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.
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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear