JO SWINSON: It's time to end the era of horns and halos

PUBLISHED: 00:01 22 March 2018

Liberal Democrat deputy leader Jo Swinson

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To heal our cultural divide (and stop Brexit) we have to stop berating Brexiteers, says Lib Dem deputy leader JO SWINSON

I had mixed feelings when The New European was launched. While it’s comforting to know there are many others who share my sense of devastation about Brexit, and are up for the fight to stop it, this reminded me of when the National was set up in Scotland in the wake of the independence referendum.

More than three years on from ‘indyref’, Scotland is still riven with division. Politics has become much more binary and less nuanced: whether you are for or against independence is the key driver of voting behaviour.

On both sides of the debate, we see the ‘halo and horns’ bias. When looking at what any given politician, commentator or public figure has said or done, it is judged through the lens of the constitutional debate – if they’re on your side, they are saintly and good. If not, then those horns and a forked tail are surely spotted. This is not healthy.

The signs of division across the whole of the UK are there too. The Brexit vote showed a country divided along the fault lines of economics, geography and age. Perhaps more intriguing is the stark difference in attitudes. I regularly cite research from Professor Eric Kaufmann, at Birkbeck College, University of London, that shows a simple question that is a better predictor of voting intent for Brexit (and Trump) than personal income levels.

The question: “Is it more important for a child to be considerate or well-mannered?”

At first glance, it seems there’s not much difference. Certainly, as mum to a four-year-old, I would often happily settle for either! On closer inspection though, you can see the difference in worldview this question reveals, pitting more liberal attitudes against respect for authority and order.

This cultural divide is perhaps the deepest, and the hardest to tackle. Statistics on the economic benefits of immigration or a dry analysis of the Brexit impact on jobs will do little to address the cultural concerns that led many people to vote to Leave the European Union. The emotional case needs to be made alongside the rational case, and it needs to speak to people with a range of value systems.

In the independence referendum, the economic case for Scotland staying in the UK was almost identical to that for the UK staying in the EU – but it wasn’t sufficient on its own. Drawing on our shared heritage was important, reminding people of what we had created together as a nation, our beloved institutions such as the BBC, NHS and British Army. And perhaps most compelling for many was the simple fact of family ties and loved ones living on the other side of the border. These emotional pulls attracted liberal and conservative minds alike.

We should be concerned about the danger of creating our own echo chambers and succumbing to the confirmation bias within them. Waving the European Union flag will not recruit anyone new to our cause.

Our deeply divided society is a problem. Firstly, I doubt that the distrust, backbiting and extreme tribalism is the kind of environment any of us want to prevail. Secondly, and more practically, to stop Brexit we need to reach out and change minds. There is not much time.

As a movement, we need to listen to different voices, and understand people’s reasons for voting Leave. If people feel berated for their choice in June 2016, they will be less open to forming a different view now.

Yet at times on social media, I see intemperate #FBPE accounts making wild accusations about Leave voters as a whole. Passions run high, but we need a respectful and civilised debate. Those of us who are liberals (whichever party we’re in) need to recognise the need to make a case that resonates with conservatives too.

Seventy years of peace and security. The stories of today’s establishment British figures whose family were immigrants. These are the kind of words we need to hear, and from voices trusted by those of a culturally conservative persuasion. Bringing our country back together means putting ourselves in the shoes of people who took the opposing view.

It’s up to all of us, including The New European, to make that case to the 100%, not just the 48%.

Jo Swinson is MP for East Dunbartonshire, deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats and the party’s foreign affairs spokesperson

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