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The paradox of polarisation – how to get national reconciliation over Brexit


I wanted to write a short and simple blog this month, so I thought I’d write something about Brexit.  You may have spotted the flaw in this plan.

I was going to propose that there should be a national reconciliation project to heal the wounds of Brexit.  But I soon came to realise that the way people work together and relate to each other – and this is relevant for partnership working too – means that obstacles are thrown in its way.  So let’s work through the argument.

There are (at least) two big dangers from Brexit.  The first is the potential damage if it goes through, or (if you support leave) the risk of missing out on benefits if we don’t leave.  The second danger, though, is the polarisation within the country which could lead to distrust and even enmity, for years to come as well as the risk of it spilling over into even more bitter and dangerous division.

The polarisation has involved entrenchment and hardening of people’s views.  There is evidence of people increasingly identifying themselves as leavers or remainers (more so than identifying with political parties) and there is a suggestion of an ‘in-group’ vs ‘out-group’ relationship, with distancing and negative stereotyping of ‘the other’.  I suspect there may have been a process where politicians who supported remain, who were then committed to implementing Brexit, started to believe in what they were doing, to avoid cognitive dissonance, (or for less reputable instrumental purposes).  There may then have been group pressure to conform to a view which has developed into a sort of tribalism.

So my idea for this blog was to propose a national conciliation project to reduce the polarisation.  It would be built on local events including citizens’ assemblies but also opportunities for people to listen to and empathise with each other.  The discussions, at least in the mainstream media, seem to have been about broad policy choices – customs union or not, no deal, second referendum etc. – or political manoeuvrings as politicians jostle for positions or form cross party alliances, rather than exploring in more detail the pros and cons of leave or remain.

As well as listening to each other’s rational arguments, we have to recognise that this is about more than facts: it’s also about values and emotions.  People value different aspects of autonomy and community to varying extents and those aren’t differences that can be resolved through rational argument.  The emotional differences probably have less relevance for which solutions are objectively best but they need to be addressed if people are to be brought together.

There are two problems with this plan for reconciliation.  The first is that as views have become entrenched and have hardened, the desire has become more about an objective as an end in itself than what the objective would deliver.  It’s like a teenager wanting to go to a party.  He’s not sure, but on balance wants to go.  The parents aren’t too worried but decide he shouldn’t.   That puts the back up of the teenage and soon each side is implacably opposed to the views of the other, regardless of the actual arguments.  So there are arguments such as ‘I want leave because that’s what was voted for and to do otherwise would be a betrayal of democracy.’  Or on the other side, ‘I want to remain because it would be best for the country (can’t remember the details of why exactly now) and because the other lot are ignorant bigots.’  So the first problem is that there is no desire for reconciliation only for the tribe’s success.

The other problem with a reconciliation project is that we no longer have a rational debate about facts – it’s a factional war where the strength of various sorts of power are more important than the strength of arguments.  Things like a second referendum, a citizens’ assembly or a reconciliation project are stratagems, or weapons, in a power war rather than of value in themselves.  I think there are good arguments for a second referendum, but I probably wouldn’t be supporting one if I didn’t think it might reverse Brexit.  Similarly, leavers generally oppose one because it would steal their victory from them.

So does that mean we are doomed to this polarisation for years, decades even, to come?  Not necessarily.  But paradoxically, we may need to ensure that a process designed to change people’s minds isn’t used to change their decisions.  If we are honest about our motives, perhaps we need to address reconciliation outside of the actual decision making on Brexit.  That might mean doing the reconciliation after the decision has been made, for instance leaving on 31st October.  Or at least, to encourage people to participate genuinely you would need to keep it from influencing decision making on Brexit. (However, it doesn’t mean you have to cave in on Brexit: you could argue passionately in that sphere, while still engaging genuinely in reconciliation.)  Both sides (or, to be realistic, a proportion of them) would need to be prepared to accept they had been wrong – on some details at least, if not the overall conclusions.  This would possibly be a long term project; half the population would have to suffer from the ‘wrong’ result in the short to medium term, but there would be a chance of coming to, if not a common view, then at least an acceptance of the validity of different views, in the longer term.

How to make it happen?  There could be bottom up pressure but it would need support from national leaders from both sides.  There might be some national events such as citizens’ assemblies.  There would be moderated discussion online and also local activities.  There could be advantages in having discussions within particular parties, to avoid some of the tribalism between parties.

And what does all this mean for people working together more generally (including in local partnerships, which is what I have been focusing on)?  We are irrational.  We are tribal.  We become entrenched in our views and objectives.  All of those things can interfere with out ability to do the ‘right’ or sensible things.  Solutions are then arrived at through power struggles (which may be slanging matches and appeals to the mob as much as ‘hard power’) rather than rational argument.  The alternative is to push as far as possible for empathy and listening to each other as an end in itself, ideally before decisions are made, but if not, at least afterwards.

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