It’s time to pull together, not apart

This last week has not just been a long time in politics: it’s been an age in our national sense of belonging. The Referendum result, with a vote to Leave the European Union, has dislocated identity and togetherness.

If a sense of belonging is fundamental to our tribal human nature, and our ability to flourish, what happens when we disconnect it? Undoing our belonging can have the most bewildering and unpredictable effects. Choosing to move house, or moving on from college or to a new job, is a positive change in belonging. But a sudden dislocation and extraction can be a deep existential trauma. Whatever box on the ballot sheet people were in, nationally our sense of belonging is in pain and for some, grief.

Pinning down a sense of belonging, looking at what’s actually shifted or what that means, can be hard. National culture is so amorphous, so varied, our links with Europe so entangled, our attitudes so polarised. It’s hard, at the moment, for people to see who’s ‘Us’ or ‘Them’ or the boundaries between.

Let’s look at this through a few key parameters of belonging.

First: Ethos
At the heart of a sense of belonging is a shared ethos and purpose. The political explosions and implosions of last Friday’s result still haven’t settled enough to see what’s really changed around that. But already the social aftershocks have shown the pain of dis-belonging. We’ve heard a good deal on those themes already, and seen the rapid canker of their ugliest interpretations.

Then there are symbols.
The potential of changing our name to The Dis-United Kingdom has become much more real. Even our formal symbols of belonging are uncertain: might our national flag lose the blue of Scotland?

What about daily habits and interactions?
The reaction in the last week shows how cultural norms that appeared to be a solid bedrock can turn on a sixpence. What’s ‘normal’ or ‘OK’ can suddenly shift. Individuals interpret the results on their own terms, giving licence to behaviour they may not have acted out before.

A sudden rise in open racist abuse, for example, has shaken British principles of tolerance that have long been held for granted, presumed to be the core of our ethos. We need to keep the habit: tolerance needs to be normal daily practice for it to stay alive.

What can we do to re-balance our sense of belonging?
We hate change, we humans. That sudden blood-rush to the back of the limbic brain takes us straight into ‘fight or flight’, away from the pre-frontal cortex, the seat of decision-making and emotional control.

Or, equally unhelpful, ‘flock and freeze’ – let’s all group together but not actually do anything.

We may hate change but we love belonging, we love feeling the safety of a group; and under pressure, that means we can retreat into small silos. Group-think and isolationism can take hold fast when people feel panicked. We form small groups, which aren’t interconnected, it’s a quick way to avoid exchange and strengthen in-groups. It’s tempting to protect ourselves in a solid huddle, even more for conflict than for collaboration.

We must be careful, that’s how belonging can cause harm rather than help, and it can be dangerous.

It’s a sobering irony of history that a week after the EU Referendum result we are commemorating the 100th anniversary of battle of The Somme – in the war that didn’t manage to end all wars. Interdependency helped to keep 71 years of peace. Now that we’ve chosen independence from our European neighbours, we have to institutionalise new ways to uphold peace and trade with them.

Whatever the uncertainty over Europe, we have to reaffirm what’s at the heart of our ethos. Look beyond the negative of what we’re NOT part of, to the positive: what DO we belong to? What DO we value?

Then we can make our decisions about how to react to this change, carefully, in the spirit of a long-held ethos, to heal (or renew?) our sense of belonging.