Brexit

Brexit, social media and a toxic political culture

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Brexit has divided our country – there are no two ways about it.

Ever since that historic referendum on 23rd June 2016, certainty has eluded us, even when Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement was passed shortly after last year’s general election.

At that point though, the public was tiring of Brexit after months and months of pre-election parliamentary deadlock, and as I rested my head on my pillow at 4am on election morning after covering the Guildford election count, it felt as though we were finally getting somewhere with a big majority for the Conservative Party.

As we entered 2020, we were already hearing scepticism over whether a UK-EU trade agreement could be struck before the 31st December deadline, especially if the United Kingdom wanted to diverge from regulatory alignment with the European Union’s rules, something the Prime Minister promised in his Tory manifesto.

The 31st January passed – the start of 11 months of intensive negotiations – perhaps made slightly less complex by Boris’ big majority and his clear First Past The Post mandate to continue his work.

And then the coronavirus pandemic hit the UK – and in a very big way.

Suddenly, Brexit was off the top of the news agenda, although in all fairness, a global pandemic was probably the only thing that could have prevented our trade negotiations from clinching the headlines. And for the first time in over three years, our withdrawal from the EU was not the most pressing political issue facing us.

This pandemic could have had two opposing impacts though: one made negotiations a lot harder with travel restrictions and an increased emphasis on tackling the coronavirus, the other incentivised the real need to get a deal for both sides as we face the prospect of a major economic disaster across the continent.

As the year went on, the pre-pandemic pessimism spouted on all sides continued in the same vein even in December, when it was looking more and more likely the UK would leave the transition period on World Trade Organisation terms.

The godfather of Brexit, Nigel Farage, did call the whole thing a ‘charade’ – and always had a feeling this was just a smokescreen as both sides strived to agree an FTA – but time was ticking. Chief Negotiators Lord Frost and Michel Barnier were in a race against time.

The 31st December was no soft deadline, unlike previous EU withdrawal, dates from 2019 – this was real. It was now or never.

The PM was even talking about the likelihood of an ‘Australian-style’ deal like it was a near-certainty – until things drastically changed just before Christmas. Suddenly, we were on the verge of a deal, giving much-needed certainty to businesses and helping to calm the nerves of those dreading a no-deal outcome.

For remainers, any deal is probably better than no deal in their eyes because of their understandable fondness for the EU and their fears regarding a damaged relationship with the 27 nations. For 2019 Tory voters, they voted on the basis we had an ‘oven-ready’ deal. The only group of people who now preferred a no-deal Brexit was many of those in the ERG of the Tory Party and Brexit Party voters, who craved the ‘clean-break’ Brexit Nigel Farage had harped on about.

For me? Well, I think it is a decent outcome. The EU referendum – even though it was good to have continued debates about the benefits of staying in the union – should have been respected earlier than the 31st January 2020. The prolonged process only helped to cause further bitterness and division across the country, damaging the union and reducing trust in our politicians.

Both the handling and blocking of Brexit has increased the public’s disdain towards politicians – and that relationship between both parties has never been the same since the 2009 Expenses Scandal.

Trust in our politics has fractured further – and even though Brexit may finally be done – divisiveness and partisanship which has dominated both Parliament and social media will continue for the foreseeable future especially with Covid-19. The issue of Brexit (not necessarily Brexit itself) has created this toxic culture and has only worsened by the pandemic.

Things need to change for the sake of democracy. Our closest friend, the United States, has shown how badly things can go wrong when partisanship is at an all-time high – and we must all play our part in making the UK a more welcoming place to debate contentious issues. The public has an individual duty to debate calmly on social media – but our politicians must lead by example.

And until they do that, how can we expect sections of the public to change their ways?

Of course, the likes of Twitter and Facebook are a small bubble compared to the real world out there. Maybe I should take time off social media to escape the political hostility – but I cannot help but notice how cruel people on these platforms can be. There is no middle ground anymore – no agreeing to disagree or passionately arguing about issues with respect – just name-calling and vitriol.

When we are finally able to close the chapter on this horrendous pandemic which has already claimed over 70,000 lives in the UK, things need to change. Unfortunately, the government will need to make tough economic decisions as the Tory-Lib Dem coalition did after the financial crash – only resulting in more division, not even mentioning the possibility of IndyRef2 in Scotland.

And let’s face it, the political toxic culture seems to be ingrained in our society now, especially on Facebook and Twitter where users can post with a tap of a button. This culture is here to stay for the long-term unless we all pull together and make a difference.

As we try and combat this toxic culture, there is a first step we can make in England and Wales, if not Scotland and Northern Ireland. This is it: let’s give Post-Brexit Britain a chance – because whether you like it or not – Brexit has happened.

When we have given our country a chance as we go solo, we can then start to re-open the EU debate – but the country needs to tackle more pressing issues right now. And we all need to come together as one down this bumpy road.

Boris Johnson has one hell of a job to do if he is to unify the country once again post-Brexit and post-pandemic – and it doesn’t help that he’s like marmite. You either love him or you hate him – but there is another factor to consider in all this: has the public already lost faith in the Prime Minister? If so, our divisions will only deepen further and further.

And I’m not optimistic about the chances of a more united country anytime soon.

Cover image: Stephen Darlington via Flickr. Image was cropped. Licence here.

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