The title of this year’s annual Jubilee Centre conference was Virtues in the Public Sphere, a subject which brought together distinguished speakers from a wide spectrum of academic disciplines, as well as a number of participants from within the policy-making community. Amongst the themes covered by the keynotes and other papers which were given, those on the nature of disagreement and civic friendship seemed particularly pertinent given the deepening of divisions in Western politics, and the apparent contraction of spaces for constructive critical debate.
The keynote given by Prof. John Haldane, in particular, focused on ways in which one might appropriately respond to discord, and discussed the importance of virtues such as tolerance and intellectual humility in the pursuit of knowledge and public life. In respecting our common humanity, we might better understand the potential for each of us to be wrong when engaging in debate, rather than asserting our perspective with ever-greater vigour.
Unfortunately, the current spectacle of internal conflict and jostling for position within the Conservative Party provides a rather unedifying example of how disagreement can actually play out in public life. Theresa May finds herself facing all too familiar problems as a Tory leader tackling Europe, with certain backbenchers briefing against, and attempting to undermine, her leadership. Indeed, the multiple attempts to topple Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour within his first year of office highlighted such similar manoeuvrings within HM opposition.
The adversarial nature of British politics is often cited as the root cause of much of the day-to-day conflict we see in Westminster. It is thus taken as read that such division is merely the nature of the political beast. Yet across a number of issues – Europe as a prime example – it seems the positions of certain MPs have hardened over time, and they have become less willing to work towards a compromise, even within the confines of a political party that should appeal to some sense of common purpose.
How then, one might ask, we start to develop a political culture that is more accepting of, and prepared to mediate, disagreement? The philosopher John Lucas wrote in his seminal 1976 work, Democracy and Participation that in searching for logically compelling answers to particular questions of public life and democratic practice, political philosophy had started to ‘…put forward specious, deductive arguments which turn out to be broken-backed, instead of humbler ones which, although not conclusive, are nevertheless sound as far as they go’ (1976: 56). Such sentiments are also at the heart of Haldane’s argument; that in accepting our mutual fallibility in the search for answers to political and moral questions, we might reach a position of intellectual humility through which we recognise that such questions do not have definitive answers, but that we are all in the same boat attempting to ride out the waves we encounter together as a society.
The nature of contemporary political debate continues to apply this more definitive language of right and wrong, and the rigidity, though also quite clearly the fallibility, of economic forecasts and models, on to questions to which there is often no clear answer. One might argue this manifested itself in the very notion of a referendum, reducing a question of great nuance and complexity to a binary choice. Nevertheless, such a political culture tends to lead to the ratcheting up the rhetoric on whether Britain’s ultimate path away from the European Union will be ‘better’ or ‘worse’ for the country as a whole; something which seems to escalate conflict, rather than mitigate it. Instead, factions within the Conservative party and beyond might do well to accept the fallibility of their position within the debate, and be more willing to collaborate to find the best path through an inevitably difficult process. Too much to ask, you might say? 40 years of discord suggest you might be right.
Joseph Ward, Research Associate and Impact Officer