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10 December 2020

Build bridges, not walls

“We are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

After four bitter years of division in our country, the murdered Jo Cox MP’s words have never sounded more prescient. Fighting and in-fighting have rampaged like so many wildfires through the UK and around the world: between and within nations, political parties, campaigning organisations, the wider public, communities, families.

And as we take a breath to look at the havoc wreaked by these never-ending skirmishes for ideological supremacy, we have to ask… for what? Are we any closer to where we want to be, as a society? Are we any closer to where we want society to be, as campaigners? Covid aside, are we better or worse off than before the Brexit wars, the culture wars, the political wars, which have been burning with such ferocious intensity that rational debate has far too often run screaming from the building?

That is emphatically not to say we should down tools and stop campaigning for social justice and against poverty, racism, misogyny and the rest. It’s impassioned grassroots campaigning in the US that overcame black voter suppression, got out the vote in swing states and carried Joe Biden and Kamala Harris to victory. It’s campaigning here, turbo-charged by Marcus Rashford, that has forced two government U-turns, to ensure at least some of Britain’s hungry children get a square meal during school holidays.

There are clearly people who are psychologically fixed in permanent fight mode. Reasoning with them is the equivalent of bashing your head repeatedly against a brick wall in the hope that agreement or at least compromise, rather than brain damage, will result. And it’s easy, when campaigning on something you care deeply about, to fall into that fixed mindset trap too.

So here we are now, with collective – but let’s imagine not permanent – brain damage ourselves, battle-weary and sick of focusing on all that divides us. If the last few years have shown anything, it’s that we need to look at the bigger picture of what unites us, rather than getting caught up in the differences, the ideological spaces, even the small nuances, between us. Because if too much heed is paid to them, they can be widened and weaponised to destructive effect.

If content – concentrating on what brings us together – is king, then tone – the way we do that – is queen. It takes vigilance to iron out the warlike language, knee-jerk slights, instant reactivity, and “I’m right, you’re wrong” voice. It takes imagination – and sometimes persistence – to reach across the divide, opening up the conversations that need to happen with the right people at the right time.

Our work with More Than A Score has brought this home to us at Can Can.  The campaign already involves a large coalition of parties, from parent groups and school leaders to education psychologist bodies, academics and the NEU teaching union, with support from Labour, Lib Dems and the Greens.

This autumn we have worked hard on creating even broader alliances. We have built strong relations with headteacher union leaders and initiated promising conversations with Conservative MPs. So much so, that in December we will be holding a large public webinar, with speakers from across the political parties and teaching unions, as well as children, parents academics and headteachers. All our participants are able to put tactical and ideological differences aside to focus on one common aim that unites us.

We’re doing something that the campaign, that society at large, that our very souls are crying out for…

Building bridges, not walls.