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23 Dec 2019

Politics and Society


‘It’s going to snow up north. Serves the bastards right.’ As epithets for 2019 go, this overheard conversation is as good a starting place as any. This really has been the year of contempt.

Where to start? Perhaps with that which has dominated all others: the contempt of each Brexit tribe for the other. Yes, social media has been poisonous. The anger, the rudeness, the unbearable self-righteousness.

But more importantly, polarisation has come to characterise the wider population too. This has been illustrated in survey after survey.

To take one example, when asked whether they’d be happy with their child marrying someone from the other side of the Brexit divide, well under half of voters said they would be.

The contempt of one Brexit tribe for the other is as big as, if not bigger than, that between supporters of different political parties.

Division played out on television screens across the world as people tuned in in record numbers to the BBC Parliament channel.

What was true for public opinion was equally true in the ‘Mother of Parliaments,’ as MPs grumpily debated their Brexit options and failed, repeatedly, to come to any clear conclusion.

The response, of course, was not some attempt to forge cross bench unity in order to arrive at a compromise. In hindsight, the Labour leadership was never serious about its negotiations with Mrs May over her withdrawal agreement.

And so the outcome was not compromise but the Prime Minister taking to national television to berate parliament itself. The stage was set for her predecessor to frame the ensuing election in terms of the people versus Parliament.

And there was worse to come. Following the decision of the Supreme Court that the prorogation of Parliament was illegal, Jacob Rees-Mogg was reported as saying the Supreme Court had affected a ‘constitutional coup’, while his colleague Kwasi Kwarteng resorted to the disingenuous “I’m not saying this, but many people … are saying” to argue that the judges were biased.

And all the while, their colleagues were taking every opportunity to undermine senior civil servants.

When his elevation to prime minister looked inevitable, Boris Johnson failed to support the UK’s ambassador to the US, leading to his resignation. Civil servants have increasingly faced the choice of speaking up – in other words, doing their job – and getting kicked out of meetings, or keeping schtum.

The campaign of bile directed at Olly Robbins was, as Jill Rutter has pointed out, partly a consequence of the fact that the government itself could not agree on an approach to Brexit, leaving the way open to blame the civil service for Mrs May’s much reviled withdrawal agreement.

Whatever its cause, it was unacceptable and potentially damaging.

One thing on which cross-party consensus has proved possible is criticism of the media.

Jeremy Corbyn has never been slow to lash out at the ‘mainstream media’ and, following his humiliating performance in the recent election, he chose to direct at least some of the blame at the Sun and the Daily Mail.

Meanwhile, I’m losing count of the programmes that the government is currently boycotting, having spent the election campaign issuing dark threats about decriminalising non-payment of the BBC licence fee and reviewing Channel 4’s broadcasting remit.

And finally, of course, we’ve seen contempt for the voters themselves. An election based on populist slogans (the people versus the establishment or the people versus parliament), and simplistic policy offers.

Voters forced to choose between two candidates they did not really like (albeit they liked one far less than the other). Little wonder the campaign was marked by a mood of weary resignation.

Whatever Emily Thornberry did or did not say about leave voters, there is more than a whiff of contempt in the air.

This has, of course, been a long time in the making. We’ve seen simmering anger at both politics and the functioning of the economy build for over a decade since 2008, and the global financial crisis and the expenses scandal.

Contempt for politics has led to contemptuous politics. And there is no end in sight. If those who campaign in poetry end up governing in prose, what, then, of those who campaign in bullshit?

And there will be a price to pay. It is hardly surprising that the Hansard Society has revealed a growing impatience with political due process and the intricacies of our liberal democratic system.

Systematically undermining faith in our national institutions is not a means of reversing this trend, or of restoring faith in politics or the ability of politics to deliver for the electorate.

And while Boris Johnson’s electoral triumph means that politics will function very differently for the next five years than it has for the last nine, these problems will not go away.

Not least, Johnson and his advisors seem to think that political discontent that arose most viscerally in economically deprived areas outside London can be solved by reforms centred almost exclusively in SW1.

And there’s unprecedented pressure on the other Union. An unrestrained Johnson-led Conservative government in London could be a recipe for further agitation in Scotland.

The SNP had as resounding a victory as the Conservatives, and Johnson doesn’t appear to have a strategy to address what – regardless of the indyref debate – are clear tensions in the functioning of the different parts of the Union.

So tempers will fray as the SNP practices the politics of grievance and London refuses to concede any ground. There is much more anger to come.

Merry Christmas.

By Professor Anand Menon, Director of the UK in a Changing Europe. This piece originally appeared on the Telegraph website. 


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