I was drawn recently to a photo of Tony Blair, John Major, and Paddy Ashdown sharing an amusing anecdote, joy etched across their faces. Numerous people on Twitter pointed out that it would be unimaginable for the political leaders of today to find themselves in a similar situation.
But this modern lack of cohesion is not just the case inside the Westminster bubble. In the UK more generally, people of different political persuasions seem less able than ever to empathise or interact with others of different ideology or belief. Our discourse is collapsing in on itself. Attempts at dialogue are set ablaze with words flung at each other on Twitter.
A large part of the problem is a seeming overidentification with different parts of the ideological spectrum. This manifests itself in bitter arguments between the #JC4PM’ers and #FBPE’ers, often rooted in a misguided belief that their side or party has a monopoly on good intentions. I’m sure many people have found themselves in the socially unattractive position of having backed themselves into a corner, feeling trapped at the edge of a lost argument. But in the politics of today, there seems to be little self-awareness in some quarters that one's side of the argument will not be right all the time. There is little acceptance that though some of the choices the EU makes are illogical or even damaging, membership of the institution can offer many advantages. There is an unwillingness to embrace nuance.
I myself came to this conclusion about the delusional ownership of the ‘best’ direction for the country last year. I have been on a political journey from being what some might call a ‘remoaner’ in the Liberal Democrats to defecting to the Conservatives back in January. My views have changed, I’m broadly a neoliberal Brexit supporter now. Yet if you’d asked me two years ago what I would think of such a person I would only have stopped just short of evil. If the me of two years ago could meet the me of today I don’t think he’d like me much. But I think this says more about him than me. Changing party opened up my eyes to how stupid I had been, how I had defended things I didn’t agree with out of a twisted sense of over-loyalty. Yet political parties are actually stronger when their members are prepared to hold each other to account. Our political system is by its very nature adversarial and this brings with it the benefits of accountability and confrontation of bad policymaking. But it also feeds into the idea that only one side is right or will ever be right. This is damaging.
Now don’t get me wrong, passionate disagreement is an important part of a healthy democracy and debate must be had. It may be the case that we do not find common ground when trying to solve problems together, but it is hugely important that we start discussions with an understanding that most people are involved in politics because they want to make people's lives better and our communities stronger. I’m a Conservative and I believe that the socialist policy platform of the Labour party would be hugely damaging to this country and would put into jeopardy many of the things I care about. But this position does not mean that I think most people who advocate Socialism are bad people. The number of people in politics for their own gain is tiny compared to those on all sides of the political spectrum who want to do good.
It’s not just a problem of the politically concerned but also of the politicians themselves. There is a huge hesitancy to admit blame or culpability for mistakes. Much of the political game involves people of various sides attempting to catch each other out, but this results in a key part of the breakdown in trust between voters and their elected representatives. We’re all human and we all make mistakes, and most of us are able to recognise at least some of our own flaws. I firmly believe that people would have more respect for the political class if they were more willing to admit the mistakes they have made.
I know that not everything I or my party advocates will turn out to be correct. I think politics would be a more comfortable and constructive place if everyone at all levels could work on the basis of this understanding. It’s okay to change your mind, it’s okay to apologise, and to make public the process of learning from past mistakes. And above all, it’s okay to be wrong.