Welcome to Life in 361˚. This blog is an 'open journal' - a space where I keep notes on bits & pieces I come across day-to-day - including books and articles I've read that I feel are worth sharing, interesting pictures and photos (I'm a visual learner, you see), random musings - and anything else that happens to catch my eye or ear. It also acts as a kind of 'open experiment' in terms of developing my views and writing skills - and networking with other people of a like-mind.

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Shifting Landscapes

At this point last year I spent some time in Fife, Scotland, in what has become a family tradition of going away for a few days around each Whitsun to somewhere previously not visited in Britain. This excursion north of the border was my first time really exploring the country, taking in Edinburgh, Dundee and St Andrews along with the beautiful Scottish coastline and inland rural areas. We even managed to go ‘seal-spotting’ on a quiet patch of beach, nearly joining the ranks of those who make the press for stories of folly as the tide quickly swept in, leaving us hastily taking off our shoes and socks before racing back to dry land!

What struck me about Scotland is that in many ways, it could ultimately feel like anywhere else in these isles. The slightly reserved yet friendly character of the people set amongst a landscape of industry, heritage and green all seemed strikingly similar to the north of England where I hail from and feel strong connection to, and much of the south of England outside of London with the likes of East Anglia and Hampshire springing to mind as not too dissimilar.

The rural areas do noticeably change, with the south of England far more fitting with the common perception of our island as one of green gently-rolling hills, dotted with spires and country pubs, whereas once you pass the Midlands and Cheshire, the landscape becomes increasingly patched with rugged wilderness as you reach Hadrian’s Wall and enter what is romantically known as Caledonia.

Conversely, it strikes me that the towns and cities do not change much physically with most containing a blend, to varying degrees, of sixties blocks, modern glass structures, terraced housing built in the local brick, unused or converted mills, industrial parks, relatively new ‘toytown’ estates, supermarket chains and the odd grand centrepiece building of imperial Britain, usually a town hall or cathedral.

Among this - if you look – you will notice a plethora of yesteryear churches from various denominations, some appearing to rise out of their surroundings proudly proclaiming the faith despite the relative hollowness inside whilst others nestle away, often deliberately so, as lesser-known but nonetheless loved sanctuaries - often housing the latest community of believers, now dwindling, who can trace their roots back their over generations. A testimony to Britain's inherent diversity.

In many of our towns and cities – again if you look – you may also notice a relatively newly-built mosque or temple arising out of the landscape, built to further the local community’s faith but also as an expression of their cultural heritage, their reconstruction from memory of somewhere else – and as a result, the result often appears somehow abrupt and out-of-sync. The Sheffield Islamic Centre is an example of this, a much-needed and in many ways beautiful building, yet a stark contrast to the neighbourhood in which it sits with the funders and designers of the building deliberately seeking to re-create a ‘Persian style’ house of Muslim worship. I am sure it will come to be treasured by all Sheffielders in time yet in the years since its completion, I have heard many express a mix of surprise, curiosity and – for some – concern over its arrival, despite the fact Muslim people have been a part of the city for at least sixty years.

All this observation leads me to a reflection on the political landscape in Britain in 2014. As with previous elections, I have watched this one with interest. And perhaps more so given the rise of the UK Independence Party under Nigel Farage.

As I will have mentioned before on this online journal, my own politics were very much steeped in the Labour movement as a child (par for the course for 1980s offspring of most working class families in Sheffield), and following the gradual disillusionment with the New Labour project, I turned to the Liberal Democrats in my late twenties. This shift in allegiance also saw a change in the nature of allegiance, from one of unquestionable loyalty to the ‘good guys’ to a conditional, pragmatic supporting of the ‘best fit’. And more recently, following their partnership with Tories (one I do not consider wholly bad but do find frequently disappointing), I have reached my mid-thirties with a real sense of having no political affiliation.

Given my education, as one of the first members of my family tree to go to university, and subsequent professional career, I cannot speak fully as a member of the traditional working class but nor would I regard myself as traditionally middle class either. Indeed, I would probably identify as ‘new affluent worker’ or ‘technical middle class’ if we go with the new seven-tiered class system proposed by researchers of the ‘Great British Class Survey’ last year.

Standing looking at the political situation from this position, I can nevertheless understand and empathise much with the rise of the UK Independence Party under Nigel Farage – a movement pilloried, rightly or wrongly, by the three main political parties and their supporters (including a leading figure in the Church of England) as xenophobes, as extremists, as the preserve of the uncouth and unintelligent and so on. This does not make me necessarily an avid UKIP supporter or sympathiser but I am ready to say – at the risk of being subject to the same level of abuse I have seen traded amongst ‘friends’ on Facebook who have said the same in casual conversation – that I can relate to the psyche, as much as I can, of many of those who turned their backs on Labour and the Lib Dems and essentially voted for what started out as a Conservative splinter group.

Despite calls from Nigel Farage not to buy into ‘spin from the commentariat’ and to take them seriously as possible contenders for power it seems to me the press analysis of UKIP's success as a protest vote is largely accurate. And it is a protest vote with long roots, fuelled by a cocktail of grievances – with scepticism over the European Union merely forming the tip of the iceberg. This protest takes on a mix of emotions, centred primarily around globalisation, and exposes feelings of disempowerment in the face of large corporations, feelings of insecurity at the speed of social-cultural change (with migrants taking the greatest share of blame) and a general lingering feeling of becoming a stranger in previously familiar territory. Even football, the passion of many, is widely regarded as being corrupted rather than enriched by foreign investment. This brings to mind the famous quote from Churchill:

“We are with Europe but not of it; we are linked but not compromised. We are associated but not absorbed. If Britain must choose between Europe and the open sea, she must always choose the open sea.”

It seems to me much of the British voting public currently neither want Europe nor the open seas; the ebbing and flowing tides that surround us, rather than being a source of adventure and prosperity as they once were, bring about a fear as to what they might wash up next.

But it is not just globalisation that seems to concern many ordinary British people. Reflecting on various trips around Britain, it also occurs to me that although we are a relatively small island, there is a sense in places such as Scotland, Yorkshire, Cumbria and Wales of becoming increasingly distant – economically, culturally and psychologically - from the powerhouse of London. Again, if you place yourself in the shoes of people within these areas, particularly so those who are struggling or have faced struggles, then it is not hard to understand why there is agitation amongst the periphery, in varying degrees and forms, for some kind of ‘independence’ from the centre – be that the SNP or UKIP.

This disaffection is compounded by events such as the MPs expenses scandal, confirming suspicions that we are living under a political class who are unable and unwilling to understand their subjects, an ‘I’m all right Jack’ elite benefitting from the shrinking world whilst the average citizen struggles. Ed Miliband’s failure to know his own cost of living, despite this being the crux of his party’s campaign, will probably be remembered as one of the defining moments of the 2014 elections – just as Gordon Brown’s dismissing of a Rochdale lady as a ‘bigoted woman’ after she expressed concerns over immigration in the 2010 elections became a defining moment. And such gaffs are not necessarily ones which can be ‘coached out’ by PR gurus as they reveal the true character of their architects.

In my own social circle the tweets of Sheffield MP (and Deputy Prime Minister), Nick Clegg, declaring his love for Arsenal following their FA Cup victory, did not pass without the odd dig – this may seem trivial and parochial, but it points to a wider sentiment about him not being ‘of the people’.

The Bible has many narratives of lamentation and protest. The most famous are those arising out of Jewish exile from Judah. Perspective is always relative, limited by your horizons, but maybe what we see in the vote for UKIP – in what is a materially rich, relatively free nation far removed from ancient Babylon – is a similar cry of loss and alienation. It is not a hopeful narrative that UKIP offer, it is a damning bleak critique, but it is a narrative all the same and one that clearly has resonance, and therefore cannot simply be dismissed as invalid and unworthy of consideration.

And Nigel Farage – acting in the role of the prophet Ezekiel - serves the damnation up expertly, with his fierce debating skills and a sense of him being fully committed to what he says – a stark antidote to the ‘career politics’ that many voters perceive in other political leaders. Maybe it is all simply an act, maybe Nigel Farage is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, but we cannot deny there has not been a politician for some time to have such popular appeal – summed up by one voter shown during a televised meet and greet before the election beseeching him with, “Don’t change Nigel, keep doing what you’re doing, saying it how it is.” Even his sworn enemies are beguiled, their attention helplessly drawn to him.

Where does this leave British politics? And wider society? It is hard to say but if we take the ancient Jewish peoples of narrative as example, we can draw hope that from their alienation and loss in Babylon eventually came renaissance. Unfortunately, any renewal for politics and society in hierarchical Britain rests with the top and history shows us those accustomed to power and privilege very rarely abdicate on their own volition – George Fox style leaders, charismatics who actively relinquish dominance, are few and far between. There are also structural issues relating to the Westminster first-past-the-post voting system that prevent a greater diversity of politics – locking out emergent voices that perhaps need to be heard - again, creating rightly or wrong the feeling of disempowerment and distrust.

So for now, I feel, we are likely to see more retreat into our respective 'filter bubbles’, more apathy and more conflict.

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