>The civility and conduct of our political discourse is in a parlous state. We live in a society where accusing another person of treachery does not bat an eyelid. Where accusing the Government of seeking social cleansing does not raise an eyebrow. Where an MP admitting that 70% of her online writings are fiction rankles the political and media classes only slightly. Hatred of those we disagree with is the order of the day. No longer do we have anything approaching civility, politeness, or liberality of opinion.

We see it in our wider media culture too. We see a respected television personality, often hailed as a national treasure, hounded off Twitter and facing the mob of the mind because he was misquoted in a magazine interview. We see a musician mocked for her miscarriage because she happened to criticise another musician. The media are too quick to jump to conclusions. Instant response, instant gratification, reduced to 140 characters or a stolen sentence from a government minister, are now the bedrock of our media and political discourse, and it is ruining our society. It drives hatred of one another. It drives the anger which is now such a present part of our society. It drives the ideologues and the iconoclasts who rely so much on a personality-driven media. It gets in the way of the truth, and the voices of the vast majority of people throughout Britain.

It could be worse. The United States suffers much worse from this than we do, as demonstrated by the Glenn Becks and Alan Graysons who reside throughout the US. (Indeed, I am not the first to speak publicly on this subject, far from it. Jon Stewart did a much better job at the ‘Rally to Restore Sanity’ than I could ever do).

Yet it is pretty bad here.

The current state of our discourse is ruining government. We are willing to say anything about the other side, to call them extremists, to claim they hate the poor or that they hate Britain and wish to sell out to Europe, or to downright insult them. Yet, by doing this, we are increasing dissatisfaction with, and distrust of, politicians. We, for the first time in generations, have the chance to change this. The coalition government should be a chance for us to show that, actually, despite our differences, we can come together. We can work together, despite those things that set us apart, for the good of society. And yet, that doesn’t happen. Politicos – and I would single out the Labour Party here, although they are by no means alone – still operate under the assumption that we must always seek conflict.

Politics, democracy, and debate require we disagree. However those involved in politics generally can’t handle people disagreeing with them if they are of the same party. (This has a more serious repercussion which I shall attend to shortly). Conversely, politics also requires we agree. It requires compromise. It always has and always will. Even within parties, politics is compromise. So the coalition government is just an extension of that. We won’t always like what it delivers. I don’t. I disagree strongly with policy on tuition fees, and I would have preferred to raise income tax rather than VAT. Yet that does not mean we must reject the politics of consensus altogether. This is what we have been advised to do, by those who cannot comprehend of a different way. Labour has suddenly proved allergic to any sort of consensus government, after building its foundations for so many years.

Yet the allergy is prevalent in our party and the Conservatives too.  We are not used to government. I am still astounded and disbelieving that the Lib Dems are now in government. Many other people in the party feel that too. Yet we must remember that now we are in government, we must be responsible. We can’t expect, any longer, to sit on the sidelines. I happen to believe that the Lib Dems, at the parliamentary level and in the policy sense, were largely prepared for government. Claims that we promised the Earth knowing that we would never have to implement it are false. And yet, many members still subscribe to a utopian idea that we can implement all of our policies.

We are in coalition, and this means we have to select priorities. It also means that what we promised in the election will not always be delivered. I absolutely support the abolition of fees. Students have it hard enough without having to worry about an unanswerable burden of debt. I’m prepared to have that argument, and fight my utmost for their abolition. But compromise, a key component of any government, requires also that we seek common ground. Yet purists demand that we continue to pursue a complete abolition of tuition fees. Unfortunately, the electorate rejected us, the system has only given us 57 seats and therefore we must compromise. I utterly reject any rise in tuition fees but, at the same time, I understand this need to compromise. That is the price of coalition, but one that I feel is ultimately worthwhile. But many people disagree, including those who are often at the forefront of promoting pluralism.

But the tuition fees debate has taken on a nastier tone, one which is indicative of our wider political culture. It focuses unduly on personalities. It accuses them of being ‘traitors’ or having ‘betrayed’ us. Yet that is not true. Of course the party went in to the election campaign promising to scrap tuition fees, and Nick Clegg was a clear advocate for this position. But coalition means we can’t have everything we want. Manifestos aren’t iron-cast lists of policies that will be implemented, instead they are a statement of aspiration, otherwise every government in history would be illegitimate and untruthful. This does not mean we should not trust manifestos. We should because politicians want to implement the policies they believe in.

It is not helpful to say that Clegg has betrayed us, or that he is a Conservative lapdog. It’s not right to claim that the Government favours ‘social cleansing’. Nor, more importantly, is it true. And this leads on to the wider point about civility. Politics won’t work if it is based on insults, rudeness, and contempt. I am not, for a moment, suggesting that politicians must seek false friendships. (Although numerous outgoing US Senators attest to the role that friendships played in passing legislation in that body, so friendship is not a terrible idea). But at the same time, we must treat our opponents with respect, dignity, and civility. Personal insults have no place in the halls of our nation’s legislative bodies. We treat most people whom we know with politeness and, in some cases, kindness. Yet because our politicians disagree with each other, our culture of politics dictates that we don’t treat our opponents with respect. That ruins our politics. Politics can do without calling the other side evil, or feckless, or stupid, or criminal, or venal, or cruel. Indeed, it can only operate if the name-calling is forgotten.

Beyond politics, the Twitter trial of Stephen Fry is a sad indictment of our media, who seized a misquote in a low-circulation magazine and used it to bash a respected – and in some quarters loved – television personality, as well as the Twitterati and the commentariat, who decided to attack Fry, rather than engage him in rational debate. Put aside that Mr Fry did not say these things, and the errors are on the part of the interviewer, why must our first instinct be to attack, and not debate? Mr Fry could have had a perfectly reasoned argument for his ‘claims’. Instead, he was not allowed to do that, not even allowed to defend himself, and was metaphorically hanged, drawn and quartered by Twitter. Many other, less high-profile people have been driven off Twitter by the sheer nastiness of it. It can be a good place, a forum for ideas and pleasantries. Yet it can also be a nasty, venal, rude place. Observe the comment of one Justin Bieber fan after hearing of Lily Allen’s miscarriage:

“LMFAAAAAO. Hahaha.”

They then went on to comment that that they had no respect for Allen because she once “dissed Justin Bieber”. Bieber, it should be noted, sent his sympathy. That one person can treat another like this is beneath contempt. What happened to Lily Allen is one of the worst thing that can ever happen to someone, and Allen deserves much more respect than this. The requirement to respond with only 140 characters forces this. But this is not mandatory, and it need not be a permanent state.

We can do better. We can treat those we disagree with with respect. That doesn’t mean we have to be best friends with them. But it does mean we have to treat them with the civility and respect that we would expect from them. It does mean that we have to concede and compromise sometimes. It does mean that we shouldn’t hound people for having different opinions from ours. It doesn’t mean we’ll always succeed, but it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

As he does so often, Jon Stewart summed it up perfectly in is speech to the Rally to Restore Sanity. It’s about America, but many of the declarations in the speech are quite applicable to Britain too:

by Thomas Hemsley


3 Comments to “>#politicomediafail”

  1. >Well said – in fact well said a hundred times over. A good portion of the problem, to my mind, is that too many members of political parties join without thinking about their own moral convictions and the ideologies of the parties (it's all about policy these days), and they treat politics like the support of a football team. LDV is a microcosm of the situation you've outlined – having a reasoned debate is near impossible with the spite filled tribalism, hyperbole and hatred that goes on there. Without rational reflection and the willingness to hold in our minds the possibility that our ideals or opinions might be wrong, or in need revision, there's no chance of compromise and no chance that democracy can function well. You can justify your ideals of the good to others if they have decided not to listen to begin with. I'm reminded of hearing an interview with John Reid MP on the subject of Al Qaeda and why there had been a refusal to attempt dialogue – he said, and I quote, 'we will not compromise with extremists'. Ah, the irony.

  2. >Good article, agree with much of it.We are a broad church, our history has always allowed us to welcome varying perspectives on how to deal with economic problems, from Keynsians to neoliberals, yet what binds everybody together in this party seems to be a passion for ensuring people are free to make their own choices with the opportunity to make something of themselves.Now I strongly disagree with most people on tuition fees (free university being the biggest middle-class tax break of them all, marriage tax breaks don't come close!) – why should Lawyers and Civil Service fast streamers get a free education while a Lorry driver, hairdresser, builder or pilot has to pay for all of their training?For putting this point across, there's been a good debate, but also a lot of tribalism from mainly younger members of the party. Supporting graduate contributions is not 'selling out', or 'betrayal', but just another viewpoint to consider. Proper internal debate, critiquing each others ideas, combining different ideas to create even better policy, and basing our manifesto on decent, solid evidence are so important to me as a democrat. Where other parties have policy dictated by kitchen cabinets, special advisers and trade unions/Bernie Ecclestone, our policy comes from members.Some members need to remember that policy has changed over the years, that members are free to speak out as they wish about policy formation, and that by combining our ideas, we make better decisions.I compromise a minority of my own personal liberal beliefs when campaigning for the party, because I know it's the best vehicle for implementing the majority of them. That's not selling out, it's just how politics works.

  3. >@Michael – hear hear. Re your last paragraph – it's worth pointing out I think, that compromise on policy need not entail compromise on ideology.

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