by Lynda Goetz
The polarisation of politics in the US would appear to be very much due to the two-party system which operates there. Republicans are right-wing and Democrats are left-wing. The UK has for a long time now also had two main political parties, the Conservatives or Tories, and the Labour Party. Occasionally, the Liberal Democrats, descended from the Whigs and then the Liberals, have threatened this duopoly. Indeed, they were the junior partner with the Tories in the Coalition government of 2010-2015. In Scotland, the Scottish National Party currently dominate. In Northern Ireland politics is still divided along sectarian lines. In England and Wales, where 84% of the British live, there are just two main political parties. Yet Left and Right no longer seems to be their defining characteristics. The polarisation of politics goes ahead apace.
What then are those polarities? Remain and Leave were for much of the last decade the defining sides taken by the British. Those views appeared to have little or nothing to do with whether your general political views leaned to the Left or to the Right and much more to do with views on sovereignty, self-determination, immigration, bureaucracy and trade. Those issues have been endlessly discussed, analysed and pored over, but for now at least, the issue has been resolved and we all have to accept the new status quo. It has thrown up another issue unfortunately and that is the small matter of the Union, in itself a polarising issue, which is where the SNP comes in.
The current tensions between those who are frightened for their safety and prepared therefore to accept all sorts of hitherto unheard of and unacceptable restrictions on their liberty, and those who see and foresee more problems caused by extended lock-downs than solved by this manner of proceeding, may be temporary, but they are indicative of trends in different ways of thinking. Again, this is not a party division. On the whole, the Labour party appears supportive of the way the government has dealt with the pandemic: protecting the NHS, saving lives, the spending of hundreds of billions of pounds to keep the economy afloat etc. Some on the Left have even urged more draconian measures, an even more cautious approach and more money conjured up to throw at the problems created. In the Conservative party, on the other hand, are the 60 MPs who form the Covid Recovery Group, impatient of the endless lock-down and urging less caution as we move forward.
More polarising even than these divisions however are the opposing views of the ‘woke’ brigade and those who are resisting this way of looking at our world, with its cancel culture, no-platforming and rewriting of our history. The anti-woke brigade are the supporters of free speech and of freedom of thought and action. For decades, these were things taken for granted in this country, if not around the world. It is thus a matter of concern to many that this would no longer appear to be the case. Being PC or politically correct has morphed into being ‘woke’ and being woke appears to brook no opposition. Opposition is wrong-thinking and therefore cannot be allowed. ‘Thought-crime’ has moved from the pages of fiction (George Orwell’s ‘1984’) to being a current reality. Defined in the novel as being ‘a negative or unorthodox thought towards the party’, it is now effectively a negative or unorthodox thought towards woke culture. Only very recently the Law Commission decided to rethink a hate-crime proposal after serious concerns were raised that people could be prosecuted for comments made in their homes.
A few weeks ago, Sir Keir Starmer, in his long-awaited speech supposedly giving new direction to the Labour party after the years of domination by ultra-left Corbynist dogma, has suggested that people want more state intervention. The full text of Sir Keir’s speech is available on the Labour Party’s website. It is set out very, very simply with each individual sentence on a different line, emphasising each separate point. He talks about ‘our NHS’ and ‘our brilliant NHS’, ‘collective sacrifice’ ‘inequalities and insecurities’,’ injustices’ ‘broken systems’ and inevitably the ‘mistakes’ of this and preceding Tory governments over the last ten years. After proposing the idea of a British Recovery Bond (not as revolutionary as he appeared to think, as Merryn Somerset Webb of magazine Money Week pointed out) he says that he believes ‘people are looking for more from their government – like they were after the Second World War.’ This is a viewpoint which would in the past have differentiated his party from the Conservatives. The Labour Party has always been the party of big government, big spending and of government intervention at all levels. The fact that on this occasion he is suggesting it more as a partnership with business only appears on this occasion, in spite of his criticism of his opponents, to bring the two parties more into line. Isn’t this what the Tory government has just done with the vaccination programme?
This suggests that our two main parties are currently both advocating large amounts of government spending; supporting unprecedented levels of interference in personal choice and behaviour and in the case of the Conservatives moving away from their traditional ‘light touch’ government. To be fair, that traditional approach has long been in decline as the voters have looked more and more to government to take care of them. Where does this leave those, possibly a minority of voters, who actually want less, not more, state intervention?
Two new parties are proposing to step into the breach. The first is Nigel Farage and Richard Tice’s Reform party, the renamed and repositioned former Brexit party; the second is the actor Lawrence Fox’s Reclaim party. Although the stated aims of each party are by no means identical, they share the view that post-Covid and post-Brexit some fresh thought is required as to how the nation moves forward. The authoritarianism of the past year of Covid regulations and acceptance by many of the restrictions imposed by government and by institutions embracing woke culture have been part of the galvanising forces of these two new organisations. Should the Tories continue with this ‘benign’ paternalism and the Labour party with its support of an alien woke culture which urges the country to ignore or overwrite its history, then these new parties could perhaps make inroads into our traditional two party system.
Of course, the problem always for new parties is that they risk being ‘one-trick ponies’. Lawrence Fox, better known as a member of the Fox acting clan than a politician, is concerned about the curtailment of freedom of speech and the rising tide of Black Lives Matter (BLM) influence on how we view our history. Nigel Farage, on the other hand, has been more associated with the minority Lock-down Sceptics, increasingly irrelevant as the impressive roll-out programme continues and we move, albeit incredibly slowly, to being freed from lock-down. By the time of the May local authority elections, those freedoms will, it is to be hoped, be almost a ‘fait accompli; in which case what, one has to ask, is the point of these parties?
Nigel Farage himself may have come to the same conclusion. Over the weekend via a short video announcement posted on Twitter, he stepped down as leader of the Reform Party, handing over the post to Richard Tice. There have been suggestions in the media (e.g Independent article two weeks ago) that part of the problem is that the party was originally focused on its lock-down sceptic position and that not only are not all Brexiteers lock-down sceptics, but that by the time the local elections happen in May, the vaccination programme will have ensured that release from lock-down is within our grasp. This may be to miss the point of both the Reform Party and the Reclaim party. Both are founded on a belief in ‘old-fashioned’ values in this country of freedom of speech, the right to open debate and public discussion and to a certain amount of individual responsibility and understanding of personal risk, combined with an element of patriotism (not nationalism) and belief in our traditions. All these things are currently threatened; by woke culture and a retreat into ‘safety’ and state support.
Sadly, it may well be the case that the current ‘zeitgeist’ is more in favour of the latter than the former. Will people wake up to the dangers of handing over responsibility for every aspect of their lives to government (whether local or national) and institutions before it is too late? Is it really fine that instead of learning about our history we accept that what we should be fed is a sanitised, sovietised version of it designed not to offend any minority which cannot see itself reflected in the narrative? Is it right that students should be attending university to have fun and avoid all issues which might ‘upset’ them? Should our population succumb to a universalised narrative which does little to explain how and why each nation’s history is different?
Personalities like Nigel Farage may need to have a very thick skin to overcome the constant mockery and mickey-taking of our mainstream politicians, institutions and media. But if it weren’t for the fact that characters like him are prepared to stick their necks out and go against what appears to be the current consensus then our history would almost certainly be poorer for it. At the same time as Nigel Farage was bowing out of politics, Lawrence Fox announced his intention of standing against Sadiq Khan for the position as Mayor of London. He may or may not succeed, but perhaps we all need to wake up to the threat of those who are currently claiming all the moral high ground for being aware and woke at the expense of understanding where we came from and how we got here. Let us concentrate instead on how we go forward, by engaging in debate and attempting to understand and listen to ‘the other side’, not silencing those whose views differ from our own. We may find shared aspects and similar opinions differently expressed. The polarisation of politics, whether into Left and Right or Woke and Anti-Woke, Safety or Risk will impoverish all of us, not only financially but culturally.