Tuesday, 16 April 2013

There is no place for hate in politics

Last night, following their typically abysmal Party Political Broadcast, UKIP asked those watching to take to twitter to make statements about what "their" Britain should be, using the hashtag #MyBritain.

Firstly, it says a great deal about UKIP that it puts the emphasis on the individual rather than on society. Whatever happened to #OurBritain?

Not wanting to leave the descriptions of idealised Britain to UKIP supporters, I tweeted the following:

"#MyBritain is one in which everything does not revolve around Westminster."
"#MyBritain recognises the need for international co-operation and a place at the heart of Europe."
And, most importantly, "#MyBritain is tolerant, welcoming, broad-minded, internationalist, inclusive, socially just and forward-looking."

That final statement, neatly although extremely simplistically, sums up my personal political vision. It is a short statement of who I am, and what my politics are.

I have no time for the politics of hate.  It's why I was initially attracted to the Liberal Democrats.  It's why I am not, and never can be, a party political tribalist. It's why I try to see the best values in my political opponents, and why I try to refrain from point-scoring. Strong societies are built on tolerance, understanding, openness, acceptance and pluralism.  In fact, I'm a pluralist first - a Liberal Democrat second.

Someone like myself will inevitably struggle when the political conversation becomes dominated by, and characterised by, hate.  This is why in recent years we've seen the growth in the influence of organisations such as Hope Not Hate whose aspirations are self-evident.  Where hate manifests as racism or the politics of the far-right, there is sure to be widespread opposition. Few people like the BNP.

Also, nothing is bound to upset more people than images of Islamic fundamentalists preaching sermons of intolerance and making incitements to violence on our TV screens. That kind of hate inspires predictable and immediate reaction.  We recognise that such talk and sentiment has no place in a 21st century democracy.

Yesterday, when news of a bombing in Boston broke, the reaction on twitter was mainly of outrage (and also sympathy).  Why?  Because we recognise that hate is not a valid political weapon.  There is no room for hate in democratic political conversation.

Even former paramilitaries in Northern Ireland are now saying such things. Intolerance, based on race or religion at least, is not acceptable. The same is beginning to be true of homophobia although, as the Equality Network will point out and as the likes of right-wing Conservatives are determined to demonstrate, there is still some work to go to tackle some of the negative attitudes towards LGBT rights. Indeed, there still remains a great deal of hate directed towards LGBT people but at least today there is a general acceptance in society that it is not acceptable in a modern Britain that is fair and just.

And yet...

Being a blogger means I am sometimes exposed to a little more hate than I would like to be. Mostly this takes the form of comments on the blog (which I don't publish) or facebook messages.  On one occasion a homophobic message contained a rather frightening threat of violence.  Fortunately, most don't go that far but I've received some pretty nasty stuff, such as:

 *  countless examples of Nationalists expressing their disdain in no uncertain terms for my being inspired by the Declaration of Arbroath. I make no apology for it as the Declaration belongs to history and not to Nationalism. Criticism I accept, but insults dripping with hate I do not.

 *  those who disagree with the current direction of the Liberal Democrats feel they have a licence to abuse anyone who happens to express even critical support for their party. Again, I defend the right of anyone to criticise my arguments and enjoy engaging with those who do, but too often their contributions contain nothing other than bile and hate.

 *  I have angered some with my stance on LGBT rights including, rather strangely, a member of my local party (who has since resigned his membership) who liked to tell me how wrong I was and out of touch with public opinion whenever I spoke for equality.  I can live with people like that - it's those who descend to the level of hate I struggle with, such as the person who told me they hoped I would "die of AIDS".

But of course none of this is about me. I'm simply making a statement about how differences and disagreements are inevitable, but that hate should not be an inherent or accepted feature of political activity.

To all intents and purposes, society dislikes expressions of hate masquerading as political conversation.  At least that is the appearance it gives. However, there can be no escaping that our politics is becoming more and more dominated by hateful attitudes.  I'm not simply talking about the BNP, but mainstream politics.

Let's take the issue of the Chancellor's ill-advised comments after the Philpotts were found guilty of manslaughter.  The idea that the crime was somehow a product of welfare dependency is plainly both incorrect and an example of intellectual sloth. Furthermore, they were suggestions that had the potential for destructive effect, polarising society and reinforcing negative and prejudicial stereotypes. It is not, however, the factual accuracy or even the immediate ramifications of his intervention that concern me, but the fact that his words were coloured by his attitudes, which in turn were dictated by his pre-existing intolerance. Or, to call it what it is, ill-disguised hate towards a certain group in society. It was a loaded statement, evidencing his prejudices far more convincingly than any subsequent attempts to conceal them; as the gospel writer observed, "from the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks".

This is merely the tip of the iceberg. Whenever there are controversies surrounding politicians, expect the hate machines to kick in. Yes, I did see some the material the Tories were putting out in Eastleigh, which demeaned not only Lord Rennard and the Lib Dem candidate but also their own campaign, the Conservative Party and UK politics more generally.  Lord MacAlpine was exposed to so much hate following a supposed "revelation" in the media that he sought legal advice.  And of course the language of hate, usually stemming from messages of fear, is used by politicians (and the media) so that, when it comes to issues surrounding Europe, immigration or welfare it becomes impossible to have a rational debate.

And let's take a look at the nature of politics here in Scotland. What exactly is the quality of our political dialogue? I may be a reasonably young 36 but I remember, not so long ago, a time when we believed "the new politics" was upon us.  (That same phrase was used in 2010 by Lib Dem president Ros Scott to describe a new era being ushered in by coalition collaboration, without apparent irony).  That new politics has turned into more of the same, as generations-old prejudices have become hardened and tribal positions more entrenched.  The supposed democratic discussion on Scotland's constitutional future has descended into a hate-fest, hallmarked by a cynical negativity and a lack of respect for both the political conversation and the electorate.  Neither side seems to appreciate that, whatever the outcome in 2014, we are going to have to live together and I for one don't want to live in a Scotland torn apart by mistrust and recrimination.

It's time that the main stage actors woke up to the reality that, the more they act like this, the less interested the audience becomes.  Certainly, this bile-filled excuse for a national debate has the potential to toxify our politics, and political relationships, for many years to come. Is that the legacy of the referendum we really want...the consequences of hate?

Of course all this pales into insignificance compared with what has been expressed, both inside and outwith political circles, in response to the death of Margaret Thatcher. It is true that I am not Mrs Thatcher's number one fan (do I look like Jacob Rees-Mogg?).  I understand why she is such a divisive figure, why her legacy is criticised and her achievements questioned.  I understand why people feel she was bad for Scotland - after all, to some extent I agree.  But celebrating someone's death and demonising them using language that wouldn't look out of place if uttered by a jihadist suicide bomber is pure hate and there should be no place for it.

Here is a former world leader who in no uncertain terms shaped the global politics of the 1980s, for better and worse.  She is a heroine in the Falkland Islands, well liked in the USA and indeed elsewhere - even by many in the UK.  I can only imagine what other European democracies think when they see us holding street parties and singing "Ding Dong the witch is dead!"  I cannot imagine it looks terribly dissimilar to fundamentalist muslims burning effigies of Salman Rushdie.

It's not a question of not speaking ill of the dead.  Nor is it even a matter of tastefulness. As a society and as political activists, we have to ask ourselves whether we are content to perpetuate hate in place of hope.  The level of hate inherent in political expression is frankly horrifying.  I fail to see how hate is ever the answer to anything - if it is then I worry what the question is.

Fellow Liberal Democrat activist Stewart Wilson today observed that "the dis-harmony we are witnessing is unhealthy, irrational and dangerous for each and every one of us, especially in light of the recession we currently endure." He added: "The prospects for Wednesday look abominable...the whole world will be watching...it is likely we will embarrass ourselves with an ugly disrespectful pantomime fed by hatred."  A legacy of hatred will achieve nothing, and should be confronted rather than maintained.

What does hate do?  It dehumanises both the object of hatred and those who hate.  It belittles our politics and disrespects our supposedly tolerant and inclusive "British" values. Hate demeans society and the ethical and democratic foundations on which it is based. Hate is a powerful force that perpetuates division; it does not build up but destroys.  The descent into hate is a thoroughly depressing feature of contemporary politics, but it is far from too late to reverse the trend.

As I wrote in my reflections of Mrs Thatcher's premiership, hate achieves nothing. There is little point now in protesting the policies of someone who left office over 22 years ago.  However, for those who, like me, have for many years been opposed to the principles of Thatcherism there is a more worthwhile challenge: to prove her wrong, to create a strong society, to forge a politics that cares for the underprivileged and fights for fairness and to challenge, rather the perpetuate, the type of attitudes based on hate and ignorance which prospered during her eleven years in power.

We can all make a difference in making it clear that no kind of hate is acceptable in a modern society.  Hope Not Hate missed an opportunity this week, presumably because they haven't quite grasped that it's not only the far right who indulge the rhetoric of hatred. We have to move away from the position that finds intolerance towards certain individuals acceptable.  As a nationalist friend has just asked on twitter: "will the police allow me to do a jig at George Square when the queen dies?"

Certainly, tackling the legacy of unfeeling inhumanity with more unfeeling inhumanity is the wrong response.  Instead of hating, we must move forward in hope.

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