibrant, diverse local economy is so much more enriching?
Yes, people need jobs, houses, energy, security. But it increasingly appears that a Transition-type approach, scaled up and with support from the political coalitions who could pass the policy and create the incentives that would make the Progrexit possible, would meet those needs better. Far better. We know that Transition can bring people together and can build common ground. And alongside the accelerating and terrifying onward march of climate change (the 10 warmest months on record have all occurred within the last 15 months, see below) building common ground in the places where we live is now just as urgent. And they are two challenges that go absolutely hand in hand.
One side effect of Brexit is that people now feel emboldened to say things that haven’t been acceptable for years. But at the same time, we need to feel similarly emboldened. To talk about the kind of world we want to see, to challenge racism and xenophobia wherever and whenever we encounter it, to point out the context in which these challenges are arising. I loved the story of the guy in Huntingdon, where ‘Go Home’ letters were put through the doors of many Polish residents, who created a counter-campaign of notes saying “You are welcome here”. Speak your truth.
But at the same time, it’s vital that we really practice deep listening. It’s only through good listening that we can hear and connect to the longings, fear, loneliness and so on that underpins much of what we’ve seen during this whole debacle – and seem to reside at the heart of most ‘leave’ votes. Building common ground requires a foundation of good listening.
Zoe Williams in the Guardian wrote ‘Brexit fallout: Six practical ways to help fix this mess’, and the Transition movement can add many hundreds of things to that list. Transition Town Tooting’s ‘Earth Talk Walk’ which visited churches, mosques, synagogues to hear how each faith talks about sustainability. Brixton Energy‘s learnings from community energy projects that engage the poorest in the community. Greenslate Farm in Billinge & Orrell and their bringing a farm into community ownership to prove the care that austerity is removing, while also incubating new enterprises (see photo above). The Transition-inspired response to the refugee crisis in Brussels. Transition Fishguard using waste food to feed low income families healthy meals while also training young people in catering. Transition Homes in Totnes, where the community is becoming its own developer as a Community Land Trust. And so on. And so on. And so on.
Let’s ensure the Brexit is a Progrexit. There is now more at stake than there has ever been. Thiel ends her blog with a quote from writer Anne Lamott: “Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.” So, shine on you crazy Transitioners, and Changemakers of all Hues and Persuasions. Shine harder than you ever shone before…