A nation divided and in denial: Can we fix it?

ReutersThe EU referendum has left British society seriously divided.

If the past few days have shown us anything is that we are a divided nation. Many of these divides I didn't even know existed, but this is my story of how I crossed one of them.

I grew up in middle-class suburbia in a commuter town with quick links to London, a few minutes drive from the countryside. I lived in a lovely house with both my parents, a garden, a car and a dog. I spent my childhood riding my bike, going to drama classes, singing in the local choir and collecting Brownie badges.

As teenagers, my Indie, arty friends and I began to feel a disquiet with this cocooned life, a sense that somewhere else there was a different world. We couldn't quite define it, but most of us got out as soon as we could.

I went to university in a big city and lived in a pretty poor neighbourhood. But the community was overrun with students and I never mixed outside this group. I was consumed with studying, socialising and going to Christian Union meetings.

Thirteen years ago I moved to London and a different journey began. My first temp job was working for a charity which helped people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds into good, middle-management jobs. Not only did this expose me to different cultures and experiences, but the office was situated in a lively part of town where I saw people who had escaped from a mental health unit being walked back to the hospital in their nighties, empty vodka bottles in the toilets and people drunk in the middle of the day. In fact after I left, at the café next door, a police raid led to the biggest ever discovery of a drugs stash in the country. Up to that point I thought London was about West End musicals and TopShop at Oxford Circus.

At the same time I began to attend a small inner-city church which would eventually turn my world upside down. I met a new kind of family made up of people with vastly different backgrounds from my own. A man who had fled Eritrea with his family after being persecuted for being a Christian, a homeless guy who would light up his cigarette during services, someone else who turned up with their dog and children who didn't live with their parents. I ate goat curry for the first time; and a police appearance during or after the church service didn't particularly shock the congregation.

In the words of Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, I began to feel I was a long way from home.

For the past eight years I have lived on council estates in both north and south London. I acknowledge that this intentional move, to live as part of communities living in and with poverty and deprivation, is one of privilege. It is my choice to live there and if I wanted, I could live somewhere else. For many this is not the case.

This journey has exposed me to the difficulties and pressures I never had to endure growing up but which millions of people in our country live with every day: food insecurity, cramped, unsafe and insecure housing, crime, violence, family members in prison, lack of green space, unemployment, poor education, mental health issues, drug and alcohol addictions, serious financial worries, absentee fathers. It goes on, and on.

I have seen time and time again how deeply unequal our society is – something I genuinely didn't understand as a child, teenager or student, and which I still have much to learn about.

I believe that millions of people who acutely feel this inequality took the opportunity of the referendum to voice their despair and disenfranchisement in a protest vote to leave the EU. The fact that so many were shocked by Brexit highlights our ignorance of just how unequal we have become.

It might sound crazy, but I think we are a nation in denial.

Coming from such a privileged background as mine it can be hard to understand why people don't just get a job, move house, speak up when things go wrong or just sort out the mess in their homes. My privilege is so ingrained, my education so established within me, that I have to deliberately choose to awaken to what disempowerment looks and feels like. Seeing the divide isn't easy when for most of my life I didn't think there was a divide; and when even now, I'd like to believe that really, we are all in it together.

Lynsey Hanley, author of Estates: An Intimate History, talks of "the wall within" which can exist for people who have grown up on council estates. As well as the physical walled world they live in, there is an interior wall in their minds, which leads to not being able to think beyond them. The idea of travelling further than a few miles away, getting an education or a job just seems completely out of their reach. They feel trapped and confined to the walls of the estate.

By contrast, I was brought up to have dreams and to believe I could go for them. Working as an artist for many years, I was physically very poor and did often go to bed hungry, but I was, and still am aspirationally rich. I believe I can travel the world, be an actor then an author then who knows what. Where I see walls I think I can walk over them, go round them or knock them down.

Many of the other divisions exposed in recent days I know little about, those between young and old, north and south, city and country. They are divides I have yet to cross and still need to learn more about.

I fear that many of us find it too hard to face up to these divisions and inequalities – and until we do, we can't move forwards to create a fairer nation. The more we look we more we'll see them – everywhere. But it's hard to acknowledge what we've become. It hurts me that half of the nation have a completely different view from my own. I'm scared about nationalism, racism and now an economic crash. Even I thought we were more united than we actually are.

If we are in denial, they say that admission is the first step on the road to recovery. So maybe that's where we need to start, admitting we've got a problem – and then maybe we can move on to fixing it.

I'll be sharing more of my journey crossing these divides in this column but Andy Flannagan and Andy Walton have been writing about some great ways to get started.

Katherine Maxwell-Rose is a writer, speaker and activist campaigning on issues of social justice and transformation. She is part of a community of peacemakers from the charity CHIPS (Christian International Peace Service) living on estates in Brixton affected by gang violence. She previously worked as a theatre-maker and performer, and is currently finishing her first novel, The Haze, a literary thriller set in Mumbai, India.

Lifestyle