Brexit is a politics of division. The intention to divide Europe, is also in execution, dividing the United Kingdom. The open wounds in British society run deep and will leave scars but they can heal unless they are infected by a toxic environment and a lack of due care. Those that seek to divide us, do so because people who are preoccupied with fighting amongst themselves, fearful and angry, are far easier to control than people who are unified, content and joyful.
The EU referendum has shaken our political landscape to its very core, exposing fundamental flaws in British democracy and fracturing our society along new fault lines. The UK is anything but united, people are becoming more entrenched in their views, parties are adopting polarising policies and the discourse is increasingly fraught. Anger is rife, as is apathy – there is little place for compassion and understanding in this dialogue – very few actively working to build bridges, or seek that elusive common ground. In order for our country to move forward and work to heal these “Brexit wounds”, we must first identify the underlying flaws in our democracy which have caused this rupturing and then propose solutions to change politics for good.
Since the referendum in 2016 we have witnessed political chaos, to a farcical degree, damaging our international reputation, as our politicians have scrabbled to “deliver” Brexit – And regardless of how people voted, I think 3 years and 6 months of political paralysis, including 3 extensions to the deadline, shows us one thing: Good leadership should not promise something without a realisable plan to safely deliver it. Anyone who has ever organised anything knows that the devil of a plan is always in the detail. The Brexit process has been so slow and painful because our relationship with the EU is infinitely complex, so much so that 3 line slogans will not cut it on delivering a satisfactory outcome; “Take Back Control”, “Brexit Means Brexit”, “Get Brexit Done”. Simplicity may sell, but it does not deliver.
The British people were not given a referendum on any detailed plan with realisable outcomes. And that is why I believe, that in order to move forwards as a country, there is a fundamental need to consult with the stakeholders when that detail of the plan has been hammered out. The British people must be given the final say in a confirmatory referendum.
At every twist and turn in the sorry Brexit tale, the UK media has religiously whipped up emotions into an unnecessary frenzy. A hotel receptionist in Dublin once joked to me he was enjoying “getting the popcorn out” to watch the next instalment in the British political soap opera… But the truth is most people do not enjoy politics, and the Brexit crisis has been especially off-putting for the already apathetic. Nobody wants their Christmas dinner ruined by a dispute over Brussels, Turkey or the EU gravy train. Apathy is hugely damaging to our democracy – the “unheard third” of voters do not have their views represented in parliament, and the needs of their communities cannot be met if they are not expressed. I believe that given a more civilised, positive and engaging political discourse many of these non-voters could have their views coaxed out of them for the better of our society. This could be achieved through mandatory voting but I believe for a healthier, willing participation, we must seek change from the top: from inside the Houses of parliament and the UK media.
When I talk to youths from other European countries they often express their astonishment at the footage which emerges from the debates in the House of Commons. They see our politicians pitted on either side of the chamber, where archaic customs, such as referring to their opponents as “the honourable member for…”, mask the toxic incivility of the discourse. My European compatriots have questioned whether they were watching a parody – the Speaker’s cries of “Order! Order!” (now a cherished internet meme) are necessary to contain the rabble – surely this is satire? No not at all – this is the state of the cradle of UK democracy. Grown men and women braying at each other like suited animals in a farmyard. And I ask – Have we learnt nothing from George Orwell’s Animal Farm?
My proposal for a Parliament of the future, to better meet the needs of the British people: Would be a modern Parliament, a circular construction conducive to co-operative discussion and not antagonistic debate, located closer to the geographic centre of the UK: Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds. The existing Parliament buildings can be turned into a museum – let the tourists pay for the renovation – not the tax payer. Too long have political decisions been centred around London, with the media on its doorstep, it is no wonder that other parts of the country feel left behind and unheard. And these areas which have suffered historic deprivation at the hands of the Westminster elite voted most highly to leave – when the EU was used as a scapegoat for the failings of our own government. The truth that the economic impacts of Brexit will harm these regions the most is an injustice I cannot abide – nobody deserves to suffer because they have been let down by the unfulfillable promises made by political leaders. But alas politicians always lie and let people down – it is tragically expected.
I have watched with disdain as the general election has unfolded: and witnessed the tribal politics reach new levels of viciousness – We see acrimony on all sides of the debate. The Brexit divide has not forged new alliances: it was never as simple as Remainers vs. Leavers. Brexit has instead fractured society along new fault lines as the pre-existing divisions have become more cavernous. For me, there is one key conclusion to be drawn from watching the painful unfolding of the Election: And that is that our electoral system is not fit for purpose. The only reason why ’First Past the Post’ has survived so long is because it is in the selfish interests of the two main parties, to maintain a system which gives them the greatest chance of power. Tactical voting is fundamentally wrong – But it is a consideration for many when choosing who to vote for in their constituency. It’s undemocratic that people cannot vote with conviction for the beliefs they truly hold. We need representation in Parliament that honestly reflects the values of the British public, from all sides of the debate so that those views can be properly scrutinised. Furthermore, we need to stop considering “coalition” a dirty word: Coalition means working together for mutual benefit. People hold different political views because they have different values, experiences, hopes and fears for their communities. Diversity in society is a good thing, but these diverse groups need to be represented fairly so that compromises can be reached to allow us to live in harmony.
In turn, I believe that the diversity of our society should be better reflected by the UK media. Political coverage nearly always located in London, typically features older, white, male, commentators from privileged backgrounds. The youth, ethnic minorities, working classes, and women, from across the UK deserve greater participation in the public discourse. In turn, if these groups see themselves and their views better represented in the media – we will also see more diverse engagement in politics.
I also think that, participation in democracy needs to be instilled through education. Britain’s schools grossly lets down the youth by failing to provide political literacy that adequately equips them to be informed members of the electorate. Civic education should be given a much greater presence in the national curriculum, from an earlier age and votes given to 16-17s to instil the moral duty to vote for the rest of their lives.
I also believe that culture should be brought to the political discourse: to diversify the conversation, provide alternative, thought-provoking, creative perspectives, to empower the individual to speak out, and to make politics more enjoyable and fun. Art, comedy, music, literature and theatre are perfect means of expressing strong opinions, making emotional arguments and provoking complex debates in a way that is non-confrontational and engaging. Satire, parody and humour are tools which disarm aggressive debate and keep the ego of political leaders in check. Those with conservative values who claim that politics should be kept to the preserve of the “serious” – underestimate the power of joy – for joy is our greatest act of defiance.
My vision for the UK of 2030 would be a relocated centre of British democracy, a reformed electoral system, votes for 16-17 year olds, better political education in our schools, diverse representation in the British media and a more civilised political discourse where the common ground is achieved through compromise and co-operation. My vision for the future is one of love, joy, diversity and respect. And the first step towards that must be putting our differences aside and learning to listen.
Speech written by Madeleina Kay for the 89 Initiative, at the London School of Economics on 09/12/19