What was so warming about the tributes paid to Jo Cox in parliament was the way in which the British can set aside party divisions when it really matters. Much has been made of Jo’s maiden Commons speech in 2015, in which she said: “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.” It was a mantra that she lived up to in her short but distinguished parliamentary career, during which she frequently sought out those in other trenches.
For a new MP, she was strikingly disregarding of tribalism. She had been working closely with a Conservative, Tom Tugendhat, on a report on humanitarian intervention, while Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary, joked about how she had made friends with “a crusty old Tory” in their shared concern for the plight of Syrian civilians. It is a reminder that such collaboration across the aisle is more common than we might presume.
Cynicism about political elites comes in cycles. In 1929, at the onset of the Great Depression, the historian Lewis Namier wrote that the politicians of the 18th century “no more dreamt of a seat in the House in order to benefit humanity than a child dreams of a birthday cake that others may eat it”. Perhaps no MP of the modern era offered a firmer rebuttal of this image than Jo. In the unpleasantness and occasional bitterness that appeared during the referendum campaign, it was easy to forget that ours is a healthier polity than most. For the most part, too, we are able to withstand robust debate in our public sphere without succumbing to extremes. Indeed, the act of violence that took Jo’s life is so shocking partly because it is the exception.
We should remember that many good-hearted and well-intended arguments were made on both sides during the referendum debate. This was one reason why the issue divided families as well as parties, and the greatest divide in views about Europe remains generational. Nonetheless, it is hard to deny that an unusual degree of sourness has crept into our political discourse. Rhetoric does matter. For many years, an ugly feature of life in Northern Ireland was something that came to be known as “whataboutery” – a depressing cycle in which one side condemned the other for hypocrisy while failing to subject itself to the same standards. “Whataboutery” poisoned the air the last time an MP was murdered: when Ian Gow was killed by the IRA in 1990.
Among the reasons why the debate over the referendum was so draining was that it veered far beyond the issues at hand, exposing other fissures. Too many of those involved, on both sides, indulged in posturing and hectoring yet were remarkably quick to take offence. Some of this tetchiness has deeper sources and could be said to follow a pattern we have seen in the US and in parts of Europe.
A diminished faith in our political and economic establishment is one of the lag effects of the global financial crisis of 2007-2008. Underpinning the sense of frustration are structural problems, such as entrenched income inequality and decreased social mobility. In many cases (though far from all), concern about immigration is not anger directed at another people but reflects a profound sense of lost control in a rapidly changing world. The failure to address this feeling of dislocation has left the door open to the deployment of “truth hyperboles” – the Donald Trump strategy of playing to people’s fears and fantasies.
Although we have shown that we are not immune to such crass populism, there is a uniquely British context to this debate and there remains a different flavour to it. Indeed, there is an underlying irony that the English are rousing themselves in the spirit of protest – the long-predicted “English Revolt” – just at the moment when the nationalism of the Celtic fringes might have reached a plateau.
While the Catholic population of Northern Ireland is growing, the Irish nationalist vote has fallen. Polling figures suggest that support for a united Ireland is at an all-time low. Many conflate the continued success of the Scottish National Party with a desire for independence, yet its majority in Scotland is as much to do with the collapse of Labour north of the border, and the mini-revival of the Scottish Conservatives suggests an appetite for an alternative. There is no threat to the SNP’s supremacy in the short term, but the party’s strategists are far from convinced that it could win a second Scottish referendum, even after a Brexit.
Since 1998, there have been great exertions of energy and emotion on questions relating to the future of the UK. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, it was economic self-interest and inherent caution that ultimately trumped nationalism, rather than any great surge of enthusiasm for the status quo.
So, what lessons should we learn from recent experience? The first is that it is counterproductive to narrow the terms of political debate in a way that exasperates a large proportion of our population, even the famously phlegmatic English. Against this, we would do well not to jettison the sense of equilibrium and equanimity that has characterised Britain’s political development over the centuries.
In the 1860s, the constitutional theorist Walter Bagehot adapted Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution to argue that the fair competition between ideas was one of the things that gave Britain a comparative advantage over other nations. Yet he also believed that the way in which the British expressed themselves in debate – vigorous and spirited but not excessive or cruel – was just as important. There is a happy median somewhere, in what Bagehot called “animated moderation”.
This article appears in the 04 Jan 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain