Civilised disagreement – a target for 2021?

Some while ago, I was taken to task on this site for declaring that people had been the victims of conmen before and after the 2016 referendum. Apparently this was highly insulting to leavers although I was trying to emphasise the pain that goes with being lied to deliberately and made to feel stupid. It was a generalised statement and I can’t ever remember saying to an individual “You’ve been taken for a ride.”

In my own council ward two-thirds of the referendum voters opted for Vote Leave. This does not mean we treat them with contempt nor vice versa. The voters at local elections carried on voting for us. Some of them actually said explicitly that they disagreed with us about the EU but they supported us for other reasons.

As we move into the economic pain that is inevitable in 2021, the last thing on our lips should be “We told you so.” There will be those who will continue to see the EU as the source of all their woes but since there are now Conservative MPs who realise that they were sold a dud in the election of a party leader there will be ordinary voters who will sooner or later come to the same conclusion.

Come what may, we have moved into uncharted waters (exacerbated by the pandemic) and 2021 should be a time for reflecting on how we can find our way to a more civilised arena for political conversation in spite of the Trumps and Johnsons of this world.

Some things have to be seen as indispensable. One is the recognition that disagreement is an essential part of our humanity and the way we live together. Another is that distinguishing between facts and lies matters and that evidence is an important factor in making the distinctions. That assertion in no way removes disagreement but a shared assumption that some things can be taken as true is an essential component of much of life’s fabric in a democracy (e.g. the rule of law). I see these as minimum requirements for respectful conversation.

In recent years George Orwell has enjoyed something of a renaissance. In 2017 a book was published “Orwell on Truth” which has stayed by my bedside ever since I bought it. Since schooldays, as a freethinking radical Methodist and Liberal, I have always been a fan of the atheist socialist (well, more or less socialist) not least because of his writing style. George knew a thing or two about the language of politics. He knew that propaganda is a legitimate process. We might call it messaging these days. But he also knew that truth matters and he would have denounced alt-facts as nonsense.

The 2017 collection has an introduction by someone else not of my party political persuasion, namely Alan Johnson, my favourite Labour former cabinet minister. Alan dubs as “delicious irony” Trump’s short-term spokeswoman Kelly-Anne Conway channelling Orwell in describing a comment by her boss as an alternative fact rather than a lie. Some of the bold-type pull-outs each filling a page should be cherished if we are to stand a chance of cleaning up our political conversation.

If liberty means anything at all it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear (The Freedom of the Press, August 1945).

Intellectual honesty is a CRIME in any totalitarian country; but even in England it is not exactly profitable to speak and write the TRUTH (Fascism and Democracy, February 1941).

All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth. I don’t think this matters so long as one knows what one is doing, and why. (War-time Diary, March 1942).

Stay with us in 2021 George!

* Geoff Reid is a retired Methodist minister and represented Eccleshill on Bradford City Council for twelve years

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10 Comments

  • Peter Martin 14th Dec '20 - 10:20am

    Being economical with the truth is a euphemism for lying.

    Prior to the 2015 Greek crisis I would have probably have voted, on balance, to stay in the EU. However the EU’s treatment of Greece in 2015 was too much for me and I’ve been a staunch leaver ever since.

    I can understand that others may have taken a different view and considered the actions the EU perfectly reasonable. The usual neoliberal arguments: The Greeks were fiscally profligate, they didn’t pay their taxes, they couldn’t be trusted with democracy or to vote in a sensible way etc etc. Many on the right said as much.

    But what about the Progressive Left? Nothing much at all. Zilch. Or maybe I just missed it? What coverage did LDV give to an important EU story at he time?

  • Colin Bradbury 14th Dec '20 - 11:11am

    Yes, we won’t win any Brexit voters over by rubbing their noses in it. Nobody wants to hear ‘you were an idiot to vote to leave’ (even if secretly we believe it!). So we need to switch the focus to the politicians who conned them – our message should be ‘They Lied To You’. We want to make people as angry about the lies and deceit they were fed as the Tories and UKIP managed to make people feel about the EU. That’s the only way we will get people to express their disgust with this government through the ballot box.

    The ‘Get Brexit Done’ slogan may make us want to vomit, but nobody can deny that it got the job done for Johnson this time last year. We need our equivalent. Some will argue that by doing that we are lowering ourselves to their level. But isn’t goal to put our ideas into practice by winning seats at the local and national level? All our lovely ideas and ideals are meaningless if we don’t get councillors and MPs elected.

    Unfortunately I think the party is failing to seize the opportunity presented by the current utter chaos around the Brexit negotiations. Campaigning for carers and equal blood donation rights for LGBT+ people are all important Lib Dem policies, but right now, should they really be the focus of the party’s social media efforts as they appear to be?

    Why aren’t our leaders all over the media getting angry at the government and shoving their abject failures and lies into their faces? Why aren’t we campaigning with slogans like ‘They Lied to You’? Are we just too damn nice and civilised for the nitty gritty business of politics? This Tory own goal over Brexit is a once in a lifetime opportunities for the LDs to help reshape the political landscape and I fear we are blowing it.

  • @ Geoff Reid Great to hear your take on Orwell, Geoff. For me it was a delight to do ‘Animal Farm’ for O level at B.G.S. in 1958 under a great teacher, Jock Grose (a 1930’s refugee from Germany). The said Dr Grose also told me to stop reading the Yorkshire Post and to take the Guardian if I wanted to understand the real world. Still do.

    Interesting coincidence : Orwell (Eric Blair) is buried within yards of Asquith in Sutton Courtney churchyard.

  • If it reinforces their prejudices people are quite accepting of being lied to.

    A case in point is a recent Orwell Prize winner whose defence to being sued for telling a tissue of lies is that doing so was in the public interest.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 14th Dec '20 - 1:07pm

    @ Peter M,

    Might I suggest you type “Greece” into the site’s search function before making unfounded accusations against the Editorial Team?

  • Richard Underhil 14th Dec '20 - 1:41pm

    On this day Hildenborough athlete Kelly Holmes won Olympic Gold
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelly_Holmes

  • Richard Underhill 14th Dec '20 - 1:48pm

    On 12/12/2020 Lewis Hamilton was told that a Hamilton straight has been named at Silverstone.
    GR8
    He received the news humbly.

  • Nigel Jones 14th Dec '20 - 9:50pm

    To convince people someone is lying requires a statement of the facts that contradict what they said and arguments that counter their arguments or reveal basic assumptions that undermine their thinking. If we do that often enough on the same issues, then the message may get through. Once you feel the message of truth is registering then we can explicitly harp on about those who have lied.
    I have written in our local paper when someone has told falsehoods, having discovered the source of those falsehoods, thereby undermining their source of opinions rather than simply the person him or her self.

  • Alex Macfie 15th Dec '20 - 8:20pm

    You don’t have to be stupid to fall for lies.

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