There is a great deal of debate going on in Britain about the feverishness of the political debate and the violence of the language with which politicians incite public opinion against their opponents. One of the worst and most ruthless offenders is, of course, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a man whose fantastically high estimation of his own rhetorical ability is only surpassed by the extraordinary serenity with which he uses them. In a sensational and usually easy-to-understand interview with Andrew Marr of the BBC, Mr. Johnson was repeatedly allowed to characterize the Benn Act this morning, which his opponents hope will force the government to seek an extension of Brexit and an unfinished Brexit Avoid as "Surrender Bill" – this on a day when one of the most prominent newspapers supporting Brexit further fueled the flames of violent conflicts with a front page warning of survivors' "alien collusion."
Obviously, the prime minister does not pay so much attention to national unity or the need to build consensus communities as to the truth. The tone he has chosen is not surprising – he serves not the interests of the country, but his trivial, but all-consuming, desire for political power – but it is deeply damaging to any division that we might have cure, dominate and coarsen the British political discourse.
It is irresponsible and extremely dangerous. The divisions created by the referendum are real and painful – the lack of recognition one side of the other's debate is, in my experience, as good as never before. We never felt apart. It is unfortunate and disturbing to see high-ranking politicians ready to exploit this miserable state for personal or tribal gains (if Johnson's vile hedge fund backers can be called a "tribe"). I think, however, that it is important to point out that the split in British politics does not stem from Brexit. In fact, Brexit has undoubtedly deepened the unruly war of words, but the no-man's-land between left and right has been widening for some time. As we hear sporadic gunfire, we no longer see each other's faces or hear the voices of those with whom we quarrel.
As with Brexit, the motor of discord between progressives and conservatives in the UK is fueled by the feeling that change is impossible. This is a general feeling of hopelessness, which in turn is that of Farage, Johnson, Cummings et al. Inequality, low wages, worsening living standards, declining infrastructure, ailing healthcare system and an education system that routinely fails the poorest and gives the privileged an unfair advantage that unfairly aggravates lifelong penalties are sharpened by these debilitating trends the apparent impossibility of a positive change. What is behind this feeling of hopelessness?
Many communities in the UK have been neglected for decades – an uncontrolled decline by all mainstream parties – while their well-founded or unreasonable concerns are at best ignored, in the worst case derided, making them mature food for the exploitation of Britain's would-be populists. The internalization of the "big lie" of British politics underpinned this sad record of political neglect: the notion that there is no alternative to neoliberalism, with the concomitant repression of opportunities and rampant inequality – that more is invested in education, health or money Welfare or people's living standards will turn out to be catastrophic and, in fact, the increased investment in public services under the last Labor government has, to a large extent, led to the financial crisis whose long shadow still dominates politics for more than a decade.
This lie was articulated most clearly and artfully under the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition that instituted austerity policies (though this was implied in Labor's right-wing drift in search of an elusive "third way"). It was the necessary justification for a policy that put the bill-and most of the blame-on the door of the public sector for the financial crisis. Most of those who have argued have known that it is untrue, or at least a serious distortion of the truth. But it was incredibly effective to publicize the need for austerity measures and the financial imprudence of any attempt to bring about substantive progressive reform. The narrowing of voices discussing these topics in the mass media and the generally negative attitude towards those who are willing to question the "consensus" have helped to keep the lie. And while the purpose of those who made it popular might simply have been to marginalize the Labor Party and persuade the victims of neoliberalism to vote for more, it had a more profound effect and progressively made the rational social-democratic mainstream a reform almost impossible, and the levers available to politicians are geared towards progressive change. At the same time, it is helping Labor tumble to the left and become populist right-wing. While Brexit has shed light on the division and binary nature of British political culture, these divisions are larger than Brexit and will outlive it. The challenge for progressives is to change the self-destructive inner tale of British politics-the story that is uselessly keeping the wheels of progress going-and to create a new, more inclusive, compassionate and democratic one.
Failure to convince, consensus, or coalition was the main reason for Jeremy Corbyn's leadership of the Labor Party. While he has quite rightly and quite uniquely (though not always particularly clearly) sought to develop a differentiated position for Brexit, which can find broad support on both sides, Mr Corbyn has done far too little to express himself inwardly to engage his own party. Unfortunately, this was typical of his leadership style. Although he has openly challenged the gap in British politics and offered an alternative narrative, the uncompromising, un-collegial nature of his policy has convincingly reaffirmed it in many ways. As a result, many Labor members and supporters, including those who initially agreed with his leadership, saw him as an obstacle to progressive change. This is regrettable as it is unlikely that many very compelling and radical aspects of his political agenda will survive a change of leadership. Labor's argument over Corbyn's leadership pertains both to the party's political stance and its ability, given its limitations as a leader, to deliver the change it promised (which, I believe, is largely supported by most members).
The problem for Corbyn and other advocates of progressive social change is the lack of commitment to social democratic ideas in British political life and culture. This is a left frustration that often causes mainstream media, and especially the BBC, to bear much of the blame for their exclusion. This is partly justified, but there is a broader story here as well: there is considerable resistance to these ideas in public and a lack of understanding that the media reflects and incorporates and that politics exploits. While causing significant economic damage, Brexit has already caused significant reputational damage to the UK, but also provides an important opportunity to realize the vision of a new, equal and socially just Britain, where opportunities and prosperity are more evenly distributed across the country, regional and in terms of social class. But to do that, we need two things: to empower people and make them believe that change is possible ("resources of hope," in Raymond Williams' wonderful, timeless formulation), and places where people can come together, to discuss and shape and make positive changes (what we might call "spaces of hope").
Historically, important societal advances, such as the extension of electoral law or the creation of the National Health Service, stem from a combination of political and economic shock and an expansion of educational opportunities, especially in adult education (eg, by the Army Bureau of Current Affairs during the Second World War). We urgently need a conversation about the future of Britain, which starts from scratch, is not run, but has the same open, democratic features of the best traditions of adult education. The best way to learn about and engage in politics is to do it. Social movements such as the protests against the climate crisis offer adult educators more opportunities to create spaces for debate and learning. We do not have to view education for active citizenship as a threat to elites whose power is based on artful disassembly, but as the lifeblood of a strong and resilient democracy, and support them accordingly. However, this is unlikely as long as the forces of populism continue to occupy Downing Street (for the first time since I write about adult education, there really does not seem to be any sense in proposing more support for adult education), but we may all do it Our contribution to creating spaces for constructive debates in our communities, schools, institutions and workplaces to facilitate civil and polite debate and respect for others, while advocating more global change through more conventional means. A combination of these factors is crucial for both positive social change and healthy democracy.
Democracy and education remain the best way out of the chaos we are in and, in the face of the super-rich, their parliamentary representatives and the media interests they control, to reach a progressive Britain that is a place of hope, not hate.
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