THE BIG READ: Could 2022 possibly be the final year of the union?
It is no exaggeration to state the UK’s faultlines are widening – accelerated by referendums on Brexit and Scottish independence – so, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon promising to lay the ground to hold Indyref2 by the end of 2023, can the union overcome the new normal of polarisation, tribalism and division?
Do we still understand each other? Do we still get along? Are the divisions caused by Brexit and Scottish independence and Boris Johnson and coronavirus and the “culture war” irreparable? Think about it: is this what life is going to be like from now on?
Let’s start my attempt to answer those questions by telling you about some friend because, in some ways, they are an example of where we are now.
We are pretty much like lots of other groups of friends: chums from university who meet up every year and have done for 30 years. This year, we had a Christmas night out in Glasgow – Babbity Bowster for drinks, the Italian Café in Merchant City, more drinks, then a few more. You get the idea. All very nice.
Except for one thing. Politics. Perhaps it’s always been there with us – with everyone – but one thing that struck me was the way in which we were all divided by the issues of the age.
We had Remainers and Brexiters. We had Tories and socialists. We had trans rights supporters and trans rights doubters. We had some who were uber-strict about obeying coronavirus rules, and we had anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers.
Remarkably, the only issue we weren’t divided on was Scottish independence – we would all vote No – but on everything else we were friends disunited.
On the whole, the fact that we are divided in this way wasn’t a big problem and we got through the night without falling out, although the arguments over Brexit, vaccines and masks did get heated, fuelled by wine and beer.
Our different positions also seemed to chime with an idea and a narrative that has become very familiar in recent years: the idea of Divided Britain, the sense that we are increasingly polarised politically and socially and that the divisions – highlighted and arguably worsened by the referendums on Brexit and Scottish independence – are here to stay. We are polarised. Tribalised. Divided.
So, what’s the evidence for the polarisation? You could look at the opinion polls. On Brexit, the UK is still pretty much divided down the middle. In fact, if anything, the division appears to be more entrenched than ever. Sir John Curtice conducted a survey in October on the subject and found that nine in 10 Leave and Remain voters would vote the same way again. And his conclusion was clear: there is little to suggest that the Brexit wounds are healing. “Britain is left divided between one half of the country who now feel better about how they are being governed,” said Sir John, “and another half who, relatively at least, are as unhappy as they have ever been.”
You could say much the same about Scottish independence. There have been blips in the polls that might indicate the beginning of a trend – most recently, at the beginning of December when Ipsos Mori had support for Yes at 55 per cent. But on the whole, the polls have shown support for Yes at 45%, a similar figure for No and a cadre of undecideds in the middle. Broadly, not much appears to have changed since 2014
– we are still grouped on either side of the Yes/No divide.
There are other signs of division in Britain if you care to look for them (you won’t have to look very hard). In Scotland, for example, one issue which appears to seriously divide people is trans rights or specifically a change in the law to allow trans people to identify their own gender and live freely in that gender.
Many Scots see it as a fundamental of LGBT equality while others see it as a threat to women’s rights and fear that sexual predators could use the law to declare themselves female and gain access to women-only spaces.
Judged by the Scottish Government’s most recent consultation, the public as a whole is divided down the middle on the issue, as they appear to be on others. There were 17,000 responses to the consultation, published in September, on changing the law on trans rights and they showed that Scots are evenly split. Most of us would appear to support the ability of people to self-declare their gender, but only just. More people were in favour of changing the law but the majority was small. It seems to point to the same conclusion: we are divided.
And even the divisions which are not as deep or as strong appear to be just as passionate. There has generally been majority support for the restrictions introduced in the UK during the coronavirus pandemic, but there has also been vehement resistance. You may have seen the protests in Glasgow in recent months: the crowd calling for freedom and railing against injections. The man wearing a mask (ironically) and holding a placard that read “Do you trust your government?”. They may not represent a large part of public opinion (far from it) but their opinions do feel part of a popular narrative: the Government does not represent us – it’s Us and Them, we are divided.
‘Us and them’
But how wide, or real, is the divide really? It’s important, obviously, not to underplay the issues, or the changes they have brought about, or the consequences, or how we feel: the UK has faced great change and volatility in the last decade and it’s had an profound effect. Ask pretty much anyone who has been in public life in the last 10 years and they would tell you how it’s felt.
People like the former Tory MP and Remainer Anna Soubry who famously faced chants of “Soubry is a Nazi” from Brexiters on live television and concluded, wearily, that “This is what has happened to our country”.
The research, particularly on Brexit, also demonstrates how many of us are feeling. The Policy Institute at King’s College London looked at how people see and feel about some of the issues we’ve faced in recent years, particularly Brexit although it could equally apply to Scottish independence.
There is strong evidence, says the institute, of “differentiation” in which one side views the other side’s traits as negative and its own traits as positive, and people may actually reduce their interaction with the other side as a consequence.
The institute also suggested there was evidence of “perception bias” whereby people experience the same facts or realities in different ways depending on the identities with which they associate – Remain, perhaps, or Yes to Scottish independence.
It has also detected another trend, which is happening at the same time, which it calls “partisan dealignment” – in other words, a large portion of the British electorate has abandoned its previous party political affiliations as other identities, defined by issues such as Brexit, have become more important. It has certainly happened to Labour support in large parts of Scotland and the north of England but it has happened to other parties too. By 2018, only 9% of the electorate said they strongly identified with a political party.
The Policy Institute’s conclusion is that there is evidence for what is called affective polarisation – the tendency to dislike or distrust people on the other side of an issue – alongside a fragmentation of political support, and anyone who has doubts about the institute’s position might want to browse Twitter for five minutes, or check out the comments section of newspaper sites. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion, says the institute, that Britain is dividing.
But the story does not end there. In fact, perhaps it’s only the latest chapter of the story, because we have always been divided, haven’t we? Think about the great, angry divisions of the 1980s: Margaret Thatcher, the miner’s strike, the poll tax riots. Think of the 1920s: the trade unions on one side outraged that miners were facing pay cuts of up to 13% and longer shifts, and on the other Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin who declared that the unions were insurrectionists and were nearer to declaring civil war than ever before. Polarised. Divided.
And even in times of apparent solidarity, were we really as together as we appeared? Popular culture says that Britain came together like never before during the Second World War – and there is some truth in it – but the divisions still existed.
Famously, Churchill was kicked out of office after the war and when he died the love and respect for him was far from universal. Indeed, in the years that have followed, Churchill has become a kind of totem for the so-called culture wars – there are some who would daub graffiti on his statue and there are some who see it as sacred.
And even on Scottish independence, the bitter divisions which we see as a symbol of the last 10 years are not so new. It’s certainly true that for most of the 20th century there was probably a settled view in support of the union – certainly more settled than it is now –but the division between unionists and nationalists is as old as it comes. Check out James Boswell’s diaries and specifically the entry for Sunday November 21, 1762.
Boswell describes meeting a friend called Walter Macfarlane who was, says Boswell, “keenly interested in the reigning contests between Scots & English”.
“He talked much against the Union,” writes Boswell of his friend. “He said we were perfect underlings, that our riches were carried out of the country, that no town but Glasgow had any advantage of trade by it, and that many others were hurt by it.” It is striking how modern all of that sounds and how familiar. It is an argument that could be put by many Scots today, and is, every day. The division hasn’t changed – it’s taken on a new, modern form.
It is also worth looking at where the people of Britain agree as well as disagree and it’s here that you start to think we may not be as divided as we first appear. This is certainly how Tim Dixon sees it. Dixon is the co-founder of More in Common, a think-tank which promotes social cohesion, and he believes that, far from being divided, a surprising number of Britons are in agreement. The question for him is how to encourage it.
Even the pandemic, says Dixon, has not been as divisive as we might think. He accepts there are forces that are driving parts of society apart, including economic and regional inequality, cultural change, social media and generational tensions. But More in Common’s research suggests that the common dimensions of the pandemic have been more powerful than the dividing effects.
Some people, he says – notably working-class Britons and members of some ethnic minority groups – have experienced less social solidarity during the pandemic, but he says it’s not just the middle classes that have a sense of mutual support. In fact, says Dixon, in his view the biggest growth in solidarity has been among the most disengaged, who have seen an increase in personal agency within their communities. The story is more positive than you might think, he adds.
DIXON also draws attention to some of the areas where there is agreement rather than disagreement. The NHS, for example. You’ll find support for it from Brexiters and Remainers, unionists and nationalists, and healthcare was one of the issues where the Policy Institute said opinion appeared to be converging rather than polarising. Certainly, the Scottish Social Attitudes Survey shows that the vast majority – some 65% – are satisfied with the NHS and how it is running.
The Policy Institute also singled out other issues where there appears to be wide agreement, such as racial prejudice and LGBT rights and – the trans controversy aside – the evidence suggests we are agreeing more, not less. There was a time when most Scots thought that gay relationships were mostly or always wrong, but in the latest attitude surveys the number who still think that way has fallen to 18%. In other words, the vast majority of us agree.
Part of the problem may be that many of the platforms we use to express our views – especially Facebook and Twitter – create an impression of division and disagreement that may be bigger than it is in reality, or at least no worse than it has always been.
More in Common’s research suggests that most of us – 55% – perceive the country to be divided, but there is widespread agreement on some of the central issues of modern British life. John Curtice’s research, for example, found that concern for inequality was at its highest for more than 20 years and his conclusion is that the pandemic may have reinforced opinions and attitudes that had already become increasingly common in Britain in recent years.
So, if the picture is not as bad as we think it is (especially when we log into Twitter) then the question is how do we make it even better? The Policy Institute believes the picture is unclear and unstable and therefore subject to change (or improvement).
In its report, Divided Britain?, it says the identities which have attracted support in recent years, notably Brexit, are tied up with long-term party dealignment and increased concern about economic and cultural changes but are also highly unstable and changeable. It could all get better, in other words.
The institute also has suggestions to help make it better. First of all, we need better and more consistent data to provide us with a greater understanding of what is happening in British society. The categorisations that have worked in the past are, in many cases, failing to identify and capture the emerging trends.
MORE importantly, the institute also identifies a problem with leadership. Voters to some extent, it says, take their cue from party leaders so polarisation among political leaders and activists can spread to the electorate. What this means is that what leaders like Nicola Sturgeon and Boris Johnson say, how they behave, the tone they strike – co-operative or confrontational – has a part to play in increasing or reducing polarisation.
We can still disagree on political issues – of course we can – but a hostile culture of “othering” political rivals can spill over into other areas like social media and social relations.
Which leads me back to that group of friends on a Christmas night out. It is true that over the course of the night we disagreed on many of the major issues of modern politics and that is a pattern that is probably replicated in other groups of relatives and friends all over the country. Among us there was a lot of disagreement, particularly on Brexit and the extent of the restrictions that are necessary to tackle the pandemic.
But what also strikes me is the extent of the agreement between us. We agree, as most Scots do, on what the priorities of Government should be: education, the economy and health. We agree on the big issues of diversity: equality between men and women, racial equality and gay equality. We agree on most of the things we can be proud of as Brits: the NHS, diversity, equality, community. In fact, the common ground between us is more striking than the differences.
Maybe there are ways to make it even better. I know I’m much more prepared to express my opinion than listen to other ones. I know I am much more likely to read columnists I agree with. On Twitter, I mostly follow people who sound a bit like me and, yes, I’ve muted or unfollowed people who express views that irritate me. A different approach to all those kind of issues would definitely help. I could do it. You could do it.
A look at what’s really going on, and a look at history all the way back to James Boswell’s friend Walter, should also be a source of some comfort. We have always disagreed with each other, and got frustrated and angry. It’s normal. The dreaded social media has made it more obvious but even after Brexit, even after the 2014 referendum, even after the so-called culture war over statues and cancelling and all the rest of it, the truth is we are maybe not as polarised or divided as we think we are.