Political Debate Has Become Corrosive – But Can We Change It? by Tom Beasley
If you’ve mentioned anything political on Facebook or Twitter since the summer of 2016, you’ll be familiar with the coarse anger and mean-spiritedness that now masquerades as debate. The fact this has happened since the Brexit referendum is not a coincidence, but this isn’t going to be a 500-word rant about how Brexit is the worst thing that has ever happened to the UK. If the referendum had gone the other way, I feel like we’d probably still be in this state.
The referendum created two, utterly polarised cohorts of the British electorate – and a whole load of people in the middle who didn’t care enough to vote. In the three years of political jibber-jabber that has followed – it says a lot when sentient bobble-head Boris Johnson is seen as the antidote to dithering – those groups have only become more polarised and more zealous, with most of the ‘don’t care’ middle group essentially picking a side.
On the one hand, this is a more politically active age for the UK. The turnout at the EU referendum was 72%, compared to just 66% at the 2015 general election. However, that increased political activity has created extremity more than engagement. Suddenly, political debate in the UK is two groups of angry people yelling at each other from the opposite goal lines of a football pitch, with a gaping chasm of empty centre ground between them.
This can be seen most clearly in the attitudes towards a no-deal Brexit. During the referendum campaign, the notion of no-deal was something that neither side presented as a valid option. Even the most ardent of Brexit voters crossed that box on the ballot paper with a clear expectation that Britain’s departure from the European Union would occur under the terms of a meticulously negotiated deal. No-deal was not even part of the discussion.
However, three years on, the toxicity has rocketed through the bloodstream of our political debate and we have now reached a position in which anything other than a cliff-edge, no-deal Brexit is considered to be a traitorous betrayal of the will of the people. At the time of writing, I don’t know whether Boris Johnson or Jeremy Hunt will be prime minister of the UK at the end of October, but I do know that the country must leave the EU on that date, with or without a deal, otherwise the new PM’s tenure will be binned faster than a mouldy pineapple.
Only the most extreme outcome will be tolerated, with Union Jacks flying high above a sea of wilful, jingoistic ignorance of the potential harm of no-deal.
This is not the fault of Leave voters, Remain voters, Tory voters, Labour voters, Brexit Party voters or even the four people who thought Change UK were worthy of a ballot paper. This is not the fault of voters at all. It is the fault of a political class that has stoked division to win votes, allowing the loathsome likes of Nigel Farage and Tommy Robinson to secure a major platform for their rhetoric of hate.
We all live in this country and we will all suffer the consequences of whatever happens in the next 12 months or so, whether we leave the EU with no-deal or opt for a second referendum, which risks whipping up just as much division and rage. But beyond Brexit, what we face is a world in which political debate cannot happen under any serious, sane terms. Donald Trump’s lunatic cries of “fake news” are now just as common on this side of the Atlantic.
Britain in 2019 is a country where cynical hysteria is king and, wherever you sit on the political spectrum, that should make you angrier than a farmer watching Theresa May skip through their wheat field. Only by reaching out across political lines can we make Britain a tolerable place to live again.
© 2019 Tom Beasley
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist living just outside London and originally from Coventry. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.