The current state of politics makes me glad I got out
Jonathan Arnott discusses his recent retirement from elected politics, why common sense is being squeezed and what has gone wrong with Brexit.
There’s always dichotomy in modern politics: Brexiteer or Remainer; pro-Trump or anti-Trump; Right or Left. To an extent, I’m used to this. I’m a chessplayer after all, which pits the black pieces against the white. That’s part of the beauty of the game: winners and losers, right and wrong. I could delve back into game theory and zero-sum games, but I won’t, because this isn’t a technical essay.
In my own life, I’ve seen that dichotomy when I didn’t seek re-election. Despairing of the whole nastiness of politics and the paucity of reasonable – and reasoned – debate on all sides, believing in Brexit but accepting a no-deal only as a last-resort in a least-worst scenario, I didn’t feel that my views quite squared enough with those of any Party to reasonably be able to advocate electing me on their ticket.
For that reason, I found myself out of a job on July 2nd this year. It didn’t take me long to find little bits and pieces. I write, I publish, I do some political consultancy and research. Still, there’s a yawning chasm. Elected one day, not elected the next. It’s a personal dichotomy that in some way mirrors the political one. It’s not the easiest transition. On one day, there’s the sickening fawning over elected MEPs that reminded me why it was better to be out of the whole thing. The next, the phone doesn’t ring.
Psychologically, there’s always the regret – the what might have been. I’ve written about those saddest of words before, and my profoundest sense of disappointment is about the very nature of modern politics. There are political fault lines in every Western country at the moment. There are political fault lines in the Middle East, the Far East, in Africa and almost any other place you’d care to mention. Donald Trump even floated the notion of purchasing Greenland from Denmark (I still think the Danish PM missed a trick: the deadpan response of opening negotiations by asking for Florida in return would at least have resulted in ensuing hilarity). In the UK, Brexit happens to be the lightning rod – but if it were not that, it would be something else. For the first time, the political establishment lost – and in a big way. Had they simply accepted the result, the current constitutional quagmire would never have arisen. But they did not: they have spent every waking hour since the referendum trying every trick in the book (and some that will be in the forthcoming edition thereof) to undermine and overturn it.
Politics has become polarised here over Brexit just as in America over Trump – though I hasten to decouple the two. I’m massively pro-Brexit; my view of Trump is, to put it charitably, more nuanced. In Spain it’s Catalonia; in France it was Les Gilets Jaunes. The fault lines exist across a range of issues too; they’re just buried beneath the surface. Whilst in America abortion is a key political issue, it’s not part of our narrative – yet imagine the furore if a British pro-lifer were to dare to admit to being so in the media! On climate change (and the list of the ‘climate strike’ demands reads more like a Marxist Manifesto than a genuine attempt to cut CO2) we see the same; the list is endless. Neither side seeks peace, nor reconciliation. The beatings of common sense will, apparently, continue until morale improves.
Some of these issues do need to be fought; please don’t imagine for a second that I’m advocating political pacifism. Some might reasonably be on one side of Argument A but on the other when it comes to Argument B, though they’re usually correlated. My issue with modern politics is that there are no shades of grey. There is no desire to understand an opponent’s point of view, much less to seek out compromise on those issues where it might actually make sense to do so. Crime is one such issue: rehabilitation versus deterrence is a false dichotomy; a combination of the two is indicated.
The bile, the vitriol, the nastiness – it was never like this. Politics has often been caricatured as being full of self-serving careerists who would stop at nothing to get their way. Such characterisation was always unfair, often deeply so. Today, it is the exception rather than the rule to find anything but.
I don’t want to hack metaphorical lumps out of opponents just for the sake of it. I don’t want to be driven by hatred of the opposition. I went into politics to do my best to make the world a better place, and if you don’t want to do that then frankly you shouldn’t be anywhere near political life. Social media is at least partly to blame for the incentivisation of lying and hating your opponents. I couldn’t thrive in a system where the only thing that gets likes and retweets is an ad-hom attack on every opponent, even those who honestly believe something I profoundly disagree with.
As Arya Stark said when refusing to marry Gendry and have a castle of her own, that’s not me. I couldn’t continue to do that. Not for all the chauffer-driven limousines in the European Parliament.