Election essay: What's love got to do with politics?

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Media captionFergal Keane has been finding out what love means to people around Britain

Love is rarely discussed in the context of politics, but in the first of four Panorama pre-election reports, Fergal Keane considers the role it plays.

For the reporter who spends much of his working life at war there is a danger of returning home to Britain and seeing a country that seems a democratic paradise.

Contemporary Britain with its plethora of outspoken voices, noisy media, fractious but peaceful political debate, and belief in the rule of law, is as far as I can imagine from the brutal power politics of eastern Ukraine or the murderous sectarianism of Syria or Iraq.

As more than one colleague warned me - be careful not to see this Britain with rose-tinted spectacles because of where you usually work.

A fair caution. But only up to a point. I would prefer to see it another way. In a journey in which I looked at love in the politics of Britain, my experience of countries where love - of family, community, country - was in the process of being destroyed sharpened my understanding of what was being achieved in Britain.

At the outset is it fair to ask if love has anything to do with politics? Of course it does. It is at the heart of it all.

Love, or the absence of love, defines the health of individuals and societies. When our politics becomes the property of party machines or powerful interest groups, when it is reduced to sloganeering and point-scoring and a relentless cascade of negativity, should we wonder when public feelings about the political class are so steeped in cynicism?

And let me add the pathologically negative news media to the equation. Do we reflect the complex truth of Britain, the often infuriating and depressing but also inspiring and vibrant real politics of the country? Suggest that love has anything to do with politics these days and I suspect you'll be greeted with derision by most grizzled observers of the daily scene.

The politics of love that I have encountered is an essential but too little recognised British narrative. In the East End of London, I meet 97-year-old Beatty Orwell at Jewish Care's Stepney Community Centre. Beatty was born in 1917, the year before women first won the right to vote in a general election, and she cherishes her democratic freedom. As a young woman between the wars, she marched against Oswald Mosley's fascist blackshirts in the Battle of Cable Street.

Image caption Beatty Orwell

I ask her what she thinks about those who say they have no interest in politics and don't want to vote. "Makes me sick, makes me sick because they should learn history, what went on and what's going on," she replies. Beatty still firmly believes in the power of politics to change the world.

We chose to film in this area because it has historically been seen to represent a British spirit of resilience and a capacity to absorb change in the midst of major social problems.

The Battle of Cable Street

Image copyright Getty Images
  • Clash in London's East End on 4 October 1936, between police overseeing a march by the British Union of Fascists through London's East End, and anti-fascist protesters drawn from Jewish, Irish, socialist, and communist groups
  • Confrontation took place when police tried to take down roadblocks built by protesters to stop the progress of the march; about 175 people were injured during the disturbance and the march was abandoned
  • Events contributed to passing of Public Order Act 1936 which required police consent for political marches and banned wearing of political uniforms (such as the fascist blackshirt) in public

Among young Bangladeshi men, the largest population group in Tower Hamlets, the unemployment rate is double the national average. There is severe pressure on housing and services. Recently East London hit the headlines when three teenage girls ran away from home to join the extremists of Islamic State in Syria.

My starting point in the East End was to frankly acknowledge the problems. But having done so I decided to break with media habit, to focus not on the misery but on how individuals, families and groups were facing the challenges posed by economic crisis, family breakdown and intolerance.

Image copyright ALAMY
Image caption A Banksy image in East London

On the Teviot estate, once a byword for social breakdown, I meet Chrissy Townsend, who helps run numerous community projects that provide help for the young unemployed. The regeneration of the estate has involved some hard-headed campaigning and negotiating but driven by love of community.

"You've only got to look around this community, there's a lot of love," she says. "There's a lot of people working together - there's a lot of people that you would never have believed would work together."

About 15 minutes away at Queen Mary University of London in Whitechapel, Rabia Yasmine made a gesture of love that was individual but powerfully symbolic.

"As a Muslim and just as an educated individual I've been taught that when something is wrong it's wrong no matter which race or group is directed towards," she says.

This young Muslim law student - devout and veil wearing - extended the hand of welcome to a Jewish Holocaust survivor whom she invited to speak to fellow students.

"I thought that it was important for students as the future, they're future politicians, doctors, lawyers to hear what happened to Hannah Lewis so that it could inspire them to make a change," says Rabia.

Image caption Hannah Lewis and Rabia Yasmine

This rise in an informed civil society that works to change rather than destroy the system is one of the most profound developments in modern political history.

In his essay "The Lion and the Unicorn", written early in World War Two, George Orwell famously described this country as "a family with the wrong members in control".

Implicit in his often affectionate critique was the notion of a people who were content to let the ruling be done by the political class while they got on with life. The grumbling, stolid, individualistic citizens who knew they deserved better but whose "native genius" could only be set free by revolution.

The war passed and a kind of revolution followed. Not the radical overhaul of class and economy that Orwell wished to see but a great change nonetheless. In the provision of welfare, housing and education a society with more equal opportunity emerged.

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Image caption Elstree 1949: Minister Aneurin Bevan visits the 500th council house to be built after WW2

But there was change too in the way the British saw themselves in the larger world - the decline of empire accelerated with dizzying speed, the concept of Britain as a member of a European community rather than a mighty Atlantic power, and the arrival of mass immigration, provoked often painful soul-searching over identity and nationhood. The narrative of Britishness, bound together by a very complex web of class solidarity, imperial pride and shared cultural associations, began to fray. By the early 21st Century, with a significant part of the Scottish population voting for independence, the very idea of Britain was under threat.

On the left and right it has become a commonplace to decry the death of community. From "Broken Britain" to "Sick Britain", we are offered a picture of a once great nation fallen into moral decline. The danger with this narrative is that the people eventually start to believe it.

But I believe it is a lazy analysis. It is not the Britain I know, not only from my experiences in the East End, but in repeated journeys to some of the most economically marginal parts of the country.

Our problems are real and substantial. But so is the love being harnessed in communities across the country. It is that which makes this war reporter, this student of man's folly and cruelties, an optimist about Britain.

What Britain wants

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In the early 1970s, New Zealand's Prime Minister Norman Kirk (pictured) laid out a political philosophy which still resonates today.

People, he said, don't want much. They want: "Someone to love, somewhere to live, somewhere to work and something to hope for."

Relationships and a sense of community, a secure home; a secure job, and a belief that life will get better for us and our children.

The building blocks of "the good life", but what do they mean today as we grapple with globalisation, austerity, immigration, insecurities and uncertainty about the future? Is the job at hand to work out a new formula for fulfilment or to find a way back to these old certainties?

On the eve of the general election, four Panorama special reports attempt to come up with some answers. Fergal Keane on love, Mariella Frostrup on home, Clive Myrie on work and John Humphrys on hope - all putting Norman Kirk's formula to the 2015 test.

They'll explore what motivates us, how we feel, what we aspire to, what kind of country we want to be.

What Britain Wants - Someone To Love will be shown on Panorama at 20:30 GMT on BBC1, 2 March 2015 - or catch up on BBC iPlayer

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