Politics is normally defined as the process by which disputes as to outcomes of public policy are resolved peacefully. That entails debate. If there is unanimity there is no politics, as there is nothing to dispute. If policy is imposed without debate, there is no politics. Politics is at the heart of a healthy political system. Different views are heard and the merits of each debated. Parliament provides an authoritative forum in which the views of the people are expressed through their representatives. The institutional framework is important. There are structures and rules designed to ensure that each side is heard. Parliament proceeds on the basis that government is entitled to get its business, but the Opposition is entitled to be heard. However much one might disagree with the other side, it is important to listen to the arguments. The issues are debated in public: people can watch and listen.
There has always been a problem in getting people to recognise that there are two sides to an argument. Exponents of a particular view write to MPs and peers asking them to support their policy preference. When the opposite side is agreed, they then write to the parliamentarians to complain ‘you didn’t listen to us’. They have been listened to, but they have been disagreed with. They are very different things. Parliamentarians have to listen to both sides and weigh up which has the greater merits.
The problem seems to be getting worse, not least with the growth of social media. That growth may be the cause of, or simply facilitate, a greater tendency of people to assert rather than justify an argument. It may be a cause in that Twitter, for example, permits short comments rather than argument and helps reinforce prejudices without the need for justification. It may be coincidental (though reinforcing) as issues come on the political agenda that engender intense feelings and offer binary choices. The most obvious case is withdrawal from the EU. European integration has been the fault line of British politics since 1945 and has been the cause of notable conflict at different points, none more so than during and since the leave/remain referendum campaign of 2016. Each side has adopted a discrete position, taking its case as so obviously superior to the other that proponents cannot understand why others take a different stance. That remains the case, with people on each side adopting positions that amount to little more than shouting soundbites at one another. There appears little willingness to concede that there are actually two sides to an argument and it is a case of weighing the points advanced on each side. That doesn’t mean that one cannot come to a clear conclusion, but that should be the result of reasoned debate. I have clear views on a range of issues – House of Lords reform being a good example – but I recognise counter arguments and am willing to engage with them. I may be unusual in that I recognise that there are arguments on both sides of the EU argument. One has to come to a conclusion as to whether to leave or remain, but that should be the consequence of engagement by both sides and not by shouting insults at one another. Far too many proponents on each side assume moral superiority and as a consequence come out with claims they believe to be self-evident, but which are closer to being ludicrous.
This tendency is a threat to a healthy democracy and puts even more pressure on Parliament than before to demonstrate its value as the arena in which issues of public policy are debated and resolved. How that is to be achieved in the face of increasingly cash-strapped newspapers that are in danger of acting as megaphones of readers’ prejudices rather than informing debate is a particular conundrum. Social media are part of the problem. The obvious answer is for Parliament to turn social media to its advantage and use those media to show the value of reasoned debate. It is already seeking to do so, but the challenge is a mammoth one and entails significant resources, but knowing that may be the way forward is at least a step in the right direction. Leadership on the part of politicians, by being willing to engage in debate, is a prerequisite.