Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Noblesse oblige, Lichfield

I'm writing these words on a sunny morning in Lichfield, probably the most stereotypically, quintessentially English place I've ever lived in. 

The cafe I'm writing in is just a small bound from both the ancient cathedral and the house where Darwin's grandfather lived and worked. A quick stroll around the city cenre brings me to eighteenth century coaching inns, Tudor townhouses, the expansive glory that is Beacon Park and much more besides.

And there's more - the local arts festival is in full swing this week - bringing people into our micro-city, visiting its many independent shops and lending Lichfield a sense of occasion it (with a certain self-satisfaction) accepts as its due. Events throughout the summer showcase its thriving community and voluntary scene.

In short - I love living here.

Neartopian towns

In the past, giddy with potential, I've described places like our little city (or in different ways Brixton, Hebden Bridge or Bishops Castle, say) as neartopian

This isn't because they are remotely within touching distance of perfection - in particular their pay-to-play mentality can sometimes be exclusionary. But Lichfield and places like it do foster some of the social, political and artistic conditions for imagining a better future*. 

And boy, do we need that at the moment.

Brexit mood music

Even in a place like Lichfield, you can't escape the events of the past month. The people on the table next to me in the cafe are party activists - councillors, maybe - avidly dissecting the results of the EU referendum and its consequences. To say everybody's (still) talking about Brexit is not to resort to banality - it's barely an exaggeration.

Now, I didn't write this to rehash arguments from Leave or Remain. Regardless of how you voted, we all have to deal with the same reality. The key questions about the future - about the economy, about health and social care, the enviroment and many more - remain unchanged and unanswered from before.

What the referendum campaign and result has done with all of this is it has upped the tempo. Turned up the volume on disagreement that was already there**. Conjured both crisis and, yes, opportunity.

I've read a lot about economic and political instability in the wake of the referendum result. I've seen a lot less about its social and pyschological impact (with one critical exception which I talk about below) but this will flow, subterranean, through the country too. 

Taken together, I honestly don't think you can underestimate what a potentially big deal all of this is. History has strong lessons about what happens when societies suffer under distrust, fear and political impotence.***

Noblesse oblige, Lichfield

So, at at a time like now, it is critical for civil society (stripped of sociological jargon, for people) that we reach out, talk to one another and listen - the very opposite of a Twitter barracking. We will neither find solutions to the challenges of the hour, nor heal the wounds of political division, if we cannot do this.

We have an opportunity here to find shared hope for the future and points of unity. 

And since Lichfield's has 250-odd years of practice at this (hi Sammy J, hi Erasmus D!), if we are the beneficiaries of this inherited social capital then, noblesse oblige! Which is to say we should step up and use it in the best of causes.

If you reckon this is a position you can take in the group that you volunteer with - go for it! Or if you'd like to start a conversation with me about this, please use the comment box below.

But if you're looking for something concrete - I have a suggestion for that too.


This handmade but heartfelt tribute to MP Jo Cox, murdered last month, was left outside the Oxfam Bookshop in Market Street for several days afterwards, acting as a place where people could mark their respect for a public servant who died doing her duty.

Her death has become symbolic of one of the most troubling trends coming out of the EU referendum campaign: the sense that it empowered a hopefully small number to become much more brazen in their racism and bullying.

Whatever happens next, whether you voted Leave or Remain, one thing I hope we can agree on is that this is unacceptable and that we can try our hardest to be a tolerant and inclusive society inside or outside the EU. 

Or, to use the now-iconic quote from Jo Cox's maiden speech in the Commons, that 'we are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.'

With that in mind, The Hope Not Hate campaign are calling for people across the UK to organise local #MoreInCommon meetings to discuss how we can bring our community together around what we have in common and around our shared values.  

To date, 300 meetings are in the pipeline. It seems to me like an easy thing we could do in Lichfield to begin our shared project of hope and unity is to add our voices to something like this.

So, if this sounds up your street, please add your voice in the comments and we'll get this ball rolling.

Full circle

I started this post by talking about Lichfield, its history and beauty, but also its potential to help imagine a better future. At a time like this it would be all to easy to sit back and cultivate the former while neglecting the latter. Let's not make that mistake. 

Noblesse oblige, Lichfield, noblesse oblige.

*This is not to say that only 'nice places' are allowed to imagine the future - quite the opposite. There's nothing like a frontline for sharpening your need for a solution. But I would argue certain towns or communities, fortunately for them, have an intellectual tradition, a sense of civic space, a sense of voluntary action, a set of attributes which provide a platform to help locals conceive of a better future. You could get this in communities as wide-ranging as Christiania, Camden, Cuba or Clitheroe - the point is we live in a time where such places have a duty to release that social capital like never before and share it with others.

**Lichfield district voted 59-41 in favour of leaving the EU.

*** No, I don't mean the one you can't talk about without risking a Godwin's Law infringement, although Weimar remains a tragic study in democratic failure.

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