‘There is more that unites us than divides us’

By Bob Neill | 28 June 2017
  • Bob Neill

It has been an incredibly testing month for Britain. We have suffered three barbaric, cowardly acts of terror on our streets, have witnessed the unspeakable tragedy of the fire at Grenfell Tower and have endured one of the most unpleasant, acrimonious General Elections I have ever known.

Each of these has the potential to tear communities apart and harden entrenched, divisive views of the world, all at a time when Britain faces its biggest challenge for a number of generations: Brexit.

Across government there is a need to learn tough lessons from the events of the last month – and fast. But through all of this, one message rings true: ‘There is more that unites us than divides us.’

It is easy to see how these words, now synonymous with the legacy of Jo Cox MP, act as a reminder that we are strongest when we act together, whatever attack or tragedy befalls us.

They are an affirmation that the fabric of our society – one built on tolerance, compassion and equality – is non-erodible. But I would go further, arguing that they should also be a guide which underpins how we do politics.

We must be increasingly alert to the alienation and dislocation many people feel towards their elected representatives.

I believe we have a collective responsibility, at both the national and municipal level, to repair the sort of mistrust we have seen in the aftermath of Grenfell through action, not words.

People want reassurance, certainty and, above all, improved outcomes on the sort of things that can often be best achieved by a grown up politics that overcomes tribal loyalism.

Britain is approaching choppy and uncertain waters and we need a renewed willingness to work together, burying our political differences – both party-to-party and in terms of the internal schisms every party has – to steady the ship.

The challenges that confront us are bigger than party politics, or indeed any one individual.

Some of the enduring memories I will take from the last Parliament come from my work chairing the Justice Select Committee and co-chairing the All Party Parliamentary Group for London, as well as my involvement with things like the London Finance Commission and the Crossrail 2 Growth Commission.

The successes of these cross-party, cross-government groups, and countless others like them, both in Whitehall and in council offices around the country, demonstrate that a collegiate, non-partisan approach can help tackle complex problems across a range of issues.

Local government already has a strong track record of working together, pooling its resources and brainpower to achieve savings and drive innovation. This must continue.

Of course, our differences are a major strength of our democracy, and I am wary of suggestions that we should seek to negotiate our withdrawal from the EU by committee, a strategy which can prove fractious and ineffectual.

Everyone who accepts democratic politics has something to bring to the table, and we should be pragmatic and show good will, across Parliament and across government, to try to form a consensual approach to Brexit.

The same applies at the local level: as an example, just look at what more could be achieved were clinical commissioning groups to show a greater willingness to engage and cooperate with local authorities on things like the integration of health and social care.

We must ditch silo mentalities wherever they exist and act in faith that, while we may disagree on the approach, the large majority of us often have the same end goal in sight. This will bring about better outcomes and, I hope, give people, especially younger generations, an improved vision of and optimism in politics and the ability of the democratic process to good at all levels.

Bob Neill is a former local government minister and MP for Bromley and Chislehurst

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