Us v Them

I don’t follow Jason Manford on Facebook. I should say at this point that I have nothing against Jason Manford. In fact, some of my best friends follow him.

So it was that earlier today I saw the following status update, snorted and clicked “Like”.

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It’s not a new sentiment, of course. It’s one I’ve shared many, many times myself – and meant it. But within moments of scrolling on through my timeline, I started to feel uneasy about what it actually meant.

I find it almost impossible to express my thoughts about the referendum on independence coming up next week. Not because I’m not Scottish: after all, that’s no prerequisite to voting. Not because I don’t live in Scotland at the moment, though I have in the past (and have always kind of hoped to again in the future). But because of those two factors, I have no vote. I don’t need to choose between the variously conflicting versions of truths and statistics, am not called on to painstakingly separate hope from fantasy, caution from fear. In short, it’s not my decision – and it’s not my place to opine, though I (along with the rest of us) will be affected by the fallout, whatever happens.

There have been endless metaphors about the potential separation of the United Kingdom. It struck me yesterday, though, that it feels to me, living in the North of England, rather like a beloved sibling leaving home. You squabble, of course. You fight over bathroom rights, who gets to watch the TV, who’s the favourite. Then suddenly, they have the prospect of taking off for a glamorous new job, though the details are vague and you’re afraid it might not all be it’s cut out to be. You’re jealous, of course, and you know that you’re likely to be grounded forever with your pocket money cut, but you’re worried too, even though you know it’s not really any of your business.

Leaving aside the arguments for and against independence, though, the tone of some of the debate is starting to bother me. I resent Westminster-centric policy and bias as much as anyone else who grew up outside of the rarified atmosphere of privilege which still seems a prerequisite for power in this country. I hate that my own region has so many obstacles to overcome to compete with the South East, I chafe, like the rest of my neighbours, at measures introduced to ease problems in London and its surrounds which cause or exacerbate the ills of where we live. There is a glaring inequality and imbalance in the UK, and the failure of any mainstream party to acknowledge and address this frustrates me intensely.

What I don’t believe, however, is that people are intrinsically better or worse – or, actually, that different depending on where they live or where they’re from.  It’s seductive to think that our personalities are shaped by our origins, that we “belong”, in some mystical, indistinct way to one particular area or group. But it’s dangerous too, especially when we fall into the easy trap of choosing the good bits for ourselves or those we identify with, while pinning the less desirable character traits onto a different, distinct, bunch.

I daresay there are people in London, who in all but speech and cultural reference are much more akin to those round here, or even further north, than to those who live scant miles away and make the decisions which govern us all. That a farmer in Cornwall has more in common with a shepherd in Cumbria than the townies who summer down the road or moved there permanently for a new life in the country. Increasingly, surely, we’re not where we’re from: we’re what we have, what we do, what we aspire to. That’s not something which can be defined or contained by borders, national or otherwise.

I don’t know what will happen next week. I don’t even know what I want to. I do hope that, whatever the outcome, more power is devolved to local regions around the UK so that decisions can be made much closer to those they affect. Even more than that, though, I hope (knowing that it is largely in vain) that we don’t start a march towards tribalisation in the guise of local pride. We’re better off recognising that almost all of us are “that lot” – and talking seriously about how to hold those who aren’t to account.

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