Tribal politics and liberalism – the fight to the death

I have a slightly irrational aversion to holding up diamonds, wearing rosettes and beginning sentences with the phrase “Only the Liberal Democrats”. In fact I canvass now with a badge I had made which says on it against a yellow background “Bloody Politicians”. 

I really,really do get the importance of branding etc but I do think that the future of Liberalism depends on the death of tribal politics.

We are living in strange times where political discourse is often reduced to the exchange of insults, declaration of tribal belief and parodying of alternative perspectives. As Nick Robinson tweeted<

Much but not all of this is done through social media. Political debate ,as opposed to the political exchange of fire, is harder now to engage in. Voters are increasingly endorsing populist-right and left- politicians who offer simple solutions, ignore complexity and play successfully on emotions and fears.

Polarised politics though has certain key definable features we need to understand and as importantly worry about emulating.

It characterises political opposition in terms of a moral gulf. Those who back a different position are knaves, fools or both. They are not just people who have arrived at a different opinion. There can be no dalliance with the enemy not just because they are wrong but because they are necessarily evil. So we have the coarsening of political discourse, mindless abuse of opponents etc 

A second key characteristic is to deny or minimise the possibility of shared truths between political opponents. One side has to have got all the facts right and the other side all the facts wrong.Intelligence is only ever used by opponents to mislead and confound. 

These two key characteristics act to reinforce each other. It cannot possibly be the case that one’s political opponents have looked at the same facts one sees and arrived at different conclusions, possibly sharing some similar core values to oneself. That’s a liberal mirage.

Populist polar politics of course is shipwrecked when it tries to implement its agenda. It rarely survives the encounter with complex social reality

We Liberals though differ, or rather should differ, from polar politicians because of what you could call a principle of political charity. Respect for truth persuades us that life is complex and that people sharing similar  values may come up sincerely with different policy prescriptions. Reasonably thoughtful people may offer in good faith different analyses and perceptions of a social problem. Political understanding is not an exact mathematical affair.

Thus we meet fellow citizens who are Tories,socialists,UKippers etc sometimes as neighbours, friends,work colleagues who seem to want the same things out of life as we do and are just as diligent as us in their duties to family ,neighbour and society. Paradoxically political polarisers notice the same thing while unstintingly demonising the groups to which their neighbours, friends,colleagues belong.   

What defines a Liberal is not just a respect for truth and reason but importantly a recognition that getting to the truth and reasoning things out is a tough call. 

The worst sort of Liberalism is that that assumes there is a blithe self-evidence to whatever is current party policy or that the current incarnation of the party is the only vehicle for addressing social ills . Hence my rosette problem.

* John Pugh was Liberal Democrat MP for Southport until 2017 and was elected as a Councillor for the Dukes ward of Sefton Borough Council on 2 November 2017.

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  • Somebody needed to say this and Venetia’s endorsement is spot on.

  • Richard Underhill 26th Oct '18 - 2:30pm

    Venetia Caine, Geoff Reid: Increasing the membership is a means to an end.
    Persuading the new members to campaign vigorously after a People’s Vote is agreed is necessary, as Vince Cable said at the rally on Saturday in Hyde Park.

  • A nice article and reminds me somewhat of the approach of Beto O’Rourke, the Democratic candidate for Senate in Texas. It is to be articulate his views – pro-gun control (in Texas!), legalising cannabis and essentially for an NHS style health system – seriously left-wing stuff in America but certainly in Texas. But he couches it in inclusive language and mostly without criticising his opponents – although he did call Ted Cruz a liar in a debate. I think there is a lot for us to learn from his campaign and “season” for British tastes. He is though massively over-hyped by the American media.

    My memory is that politics in this country has been combative. I don’t think it is a false memory but I remember the miner’s strike, Thatcher, Spitting Image, the strident Sun front pages – including “If Kinnock wins today will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights”, poll tax riots, Tory sleaze etc. etc. But if I dreamt all that I apologize. Of course social media makes “pub talk” more visible – but also arguably it allows the left to strike back against the rabid right-wing tabloids. Of course as nice level-headed liberals we like reasoned argument – but strong language, caricature, fear, anger, disgust, joy, hope all have their rightful place in political discourse.


    I appreciate the point @Venetia Caine. But Remainers have a choice – they can make us a viable political force again through membership, donations, support and votes or they can have Brexit. Because until they feel us breathing down their necks – the Cobynite Labour party will remain the party of Brexit and Tory Remainers will wimp out.

  • John Marriott 26th Oct '18 - 3:28pm

    Couldn’t agree more. My wife reckons we are now in ‘a post political age’, whatever that is. Just returned from a week with #1 son and family in the Lake District, staying in a luxuriously converted cowshed overlooking Staveley. That’s Farron country, isn’t it? We tried to keep off the subject of Brexit – for the sake of the grandchildren (6 and 3); but it did occasionally raise its ugly head (my son, like me, is a prophet of doom when it comes to taking sides; the ladies just want it over).

  • Philip Knowles 27th Oct '18 - 8:06am

    One of the things that changed in the last few years is the personalisation of politics.
    To use a footballing analogy, we must ‘play the ball not the man’.
    If we attack a person people will automatically sympathise with the person – look at the number of people who feel sorry for Theresa May – so we need to attack the policies but we need to have reasonable, sensible alternatives.
    We need people to think that they like the way that the Liberal Democrats make sense. Too many of our press releases have a go at the person and don’t finish with our better alternative. Outrage isn’t enough better to keep quiet if we haven’t anything constructive to say.

  • The very interesting piece by John Pugh needs to be followed by the question about what should we do about it.
    Michael 1 makes a valid point. It is easy to exaggerate the changes in politics over the years. It is not politics which have changed but each of us.
    So what to do? To me the starting point is to make sure our own party is truly democratic. We need to look carefully at how how members can have their voices heard – and this should be easier in the days of social media. But is it?
    Let us start by banning, or at least controlling, the use of surveys. In fact of course whoever controls the questions controls the answers. The results tell us little or nothing. We need to find ways of showing a real enthusiasm for enabling members to express their opinions, to say what is important to them, to describe the world as they, their families and friends experience it.

  • Innocent Bystander 27th Oct '18 - 11:03am

    Wise and timely words from John Pugh. However, I think it all in vain. I ascribe a lot of blame to the vile BBC (an organisation I detest) although I admit I haven’t partaken of their output for a while, the last time I listened to the ‘Today’ programme the interviewer wasn’t trying to discover what the hapless politician thought but loudly and repeatedly tell the politician what he ought to think. The last time I watched ‘Question Time’ the Corporation had clearly taken as its model the bloodthirsty crowd at the Roman Coliseum for audience selection. The more booing and cheering the better.
    In short, I think that the BBC has whipped up (using its phenomenal advantages) an atmosphere of hostility and hatred towards politicians, who, for the most part, are trying to do their best. Sky is much more dignified and professional.

  • Respecting the right of people to articulate what you disagree with is fundamental to our democracy. Only when it is personal and offensive should it cause concern. There is no monopoly on wisdom, only differing views on how it is expressed.

  • @Innocent Bystander

    um… there was of course no “hatred and hostility” against Margaret Thatcher. May be we should revert to the BBC asking “Is there anything the minister would kindly like to tell the nation today”

  • Innocent Bystander 27th Oct '18 - 11:51am

    Yes, I think so. John Pugh’s “Bloody Politicians” badge is a clear acknowledgement that politicians are universally distrusted and despised. Not a good situation. There are many decent ones, still.

  • Matt (bristol) 27th Oct '18 - 12:50pm

    I think we cannot exempt ourselves and our own local parties and advocates. Many many Lib Dems love a political punch-up, and are quite happy (at least for the duration of a fight, and some permanently) to adopt language that suggests that no-one in their right mind could hold a differing opinion without being stupid, deceitful or Hitler. The need to grab attention and hold it in an attention-averse age (and a love of the endorphin levels you get from extemporised moral righteousness combined with group approval) has a lot to do with it. And we must not forget that all around us, groups and individuals and companies are refining their ability to get to us at an emotional level, so we don’t come to debates in ‘neutral’ or ‘listening’ mode.

    I think we’re more susceptible than we think – local Lib Dem politics has always thrived on ‘what idiot put this roadsign here?’ outrage.

  • Sue Sutherland 27th Oct '18 - 12:54pm

    Back in the 16th century Bacon wrote an essay on Truth. It contained the sentence “What is truth? Said jesting Pilate and would not stay for an answer.”
    I think our modern problem is that no one can arrive at the truth, especially because politicians of all parties argue with each other about who is correct using different premises for the use of statistics that back up their own prejudices. Unemployment figures are a case in point. Truth has become so slippery and elusive that those who claim to be purveyors of this scarce commodity, people we like to call experts, are no longer believed or trusted. The result of this is that my opinion on how to launch a spaceship is as valuable as someone from NASA.
    OK, I’m exaggerating, but I think this view has become notable in the fields of economic and social policy, particularly economics, because no one except Vince predicted the 2008 crash. So it is particularly difficult for a political party to claim they have truth on their side, that evidence based policy will work, because we are all struggling to unravel the trail that will reveal truth. That is, those who are actually concerned about truth, an awful lot of people have retreated into emotion, prejudice and self interest as the foundation of their political beliefs.
    Unfortunately rationality is losing out to emotion so I think we should set free our emotional attachment to getting the best deal for everyone without going down the road of hating the rich or seeing the poor as idle scrounges. We need to tell people how we feel about the EU as well, that it’s a community of nations dedicated to peace through trade and partnerships, not quote figures about how much worse off we will be outside that community. We have a strong emotional attachment to rationality and we need to let everyone know about it.

  • I entirely agree with Sue Sutherland about quoting of figures connected with the European Union, instead of focusing on how we feel about the ideals on which it is based.
    The issue about economics in terms of adopting a rational approach is that the outcomes are in fact actively managed. As we saw in our own country the government made decisions about how to intervene in banks which had large problems. At the present time we can look at the reality of the introduction of a form of capitalism into Russia. There is huge evidence of the involvement of U.K. accountancy, law and other companies in the processes which lead to the moving of huge amounts of money from Russia to London and hence to safe havens around the world.
    This is the underlying reality of the debate of course. In the short term people make a lot of money from being placed in the right positions in companies that pay bonusses for sort term gains. The issue is how we convince people of the reality of the inadequacy of regulation in this country, and the price that people are paying for it day by day.

  • @Innocent Bystander

    I hope not – far, far worse is deference and (paid) politicians handing down to us, plebs what to think because we are too stupid to work it out for ourselves and they have the divine right to deem what is right for the county.

    I tend to think that a country comes to the best solutions – over time and often veering “off course” – through democracy. Unfortunately we don’t live in a democracy. We live in an elected oligarchy. Indeed we have one where most MPs don’t think for themselves – they get their weekly “whip” and go through the right lobby according to their instructions. Ask most MPs what they just voted for and the arguments for and against and they won’t have a clue.

    While we have an oligarchy – even an elected one – and wait for a proper democracy we need one where they feel the “heat” of the electorate. No reform was ever handed down by politicians – it was campaigned for – rumbustiously and yes sometimes (unfortunately) violently and quite often “offensively” especially in the view of the establishment by the populace.

    I don’t think that people “universally distrust and despise” politicians. They may dislike some – I think they just disagree with them – well those they disagree with. And more power to their elbow!

  • John Barrett 27th Oct '18 - 7:57pm

    Well said John.

    Unfortunately our party has been as bad as any other, and at times worse, when it comes to condemning, “Those who back a different position are knaves, fools or both” to quote John.

    John’s article ends saying “The worst sort of Liberalism is that that assumes there is a blithe self-evidence to whatever is current party policy or that the current incarnation of the party”

    Those who have been around a while have witnessed many leaders, many policy u-turns and many reincarnations of the party. No doubt this will continue in the years to come, if things remain as they are.

    This will no doubt result in the party remaining at very low levels of public support at national level and failing to convince the voters that we are any different from the others.

    All too often we behave as a party of the establishment, with establishment ambitions and led by people who wish to become part of the establishment.

    Unless this changes, nothing will change.

  • Malcolm Todd 28th Oct '18 - 12:27am

    Tom Harney 27th Oct ’18 – 9:06am

    “Let us start by banning…”

    No, let’s not.

  • Peter Watson 28th Oct '18 - 9:39am

    @John Barrett “All too often we behave as a party of the establishment … Unless this changes, nothing will change.”
    I completely agree. I also think this is largely class-based, with Lib Dems appearing to come from a narrower socioeconomic demographic than any other mainstream party. And that demographic looks like a relatively comfortable middle-class one (albeit with a social conscience), with a vested interest in the economic status quo tempered by a desire to improve the lot of a few worthy causes deemed liberal enough.
    I’m bang in the middle of that same demographic so am of no use and probably appear patronising/condescending, but perhaps the party should perhaps be less proud of the level of education of its members (especially when comparing Lib Dems with Brexiters) and consider what it has to offer to those without degrees and who come from a wider range of backgrounds.

  • Gordon Lishman 29th Oct '18 - 12:03pm

    I agree entirely, John. There are critical issues about tone and content in political discourse. I suggest (1) that we don’t get anywhere if we fail to talk with people on the basis that we start where they are rather than starting by talking only about our own position; (2) that the vast majority of people don’t associate with any coherent set of political beliefs; and (3) that there is no top-down alternative to working with people to rebuild trust and involve them in talking, listening and compromising with each other to find answers and help them to take back power.

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