Whatever happened to debating?

As the Prime Minister enjoys a walking holiday in Northern Italy (hopefully a location that will dissuade her from calling another election), Jeremy Corbyn is the hero of the Internet and our lord and saviour because he helped a woman taking a pram up the stairs, as shown by a Snapchat which appears to be from his own account (although I wouldn’t know because I don’t use Snapchat). A gesture that many, including people on the Left, find just basic manners is being hailed as making him a great politician (for whatever reason), because “the evil Tories” don’t help women with prams, he is a man of the people and we need good, genuine people in politics. It doesn’t matter what their ideas actually are (*cough* Venezuela has been on the news lately). As of the last time I have watched Question Time, people had started going mad about Jacob Rees Mogg because he is genuine. He might be quirky and old fashioned and what not, but he is perceived as being his own person in spite of a world that tries to tell us what we should be like, and people seem to like that. I’m not sure how many people are aware that he is pretty much a traditional Catholic libertarian, with all the baggage that this entails. The cult is now, apparently, dying down, and was never at the level of Corbyn’s (who has a mural of himself in Islington), but it’s the Tory side of the same coin: politics is now about personality. What happened to the Westminster chambers being the arena where people debated ideas?

At the beginning of the summer, George Freeman MP, of Conservative Policy Forum fame, came up with the idea of a festival of conservative values as a response to a technocratic and uninspiring election campaign led by someone who, I believe, is a great PM for troubled times that need a bit of technocratic steady hand and getting the job done, but is not a leader able to inspire people to believe in something the way her predecessor was (didn’t we learn a lesson from Churchill’s war years, sir Crosby?) It was a great idea I was immediately on board with. Fast-forward two months, and everybody is hanging their head in shame staring at something that only feeds the worst stereotypes about our party rather than widening the conversation about what it means to be a conservative. I was calling for the resurgence of the Primrose League circa 10pm on election night, and this whole invitation-only festival, to which I seem to have not even been invited, is not the answer I believe is the right one to the question we face. We need to have the broadest possible conversation within the party before we broaden it up to the rest of the world, and while conservative values is the subject of the next CPF meeting, how many associations are actively involved in CPF with a decent-sized, diverse group of minds coming together?

If we seem to have self-referential debates with people who have broadly the same worldview as us (nothing is more representative of this as the healing of a historical division between two well known party organisations, which I won’t name because unless you are old enough, or know your party history, you will be puzzled by this and therefore proving my point), it’s no surprise that there is no debate with the other side. Or, in fact, that there is such a thing as an “other side” that we seem to strive to keep apart, as if sometimes agreeing with a different viewpoint is contagious and will bring about the end of the world. This isn’t Twilight, and being bitten by the Left (or Right for that matter) won’t turn you into a glittering vampire, ok? There have been a few recent examples of this entrenching of worldviews lately.
One has been the debate surrounding the criticism of Dunkirk for being too white. I find the situation deeply ironic, because it’s thanks to the Left’s loathing of empire that we seem to not want to acknowledge that the Britain fighting in World War II was the Britain with an empire that covered a great deal of the known world, and now the Guardian is publishing articles complaining that the film doesn’t show regiments from the colonies that were at the battle. However, the criticism seems to me (as someone who hasn’t seen the film but knows the history) legitimate. Yet, nobody is engaging with it because “identity politics”. It’s as if engaging with one legitimate criticism is going to infect us all with a virus that will mean we give legitimacy to a view of reality that we disagree with. Another irony in this is that, if the Right was willing to engage with the criticism, it would open up the discussion of two things they care about, the empire and patriotism.

The same attitude applies, however, to the Left, and the way everybody seems to be deflecting criticism of Venezuela by saying it is not real socialism, without engaging with the possibility that, maybe, their ideology does open up to the abuses we’re witnessing because, maybe, it really goes against the way humans are. Maybe it really is not true socialism (as they say in their defence it), but maybe true socialism is just a utopia that will never happen by its own nature. Nobody seems to be willing to engage with these questions. If socialism really is a better option that what the Right proposes, then people who believe in it shouldn’t be scared of it being scrutinised. They should be able to make the case to even the most ardent free-marketeer (and vice-versa). The ghost of ideological purity is also still hoovering over the Brexit referendum. One year after the vote, and it still seems plenty of people are working in a paradigm of anger and desire to be proven right at all costs, rather than seeing it as an opportunity to engage with the reality that something must have gone wrong between 1975 and now if so many of the 67% landslide for joining the Common Market have turned their backs on the EU.

Looking at the reasons why people voted the way they did, it’s also apparent that a lot of Eurosceptics of the kind who want a reformed EU ended up in the Remain camp because of practical considerations that have nothing to do with their support of the direction the EU has taken, they just didn’t think leaving was worth the economic risk. If we were willing to stop this nonsensical us VS them we would stand a chance of finding a solution that works for both Britain and the rest of the EU, and it’s really disappointing that the people the quickest to judge Leavers as racists from their internationalist high horse seem to have the least concern for what’s happening in the Eurozone (maybe if unemployment wasn’t in the double-digit % figures we’d have less immigration of people looking for work, and so the racists wouldn’t have something to complain about). I’m a liberal, I want global free trade and global free movement, I just can’t see how anything is free when it’s driven by need, and it tends to be overwhelmingly one-way because of the inequality among countries. That’s why I’m passionate about international development, but I digress. The wind of reform has been blowing strong, and brought Macron to the Elysée. He is hardly an extremist, and Merkel is listening to him. Change can happen, but nobody seems interested in having a conversation about the future should it happen. It’s just predicting doom and gloom on one side, and accusations of scaremongering on the other.

It’s a slow news period, so there is little happening (well, if one excludes Trump, who seems to have a talent for attracting trouble and making the headlines…). It should be a period we have the time to engage in looking at ideas more deeply than we would normally do when things just happen. We may be on holiday, so we have the time to pick up a book and inform ourselves about something that we don’t normally look at. We should also be more relaxed, so we can actually look at things we disagree with without our blood pressure going through the roof because it’s already in the red zone thanks to work commitments and commuting etc. Recently, a research into the habits of British people with regards to discussing politics was in the news. If we don’t talk to people who are different and have a different background, we stand no chance of understanding what life is like for them, why they think the way they do, and how our decisions affect them. Or, even worse, if we just assume that everyone who thinks differently from us is morally deficient, then we are only going to make things worse. Let’s take the chance, this parliamentary recess, to get ourselves ready to engage in the new political year, and the conference season upon us, with an open mind and willingness to work for the common good. This article on TED about talking politics in a constructive way is a good way to start. Seriously, when someone “to the left of Lenin” (sic.) is the reference for a Conservative councillor candidate, all things are possible.

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