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by James Mitchell
18 October 2021
Comment: It's up to all of us to change the tone of politics

Flowers and tributes at the scene where Conservative MP Sir David Amess died. Pic: Alamy

Comment: It's up to all of us to change the tone of politics

Twenty-seven years ago, John Major addressed the Scottish Tory conference in Inverness. Major was no orator but his speech was memorable, and worth remembering. John Smith, leader of the opposition, had died the day before. Major, then prime minister, warned that being negative could be addictive and there was "too much knocking, too much carping, too much sneering". 

He noted that people did not see the friendship, decency, private relationships across all parties behind the scenes, that there is principle and respect. "If we could attack the policies of others, but respect their motives, then politics would have a fresher feel than it does today," he said. For a brief moment, the calls for more civilised politics were heeded.  But politics soon reverted to form.

Two decades before, Sammy Finer, Oxford’s Gladstone Professor of Politics, first formulated the notion that the UK suffered from ‘adversary politics’. The style of politics Finer described had existed long before he gave it a label. Professor Finer was converted to the cause of electoral reform and believed that the "stand-up fight between two adversaries for the favour of the lookers-on", as he defined it, encouraged sterile confrontation.  He became a convert to electoral reform and like others assumed that a different electoral system would change our political culture.

One of the claims of many advocates of a Scottish Parliament was that it would be different, encourage a more consensual ‘new politics’ with the hope that the element of proportionality would encourage, if not ensure this. But it was naïve to imagine that electoral reform, institutional or constitutional change alone would make such a difference.  Scottish politics is not so much different but the quintessence of British politics in its adversarial form.

What’s more, as opponents ought to acknowledge, if true to their beliefs, there is a case for adversary politics.  The theatre and interest generated is difficult to replicate with more anodyne politics. Many of those who criticise sharp, even aggressive, political exchanges are equally fascinated by it and drawn to the battle.  Even more important, there are issues on which positions are sharply different.  Such ‘position’ issues do not always lend themselves to compromise, nor should they.  The issue is not the existence of deep disagreements and divisions but the manner in which these are debated and resolved.

Major’s call for a restoration of a more civilised and productive politics was bound to fail.  In the London Review of Books a few weeks after the prime minister’s speech, Ross McKibbin described the "sheer implausibility of the idea that Mr Smith’s death alone could reverse the irreversible".  It takes more than the shock of a death of a major political figure, more than a change in the electoral system to change political culture.  And we know from five years ago that even the murder of an MP diligently carrying out her constituency duties does not change politics.  The Commons has now lost another MP who was well-liked and respected by opponents in similar circumstances.  Once more we hear calls for change.

In that 1994 speech, John Major warned that, "For too long Europe has been the poison in the well of British politics".  But it would be wrong to ascribe political intolerance to Brexit.  Viewing Brexit as wrong-headed does not make it wrong to support Brexit.  The issue needs to be distinguished from the manner in which debate is conducted.

Age tends to encourage perceptions that there is change and decay in all around we see around.  But it is difficult to deny the coarsening of politics, the polarisation, the trepidation of many who would normally not hesitate to enter debate on some issues.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to prove a connection between the tragedy in Essex to the culture of intolerance, the anger that permeates so much of politics.  It is also difficult to disprove it and in politics we are often left to make judgments based on unsatisfactory or circumstantial evidence.  But that matters less than that this tragedy offers another opportunity to recognise that these developments are unhealthy, unwelcome and damaging.

This does not mean that lies and liars should not be called out, and explicitly.  There is something quaintly absurd in terms deemed unparliamentary being prohibited inside our legislatures but reached for with alacrity outside by politicians. 

There must be no curtailment of exposing dishonesty and hypocrisy, but when language is used so loosely and opponents traduced in the most egregious manner with such frequency it loses meaning.  It also encourages that all too common refrain, "they are all at it".  In that speech 27 years ago, John Major noted that it was a shame that the respect, even affection, between opponents "becomes apparent so rarely".  And when it does, in this climate, it induces more cynicism, claims that politicians are hypocrites, all pals together engaged in phoney battles.  At least the observation this shows awareness that so many battles are theatrical.

It is, as ever, easy to diagnose than to offer solutions.  But change, if it is to come, will not be easy.  There is a reason why we say that it is best to stop digging when in a hole.  The truth is it is often easier to keep digging.  Responsibility is shared. 

The public’s gladiatorial appetite cannot be ignored.  The media and commentariat’s willingness to focus on the outrageous, the outlandish and most extreme or to go for the cheap and easy headline rather than the informed, plausible but dull is unhelpful.  The purveyors of plausible and dull messages need to improve their communication skills and make themselves and their arguments more interesting, their importance more obvious. 

And crucially our leaders need to lead, to speak out against those on their own side (and this includes within their own parties where the bile is often most noxious) who behave inappropriately much more quickly than they do when opponents behave badly.  Will it happen?  It seems as unlikely now as three decades ago, but we should all recognise any part we play if it does not happen.

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