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The UK is learning that like everything else in this life, democracies can die

How Brexit has brought liberal democracy to the edge. 

More than a decade ago, when I first moved to London, I had a long chat with a Bulgarian cab driver who gave me some friendly advice about the ways of the Brits: “They are just too relaxed, these people,” he said. “Look, I have been to Istanbul, I know what you guys are like. In the Balkans, we are all the same. We eat fast, we walk fast, because we don’t trust even our own shadows. We know we might be screwed up any moment. But here it’s different. Everything is too slow. You want to have a pipe fixed? The plumber needs to check it first and then call his company and give you a quote and make another appointment for next week… Sloooooow. You want to open a bank account? Sloooooow. Why? Because the Brits think they got everything sorted out. They think they got nothing to lose anymore! So why hurry, right?”

Those words stayed with me. Fast-forward to today’s uncertainties, and now writing as a British citizen, I know there is a political complacency in the UK that needs to change and change fast. Because we have entered a new era in which we all need to see that we have a lot to lose when things start to go so wrong.

For too long too many in this country have taken liberal democracy for granted. But democracy is not a personal possession and no country is inoculated against the rise of anti-democratic tendencies. Liberal, pluralistic, healthy democracy is a delicate ecosystem that needs to be nourished, protected and regenerated. Rule of law, separation of powers, free and diverse media, independent academia, women’s rights, minority rights and a robust civil society where citizens of different backgrounds feel equally welcome – all of these are essential for the ecosystem. Like everything else in this life, democracies, too, can die.

Today in the UK there is a visible decline in public trust in almost everything – the media, the politics, the economy, the system. In the absence of trust in our democratic values and institutions, people are more inclined to swing towards confrontational politics. No wonder then, as Yascha Mounk shows, that the number of young people who identify with the radical left or right has doubled in the past two decades. Politics has become more tribal, antagonistic, a zero-sum game. But countries that have long suffered from populism and authoritarianism, such as Turkey, prove that when societies become polarised the only people who benefit from the tension are the populist demagogues. Therefore it is essential for us to think about new ways to cultivate a culture of coexistence.

We need to deal with inequality as an urgent cultural, political, economic and moral question. The first major chasm is the lack of equality in opportunity and education. Only 3 per cent of our MPs come from blue-collar backgrounds. In the past many politicians had roots in trade-union towns or agricultural communities. Increasingly our politicians are starting to look similar. They graduate from similar schools, come from similar backgrounds. This only intensifies people’s suspicions that their representatives in Westminster are disconnected from their realities.

We cannot solve inequality without talking openly about systematic intolerance and institutionalised prejudice. If even privileged MPs who dare to express different views on Brexit get assaulted on the streets by the far right, if tabloids and social media accounts use toxic language and accuse those with critical minds of being “enemies of the people”, we must all be alarmed. Racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and all kinds of discrimination must be taken seriously. None of them is an isolated case. We also need to talk about extremism. When communities are isolated and young people do not feel included as equal members in the larger society, there is fertile ground for the seeds of extremism.

As a storyteller who often travels to various corners of this country, and whose views fall on the liberal-left end of the political spectrum, I believe there are several things that need to change on our side as well. We need to understand that not everyone who voted Leave is a xenophobe. We must make a distinction between people who have concerns about the present or anxieties about the future, and populist politicians who have exploited those concerns and anxieties for their own selfish interests. These are the populist elite – a phrase we must begin to use more often. Populists like to claim they speak for “the people”, but in truth, they have no problem with elitism so long as they are the elite.

Another gulf lies between the urban and rural. Cultural, political and economic power concentrates in only a few cities. Meanwhile swathes of the country feel left out. This is a pattern that can be observed all across Europe and it has a direct impact on politics. We must bridge the gap between our cosmopolitan, liberal cities and the countryside, where reality feels – and often is – different.

Keeping an eye on the digital world must be a priority. For too long the tech elite have been raving about the bright side of the internet. Their extreme optimism was unfounded. Now we need to talk about the dark side of the internet. The web has become a platform of manipulation, misinformation, tribalism. We must become alert and engaged citizens, not only in the civic space but also in the digital space.

Finally, while we are right to feel angry and frustrated, neither anger nor frustration can be a source of motivation. But we also need emotions on the table. Does it not bother you that populist demagogues are often far better at speaking the language of emotions than rational democrats? The new narrative needs to be based on emotional intelligence: a combination of positive emotions and rational analysis – passionate, compassionate, bold, humanistic, non-elitist, modest, all-embracing.

Faith is too important to leave to the ultra-religious. Patriotism is too important to leave to ultra-nationalists. The digital space is too important to leave to tech monopolies. And politics is far too important to leave to career politicians. 

Elif Shafak’s new novel “10 Minutes 38 Seconds in this Strange World” will be published in June by Viking

Click here to read the rest of our “State of emergency” series, featuring articles from writers including David Hare, Rachel Reeves, and Jonathan Coe.

This article appears in the 22 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency