Last week the Talk/Together project held discussion groups with members of the public in the South-East of England. COVID-19 was uppermost in the minds of the participants, who came from Banbury, Folkestone, Milton Keynes and Portsmouth, though the discussions were held before the national lockdown announcement. There was a strong sense that the COVID-19 crisis had both divided and united people, with one participant commenting:
“People are at each other’s throats. Everyone’s got different views of what’s going on currently. What’s going on with Brexit? What’s going on with COVID? What’s going on with feeding kids? Everyone who I’ve thought was along the same sort of wavelength as myself has completely different views. And it’s had a major impact on friendships and relationships with people.”
Many felt confused by scientific evidence and the Government’s response to the pandemic. People’s resilience had been tested and they talked about falling out with family and friends about these issues. At the same time, the support that neighbours were giving to each other had brought people together, as had the activities of local charities to support vulnerable families.
Participants also talked about their local community’s response to Marcus Rashford’s call to provide holiday meals to children from low-income families. Pubs, cafés and other local businesses had stepped in to provide food for children during school holidays, and this had engendered a sense of local togetherness.
All of the South East discussion groups included many people who had given their time as volunteers, either to help out during lockdown, or as a longer-term commitment. We had people who worked with the homeless or in foodbanks, charity trustees and volunteer blood bikers. For many of these volunteers, offering their time had enabled them to meet new friends and brought them into contact with people from different backgrounds. Some people had volunteered for the first time this spring. Talk/Together will be looking at how we can keep hold of this goodwill and how more people could be encouraged to volunteer their time in their local communities in future.
Brexit and immigration were also very salient issues in the discussions. This was not surprising, as both had been major news items in the preceding weeks. Some of the Folkestone participants feared huge traffic jams blocking Kent’s roads once the Brexit transition period was over.
Immigration was also an issue that was raised early in the discussion, with reference to migrants who were crossing the English Channel. While social media coverage of this issue is very polarised, talking to people in greater detail reveals a more complex set of reactions. Those who took part in the discussions were sympathetic to the plight of refugees and they know that many of those crossing the Channel had fled war and persecution from countries such as Iran and Syria. There was an acknowledgement that people who get into tiny boats must be desperate.
“I know why they have left Iran and Syria, but it is difficult to understand why they are here when they have passed through so many countries.”
This compassion is matched with concerns that the Government was unable to control the UK’s borders and perceptions that people were crossing Europe to take advantage of the UK’s benefits system. No-one knew that asylum-seekers are barred from working in the UK. Concerns were also voiced that new arrivals often did not integrate into their new communities, because they were not working or spoke little English. Some people also felt that any discussion about immigration was shut down, or they feared expressing their opinions in case they were accused of racism.
A few people in the groups had met refugees and there were participants who were migrants themselves or had lived in other countries. There was a consensus that social mixing and being able to speak a ommon language helped dispel misconceptions about new arrivals.
While immigration is not the high-profile issue that it was in 2016, recent opinion polls show that it has not entirely dropped off the public’s radar. It can be an issue that divides us. But our discussion in the South East showed that, in contrast to polarised online debate, most people have more nuanced and balanced views about migration. The conversation showed the value of engaging people in discussions about ‘difficult’ subjects such as immigration, Brexit, race or gender identity. While participants had differences of opinion, people listened to each other’s views. They were willing to explore these topics and to come up with answers, not just critiques and complaints. Dialogue is a key component in overcoming our divisions and being able to disagree with each other better.
Talk/together is the UK’s biggest-ever conversation about what divides and unites us, and what could bring our society together in these difficult times. Please share your views by completing our short online survey at www.together.org.uk