I take a deep breath and plunge my raw hands into the murky water. Somewhere above my head, my brothers are wreaking havoc. I’ll get into trouble for that, I don’t doubt. I’m the oldest, and I’m the girl, so it’s my job to peel the potatoes when I get home from school, and it has to be done properly. I pull the last, elusive spud out from under all the peelings. The water runs icy off my red-raw hands. The knuckle of my right index finger’s cracked and bleeding, yet I can’t even consider putting warm water in the bowl. I asked once why I had to use cold, even in the depth of winter. I might as well have asked if it was OK to bludgeon the vicar to death. You don’t peel potatoes in warm water, my mother said. That was the end of the matter. Now comes the moment I hate most of all. I have to drain all this freezing, muddy water out of the bowl without blocking the sink with peelings. I’m eleven. My hand isn’t big enough to hold back the detritus the way I’ve been taught, so half of it’ll all end up in the plughole. I’ll have to plunge my sore hands back into the water and fish the peelings out, shred by icy shred. My friend’s mother uses an old colander. I watched her one day when I went to tea, and it looked so easy. I told Mum about it when I got home. I thought maybe the idea had never occurred to her. She sighed and shook her head. Apparently, that’s not The Right Way to do it.
I grew up with some odd ideas about right and wrong. Fast forward fifty years. I’m washing dishes in my own kitchen, and I plunge my hand into scalding water to fish out a plate. It’s wrong to add cold to the washing up, even if it’s blistering the skin of your fingers. In a lifetime I haven’t fully outgrown that one, though it serves no useful purpose but to make my life more painful. The England of my childhood was full of set ideas of How Things Should be Done. Our way was The Right Way and everyone else was just wrong. After all, we didn’t subdue an Empire without slicing bread correctly, or serving afternoon tea at the proper time.
The ongoing ruckus over the EU referendum will mercifully end at close of voting today. Recriminations and reverberations will doubtless rumble on for years whichever way the vote goes. Thus far I’ve kept my head more or less below the barricade. I’ve watched instead, with morbid fascination, as the two sides have polarised, growing ever more hysterical. The assassination of Jo Cox last week seemed the hideous, yet inevitable catharsis of so much fear and hatred.
It seems we’ve never been more conflicted about what it means to be British. A couple of years ago, Michael Gove, then the Education Secretary and now a prominent Brexiteer, announced that schools should be teaching ‘British values’. A straw poll conducted by a friend on Facebook at the time produced such diverse suggestions as greed, cricket, imperialism, binge drinking, exploitation, football hooliganism, shooting peasants (not misspelled) and complaining about the weather. The Daily Telegraph at the time published a more conventional list, including the rule of law, personal freedom, private property and the monarchy. I suspect Britain First or the EDL might add drinking lager and harassing people in the street.
As an erstwhile teacher of English as a foreign language, I’ve helped a few students prepare for the government’s Life in the UK Test. The official test handbook, available from HMSO, tells prospective citizens ‘there is no place in British society for extremism or intolerance’. It cites what it calls the fundamental principles of British life – democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and participation in community life. It also teaches would-be citizens a number of useful things about British culture that even us lifelong Brits don’t know. In fact, a 2012 survey for Channel 4 suggested that 7 out of 10 of us would fail the test. It’s heavily based on knowledge of the UK’s long and illustrious history (the book’s words, not mine). The Battle of Trafalgar’s right up there. Not a word about The Beatles.
The city I’ve made my home has a tradition of street art, another aspect of British culture that doesn’t loom large in the Life in the UK test. A few weeks ago, a stunning new piece appeared. It features Donald Trump and Boris Johnson locked in an intimate embrace, and suggests that this might be the future for a UK marooned outside the European Union. Bristol has a soul generous enough to laugh, but not everyone’s so sanguine.
The fear I’m sensing round me now is a familiar one. I started school in north London less than fifteen years after the end of World War II. My best friend’s parents had been refugees from Nazi Germany, and on Jewish religious holidays the classrooms in my primary school were half empty. It would have been natural enough to have bought into the unease that accompanied so much change. Yet the same mother who taught me that potatoes must be peeled in cold water also taught me tolerance. She taught me respect for those who’d fled war and persecution. She encouraged me to buy unfamiliar ice cream from the Jewish corner shop. She taught me to me speak politely to the ladies who phoned their meat orders to the kosher butcher with a number only one digit different from ours. My mother assured me that, had the Nazis won the war, I would never have been born. Instead she would have fought to the death for the freedom to welcome strangers, to refuse prejudice and to treat other members of the human race as equals. She laid the foundation for my core belief that all human beings are of equal value, and to this day I’ve found no good reason to question that principle.
So many people are afraid now. The flames of fear are fanned daily by media, politicians and big business, concerned only to sell themselves, so it’s small wonder so many people whose lives have disappointed them are swept up in the tide. Immigrants are the ones stealing jobs and depressing wages we’re told. It has nothing to do with companies out to maximise profits by buying us at the lowest possible price, without regard for our humanity. Thus the dispossessed find they have someone to blame at last. Here’s someone more vulnerable. Someone who can’t fight back. For too long we’ve ignored the impact of this fear. Now it’s spilling over as hatred, and we find ourselves living in a country where a man with a history of right-wing allegiances and fragile mental health has been pushed over the brink. Thomas Mair has taken the life of Jo Cox, a woman who devoted her life to the principles of caring and equality, because he perceived those very principles as a threat.
The referendum campaign has opened up Pandora’s box, and whichever way the vote goes today, we’d do well not to try to put the lid back on. We’ve seen an unholy alliance of Britain First, UKIP and the EDL campaigning for Brexit alongside Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. Somehow immigration has become the hot issue, based on fears whipped up by those whose interests are best served by setting the rest of us against one another. In reality, the alienated supporters of the extreme right would be best served helping to rebuilding the shattered trade union and labour movement alongside the rest of us, without regard for the nationality, skin tone or beliefs of their fellow workers. That way all of us will end up better off in the long run. But to work together will take courage, dedication and a determination to face down fear and prejudice. Those are values that demand co-operation, rather than the ‘take back our country’ mentality of the Brexiteer. They’re principles that transcend national boundaries and bring people together rather than setting them at each other’s throats. In today’s world, it seems those are risky values to hold dear.