As the Labour Party eyes the possibility of forming the next government, whether as a majority or a minority government, and paints itself ever more tightly into a corner on Brexit, public spending and all the other things it believes may frighten the voters, I feel with increasing certainty that we will soon be deluged with another round of ‘unite for the good of the nation’. This has been a recurring theme in our political discourse since 2016, and although it has gone relatively quiet recently, it is due for a revival, particularly with a new, Brexit-supporting government.
‘Don’t talk the country down‘
A lot of ‘well meaning’ people, possibly including Keir Starmer, treat this as a matter of common sense: how can a disunited country ‘move on’ and become successful? “Don’t talk the country down” is a frequent variation. Don’t misunderstand me; the point about unity has merit. As a patriot, I want to see our country united, confident, and pursuing a path leading to a successful future. But sadly, many of those well-meaning people (some of whom are eminent in their field) seem to have little understanding of the fairly well-charted way to achieve reconciliation, and then unity.
The appeals I have seen, at least, show absolutely no understanding of the need to deal with the cause of the disunity. I have not yet seen any appeal to unity that is not tacitly based on “you lost, it was a total mess, but the other side are very angry, so it would be very convenient if you could forget all about that, be nice to them, and not ask difficult questions”. Asking one side of a bitter argument to accept all the damage that has been done to them in order to keep the other side quiet does not lead to reconciliation. Ever heard of a feud? Instead, it prolongs the division, and increases the bitterness. You don’t have to be an expert to understand why. You just need basic human empathy.
Have you ever tried to start the process of reconciliation by telling people the future is all that matters? It’s a bit like saying to someone with a debilitating condition or a mental incapacity, “buck up, and I’m sure you’ll feel better.” The first step in dispute-resolution is to listen to both sides, and most importantly, to acknowledge their experience and accept it as a valid account of how they perceive the problem. In disputes, the subjective views of those affected matter, because they are reality for those affected.
There is no point pretending this doesn’t apply to those who feel they lost something important when the UK left the EU, on the grounds that they have gained something else they did not want. It is particularly important when there is a virtual ban on the ‘B’ word, and a reluctance to accept that current problems are, quite significantly, due to it. To tell someone who lost their promising small business exporting to the EU that it has nothing to do with Brexit is like slapping them in the face. The same goes for someone whose family was divided, or who lost the right for their child to seek opportunities in Europe.
So when, as I anticipate, there is a lot more of “it happened, we must move on for national unity”, the people who glibly spout this line need to be challenged. It’s not as if there are not examples of a better approach; South Africa’s “Truth and reconciliation” wasn’t perfect (nothing human is) but it was quite effective. A similar process, on a less formal and more piecemeal basis, has been happening in Northern Ireland.
Was it a sensible decision?
There may be Fifty ways to leave your lover, as the song goes, but there is only one way back, and it is based on honesty, transparency, and acknowledgement of the perceived damage to both parties. It may be that such a process leads the nation to re-evaluate its recent experience. That may lead to questions about whether it was, well, a sensible thing to have done. That would be positive learning from experience.
Not everyone will be convinced. It will make things worse rather than better, however, if the population as a whole is held to ransom for the sake of the feelings of one side in the dispute. Those who peddle it as a solution are operating well outside their area of expertise. It is the moral equivalent of cleaning the house by sweeping everything under the carpet using a large broom.
As Brexit founders before our eyes, while the British prepare to hunker down and appeal for another “Spirit of the Blitz”, what do our European neighbours care? Next week we re-visit Kate Moore’s Vienna interviews to find out.