Values matter - we can't be silent in Brexit Britain | ActionAid UK

Girish Menon

Chief Executive, ActionAidUK

Equality. Solidarity. Tolerance. I think that most of us, if asked, would say that we want to live in a society characterised by these values. But these words only become values if we’re prepared to live them, promote them and defend them, especially at times like these.

12-year-old Sopheak (left), hugs her best friend Yain, in Cambodia.
12-year-old Sopheak (left), hugs her best friend Yain, in Cambodia.

Since the EU referendum result, the police have logged a fivefold increase in the number of race-hate incidents reported to them. Now some might say that, as an international development charity, it’s not our place to comment on these worrying events unfolding in the UK

But I would disagree. Underpinning ActionAid’s work across the world are universal humanitarian principles — those exact same principles of equality, solidarity and tolerance. We stand with people in poverty, we work with them, and together we challenge structures that reinforce inequality and discrimination. Realising these principles is fundamental to achieving our vision of a world without poverty and injustice.

We have to speak out

So we cannot be silent when we see these values under threat here at home, in our own communities. We all have to speak out — whatever our political affiliations, whatever our age, whatever our background — to show that those of us who share these values are united in our rejection of hatred. Now is not the time to stand by, in the hope that someone else will speak out on our behalf.

Underpinning ActionAid’s work across the world are universal humanitarian principles — those exact same principles of equality, solidarity and tolerance. 

I have lived in the UK for 11 years. I am proud to call it my home. But last weekend, as I was walking with my wife and my cousin from our house in south west London to our local bus stop, I myself experienced something of the ugly side of post-Brexit Britain. 

As we walked past a block of flats, we saw two middle-aged men and a woman standing on a balcony. Immediately, they started shouting at us: “Get out! We’re out of the EU now, so get out!” — and other words that I won’t repeat here. We could still hear them as we walked out of sight.

I was shocked. It didn’t feel real. Firstly, because it seemed impossible that this could happen in such a multicultural city as London, but equally because these weren’t some random passers-by. These were people who live just round the corner from me, who decided to shout abusive language as I walked down the street with members of my family, completely unprovoked.  

All three of us decided just to keep walking away. I was almost hoping that my wife and cousin wouldn’t have noticed, though of course they did and we shared our disbelief when we reached the bus stop. When my wife and I walked back, past the same block of flats, a police car was parked outside. 

We all have to speak out — whatever our political affiliations, whatever our age, whatever our background — to show that those of us who share these values are united in our rejection of hatred. Now is not the time to stand by, in the hope that someone else will speak out on our behalf.

Now, I refuse to believe that this country has fundamentally changed in two weeks. The country that I have lived in for over a decade is a country of strong humanitarian principles. That commitment, which is so central to British culture and society, doesn’t vanish overnight. 

Demonstrating our commitment to equality

So my question is: how do we make sure that these messages of tolerance and peace, of inclusion and welcome, are strong and visible in our society? How can we defend these values, that are at the core of ActionAid’s work, in our own country? Because we must stand up for these values in the face of those who may seek to undermine them.

Firstly, as I discussed in my blog last week, we need to recognise that the drivers of poverty, which include inequality and discrimination, are not just problems that people are facing on the other side of the world. These are problems right here at home. 

Secondly, as politicians debate what our exit from the EU will look like, we need people with voice and influence to stand up and show that one thing is non-negotiable — the human values that define British society. And it’s up to the rest of us to demonstrate our commitment to equality in any and every way that we can, as individuals and as groups. Whether that’s showing small acts of kindness and solidarity to each other, or coming together to make our convictions heard in public spaces up and down the country — we all need to get involved. 

One small way that you might want to do this is by sharing this blog, to spread the message that we stand firm for love, tolerance and inclusion. Thank you for standing with us. 

Photo credits: Harry Freeland/ActionAid