Skilling up for Brexit

IssueDecember 2018 - January 2019
Comment by Milan Rai


GarciaLopezLuisGaspar [GFDL ( or CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons

As I write, Britain is in the middle of the most extraordinary political uncertainty as it tries to leave the European Union (EU). As we pointed out before the referendum, Brexit does not directly affect any of the major issues that the British peace movement is currently struggling with. (PN 2594–2595)

An indirect effect is the weakening of the economy that is predicted to be a result of Brexit will make it even more difficult to carry out all military programmes that are planned (and already £7bn over budget, according to the national audit office).

The lifetime costs (including decommissioning) of replacing the Trident nuclear missile/nuclear submarine system have been estimated by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) to be £205bn. That is going to be harder for the government to fund if the economy shrinks 3.9 percent by 2030 (or 5.5 percent with no deal) as forecast by the national institute of economic and social research in November.

The economic shock of Brexit will also mean greater poverty, which will almost certainly mean more political polarisation. More far right mobilisation and more authoritarianism in mainstream politics. More nationalism.

As Britain’s economic position weakens, there may well be a greater temptation to play to the country’s traditional strength: military power. More war.

As US radical Noam Chomsky warned before the referendum, Brexit will likely mean greater British dependence on and obedience to the United States. More US-led war.

British society may become more like US society, with harsh results for working-class and poor people.

One of the core issues of the Brexit campaign was immigration, and one of the most dangerous legacies of the Brexit referendum is the increase in open anti-immigrant feeling that the Leave vote seems to have authorised. There is more white racism in general, more anti-Eastern European racism and more Islamophobia.

On the other hand, polls show slightly less anti-immigrant racism since the referendum. Maybe some people feel the Brexit vote has fixed things already and they can relax.

It’s pretty clear that the far right has benefited in recent years, not only in the UK, from the dissatisfaction of working-class and middle-class people who feel their social and economic position has declined or remained stagnant. The Brexit economic downturn is likely to create more dissatisfaction like this.

Calling people in

Against this challenging backdrop, there is an opportunity for British peace groups to respond creatively and constructively.

We need to develop stronger skills in reaching across the divides that are widening. We need to become better at including people in our groups who come from different cultures or who have different attitudes, people who have different class backgrounds to the majority in our groups.

If we’re going to make the changes that are needed, we’re going to need bigger and stronger groups and movements, that are able to overcome the growing appeal of nationalism, racism, Islamophobia and anti-migrant feeling.

White people will be well-placed to do work with other white people on these issues.

In past issues of PN, we’ve given examples of the kinds of work that will be needed. Betsy Leondar-Wright (who is white) told us an amazing story of how she worked steadily and respectfully with another white person over some weeks to shift his hostility to African-Americans. That was ‘calling in’, the opposite of ‘calling out’, which is about publicly criticising and shaming someone for saying something prejudiced. (PN 2590 – 2591)

We also heard about the Rural Organising Project in Oregon, which has managed to build anti-racist campaign groups in rural white working-class communities in a conservative state. The basic tool of the project is the Living Room Conversation for educating and recruiting someone’s neighbours. (PN 2596 – 2597)

In a later issue, we gave an excerpt from the Los Angeles LGBT Centre’s manual on ‘deep canvassing’, the long conversation method they’ve developed for reducing prejudice in a lasting way. (PN 2606)

Deep canvassing is a planned, structured, short version of ‘calling in’. It relies on being genuinely respectful, curious and open, as well as being honest about your own very different attitudes. It avoids correcting or criticising the language someone else uses, but focuses instead on building a mutually-respectful emotional bond. What Betsy did over several weeks, a deep canvasser tries to do in 20 or 30 minutes.

This kind of approach may also be useful as we try to create more class-inclusive groups and movements that are more comfortable to be in for people from a wider range of class backgrounds. Increasing our class awareness, becoming more honest about our class backgrounds, and gaining a language for talking about class are just the beginning in terms of removing invisible barriers to participation.

Peace News wants to be part of the work of skilling up in all these ways, and these issues will feed into the ‘How We Win’ workshops we aim to deliver in 2019.

Topics: Race, Europe, Class
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