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6 December 2019updated 08 Jun 2021 8:19am

What we want: to prioritise tackling inequality

By Elif Shafak

After a recent panel on “politics and literature”, a young man in the audience stood up and said, “Can British authors please shut up about Brexit?” If authors born in the UK should keep quiet about politics, I wondered, what right did I – born in France, raised in Turkey – have to comment?

The upcoming election is going to be momentous in its consequences. This is more than a choice between parties and leaders. It is about norms, values, clashing identities and ways of imagining the future. It is also about language. The highly inflammatory rhetoric that has come to dominate the public space is deeply troubling. When tabloids publish pictures of judges with the word “traitors” underneath, we all must be alarmed. When opposition female MPs are receiving death and rape threats, we need to take it seriously. Rivals are not enemies; disagreements are not betrayal or “surrender”.

This is the kind of language that we hear in countries such as Turkey, Hungary, Venezuela and Brazil, where democracy is either broken or under attack. Russia and Turkey have elections but they are not democracies. For a true democracy to thrive, in addition to the ballot box, there has to be rule of law, separation of powers, checks and balances, media diversity, freedom of speech, minority rights and respect for political norms.

What do I want? I want to bridge the gaps that divide us into boxes of class, race and identity politics. I want to see inequality at the centre of all of our endeavours. The difference between rich and poor, and between rural and urban, is not only a contrast in accumulated wealth. It is a structural rift that affects everything from health to cultural productivity; from access to job markets to political power. Income inequality has been increasing alongside cuts to benefits. There has been a 165 per cent rise in homelessness and more than 14 million people are living in poverty, 4.6 million of them children.

The Britain that I want to see flourish is one where there is a substantial decrease in the number of hate crimes: where gay couples are not beaten on the bus; a Jewish father out with his son is not harassed on the Tube; Muslims are not stigmatised; black young men are not singled out and searched on the streets; families living on the periphery of big cities are not left out. A country where women do not have to fight any more for equal pay. How do we get there?

Two major paradoxes: firstly, even though we have entered an age of major crises on a global scale – climate, the dark side of digital technologies, extremism, the refugee crisis – it is tribalism that has been on the rise. Global problems cannot be solved with nationalism. Secondly, while moderates have become disengaged (one poll found more than 80 per cent of people were tired of seeing Brexit on the news), hardliners have become more passionate. How can we encourage moderates to be more involved?

Regardless of the outcome, we will still have a deeply divided country after the election. We all have a responsibility to go beyond our echo chambers to strengthen pluralistic, inclusive democracy. Whether we are authors, bakers, teachers, students… we should never shut up about politics. 

This piece is part of our “What we want” series. Read the rest of the articles here


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This article appears in the 04 Dec 2019 issue of the New Statesman, What we want