There is much discussion of the febrile nature of political debate in Britain just now, and the violence of the language used by politicians to incite public opinion against their opponents. One of the worst and most reckless offenders is, of course, the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, a man whose fancifully high opinion of his own rhetorical abilities is matched only by the extraordinary casualness with which he deploys them. In a high-profile and typically light-touch interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr this morning, Mr Johnson was permitted to repeatedly characterize the Benn Act, which his opponents hope will force the government to seek a Brexit extension and avoid a no-deal Brexit, as the ‘Surrender Bill’ – this on a day when one of the most prominent Brexit-supporting newspapers further stoked the flames of violent conflict with a front page warning of remainers’ ‘foreign collusion’.
Evidently, the Prime Minister has as little regard for national unity or the need to build communities of consensus as he has for telling the truth. The tone he has adopted is not surprising – it serves not the interests of the country, but his own trivial but all-consuming desire for political power – but it is profoundly damaging for any hope we might have of healing the divisions that are dominating and coarsening British political discourse.
It is irresponsible and extremely dangerous. The divisions caused by the referendum are real and painful – the lack of credit given by either side of the debate to the other is pretty much unprecedented, in my experience. We have never felt further apart. It is regrettable and troubling to see senior politicians prepared to exploit this baleful state of affairs for personal or tribal gain (if Johnson’s odious hedge fund backers can be termed a ‘tribe’). But I think it is important to note that the divisive nature of British politics did not originate in Brexit. Indeed, while Brexit has undoubtedly deepened the uncivil war of words, the no-man’s land between left and right has been widening for some time. While we hear sporadic gunfire, we no longer see one another’s faces, or hear the voices of those we dispute with.
As with Brexit, the engine of discord between progressives and conservatives in the UK is fuelled by a feeling that change is impossible, a general sense of hopelessness that, in turn, drives the recklessness expertly exploited by Farage, Johnson, Cummings, et al. Inequality, low wages, worsening living standards, declining infrastructure, an ailing health service, and an education system that routinely fails the poorest while giving the already privileged an unfair advantage, unfairly compounded throughout life: the punishing human toll of these debilitating trends is deepened significantly by the seeming impossibility of positive change. What is behind this sense of hopelessness?
Many communities in Britain have experienced decades of neglect – an unmanaged decline overseen by all mainstream parties – while their concerns, well-founded or not, have been, at best, ignored, at worse, derided, making them ripe fodder for the exploitation of Britain’s wannabe populists. But underpinning this sorry record of political neglect has been the internalization of the ‘big lie’ of British politics: the notion that there is no alternative to neoliberalism, with its attendant squeezing of opportunity and rampant inequality – that investing more in education, health or people’s wellbeing or standard of living will prove economically disastrous, and indeed that the increased investment in public services under the last Labour government resulted, in large part, in the financial crisis, the long shadow of which still dominates out politics more than a decade on.
This lie was most clearly and artfully articulated under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition that ushered in the politics of austerity (though it was implicit in Labour’s drift to the right in the search of an elusive ‘third way’). It was the necessary justification of a policy that put the bill – and most of the blame – for the financial crisis at the door of the public sector. Most of those making this argument have known it to be untrue or at least a serious distortion of the truth. But it has been incredibly effective in cementing in the public’s mind both the need for austerity and the financial imprudence of any attempt to bring about substantive progressive reform. The narrowing of the range of voices discussing these issues in the mainstream media, and the generally dismissive attitude taken to anyone prepared to challenge the ‘consensus’ has helped ensure the lie sticks. And while the purpose of those who popularized it may have been simply to marginalize the Labour Party and to convince the victims of neo-liberalism to vote for more of the same, it has had a more profound effect, making sensible mainstream social-democratic progressive reform almost impossible and limiting the levers available to politicians set on progressive change, while contributing both to Labour’s lurch to the left and to the Tories’ death-embrace of right-wing populism. While Brexit has shone a bright light on the divisive, binary nature of British political culture, these divisions are bigger than Brexit and will outlive it. The challenge for progressives is to change the self-defeating internal narrative of British politics – the story that keeps the wheels of progress spinning uselessly off the ground – and create a new, more inclusive, compassionate and democratic one.
The failure to persuade, to build consensus or form coalitions has been the main fault of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party. While he has, quite properly and pretty much uniquely (if not always particularly clearly), sought to develop a nuanced position on Brexit capable of commanding wide support on both sides, Mr Corbyn has done far too little to reach out and engage, even within his own party. This, regrettably, has been typical of his style of leadership. Because of this, while he has overtly challenged the divide in British politics and offered an alternative narrative, in many respects quite compelling, the uncompromising, uncollegiate nature of his politics has ended up reinforcing it. As a result, many Labour members and supporters, including those initially sympathetic to his leadership, have come to see him as an obstacle to progressive change. This is unfortunate as many very compelling and radical aspects of his policy agenda would be unlikely to survive a change of leadership. The argument within the Labour Party about Corbyn’s leadership concerns both the policy direction of the party and his ability, given his limitations as a leader, to deliver the change his policies promise (which I suspect have the broad support of most members).
The problem for Corbyn and other supporters of progressive social change is the lack of engagement in social democratic ideas in British political life and culture. This is a frustration of the left which often results in the mainstream media and the BBC, in particular, taking much of the blame for their exclusion. This is partly justified but there is a wider story here too: there is considerable resistance to these ideas among the general public, as well as a lack of understanding, which the media reflects and feeds, and politicians exploit. Although it will do considerable economic harm, and has already inflicted significant reputational damage to the UK, Brexit also represents an important opportunity to offer a vision of a new Britain that is more equal and socially just, and where opportunity and wealth are more evenly spread across the country, regionally and in terms of social class. But for this to happen we need two things: people need to feel empowered and be persuaded that change is possible (‘resources of hope’, in Raymond Williams’ wonderful, ageless phrase), and places where people can come together to discuss, shape and effect positive change (what we might term ‘spaces of hope’).
Historically, important social progress, such as extensions to the franchise or the creation of the National Health Service, have resulted from a combination of political and economic shock and a widening of educational opportunity, especially in adult education (for example, that provided by the Army Bureau of Current Affairs during the Second World War). We desperately need a conversation about the future of Britain that starts from the ground up, that is not managed but has the same open-ended, democratic characteristics of the best adult education traditions. The best way to learn about and become engaged in politics is by doing it. Social movements such as the climate crisis protests offer more opportunities for adult educators to create spaces for debate and learning. But we also need to see education for active citizenship not as a threat to elites whose power is premised on artful dissembling but as the lifeblood of strong and resilient democracy and support it accordingly. This, however, is unlikely to happen while the forces of populism continue to occupy Downing Street (for the first time since I started writing about adult education there genuinely seems no point in even proposing increased support for adult education), but we can all perhaps do our bit to create spaces for constructive debate, at home, in our communities, schools, institutions and workplaces, to enable civil, polite debate and respect for others, while arguing for broader change through more conventional means. Some combination of these is essential, both for postive social change and a healthy democracy.
Democracy and education remain the best ways out of the mess we are in, and, of achieving, in the face of the super-rich, their parliamentary agents and the media interests they control, a progressive Britain that is a place of hope, not hate.