Tom Mansfield, Artistic Director of Upstart, writes about his experiences on the Refugees Welcome march in London on 12th September.
On Saturday, I went with a group of friends (and friends-of-friends) to the Refugees Welcome march in central London. We walked from Park Lane to Trafalgar Square, along Whitehall before finishing up in Parliament Square to hear speeches and songs. Last week, thousands of refugees tried to walk from Budapest to the Austrian border. At Budapest station they’d met with resistance from the police and government officials, but kindness from individuals.
Today, Germany announced that it’s temporarily suspending its participation in the Schengen Agreement, and re-introducing border controls, in order to stem the flow of people coming into the country, in particular from Syria. On Saturday, while my friends and I were marching through Central London, more than 13,000 refugees arrived in Munich. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has said that Britain will take 20,000 Syrian refugees in the next five years. The closure of the Austrian border implies that Germany isn’t pursuing an open access policy – and EU law currently states that refugees have to apply for asylum in the first member state in which they arrive. But to a British person who believes, against quite a lot of evidence, that my country is prepared to stand up for human rights, the disparity between the actions of the German and British governments (both centre-right, let’s bear in mind) is shaming.
I don’t go on a lot of marches for two reasons. Reason one is that, I tend to work Saturdays, which is when most demonstrations here in the UK take place. That’s a good reason. But it’s not the most important one. The second one is much stronger, and much more important: I find it hard to believe that marching changes anything. Like a lot of my generation, one of my first adult political experiences was of the march against the Iraq war in February 2003. It’s now commonly agreed that about a million people marched through London that day. And the British government joined the war anyway.
Since then, quite a few people I know have been involved in direct-action protest. A lot more of us have stayed engaged with politics, maybe gone on the odd demonstration here and there, but mostly stuck to conversations with friends and on the Internet. I joined the Labour Party five years ago, after the 2010 election, but my involvement has been pretty limited – partly through moving around so much because of work, and partly because of a dissatisfaction with the way the party had been going under Ed Miliband. I’m very proud of the way my work in theatre – from Oh Well Never Mind Bye to The Maddening Rain and The Situation Room – has helped provoke debate and discussion on big political questions, but aside from in very private circumstances, I’ve tended to avoid getting involved in those kinds of discussion personally.
Saturday made me realise that has to change. Perhaps it’s because the issue is something that I’m involved in professionally (more details coming on here soon), but also it’s because the questions that we’re now having to ask as a society are about fundamental humanity. It’s possible to argue the pros and cons of cuts to public services during a financial crisis. You can have a reasoned debate about British membership of the EU, or Scotland’s membership of the United Kingdom, and agree or disagree with your opponent’s point of view without it fundamentally touching on who we are as human beings.
But the debate about refugees basically comes down to this:
People are drowning. Are we going to help?
And the thing is I can’t do much on my own. I can donate some money to one of the NGOs helping people out in the Mediterranean, or in camps in Lebanon or Jordan. But I work in the arts, so I can’t afford to make a very big donation, never mind charter a boat of my own. (I can give a few pounds though, and have done. It’s not much but it’s better than doing nothing) A little closer to home, a lot of friends and neighbours are collecting for CalAid, and I’d love to help out with that too, but I don’t have an awful lot of stuff to give away that people in a makeshift camp in Calais would need. (But at least I can go through my wardrobe and see if there’s anything that might be useful to someone else than it is to me).
So on my own, I’m stuck. Unless we’re multimillionaires, we all are, pretty much. That’s why we need governments to act on our behalf, spending the money we pay them in taxes. And in a democracy it’s the government’s job to listen to public opinion. Which means, as a citizen, it’s my job to let them know what my opinion is. Right now, my opinion would go a bit like this:
David Cameron, I disagree with you about many things. And we can have all those arguments later. I’ll try to be respectful, cogent and not to call you a lizard. But I know you are better than this, and you can do better than this. Our country is better than this, and we can do better than this.
So I think it’s time to make some noise. To get out on marches, to blog, to go on social media, to talk to strangers. And to make theatre, because in making and watching theatre we’re compelled to acknowledge and embrace the humanity of other people, which is exactly what seems to have been missing from the British government’s response to the current crisis. We are human beings responding to the suffering of other human beings. The details of that are, yes, complex – which countries, cities, counties, can take which numbers of people – but the bottom line is simple. This is the biggest test of Europe’s humanity in a very long time. Let’s be humans about it.