There’s an old story that goes something like “Never judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes; you’ll have his shoes and you’re a mile away from him!”
OK, that’s not the real version – the original stops at the semi-colon and is a call to empathy with others. Don’t judge until you’re where they are.
I used to be quite a believer in this saying, but in recent years I’ve come to the conclusion that the world and the people in it – even my patch of the UK, here in Sheffield – is so diverse that this saying can come come over as a bit patronising and platitudinous even if it means well.
The recent US election and the previous Brexit referendum have brought this to my thoughts. In each case the ‘blame’ for the outcome has been placed squarely on (depending upon who you listen to) racists, xenophobes and bigots or the classic ‘blue collar’ working class who feel increasingly alienated and disenfranchised form the modern world, the political process, and those who run it.
I was born and raised in a small town in Nottinghamshire called Warsop. I left to go to university when I was 18, returned for a few months when I was 21, and haven’t been back for longer than a few hours at a time in the last 30 years. My initial world view was moulded there; when I was a child I could see 5 collieries from my bedroom window, and the career prospects for most young men seemed to be ‘go down the pit – there are plenty to choose from’.
Of course, that all changed in the 1980s and I saw Warsop change like many small villages and towns; the pits closed, to be replaced (nowadays) by large warehousing or light industrial or agri-business at a minimum wage. The recent furore over the Shirebook facility of JB Sports (just a couple of miles form Warsop) sums up a lot of what’s happened in such places.
Closer to home there are places like the Dearne Valley, where the steel works and collieries are now closed, and again a similar pattern of low skill, low wage business has taken root, with a larger number of unskilled and semi-skilled workers coming in from the EU to do some of the work.
In the Brexit vote, Mansfield, the nearest town to Warsop, voted 70% for Brexit. The ‘Dearne Valley’ has parts that border on Barnsley, Doncaster and Rotherham – all of which voted for Brexit with an ‘out’ vote of above 65% in each place.
This is one of those very unscientific analyses that would get me kicked out of the political statisticians club, but would seem to reflect that feeling that those who feel that they’ve been let down in recent years voted for Brexit. Whether as a slap in the face to the political elites, a wish for change or a genuine feeling that the EU was to blame for their predicament isn’t so certain. And in the US, people in the ‘rust belt’ states supported Trump because he offered the prospect of change. I remember years ago hearing many states away from either coast and the Chicago area referred to as the ‘flyover states’ by people who’d probably describe themselves as liberals. They were the states you flew over when you were going to somewhere that mattered.
I’m a middle class professional but have seen rates in my line of work ‘chased to the bottom’ as people cut their rates to win business away from low price contract bids from places like India, Eastern Europe and Russia and China. The true impact of globalization is not just that Christmas comes on 3 container ships from China; it’s that a lot of our jobs in manufacturing and increasingly service based businesses go to other parts of the world as well.
I’ve not walked a mile in the shoes of someone I grew up with in Warsop, but I have been shod in the same shoe-shop. I know what it’s like to feel your way of life and professional life threatened by ‘market forces’ that you can’t compete with, and that the major political parties seem unable or unwilling to acknowledge such fears and changes.
Lots of folks are drawing comparisons with the years of the great Depression and the rise of Fascism in Europe; I beg to differ; the EU already has many aspects of a corporatist state and it may well be that isolationism may be the best way for the UK to actually avoid being drawn closer in to it.
I can empathise with those who feel disenfranchised and alienated. I can empathise with the desire for change. It’s now up to politicians of all colours to realise that the model of the last 30 years is now broken here in the west, and that we need new solutions – a few new shoe-shops, please.