The 22nd of June is the feast of SS. John Fisher and Thomas Moore, Martyrs of the English Reformation. The latter is also the patron saint of lawyers and politicians, so it seemed like an apt time to bring up a controversial topic I have given a lot of thought about. When I woke up to the news that the Environmental Audit Select Committee are launching an enquiry into the impact of fast fashion (a topic that I’ve cared about for years, and have worked on as part of my first campaign as Team v Leader back in 2013), it was a done deal: select committees, to me, are one of the ways in which politics works across the philosophical divide to achieve a common goal, as they involve members of different parties united around a specific interest. If it isn’t clear already, the topic in question is political tribalism.
I have taken a step back from engaging in politics online in the past months, mostly because I had enough ground politics being a local election candidate and I sort of lost the passion for the kind of online battles that seem to be raging online on a daily basis. The local election has been done and dusted for nearly 2 months now, but I have still not found it in me to engage with politics again for, mainly, one reason: the so-called Maybots. It’s no secret that I am a fan of Mrs May and the work she has done, although not an uncritical one. I believe part of being loyal to someone is to tell them when they are wrong because you want the best for them, and I want the best for this government, and this country that has welcomed me and allowed me to make a home in a place where my contribution is valued (as a matter of fact, I’ve recently been awarded a valued volunteer badge from Girlguiding). Still, I have no time for a polarised Tory Twitter made out of cults of personalities: on the one hand, those who believe being loyal to the government means that they can do no wrong, especially not the PM which we must support because she’s a woman (and that’s especially the case if you are also a woman); on the other hand, those who make the PM out to be the boogie man and idolise whoever their preferred option is. Thrown into the mix, the incessant stream of selfies with politicians that are no better than people chasing celebrities of other kinds. For me, politics has always been about service to the community, whether it’s by putting yourself forward as a candidate, or by knocking on people’s doors to offer help and make the case for someone else who is there to serve them. I can understand when you are on the younger end of the Young Conservatives and you start campaigning and meet a big name in politics that’s quite exciting, but if you are over university age and are still chasing the likes like that it’s kind of a put off. Why? Because a lot of the discourse in Tory Twitter is about how Corbyn has unleashed a cult of personality by becoming Labour leader, and how his fans are uncritical and blindly loyal who react badly if you say anything perceived as negative about St Jeremy, when actually there are a lot of grey areas about him. And then they are exactly.the.same.
People are retreating into tribes and cliques, and politics has become less about ideas about how we can make the world better, and more about which people we approve of. Add to the mix that the internet itself is turning to sloganeering and memes, and all you want to do is spend your day looking at videos of cats and food you’re never actually going to cook. Complex issues are reduced to simplistic soundbites, and if you even dare to suggest that maybe the issues is more complex, and maybe you can’t really turn it into an “us vs them” situation and try to make everything political, you’re betraying your side. No issue highlights this more than May’s premiership, as she has faced negotiations with a party (the EU) intent on punishing the UK and making an example of it, something they haven’t even kept quiet. You can cut her some slack without being someone intent on subverting Brexit, and you can criticise the approach to negotiations that had her try to reason with them instead of using the leverage of a no deal without being intent on bringing down the government. At the end of the day, the vote was won by a small margin, and the worries of people whose livelihood will be affected by the kind of deal that will happen are legitimate. Even if there is ground to believe them unfounded, dismissing them as “Project Fear” is uncharitable at best. There is also ground to believe them founded, because economics isn’t an exact science and anything could happen. Many Brexiteers have said throughout the referendum campaign that they priced sovereignty over an economic downturn should that be the case, so people are indeed aware of the grey areas involved.
Yet, it doesn’t come across on the internet. I did not mean this to be yet another article about how social media have killed reasoned discussion, especially because when there is a will to have one, people can have one online as they do in person, and there are often cases of people having the kind of shut-down-all-dissent discussion in person. But I would like to hold up a mirror to the Conservative party, present company included, and ask what happened to the party. Our party. We have always been a broad church which historians of political thought divide in roughly four main strands; we have always had disagreements and we have even stabbed leaders in the back before; we never shied away from passionate disagreements, and even taking hard decisions that came with high costs (remember the corn laws?). Yes, disagreements like Enoch Powell’s over joining what would become the EU were ideological, but he was also much opposed personally to the PM. We can’t really separate policy and personality, but it’s a modern phenomenon to forget about the policy and make everything personal. Even PMs of the past, of whose policies we know the long-term consequences, are often painted as if they did no wrong. One of the most popular past PMs is, in fact, a rather unappealing personality recently well acted by Gary Oldman on the big screen. Meanwhile, the nuances of Margaret Thatcher’s rather nicer character get lost in the image of a woman so strong she was heartless.
Maybe our society moves so fast, and our memories are so poor, that we experience the same detachment of a historian looking at the past, but we are neglecting to look at the things people do and instead focus on who they are, and PM May can do no wrong, or no right, depending on which tribe you want to be a part of. And for this, we are all the poorer.