With the recent resurgence of the Liberal Democrats and continual mud-slinging from the Conservatives and Labour, political discourse remains hitched to the rhetoric of blame and accusation. But in this divided country, is it ever possible to forgive our politicians? Daniel Reast examines legacy and enmity in an era of tribalism.
It’s hard to deny that the Lib Dems are riding on a wave of popularity. Even twelve months ago you wouldn’t have bet a penny on their recent surge. Such is the power of the narrative of legacy that decisions of the past forever taunt a political image. The Lib Dems are facing this reality. Memories are still too recent and raw, and reputations still murky. However, this underlying chronicle of bad history is a chronic symptom of our party system. And in a crisis, such as Brexit, it becomes a barrier to promoting positive steps towards a solution.
Unfortunately for the Lib Dems, their political records aren’t squeaky clean. The same can be said for all parties, though in the Lib Dems’ case their problems grew from working in coalition with the Conservatives. When Labour speaks of the crimes of austerity, they aim them just as hard at those plucky centrists. Since the recently delivered Augar review on higher education, the topic of tuition fees firmly spun towards a criticism of the Lib Dems reneging on their promises in 2010.
It’s almost inescapable, this grand tactical whataboutery. It doesn’t just reside with the Lib Dems though: the internal Labour conflicts rage as fierce as ever – and you daren’t mention the Iraq War. The Conservatives too utilised the tactic to gain power in 2010, blaming the Brown government for the financial crisis (which was in retrospect completely constructed). Our party system is so crippled by this facetious method, that many still pursue arguments blaming governments from 30 or more years ago. Mass whataboutery fails to serve a purpose in the present save for an abstract sense of justice.
The political scientist P.E. Digeser wrote in 2001 of how political forgiveness is imperative to a functioning democracy. He stated,
“Justice in the case of dirty hands requires that the wrongdoers publicly acknowledge their role and convey that information to those who were wronged.”
While today’s Lib Dems haven’t hidden from their past in coalition, they haven’t exactly made steps to admit wrongdoing. In many cases, they have worked to relinquish their responsibilities, claiming their stewardship prevented much harsher Tory policies.
But in times of crisis, of intense civil deadlock such as Brexit, can the party system still persist with this dreary dialogue of one-upmanship? An episode of Prime Minister’s Questions now works as a construction of a Tower of Babel, with all sides adding bricks to its height. Surely, this incongruous Tower must come crumbling back to reality?
An example of how this climate of legacy pervades all corners of governance is through the failure of pro-EU parties to agree on joint terms or a temporary alliance. Even today, Lib Dem leadership hopeful Ed Davey stated he would not be proffering his hand of friendship to other Remain actors. Davey’s hands will now be firmly forced back into his pockets as he faces losing the leadership bid. Equally, Sian Berry of the Green Party launched into an attack on the Lib Dems on Saturday. These are supposed to be the wardens of the Remain movement, but they have succumbed to the major dialogue of Westminster: never forgive, never forget.
It’s unrealistic and wrong to totally disregard the facts. Yes, the Lib Dems propped up a government and gave it backing to orchestrate the terrors of austerity and social splintering. They reneged on promises, backed destructive policy, and allowed a total restructuring of welfare to occur. We can view everyone’s voting records, bring up old quotes and articles attacking their position. Hell, we can even mythologise them into a glorified demon without a positive point to push. However, unless parties are able to put down the rattles and talk on just terms, this game of snap will forever continue to haunt our governance.
The parties who represent us are duty bound to set an example for us to follow. Continuing to reach into the history books for a juicy nugget of gold for attacking isn’t a democratic method. It’s personality politics – and we deserve principles and compassion over endless quarrels.
Forgiveness, even if temporary, is an opened gate towards resolution.🔷
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