A place of hope, not hate: Adult education and a life after Brexit

There is much discussion of the febrile nature of political debate in Britain just now, and the violence of the language used by politicians to incite public opinion against their opponents. One of the worst and most reckless offenders is, of course, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a man whose fancifully high opinion of his own rhetorical abilities is matched only by the extraordinary casualness with which he deploys them. In a high-profile and typically light-touch interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr this morning, Mr Johnson was permitted to repeatedly characterize the Benn Act, which his opponents hope will force the government to seek a Brexit extension and avoid a no-deal Brexit, as the ‘Surrender Bill’ – this on a day when one of the most prominent Brexit-supporting newspapers further stoked the flames of violent conflict with a front page warning of remainers’ ‘foreign collusion’.

Evidently, the Prime Minister has as little regard for national unity or the need to build communities of consensus as he has for telling the truth. The tone he has adopted is not surprising – it serves not the interests of the country, but his own trivial but all-consuming desire for political power – but it is profoundly damaging for any hope we might have of healing the divisions that are dominating and coarsening British political discourse.

It is irresponsible and extremely dangerous. The divisions caused by the referendum are real and painful – the lack of credit given by either side of the debate to the other is pretty much unprecedented, in my experience. We have never felt further apart. It is regrettable and troubling to see senior politicians prepared to exploit this baleful state of affairs for personal or tribal gain (if Johnson’s odious hedge fund backers can be termed a ‘tribe’). But I think it is important to note that the divisive nature of British politics did not originate in Brexit. Indeed, while Brexit has undoubtedly deepened the uncivil war of words, the no-man’s land between left and right has been widening for some time. While we hear sporadic gunfire, we no longer see one another’s faces, or hear the voices of those we dispute with.

As with Brexit, the engine of discord between progressives and conservatives in the UK is fuelled by a feeling that change is impossible, a general sense of hopelessness that, in turn, drives the recklessness expertly exploited by Farage, Johnson, Cummings, et al. Inequality, low wages, worsening living standards, declining infrastructure, an ailing health service, and an education system that routinely fails the poorest while giving the already privileged an unfair advantage, unfairly compounded throughout life: the punishing human toll of these debilitating trends is deepened significantly by the seeming impossibility of positive change. What is behind this sense of hopelessness?

Many communities in Britain have experienced decades of neglect – an unmanaged decline overseen by all mainstream parties – while their concerns, well-founded or not, have been, at best, ignored, at worse, derided, making them ripe fodder for the exploitation of Britain’s wannabe populists. But underpinning this sorry record of political neglect has been the internalization of the ‘big lie’ of British politics: the notion that there is no alternative to neoliberalism, with its attendant squeezing of opportunity and rampant inequality – that investing more in education, health or people’s wellbeing or standard of living will prove economically disastrous, and indeed that the increased investment in public services under the last Labour government resulted, in large part, in the financial crisis, the long shadow of which still dominates out politics more than a decade on.

This lie was most clearly and artfully articulated under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that ushered in the politics of austerity (though it was implicit in Labour’s drift to the right in the search of an elusive ‘third way’). It was the necessary justification of a policy that put the bill – and most of the blame – for the financial crisis at the door of the public sector. Most of those making this argument have known it to be untrue or at least a serious distortion of the truth. But it has been incredibly effective in cementing in the public’s mind both the need for austerity and the financial imprudence of any attempt to bring about substantive progressive reform. The narrowing of the range of voices discussing these issues in the mainstream media, and the generally dismissive attitude taken to anyone prepared to challenge the ‘consensus’ has helped ensure the lie sticks. And while the purpose of those who popularized it may have been simply to marginalize the Labour Party and to convince the victims of neo-liberalism to vote for more of the same, it has had a more profound effect, making sensible mainstream social-democratic progressive reform almost impossible and limiting the levers available to politicians set on progressive change, while contributing both to Labour’s lurch to the left and to the Tories’ death-embrace of right-wing populism. While Brexit has shone a bright light on the divisive, binary nature of British political culture, these divisions are bigger than Brexit and will outlive it. The challenge for progressives is to change the self-defeating internal narrative of British politics – the story that keeps the wheels of progress spinning uselessly off the ground – and create a new, more inclusive, compassionate and democratic one.

The failure to persuade, to build consensus or form coalitions has been the main fault of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. While he has, quite properly and pretty much uniquely (if not always particularly clearly), sought to develop a nuanced position on Brexit capable of commanding wide support on both sides, Mr Corbyn has done far too little to reach out and engage, even within his own party. This, regrettably, has been typical of his style of leadership. Because of this, while he has overtly challenged the divide in British politics and offered an alternative narrative, in many respects quite compelling, the uncompromising, uncollegiate nature of his politics has ended up reinforcing it. As a result, many Labour members and supporters, including those initially sympathetic to his leadership, have come to see him as an obstacle to progressive change. This is unfortunate as many very compelling and radical aspects of his policy agenda would be unlikely to survive a change of leadership. The argument within the Labour Party about Corbyn’s leadership concerns both the policy direction of the party and his ability, given his limitations as a leader, to deliver the change his policies promise (which I suspect have the broad support of most members).

The problem for Corbyn and other supporters of progressive social change is the lack of engagement in social democratic ideas in British political life and culture. This is a frustration of the left which often results in the mainstream media and the BBC, in particular, taking much of the blame for their exclusion. This is partly justified but there is a wider story here too: there is considerable resistance to these ideas among the general public, as well as a lack of understanding, which the media reflects and feeds, and politicians exploit. Although it will do considerable economic harm, and has already inflicted significant reputational damage to the UK, Brexit also represents an important opportunity to offer a vision of a new Britain that is more equal and socially just, and where opportunity and wealth are more evenly spread across the country, regionally and in terms of social class. But for this to happen we need two things: people need to feel empowered and be persuaded that change is possible (‘resources of hope’, in Raymond Williams’ wonderful, ageless phrase), and places where people can come together to discuss, shape and effect positive change (what we might term ‘spaces of hope’).

Historically, important social progress, such as extensions to the franchise or the creation of the National Health Service, have resulted from a combination of political and economic shock and a widening of educational opportunity, especially in adult education (for example, that provided by the Army Bureau of Current Affairs during the Second World War). We desperately need a conversation about the future of Britain that starts from the ground up, that is not managed but has the same open-ended, democratic characteristics of the best adult education traditions. The best way to learn about and become engaged in politics is by doing it. Social movements such as the climate crisis protests offer more opportunities for adult educators to create spaces for debate and learning. But we also need to see education for active citizenship not as a threat to elites whose power is premised on artful dissembling but as the lifeblood of strong and resilient democracy and support it accordingly. This, however, is unlikely to happen while the forces of populism continue to occupy Downing Street (for the first time since I started writing about adult education there genuinely seems no point in even proposing increased support for adult education), but we can all perhaps do our bit to create spaces for constructive debate, at home, in our communities, schools, institutions and workplaces, to enable civil, polite debate and respect for others, while arguing for broader change through more conventional means. Some combination of these is essential, both for postive social change and a healthy democracy.

Democracy and education remain the best ways out of the mess we are in, and, of achieving, in the face of the super-rich, their parliamentary agents and the media interests they control, a progressive Britain that is a place of hope, not hate.

The kids are alright

Greta Thunberg gave a remarkable and impassioned speech to the United Nations’ General Assembly yesterday, calling on the governments of the world and the international community to ‘understand the urgency’ and act to address the climate crisis.

She and other young campaigners have changed the political narrative on climate change and sustainability over the past year. Ms Thunberg’s solo strike in her native Sweden sparked a worldwide movement of school strikes, culminating in last Friday’s remarkable global display of nonviolent public resistance to political inaction (1.5 million people took to the streets in Germany alone). Young people have become the global leaders of the debate about the climate crisis – and with that comes the promise of real change; the only bright spot on an otherwise pretty bleak horizon.

Change is possible, but we must want it, and we much be prepared to pay what it costs. That, of course, is likely to be painful and discomforting for many; it is a long-term, not to say, permanent, commitment – something that will not be accomplished in months or even years. It will mean turning the world order on its head, challenging inequalities and doing things differently, listening to ideas we have previously dismissed as idealistic or unrealistic, thinking about our economic and social futures in different ways. Business as usual is no longer an option.

Unsurprisingly, given the threat this popular movement represents to the entrenched economic interests of the powerful, many are quick to dismiss its leadership and aims, to allege hypocrisy or to impugn protesters’ motives. Personal attacks on Greta Thunberg are common and frequently vicious. Resistance to change, while less visible and certainly less reflective of what the public at large thinks, is nevertheless extremely difficult to overcome, representing, as it does, the strongly held views of those who benefit the most from the global order and who also bear the least risk from its consequences for climate change. The likely outcome of these views prevailing will be something akin to genocide in the poorest parts of the world.

Many ordinary people watching Ms Thunberg’s speech at the UN will have been impressed by her seriousness and sincerity; others will have found her too abrasive, too publicly angry and uncompromising. Some are outraged at the idea of children daring to raise their voices or have an opinion. I fear, however, that the people in the latter camps are missing the point. The old covert and deferential way of doing politics, if it ever worked, does not work now. Faced with the challenges we now are now watching unfold, it simply is not fit for purpose. Meaningful change will have to come from somewhere else. What I found particularly interesting about her speech was her confidence that change was coming, irrespective of the political will in the room.

I hope she is right. It is easier to see what isn’t working than to say what needs to be done to change it. Change is inevitable – the planet is demanding it – but we have a significant say in the nature of that change. Will we see wealthier countries increasingly prepared to isolate themselves from poorer parts of the world, where the impact of the climate crisis will be felt first, and most forcefully? Or will the global community work together to meet and exceed its targets on emissions and find solutions that prevent the worst impacts of climate change, and that work for everyone, particularly the poorest?

There is a two-fold role for educators in this. First, it is important that people understand what is at stake (they frequently underestimate the extent of climate change and its likely impact), and, just as crucially, what climate action will cost. Politicians who try to engage meaningfully with this issue are likely to make themselves deeply unpopular with many segments of the electorate. They will have to challenge powerful vested interests. Without public understanding and support for the idea of a sustainable future, whatever the price, none of these things will be possible.

Second, educators need to empower people to demand change and advocate effectively for it. As Ms Thunberg has demonstrated, non-violent public disobedience is extremely powerful. In fact, it is difficult to think of any examples of large-scale political or social progress that have not been accompanied by activism of this sort. There is an opportunity here for adult education to revive its traditional roots in social movements and purposeful civic, democratic action. To stop the climate crisis escalating, the movement started by Greta Thunberg needs to be just the start; we need to move the will of politicians through our actions and activism.

Some time ago, we all boarded a train that, for quite a while, has been headed fast in the wrong direction. Although we can see clearly, on the horizon, where we want to be, the train we are on takes us further and further away from our desired destination. To get where we need to go, we need not only to change direction, but also to find a new vehicle for getting us there. This new vehicle won’t be as salubrious as the one we are in now, it won’t move as fast or provide as much on-board entertainment, but it will take us where we want to go.

Above all, as Ms Thunberg told the UN, we need to challenge our addiction to endless economic growth, and reform our education system, which has, increasingly, been formulated primarily as a means of pursuing this absurd objective. The old teaching-to-the-test, standardized, utilitarian education model, that served the global order by producing useful, unreflective economic units, is no longer fit for purpose. It never was. The challenges of the future demand an education system that fosters hope and creativity, thoughtfulness, democratic citizenship and a willingness to learn throughout life. We need solutions that are not simply sophisticated ways of maintaining business as usual. And we need to be prepared to make the changes demanded by a more creative, mindful and future-oriented approach to living and organizing our societies.

Greta Thunberg has shown that it is no longer enough simply to be a cheerleader for reform. We all must work to make a difference, in our own lives, in our neighbourhoods and workplaces, and as active citizens. As organizations, we need not only to talk the talk of climate reform; we have to walk the walk too. I see little sign of even the most well-meaning organizations taking their own responsibilities as seriously as they now need to. This has to change. We need to set an example of sustainable living and working, to help create a new normal. We can all do better; we can all do more (to paraphrase, the question is not so much ‘Why should I?’, as ‘How dare I not?’). Whoever you are, whatever your job, wherever you work, you can play a part in being the change we need to see in wider society.