Brexit And The Leadership Vacuum: the challenge to co-create a new story for our time….

It was a simple instruction, fraught with tension: take the Jubilee Line three stops and alight at Westminster. Navigating escalators, long pedestrian tunnels, herded into carriages assault the senses at the best of times. Factor in an all-American group of 33 teenagers, 16 adults, most of whom had never set foot on the tube, and this journey is an undertaking. As their guide (AKA: Tour Director) I had to make sure we remained a party of 49 at every count.

Pressure ensures sweet relief the other side – yet that can’t explain my delight at the group’s marvel at the Big Ben exit. The throng was stunned silent, craning up at the iconic skyline. The ultimate London symbol, Big Ben, wasn’t only the stuff of films. What they beheld was for real.

No one reached for a phone or camera to capture the moment. I turned to take in the same view. I lived in London for eleven years – and still feel the excitement of a tourist when visiting. With the same fresh eyes and vision, I also see the towering heritage of these small islands, the Houses of Parliament, the pomp, the grandeur, and free speech they house.

This capital city is a global showcase for diversity and progressive values. Perhaps for that, there was something achingly nostalgic and unmistakable in the red buses, letter-boxes, kiosks, and mounted police clip-clopping through Westminster square as we stood there. Those relics of another age blend into an emerging global story – and its threat of homogeny, of weakened identity. There was no spot that our eyes drank in from the threshold of the London Underground station that could be described as ordinary or forgettable.

Photos taken, we wandered about the square. At one end, facing the Houses of Parliament, beyond the Winston Churchill and Lloyd George statues, was the shrine for the murdered MP Jo Cox. Flowers still fresh, cards and letters covered the ground and boundary wall; a noticeboard had hundreds of signatures and comments.

“More unites us than divides us”. These words of Jo Cox, said as a freshly elected MP for Batley and Spen last year, encapsulate the choice of our times. Do we build our future on common ground and values – or perception of our differences? Is fear what connects us – or humanity?

These questions were uppermost that evening. This was Sunday after the Brexit vote. Barely forty-eight hours had passed since waking up to the Leave outcome. As the referendum votes were counted, my group had stayed in Barnsley, which proved to have one of the highest number of Leave voters.

As the results were analysed and a split emerged along education, income and class grounds, I became awake to the liberal privileged bubble I live in. Most of my friends were instinctively for Remain. Many I know celebrate their voice in their careers, creative arts and in community groups or platforms. It’s a freedom easily taken for granted as ‘normal.’ That, I reflected, explained my shock at the Brexit outcome – and the implicit borders being drawn up along economic lines: to protect jobs, public services, and sovereignty threatened by EU membership.

Like everyone else in the United Kingdom, I woke up on that Friday morning to a changed world. Never in my lifetime, have I felt the future to be so uncertain. The foundations of personal and national identity have been shaken up.

Until I took the tube to Westminster that Sunday, my judgment, fear and negativity were as stirred as anyone else’s. I began to believe Brexit was an expression of xenophobic, narrow-minded isolationism. Was this the face of popular Britain? Where was the colour of our diverse nation, the mixed communities and heritage, crucial to our global credibility?

The timing of the Americans’ visit to England was not lost on the 49-strong group. They were witnessing a turning point in British history. Little can we know how significant. One student told me, “we now know what’s possible. Your Brexit outcome is showing us the impossible can happen.” She was referring to Donald Trump’s unlikely popularity and the Presidential campaign that will seal not only their country’s fate across the ocean: but the world’s too.

Even the Democratic option, Hilary Clinton, was not inspiring these teenagers. They found her untrustworthy. Most of them weren’t old enough to vote. Well-informed, they had plenty of opinion. Aged 15,16,17 and a few who were 18, these students came from California, Michigan and Missouri – three very distinctive states and cultures. All shared a common disenchantment with mainstream politics.

I could recognize in these students a new kind of thinking. Their frustration, as well as bewilderment over narrow electoral choices, speaks for many. This generation is made up of tomorrow’s leaders. But today, everyone is being called to be their own leader. Whatever our age, creed and colour, we have a role to play in shaping a new world order. Brexit is an opportunity to reassess our values and priorities. Our inquiry has to include what can make a better world for our community of neighbours, parents, the unemployed, low-waged or professional among us. If we look about and see a vacuum – a lack of credible political direction – isn’t that an invitation to create our own vision of social order and justice, and model it for ourselves?

As a group, we explored London for three days. Every hour I spent walking the capital, my old home-turf, I felt increasingly connected to the Britain I love – unique and inclusive. These bright, curious and fun teenagers were here to sample the highlights of England’s literary heritage. We travelled from Manchester Airport, to the Lake District, Yorkshire, Stratford, Oxford, Bath and ending the rich 9-day tour at their departure point London.

I held a storytelling class one evening in the Lake District. We explored the power of the senses to bring alive our impressions as visitors and tourists. We tuned into the sound about us, the smell, feel and texture of nature – not only its surface colour, shape or size. We asked, ‘how do we put language to experience to share it with others?’

To be a storyteller is not just about being born a great writer or orator. It is a consideration not only for English literature students. Storytelling – the way we shape our experiences, beliefs and ideas – cuts into all aspects of our humanity.

Perception creates and destroys – depending on perspective. Is Brexit an opportunity for greater self-determination – or a narrowing of horizons? How do I see my life and all that happens with the fresh vision of a tourist? What comes alive around me when I’m awake enough to notice? Am I aware of the threads that weave through time, culture and place? What is the story I am telling myself about the world, my place within it, and all those I encounter?

Whatever Brexit means and becomes for each one of us, it could be the necessary jolt to kick-start a new awareness.

“Life is one big story if you think about it,” one student shared in the workshop.

Great artists and visionaries keep true to their unique way of seeing the world. Inspiration can be in the smallest everyday details so easily overlooked. Our greatest poets that these students came here to learn about have showed us how.

William Blake saw the world “in a grain of sand. And a Heaven in a Wild Flower. Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand. And Eternity in an hour.”

Wordsworth beheld “a host of golden daffodils…fluttering and dancing in the breeze”.

Shakespeare wrote, “It is not in the stars to hold our destiny but in ourselves.”

Society has always needed thinkers, shamans, poets to inspire us to open our hearts and minds. They show us the power and infinite choice in perception.

In our world, do we see catastrophe or opportunity?
Do we bemoan a destruction of old values and systems – or invite the birth of a new heart-centred era?

Waking up to the power of stories, we can embrace the paradox of our transience and the untold power each and every one of us must claim to create a world that we want, and want to leave for those to come. Our stories can heal or destroy. A collective story has greater power. We can become an unstoppable force when teamed together.

First we must get honest and clear with ourselves. What are we willing to give up and change in ourselves so the world reflects back that which we want to see and live in? What makes us feel truly alive? Brexit could be the gut-churning wake up to our storytelling power. Only as a united force can we then co-create a new story for our time.


Mags MacKean (c)