Lawyers, historians and constitutional experts will ultimately have the final say about whether last week’s decision to prorogue parliament is a democratic outrage or well within the bounds of our unwritten constitution. But however history judges prorogation, it’s important not to lose sight of the bigger picture: the seven ways in which a politics of ‘us’ and ‘them’ has emerged at precisely the time we need leaders to tell a powerful story of our shared humanity.
Earlier this summer, we commemorated the bravery of the veterans who landed in Normandy on D-day, and in coming weeks we will be inspired by the active citizenship of thousands of young people who rally to avert climate catastrophe. But can those of us in the generations in between be proud of the political culture we’ve let develop, where we are encouraged to view fellow citizens as ‘enemies of the people’ and national treasures talk about our Prime Minster and ropes and lampposts in the same breath? Our children are watching – surely we can give them better examples of how to disagree well?
There is already plenty of research about how public opinion has become more polarised, people have become more isolated and hate actors have infected our shared online spaces. There are also many incredible organisations already working in community cohesion or at a grassroots level to counter loneliness. Sadly, these are critical but insufficient responses to the fractures in our society. So the four of us – two working with young people and two working on depolarisation – came together to think what can be done about the coarsening of public discourse and how to inspire the next generation about the value of our democracy.
As activists we think there’s plenty of injustice to get angry about – none of us are hankering after a lost era of deference. But we do think there is still a role for political leadership in countering the following alarming trends:
- The use of violent language and threats of violence not being taken seriously. Politicians and candidates receive appalling abuse from strangers and organised trolls, but we should also be worried when politicians themselves are talking about their colleagues being lynched, stabbed or bayoneted, threats to their safety are diminished by their leaders, and digital supporters threaten or abuse without censure.
- The use of dehumanising language and imagery. Again this is something that is all too common on the street or online, but the striking thing is how normal it has become for elites to talk about each other as traitors or saboteurs, and how few long-term political penalties are paid for using language and tactics which have real world consequences for those already subject to demonisation and discrimination.
- The promotion of conspiracy theories. In many respects the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was the test case for how far conspiracy theories have penetrated the mainstream. Since then, Brexit coverage and the response to evidence of antisemitism has normalised them further still.
- Attacks on experts and expertise. Claims that ‘Britain has had enough of experts’ and accusations of the ‘clear misuse’of official statistics, combined with the arguments surrounding the expert definition of antisemitism have all added up to the sense that the notion of ‘alternative facts’ has jumped the Atlantic.
- Swift rehabilitation after failures to tell the truth. One ex minister rejoined the cabinet in an elevated role just two years after resigning for misleading the then PM, another was in contention for her party’s leadership just one year after misleading MPs about Universal Credit and a shadow minister remains on the front bench despite misleading journalists about previous statements.
- Attacks on democratic institutions. From the civil service to the BBC to the judiciary, Britain’s independent institutions are increasingly under attack from senior politicians and media decision-makers.
- Low level efforts to limit participation in public life. From voter ID policies to differentiated registration to restrictions on charity campaigning, we are seeing new barriers to full civic participation.
There are, of course, plenty of brilliant ministers, MPs and councillors – politics remains full to bursting with people of phenomenal integrity and commitment. Likewise there are so many journalists and editors committed to maintaining our great national tradition of robust but civil debate through initiatives like Britain Talks. So ordinary people coming together to fight these seven trends aren’t setting ourselves against politicians or journalists – we are helping create a climate in which the best of them can do their best by us all.
So what can you do? In the short term here are three things:
- Show there’s a reward for good practice. Write a letter to the editor, call in to a radio show, tell a candidate that your vote will be determined partly by who shows the most commitment to democratising and depolarising politics. Show your support online for journalists, judges, civil servants and activists who are making your country or community better.
- Extract a penalty for bad practice. Get involved with efforts to fight Islamophobia, antisemitism and other forms of hatred in our political parties. Support those, like Stop Funding Fake News who are fighting conspiracy thinking and join campaigns like this one from the Fawcett Society to put a stop to abuse in public life.
- Vote and register everyone you know to vote. Support Democracy Club and other efforts to make voting easier.
And finally, even if you don’t care about politics at all, or feel that the seven trends are bad but not really your business, do take a moment to think about your kids (or those of someone you love) and decide whether you want them growing up thinking this is how powerful and important people treat each other. It’s hard to teach young people about respect if the example being set from the top is of anything but. The next generation are watching – it’s up to this one what they’ll learn from what they see.
Heather Hamilton is the Founder of Shared Humanity: Countering Us vs Them
Roger Harding is CEO of Reclaim
Kirsty McNeill is an Executive Director at Save the Children
Will Somerville is UK Director at Unbound Philanthropy