After this week, politics across the UK will, quite suddenly, stop. For a few short days around Christmas and New Year, the political factory which, day by day, churns out news releases, speeches and legislation winds down. A truce is drawn.
Political parties like the Scottish Conservatives prepare for the season with what’s known as the ‘Christmas box’ – nearly two weeks’ worth of news stories, compiled over the last month, which are sent to news outlets in advance, and the trickled out over the Christmas and New Year period. The idea is to ensure that the news beast is still fed, while those whose job it is to keep it well supplied – press officers, politicians, and journalists – can get on with the serious business of spending time with their families and enjoying having a few days’ restorative break before coming back refreshed and ready to start all over again in January.
All being well, everyone gets to forget for a few days about the ceaseless treadmill of events.
Musing on this theme this week, Nicola Sturgeon noted that Christmas was the one time of the year when she felt able to kick off her heels and get some decent R&R. I know how she feels.
My own break will take the form of loading up the car, driving to Stranraer to get the ferry over to Belfast and then the long drive south to County Wexford. Door to door it’s a full day of travel; but it allows me and my partner to ensure we take the dog and have room for all the family’s presents – more than you can fit in Ryanair’s luggage allowance. Once there, it’s a mad whirl of catching up with family, greeting visitors and helping out with the Christmas dinner preparations for the 19 or so people round the Christmas table. It might not sound the most restful of breaks, but it is warm, loving, life-affirming stuff.
The non-stop stream of social media and 24-hour news makes it increasing difficult for politicians to step back from the fray. The Christmas season, when we all go into a temporary lock-down, provides a rare period when it is permitted to do so.
It feels like we need it.
Politics in Britain feels fractious like never before. As happens when people are forced to make a binary choice, the EU referendum divided the country into two opposing camps. So while most people could see merits on both sides of the argument, the fallout has put people into tribes. Crudely put, one side labels those on the the other liberal, wet behind the ears Remoaners who are out of touch with the reality of life in working Britain, while the other calls their opposite numbers intolerant, inward-looking Brexiteers who want to pull up the drawbridge in order to keep the world out. All too often nuance has disappeared. The common ground between people on both sides of the debate has become a no-man’s land. In place of dialogue, trenches have been dug, positions have been staked out, and attitudes to one another have hardened. Less than two years after a Labour MP was murdered in cold blood outside her constituency office, we end up with Conservative MPs being accused of treachery and facing death threats for holding to a political position.
Politics will always be passionate and hard fought. That is because everyone involved is deeply committed to their set of values and believes they will make the country better. But too often in 2017, with issues of identity and nationality to the fore, the political debate has become intolerant and blinkered. We need to find a better way forward.
This will first and foremost be led by the progress of our negotiations with the European Union over the coming months. After 18 months of uncertainty, I hope 2018 will provide Leavers and Remainers alike with greater direction as to the country’s way forward. But this way forward will also be set by the tone in which we go about our business.
Social media is often blamed for fanning the flames of this new intolerance, but it’s also online that we see signs of hope for 2018. As the former chief of staff to the Prime Minister Nick Timothy tweeted last week: “I wish we could all agree that Remainers aren’t traitors but neither are Leavers stupid, racist or protectionist. We all care about our country. We just disagree. It’s allowed.“
Amen to that. Likewise, people have taken to Twitter these past few weeks to post pictures of themselves with friends and family who choose to vote in a different way. The simple but important message is that it is actually still permitted to remain close to people of different political persuasions. We can disagree; we don’t have to hate.
Tough political choices await in 2018. Britain’s politicians face huge challenges and decisions. How best to balance the country’s deficit reduction while ensuring the needs of vital public services are met? How do we ensure the free market offers working people, especially the young, the promise of a better life? How do we balance the disruptive advance of technology with the needs of communities for stability and continuity? Within the arena, we will – and must – continue to debate these issues with intensity and passion. We should also accept that none of these questions have easy answers that fit into a tweet. And we should acknowledge that most politicians who seek to provide answers are doing so from a position of good faith.
So, as the political world prepares to enter its annual lockdown, I hope we can at least agree on this. There is a time to be still, to reflect and to remember what we have in common, away from the sound and fury of daily life. Happy Christmas.
Ruth Davidson, MSP for Edinburgh Central, is the leader of the Scottish Conservatives.