Reflections on societal healing
The morning after I had spent a day in hospital having a hernia operation, I shared some reflections on my first visit to an operating theatre in the ultra-modern facilities of our local public hospital. The experience reinforced my admiration for EHIC – the European Health Insurance Card – which provides for free reciprocal collaboration between European health services, including the NHS. I learnt that over 27 million EHIC cards have been issued by the NHS in Britain, but, worryingly, that there is no certainty that they will remain valid if there is a no-deal Brexit.
When I woke up this morning after a couple of days of discomfort and tiredness, I felt little pain, had an appetite for a good breakfast – including a delicious slice of plum tart, freshly baked by a neighbour “to aid my convalescence” – and felt more energetic. Our neighbour also brought me a flask of home-made wine, proposing it as a pain-reliever.
All this prompted me to marvel about the extraordinary capacity that our bodies contain to heal themselves after traumas, rebuilding damaged tissue, veins and skin. Mine was a small trauma but clearly the process was moving forward rapidly automatically.
When societies have been through traumatic periods, they, too have an in-built capacity to heal their divisions which grows as people become tired of conflict. The very fact that we can, as British citizens, feel welcome to live here in Italy, a country with which we were at war when I was born, is testimony of the capacity of former enemies to engage in reconciliation, rebuilding of trust and participation in joint action for the common good.
My most vivid exposure to national healing processes took place just over20 years ago in Angola as the country moved towards the formation of what was to turn out to be a short-lived Government of National Unity and Reconciliation. As leader of a small international team trying to foster the emergence of a consensus between the two warring parties on future agricultural and rural development policies, I landed on a small strip near Bailundo, the UNITA headquarters. My Angolan colleague, who worked for the government side, took about ten minutes to summon the courage to come out of the plane. Within minutes, he found himself hugging members of the reception team, several of whom had been childhood friends but had ended up on different sides in a futile war.
Most of us naturally abhor conflict and so it is surprising how easily we can get drawn into it and how difficult it is to return to a situation in which we can go about our normal lives at ease. Fortunately, the people of Britain are not in open conflict. But the way in which the 2016 EU referendum was conducted stoked up tensions between us, even within families and amongst neighbours, in spite of the fact that the nature of our relationship with other European countries had not, until then, been an issue of the slightest concern to most of us. During campaigning and after the referendum result, there has been a rise in xenophobia and in the incidence of hate crimes which have made many foreigners who have been living and working in Britain for years – just as we reside in Italy – feel less welcome.
The impression we get – albeit from a distance – is that the majority of British people would love to see their lives return to the normality of four years ago. The problem is how to trigger this de-escalation of tensions, especially when there is no agreement amongst our leading politicians and our MPs on what kind of future relationship we should have with our European neighbours.
It is encouraging that May and Corbyn have been jointly exploring a way forward. However, it is unlikely that they will come to an agreement unless they both have the courage to admit that they have looked at all Brexit options but have concluded that there is none that can offer the country a brighter future than staying as we are and having a voice in making decisions which, if only for geographical reasons, are bound to affect us. If they have the guts to stand up to the vocal extremists in each of their parties and put their conclusion to a public vote, they will learn whether they have correctly properly interpreted the current will of the majority of the people who now have a better idea of the likely consequences of different ways forward.
A week ago, Jeremy Corbyn hinted that this was the way in which he was thinking when he said “we should include the option of having a ballot on a public vote on the outcome of the talks and negotiations on what we’re putting forward. I would want that to be seen as a healing process and bringing this whole process to a conclusion.”
Hopefully Theresa May will also be bold enough to take the same line in the coming weeks and that, together, through their self-honesty, they can begin to nurture a badly needed healing process.