Conduct of Debate in Public Life - Motion to Regret

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:53 pm on 9th May 2019.

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 2:53 pm, 9th May 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley. It is also a great pleasure to take part in a debate initiated so ably by my noble friend Lord Harris of Haringey.

I think we all agree that there is a spirit of intolerance and aggression in our public life. Death threats have been made against public figures. Their property has been vandalised. Obnoxious language has been used to refer to what they are doing. Their past lives have been dug up and all sorts of silly things are talked about. They have been mocked, hounded and put in a situation where, inevitably, they make mistakes and once they do they become the subject of further acts of mocking. The result is a vicious cycle, which we have witnessed in the case of Brexit. Mistake after mistake has been made, not only by individuals, but by individuals in the context of the criticism and mocking that has gone on around them.

Why is this happening and what can we do about it? That is what this debate is about. I will concentrate on why, rather than what we can do about it. Obviously social media has played an important part but cannot by itself explain what has happened. Social media simply reflects a certain cultural consciousness, a certain way of thinking. It is the deeper way of thinking that we need to understand. This is what I want briefly to talk about: the way the deeper undercurrents of our public life are manifested on social media and, more importantly, through the offensive language in which our public discourse is conducted. We must remember that language is the cultural capital of a community. It is the repository of its ideas and aspirations. If that language gets corrupted, people’s thinking gets corrupted. It is very important to be a custodian and to recognise the integrity and importance of the language of public discourse.

Why has there been this decline and corruption of the language of public discourse? There are two kinds of politics at work here, which I will talk briefly about. One is the politics of identity and the other is the politics of marginality. I will start with the politics of identity. If somebody were to ask, “What is our biggest problem?” in the aftermath of the financial crisis, in any western society the response would immediately be inequality. A large number of people have found their income frozen and are unable to see any rise. People are suffering as a result of great inequality. These are the issues crying out for attention. Obviously, if you start raising those issues you upset vested interests who would rather not have attention concentrated on them. The result therefore is to bring up a substitute issue and to concentrate attention on that, which is the issue of identity.

National identity or nationalism is the battleground, the site on which our differences are played out. National identity is ultimately about who we are, where we belong and what our place in this world is. Ultimately, with those questions Europe becomes extremely important—the Europe that we joined reluctantly and that we have been a part of all these years, yet from which we want to withdraw. People have a strong feeling that the very soul and identity of their country, of who they are, is at stake.

It is in that context that the debate taking place in our country has to be seen. On the one hand, there are people who are the custodians of the national soul, the national identity, and on the other there are those who disagree. They are dismissed as traitors or as people who do not care for the well-being of the country. In other words, it is a process of demonisation. The other is always a demon: “I am right. I bring light, the other person brings darkness. I bring life, he brings death”. I think my noble friend Lord Harris called this kind of demonisation “polarisation”. I would go even further, because it is not just a polar opposite; it is the demonisation of the other. Once you demonise the other, the only way you can live with him is to eliminate him. It is either you or him. You cannot both inhabit a common earth. This is the politics of identity.

The other important issue I want to talk about is the politics of marginality. Our public life is dominated, so the analysis goes, by a metropolitan elite, which is basically liberal, cosmopolitan, has no national sentiments of any kind and is elitist and technocratic. This elite has been governing our country for the past 50-odd years and has got us into this mess. Therefore, this elite has to be fought by the “real people”.

The “real people” is quite an important expression. They are the people whose voice cannot be represented by the elite. They are the people who speak in their own language and whose aspirations are not articulated by the elite. Therefore, a kind of war is postulated at the very heart of our society between the “People” and the “Elite”. The war between the elite and the people can be fought at many different levels in different countries in different ways, but in western democracies it is fought in one way: this war obviously has to be fought to the end, but we, the people, as a majority, should rule in a democracy, and the elite should have no commanding say at all. The argument is that in this war between the people and the elite, the people are the legitimate winners because they are the supreme majority in a democracy. Therefore, once you begin to speak in the name of the people, you say that the people feel alienated and unrepresented and hence that the whole representative framework which brings the elite to power should be dismantled.

Therefore, I suggest that these two kinds of politics—the politics of identity, which brings self-righteousness, and the politics of marginality, which brings anger and passion—are at work in contemporary British culture. Unless we identify how they manifest themselves and learn to cope with them or get rid of them, we will continue to have this problem, again and again.