Now is the time to ditch the culture war and rediscover consensus politics
Updated: May 29, 2020
My column for Holyrood appeared in the edition dated 18 May 2020. Ironically, given the topic, it was just before the Dominic Cummings lockdown-breaking scandal hit. This certainly confirmed my assumption that the UK was angry. But also went some way to breaking our silos - it brought together a lot of strange bedfellows uniting The Guardian, The Daily Mail, Piers Morgan, Julia Hartley-Brewer, James O'Brien and many more of us in horror at the hypocrisy.
Almost two months into the coronavirus lockdown, the signs are that anger is beginning to replace fear.
On Twitter during the Bank Holiday weekend, the number one trending word in Scotland was “arseholes”. The site was flooded with Scots complaining that everyone else was doing the COVID-19 response wrong. They shared pictures of the infamous “socially distanced” VE Day conga line. They accused their neighbours of flouting restrictions. They suspected Union Jack-decked parties and packed back garden BBQs around every corner. I appreciate that flippant putdowns are the stock and trade of Twitter, but the uniformity of fury was striking.
On The Last Leg, Miriam Margolyes admitted that she’d briefly found herself hoping that the Prime Minister wasn’t going to survive COVID-19. Filled with rage at the UK response to the virus, and the thousands who have died due to Boris Johnson’s initial cavalier attitude, she had found herself wishing him the most awful of comeuppances. Though she clarified that she did not maintain the feeling long – with no desire to be “that sort of person”, she caught herself and wished him a full recovery instead – she immediately found herself the focus of an army of horrified defenders of the PM. “Wicked” they shrieked, “malevolent”, “evil”, “despicable!” Margolyes’ attackers had clearly spent more time with their thesaurus than pandemic-policing Scottish Twitter, but the anger looked the same. Worn down by our mutual isolation, our collective patience is fraying.
Worse, it’s becoming clear that our personal responses to the coronavirus crisis are at risk of crystallising into a familiar, already established, culture war. An individual’s position on the best way to deal with the ongoing crisis are far too likely to fit into existing dichotomies. On the one side we have pro-Brexit, pro-Boris, pro-“open the economy”, pro-“stay alert”, edging into extremes of “this is all an over-reaction” and “have you seen that Plandemic film?” On the other, we have pro-EU, pro-Independence, “isn’t Nicola great?”, strictly “stay at home”, shading at the boundaries into “these people are idiots and they deserve what they get”.
I grew up in Northern Ireland and these kinds of calcified structures of belief terrify me. They form like sedimentary rock, each political or cultural position layered on top of the others and compressed into towering cliff faces. They’re the reason why you can tell with a high degree of accuracy what side any given Northern Irish person is on any given global conflict (as well as much more esoteric questions) by knowing where they stand on the home-grown one. They’re why you’ll find Palestinian flags on the Falls Road in Belfast and Israeli ones a mile away on the Shankill Road. They’re why the Derry Girls blackboard was so funny (and is now on show in the Ulster Museum) – “Protestants love flutes, Catholics love JFK”.
On a personal level, they’re why I left Belfast to study politics and philosophy here in Scotland, where there was some relief from those stultifying orthodoxies. It took decades for Northern Irish communities to begin to find a common vocabulary to work our way out of conflict. The job is not yet done, of course, but the recognition of the ties that bind us are the foundation on which progress is build.
In the last ten years, it’s been disturbing to see the polarised style of politics of my Northern Irish youth take root in many more places around the world, especially in the UK and US. It is not a coincidence that these two countries are the worst hit by coronavirus. It’s not healthy for a society to be split between two monolithic world views. At its worst, it becomes not just a lack of agreement on interpretation, but of reality itself. Already facing a tough crowd, consensus politics were materially helped offstage by the strategies that won the Brexit referendum for Leave, and the US presidency for Trump. When social media is a person’s main news source, controlling a Facebook feed looks a lot like controlling reality. Since no one else can even see what’s going on in anyone else’s bubble, a common conversation – that shared vocabulary – becomes impossible. Trust is a victim, conspiracy theories the victors. This global pandemic is simultaneously uniquely fertile ground for conspiracy (the enemy being invisible to the naked eye, the solutions uncertain), and a uniquely high-stakes moment for our common purpose to collapse. Until and unless there is a vaccine available, we desperately need to be able to have a grown-up conversation about how we live with the novel coronavirus.
The lockdown, as it stands, can plainly not last forever. A generation of children are missing their education – with worse outcomes for those who are already disadvantaged. People are too scared to go to the hospital, even if they are experiencing a medical emergency. Cancer patients are unable to get the care they need. Domestic violence is rising. Livelihoods are at risk. And the nation’s mental health is suffering, as we are isolated and unable to rely on our normal support networks. However, the reality is that every step we take away from total isolation brings with it risk.
The simplicity of “Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives” has been an incredible communications success. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were undoubtedly right to avoid replacing it with the disastrous, divisive mess of “Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save lives”.
But the simple message that we’ve relied on for the last couple of months is not a roadmap for the next 18 or more, while scientists work on a vaccine. We have to be able to set aside our anger and mistrust to discuss what level of danger we are willing to accept and for what goals. And no slogan alone will do that work for us.
At the risk of being labelled a (female, childless) ‘Centrist dad’, now is a time to burst out of our bubbles and find a middle way that the vast majority can sign up to. Now, more than ever, every choice will come with very real, very immediate risk and reward. If there was ever a moment to stop treating politics like football terrace chants, this is it.