It has felt, of late, as if British society stands on the edge of a precipice. The current divisions running through our country seem more profound than anything I have known in my adult life. What is most frightening is the way in which basic elements of our democracy – Parliament, the judiciary and open debate – are seen no longer as anchors for a decent shared life but contingent on their support for a particular kind of Brexit. Anything is in jeopardy if it does not bend to ‘the will of the people’.
I have written before about how deeply-charged conflicts arise over that which people take to be sacred. The notion of the ‘will of the people’ has come to take on such a sacred significance for many, an unquestionable moral demand that no person or institution should resist. Anything that stands against this popular will, and its vision of a free, proud and autonomous nation, becomes, by definition, a moral threat. MPs who raise searching questions, or judges who make inconvenient rulings, come to be seen as lacking in any moral legitimacy. They are stains to be cleansed for the sake of the public good.
In such emotionally-charged times, it is important to understand both the good and the dangerous. At its best, this deep moral investment in the ‘will of the people’ represents a fundamental yearning for a society in which people feel some connection with a greater story and community for their lives. We live at a time in which such connections have become significantly weakened. Old patterns of belonging, whether to communities, political parties, trade unions or churches have become the experience of a minority. Mobility, insecurity, isolation and change have taken their place. The proportion of single-person households has grown. Even the haven of belonging found in supporting a football team feels increasingly compromised by the commercialisation of the game, with the young millionaires performing on the Premiership stage seeming ever more remote from the lives of the fans who watch them.
It is hardly surprising, then, that people would be drawn to an idea of society that offers a sense of belonging too rarely found elsewhere, or that the EU (for which few even on the Remain side appeared to have any real love) had come to symbolise a fundamental sense of alienation. An awareness of these deep disconnections, and the struggle of daily life, may be dulled for those who enjoy the pleasures of a comfortable and cosmopolitan life. But for those who do not, the moment of Brexit has become a talisman for a renewed sense of power and belonging.
This desire for a society in which people feel part of their communities and more in control of their lives is not something to be feared but welcomed. The powerful emotions released by this need not be destructive but can, like other periods of sacred ferment, lead to a renewing of a sense of our social bonds.
There is danger here as well, though. This energy can stimulate new ways of thinking about what it means to be a purposeful society and to work together for a shared good. But its powerful emotional current can equally be manipulated by demagogues who have no apparent vision beyond exploiting it for their own power. To this end, they will lie and distort, stoke up anger at imagined enemies and set themselves up as protectors of a popular will which is at threat of being snuffed out by the dark forces working against it. This is the rhetoric of Nigel Farage, the Daily Mail and the Daily Express. It offers no hope, just an endless tearing down.
We need to find ways of speaking to this powerful sentiment for belonging, for meaning and for purpose, to offer ideas of a collective future that are realistic about the challenges we face but optimistic about our ability to work together in facing them. If we cannot do that, and if that articulation is left to the demogogues, racists and xenophobes, then our political life may be entering one of its darkest times for many decades.