This is the most global general election I can remember. A friend in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) asked me on Facebook if I would vote for Jeremy Corbyn, telling me the Labour leader was the best candidate. A long-time friend and life-long Labour supporter from Toronto hoped I wasn’t voting for Corbyn and that I would vote tactically to keep the Prime Minister out of Downing Street. Another friend in Sydney tried not to gag when she mentioned Boris Johnson’s name. Everyone has an opinion, but only I can vote, which I have done in every general election since I moved from Canada and became a British citizen.
Over the years, I have witnessed the complete transformation of this country. Before my time, Britain was notoriously the sick man of Europe. Now London is the world’s capital — cultural, culinary and financial — rivalled only by New York. I hope that’s where it stays, but today everything is on the line.
So much has changed to bring us to this point. In the country I moved to all those years ago, the first issues to confront me were visceral : the miners’ strike , which Arthur Scargill hoped would bring down Margaret Thatcher’s government, and the siege of Fortress Wapping, where the printers’ unions fought to preserve a corrupt and outdated system. It was a struggle they both lost , but only after a great deal,of violence and lasting bitterness. As I told my friend in the DRC, I will not vote for Labour this time because if Corbyn and his colleagues win, we will return to those times. When Britain was the sick man of Europe, people who could leave often did. A couple of my English friends have been in search of safe havens ever since. They have lived everywhere, including the not-so-safe lands of Iraq and Afghanistan. The trouble is deciding where to go. Somewhere with a better climate, that’s for sure — so not Toronto. How about my fantasy of living in the African bush? I think I’d miss London, which has grown so much more diverse and exciting since the 1980s.
When I moved here, class mobility was on the rise, class divisions were waning and everyone was middle class, though the “ underclass ” was the hot-button topic. Class is now a thing again, and the underclass just lives in poverty. Illiteracy remains an unbelievable problem in this supposedly most literate of countries. Knife crime has recently changed the face of London; the figures for 2019 are even worse than for last year, which was itself a grim record-breaker.
We are still undergoing a political and social revolution, while the NHS remains a crucial battleground. However, the challenges that face our health service also strain the Canadian and many other healthcare systems: there is never enough money.
This was brought home by the photo of the little boy lying on coats on a hospital floor. My emergency response came from a pro-Brexit, Conservative-voting doctor friend. She made an interesting observation, as someone who was on the frontline in the ebola crisis in Sierra Leone and just about every other global disaster over the last 20 years. From her perspective, the story wasn’t that the child wasn’t in a bed — by then doctors had established that he didn’t have pneumonia — but that he received effective treatment. My doctor friend has a point: as long as people are being treated effectively, we need to remember how lucky we are.
Another issue that has remained constant is the cost of housing. Ever since I moved here, one of the main questions people have asked is: how anyone can afford to live in London? House prices here have indeed gone up exponentially, but then London prices have always been astronomical.
I remember when I wanted to buy my first flat. I was horrified when my Toronto friend suggested I look in Hackney, as that was the only place I could afford. Hackney! The horror! Now, of course, it is uber-trendy, hence unaffordable, and I wish I had bought there.
I have struggled with the decision of who to vote for, just like a third of the population. Hope is what Johnson and Corbyn both talk about. The hope is for new and better leaders and soon. The country I have grown to love is truly on a knife-edge — which is how it felt when I stepped off the plane into my new life in Britain . As the American baseball legend Yogi Berra said, when there’s a fork in the road, take it. Time to cast my vote.