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How did political discourse get so toxic?

Youv’e probably heard of desensitisation. It means becoming less aware of a problem by getting used to its presence. That was certainly the case in F Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘The Great Gatsby’ where citizens of 20th century New York would repeatedly attend wild parties to mask the void in their lives and the failure of the American dream.

Well, we in 21st century Britain have become desensitised to another type of party: political parties. And specifically, the language they use. It is hurled around the airwaves in someone shape or form every day: ’traitor’, ‘betrayal’, ‘surrender bill’, ‘Remoaner’, ‘Brextremist.’ Whether on twitter or the radio, television or in the press, our mediums for attaining information are full of political commentary that is completely predictable and adds nothing to the discussion.

People may have become used to this language, especially since the 2016 EU referendum. The matter’s dangers only received the full attention it deserved following Labour MP Paula Sherriff’s open anguish with the Prime Minister for his choice of language. The Tories have built themselves around ‘getting Brexit done’ – a naive optimism that Britain leaving the European Union will solve all the political divides that exist. Beyond Brexit, does this sort of language highlight a peak in a long term decline in public discourse.

Whether on twitter or the radio, television or in the press, our mediums for attaining information are full of political commentary that is completely predictable and adds nothing to the discussion

What has caused the political system to crumble? These appear transformative times, as the UK finds itself in a constitutional crisis. But there have been revolutionary times before: the formation of the coalition government in 2010, the eroding of civil liberties under New Labour, Margaret Thatcher ‘rolling back the frontiers of the state.’ All three periods involved protests and, for the latter, notable riots. But they are eras not defined by a complete breakdown between those of differing political persuasions.

Why has this taken place? The rise of social media certainly hasn’t helped things. A fantastic ideal
– the democratisation of the internet, allowing all to have their say – has given trolls and dangerous individuals the ability to hurl abuse across the cyberspace, often with few consequences. This differs completely from criticising an MP, or holding them accountable for their voting record, both perfectly legitimate and welcome actions. No, it entails gratuitous, deplorable, vile rhetoric. Think of a pejorative adjective – that sums up the nature of language. MPs are certainly feeling the frightening effects. According to the Guardian, in the first five months of 2019, there was a 90% rise in MPs reporting incidents, with 152 crimes recorded to the police. This mirrors the figures for 2018, which saw 342 crimes reported by MPs, a rise from 151 in 2017.

In the first five months of 2019, there was a 90% rise in MPs reporting incidents, with 152 crimes recorded to the police

Matters are clearly getting worse. Parliamentarians are not the only individuals affected, with police recorded figures, according to the House of Commons library, showing the number of reported hate crimes rising by 123% between 2012/13 and 2017/18. These statistics are damning.

Some have argued that the 2016 EU referendum has contributed to this decline. The ballot paper’s binary nature would inevitably create discontent and polarisation. Campaigns on both sides have been accused of spreading fear and lies to generate attention and hysteria. A rational, calm, sensible debate on the European Union and its relative successes and failures did not materialise.

The public need to understand that leaving the European Union will take time. The Article 50 process required two years for negotiation between the two sides. Throughout the campaign, it was not made obvious that our departure would not take place the day after Britain voted to leave. Given that the May government set out ‘red lines’ instead of working across parliament to achieve a sensible departure, MPs refused three times to back her deal. Since then, intransigence and paralysis had been the norm.

Reports of the ‘left behind’ appear cliche but have an element of truth behind them. Think about it. If you’re in a former industrial heartland, with a mine closed down under Thatcher and few prospects on offer, what would entice you to retain the status quo? When remainers talked of risks to the economy, many had nothing to risk. When remainers talked of our EU contributions being spent in the UK, it wasn’t obvious where they were spent. The divide that the referendum helped to expose was opened up, the opaque and murky separation fully exposed.

This separation between different voters reflects how divides are today shaped less by class but
cultural attitudes. While class and economic poverty remain vital issues that deserve the government’s full attention, they are now less effective indicators for how an individual will vote. For example, the affluent Canterbury constituency voted Labour for the first time in 2017 while the formerly industrial Mansfield also voted Tory for the first occasion. Instead, attitudes around levels of immigration, gay marriage, trans rights and abortion affect a vote. Given YouGov stated that in 2017, age was the key predicator of voting intention, it is logical to see how culture shapes the divide.

The number of reported hate crimes has risen by 123% between 2012/13 and 2017/18

Amongst MPs, the language looks set to heat up. There has always been loud, open debate between the parties – just think of PMQs – as they try to win their argument and express their disagreement. But then the divide within the nation was represented (hence representative democracy) in Parliament. By introducing direct democracy and the manner in which campaigning was carried out, MPs allowed their clear divisions over the European question to be represented by the public. Depending on their side of the argument, MPs are able to say, thanks to the vote, that they represent ‘real, ordinary people.’

Yet while the language has got worse, MPs have failed to achieve concrete solutions. MPs who want a second referendum still haven’t got a majority for one in Parliament and can’t agree what should be on the ballot paper. MPs who want to leave with a deal haven’t been able to convince enough MPs to depart from the EU. And MPs supportive of departing without any agreement at all have been prevented by the Benn Act, which forces the Prime Minister to seek an extension to the Brexit process if MPs cannot ratify a deal.Nobody had yet come produced a solution to break the impasse.

In terms of political debate, how should MPs proceed? Democracy is all about disagreement over
how the world should be run. The fact that our political parties take opposing views should be celebrated. Accountability and a strong opposition lead to better government and more people having their voices heard. Disagreement should be welcomed, but the decline in public discourse should not. Individuals should take it upon themselves to seek out those with whom they are politically opposed to. Our country, and our entire political system, must learn how to disagree well.

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