Calling London: From a Nation Divided

In the aftermath of World War II Dr John Bowlby created a theory of infant attachment that proposed the most important outcome of early childhood was to connect the child to other people, both socially and emotionally. The Internal Working Model is the part of the theory which describes the way that infants construct their own self-worth and begin to predict responses from others. If early relationships are affectionate, children’s expectations become ‘other people are generally kind, and I am lovable’ but if relationships are troubled they will instead develop a belief that ‘other people are unpredictable, not always kind, and I may not be lovable’ or in extreme cases, ‘other people are unkind and I am not lovable’. A childhood in which the child continually subjugates his or her own basic needs to those of others eventually spawns feelings of rejection and hopelessness, which is highly likely to feed into a later simmering anger towards society in general.


Credit: Richard Laxa

Bowlby never proposed that his theory had a sociological application; however following the very public killing of George Floyd in the USA, the most recent in a long line of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) people who have died as a result of policing in both the UK and USA, the Black Lives Matter marches in both nations indicate that this may be a logical and useful extension of the theory. People are protesting longstanding societal carelessness towards the lives of BAME people, which has resulted in a feeling of injustice and oppression amongst BAME communities; a collective feeling of the individual rejection, hopelessness and anger described by attachment theory.

Those of us who work in inner cities with large groups of BAME and immigrant communities are very familiar with the ongoing issue of concerns being given scant public attention, or even completely dismissed by the mainstream, sometimes through an evocation of a ‘blame the victim’ rhetoric. Such injustice penetrates deeply into society, creating a patchwork of prejudice, discrimination and systemic inequality, which encompasses not only the BAME community, but other disempowered groups such as socio-economically deprived communities, women, Eastern European immigrants, LGBTQ people, disabled people and others who do not fit into the norms constructed by wealthy, white, heterosexual, middle-aged British-born males.

The current government, comprised of those at the centre of the ‘Leave’ Campaign, are quick to use divide and conquer strategies when faced with the concerns of disadvantaged groups. Within the European Referendum Campaign they actively sought to create a stereotyped notion of ‘indigenous’ Britishness in order to turn those identifying with this label against those labelled ‘immigrants’. The goal was to manipulate a majority of the population to vote for an outcome that would facilitate profitable financial speculation in international money markets. The architect of the Leave Campaign, Dominic Cummings, publicly admits that racist manipulation was a key ‘Leave’ Campaign strategy, writing in his blog: ‘Immigration was a baseball bat that just needed picking up at the right time and in the right way… it was a combination of good luck and seizing a tactical chance to persuade people of something’.

Former Chancellor Philip Hammond wrote in the Times  that ‘[Boris] Johnson is backed by speculators who have bet billions on a hard Brexit’- a prospect that seems more and more likely to occur.

And so, caught in the eye of the storm created by the ambition of these self-seeking individuals, groups of people have rioted in England over the past two weekends, making claim and counterclaim against one another without being aware of the ways in which they have been manipulated for the personal gain of a small, highly privileged minority. And now we have the news that Johnson has appointed another of his advisors who ‘has cast doubt on the existence of institutional racism and condemned previous inquiries for fostering a “culture of grievance’ as the head of a new commission of racial equalities.

Decades of Political Manipulation

It is therefore past time to strip away the lies and obfuscations and re-examine the situation with a more critical eye. The first point to debunk is the erroneous notion that there are biological differences between different ethnic groups. The National Geographic explains:

All humans are closely related… Everyone has the same collection of genes, but with the exception of identical twins, everyone has slightly different versions of some of them… In a very real sense, all people alive today are Africans… Science today tells us that the visible differences between peoples are accidents of history. They reflect how our ancestors dealt with sun exposure, and not much else.

Having dealt with this aspect of division stoked up by the Leave campaign, we must then turn to another element, that of a mythical ‘indigenous’ British race. This too is largely imaginary. Most white British people have a variety of migrant ancestry in their DNA, significantly including Huguenot, a 16th century Flemish Protestant sect who claimed asylum in England to escape religious persecution in Roman Catholic France, and from whose language the word ‘refugee’ originates . The family name of Brexit Party originator Nigel Farage ironically betrays the Huguenot origin of his paternal lineage. Those who descended from Huguenot refugees played a major role in building the contemporary UK, as did the Windrush generation who were invited to come to England by the British government to help with post World War II reconstruction a few centuries later. There is no clear difference between these two groups of immigrants to Britain, apart from the era of their arrival on English shores.

The similarity of the narrative of the Leave campaign used by Cummings as a ‘baseball bat’ and Hitler’s rhetorical manipulation undertaken to erode German tolerance and democracy in the 1930s should ring alarm bells.  And we should also more carefully recall how a previous Conservative government turned its ‘baseball bat’ onto white working-class communities in order to impose a monetarist, City of London-dictated agenda upon the nation. Thatcherist policies during the 1980s and 90s decimated northern industrial communities, as a result of which a collective confused and resentful worthlessness also began to become evident, given scant public voice beyond dark comedy. Examples include the famous ‘Coco the Scab’ scene in the film Brassed Off, the more subtle dejection of the dole queue in The Full Monty and the wistful/aspirational ‘getting out of this place’ (to London) narrative of Billy Elliot.   

And so, through decades of political manipulation, sectors of our community have become, within the frame of attachment theory ‘ambivalently attached’; increasingly unsure that anyone outside their immediate community knows or cares about their situation, or recognises their feelings of hopelessness and abandonment. Such communities develop a lack of trust in ‘the system’, a suspicion and dislike of those whom they are led to believe are being treated more favourably, and a perception of the Police and Civil Servants as enforcers of a feudal, repressive system that promotes injustice and inequality. Such a response very closely mirrors the emergent effects of insecure attachment upon individuals.

The Politics We Need

In a society that creates such feelings in whole sectors of its population, the last words of George Floyd, ‘I can’t breathe’, become a metaphor for the injured feelings of those who are systemically disadvantaged and pushed aside for the more powerful to pursue their agendas. A goal for our nation post-pandemic must surely be to bring representatives from the whole British population to engage in a forum where all voices are equally represented at the table. Rather than the monetarist, City-based concerns of London continually setting the agenda for the nation, and by so doing dismissing the concerns of other, less powerful societal groups, perhaps we can reverse the direction of the agenda so that instead a wider population can call upon Westminster with the following message:

We need politicians:

  • Who are more concerned with the welfare of those they represent than furthering their own ambitions and power/wealth agendas
  • Who seek to unite rather than to divide.
  • Who do not promote a eugenics and racial inferiority myth.
  • Who do not drip feed racial profiling into mass and social media that constantly seeks to promote disharmony and inequality.
  • Who understand that every family should, by the more equitable distribution of resources, have basic needs addressed for nourishment, shelter, health maintenance, education and employment opportunities.

The American National Scientific Council on the Developing Child advises that, for robust mental health, children need to be respected as individuals, have their voices listened to and acted upon in order to develop a positive identity and healthy levels of self-esteem. This is what promotes individual emotional security, and as such, can be used as a template for developing socially and emotionally healthy communities. We need to move forward from a perspective of listening, equalisation, and repair, rather than, as at present, manipulation, extending privilege and seeding division, in order to heal our currently divided nation.

Dr Pam Jarvis is a chartered psychologist, qualified teacher, and a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. She is also an active blogger and conference/training presenter, seeking to create accessible dissemination formats to bring insights from psychological and educational research to the attention of non-psychologist audiences.

Dr Valerie Daniel is a head teacher with a deep interest in the dynamics of the current Early Years Sector and more widely in how crisis situations develop and how to effect change.

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