One of the most depressing features of the current US Presidential election is its demonstration of how deeply that country’s long-running culture wars have eroded the quality of its political life. When public life becomes so deeply polarised, the possibilities for constructive political debate and shared vision of national identity and goals become vanishingly small.
In the wake of the Brexit vote, Britain now stands on the brink of such corrosive division between the ideas of the ‘52’ (aka ‘the will of the people’) and the ‘48’ (aka ‘the progressive resistance’). Whilst there are doubtless deep political differences across our country, the mythologies now being created around these two separate groupings threaten to shape our collective life in a way that will ultimately benefit none of us.
One of the damaging features of such polarised identities is the way that they cast people into simple ‘types’, obscuring the ambiguities and uncertainties on which creative discussion of our national future will need to be based. The Leave vote, however, did not constitute a monolithic set of opinions about what post-Brexit Britain should look like, nor was it fundamentally an expression of mindless xenophobia. Principles such as ending the free movement of labour and transfer of sovereignty from Brussels to Westminster were doubtless central for many Leave voters – although the relative importance of varied amongst them. Similarly Remain voters cannot simply be depicted as ‘fifth columnists’, seeking to undermine the popular vote, or as liberal metropolitans itching to pour yet more scorn on those who already feel alienated by our current political system. If we allow our views of those who disagree with us on Brexit to be shaped by such cartoon-ish representations of them, our urgent need for inclusive and thoughtful political debate will be undermined.
We need a new political framework for our country that takes us beyond such images of the ‘52’ and the ‘48’. At its heart should be the principles that:
- we recognise ourselves as members of a shared national community facing a radically new future in which we all do, and should, have a role to play in shaping for the good.
- although our country has made many mistakes in the past, our national history and culture has more than enough examples of openness and generosity for us not to fear a society based on renewed interest about what it means to be English or British.
- our society must be built on safe, vibrant and diverse local communities in which no part of the country feels left behind.
- our society must be built on openness and generosity towards people of all faith, colour and nationality, recognising that contributing to our national good is not dependent on where you born. It will be a fundamental given that racism and intolerance has no part in a true pride in building our collective life.
- a recognition that compassion can be resourced, but not imposed, by top-down policy, and that care and altruism need also to emerge organically from local communities.
- our commitment to building the common good will involve fundamental re-thinking about the ways in which we support and provide education, health, welfare and social care, so that these are sustainable, respect human dignity and meet our national needs. This will involve a willingness to think boldly about all possible options and for those who have benefited most from globalisation to be willing to contribute more.
- as we consider the different post-Brexit options available to us, we must try to think carefully with everyone who shares in good faith in this national project, understanding that underlying passionate disagreements can be a shared desire for the best for our country, and trying to find a resolution of these with which we can move forward with some sense of common purpose.
These are, of course, aspirations, but our ability to move forward in this spirit, or the divisions of the spirit of the 52-48, will shape the quality of our national life for many years to come.