Politics today is polarised. Wherever you look in the world, it is tricky to disagree with that statement. Since populist parties of the left and right began to gain traction, winning seats, forming local councils and even the government, individuals of different persuasions have become more separated and diametrically opposed to one another.
This is heard all the time within the Brexit debate. After the deadlock following the failure of MPs to pass Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, politicians talk of wishing to come to some consensus. Cries of betrayal, treachery and contempt have become a daily part of the airwaves, involving personal insults instead of rational arguments. Brexiteers like the Prime Minister suggest the way to solve the gaping division is to deliver Brexit while Remainers argue a second referendum is the only solution.
They are both wrong. Logically, many people, depending on their viewpoint, will never support any form of Brexit or another referendum. They also assume the country was once united together. Certainly a consensus in Westminster existed: the post-war consensus involving Keynesian economics dominated until Mrs Thatcher’s premiership and the liberal consensus was celebrated by Tony Blair and David Cameron following the Cold War’s conclusion. There were hardly any differences between the parties.
But this was not representative of the country. While there may have been agreement at Westminster, the social and economic divides remained ravenous. They were simply more hidden because of the previous consensus in Parliament. Indeed, Brexit was simply a symptom, not a cause, of the long term divides facing the country.
Because the UK doesn’t often hold referenda, these divides were expressed politically through the party system. The convention was that urban areas voted Labour while rural shire areas voted Conservative. This has broadly remained the case, despite some recent exceptions. Under first- past-the-post, a system which the author is broadly supportive, one of those two parties is likely to win. Therefore, people vote tactically not for a party they love but for one they dislike the least. The divide is based on the lesser of two evils.
There are calls for new parties to be created which better represent the true divides of voters, which are instead based on social grounds. The success of the Brexit Party and Liberal Democrats in the European elections could suggest they are better shaped to represent the divisions within the country. But those tactical decisions about how to vote would still be there; the division people seem to so dislike over Brexit would not go away.
Division had always been a part of politics. For it is an argument about power and how the nation should be run. Within the framework of politics comes compromise, where individuals elected have to be pragmatic and get some, if not all, of their preferred policies. Again, it’s the lesser of two evils. Perhaps due to a single issue referenda, this has completed vanished. Remainers are not willing to accept the Withdrawal Agreement which at least allows a transition period before our departure and future negotiations. Surely this Brexit deal is preferable to leaving without a deal? Brexiteers are not willing to vote for a softer version of Brexit, where Britain leaves the single market (thereby ending free movement), the Common Fisheries Policy and the Common Agricultural Policy. Surely this version of Brexit is preferable to no Brexit at all?
Across the world, division has always dominated. Yet the extremes of division previously were restrained by the mainstream parties allowing the lesser of two evils. This was represented across the world. In France in 2017, many left wing socialists may have voted for Emmanuel Macron, despite opposing his economic liberalism, to prevent the far right Marine Le Pen from winning. The same may have been true for Angela Merkel in Germany to prevent the AfD from gaining an influence in government.
Yet however many Bernie Sanders supporters may have tactically voted for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 US Presidential election, it wasn’t enough to prevent a Trump victory. The Sanders supporters didn’t fully embrace Clinton as flawed but a preferable, more capable candidate in every sense of the word to Trump. The pattern that had previously prevented the real extremes from attaining office had failed. Trump was still victorious. He potentially, unless the Democrats can unite around a competent, realistic future president, looks like to win next time round.
One wishes that this article could conclude with a message of hope and optimism. One would like to think that political divides based on respectful disagreement could be restored. That the divides in the country were matched by pragmatic compromise to improve policies and the state of the nation. However, one can’t see the situation improving any time soon. Previously, people were willing to hold their nose and vote for something they thought wasn’t perfect, but slightly reasonable and better than any alternatives. Unless politics has a complete revolution, we need to return to that state.