Working together

A key building in Findhorn needs repairing bringing about a sense of nostalgia for the early days of

It feels like old times. Gangs have been out all week, working on the roof of the Universal Hall, the splendid building at the heart of the ecovillage that plays such an important role in the cultural life of our community. After almost 30 years, it is beginning to show signs of wear and tear and the roof now has to come off to permit replacement of waterproofing membranes that keep the building dry.

The Hall figures large in the mythology surrounding the ‘heroic phase’ of Findhorn’s development. The image passed down is of great teams of volunteers out digging trenches, putting up buildings, turning fields into farms. This was the early 1970s, an era of great idealism with the model of the Israeli Kibbutz as a shining example of the power and beauty of communal solidarity.

Every so often, when we celebrate community anniversaries or the birthdays of those who were around during this period, the old photographs of the great work-gangs are wheeled out. As a more recent arrival – I have lived here for only around seven years – these photos tend to make me feel nostalgic.

And I remember back to a wonderful late summer’s day in a small intentional community I used to live in on the Dorset/Devon border, where a team of us rose before dawn and harvested an 11-acre hay field in one long day, pushing the last bale into place in the great barn in the late twilight just as the day’s first raindrops started to fall, before retreating to the local pub, to sit silent, exhausted and deeply happy with ourselves, with each other and with life.

Today, the greater individualism in society as a whole has also permeated the ecovillage movement. Most of us here have to make our own living. And while there are still some self-build projects, most houses are now built by professionals (even if often, those professionals are other community members that learned their trade on projects like the Universal Hall). The trenches for cables and pipes are now dug by paid teams wearing official hard-hats and uniforms – no apparent need for those in the heroic period, suggest the old faded photographs.

The Hall took ten years to build. A team of local skilled stonemasons was brought in to build the first wall. Then, partly due to financial considerations, partly because of the prevailing can-do spirit, they were released and community members who had worked alongside them took over. “There was generally always one person on the job who knew what he was doing”, one of the elders tells me, “but not always”. Still, go look at the walls and try to identify which is the one that was built by the professionals – I still cannot.

Work was completed on schedule in time to host the first World Wilderness Congress in 1983. Among the early speakers was Fritz Schumacher, of Small Is Beautiful fame. Now, the Hall is a venue for many important local festivals, including the Nairn Jazz Festival, the Aberdeen International Youth Dance Festival and for a host of dancers, singers and theatre troupes. It is perhaps the biggest draw that brings in people from outside the community.

So, it is fitting that it should be Hall that provides us with an opportunity to rediscover the joys of working together as volunteers in great teams. My prayer is that we re-acquire a taste for this way of working and that it gets woven back into the fabric of who we are as a community.

Jonathan Dawson is a sustainability educator based at the Findhorn Foundation in Scotland. He is seeking to weave some of the wisdom accrued in 20 years of working in Africa into more sustainable and joyful ways of living here in Europe. Jonathan is also a gardener and a story-teller and is President of the Global Ecovillage Network.
Photo: Getty
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If the left leaves it to David Cameron, we'll have Brexit for sure

Only an upbeat, leftwing case can keep Britain in the European Union.

After months flapping and hesitation, and with much of the reporting and detail so dull that it has barely penetrated the consciousness of even those who speak the language of ‘directives’ and treaty provisions, the EU referendum is upon us. With David Cameron signalling concrete outcomes for negotiations, we seem to be set for June, whatever the protests from opposition parties about the date being too close to local and national elections.  

Cameron’s deal, whose most substantive element consists of denying in-work benefits to European citizens, exemplifies the kind of debate that Conservative strategists want to create: a tedious, labyrinthine parochialism, blending the EU’s procedural dullness with an unquestioned mythology of the little Englander. Try actually reading the various letters, let alone the draft decisions, that Cameron extracted from Donald Tusk, and the agreement turns to putty in your head. But in summary, what Cameron is negotiating is designed to keep the EU debate as an in-house affair within the right, to continue and formalise the framing of the debate as between two strains of anti-migrant sentiment, both of them backed by big business.

The deal may be reactionary, but it is also mediocre in its scope and impact. The worries that many of us had in the leftwing pro-In camp, that Cameron’s deal would push back freedom of movement and working and environmental protections so far that we would be unable to mobilise for continued membership of the EU, can now be put to bed. Quite the opposite of allowing Cameron's narrative to demoralise us, the left must now seize an opportunity to put imagination and ideas back at the heart of the referendum debate.

The British political landscape in which that debate will play out is a deceptively volatile environment. Party allegiance is at a nearly all time low. Inequality is growing, and so is the gap between attitudes. The backbone of the UKIP vote – and much of the Out vote – will come from a demographic that, sometimes impoverished by the legacy of Thatcherite economic policy, sees itself as left behind by migration and change. On top of the class war, there is a kind of culture war underway in today’s Britain: on one side those who see LGBT rights, open borders and internationalism as the future; on the other side, those who are scared of the future. About the only thing these groups have in common with one another is their anti-establishment instincts, their total disdain and mistrust of politics as usual.

The only political movement to have broken through the fog of cynicism and disillusionment in British politics has come from the left. Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership of the Labour has unleashed something new - and while large parts of the press, and some Labour backbenchers, have portrayed this rise as a crusade of the “croissant eating” metropolitan elite, the reality is very different. The rise of the new Labour left has given voice to a renewed socialist and working class politics; its explicitly radical, outsider approach has given it traction across the social divides – among the young looking for a future, and among Labour’s old base. 

A politics of hope – however vague that term might sound – is the only real answer to the populist Euroscepticism that the Out campaign will seek to embody. Radical politics, that proposes an alternative narrative to the scapegoating of migrants, has to find voice in the course of this referendum campaign: put simply, we need to persuade a minimum wage worker that they have more in common with a fellow Polish migrant worker than they do with their employer; we need to persuade someone on a social housing waiting list should blame the privatisation of the housing market, not other homeless families. Fundamentally, the real debate to be had is about who the public blames for social injustice: that is a question which only the left can satisfactorily answer.

The outsider-led volatility of British politics gives the EU referendum a special kind of unpredictability. For voters who have lost faith in the political establishment – and who often have little materially to lose from Brexit – the opportunity to deliver a blow to David Cameron this summer will be tempting. The almost consciously boring, business-dominated Britain Stronger In Europe campaign makes a perfect target for disenfranchised public sentiment, its campaigning style less informed by a metropolitan elite than by the landed gentry. Its main weapons – fear, danger and uncertainty – will work on some parts of the electorate, but will backfire on others, much as the Better Together campaign did in the Scottish referendum.

Last night, Another Europe is Possible held a launch meeting of about a hundred people in central London - with the backing of dozens of MPs, campaigners and academics across the country. It will aim to provide a radical, left wing voice to keep Britain in the EU.

If Britain votes to leave the EU in June, it will give the Right a mandate for a renewed set of attacks on workers’ rights, environmental protections, migrants and freedom of movement. But without an injection of idealism and radicalism,  an In vote will be a mandate for the status quo - at home and in Brussels. In order to seize the real potential of the referendum, the left has to approach the campaign with big ideas and demands. And we have to mobilise.