Why has political prejudice become acceptable?

The politics of conviction over compromise has created an atmosphere of prejudice and vitriol.

“I’ve never kissed a Tory.” Momentum T-Shirt

“You’re too smart to be Socialist, surely?” Overheard at a party

The two sentiments are easy to find today. You’ll see it everywhere: two sides of a political debate not just disagreeing with the other, but labelling each other as somehow inferior on a moral, intellectual or cultural level. If you’re on the opposite side of the debate, you’re considered not just wrong, but also stupid, evil, or racist. This can be seen on both the left and the right in different ways. Most pertinent to this debate is the Brexit issue, where we’ve seen people on the right label anyone who disagrees with the way Brexit is going as a traitor or, in the case of Conservative MP Anna Soubry, a Nazi. The left aren’t immune from this mindset either. People who vote Conservative are called cruel; people who voted for Brexit were simple-minded enough to be deceived.

There’ve been hints of it before, of course. Arthur Scargill was called the enemy within by Margaret Thatcher for wanting to bring down her government. The Tories have long been referred to as the Nasty Party (admittedly it was a Conservative MP, and now our current Prime Minister, who coined the phrase). Name calling is not new. But the level of vitriol in British politics at the moment feels different, and not just in its intensity, which seems concentrated by social media.

A matter of conviction

What is new is how this vitriol seems to have become mainstream. It’s not just the usual suspects on Twitter calling people remoaner traitors – it’s mainstream politicians and media. Some of the Labour Party’s mainstream activists have had to apologise for saying antisemitic remarks. Like Labour, the Tories seem determined to have a civil war between true believers and everyone else.

It is here that I wonder we have hit on the problem: conviction. For years we were fed up with British politics because “they were all the same” – the two main parties were too similar, too boring. We wanted something different; we wanted real politics with conviction, passion and real ideas. Well, genuinely, we have that now. We have the big ideas of Brexit and Labour’s most recent election manifesto, while the two main parties are as different now as they were in the 1980s. What appears to accompany this desire for change is passionate disagreement that manifests as contempt for the other side. Possibly even downright hatred; it’s as if we are losing the ability to disagree reasonably with one another. We’re in a position today where a Labour activist can say they have friends who vote conservative and that’s seen as unusual. This is ridiculous.

Some might argue that the politics of passion is worth this price, but I would argue that it’s corrosive for our society. We need to be able to have these discussions without thinking of the people on the other side as somehow lesser than we are. They’re not evil, they just think differently to you – and that’s okay. The way to enact change in a democracy is to convince people you are right and get them to vote for you. Now, think for a minute: when was the last time you wanted to vote for someone who called you scum? I guarantee you never would. If you really want to change things, you need to convince people, and you don’t achieve that by shouting at them.

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Adam Taylor

Adam works in the higher education sector and commentates on policy and current affairs.

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