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Queen’s Speech - Debate (6th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:43 pm on 22nd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Parekh Lord Parekh Labour 8:43 pm, 22nd October 2019

My Lords, unlike most of my colleagues here, I want to address the question of culture, which forms part of the debate. I want to ask very briefly how our public culture has been profoundly distorted by the controversy surrounding Brexit and the way in which it has been formulated and pursued.

Historically, we have been a liberal democracy in the sense that liberalism had the upper hand and set the framework within which democracy was articulated. Over the years, we have moved in the opposite direction where democracy has the upper hand and lays down the framework within which liberalism should be pursued. When democracy has been detached from liberalism in this way, it comes to be equated with crude majority rule. So democracy stands for majority rule, and we are told that in a democracy majority opinion—the will of the majority—must be respected and not to do so is to be a traitor to democracy. That kind of thing can work at the level of elections, where people vote on a wide range of issues and it is difficult to pinpoint people’s opinion on this or that matter. However, when we conduct a referendum, the situation becomes very difficult because people vote on a specific issue and their differences are expressed publicly.

That is what happened in 2016. Brexiters had a majority, remainers were in the minority and the argument was that the voice of the majority must be respected. The difficulty there was that remainers felt that they were politically disfranchised and that their vote counted for nothing, because even though they secured 48% of the vote, it amounted to nothing because Brexiters had the full gain to themselves. So what resulted was triumphant Brexiters and rather subdued remainers, who felt slighted and diminished.

The other problem associated with this issue is that the two sides have little respect for each other. For remainers, Brexiters are a bunch of fools; they are rather backward, not terribly bright and could be seduced by any kind of information provided by the peddlers of the Brexit model. If only they had been provided with better information, they could easily have been won over to the other side. For Brexiters, by contrast, remainers are ruthless, cosmopolitan liberals with no love for the country in which they live—they have no sense of patriotism. So the result is that we have two sharply defined groups with precisely articulated differences along these lines.

This polarisation between the two groups is particularly acute because of the issues involved, including British identity and British independence or sovereignty. What is Britain, really? Is it or is it not European? Since the question goes right to the heart of what Britain is, therein lie very powerful emotions, with the result that the Brexit controversy has virtually monopolised the entire public debate. There is hardly an area of life where the Brexit/remain division does not infiltrate.

The result of this kind of polarisation, with two groups facing each other, has been the following. First, the two groups have very little in common and cannot even talk to each other. Secondly, each group is self-righteous and, as a result, contemptuous of the other. Thirdly, each group thinks that the other is deeply misguided and is misleading the country and so, in that sense, is a traitor. Fourthly, it has created new identities. I am not only an Indian or an academic; I am also a Brexiter or a remainer. In other words, it has created a new generalised identity under which people can be subsumed. The media have also been highly polarised, and no space has been left for impartial assessment.

More importantly, the polarisation has extended to the very structure of our democratic way of life. What is democracy? Is it all about majority? What is the relationship between the people—the electorate—and their representatives? Should the representatives simply reproduce what the electorate want? Therefore, the crisis of culture I am talking about extends not only to specific issues but to the very fundamentals of our political system.

It is no less important to note that this kind of polarisation has, sadly, distorted our political discourse. It is suffused with the language of “traitors”, “betrayal” and being “ashamed to be British”. Not surprisingly, it has led to physical threats. So questions of civility and scepticism, which have traditionally been characteristic of our political culture, seem to have been thrown out the window. This is the crisis of our culture. As a crisis of culture, it also affects the very bonds that bind people together, it undermines the public realm where impartial discussion can take place and it eats up almost everything that comes in its way.

We must ask: how do we reduce the crisis and resolve it? Equally important is that, even when it has been resolved, it is not going to disappear and the consequences will continue to haunt us. Like so many others, I suggest that, like a tsunami, Brexit has flooded all of our major institutions and forms of language, so it is important to take this question very seriously and give it the importance it deserves.