Politics in the UK has never looked quite like this. On June 23, the country went to the polls to say whether or not we should remain a member of the EU. Whatever you think of the result itself, the political aftermath can be described only as: chaos.
The Prime Minister resigned, and the new PM took office without either a general or a leadership election, as her rivals slid away, one shock resignation or scandal after another. She chose her cabinet, and put the main leader of the Leavers, who walked out on being PM himself, as foreign secretary, and sacked the deputy leader of the Leavers who had decided he should be PM, having sworn for years he not only had no desire to do the job but didn’t have the ability either.
Article 50 was never triggered, and we are none the wiser when it will be triggered, how it will be triggered, and what it will mean when it is – or if it will even be legal. We heard calls for a second referendum, for a Scottish independence referendum, for a Northern Ireland border poll and the formation of a London city-state. All the promises the Leave campaign had made crumbled away in the face of economic realities and the actualities of the European terms and conditions.
The leader of the party which had brought EU independence to the main stage in the first place decided he ‘wanted his life back’ and resigned. Almost the entire shadow cabinet of the Opposition resigned, and the Leader of the Opposition was overwhelmingly given a vote of no confidence by his MPs. There then began the infighting over whether there would, should or could be a leadership contest, who would should or could run, and how the contest would, should or could be organised – most notably involving a series of increasingly controversial legal battles over which members were eligible to vote, as well as increased reports of abuse by party members and criticisms of the inadequate response from the leadership.
If this were commissioned for an episode of The Thick Of It, it would be surely rejected on the grounds that it made no sense, was far too complicated for viewers to follow, and really wasn’t funny any more.
During the weeks after the vote, the significant minority who had voted Remain were in shock and mourning. Many of the majority who had voted Leave were unhappy at the establishment, at their continual marginalisation by a political elite. And both sides were profoundly uncertain what Brexit would look like, what effect it would have, and when or if it would even happen at all. Amongst all this, we needed politicians to step up, to say, ‘we hear you – things will be different, but things will be better. These are the challenges. We are not naiive. We will think of solutions – and you will be part of that conversation. We will all work together to get through this time and onto a brighter future for everyone.’
Instead, they stepped down, in hordes. The Leavers deemed their work done; the Remainers washed their hands of it all, and what had seemed like a fairly smooth-oiled machine of government crumbled away into factions and bickering.
And it all sounds bizarre, but we should have seen this coming. For far too long, politics has been about competition, and not collaboration; and the culmination of all this was the ultimate competition, the referendum – no wonder the fallout has been immense. If anything can be said for certain during this strange time, it’s that politics as it currently operates has failed.
The culture of politics has been for too long that of a game of chess, an elaborate dance. Which if you think about it, is extraordinary. The job of our government is to do the best thing for its citizens – not to progress its own agenda, or massage its own ego.
To be clear, I’m speaking of a culture – not of individuals. Many politicians are amazing, dedicated people, and politics is no game to them – they are truly trying to help their constituents and their country, trying their hardest to do great work in a system that makes change so very difficult. But the deck is stacked against them, because the systems that are in place in government advantage those who do play; how debates are held, how elections are run, how we think of politicians and how politicians think of us, how the media operates, and so much more. Everything in politics is framed around winning – it’s in our language, and so our conversations, and so our collective psyche. Who won the election? Who won the debate? We talk about politics in terms of election ‘races’, leadership ‘contests’. We judge a party’s success by whether it can win an election – not what it does during government, and tell ourselves we have accountability, because we can vote them out in five years’ time. We have to change the dialogue within and about these systems, so that those people who truly should be in power have the opportunity to come to the fore.
Binary competition in politics makes no sense. No one party is going to have all the answers. No one ideology can get everything right. People have different skills and different ideas and different ways of thinking, and the notion that we should put them all in a room to argue for a bit and whoever shouts the loudest wins on matters like people’s welfare, health, education, national security, freedom, prosperity, rights — is truly ridiculous. The idea that parties go into debates to score points, to get one over on the other side, to make jibes and jests, rather than to discuss issues and construct solutions that are mutually acceptable, together, is mind-boggling – but it’s how it’s always been, and so we accept it as just how the world is. But it doesn’t have to be – not if we had proportional representation, and willing coalition governments. The reason coalitions fail is when people still approach them with an ‘in-it-to-win-it’ attitude, when it’s precisely that kind of attitude that coalitions should be overriding.
Everyone is one person. That sounds trivial and trite, I know. But it’s crucial to remember in the murky world of politics. Individual people are just that – individuals. Real people with hopes and dreams and suffering and joys and beliefs and passions and fears. Any parties or policies which fail to respect that, by treating people as statistics, as means to ends, by not listening to their views and their concerns, by furthering or failing to alleviate oppression, should not be in power or enacted.
But we citizens need to remember that a politician is one person too. They have a life outside their job; they are fallible. We are partly responsible for the political culture of winning and losing and competitions, when we judge any slip up so very harshly and are quick to condemn people who we forget are only human, like us. If we were willing to be more forgiving – not of negligence, or cruelty, but of genuine mistakes – and allowed for apologies, for growth, for development, for improvement, for healing and learning rather than denouncing and demoting, perhaps our acceptance of nuance would translate into the political arena too – and it wouldn’t be so much if one party won or lost, but about whether the job got done, and whether it got done well.
Of course this is not saying politicians’ actions shouldn’t be subject to critical scrutiny – it’s saying that that criticism should be tempered with understanding, and, crucially, should be received by politicians with that same level of understanding. We need dialogue and we need reciprocal effort. We all need to remember that we are ourselves one person – that we matter and that we are fallible. We need to spend as much if not more time interrogating our own beliefs and actions as we do other people’s. We need to try to to understand the other side, not shut them down. We need to find the common ground we have and build upwards from that. Collaboration isn’t about agreeing all the time, or compromising your principles — it’s about accepting that strength is in numbers, and that a problem shared is a problem halved. We need to remember that everyone is human – they deserve all the rights, and bear the responsibilities, that comes with that. We all deserve respect, and we all have a duty to respect others. Collaboration. Reciprocity. Mutual understanding. These shouldn’t be things that need saying, but all too often they are.