This week, Britain has seemed, at least to me, to be more divided than I can ever remember it. Far from the culture war cooling, it seems to be getting worse. The particular flare point was the BLM protests in central London and in several other British cities, with one incident in particular dividing people: the toppling of the Edward Colston statue in Bristol.
What has happened since the statue submerging took place is our whole era in miniature. The extremes on both sides of the debate go in hard, with those on the left describing the existence of the statue as a daily beacon to the deep racism of the UK, with those on the right talking about how it was a lawless act that will lead to anarchy. Enter the modern day political grift: there is way more milage in terms of Twitter retweets, likes and YouTube hits to be had for appealing to the most extreme version of your tribe’s instincts than there is to be had in trying to be as rational as possible about the whole affair. And so it goes.
The end result of this is the extremes win, to the detriment of sane public discussion. Since the extremes know how to broadcast themselves the loudest – and as just I’ve pointed out, the incentives are there for the extremes to get the most traction – everyone ends up feeling like they have to go in hard one way or another instead of taking a more nuanced approach. The vast majority of people in the country are more than capable of understanding both sides of a debate – and yet that gets lost in the need to pick a side. Go with the law and order bunch or with the antiquated monuments to slavers shouldn’t be tolerated crowd; in either end of the pool, you’ll find the water warm, with plenty of people there to agree with you. Try and swim into the middle and you’ll find it gets pretty cold.
I think the problem comes down to values and an almost wilful desire for each side to misunderstand the motives of the other. Even those who live in Bristol, campaigned for years to get the Colston statue removed and felt elation at its demise should be able to understand why some people looking on could be fearful of the police standing there, afraid to intervene as a mob destroys a piece of public property. The worry about what gets targeted next and if the police will be afraid to intervene there as well. On the other hand, even those who looked upon the destruction of the Bristolian statue with horror at the mob should be able to understand the feeling of upset the statue clearly caused a large number of people in that city. They can disagree with the means while still being able to understand the hurt the monument caused over many years.
What I’m saying is that most reasonable people are actually in the middle and are capable of understanding the other side of the debate while not necessarily agreeing with it. Except, again, we live in an age where the extreme end of the argument is the one that gets heard and then it becomes a question of, in the crudest way I can term this, do you want to be on the side of the anarchist mob or the white supremacists? Obviously, the vast majority of people want to be on neither when you put it like that.
If you’re centre-left and reasonable, it shouldn’t be difficult to see that threats against the police and public disorder are scary and alienating to a lot of people. If you’re on the centre-right, it shouldn’t be hard to understand that some people on the centre-left are getting pulled in by arguments around racism that are valid. I’m not asking you to side with far left agitators who are looking to exploit the issues here for the advance of their own agenda; I’m talking about centre-left people who are genuinely concerned about racism. Imagine how they are being pushed into defending unreasonable things because they want to be on the right side of that debate and feel that’s the only option. Reflect as well how the far right is using this whole thing to its advantage and how that is pushing discussion on the right as a whole into nasty places. There is some “Enoch was proven right” type stuff floating around social media that is shameful.
It seems the far left and the far right in this country would love a civil war, to borrow Rebecca Long-Bailey’s term here for a moment, “of sorts”. The rest of us should fear such an outcome, deeply. I don’t know how the rest of us get out of our silos and talk rationally to one another again but I do know we need to find a way, somehow.
I have a new book out now. It’s called “Politics is Murder” and follows the tale of a woman named Charlotte working at a failing think tank who has got ahead in her career in a novel way – she is a serial killer. One day, the police turn up at her door and tell her she is a suspect in a murder – only thing is, it is one she had nothing to do with. The plot takes in Conservative Party conference, a plot against the Foreign Secretary and some gangsters while Charlotte tries to find out who is trying to frame her for a murder she didn’t commit.
It’s available here:
Tim Stevens says
Spot-on, Nick. Rational debate and compromise is being drowned out by the extremists. Almost daily, we see clashes of various sorts reported on the news. It is always the extremists who have the voice. The moderate view never gets reported. Often, there are valid points on both sides of the divide.
Regarding the Colston statue: I don’t know the full history, but I assume that, apart from the slave trade, Colston was a significant benefactor to the city of Bristol in other ways? In which case, his statue may have some legitimacy. Instead of tearing it down, why not retain it as a salutory reminder of Bristol’s unsavoury past, and a symbol to future generations that slavery must never be tolerated again?