Brexit has encouraged cross-party co-operation among MPs but also created bitter divisions, writes Alastair Stewart.
I have a long-standing friendship that’s typically one step away from a Wild West duel. We can eat and drink our way around Edinburgh in the best of spirits, but mention affairs of state and the barman hides, shutters close, and we delve into the inevitable political gun fight. Pistols at dawn and drinks for dinner, that’s been our mantra for over a decade. When you consider all the hot topics since 2007, it’s incredible we’ve retained any semblance of love.
When we were younger, we’d presumed that kind of cross-party, cross-referendum thinking was dwindling, if not outright rare from our political parties. The popular myth was always that non-partisan political camaraderie died a death in the 1980s. Politics seemed a piously divisive rivalry with little space for friendships. Unity only occurred when parliamentarians bestowed platitudes to a retiring Prime Minister or when someone died.
Since the vote to leave the EU that assessment has been proven unexpectedly wrong. The Venn diagram of British politics now centres less along party lines and more on single fundamental issues like Scottish independence and Brexit. New political parties like Change UK and the Brexit Party have emerged in much the same vein as Better Together, Yes Scotland, Remain and Leave. The prevailing political parties fractiously hang together as traditional ideology plays second fiddle to ‘the big questions’.
Brexit has provoked a public re-emergence of type of post-war consensus practitioners who Margaret Thatcher accused of being ‘wet’. The term ‘consensus politician’ has been an insult ever since, distorting the actual cooperative reality of British politics and turning it into a blood sport. It’s easy to forget that between the spectacles of Prime or First Minister’s Questions politicians serve on committees, work together, and some serve together for decades. It’s not a complete surprise, and actually quite refreshing, to see former Labour MP Chuka Umunna and former Conservative MP Anna Soubry sharing a platform.
To the surprise of no one who has worked in politics, public affairs or journalism, the ‘startling’ revelation that politicians across the aisle like and work well together is no shock. The tragedy is that this doesn’t make headlines, only the splits, arguments and divisions do. Party politics have virtually taken a backseat to the pressing question of where and who we are as a country. General elections and policy issues all operate in the Brexit paradigm. It sincerely is a once in a generation opportunity to decide what kind of culture we want to have, not just whether we’re in the EU.
Only wars and international sports events have ever held that kind of power to unite or divide with such ferocity and blinding passion. If there’s a silver lining to the current obstacles facing Britain, it’s that a renewed spirit of collaboration has begun to take hold. ‘Consensus’ politicians do not agree on every point, and nor should they. It wasn’t too long ago that the interchangeability of the Conservatives and Labour seemed a fact of life that made voting seem pointless, if not entirely futile. Brexit has shown that indifferent party loyalty is not enough, that a renewed practicality must operate as politicians of all stripes work to achieve or counter Brexit. Policy positions were once a kaleidoscope understood only by political allegiance, now principled pragmatism is back.
Everyone knows that between 1945 and the late 1970s there was broad agreement that the welfare state, if not Clement Attlee’s programme of nationalisation, was here to stay. In the book Churchill Defiant: Fighting On 1945-1955, biographer Barbara Leaming reveals that this cross-party agreement went one further when Conservative MP Rab Butler looked at ousting the ageing Churchill and leading a second coalition government with the support of Labour MPs. Public discourse, particularly on Brexit, has become brutally ad hominem, particularly on social media. When Brexit is pushing politicians of different stripes together in a new age of individual and cross-party cooperation, it’s splintered the public and opened a Pandora’s Box of hate on social media. The irony of the referendum is it oversimplified an overcomplicated topic. This is the age of 280-character policy responses and Facebook diatribes. It does more harm than good, and there is a palpable feeling of hate, a large part of this is rooted in the grave accusation that the two sides are at best blinkered to the other’s vision of the future, and at worse using false data to predicate and argue for that vision.
That more people than ever in Scotland feel they are participants in the political process is a cause to be celebrated. But our digital avatars can be cruel, as any scroll through the comments of anything remotely political reveals. Questions about Scottish sovereignty and Britain’s exit from the European Union have brought out the worst of ‘politics in the digital age’. Whether Brexit or the revocation of Article 50 happens is secondary to the gaping wound in the country. One way or the other someone will lose and, in one form or another, the vitriol, the rage, will remain. The middle ground is, to use the word again, a compromise of some sort.
Tribal loyalties and preferred policies may have changed over the years, but we have more in common than either of us would care to admit. The lesson my friend and I learnt many years ago though was never to discuss politics on social media. We can’t block people forever, and it’s not healthy to continually need to. That shouldn’t be the de facto go-to place in a digital democracy.
Brexit has pushed politicians together; it has made compromise necessary again. What now needs to happen is a final push towards a healing synergy with the public. That pragmatism needs to find a way past that digital hate and reach out to voters. Compromise exists everywhere in this life, and if the once-derided ‘stale’ political elite can make the issues matter again and reach a consensus, then so can the public. How else can we survive and move past our present difficulties?