Want to change the world? Then what you need most isn’t facts; it’s a really great story. So I argued in a book called The Myth Gap (summary here), which came out last year in the wake of the Brexit referendum and the US election.
Donald Trump and Nigel Farage had hardly triumphed thanks to their evidence base, after all. Instead, it was thanks to their power as storytellers and the resonance of the tales they told: of taking back control, of building bigger walls, of threats from a shadowy ‘other’.
Part of populist leaders’ attraction, I suggested, is their ability to speak to the contemporary absence of – and deep hunger for – grand narratives that explain where we are, how we got here, where we might be trying to get to, and underneath it all who we are.
To win against these kinds of adversary, I argued, progressives need to reimagine themselves as mythmakers and storytellers. And while there’s clearly no single myth that will work for everyone, I argued that the kind of narratives we need today share three defining features.
First, prompting us to think of ourselves as part of a larger us rather than a ‘them and us’. Second, to situate ourselves in a longer now, in which we get back to thinking in generational timespans. And third, to help us imagine a better good life in which growth is less a story of increasing material consumption and more about finally growing up as a species.
A year on from the book’s publication, I still think we need these kinds of myth. But I’ve also become preoccupied with how to build bridges across the chasm that defines our politics in an age of savage political polarisation.
My concern partly stems from a year spent running the Brexit campaign at Avaaz. Having started out a convinced Remainer, I ended up thinking the biggest problem wasn’t so much leaving the EU as the prospect that any outcome would leave UK politics poisoned for a generation, with both sides feeling stabbed in the back.
Spending six months on sabbatical in Jerusalem has only deepened my unease. I was last here in 2004, and it’s horrifying to see how extreme the polarisation between Israelis and Palestinians has become. Each side now blames the other for everything, and is simply unable to see how it has also helped to create the current impasse, or what it might have to sacrifice for peace.
The abyss in UK politics isn’t as devastating as the one between Israelis and Palestinians, of course. But the political similarities — the anxiety, irritability, tuning out and ‘othering’ those who disagree — are still striking. And they’re getting worse.
The divide we face is bigger than just Leave and Remain, too, as David Goodhart observes with his idea that British politics is now split between ‘Somewheres’ and ‘Anywheres’.
Somewheres, he argues, are rooted in specific places, usually where they grew up. They value security and familiarity, and are conservative on cultural and social issues. They tend not to have gone to university, do less well economically, and often experience change as loss.
Anywheres, meanwhile, like openness and mobility. They’re mainly graduates, who’ve left where they grew up to live in London, the south east, or abroad. They’re comfortable with social change, and internationalist in outlook. They are much more individualistic, and tend to curate their identities rather than having them ascribed to them.
I find Goodhart’s two tribes fascinating — especially from the perspective of story and myth.
I feel as though Somewheres start with an advantage in storytelling because the best stories are so often specific to places. The tale of a 7 billion ‘us’, on the other hand, is still just an outline draft. And by extension, I also have a hunch that Somewheres have something important to teach Anywheres about belonging.
The individualism that Anywheres are so fond of has a long shadow, after all. George Monbiot points out that individualism is ground zero for consumerism, neoliberalism, and today’s epidemic of loneliness. Adam Curtis observes that the sense of group identity that political movements depend on struggles to survive when self-expression has become the highest good. The sense of belonging that’s at the heart of what it means to be a Somewhere is powerfully relevant here.
Of course, Somewheres’ focus on belonging can be very dark too: just look at the far right. But a point that Anywheres are prone to miss is that it doesn’t have to be. Take the SNP. It’s internationalist, progressive, cosmopolitan; yet also firmly rooted in place and national identity. English politics might look a lot healthier if a similar synthesis were available south of the border.
And I think that it’s just that — a synthesis of the best of Somewhere and Anywhere — that we need to be looking for. Fuzzy compromises on the most charged issues, that do nothing to resolve the underlying clash of values, won’t satisfy anyone. Instead, we need to find a way to talk about, and work through, the divergences between two very different worldviews.
Somewheres and Anywheres clearly value different things, after all. The real question is whether those values are necessarily at odds, or whether they could in fact be reimagined as complementary.
And that’s the basic question now facing each of us.
If you take the former view, from either side of the political divide, then your only real option is to fight like hell. It’s an honourable point of view, but the problem is that it just leads to more of what we have now: acrimony, attrition, and all political bandwidth taken up with patching over the cracks instead of actually tackling the defining issues of the 21st century.
If you take the latter view, on the other hand — that politics isn’t necessarily zero sum, and that the possibility is there of a conversation that enriches all participants and proves that we do indeed have more in common than what which divides us — then you are, unavoidably, in the business of collective storytelling.
In one sense, it’s a radically new and cutting edge skill-set at the heart of what 21st century citizenship is all about. In another sense, it’s the oldest and most quintessentially human skill in the book. It’s time to dust it off and relearn how to do it.
This post was originally published on the Young Foundation’s blog, ahead of a talk I’m doing there on 18 September on the Myth Gap a year on from its publication – tickets available here.
Guest post by Quintin Oliver, of Stratagem International, @StratagemInt
Hot off the plane from Bogota where he was advising on the upcoming referendum, Quintin Oliver tells us his ten commandments on referendums:
- Referendums are not elections – there are no candidates and no posts to win, and although parties are involved, they and the voters are addressing an issue; campaigners must ‘unlearn’ their election campaigning instincts. First mover advantage often goes to those who successfully ‘frame’ the terms of debate. Think Brexit, as ‘taking back our country’.
- Voters often answer the wrong question (Charles de Gaulle) – referendums are susceptible to ‘capture’ by other players, and voters often use them to register a protest against the government of the day, or against the political elites. Think the Swedish Euro vote of 2003 vote, led by Abba, Volvo and Saab, which was expected to pass.
- Referendums, especially on big national issues, against a background of conflict, usually become more emotional, than rational; voters express their instincts, rather than their cold, rational, evidence-based selves. They remember the past and are reluctant to embrace an uncertain – or overly idealistic – future. Think Scotland 2014.
- Most referendums are lost (albeit narrowly) – indicating that promoting the ‘change’ case is harder, especially if complicated, recently published and containing tough concessions, unless there is a huge consensus that the change is overwhelmingly acceptable And much more attractive than now. This is exacerbated mid-term (when governments tend to be less popular) and in tough economic times, when the risks of change may seem higher. Think Cyprus 2004, when the Greek south was entering the EU, regardless.
- Winning a ‘No’ campaign in a referendum is easier – opponents can scatter objections and complaints, untruths and deceptions, with impunity, while the Yes side has to articulate its change proposition lucidly, coherently and cogently; they must not become defensive and bogged down in detail. Think the Alternative Vote debacle of 2011, when a 2:1 polling lead was reversed.
- Referendum debates can be volatile and uncertain – with shifts in opinion and voting intentions as (sometimes unexpected) issues gain prominence and traction. The status quo can become more attractive against a kaleidoscope of untested options, especially if a credible Plan B (renegotiation) is promoted. Think Nice l and Lisbon l in the Republic, both reversed after concessions.
- Referendums allow many more voices – voters tend to look first to their political party of choice for advice but then seek other cues from voices they trust, or who appear widely to be opinion-formers (churches, labour unions, NGOs, artists, celebrities, athletes…); voters especially like to see traditionally opposing politicians putting aside their differences in the national interest and sharing platforms to promote their unified case, especially if this contrasts with the opponents. Think Good Friday Agreement poll in 1998.
- Referendums permit a significant space to organised civil society (usually excluded from traditional elections) – since it can articulate bottom-up, grassroots depth and richness around the issues for debate, with knowledge and experience, credibility and authenticity. Elections are rarely ‘fun’, but referendums can give expression to creativity, satire, parody and excitement; music and art can capture and shift the national mood. Think the 2015 Equal Marriage plebiscite in Ireland.
- Referendums are rarely well played by the media, especially where there is no embedded referendum culture – the media seek ‘presidential’ or ‘gladiatorial’ style’ contests, polar opposite positions, argument and conflict, as in elections, whereas the policy content of a plebiscite should permit richer, textured discourse; shades of grey should be encouraged, not pummelled into submission; doubt, worry and concern are legitimate feelings. Think Netherlands overturning the obscure EU-Ukraine trade deal.
- Referendums are often susceptible to undue diaspora influence, both in terms of out of country votes, but also contribution to the debate, positive and negative, funding and campaign support. The international media often look first to local (to them) voices, and ‘frame’ their hypothesis accordingly. Think various recent Greek polls…
Quintin Oliver ran Northern Ireland’s Good Friday Agreement YES Campaign in 1998, and advises globally on referendums, with Colombia and Cyprus polls upcoming soon.
A couple of weeks ago, realising that it was struggling to make a convincing economic case for Britain to leave the European Union, the Brexit campaign switched the focus of its message to the threat posed to Britain by immigration. Almost immediately, Vote Leave surged in the polls. The bookmakers’ odds against Britain leaving the EU plummeted, from 5-1 in May to around 7-4 last week. The Leave campaign had found the Philosopher’s Stone.
Leave or remain, therefore, immigration matters to Britons – whatever happens on 23 June, concern over it will not go away. But while the case against immigration has been made repeatedly and vehemently by the Leave campaign and an often-rabid tabloid press, few prominent figures, and nobody in the Remain campaign, have put forward a cogent case in its favour. Boris Johnson, a descendant of immigrants who is now the leader of the Brexiteers, claimed in 2013: ‘I am probably the only politician I know of who is willing to stand up and say that he’s pro-immigration.’ Now that Johnson has changed his mind, there is nobody left to make the case.
As an immigrant myself, formerly to Spain and more recently to Tanzania, I would urge those fearful of immigration to reconsider. Migration is one of the good things about the EU, not one of its flaws. Regardless of Thursday’s result, Britain will be a poorer place if it closes its doors.
The ethical case for immigration to rich countries is easily made. Those of us who were born in Britain won life’s lottery. We were about five times more likely to have been born in a developing country than in the developed world, with atrocious healthcare, bad schools and no jobs. We were as likely to be born in the Democratic Republic of Congo as in Britain, and to have our lives racked by war and disease, our life expectancy slashed by 20 years, and our incomes (and our purchasing power) reduced by 99%.
But we were born in Britain, and having benefited from such a stroke of luck, many of us wish to exclude everyone else from sharing in our booty. At least part of the reason why Britain is rich and developing countries poor is because it enslaved and colonised some of them, plundering their resources and destroying the lives of their most talented people. Even if this were not the case, however (or if you disagree with this analysis), it still seems incoherent for a society that values equality of opportunity to limit this to those born within its borders. It is akin to allowing only winners of the National Lottery to get jobs, while everyone else must languish in poverty. Yes, there are only so many jobs to go around (although as job-rich, immigrant-rich America shows, migrants create jobs as well as filling them), and integrating new arrivals is difficult and will take time, but unless we value somebody born in a distant corner of Britain more highly than someone born in a different corner of the globe just because he or she is a lottery winner like us, our aspiration – as Christians or devotees of other faiths, as democrats or egalitarians, or simply as unselfish, big-spirited people – should be to share the opportunities, not hoard them.
Many won’t be convinced by this, but what of a less high-minded argument? Immigrants create jobs and do the jobs native workers don’t want to do, but they also take jobs, with low-wage native workers particularly vulnerable to being undercut by new arrivals. The net economic effect on receiving countries is disputed, with the balance of research suggesting it’s broadly positive but not by much. There is a strong case for compensating the small minority of domestic workers who suffer from immigration, just as there is a strong case for providing safety nets to those whose jobs are taken by cheaper workers overseas, or for those whose jobs disappear under the advance of new technologies.
But the effect on migrants themselves is almost never mentioned in such discussions. Migrants are people too, and the economic impact of migration on migrants is enormously positive. If it wasn’t, they wouldn’t leave their homes and their often very close-knit families to do it. And as well as improving their own living standards, economic migration also improves the lives of those they leave behind. Migrants – be they from Poland, Ireland or Senegal – send money back to their families, to feed and clothe them, to help them in times of distress, to put their younger relatives through school, or to help them set up businesses. Many migrants eventually go back to their home countries and start businesses themselves. All this spurs the economic development of these countries, and economic development of other countries helps Britain. It means, for example, that British exporters will have more and wealthier customers, and that British consumers will have access to cheaper, better goods. By making countries more stable, it means Britain won’t have to send troops to tackle conflicts or have to accommodate large numbers of refugees from such conflicts. It means Britain won’t have to spend so much on overseas aid (aid to poor countries from rich countries is already dwarfed by migrants’ remittances, and unlike aid this money goes directly into poor people’s hands). And in the long run, it will probably mean less immigration to Britain, too.
As well as being a migrant myself, I have a second personal interest in this topic. Like the UKIP leader Nigel Farage, I am the husband of an immigrant. Farage’s wife is German, mine Turkish, of that tribe whose vilification (by a campaign led by a descendant of Turks, Boris Johnson) helped swing the polls in Brexit’s favour. My wife’s opportunities in life increased greatly when she moved to Britain, and she now works as an English teacher and teacher trainer overseas. Turkey, contrary to what the Leave campaigners want you to believe, has no chance of joining the European Union in the foreseeable future. But keeping Britain’s doors open to people like her from both inside and outside the EU is not only the right thing to do, it’s the sensible thing to do.