Next week marks two months since the devastating London Bridge attack that left two innocent people dead and shocked the nation. The grief felt by the bereaved, and the pain of the injured, will take a considerable amount of time to heal. But in a country still reeling from a turbulent general election and the raging Brexit debate, the memory of these terrible events may be disappearing under a tidal wave of news, both domestic and abroad.
It occurs to me that so many of the questions of our age are not so much about the basic questions of food, shelter and health but how we (whoever we are) deal, trade, work and interact with others (whoever they are). Outside the sweet spots of ongoing cooperation and understanding, it can be a very cold environment.
It is some 50 miles from London Bridge to Cambridge: a journey I happen to make practically every working day. But the distance from the events of that terror attack and a subsequent joyous celebration of diversity at the Winter Fair in Cambridge the following day, are as far from each other as proverbial tattoos of Love or Hate on either hand.
We are clearly living through a time of rapid and complex change in both the UK’s role in the world and its relative economic and political importance. This change is throwing up conflicting emotions that can lead one to depression or elation at a disturbing frequency. December’s election helped us focus our thoughts on what’s next. Clearly, there is an overwhelming need to reconstitute the national agenda away from real and/or imagined relations with the rest of the world, in addition to addressing a range of domestic policy issues in a manner that will help us adapt to a changed world.
Within the space of a few hours over the Christmas holidays, I met a man who had worked with both of the men who died on London Bridge that Friday and the wife of a man who was on the Bridge when it happened.
Both of them happen to be old friends and their experiences tell you not only that these attacks are harrowing but, as well as the obvious violent outcomes, are a reminder that they can affect anyone who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
It is, of course, the precise aim of our enemies to wish to shake us out of a culture of trust and easy companionship that is the hallmark of civilisation and progress. But dig a little deeper and neither of the people I met were angry; they wanted to understand, reach out and help. Less “lock them up”, but more, “how do we get them to understand?”
The Punter Pub (which Jack Merritt, one of the victims of the attack and a Cambridge University graduate, is said to have frequented), the University of Cambridge’s Regent House, the Institute of Criminology and Guildhall for an all too brief moment became associated with the London Bridge killings. They are part of the fabric of the City of Cambridge and it was hard not to associate them in some way with that horrific event.
And yet, that annual winter fair – thrown open to what looked like the whole of the city – provided some form of healing.
While I was enjoying the array of foods and music on offer, I was tapped on the shoulder by a former student of mine, who was born overseas, and I chatted with him about the past week or so with him and his French academic partner.
They did not know what would happen after the election or after Brexit. "Who knows?" I replied, adding that the economy seems to be suffering a slow puncture. They were also upset by the loss of two colleagues from the university. But most of all, they could not understand why we could not mix and enjoy each other’s differences and similarities.
Humans, it seems, should freely trade ideas, thoughts and passions. But when economic structures change radically and rapidly, institutions and politics can fail, and people can get “left behind”. And many people do feel frustrated with progress. The climate is then ripe for those with easy answers to make promises that cannot be kept. Whether an Imam or a politician, we must guard against the quick and dirty response in favour of the slow and profound – and probably more expensive – one.
My friend’s wife recently told me they had gone for a tour of the new mosque at the end of the Mill Road high street in Cambridge. They popped in, they said, because they just wanted to learn. I wish that could be said for all.
Jagjit Singh Chadha is the director of the National Institute of Economic and Social Research