Uniting a divided Britain, one conversation at a time

An interview with Britain Talks organiser, Ros Wynn-Jones

21 June, 2021

Britain Talks took place for the second time on June 19, 2021. The event was organised by the British newspaper Daily Mirror, in collaboration with the Express and powered by the My Country Talks software. The annual event is part of The Great Get Together, an initiative inspired by the late MP Jo Cox, designed to bring people together to celebrate what they have in common. We spoke to Mirror editor Ros Wynn-Jones, who was inspired by her friend Jo Cox to start Britain Talks in 2019.

My Country Talks: The Mirror is running Britain Talks for the second time this year. What motivated you to start a My Country Talks event in Britain?

Ros Wynn-Jones: In 2016, my friend Jo Cox, the MP for Batley and Spen, was murdered by a far right activist. That was a shocking moment of real despair and a terrible moment for our country to feel the division that had led to such a violent act. Jo had this amazing kind of belief, and she talked in Parliament about how she saw the different communities in her hometown, which would traditionally have been a very white working class town, but had a high amount of Muslim immigration and she always emphasized that both those communities had a lot more in common than what divided them. She talked about how both of these groups of people basically want to feed their children and worry about their kids' education. After she died, there was a hashtag, #BeMoreLikeJo, and that is what made me think that we should find a way to reach out to people across political divides.

My Country Talks: In the face of that division, what made you think that your readers would want to engage in one-on-one discussion with someone that thinks completely different from them?

Ros Wynn-Jones: We just really wanted to think about a way that could bring our readership back together. The Mirror, which is a left wing newspaper, was actually very divided 50/50 over Brexit. So we were thinking about how to frame this new division. And definitely my job as a reporter has exposed me to the worlds on either side of that division. I live in a part of the country where the majority of people voted to remain in the European Union and I have met many people that are in favor of leaving the EU. And the things I would hear from both sides, characterizing the other, I just didn’t recognize in the people that I’ve met. I became aware that lots of remainers who were in my social circle would talk about leavers in a certain way that was really unfair and wrong. I would meet leavers who would talk about my friends and my neighbors in a way that was really unfair and wrong as well.

My Country Talks: How did your colleagues at the Mirror think about initiating the dialogue format “Britain Talks”?

Ros Wynn-Jones: There was resistance. There was a worry, which I understand. To some people it seemed like we were asking them to accommodate fascism or racist views. But equally, I think the interesting thing about the project is that it actually does not deal with the two extremes, but with people who are in the middle of those two extremes.

My Country Talks: Research suggests that dialogue between two people of really extreme views can have a boomerang effect, even leading towards more conflict.

Ros Wynn-Jones: The “More in Common” initiative did some research in America that talks about how society is like the five fingers of a hand - with the extreme views out at the sides and the more moderate people in the middle. Basically, there are only a few “fingers,” the ones at the extreme ends of both sides, dominating the public discourse. So the idea is to take those people out and try to engage the three “fingers” in the middle. I think that Britain Talks accomplishes that.

My Country Talks: Why?

Ros Wynn-Jones: There are many people who feel that they're not allowed to express a certain view. And the problem is that if they can't explore it, no one can challenge it, so the view just hardens. Whereas I think sometimes it's important for people to be able to say, “I think there are too many immigrants in the UK.” And for somebody to have a conversation about whether that's actually factually true. We need to open up that conversation instead of closing it.

The best conversations move two people, they don't just move one. They don't just take one person on their journey, they take two people on a journey that questions both of their assumptions.

My Country Talks: You’ve been covering many of the conversations between your readers. Which story impressed you most?

Ros Wynn-Jones: The best conversations move two people, they don't just move one. They don't just take one person on their journey, they take two people on a journey that questions both of their assumptions. My favorite film is the one we made with a very staunch Brexiteer and fishermen, and a Syrian refugee woman. Razdan, who is from Syria, thought that many people simply hated refugees. She hadn't been exposed to the very common misconception that immigrants drive up competition in the labor market, which is what fuels many people’s opposition to immigration. In contrast, Bob, the fishermen hadn't really thought very much about why someone would come to Britain from Syria. When Razdan talked about a car bomb under her husband's car in Damascus, how frightening that was, and how she wanted to get her children out of the country, Bob was visibly moved to tears.

My Country Talks: The Mirror also joined our pan-European dialogue format “Europe Talks”, which brings together people of opposite views for a cross-border exchange. What did your readers experience when meeting someone from the continent?

Ros Wynn-Jones: With Europe Talks there was a really interesting feedback that a lot of people expected somebody in Europe would be angry with them. They were really surprised to realize that their conversation partner didn't seem very angry, they just seemed sad that the UK had left the EU. Another surprise was that participants from the UK also met people across Europe who said they wished their country would leave the EU as well. There were definitely interesting parallels that people didn't expect.

My Country Talks: Britain Talks is happening for the second time this year and for the first time after Britain has left the EU. Has the tone of discourse changed since then?

Ros Wynn-Jones: I think some people are getting ready to talk to each other again, or they realize that this situation can't carry on. Especially people who were Brexiteers are less angry. So some of the sting has been taken out of the discussion.

My Country Talks: Do you think the pandemic has been able to bring people closer together? Or is the opposite true?

Ros Wynn-Jones: I think the pandemic has brought people together and has made us realize that we need our neighbors and the people around us. Maybe it doesn't matter if I don't agree about Brexit with my neighbor because during the pandemic he helped me get my medicine delivered. I think there are many dimensions where people have been brought together by the pandemic and I’m interested to see how that will develop in the future.