British politics as seen through my Norwegian eyes

politicalI have now been fortunate enough to have lived in Edinburgh for two and a half years. During that time, and annoyingly in the middle of an exam-period, I was fortunate enough to witness a UK general election. I have never been extremely engaged in politics, however, I do take an interest in them. This is not a political post. It is a post containing some of my personal thoughts on UK politics as a whole.

Before I came to the UK I would occasionally download and watch Prime Ministers Question-time. I loved it. There were real issues, the people speaking seemed genuinely engaged, smart and as an added bonus they were funny. There are a lot of theatrics involved, yes, but who doesn’t love a bit of theatrics? Of course, it would be impossible to form an opinion on British politics as a whole based only on PMQT, but my impression of the whole thing was that it would be pretty interesting. Real debates on real issues. However, British politics have let me down.

One rather significant disclaimer has to be inserted here. I am a student, and therefore engage mostly with a fairly young generation. Edinburgh can also probably be considered quite a left wing place. Either or both of these circumstances have probably coloured my personal perception of British politics.

So, what exactly is my problem with British politics? I have a few, but one definitely stands out. There seems to be a general lack of nuance. Politics in the UK seems primarily to be a competition in who can make the opposition look the worst. Very rarely do I hear anyone admit that whoever they oppose are right about anything at all. Also, people will go to almost absurd lengths to defend or shoot down anything that may make the party they support look bad. There is not much ‘Sure, they may have a point here, and they might be right about this, but I disagree with this and this because…’ and a whole lot of ‘They are wrong about everything! They will effectively destroy our country within a week!’ It is frustrating. I have my own principle values and I am capable of independent thought. I hope that is the case for most of the British public.

When I listen to someone speak on a political matter I want to hear an opinion and a justification of that opinion. I want to hear the conclusion drawn by the person speaking, and I want to hear the steps and reasoning leading up to that conclusion. If this is done I can either agree, constructively be put in a position to rethink my own opinion or respectfully disagree on the basis that there is a fundamental disagreement on one of the premises. I do not want to spend the majority of my time listening to how wrong the opposition are about everything. It is up to me to decide whom I agree with. Don’t insult my intelligence by telling me the way you see things is the only possible right way to see things, it obviously isn’t. A reply to this might be ‘But it is important to highlight the differences so people can know what to vote!’ I don’t buy it. Negative campaigning is lazy and patronising, and I’ve seen way too much of it in the UK for my liking.

I am not sure whether it is a cause or an effect of the above, but there also seems to be very little understanding and acceptance of the fact that different people fundamentally have different values and opinions. No matter how strongly you feel about something, no matter how clear cut something seems to you, someone will disagree. That doesn’t necessarily make them wrong or stupid. It makes them different from you. That’s the whole point of a democracy. People with opinions different from yours have the right to have them represented. This brings me to my last point; stigmatisation.

As far as UK politics goes, personally I stand quite comfortably left of the centre. This seems to be fortunate, as I might otherwise have risked being labelled as a “conservative.” Shock and horror. I am sure the Labour-side are not alone in doing this, but since I live in a generally liberal place the “conservative” or “Tory” label is the only one I have witnessed personally. I understand that a lot of the time it is probably done in good fun. There are a lot of jokes and comedy with the premise of grouping people into boxes depending on their politics. I don’t mind this. What I object to is the usage of the term “conservative” in a genuinely patronising and almost degrading manner. There seems to be a general, mostly unspoken, truth that anyone voting for the conservative party should be ashamed of themselves for daring to do such a thing.

In my opinion using shame as a political device is despicable. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and to vote for the party they feel represents them. No one should have to feel ashamed of what they vote, and trying to guilt someone into a way of voting, no matter how much you disagree with them, is wrong. That is not how a democracy is supposed to work. I therefore think it is a pity that general political stigma seems to be as widespread and accepted as it is.

I am not saying any of this is specifically British. The same themes probably occur everywhere. The British version of these problems just happen to be the ones I have witnessed the past two and a half years. If you feel like it, feel very free to use the comments to tell me how wrong I am. Perhaps I have just been given the wrong impression. Nothing would please me more.

Edit: As an afterthought, perhaps I should add a few sentences on how I feel Norwegian politics are different. In Norway my experience has been that people tend to say ‘I disagree’ rather than ‘You’re wrong.’ There also seems to be a lot less of a social divide caused by Norwegian politics, as well as a greater tolerance of people who disagree on some things being able to agree on other things.

January 5, 2011