Discussing the breakdown of the two main UK political parties, and what recent local elections may tell us about Brexit. Also asking the trenchant question “How do you fight feelings with facts?”
I’m not saying I believe in politics to the nth degree. Often times, politics is where hope goes to die. It’s a rough business. So I continue to be amazed at the degree of hope (or hopefulness) expressed by the new Change UK party (affectionately known as the Tigs or Tiggers). I can only say that the sun continues to shine on them.
When someone starts a new venture, I’m a firm believer in looking to the consciousness with which that venture begins — the consciousness of the people involved. The consciousness of Change UK is very good. There’s a spirit of dynamism, cheerful cooperation, even joy. This differs greatly from the two major parties, who seem locked in extreme positions on many important issues, and who often find it difficult to get beyond politics as usual.
Both the Conservatives and Labour support Brexit (or at least their leadership does). What’s that about? Politics as usual. The truth that Brexit is bad policy and will hurt the UK and its people is a politically inconvenient truth, so it is ignored (or perhaps not even seen) by leadership of the two main parties.
When political parties ossify, they act to a considerable extent like blinders. Members can’t see or won’t see the truth which is right in front of them. It is sometimes necessary to break away and start a new party in order to embrace a new or modern vision of the world as it really is — not as it once was, or as various hardened political and economic theories would have it be. Of course, none of this is to suggest that there aren’t good people in the Conservative and Labour parties. Certainly there are, but they’re often constrained by the political machine.
At its best, Change UK is a group of former Labour and Conservative MPs who have now taken off the party blinders and walked out into the sunlight, metaphorically holding hands. There’s joy and freedom in that. That sense of joy and freedom is palpable in the way they present themselves.
There were many excellent speeches delivered by the women and men of Change UK on April 23. I happen to have been struck by a couple of comments from Chuka Umunna and Mike Gapes which I found forward-looking and reflective of a true and accurate picture of the world as it is:
If you (like us) love your country, and you believe the UK is a kind-hearted place, generous in spirit, and should be open to new ideas — people of different backgrounds, creeds, colours, and religions; if you are proud of our history, but also determined to embrace the future, and transform the UK into a place where all our citizens get to enjoy the benefits of modern Britain; if you believe absolutely key to achieving these things is working at an international level through the EU and other international partners, keeping our seat at the top table, then sign up as a supporter and campaign for us in these European elections. We must change our politics. We have to change the trajectory we’re on. If you want to bring an end to this Brexit nightmare, vote for us because we are the party of change. Thank you very much, everybody. – Chuka Umunna
One of the tragedies in British political history is that we have never discussed the reason why the European Community (and then the European Union) was established. We’ve never really put across the importance of bringing together France and Germany, and preventing war on the continent, and the fact that the European Union has been one of the greatest peace projects. And when the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in other European countries that was regarded as a badge of pride. In this country, we had cyncial sneers from the mainstream media, or even no recognition of the importance of that. And our [older] generation has to remember that these debates today are not about us. They are about future young people in our continent, and insuring that we maintain that peace, as well as the economic prosperity, the good environmental standards, the international cooperation, and the vision that the European Union provides to the rest of the world of a successful, peaceful cooperation between twenty-eight countries. – Mike Gapes
Listening to their comments, my reaction was Yes! They get it! They’re seeing the world as it really is today, and looking rightly toward the future.
Now, politics breeds cynicism as proliferously as rabbits breed more rabbits. The cloud of cynicism which envelops UK politics does indeed extend to journalists, who may well be sceptical that a small band of dissenters can be of much use.
I find it helpful to distinguish between political power on the one hand, and being right on the other hand. The two do not always go together. Often, those with political power have gotten it by foul means, including telling blatant lies to the people, or making compromises with the devil. Those with a clear vision of what is right and true often do not have much political power, but this doesn’t mean they are without influence.
This is a place where the political world meets the spiritual world. We desperately need visionaries, people who see the world as it is — not in the mundane sense of the price of halibut or the efficacy of rhubarb subsidies, but in the more profound sense of what brings us together as human beings, and how we can make the world a better place, not just locally but globally.
Of course, most politics is local and tends to be governed by self-interest. (‘And what will you give me?/ Say the sad bells of Rhymney.’) But in order to make the world a better place, we need to rise above petty self-interest and momentary advantage or gain, and embrace a vision for the future which we must first endeavor to see.
Politics is only one facet of that vision for the future, but politics plays an important role in how we move forward (or fail to do so). Politicians whose vision for the future is dynamic, enlightened, and consonant with that greater vision which proceeds from spiritual insight are really the gold standard among politicians, whether or not they hold much power. By being right and speaking rightly, they can move things in a good direction, even when acting from the margins. Plus, there is great personal salvation in speaking up for what you believe, even if no one listens!
Members of the UK’s two main political parties often have to “go along to get along.” This becomes distasteful to some people who hunger after truth. So, it becomes a personal decision whether one cares more for the old school tie and a safe home in politics (recalling the Peter Hamill song), or whether one cares more for truth unvarnished by political expediency. As the two main parties become increasingly shrill and wedded to inflexible ideologies, it stands to reason they will chalk up more defections from people who care more for truth. Perhaps there’s some indication of this in Friday’s local election results, where Tories and Labour lost ground to Lib Dems, Greens, and Independents. The numbers are impressive and are being interpreted by some as an anti-Brexit vote — if so, good news!
There’s a very odd disconnect between those actual results — in which staunch Remain parties chalked up the greatest victories — and the claims of both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, who are trying to spin this as a “just get on with Brexit” vote. If you want Brexit to happen, you certainly don’t vote for Lib Dems or Greens. (Change UK were not standing in these elections. Their first major test will come in the European elections three weeks hence.)
I want to discuss one other item from the Change UK presser. A trenchant point was made by audience member Simon Knighton, who chairs a not-for-profit health and social care facility. He said:
I believe that you cannot challenge emotion with fact. So, one of the mistakes I think that we’ve made consistently in the United States and in the referendum here was that we tried to challenge the emotion of the right with facts and experts, and everybody saying this, this, and this, and we wheel out the next expert. I think what we need to do — Chuka said it — there are two visions of Europe: We need to accentuate the positive vision of Britain as a free partnership, modern demcocracy in a global world in which our young people are equipped to move from job to job to job. And those become the defining policies of our future.
Knighton’s point is similar to George Lakoff on not responding to negative framing, but rather creating your own positive frame. This is helpful, but not a universal panacea. As LBC broadcaster James O’Brien has pointed out, much of the Leave campaign amounted to telling working class folk that European immigrants are out to nick your biscuit, and the only way to stop them is to vote Leave. It’s not clear that talk of Britain as a free partnership, modern democracy in a global world, etc. would entirely dispel the fear of biscuit-nicking, which is more immediate and less abstract. Still, offering a positive vision is helpful. Facts are also helpful to people who are halfway reasonable. A few people do change their minds in response to higher quality information about Brexit as that flows in, dispelling fantasies of sunny uplands and a massive windfall for the NHS.
Knighton’s comment that “you cannot challenge emotion with fact” really got me thinking — not just about politics, but about my own activities favouring religious tolerance. There’s often a tacit assumption among intellectuals that simply explaining the facts should dispel hatred, intolerance, religious bigotry, or even belief in the much-storied Brexit Unicorn. In an article mostly about US politics, I wrote:
In his testimony before a British House of Commons committee, whistleblower Chris Wylie explained that the political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica (of which he is former research director) doesn’t have to turn a profit like a normal company because it’s subsidized by New York billionaire Robert Mercer. It can therefore act as a covert means of funneling huge contributions to political causes handpicked by Mercer, regardless of supposed limits set by law. This is a concrete example of dark money being used to rig elections, employing hi-tech means as well as the latest psychological theories about how to manipulate voters by getting inside their heads and playing to their fears, using personal data scraped from Facebook.
This is the brave new world in which we presently live, where thinking people are held hostage to a populist majority which reacts slavishly to psychological stimuli supplied by political operatives obsessed with kingmaking. It is an ugly world, and just as we have a duty to leave our children a clean environment, we also have a duty to apply an emissions test to our politicians, rejecting and removing those who cast an odiferous pall over our nation, or pollute the seas of discourse with the toxic sludge of “alternative facts.”
At what point does political science become the science of psychologically manipulating the masses using lies, propaganda, fear, hatred, high technology, and stolen data? When people have been subjected to extensive psychological manipulation, including a large quantity of false and hateful depictions (such as graphics which Cambridge Analytica takes credit for, showing Hillary Clinton in handcuffs), how genuine are the resulting emotions?
These are difficult questions since at the populist level, people are taught to treat their emotions as sacrosanct. If the motto of the intellectual was once “I think, therefore I am” the motto of the Facebook consumer may be “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” Yet, emotions can be manipulated. How can we judge their genuineness?
Democracy works best in an environment of openness and honesty. Too much money (especially dark money) is one universal surd in the political mathematic. The use of covert psychological manipulation employing hi-tech means is another significant threat. It remains to be seen whether democracy can survive the dual onslaught of billionaires funding covert psyops to shoe in their handpicked candidates.
An enduring question for our time: How do you fight feelings with facts? How do you get people to look more deeply into their responses to political advertisements or other forms of propaganda which try to bypass reason and appeal to their least noble selves, their fears and prejudices?
Insight can also come from better education in civics. Civics courses need to be updated so that people emerge from the educational system better-armed to deal with propaganda, including propaganda which may target them via social media. It seems plain that technology has moved faster than our ability to understand and assimilate it. While progress in technology is good, it also leads to new problems which must be soberly addressed.
The freedom of the Internet includes the freedom to spread propaganda in ways hitherto undreamt of. Propaganda has always been a danger to democracy because it leads people to vote not for the best-qualified candidates or those who appeal to our noblest selves, but rather for candidates who put forth false but tempting arguments, or who appeal to our base emotions and least noble instincts. At its worst, the Internet is propaganda on steroids, injected with greater precision using so-called “psychographic profiling” or other discreditable techniques which seek to identify extremists and rally them to a dubious cause:
One of the problems with politics as a dirty business is the potential for dirt to be done with plausible deniability. The Internet amplifies this problem. If you see a Facebook ad suggesting that the UK will be overrun by criminal aliens unless you vote Leave, is that ad being paid for by an authorised UK group, American billionaire Robert Mercer, or elements of the Russian government? Who really knows these days? It pays to be sceptical. Democracy can best flourish when there is open, respectful dialogue with voters, not when voters are subjected to psyops targeting their subconscious fears.
I don’t claim that Leave used nothing but illegal tactics. Much of what was done was simply politics as we know it. Quoting Leave campaigner and money man Arron Banks (who is under investigation by the National Crime Agency), “It was ruthlessly executed in a businesslike way, and we stayed on message.” But in a crooked game of poker, a hypothetical cheater doesn’t need to produce all aces all night long, in every hand. He can afford to pick his spots. In a referendum that was decided 52 to 48, how many percentage points are attributable to lies, cheating, illegal or immoral tactics? One percent? Two percent? Five percent?
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, and neither do Change UK. But they do seem to have above average insight, are asking many of the right questions about Britain’s future, and do dialogue respectfully with voters. They’re off to a rollicking good start. May the sun continue to shine on them!
Note: I have not elaborated on the relationship between political propaganda and religious intolerance, but propaganda vilifying some purported “other” is certainly a connecting link. At the present time, much political propaganda targets immigrants as the “other” to be feared and hated. Anti-religious propaganda similarly targets particular religions, leading to the horrific acts of violence we have seen targeting mosques, synagogues, and churches.
Insight and education are tools that can be used to lessen religious hatred. A high school and college textbook like Mary Pat Fisher’s excellent Living Religions can help people gain insight into the world’s religions. Where there is insight and understanding, it is difficult for intolerance to take root. The feeling vs. fact dichotomy is not insoluble. Where people are exposed to an environment which stresses tolerance, this can have a mediating effect. Understanding which encompasses both head and heart may ensue. Persons sought can be found. Help is available. Clarity is pleasurable. 🙂
Sidebar: The Independent Group and Mrs Pritchard
In February 2019, a group of Labour MPs defected from the party and formed their own centrist Independent Group (now Change UK), soon to be joined by a few Tory MPs. This has spawned vigorous debate about the role of independent parties, whether they can survive and thrive, what role money plays in UK politics, and how refugees from right and left-wing parties can coexist together. Many of these questions have already been addressed in the 2006 miniseries The Amazing Mrs Pritchard, written by Sally Wainwright. This clip consists of edited highlights from Episode 1, framing the issues for purposes of political discussion. Its relevance to Change UK is enhanced by the sense that both the fictional Purple Alliance and Change UK share a strong feminist component.
The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.
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