Uncertainty is plaguing the transition to a post-Brexit Britain. Cities can, and must, address it head on in ways that work best for them.
The plot thickens. When Theresa May called a snap general election for 8 June she introduced the latest twist in the sordid Brexit tale that has been unravelling over the past year. The emerging plotline is peopled by a colourful cast of heroes and villains (though who fills which role is a matter of personal taste), teeming with intrigue and innuendo, and vacillating daily (or hourly) between tragedy and comedy.
We can ask how we got here, or prophesise about what the future holds, or pound the streets with our campaign of choice. We can also wring our hands, pray to our gods, and retreat into a life of Brexit-free asceticism. Or we can do something about the uncertainty that Brexit has produced. All these plot twists, the relentless manoeuvrings, and the onslaught of contradicting predictions have produced for many a paralysing uncertainty. Post-Brexit Britain has become a world of ‘what ifs’, and until documents are signed in Brussels it will remain as such. It’s not Brexit we need to deal with, it’s the uncertainty Brexit has created.
This is exactly what we’ve been doing in Bristol over the past months. Uncertainties are also opportunities, and opportunities are also openings. #BristolBrexit – A City Responds to Brexit embraces this message in a constructive way. Our collective aim is not to condemn or endorse Brexit, to explain or predict where it will take us, or to retreat to the pub in defeat. Our aim is to do something about the uncertainties brought about by Brexit in Bristol, for Bristol, and by Bristol. Throughout the UK new powers are being devolved to local government. Whilst we welcome these changes, the uncertainties brought about by Brexit can’t wait until they trickle down to Bristol. This uncertainty needs addressing now, and thus we need to do this ourselves.
Our aim is to do something about the uncertainties brought about by Brexit in Bristol, for Bristol, and by Bristol.
This is an ongoing project. It begins with seeking to identify and understand those uncertainties connected with Brexit. The University of Bristol with the support of the University of West of England and the University of Bath have joined forces with local practitioners, stakeholders, businesses, local government, neighbourhood associations, local residents, trade unions, legal advisers, charities, religious leaders, councillors, and educators to identify and interrogate some of these Brexit-specific uncertainties as they manifest in Bristol. This has taken shape around of series of three themed workshops organised by the University of Bristol in April of this year: ‘Suspended Citizenship’, ‘Catching up with the Left Behind: Empowering Local Communities in Bristol’, and ‘Projecting Bristol and Britain to a Post-Brexit World’. Every day between now and May 23, when we hold a public event to synthesise all that we have learned, we will publish a new article on openDemocracy elaborating one of the perspectives represented in these workshops and some of the interventions we have proposed for moving forward.
The purpose of the ‘Suspended Citizenship’ workshop was to confront the uncertainties and insecurities experienced by the city’s immigrant population in relation to their post-Brexit legal status. Brexit is conceived firstly as a challenge to EEA citizens in the UK, and rightly so as their future hangs in the balance. But the workshop participants also recognised that this challenge extends beyond our conventional understanding of EU nationals to include other, often marginalised immigrant populations in Bristol, such as Somalis (many of whom hold EEA passports, or are married to someone holding an EEA passport). Workshop participants considered these uncertainties not just for current and future permanent residents, but also for temporary workers from the EU. Indeed, much of their conversation focussed on these more vulnerable versions of the EU national, the ones perhaps lacking the human, social, or cultural capital to effectively navigate the post-Brexit rights landscape.
To begin to address these uncertainties, workshop participants discussed plans for community engagement and communication to get essential information disseminated to and through local communities. Part of this involves a multilingual leafletting plan to empower local citizens at the point of access to local services. Plans for an employment charter for Bristol were also discussed to stress the values of diversity, protections from harassment and discrimination, and freedom of association.
Catching up with the left behind
Our second workshop, ‘Catching up with the Left Behind: Empowering Local Communities in Bristol’, explored the dislocations of some of those typically seen as (or who see themselves as) ‘left behind’ in Bristol’s inner city and outer estates. These neighbourhoods experience this isolation differently and have little contact with one another. But bringing local residents, community activists, and neighbourhood associations from across the city together revealed their shared frustrations and insecurities. Workshop participants discussed challenges related to the uses (and misuses) of shared neighbourhood spaces; frustration and resentment expressing itself as racism and xenophobia; and the city’s youth as a standalone category of the ‘left behind’ in itself.
Many of these challenges are rooted in problems that long predate Brexit. But Brexit has given renewed expression to them, sometimes exacerbating them, sometimes even ameliorating them, and at other times bearing new challenges. The aim of the workshop discussions however was not to uncover the root causes of these uncertainties but to begin thinking about the sorts of interventions that could be developed to bring these communities back into the fold of civic life in Bristol. Separate working groups were established around neighbourhoods, racism, and youth to explore the potential for co-produced participatory research around these themes.
Projecting Bristol and Britain to a post-Brexit world
The third and final workshop, ‘Projecting Bristol and Britain to a Post-Brexit World’, began to tackle a much different set of challenges connected to Bristol’s economic future. The aim of the workshop was to facilitate a dialogue between academic experts and stakeholders across Bristol around interim solutions for addressing the uncertainty surrounding an assumed exit from the single market. Specific discussions centred on how to retain and attract talent for the city, future sources of international funding, market access both within and outside of the EU, and how to project Bristol as a global city in the UK and beyond.
As in the other workshops, concrete interventions were developed to address these and related challenges. A working group has been set up to help conceptualise and develop ‘The Bristol Brand’ post-Brexit; the university and business sectors are also joining forces to collectively lobby the European Parliament and European Commission on areas of interest to both sectors; and another working group was formed to develop a market strategy for the city’s business and finance sectors.
Now for the hard part
This is by no means an exhaustive account of all the uncertainties or challenges facing Bristol today, and much remains to be discussed. The ten pieces contained in this series reflect both the breadth of the topic and the diversity of opinion in the city. They were written by a diverse cross-section of workshop participants, including charity workers and local residents, academics and business people, lawyers and students. Each contribution grows out of, but is not constrained by, the discussions had at the workshops. As such, they are the next step in elaborating both the challenges and the possible interventions that would address them.
On the final day of this series, 23 May, we will hold the public event #BristolBrexit – A City Responds to Brexit. This will take place in the @Bristol Science Centre from 10:00 am to 1:00 pm. The aim of the event is twofold. First, we will showcase our current gains from the workshops and take these discussions further in dedicated breakout sessions with an assemblage of previous workshop participants joined by new stakeholders and practitioners recruited from across the city. The second equally important aim is to invite discussion around new challenges – and new interventions – related to Brexit and Bristol. The framework of the event, featuring interactive market stalls and fish bowl discussions, will facilitate dialogue between diverse segments of the city’s population. We will be joined by Bristol University’s vice chancellor and the Bristol’s mayor.
This is not an end, but a beginning. It is a call to action to identify the uncertainties that we face in Bristol post-Brexit, and to take steps toward alleviating those uncertainties. Nobody knows Bristol’s problems as well as Bristolians. Nobody is better placed to fix those problems than Bristolians.