Anti-politics and the discomfort of responsibility

By Jill Segger
May 27, 2019

The politics of anti-politics is riding high. A Prime Minister is toppled, and a party without a manifesto heads the poll in nine of the 10 UK regions to have declared in the European Parliament election to date. (27 May 2019).

Trust in government and parliament has never been so low. The anger and contempt generated 10 years ago by the financing of moats and duck houses may have dulled somewhat, but it has built a foundation of mistrust. Too many politicians have not understood this and many have continued along a route of self-promotion with a profoundly damaging disregard for the lives and experiences of the millions who do not share their advantages.

Abuse has come to dominate over well-argued difference, opponents have become enemies and disagreement over Europe has, in many quarters, degenerated into accusations of ‘treachery’ and acts of violence. A democracy is flirting with demagogues and, whatever our place on the political spectrum, we need to be alert to the dangers and steadfast for reason and for truth.

The 2016 referendum dealt Theresa May a very difficult hand and she played it appallingly. Her own weaknesses prevented her from seeing that handling a result with such a narrow margin of ‘victory’ called for exploring a means of bringing people and parliament together in a search for some form of consensus as to how to proceed. Taking time to consult, to stand back and to chart a pragmatic route through the immense complexity of unpicking more than four decades of law, trade practice and security arrangements would have led to a very different situation to that which we see today. Resentments have hardened into implacable hostilities across the country, in both official and personal relationships. “Brexit means Brexit” – a desperate and meaningless phrase – trapped both the Prime Minister and the whole political estate in ever tightening coils of binary confrontation. There would seem little likelihood of loosing these bonds now.

It is easy to say ‘politics is broken’ because that is at present the dominant presentation and thus the common perception. It is certainly badly distorted, even deformed. Nuance and complexity have been brushed aside in search of toxic simplicities and partisan sound bites. However, many will have noted that the north-west electoral region roundly rejected these attributes in the person of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon and that the combined vote for clearly anti-Brexit parties was greater than that of those calling for a ‘no-deal’ exit from the EU.

The Brexit Party has taken full advantage of the current anti-politics mood. It is an onslaught on the institutions in which people have lost trust: the courts, the media, parliament, political parties, even – despite their appropriation of its garments – democracy itself. It has no policies, nothing to offer on austerity, public services, the NHS, education, social security, industrial strategy and employment or foreign policy. It has only slogans and false simplicities, delivered fortissimo. It will be found out. But democratic politicians and the electorate must first take heed of their own responsibilities. It is not going to be comfortable or easy.

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© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. She is the author of Words out of Silence published by Ekklesia in May 2019. The book is available here and here.  Jill is an active Quaker. You can follow her on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.co/quakerpen

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